Nov 19 2014

Review: OnePlus One

OnePlus One

Early in 2014 a new startup smartphone manufacturer OnePlus created quite a unique buzz among the technology sector when they announced their first product, a super powerful high-end smartphone that would cost half or even ⅓ of the mainstream flagships (Samsungs, HTCs and Apples). It received immediately its famous nickname “The Flagship Killer” and the moniker was was later mimicked by many others. Is the OnePlus One worthy of its self-proclaimed title?

What is OnePlus?

One Plus Never Settle

OnePlus was founded in China in December 2013. Pete Lau, who was previously the Vice President of OPPO, became OnePlus CEO. It was later discovered that OnePlus is owned by the same company that is behind OPPO mobiles phones, OPPO Electronic1. Right from the beginning OnPlus had some pretty interesting and revolutionary marketing tactics. Lao explained it2:

Rather than put money towards a large marketing budget, we are focusing on online marketing and community interaction. Rather than working with retail partners, we rely on selling the device online.

Online sales had been used before by Xiaomi to cut down the costs but OnePlus had an ambitious vision: they would make their device available around the world.

For the Android version they chose to go with CyanogenMod. OnePlus One was one of the first phones to ship with pre-installed CyanogenMod. Normally it requires some effort and technical knowledge to install CyanogenMod to Android phones. This decision was warmly welcomed by the community and it created even more anticipation for the upcoming release. However the OnePlus Ones that are sold in China have OPPO’s Android version ColorOS installed instead. Luckily CyanogenMod is easy to install to the One afterwards. OnePlus is also developing its own ROM3.

Not all OnePlus marketing techniques were widely accepted. They had some controversial campaigns, such as “Smash the Past” where applicants were suppose to smash their old smartphone (the more creatively the better), video record it and post it on Youtube in exchange for a brand new OnePlus One. Only that the applicable phones were pretty new and many criticized why the perfectly capable smart phones should be smashed instead of donating them to charity? Another controversial campaign was the “Ladies First” where female fans were asked to post selfies of themselves and 50 most liked would win a free One4.

As the hype and anticipation grew up, OnePlus made one crucial decision: The One would be available only via invitation in the beginning. This decision drove the fans insane. The One would not be freely available for anyone to purchase but you would need an invitation to buy one. This scarcity soon created a black market where the few lucky ones who could have purchased the One, would sell their device with a formidable profit. Also the invitations themselves where sold in various forums. OnePlus organized different competitions where you could win an invitation and if you were active in the OnePlus forums, you could end up with an invitation in your mailbox. The invitation system was created to deal with the uncertainty of the demand. OnePlus did not want to end up manufacturing a lot of phones that would not be sold. This was of course an unnecessary concern. There was a huge demand right from the beginning.

Specs

OnePlus One Promo

Priced at $349/299 € (fall 2014):

  • 5.5″ display panel with the resolution of 1920×1080
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with 2.5GHz Quad-core CPUs
  • Adreno 330 GPU
  • 3 GB RAM
  • Primary camera: 13 megapixel Sony Exmor IMX 214 with f/2.0 aperture
  • Secondary camera: 5MP sensor
  • 4G LTE
  • 64 GB flash
  • CyanogenMod 11S, based on Android KitKat 4.4
  • 3,100 mAh battery

Unboxing

OnePlus One

The One comes in a flat brown carton box. The appropriate charger comes in a separate box. The flat micro USB cable is absolutely stunning.

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

The SIM tray ejector comes in a red rubber cover. Simple yet beautiful.

OnePlus One

Chassis

The chassis is really smooth and high quality can be seen everywhere. The back cover sits well in place and it does not rattle or squeak. The “sandstone black” back cover feels really like it is made of sandpaper, it is that rough. But the sandpaper back gives the phone a really unique touch and feel.

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

The micro SIM tray is ejected by the ejector tool.

OnePlus One

Display

OnePlus One

OnePlus One

Display panel of 1920×1080 is really optimal for 5.5″ screen. It gives a great points-per-inch ratio of 401 and consumes less power than the popular “2K” displays (2560×1440) of the 2014 flagships. The pixels are hardly seen on a full-HD display anyway unless you are looking at the display couple of cm away.

Speakers

Screenshot_2014-08-08-09-16-41
The audio volume is really good, OnePlus One has one of the best audio speakers among the phones that I have tested. However I am not convinced that there is much of an advantage to have stereo speakers on a relatively small mobile device because the speakers cannot be placed far away from each other anyway.

FM Radio

I personally use FM radio on a smartphone almost as frequently as the camera. I was shocked when I realized that there is no FM radio app on OnePlus One. According to iFixit teardown it has a Qualcomm WCN3680 802.11ac/FM/BT 4.0 Combo Chip. This means that it has the FM radio chip but there is no software to use with it. It should work if I could install FM tuner app for it.

Screenshot_2014-08-08-09-57-45

Screenshot_2014-08-08-09-58-08

Screenshot_2014-08-08-10-06-00

I tried Spirit FM Free with no luck. It did not recognize the FM chip. I also tried Spirit FM Unlocked version 2014-08-01 ($10.99/7.99 €) but it did not recognize the FM chip either. If you have gottten the FM radio to work, please let me know in comments below!.

GPS

OnePlus One
The location was immediately set when I opened up Google Maps, I did not see any delay. And in less that 10 seconds it was as accurate as it can be. This is super fast.

CyanogenMod 11S

CyanogenMod 11S

CyanogenMod 11SCyanogenMod 11S

CyanogenMod is quite simple and really light and fast. Maybe the 3 GB RAM has something to do with that. I have read in the forums that some people think that CyanogenMod 11S is not beautiful enough. At least it pleases my eye.

CyanogenMod 11SCyanogenMod 11SCyanogenMod 11S

Languages/Locale

CyanogenMod 11SCyanogenMod 11S

CyanogenMod 11S

CyanogenMod 11S

CyanogenMod 11S supports a plethora of languages: Afrikaans, Asturianu, Azerbaycanca, Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu, Catala, Cestina, Dansk, Deutsch, Eesti, seven varieties of English, Espanol, Filipino, Francais, Hrvatski, isiZulu, Italiano, Kiswahili, Latviesu, Lietuviu, Luxembourgish, Magyar, Nederlands, Norsk bokmål, Polski, Portugues, Romana, Rumantsch, Slovencina, Slovenscina, Suomi, Svenska, Tieng Viet, Turkce, Uyghur, Greek, Russian and several other languages that I cannot read :).

Software

CyanogenMod 11S Themes

CyanogenMod 11S comes with a minimalistic software set. In addition to the Google services there is pretty much nothing, only Audio FX, Screencast and Themes. Audio FX is like an equalizer with presets. I did not try Screencast. With themes you could change the look and feel of the UI. I did not have time to try it either.

I was disappointed by the lack of a proper music player. I have plenty of music (MP3 files) that I have bought and I carry them around with me stored in my phone. I like the fact that I can play music even if data connectivity is limited and I cannot access any streaming services. Also, there is no buffering and the audio quality is always the best it can be. The only music player pre-installed was Google Music which is really a horrible music player and I guess only really intended for purchasing music. So please install some proper music player from Google Play if you need one like I do.

Google Music

CyanogenMod 11S Gallery

CyanogenMod 11S Gallery

Phone Calls

I was hoping for that CyanogenMod would have (unobtrusive) call recording built-in but it does not have it. It is not possible to record phone calls. Unobtrusive call recording has been in Xiaomi Mi2, Jiayu G3, ZTE Nubia Z5 mini and TCL Idol X that I have previously reviewed.

Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

AnTuTu Benchmark 4.5.2 gives the One a whopping score of 37,408. That is higher than any other available mainstream phone at the time of writing. GFXBench 3.0.16 T-Rex gives frame rate of 29 fps and it was really fluid. 3DMark 1.3 Icestorm 1080p output was rock solid and was beautiful to watch. The average frame rate was 60 fps and the total score was 19,233. Finally Vellamo 3.0 outscores all current flagships, such as HTC One (M8), LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy S5 in all of the three different test sets. Amazing!

OnePlus One Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

OnePlus One Benchmarks

Charging

While the battery is a high capacity 3,100 mAh and it easily lasts a day and you normally would charge your One during night, I found the super slow charging really annoying. If you are in a hurry and are running out of battery, it seems to charge forever. There are couple of options to make it faster however. OPPO has developed “VOOC Rapid Charge” that can charge the battery from 0% → 75%. Surprisingly or not, the One also supports VOOC if you buy a separate VOOC charger. There is also another way where you would force the One to use AC charging mode. It is a bit trickier as it involves replacing the default kernel with a modified one. This method gives charging time of 2 hours from 5% → 100%. I did not personally try either methods so if you have, please let me know in the comments below.

OnePlus One

Please use the charger that came with your OnePlus One. Using other chargers will charge the phone but painfully slow.

Camera

With the large aperture of f/2.0 and high quality Sony sensor I expected photos of excellent quality. Large aperture should mean good photos in low lighting and excellent bokeh in macro shots meaning that while the object is sharp, the background is softly blurry. The resolution of the 16:9 photos is 4160 x 2340 which yields 9.73 million pixels per photo. The reason why the photos do not have 13 million pixels even when the sensor is 13 MP, is that the sensor actually has a native aspect ratio of 4:3. The 16:9 aspect ratio is achieved by simply cutting the picture from the top and bottom and thus losing some of the pixels of the “full frame” photo. The 4:3 photos have the resolution of 4208 x 3120 which yields 13.13 million pixels. What annoys me is that it is 2014 and still all camera sensors are 4:3 even though we have not had 4:3 televisions or monitors or displays in ages.

Camera Settings

OnePlus One Camera Settings

OnePlus One Camera Settings

OnePlus One Camera Settings

OnePlus One Camera Settings

OnePlus One Camera Settings
The camera settings include adjustments for exposure (slow shutter speed of ½, 1, 2, 4, 8 seconds), white balance (tungsten, fluorescent, daylight, cloudy, auto), ISO values (100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, auto, auto (HJR)). The ISO HJR stands for Hand jitter reduction compensating for rotational motion and it is part of Android yet few camera apps let choose it. Additionally the camcorder part of the camera app lets you choose frame rate of 30, 60 and 120 fps. Higher frame rate means that you may slow the movement down and still have smooth motion.

OnePlus One Camera Scenes

OnePlus One Camera Scenes

OnePlus One Camera Scenes

OnePlus One Camera Scenes

OnePlus One Camera Scenes

OnePlus One Camera Scenes

There are several preset scenes to choose from: auto, HDR, beauty mode, slow shutter, action, backlight, beach, fireworks, flowers, landscape, night, night portrait, party, portrait, snow, sports, steady photo, sunset, theater, mono, sepia, posterize, aqua, emboss, sketch and neon. The preview is live so it shows you immediately the resulting photo with the chosen effect as you browse them.

The variety of options and scenes is quite impressive and satisfies even an enthusiastic photographer like me.

Normal Shots


I dare to say that almost any decent smartphone can take good photos in optimal lighting conditions. Having said that, it is more interesting to see how the camera performs under challenging conditions and how can it handle special shooting modes, such as macro mode, continuous shooting, HDR, panorama and low-light environment.

Macro Mode

The macro shots are among the best I have seen on a mobile phone. They are razor sharp and the bokeh is smooth. Top-notch quality.

HDR Mode

The High Dynamic Range can help when the lighting is challenging, there are bright and dark areas and if you adjust the shutter speed to the other, then the other will be over/under exposed. The HDR mode takes several photos (usually 2-3) with different shutter speeds and then combines the optimally exposured areas from each photos into one result photo. I love HDR and I use it personally really often. What it also usually does is that it saturates colors giving the photos more vivid and richer colors. Not all photographers like the color saturation but it is a matter of personal preference. In the following photo comparisons, the left side is always a normal shot and the right side is an HDR shot.

OnePlus One HDR

The first sample illustrates the difference between a normal shot and an HDR. On the left you can see that the gravel is over exposed and detail is lost as the camera app has adjusted the exposure according to the shadow area in the middle. On the right side however, every detail is captured beautifully, both in the bright and dark areas. Also you notice a color saturation boost that is very typical for all HDR applications.

OnePlus One HDR

Another perfect sample of how every detail is captured in the HDR mode and the colors are vivid and there is a whole new atmosphere in the photo.

Panorama Mode

OnePlus One Portrait Panorama

OnePlus One Portrait Panorama

OnePlus One Landscape Panorama

OnePlus One Landscape Panorama

Continuous Shooting

OnePlus One Continuous Shot

The continuous shooting mode shoots impressively fast. Here I have photographed a man running fast.

The continuous shot is really fast but there is one complaint. There is a noticeable jerk between frames 10 and 11. The video above is made of 19 continuous shots. Frames 1-10 and 11-19 are fast and smooth but the One has paused for a short moment between those sequences. Could it be so that it writes to a buffer (on RAM) and once the buffer gets full, it flushes it to the flash memory. Maybe that could cause the short pause.

Low-Light Conditions

I dare to say that all modern smart phone cameras take good pictures when there is enough light, for example in bright daylight or sunshine. The true quality of the optics is revealed when there is little light available.

OnePlus One Low-Light

Here I have experimented with different settings in a really dark environment indoors. I did not have a tripod so it was difficult to hold the phone steady in hand.
Auto, Night, Slow Shutter (1 s, 2 s, 4 s, 8 s), ISO (Auto/1600)

OnePlus One Low-Light

OnePlus One Low-Light

Here again experimenting with different settings outdoors.

OnePlus One Low-Light

OnePlus One Low-Light

OnePlus One Low-Light
Based on my tests, the best low-light quality can be achieved using ISO 320 setting. It provides great detail and shorter shutter speed so that it is possible to get sharp photos even without a tripod.

I have also adjusted the shutter speed in each photos but for some reason the shutter speed info was not recorded in the EXIF data (see below).

Exif-data
There is something wrong in the EXIF data and the shutter time specifically. I experimented with different shutter speeds (1 s, 2 s, 4 s, 8 s) but the EXIF data always shows just “infinite sec” or “1/0”. I am certain I tried all the available shutter speeds but nothing was recorded in the EXIF data. That is why it says that the shutter speed was 1 second in the photo comparisons above where in reality the shutter speed varied.

OnePlus One Low-Light

Secondary (Front) Camera

OnePlus One Front Camera
The secondary or “selfie” camera on OnePlus One has the resolution of 2592 x 1944 yielding 5.04 million pixels. It is more than enough for regular Instagram selfies and exceeds full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution. The optics seem to be great for self portraits and the angle is wide enough.

Video

There is nothing to complain about the One’s video recording capabilities. Every detail is captured and there are no dropped frames.

With 120 fps high-speed recording it is possible to do some really nice slow-motion effects. Based on my tests, it is possible to slow it down to about 12 frames per second and still to get a decently smooth slow-motion movement so the moving object really slows down nicely. However I would not recommend to use less than 10 fps because then the movement becomes jerky. But mixing normal speed and super slo-mo can give really great effects! See for yourself in my video.

Battery Life

With the 3,100 mAh battery the One easily lasts over a day, sometimes even two days of real use (WiFi + cellular network, browsing, instant messaging, emails, etc.). I do not play mobile games so the battery life would be significantly less if some graphic intensive games were played.

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Most powerful hardware at the time of release
  • Incredibly low price
  • A very good camera
  • A very good and large display
  • A good-looking design
  • Different official ROMs available (CyanogenMod, ColorOs, OnePlus in-house, Paranoid Android)
  • High-quality and exquisite looking packaging and accessories
  • User-removable battery
  • Swappable back-covers to give the phone a unique look
  • Super slow-motion video recording (120 fps)

Cons:

  • No SD card slot (but if you get the 64 BG version you should not need it anyway)
  • No FM radio application
  • No proper music player (can easily be fixed with a third-party app)
  • CyanogenMod too serious/dull/stripped down for some users
  • Very limited availability (should be way better in time)
  • NFC not compatible with all systems
  • Could be slimmer with smaller bezels

Where to Buy?

There are two options to buy the One: either directly from OnePlus or through a reseller. Buying directly from OnePlus requires an invitation but it gives the lowest price. Resellers take some profit and hence the One is more expensive from them but you should be able to buy it immediately. Luckily the invitation system is about to be opened (late 2014) and it should be free for anyone to order.

The One in this review came directly from OnePlus and it was shipped from the UK.

Summary

In my honest opinion, currently (late 2014) the OnePlus One gives you the best value for the money. Is it the best phone out there? In my opinion, no it is not. It could be even the best if its camera had optical image stabilization (O.I.S.). But all things considered (design, display, performance, camera, battery life, price), it is the best overall. Once the availability issues are sorted out it will be even greater success story than it is today.

One Response to “Review: OnePlus One”

  • Ajsal Says:

    Dear Ari,

    Based on your review i bought honor 3c for my wife n she is quit happy and later i bought asus zenfone 5 for myself but i was not satisfied because of it bad battery backup. everything was fine except battery. but i do take a lot of pictures , do hear music and browse a lot. when i read about one plus in your blog i did try a lot to get it n at last got my invitation n phone . Happy now , battery back up is decent even though is not great , camera n sound are great n am loving it. but am sad because there wont be any cyanogen updates for indian users 🙁

    Anyways thanks a ton dear… do ur great work going…

    A small correction : Battery is not removable …

    Regards Ajsal from India
    thanks a

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