What is the OnePlus One?

The OnePlus One is the most hyped _phone_ ever to come from a company that most people have never heard of. OnePlus didn't even exist a year ago.

As a _phone_ that sells for £229 but can easily compete with the Galaxy S5 and Nexus 5, it's an absolute star on the value front. However, that it isn't compatible with most 4G networks in the UK may be an instant deal-breaker for many of you.

SEE ALSO: OnePlus One vs Nexus 5
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OnePlus One – Design

It is sold as an alternative to phones like the Galaxy S5 and One M8, but the OnePlus One is actually significantly larger than the competition. It's because the phone has a 5.5-inch screen – we imagine OnePlus takes no small amount of glee in offering such a large screen at half the price of its competitors.

Consequently, though, the OnePlus One does take a bit more getting used to than those phones. But it is way off the ridiculous size of supersize phones like the Samsung Galaxy Mega and HTC One Max. You can still use it in one hand. It's just big.

Another way the OnePlus One claims its own style is by using a very unusual rear finish. We used the black 64GB version and it has an oddly, deliberately rough soft touch finish. It's like a cross between sandpaper and felt. That may sound terrible, but it's very tactile surface that makes the phone feel that bit more substantial than a lot of other phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S5.

SEE ALSO: OnePlus One vs Oppo Find 7a
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The OnePlus One also comes in white, but only in its lesser 16GB storage edition. OnePlus plans to offer other back covers made of different materials, but don't hold your breath about these being easily available in the UK.

The back of the phone is removable, but it's not designed to be removed frequently, there's no hidden memory card slot and the battery is locked in place. You need a tool to get the back off too – it's just there to let people customise the phone.

OnePlus is a Chinese company and China is famous for its phones that 'borrow' the designs of other better-known phones. But the OnePlus One successfully creates its own look and feel, and one that compares fairly well with all the other top-end phones we have here in the UK.

SEE ALSO: OnePlus One Problems: Is it too good to be true?
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The design is deliberately simple too. A microSIM tray sits near-invisibly on the phone's side, and as the volume and power buttons are a similar colour to the OnePlus One's back, they're effectively hidden when viewed from any distance. Even the OnePlus logo is remarkably small – especially given that building a brand is OnePlus's number one priority at this point in its sub 1-year existence.

Clear design thought has gone into the OnePlus One. It's not as stunning as the HTC One M8, but for a first effort from a small company, it's quite the achievement.


OnePlus One – Dimensions

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This picture tells you a little more about quite how bit the OnePlus is. While the LG G3 has the same size screen, the OnePlus One is still significntly bigger as it doesn't have the super-slim screen surround of LG's latest.

The OneOlus One is 153mm tall, 76mm wide and 8.9mm thick. It is thin, but has a substantial footprint. Weight is no real issue, though.

As its core is made of lightweight magnesium, the OnePlus One weighs 162g. That's a very similar weight to the smaller HTC One M8.

SEE ALSO: Best Android phone Round-up

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OnePlus One – Connectivity

The hardware is a success story as long as you can handle that extra size. But there's a serious problem under the hood of the OnePlus One, and we think it is the number one problem with the phone.

What is the issue? 4G. The phone supports the 700, 1700, 2600, 2300, 2100 and 1800MHz bands. If this means nothing to you, don't worry – it's not what's there that matters.

The problem is that there's one missing band that's extremely important in the UK – 800Mhz, also known as band 20. Several networks here use this band, and as the OnePlus One doesn't support it, you can't get 4G on O2, Vodafone, GiffGaff, Tesco or Lycamobile. Three also relies on the 800MHz band for some of its 4G, so 4G signal on that network in certain areas may not be too hot.

That only leaves EE, which only uses bands the OnePlus One can use. In a way you can almost consider the OnePlus One a EE network exclusive, even if it isn't deliberately so.

SEE ALSO: Best Mobile Phones 2014
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This is a serious issue, and is the best reason to leave this phone on the shelf. Why has OnePlus left such an important band out? Because it's not really an important band in other key territories.  

An official statement on the OnePlus forums suggests the band was left out as it is only used to supply rural areas of the UK and other countries with 4G. Last time we checked, London wasn't all that rural. Still, let's not forget this is OnePlus's first go at a phone.

The one other missing connectivity bit is an IR blaster, which lets you use a phone as a universal remote for your TV, Blu-ray player and so on. Over the past couple of years we've mellowed from thinking this is pointless to kind-of useful, but we're yet to meet many people who have the feature and actually use it.

All the other high-end bells and whistles are here. NFC, ac-grade Wi-Fi and Cat4 4G are all in place in the One.

OnePlus One – Screen

The OnePlus One has a very large 5.5-inch 1080p screen. Out of 2014's true flagships, only the LG G3 matches it in terms of screen inches.

LG's G3 betters it in resolution too – it has a QHD screen where the OnePlus is 'just' 1080p. However, the phone's display is impressively sharp. Anyone complaining about a pixel density of 401pp when their laptop may offer under 150ppi needs to examine their priorities.

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Such a large, sharp screen is great for web browsing, watching videos and playing games. The only real downside about the size is that you need to get two thumbs involved to browse or type remotely fast.

Actual screen quality is very good. The OnePlus One uses an IPS LCD screen, the same kind used by the iPhone 5S and Sony Xperia Z2.

Viewing angles are strong for an LCD, top brightness is good and, as with all good top-end screens, the display has the appearance of being right on the surface of the screen. Lesser displays often appear a bit recessed, reducing that desirable image 'pop'.

However, there is one slightly odd calibration issue. OnePlus has chosen to give the One's display a very warm hue, making whites appear a little yellowy.

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It's probably better than the screen appearing overly cool but is initially distracting. When browsing, the white backgrounds of pages appear slightly off-white, and the effect is pronounced enough for people not entirely screen-obsessed to notice it.

The OnePlus One does offer a screen customisation menu that lets you alter the screen's character a little, but fiddling with the actual white balance is easier said than done.

This menu gives you control over colour saturation, contrast, intensity and hue. The latter is the only one that really affects the character of the screen's colour, and its effect is rather too radical. You're more likely to end up turning your reds into greens than tweaking the white balance.

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The only other real limitation of the screen is something common to all LCDs – black level and contrast aren't quite up to the Samsung Galaxy S5's OLED display. However, it'll be a while before we see LCD-based screens that can really challenge OLEDs on this front – if it ever happens.

Outdoors visibility is also not a patch on the Galaxy S5, which can offer staggering brightness when it's really needed (not manually, though, as such brightness is too much of a burden of responsibility for you, apparently).

One early worry we had about the OnePlus One was that it would not use a proper toughened glass top screen layer – it seems an obvious place to save a few pennies/Yuan. However, the One has a top-notch Gorilla Glass 3 layer that is smooth, tough and scratch-resistance. Smiles all 'round.

OnePlus One – Android and What is CyanogenMod?

The OnePlus One runs Android 4.4.2. We know Android L is incoming, but for now at least it's a nice and recent version of the Google OS.

However, the phone does not use a completely standard version of the system, or a simple skinned version like the Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2. It has a rather different interface, known as CyanogenMod.

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What is CyanogenMod?

CyanogenMod is a version of Android designed to add features and customisation missing from the totally vanilla edition. Sony, Samsung and co. would probably claim this is what their interfaces are all about, but crucially CyanogenMod can look and feel a good deal like standard Android if that's what you are after.

On boot-up the OnePlus One gives you the option to use a custom OnePlus theme skin, but if you don't opt for this, the phone's software looks an awful lot like that of the Google Nexus 5.

It's clean, fresh and a little bit cartoony: all part of the Google Experience UI look, as seen in the Nexus 5. If that's all you want, you can more-or-less pretend the OnePlus uses a pretty standard version of Android. Google Play, the Google apps suite – everything you'd normally expect is here.

But there's a lot more on offer if you want it.

For the average phone-buyer, the key benefit of CyanogenMod is native support for themes. These are actually downloaded from Google Play, but the OnePlus has a theme browser app pre-installed to let you check them out.

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The CyanogenMod Theme browser

These themes alter things like app icons, the wallpaper, system fonts, animations and the lock screen. They effectively re-skin your OnePlus, without any of the performance hit that often comes with third-party versions of Android.

Those expecting a total free-for-all may be disappointed, though. While CyanogenMod is an open-source bit of software, many of the nicest-looking themes cost money. We're talking about a quid or two, but it'll be enough to put some people off.

Some basic examples of themes:
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This kind of extra customisation is seen throughout the OnePlus One's settings menu. You can do all kinds of things with CyanogenMod. Here are a few examples
  • Fully customisable short/long/double press actions for soft keys
  • Integrated audio DSP that lets you make separate settings for headphones and the speaker And Bluetooth output. And Wi-Fi output. Oh and output over USB
  • Privacy Guard, which lets you choose exactly which apps have access to your data
  • Integrated blacklisting of numbers
  • Five different kinds of battery level displays (inc. no display) Feast your eyes:

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CyanogenMod is Android for people with a kind of digital OCD. It lets you fiddle, tweak, and indulge your paranoid fantasies that every app is out to get you and your credit card details. But, hey, maybe they are if you download any old .apk app installer file from the internet.

One of the best bits of CyanogenMod is that it makes it pretty easy to ignore all this stuff if it's not your bag. It's a system for Android nerds, but it's not a system just for Android nerds.

OnePlus One – Performance, Benchmarks and Games

However, our number one favourite feature of CyanogenMod is quite how little it impacts performance. The OnePlus One has that same immediate feel we only normally get from native Android phones like the Google Nexus 5. We noticed the odd visual glitch, and CyanogenMod does feel a mite buggier than standard Android, but for the most part we're very happy to live with it.

Good general performance is no surprise, though, as the OnePlus One is a seriously powerful phone. It uses the 2.5GHz version of the Snapdragon 801 CPU, the same quad-core chipset used by the Samsung Galaxy S5. To see such a high-end processor in a phone that starts at just £229 is a real eye-opener.

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It even has something over the Galaxy S5 too — 3GB of RAM. While we have not found a particularly marked difference in the performance between phones with 2GB and 3GB RAM, it should help out when you're a little low on internal memory and have a whole bunch of apps installed, performing occasional processes in the background.

While many people say that Android phones are overpowered these days, there are benefits to having a big-name CPU and GPU combo in your phone. For example, games like Dead Trigger 2 offer great lighting and water effects with a Snapdragon 801 processor that you wouldn't get with the equivalent MediaTek processor you might find in other low-cost Chinese phones.

You do generally get the same visual quality with last year's Snapdragon 800 chips, though – no surprise given they're very similar.

ALSO SEE: Snapdragon 805 vs 801 vs 800
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Check out those Dead Trigger 3 water effects

Over the last year, we've grown very suspicious of benchmarks – apparently most manufacturers put little tweaks in place to increase performance when benchmarking software is running. However, the OnePlus one gets fairly close to the score of the Galaxy S5 in the popular Geekbench 3 benchmark, with around 2620 points to the Galaxy S5's  2700-2800.

Gaming performance is very similar too. Unless a game has been poorly optimised, it'll run more-or-less perfectly on the OnePlus One.  

The OnePlus One is every bit the top-performing phone – although it is not dramatically more powerful than the Nexus 5. It won't be until Android L arrives with 64-bit support that we'll see significantly more powerful phones.

OnePlus One – Camera

One area where the specs of the OnePlus One seem to fall behind the very top phones is its camera. It has a 13-megapixel main sensor where the Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel sensor and the Sony Xperia Z2 a 20.7-megapixel one.

Specs are not everything, but the Galaxy S5 does manage to comfortably outperform the OnePlus One, with greater detail and sharpness. However, dynamic range is good in its class, and while there is some minor purple fringing in areas of high light contrast, it's nowhere near as bad as it is in the HTC One M8 camera. You can take great photos with the OnePlus One.

Before we get a look at the photos we took with the OnePlus One, a bit for the spec-heads: the phone uses the Sony IMX214 sensor, the same found in the Huawei Ascend P7. It's a 1/3.06-inch 4:3 sensor whose improvements over former Sony models (used widely) focus on colour and HDR performance.

The OnePlus One's lens is a six-element, f/2.0 arrangement with a 35mm equivalent focal length of around 30mm, much like the iPhone 5S.

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While some may do the OnePlus down for having not quite the same image quality as the very best phones on the market, it actually has one of the very best cameras at its price, one that grinds the Nexus 5 into dust. If only it had OIS, it'd be a true winner.

The one other real niggle we found when using it is that as the lens is so close to the top of the phone, it's annoyingly easy to cover with your finger.

Next, onto the photos.

Detail and Colour
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Here we see the sort of detail the OnePlus One can harvest. It's pretty sharp, and even the finest struts of the defunct Brighton pier are well-resolved. In the crop you can see a tiny bit of purple fringing, but nothing too apparent.

Exposure is perhaps a tiny bit conservative, but if you want images with a bit more pop, you can always use the HDR mode. We've heard complaints about the OnePlus One's undersaturated colours, but in our tests they appear reasonably decent.

Low light


There's more grain here than you'd get with a Galaxy S5 or Xperia Z2, but the OnePlus One has coped pretty well, making the image nice and clear without resorting to making the photo appear unnatural.

The OnePlus also has a dual-LED flash to help out in dark conditions, but it's not a new-fangled two-tone LED to help maintain decent cololours - you get dual white LEDs.

Macro
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Here we tried to get as close to our subject, the flower, as possible while mainting a good focus. Note that despite the good lighting, the OnePlus One still produces a little bit of grain throughout the image — something we also saw in the Huawei Ascend P7 camera (which shares the sensor). It's not ugly grain, though.

The OnePlus One does reasonably well, but the Samsung Galaxy S5 trumps it on several fronts: depth of field (check out the blurred background 'bokeh' on the Samsung), clarity of fine details and how close we were able to get to the flower.

HDR

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For HDR we once again bring in the Galaxy S5, which offers the best HDR mode in the business. The shot is a typical example of what HDR is good for. The sun is right behind the tower, producing the camera conundrum: exposure for the sky and make the building all-but black or exposue for the building and hugely overexpose the sky? HDR gives you a best of both worlds image by merging multiple exposures.

Both these modes are very effective, and we found the HDR mode of the One useful for perking up photos with tricky lighting conditions. However, the Galaxy S5's mode brings more lifelike-looking images where the OnePlus One tends to go overboard a bit — it's at the level Samsung was at about a year ago.

The OnePlus One mode is also a little on the slow side, taking a couple of seconds to process shots. Again, this is where we were at last year with Samsung.

Video
For video, the OnePlus One offers everything you could ask for at this stage. As standard it shoots at 1080p resolution, but both UHD and DCI 4K capture modes are there to use too. DCI is even higer than UHD, with 4,096 x 2,160 resolution giving you a slightly wider aspect.

Shooting in 4K clearly takes its toll on the OnePlus One as the preview window goes a bit juddery, but the feature is there for those who want it. An 18 second clip takes up 134MB, though. Ouch.

Front-facing camera
The OnePlus One has a much higher-than-average resolution front camera, with a 5-megapixel sensor. It won't offer the image quality of a good 5-megapixel rear camera - everything gets a bit grainy zoomed-in — but you get far more detail than normal. You can see individual eyebrow (and in my case beard) hairs, for example.

OnePlus One – Camera App

The OnePlus One camera app is pretty gesture-based. You swipe up and down on the screen to select modes, rather than pressing an on-screen button as you do in most other phones.

However, there are some buttons down at the bottom of the screen that do offer a more traditional list of modes following a few button presses.

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What do you get? Aside from the good HDR mode, not masses. Rather than trying to add loads of creative modes like the Sony Xperia Z2 and Samsung Galaxy S5, the OnePlus One keeps things relatively simple:

Auto – a basic point 'n' shoot mode
HDR – high dynamic range merges multiple exposures to increase dynamic range in photos
Aqua – blue tint
Posterize – more abrupt colour tone changes
Sepia – shoot in sepia
Mono – shoot in mono- obviously
Steady shot – increase shutter speed
Night – decrease shutter speed
Action – fast shutter speed
Slow shutter speed – the Ronseal effect
Beauty Mode – gets rid of wrinkles in peoples' faces

OnePlus One – Battery Life

The OnePlus One has a 3,100mAh battery, which you have no access to. It's locked in place unless you actually take the phone apart.

However, battery performance is impressive, no doubt helped by battery capacity that is up there with the most generous mobiles.  OnePlus's pre-launch materials suggested there was 'mystery tech' involved, but it seems more likely that optimisation is largely down to the efficiency measures of the Snapdragon 801 processor and that a fixed battery lets the phone pack in a large unit into a pretty slim phone.

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The phone's display is also pretty efficient thanks to is use of an LTPS panel – although plenty of high-end LCD phones use LTPS these days.

Either way, you have to try pretty hard to make the OnePlus One drain down in a day.

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This is a pretty normal moderate day's use, from 4pm to 4pm. Note how the OnePlus barely loses any charge overnight, and that in total the 24 hour period only saw the phone drain by around 55 per cent.

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This is how the battery drains down when playing a 720p MP4 video file on loop, with mobile internet and Wi-Fi turned off. It equates to around 11 hours of playback off a charge. That's not quite as good as the 14 hours we got out of the Sony Xperia Z2, but it's on the same level as the other Android flagships.

We comfortably got a day and a half, and change, out of a charge without any battery saving modes. And that's a good thing, because there isn't one.

Where all the big-name phones have multiple battery-saving modes that let you squeeze as much as 24 hours out of your last fraction of battery by making the display monochrome, shutting of standby mobile data and limiting access to apps, the OnePlus One has nothing.

You can get much of the battery-saving effect by switching off mobile data, but having the option to have it automatically switch off would be nice.


OnePlus One – Sound Quality and Internal Speaker

The OnePlus One's speakers look an awful lot like those of the Nexus 5 from the outside. There are two little sets of dotty grilles cut into the bottom edge of the phone.

However, where the Nexus 5 actually just had a mono speaker that fed out of these two outputs, the OnePlus has two separate drivers, each with its own grille. While two speakers aren't necessarily better than one, the dual driver array does help to give the One very strong top volume. The OnePlus One can go louder than the Galaxy S5.
 
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You don't really get any sense of stereo, though. As the speaker are about 5cm apart and fire in the same direction, you might as well consider this a particularly loud mono speaker.

The tone of the speaker isn't as good as the BoomSound speakers of the HTC One M8, either. Without a speaker enclosure in which the sound can amplify itself a bit, output is a bit thin-sounding, and at higher volumes we did notice some mid-range distortion. But hey, it's powerful.

You can tweak the speakers output, though, using the AudioFX app. This offers a snazzy-looking 5-band equaliser that's perfect for taking the hard edge off any misbehaving treble.

OnePlus One – Call Quality

While the internal speaker of the OnePlus One is loud, the call speaker isn't. It is quite clear, with good treble detailing without sounding too harsh.

However, top volume is disappointing. This has apparently been flagged by the makers of CyanogenMod as a software issue, but until the software update that fixes it arrives, we can't really tell whether the hardware also has a part to play. I would wager that a software tweak could bump up the volume a good deal – there's no audible sign of the speaker unit itself being in any way strained.

As is now standard in most phones, there's a secondary microphone on the back to provide noise cancellation during calls. But the volume issue needs to be fixed before we can really call it a remote success for calls.

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Should I Buy the OnePlus One?

The OnePlus One is a curious phone to appraise. To poke holes in it, for the most part you need to compare it to phones that cost twice the price.

It really can compete with £500 phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5, the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2. And when it has also managed to create its own design identity to boot, you can only conclude that OnePlus has done a very good job.

There are pitfalls, though. 4G support in the UK is extremely patchy, much like the iPhone 5, and as a young company without a UK base of operations, buying from OnePlus is something of a leap of faith. Who even knows if the company will be around in a year or 18 months?

If you're bold and are out for as much phone as you can get, though, the OnePlus One offers standard-setting Morotola Moto G levels of value that we won't see from the bigger names. Quite simply, it wouldn't be feasible for Samsung to make this phone this cheap.

Verdict

The OnePlus One is not a perfect phone, but it competes with phones twice the price without serious caveats beyond limited 4G support. And for that reason, it's one of 2014's best phones.

Next, see how the OnePlus compares to the best Android phones