OnePlus One: The Android superphone

Graph for OnePlus One: The Android superphone

The OnePlus One just might be the best Android phone I have ever used and its fledgling maker OnePlus, which happens to be backed by the second most profitable smartphone brand in China, Oppo Electronics, has a lot in its favour.

The handset promises top-shelf specs at a rock-bottom entry price of $US299. But now that we finally have our hands on this seemingly mythical device, does it live up to the promise? Is the OnePlus One a no-compromise smartphone, or have corners been cut to meet the aggressive price point?

Powering ahead of the competition

OnePlus has spared no expense when it comes to the phone’s internals, with a spec sheet that equals -- and in some cases outpaces -- its high-end Android competitors such as the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8.

The phone is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor clocked at 2.5GHz. While 2GB of RAM have become standard fare in the premium smartphone market, OnePlus has jumped ahead by throwing 3GB of RAM on board.

Similarly, it has also leapt ahead of its rivals in the storage department by offering a 64GB variant for only $US349 (the basic model stores 16GB). There is no other Android smartphone on the market that offers this level of internal storage, with most premium handsets topping out at 32GB. Internal storage has become a precious commodity ever since Google removed the ability to store app data and purchased media on microSD cards in Android 4.4, so it’s nice to see OnePlus One bucking the trend.

To prove the OnePlus One’s performance chops, I ran the phone through the industry standard AnTuTu benchmark. The OnePlus One topped the rankings with over 38,000 points while the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 scored a little over 35,000 points.

OnePlus One also impresses with its 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD display, which incidentally is made by Japan Display Inc (JDI), the same company responsible for the HTC One M8’s excellent screen. I had to turn off the fairly weak default auto brightness setting to truly appreciate all the screen had to offer with its rich colour reproduction, excellent viewing angles and deep blacks that combine to produce a picture that truly pops.

The phone is compatible with a number of 4G bands from around the world and I had no issue in connecting to Telstra’s 4G network.

Premium look and decent battery life

The OnePlus One packs in a sizeable 3,100mAh battery which easily got me a through a full day of solid use consisting of a mixture of emails, calls, GPS navigation, video, social media apps and some light gaming. I was usually left with around 30 per cent battery by the evening. It’s worth noting that while battery life is comparable to the Xperia Z2 and Galaxy S5, the OnePlus One does lack an ultra-power saving mode. It also lacks quick charge and can take a bit longer to charge, with my review unit taking a little over two hours to go from 15 per cent to full.

The phone looks and feels premium despite being made up of polycarbonate plastic. Our black model had a unique sandstone finish to it on the back, which added a nice bit of grip to the handset. There’s also a subtle curve to the back that makes the handset comfortable to hold in the hand despite its relatively large size, which stands at 152.9 x 75.9 x 8.9mm, making it slightly larger than the Z2.

With its largely plastic construction the OnePlus One isn’t going to challenge the premium build quality of the HTC One M8 or iPhone 5s, but it could easily pass for a more expensive handset on first sight.

The stereo speakers housed on the bottom edge of the device unfortunately aren't front-firing but are loud and reproduce a full, rich sound when playing music and movies. I did notice, however, that calls played through the loudspeaker are frustratingly low. That might get fixed in a future firmware update.

Unique software shines through

Another unique selling point of the OnePlus One is the fact that it is the first phone to run CyanogenMod (CM) OS out of the box. CyanogenMod has long been the custom firmware of choice for savvy Android users, and for good reason -- it is devoid of any software bloat, incredibly fast, completely customisable and as close to stock Android as possible.

While CM can run on just about any Android smartphone, you need a bit of technical know-how to install it. The OnePlus One removes that barrier by baking a version of CyanogenMod 11 called 11S -- based on Android 4.4.2.KitKat -- right into the handset.

OnePlus One is CyanogenMod’s first official hardware partner and provided early access to the hardware during development stages to ensure the phone had an optimal experience. The net result is that the OnePlus One includes a bunch of additional software features and optimisations that you won’t find on other phones.

CM is positioning itself as a leaner, flexible and more secure alternative to Android while also remaining fully compatible with the official Google version. With Cyanogen under its wing, how does the software experience on the OnePlus One stack up?

In a word: impressive.

The phone delivers the fastest and most responsive Android experience that I have ever had. Whether it was switching between applications, browsing the web, launching apps or just general UI navigation, everything felt noticeably snappier than even stock Android running on Google’s own Nexus devices and leaves manufacturer developed Android skins found on the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 in the dust.

Anyone who has used an Android device before will be right at home with CM which, for the most part, resembles stock Android save for a few style changes. But don’t be fooled by its understated exterior, there’s plenty here for everyone.

Novice users will feel at home with the familiar feel of stock Android while power users will fall in love with the seemingly endless customisation options and tweaks on offer.

Want to change the default capacitive keys below the screen to an on-screen nav like on the Nexus devices? Or how about changing the number of notifications an app can have so that your notification tray isn’t taken over by any one specific app? Or why not change the shortcuts that show up on the lock-screen? All these options are just a tap away in the settings screen.

You even have the option to change the user interface (UI) completely with downloadable themes which change everything from the wallpaper, lock screen, fonts, icons, boot animations to ringtones, notifications and alarms -- all to a theme of your choosing.

Plenty of themes to choose from

Themes are incredibly easy to install with the “Themes Showcase” app, which acts as an app store of sorts for browsing and installing different themes for the CyanogenMod OS. Thanks to a healthy modding community, there are hundreds of different themes to choose from. Prefer Samsung’s TouchWiz interface for some inexplicable reason? Simply go to the Themes Showcase app and download what you want. The theme engine is incredibly powerful and is a great way to refresh the look and feel of the phone’s software.

Other useful features include “Screencast” which allows you to make screen recordings complete with audio and high quality video. Screencast is particularly useful for creating presentations or tutorials.

CM has also included lock screen gestures that are actually useful and work very well. With the screen turned off, you can draw a 'v' with your finger to use the phone’s flash as a torch; circle to immediately launch the camera; swipe up with two fingers to play/pause music; or draw forward and back arrows to skip music tracks. Though these gestures felt intuitive and worked flawlessly, the skipping track gesture had a habit of triggering unexpectedly whenever I had the phone in my pocket.

Security is a big part of CyanogenMod and out of the gate you will be able to encrypt text messages and access features like “Privacy Guard” which allows you to have complete control over what apps can access your personal data. CM on the OnePlus One also gives you admin rights or “root” level access by default so you can immediately take advantage of the large number of apps available from the Play Store that normally require admin privileges to function.

One such handy application is Titanium Backup which allows you to completely backup and restore your Android device. Another favourite is the anti-theft app Cerberus that can track your smartphone even after a factory reset or SIM change.

Camera not quite up to scratch

The one area where the phone does fall short is the camera. While the OnePlus One has the technical chops with a 13-megapixel rear snapper equipped with Sony’s latest Exmor IMX214 sensor, six element lens and f/2.0 aperture, the captured shots left us feeling a little underwhelmed.

It has its moments of greatness but, ultimately, the shots don’t quite have the same level of detail and pop that is otherwise present in the 16 megapixel Galaxy S5 and 20.7 megapixel Sony Xperia Z2. Colours look muted in comparison and some images look as though they could use a sharper auto-focus.

Although the white balance is optimised well for night shots, the large aperture didn’t capture as much light as I expected and as a result, low light performance fell short of the likes of the HTC One M8 and high-end Lumias.

Close-up macro style shots, however, look great with a nice level of defocus applied to the background and the shutter speed is also blazingly fast.

CM's custom camera UI is a real standout as well. Swiping down from the main viewfinder gives you immediate access to 10 different shooting modes such as HDR. The settings screens are clean and intuitive while still giving you access to useful functions like the ability to assign the power button to take photos and volume keys to control zoom.

There are also three permanent shooting control circles along the right hand side of the screen which gives you the ability to jump between video, photo and panoramic modes at any time. The OnePlus One also ticks all the boxes when it comes to video recording with support for 1080p and 4K video recording in addition to the obligatory 120fps slow motion recording at 720p.

For the selfie addicts there’s a 5 megapixel front-facing camera that's quite a step above the 2 megapixel norm that we have become accustomed to seeing from smartphone makers.

Overall, the camera on the OnePlus One doesn’t quite match the heights of the Z2 or S5 which is slightly disappointing given the capable hardware on board. That said, it does blow away the smartphone snappers usually in the sub-$500 price range like the Nexus 5 and Moto X.

What an affordable smartphone should be

A device like the OnePlus One doesn’t come along very often in the industry. From the gorgeous display to the high-end internals and flawless software execution, it easily rivals heavy hitters like the Samsung Galaxy S5 for less than half the price.

At just $US299 for the 16GB model and $USD349 for the 64GB variant, the OnePlus One turns the performance-to-price ratio on its head and is an absolute steal -- that is, if you can get your hands on one. Currently, the phone is available for purchase from the OnePlus website but is restricted to an invite system, suggesting that the company might be struggling to mass-produce enough units to keep up with demand.

Only time will tell whether consumer appetite for the OnePlus One will match its makers’ ambitions but there is no denying that the device has set an important precedent in the industry and redefines the picture of what an affordable smartphone really can be.