Review: OnePlus One

Announced at the beginning of the year, the OnePlus One is among the best Android devices currently on the market. It’s also one of the best deals in smartphones. With a 5.5-inch screen and some truly first-class specs, it’s in direct competition with the biggest of the flagship smartphones—the iPhones 6, the Galaxy Note 4, the Nexus 6, and the LG G3—but for only half the price, if not even less. The top-of-the-line device starts at just $299 off-contract.

Interested? You’re not alone. The OnePlus One is so appealing to so many Android fans, it has become very difficult to actually purchase one. You’ll need to pre-order it, and you’ll need to be patient, since it’ll probably take a month or two to ship. But if you can stomach all the rigamarole, I think you’ll end up satisfied.

What makes the One so intriguing isn’t just the price-for-specs ratio, it’s the user experience. The handset runs Cyanogen 11S, arguably the best available custom ROM based on the Android 4.4.4 KitKat operating system. CyanogenMod is a flavor of Android that’s largely maintained by a devoted developer community, and getting it running on most phones involves hacking it onto the hardware (usually against the manufacturer’s wishes). But the OnePlus One ships with the modified version of Android already installed. And even with Cyanogen’s crowdsourced origins, the phone utilizes certified firmware, so you’ll be able to run all the Google apps you’d expect to see on a top-tier Android device, like Google Now.

Cyanogen is full of winning features. It’s attractive, it’s stacked innovative and convenient gestures, and the whole interface is more customizable than any I’ve encountered. When I started testing the phone, I quickly went to work making it my own. Besides themes, fonts, and boot animations, you can choose between different actions to trigger when you short- or long-press the Home, Menu and Back buttons. There’s also an option to use the three capacitive keys beneath the phone’s display instead of the software-based on-screen Android keys.

Even just using the basic, out-of-the-box controls, I really love how easy and intuitive it is to interact with this phone. For example, you just slide a finger across the Android status bar to adjust the screen brightness, or double-tap it to put the phone on standby. You can even choose what to display on the status bar itself and how to show it: I opted for a centered clock and a circled battery icon with status percent and notifications count. When the phone is charging, a “Daydream” function can be activated that shows the clock, random colors or photos, Flipboard news, trending events from Banjo—whatever you’d like. Many phones offer some of these features, but only a phone running CyanogenMod offers them all. Also, these features don’t feel like gimmicks, as so many so-called “usability enhancements” to top-tier phones often do. These things are actually useful.

Some gestures can be used while the screen is turned off. A double-tap on a sleeping screen wakes up the phone. Draw a circle on the locked screen to activate the camera, and draw a “V” to toggle the flashlight function of the camera’s LEDs. You can control your music too: swipe two fingers vertically to play or pause, slide one finger left for the previous track, or slide right for the next one.

About those specs. Nothing here disappoints: a 1080p Gorilla Glass 3 IPS display with 1920 x 1080 pixels resolution at 401 PPI; a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 2.5 GHz quad-core processor inside, along with 3 GB of RAM, an Adreno 330 GPU, a 13-megapixel main camera, 3100 mAh battery, and 16 GB of internal storage. (A more capacious 64 GB model sells for $349.) You also get dual bottom-facing speakers, three microphones with noise-canceling technology, and LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and Miracast radios. It measures 6 inches by 3 inches—a body slightly bigger than G3 and Note 4—with a curved back and flat edges. It’s 0.35 inches thick, just less than just the Nexus 6, and it weighs 5.7 ounces, less than everyone but the G3 (which is just 5.26 ounces).

The only thing about this phone that should truly give you pause is that it’s extremely difficult to get your hands on one.

The One has been very responsive since I’ve pocketed it, only occasionally slowing down on third-party apps, like when scrolling pages on Dolphin Browser with lots of apps running in the background. The good news is that while I was writing this review, the One received an OTA update: Cyanogen 11S 38R enhanced touchscreen responsiveness, added RAW image support, introduced a pause button during videos, and added support for 24-bit audio.

That brings us to the camera. The Sony Exmor-based main camera utilizes six physical lens elements, has f/2.0 aperture, and can take up to 13-megapixel shots. Other features include a burst mode, macro mode, up to 1600 ISO, and up to an 8-second slow shutter. The volume keys can be used to control the 4x zoom, and the power key can serve as a shutter button. Videos can be recorded in resolutions up to 4K. Slow-mos can be shot at 60 frames per second in 1080p and at 120 fps in 720p, and the time-lapse feature has intervals ranging between 0.5 and 24 seconds, minutes, or even hours.

Sadly, the results are not always as good as you would expect. On occasion, white balance tends to turn a bit yellowish, while indoor shots in low light lack detail. There’s also a Panorama feature with continuous capture and good automatic exposure, though the interface is weird—it lacks a grid to follow while panning for the shot, so it’s unlikely you’ll get a straight landscape. The 5-megapixel front facing camera takes decent selfies, but the results are more blurred and pixelated than the shots taken using smaller sensors like the ones in the iPhone or Samsung’s phones.

Even though the camera could be better, the display is excellent. Colors are less vivid than Samsung’s over-saturated tones, but they’re more natural. The IPS display has a stunning 178 degrees of clear viewing, and the automatic brightness enhancement adjusts itself perfectly in almost every situation, even direct sunlight. Battery longevity is some of the best I’ve ever enjoyed: I managed to make a whole day between charges even on busy workdays or while traveling.

So, the only thing about this phone that should truly give you pause is that it’s extremely difficult to get your hands on one. Because of the excessive costs and complexity involved in producing a top-shelf phone, OnePlus will only commit to making a set number of devices that it can guarantee will be sold. This keeps things low risk. For months, the phone was only available by invitation—you had to know somebody who already bought one, and they had to extend you an invitation. If you were lucky enough to get a special purchase code, you had 24 hours to activate it before your reservation expired.

Just last week, the company started taking actual pre-orders from regular customers, not just the hyper-aware folks in the CyanogenMod forums trying to score a precious invite. But the demand was so high, the servers melted and many couldn’t get an order in before the window closed. Some of those who did get an order in will have to wait as long as 8 weeks for their phones.

If none of this scares you, another window will open on November 17th. Make your choice—16GB in white, or 64GB in black polycarbonate, a “matte” or “velvet” finish—and act quickly.

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