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OnePlus One review - The flagship smartphone killer

Andrew Williams
16 Jul 2014
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
229

Flagship specs at an incredibly low price, but 4G support is limited to EE and Three

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Specifications

Processor: Quad-core 2.5GHz, Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, Screen size: 5.5in, Screen resolution: 1,920x1,080, Rear camera: 13-megapixel, Storage: 16GB or 64GB, Wireless data: 3G, 4G, Size: 153x76x8.9mm, Weight: 162g, Operating system: Android 4.4

Phone fanatics have probably already heard about the OnePlus One. It has caused quite a stir. If you haven’t, it’s a phone that seems to offer the same grade of hardware you get from a £500 phone like the HTC One M8 or Samsung Galaxy S5, but costs as little as £229. Your first questions should then be – who on earth is OnePlus and how can it sell the OnePlus One so cheap?

OnePlus is a new company, less than a year old, and the One is so cheap because it’s basically sold at cost, meaning OnePlus isn’t making a whole lot of cash from it. We're not certain how that'll work out in the long run, but it's certainly not splashing out loads of cash on marketing, instead relying on the internet and word-of-mouth to promote the handset. 

There are a few issues to consider, but they don’t stop this phone from being a tremendous bargain. The first issue is actually buying the thing. It’s not available from normal retailers or phone networks, and to get it at the listed price you need to buy direct from OnePlus (those on Ebay are being hawked for much more). Doing so is easier said than done, with stock currently very limited. This is a phone for enthusiasts, and you need to put some effort in to get hold of one.

ONEPLUS ONE DESIGN

This enthusiast angle bleeds into the design as well, because this is a very large phone. It doesn’t have the comical footprint of something like last year’s HTC One Max, but is significantly bigger than the flagship competition, including the LG G3. That phone has the same-size 5.5-inch screen, but is virtually bezel-free. While here there's a fairly sizeable bezel all around (by today's standards at least).

OnePlus One homescreen

Sheer size makes the OnePlus One a little unfamiliar feeling when you first get it, but it otherwise looks and feels great. The body is plastic, but uses an unusual rough-textured soft touch finish that’s rather like a coarse felt. We were initially concerned it’d get scuffed to bits within days, but we’ve now been using the phone for three weeks and are yet to cause any lasting marks. And the phone has been well-acquainted with a pocket full of keys.

OnePlus One rear outdoors

The OnePlus One comes in white or black, and it’s only the black version that has this rough-soft finish. You also need to choose your storage capacity – the handset comes in 16GB and 64GB models. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy S5, there’s no memory card slot, so think carefully before picking the cheaper 16GB edition over the 64GB version. The price disparity is only £40, and paying the difference is worth it if you’re into games or want to store lots of music or video on your OnePlus One.

ONEPLUS ONE SCREEN

It makes a good video player too, thanks to a large 5.5in display. You don’t get the QHD-grade screen we saw recently in the LG G3 – the OnePlus One uses the more conventional Full HD 1,920x1,080 resolution – but the screen is very sharp regardless. And as it uses a standard RGB LCD sub pixel array, it appears ever-so-slightly sharper than the Samsung Galaxy S5 at very close quarters. Being an LCD, black levels aren’t close to the Samsung, though.

OnePlus One apps

OnePlus has deliberately given the phone’s display a warm tone that is perhaps a little overdone, but otherwise colour saturation levels are good. It may not be flat-out the best screen in the world right now, but it’s certainly the best you can get in a £230 phone. It’s seriously impressive stuff.

ONEPLUS ONE ANDROID

What’s rather more unusual is the software behind the OnePlus One. It uses Android 4.4.2 at present, but not a vanilla version or a custom skin made by OnePlus. Instead it has CyanogenMod, a custom version of Android that was initially a community mod, having surfaced not too long after Android was born back in 2008. CyanogenMod has now gone for the big time, though, being established as a proper licensed company in September 2013.

CyanogenMod's version of Android is designed to have that immediate, snappy feel of vanilla Android, but with many more little tweaks, customisations and controls than Google provides. It’s Android for real power users, in other words.

When you first boot up the OnePlus One you’re asked if you want to use the custom skin designed for the phone, refuse and everything looks remarkably similar to the Nexus 5. We noticed a few more little minor bugs and glitches than you’d get from that phone, but that stock Android snappiness is certainly apparent.

OnePlus One app shortcuts

CyanogenMod 11S, the version used in the OnePlus One, provides customisation of Android via Themes. These give your phone a full facelift. You get new icons, wallpapers, lock screens, menu designs and even notification/alarm sounds. A few we tried introduced slight graphical glitches, but none seriously impacted on performance. There are loads of new looks available too, and there’s a pre-installed Themes Browser app to let you check them out. Not all of them are free, but lots are.

This is the friendly face of CyanogenMod customisation, and you can leave it at that if you like. But there’s plenty more for people happy to poke around in the OnePlus One settings menu.

You can change the colour of the notification LED, tweak exactly how the auto brightness setting ramps-up the screen backlight, and use gestures that you get in some custom UI phones. For example, LG's two-taps-to-wake gesture works with the OnePlus One. There are loads of little extras like these to uncover, but on top you get a clean and clear UI that – if you want – can look like stock Android.

We’d like to think that CyanogenMod is largely responsible for the OnePlus One’s good performance, but the phone has fantastic specs too. With a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 CPU and 3GB of RAM, it meets or surpasses the top phones from HTC, LG, Samsung and others.

In the Ice Storm Unlimited benchmarks, it scores 19,570 points, just a little below the 20,465 of HTC One M8. This difference could be down to tuning (ie cheating) in the HTC One M8, and we found actual gaming performance to be very similar to the top Android phones. Using such a popular, powerful chipset means the OnePlus One gets in on the latest flashy visual effects in games – such as extra water effects in Dead Trigger 2. Of course, it’s also worth noting that you get these with the Snapdragon 800-equipped Nexus 5, which is the closest handset to this in price at £299 SIM free.

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