The self-dubbed ‘Flagship Killer’ has turned the tech world upside down, proving that a £270 phone can boast specs as good as a £500+ model, that a phone doesn’t have to have a household name brand behind it to be popular, and that restricting supply can be as good as a mainstream ad campaign in stimulating demand.
I’ve had my OnePlus One for two months now, having bought it outright on the strength of its specs and the first round of reviews. I’ve been using it as my main phone day in, day out since November, so the OnePlus One UK review below may differ from the ones that came out shortly after release – but if you’re considering buying the One for your main handset, you need to know how it performs day-to-day. Here’s the lowdown.
The One comes in black (64GB) and white (16GB), though until recently the white one was harder to get hold of. The invites are model-specific, and all the ones I’ve had have been for the ‘Sandstone Black’ edition. That’s fine with me – the 16GB version is only £40 cheaper at £229 (the black one is £269), so it’s worth spending the extra for the huge storage boost. More colour options would be nice, and it’s a real shame the promised bamboo StyleSwap cover never achieved mainstream release (you need an invitation to purchase one of the few that were made, and they’re rarer than invites to buy the phone), but there’s a decent selection of official and unofficial cases.
The phone looks fairly distinct from other flagships: it’s never been mistaken for an iPhone (unlike many of the phones I’ve reviewed), since its extra-slim body and rounded rectangular shape are pretty unique. The screen sits as a raised slab of black glass on a silver fascia, which looks much nicer off than on. With the screen on, there’s a sizeable bezel featuring three capacitive buttons that only light up when they’re in use: there’s no iPhone-alike physical home key, just Menu, Home and Back. It annoys me considerably that the Back key is on the right rather than the traditional left (look at your browser, for instance) but you get used to it.
The back of the OnePlus One has a horrible texture that I actually can’t bear to touch. It’s hard to describe: somewhere between a gritty granite finish and the flocked hair of a Ken doll. I hate it so much that I instantly bought a completely unnecessary case just so I don’t have to touch it.
Aside from the back panel, the phone looks sleek and stylish, and is light for its size at 162g. The 1+ logo on the back and Cyanogen branding below it are subtle, and there’s no logo at the front. It is surprisingly big, though – on taking a photo with it in a bar, someone commented “That’s never a phone – she’s taking pictures with her iPad!”
The keys and ports on the OnePlus One are sensibly located: a volume rocker to the left, power button mid-right, headphone port at the top and speakers on the bottom edge. I’d have preferred front-facing speakers, but they put out reasonably loud, strong sound – not as good as the HTC One M8’s BoomSound front-facers (our benchmark for phone speaker excellence), but this is a good deal cheaper.
The OnePlus One runs a modified, third-party version of Android called CyanogenMod, based on Android KitKat. A Lollipop version is on the way but hasn’t landed at the time of writing.
If you’re not familiar with CyanogenMod, it’s an open-source, custom version of Android designed to give you even more freedom and flexibility on your device than Android already offers. Cyanogen is built on top of Google’s code, to create a version of Android that looks and feels similar, but unlocks extra features, many of which will only be of interest to the technically-minded.
Running Cyanogen instead of stock Android can make your phone faster and improve overall performance, and offer customisations and tweaks that you won’t get on a shop-bought device. However, it’s also worth noting that it’ll be harder to get tech support with a Cyanogen phone than a stock Android one (you’re mostly relying on forums for Cyanogen support, rather than taking it into a repair shop or asking an Android user) and many phone manufacturers and networks won’t help you if you mention that you’re running a mod. This is also a problem of having a OnePlus One in general: it’s not a mainstream phone, so call up your phone network and say you’re having issues with something and they’ll reply with abject confusion when you name your phone model. This is definitely a phone for techies and independent folks, rather than people who want something to ‘just work’.
The OnePlus One is extremely quick and responsive, with an endless supply of tweaks and mods to customise your phone to your heart’s content. Just about everything is changeable, from whether your notification bar splits in two (à la ASUS ZenFone 5) to which icons you have on your Quick Settings launcher – there are even 5 options for how to display how much battery you have left:
One of my favourite tweakables is the way the menu screens move: you can choose from a huge list of different types of movement. This sounds trivial, but think about it: the first thing anyone does when handed someone else’s phone is swipe between screens, and every single person comments on the cool movements on mine. You can see them in action in the video review:
I can’t possibly detail all the ways you can customise your OnePlus One, because there are just too many. But if it’s something you’re interested in, you could (at your own risk!) try putting CyanogenMod on your current phone and having a play.
The hardware backing the One is similar to the LG G3’s: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 processor with 2.5GHz quad-core CPUs, 3GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (assuming you didn’t somehow buy the white one). The G3 only has 2GB RAM and 16GB of storage, but includes an SD card slot to expand the latter by up to 128GB, which the One doesn’t have. Swings, roundabouts.
On the whole, performance on the One is excellent: very few lags, stutters or freezes, even during intensive activity and app-switching. Having said that, while using the One day-to-day, I’ve found some irritating bugs which have dented the user experience for me. Often, the screen won’t turn on when I press the power button – sometimes I have to press it four times before it activates. Apps misbehave more often than I’m used to, but that’s probably due to CyanogenMod, and it’s still pretty rare. The most annoying bug I’ve found relates to WiFi, though: sometimes, the phone will just get ‘stuck’ in a certain geographical location and refuse to accept that you’ve moved. In other words, it’ll display the list of WiFi networks as it was when you were somewhere else, and rescanning or turning WiFi on and off doesn’t fix it. There’s one location near my office that my One loves to get stuck on, and for a while I was having to reboot every time it happened. I’ve since found a better solution, though: go into Advanced, tick or untick ‘Scanning always available’ and go back to the list. You might have to turn WiFi on and off again, but it does fix the bug without a reboot (you can tell this is a phone for techies by the mere fact that the power menu says ‘reboot’, not ‘restart’).
The other thing you’ll have to get used to if you buy this phone is the rather strange experience of owning a phone no one’s heard of. This happens all the time:
What phone is that?
Oh, um, it’s a OnePlus One…
So, like, a Samsung?
On the bright side, you do occasionally get super-nerds coming up to you going “PHONE SNAP” or “how did you get an invite?!”, which is nice.
Important note: Using the OnePlus One on 4G in the UK
Unfortunately, the OnePlus One doesn’t use the frequency band most UK networks employ for 4G signal (800 MHz), which means it doesn’t work with the majority of UK phone networks’ 4G. Currently, the only UK networks whose 4G works on the OnePlus One are EE and Three, and Three’s doesn’t work all the time because it’s split between two bands, including 800 MHz. That means if you’re on Vodafone, O2, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile, or any other operator than Three and EE, your 4G will not work with the OnePlus One. Bit of an issue, that.
Aside from the beefy bezels I mentioned earlier, there’s not much to dislike about the OnePlus One’s screen. It’s a full HD (1920 x 1080), 5.5-inch LCD, with reasonably wide viewing angles and crisp, clear colour definition. That said, it obviously doesn’t come close to the similarly-priced LG G3’s famed quad-HD screen, with a pixels-per-inch value of 538 compared with the One’s 401. If screen quality is a key issue for you, you’ll be happier with the G3, which costs about £30 more SIM-free from Amazon.
The screen is protected with Gorilla Glass 3, and having dropped it hard many times, I’ve been very impressed with how resilient it is. No chips, cracks or scratches on the screen itself, although there’s some damage to the raised edges of the black glass.
The OnePlus One’s auto-brightness function works well, especially when taking the phone from indoors to outdoors, and it’s very readable in direct sunlight. However, I’ve had backlight issues with it, usually when turning the brightness down for evening use. With the screen dimmed, scrolling a webpage or app often causes the brightness to randomly jump around, turning up and down for no reason. That’s really jarring when it’s last thing at night and your eyes have got used to lower brightness, then suddenly get the phone equivalent of a floodlight shone on them.
It’s also worth noting that a 5.5-inch screen is going to be too big for most people. I get frequent comments on the size of the phone, and even having reviewed lots of phones and phablets, I was still surprised by its magnitude when it arrived. You might think you know what 5.5 inches means, but in practice, it’s bigger than it sounds (as men everywhere will tell you). It’s definitely a phablet.
I’d recommend having a hands-on with the phone before you order it if you possibly can, but given how few people have them (and the fact that they’re not in shops), it’s going to be much harder than with a mainstream handset.
On the whole, the OnePlus One’s camera is very good. I’ve had a few issues with it, but for the price, it’s hard to fault.
The main camera is a 13-megapixel number with a Sony Exmor sensor – always a good sign. It has a powerful dual LED flash and a wealth of easy-to-access modes: you just swipe to change to another setting (see the video review above for a demo).
There are three main issues I’ve had with the camera – lagging, missing photos, and noise. The lag wasn’t initially a problem, but as I’ve used the phone more over the months I’ve had it, the camera response has slowed down noticeably. Now, there’s often a delay between pressing the shutter button and the photo being captured in most modes. Because of this, I have a wealth of blurry photos of people with their eyes shut, or who’ve started to move out of their photo pose.
The missing photos bug doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s extremely frustrating. For whatever reason, the photos you’ve just taken often don’t appear in your photo folder for a good while after you’ve taken them – at least a few minutes. This can be really frustrating when you’ve got a great shot and want to tweet it, and it’s just not there. It even happened with a screenshot this morning: it was two full minutes before the picture turned up in my Gallery. Totally unacceptable.
Finally, some photos have come out unforgivably noisy for no good reason. This one was taken in a restaurant, with mid-level lighting (admittedly with the front-facing camera rather than the primary). From the amount of grain, you’d think it was taken in a dark club. Terrible.
All of that said, when the OnePlus One camera works well (which is most of the time), it works really well:
I’m not a huge fan of the panorama mode in the native camera app, so I use Google Camera for sweeping shots:
The selfie camera is unusually good at 5MP, even for a flagship: the Moto X, LG G3 and Xperia Z2 only have 2MP-ish front-facings, though the HTC One M8 also offers 5MP and the Huawei Ascend P7 has 8MP.
Normal selfie-taking is quick and simple, though the camera on the front is so subtle that people often don’t know where to look. Better light means better photos:
But in lower light they still come out usable:
And, predictably, East-Asian-phone-brand favourite Beauty Mode is there, giving you the wax doll look that we’ve seen on so many phones:
Niggles aside, this is a pretty good camera for the money, and the ability to record video in 4K is a bonus, too. You’ll find your phone a little toasty during recording, but the considerably pricier Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, among others, has the same issue. Considering the juice required to film at that level of detail, it’s fair enough.
After all the praise in the initial reviews, the OnePlus One battery was a huge letdown for me. The much-lauded 3100 mAh power pack just doesn’t perform, as far as I’m concerned. I think I might have a faulty one, because my experience doesn’t match what friends with the OnePlus One have told me – mine barely lasts through the day.
Currently, it’s midday and I’ve used my phone for a bit of Twitter browsing on WiFi and to send three text messages. That’s it. From a 100% charge at 8am, four hours later it’s down to 70%. That seems very excessive to me. At first, I thought it was because I was keeping the brightness artificially high, which I tend to do on all my phones, but setting brightness to Auto hasn’t helped much (and changing your preferred brightness setting to save power doesn’t feel much like “Never Settle”– OnePlus’s motto – to me). At any given time, the battery usage stats will report about 30% power being used by the screen. I do wonder if this is related to the backlight issue I mentioned – maybe I have a faulty screen.
In fairness, the battery does charge up quickly, too. But that’s not much consolation when you’ve got used to a beast of a power pack like the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact’s, and suddenly find your phone almost dead by evening. After using that phone, I stopped carrying my spare battery pack – after using this one, I’ve had to start taking it out again.
We ran our standard test of streaming a fullscreen film over WiFi for 2 hours, with GPS on and brightness set to max. From a 100% charge, 63% was left 120 minutes later. That’s not terrible: the 6-inch ASUS ZenFone 6 with its 3300 mAh battery had 58% left after the same test. But the OnePlus One is designed to beat the flagships, and it doesn’t: the Xperia Z2‘s 3200 mAh battery had 78% left, the Samsung Galaxy S5‘s 2800 mAh power pack had 77%, and even the HTC One M8‘s 2600 mAh battery had 66%. Not an awful result by any means, then, but definitely not the stellar battery performance everyone’s been claiming.
The OnePlus One is a stonking first effort from a previously-unknown brand. (Yes, they have close ties with the better-known Chinese manufacturer OPPO, but they’re still a separate company). Its main competition is undoubtedly LG’s G3, released around the same time. Back then, the G3 was an expensive flagship, but its price has come down considerably, and can now be yours for just under £300. That’s a problem for OnePlus, given that it’s only £30 more for a quad-HD screen instead of 1080p, by a manufacturer people have heard of, that they can buy in normal shops without an invitation. It seems insane to me that so far into the OnePlus One’s lifecycle, when the OnePlus Two is already being talked about, you still almost always need a hard-to-get invitation to buy this phone. The invite-free Tuesdays scheme is ridiculous – either make the phone available or don’t. Once a week is taking the hipster marketing thing too far.
The OnePlus One still offers tremendous value for money compared with many phones at the same price, and the CyanogenMod experience is a very enjoyable one for tinkerers like me. Of course, Cyanogen is available on other phones too, but not without a fair bit of hassle – it’s nice to have a phone designed for it.
I love my One, as I’ve enjoyed telling the many (many, many) people who’ve asked questions about it. But there are too many issues to recommend it with confidence. The bugs I’ve experienced, the fact that it doesn’t work with the majority of UK 4G providers, and the battery life are all concerns. Not to mention that OnePlus themselves have run sexist promotions, often shun press contact, and are frequently lambasted on their own forums for ignoring customer requests for help, including faulty handset returns.
If you’re a bit techy and willing to take a risk for the cool non-mainstream phone, you might love the OnePlus One. I do, and I’ll definitely buy from OnePlus again. But if you want to be certain your £300 is well spent, the rock-solid LG G3 might be better for you.
How to buy the OnePlus One
While the OnePlus One is listed for sale, invite-free, on Amazon UK, you’ll most likely get a Chinese version of the phone running a different operating system (called Colour OS) than if you buy it from OnePlus. We’d recommend getting it from OnePlus if you possibly can – either on a Tuesday (sigh) or by getting an invite. The invite system is a pain but they do come up on Twitter, the OnePlus forums and the OnePlus SubReddit. Or, of course, if you know someone with a One, ask them for one of theirs. I’ve had three invites since I got the phone, but they come through sporadically and are only valid for 24 hours.
Slim, light and distinctive design
Endlessly customisable CyanogenMod experience
Still hard to get hold of
Doesn’t work with most UK 4G services
Battery life (for me, at least) is poor
Classmates (in the same price bracket)