Among the deluge of this year’s smart phone, one product might have fallen under the common knowledge radar. Chinese start up OnePlus has not yet been around one year, but back in late April 2014 they released their first smartphone, One (and yes, when you tell someone you own a OnePlus One, you will ironically receive the response ‘Two?’ with a puzzled look on said person’s face). Unafraid of any accusations of arrogance, OnePlus branded this new phone ‘Flagship Killer’. And prior to the release, the boosts about this were already adding up. They promised to match competitor’s specs while undercutting competitor prices. The rumors drew some attentions on the technology blogs, but for the most part the phone remains something of an occult item. OnePlus proved good on their word when the phone finally dropped; specs were comparable both to Samsung’s Galaxy S5 (the two phones were released nearly in tandem) as well as the later arrival, Apple’s iPhone6. But the truly attractive point were the prices these phone start at; there initially was a 16GB model (which came with a silky ‘Baby Skin White’ backing) and and was said to cost a mere $299USD. And though OnePlus still nominates this 16GB model on their site, it does not seem to be available for purchase. The larger 64GB model, the backing coming in a more tactile ‘Sandstone Black’ finish, comes to cost $349USD. Being less notable phones, it is worth noting that these are unlocked phones, and should thus be compared to the $699USD for an unlocked Galaxy S5 and the iPhone6 approximately priced at $649USD.
What’s the hustle?
The OnePlus One sounds far too good to be true, a fact that always makes my Skeptic Sense jump too attention. As one would expect, there are some caveats to purchasing this phone, though if one is dedicated enough these problems are easily circumvented. The first of these semi-problems is how to actually acquire the phone. The phone has since it’s initial release been available largely through an invitation only system, and for many people is the first major irritation of the OnePlus One. In the days of one-click shopping OnePlus has given you a minor task to acquire their product, this invitation system is an absolutely counter-intuitive notion. These invites are becoming something of an internet Jackalope; everyone seems to have a strange cousin who claims to have seen one. On the third of October OnePlus released 20,000 such invitations to a public that snatched them up in mere minutes. A week later they released 30,000 more and the internet drank them up just as quickly. Both Reddit and OnePlus’ own forums are littered with threads of people giving away surplus invites to the person who tells the best joke, or the person who can solve a series of puzzles. The invites, as it were, expire, so once you receive it you have twenty-four hours to purchase the phone or baton-pass the invite off to someone who will. The reason for such games seems to be twofold; the first likely having to do with OnePlus only running a limited production of their phones to keep costs down.
The invitation only system could also be seen as something of an advertising method meant to generate online buzz about the product. It has recently been revealed that OnePlus’ total advertising budget for their phone was a mere $300, which helps to explain why they decided not to do any kind of traditional advertising for this phone (in contrast to both Apple and Samsung, who have flooded billboards so badly that I am reminded of their phones at least seven times each before I can make it to the nearest Starbucks…). In place of traditional advertising they have decided to try their hand at some viral marketing campaigns. The first of these campaigns, titled ‘Smash the Past’, sold a promotional copy of the phone for $1USD to whomever would upload a video of themselves destroying their previous smartphone. The second campaign, that ended both quickly and in failure, was meant to give an invite off the women who posted the best selfie. OnePlus later released a statement claiming that an employee launched the campaign without the company’s approval.
On the 27th of October one plus one did a single day of preorders, in which they managed to move 21,000 units in that day alone. To date, they are claiming to have moved 500,000 units, and are predicting (or perhaps hoping) to move one million by years end. And while all this is very promising for the young start up, it should be noted that by their own admission (and note the more humorous tweet) the October 27th pre-order caught them a bit unprepared, and many of their tweets from the following day revolved around answering troubleshooting questions to those who had pre-ordered. The fact that their own servers were overloaded by orders goes to show just how sadly unprepared OnePlus was for their own sales event, and if we have to take a silver lining from what happened it is simply that they handled it with a fair amount of grace and clarity to their customers. In some respects, what was witnessed were the birthing pains of OnePlus as a company, and they seemed to have hurdled through these problems rather well. On the 17th of November OnePlus repeated this with another single hour of pre-orders, and they seemed to have significantly fewer problems than the last time. OnePlus has already passed half a million units sold, and they are confident by year’s end they will have moved one million units. Considering the success of these sales events, it is disappointing to see that the invitation system is still in place for the time being.
And though many people have complained about the invitation system, truth be told it is only a minor irritation at best. Needing a new phone, I managed to get myself an invitation in about three day’s time. Granted, I spent far too much time with a browser open to reddit, F5’ing the page every few seconds and scanning for the word ‘invite’. Like most reddit communities, the OnePlus One subreddit has a rather good sense of humor, and before I know I had told some jokes, tried to work out some puzzles, asked nicely, asked tersely, and found myself with not one but two invites after complaining about how meager and pathetic my old phone was.
As for the Phone?
I rather like it, to give you my subjective. The phone is big, and its impressive physicality gives it a pretty stunning presence. Though I am not at all used to a phone of these dimensions (my previous phone being a Galaxy S3 mini), I find using it to be fairly comfortable regarding how it fits in my hand. This is partially due to how the phone’s backside curves. After a day of use I had already mastered navigating it with just one hand with the same dexterity with which I used my previous phone. The invite I won was for a 64GB Sandstone Black model, the texture of which I would not link to sandstone so much as rather soft, non-irritating sandpaper that makes it surprisingly comfortable and elegant. The screen is ringed by a thin chrome lining that adds a rather nice highlight to the product. All things considered, it is rather nice to look at. The designers at OnePlus certainly have a senses of style, which show as well in the red ribbon USB cable they provide to charge your phone with. If there is one poor choice in terms of the phone’s design it is having the home button incorporated onto the screen, and not having it be an actual physical button. Near a month into use and I am still accidentally hitting the home button instead of the space bar while trying to type. But while irritating, this is a rather minor gripe. If there is a problem with the phone from the hardware side, it is that the battery is not removable and you cannot add additional storage via micro SD cards, two features that may discourage anyone moving to this phone from a Samsung product.
And the phone runs incredibly well. Call quality has been great, forcing me to shift the blame I used to have from my service provider to my rather inferior older phone. Every app I use has installed without problems, and every operation it has had to run does so quickly. I have never encountered any problems connecting with wifi, Bluetooth, or to my mobile data network, and the reception on all of these was excellent. While the headphones worked well, the speakers on the phone are of a certain mediocrity; but I never had any intention of using the device as a boombox. Most notable is the very impressive 13 megapixel camera rear facing camera, which certainly seems to take truly vibrant and detailed pictures. The camera did seem to lean a bit on the slow side compared to others I have used, but not noticeably enough to be a problem for me.
Another truly impressive thing about the phone is how well the battery holds. After a very full day of mp3 listening, picture taking, music recording, twitter posting, web browsing and Youtube watching the phone made it to midnight with 49% left to the battery. There is no way I could get that from my old galaxy S3. Since purchasing the phone I have left it out, not charging, every single night and the next morning I have found the battery to be exactly where I left it last time the phone was used; despite WiFi, data, and sometimes even Bluetooth begin turned on. The only thing that seems to take a toll on the battery are certain games, but even then the drain is negligible. To this there is one exception, which ties in to one of the few flaws in the phone. Certain games cause the phone to heat noticeably, though not quite to the point of it being alarming. When this occurs, the battery drains pretty significantly. In my experiences this has only occurred with one game, and hopefully whatever is causing it will be patched soon.
The phone runs on an android platform called Cyanogenmod, an open source variety of android meant to offer its users more customizability. It runs enough like standard android that even a digital layperson can pick it up and begin to use it with the same relative ease as one would using any other smart phone. As well, it has all the same widgets and apps android users have come to know and love. But there are as well many quirks to the OS, some of which stem from over-ambition of CyanogenMod. For instance, screen gestures are programmed into the phone so that one could activate a certain feature without having to go through the phone’s OS; drawing a ‘V’ shape on an inactive screen would activate the flashlight, a circle would turn on the camera, two parallel lines downward would pause or play music while an arrow forward or back would skip a track. As expected, I pulled the phone from my pocket to find the flashlight on and the phone blasting Vivaldi. I promptly shut these features off before I found several pictures of the inside of my own pocket (EDIT: I later found that indeed I had taken a few pictures of the inside of my pocket, which satisfied a strange curiosity).
But there is e very nice amount of customization to the phone, particularly with certain aesthetic features, such as changing the buttons and the scrolling animation used when going from screen to screen. I assumed this would have gotten old very quickly, but I find myself playing with these features up to now. Some other notable features are one that allows you to wake the with a double tap, and another that prevents the phone from turning on unless held upright. It is also worth noting that CyanogenMod as well has a store where you can purchase different themes for the phone. Few are free, and most have a small price tag. While many of these themes are very attractive, the notion of paying for themes for my phone is so contrary to my inner miser for me to submit.
The Answer is Two
The OnePlus One is a work in progress, not a magnum opus. It is hard for us to collectively think back to the initial release of the first smartphones, but if memory serves they were not gems we think them to be. They had their bugs too. And it is in that light that this phone should be considered; there is considerable promise behind this company, and this phone is their stepping stone into the market. They have succeeded in making a rather solid product, though it seems as though thanks to their marketing they have made this solely for a certain demographic. It does not seem like a foolish start, and knowing that the OnePlus Two is already on the drawing board and anticipated for a Q2 release next year truly wets my appetite to see what this company can do.