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Hands-on: OnePlus One '2014 Flagship Killer'

updated 07:43 am EDT, Wed August 27, 2014

OnePlus One looks set to cause a major headache for the likes of Samsung

OnePlus is an ambitious new OEM out of China founded in late 2013 with designs on conquering the smartphone market. Its first handset is the audacious OnePlus One, which recently started shipping to the US and select European markets. Interestingly, instead of jumping into the market with a 5-inch smartphone, the company's first effort is a 5.5-inch phablet that it is marketing as a 'Flagship Killer.' With its intentions clear, is it possible for a company to come from out of almost nowhere to steal the title of most wanted Android phone from the likes of tech titans like Samsung?

With a view to doing things differently, OnePlus has taken almost exclusively to social media to market its new handset. To this extent, the principal way to buy the OnePlus One directly from the company has been to try and score an 'invite' through entering online competitions on one of the social networks. While innovative in marketing approach, it has proven to be extremely frustrating for many potential customers wanting to get a hold of one of these potentially desirable handsets. It has certainly created a degree of 'buzz,' but it is a dangerous game to play when new Android flagship handsets hit the market on a weekly basis.

We were able to secure our review unit via eBay from a Chinese reseller, which is selling a variant of the device running Color OS designed for the Chinese market. Buyers who have picked up this model, frustrated by the OnePlus sales approach, have quickly taken to Android forums surprised to learn that it does not run the vaunted Cyanogen Mod 11S version of Android preinstalled on the international version of the handset. This is not a huge problem as long as you have some knowledge and experience with installing your own choice of ROM, as the factory image can be downloaded directly from the OnePlus One website. It is a CyanogenMod 11S flashed version of the handset that we are discussing here.

For the uninitiated, CyanogenMod 11S is a highly customizable version of Android 4.4 'KitKat.' It has tremendous appeal for Android enthusiasts who like it flexibility and a thriving developer community providing all types of upgrades, customizations and optimizations for the more adventurous user. While stock Android is also a fan favorite, CyanogenMod is the version of Google's Android OS that many die-hard Android fans also choose to install, as Cyanogen is also quick to release new versions following the latest Android releases. Cyanogen Mod 11S makes up one side of the appeal of the OnePlus One. The other side of its appeal is its high-end hardware coupled with excellent pricing.

The OnePlus One comes in two variants, one with 16GB ($299) of on board storage and one with 64GB ($349). Each comes in either black or white, although these can be further customized with a range of snap-on rear covers that give users a range of styling options reminiscent of the Motorola Moto X. It's best asset is its superb 5.5 IPS LCD display produced by Japan Display, the result of a merger between Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi. Brightness and color saturation are among the best we have seen on mobile device. Powering the handset is the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset found at the heart of the Samsung Galaxy S5. This means that it is clocked at 2.5GHz and integrates an Adreno 330 GPU for excellent performance, bolstered by a generous 3GB of RAM.

At these prices, and with these types of specifications, it is easy to see why the OnePlus One has caught the eye of Android fans. It effectively matches or beats out the specifications of competing Android flagships currently on the market, but at up to half the price for an outright purchase. Importantly, however, the OnePlus One also looks the part too. It is manufactured from polycarbonate and has a nice, if somewhat slippery, in-hand feel. It is only 8.9mm thick and uses narrow bezels to help keep things manageable for what is a large smartphone. It weighs in at 162 grams, which while not particularly, svelte, gives it a reassuring sense of solidity. The design is neat and tidy, if not exceptional. At this price, who can really quibble?

The OnePlus One also features a high-end 13-megapixel Sony-sourced camera module with optical image stabilization, f2.0 aperture and six-element lens, helping to ensure that it delivers very good photographs as well. As you can see from the couple of unedited examples below, the OnePlus One produces photos that are detailed and well balanced even in relatively low light conditions thanks to both Sony's Exmor technology and the Cyanogen Mod camera software. It also shoots video in 4K resolution, while also supporting slow motion capture at 720p at 120fps. The front camera doesn't skimp on the specifications either, coming in at 5-megapixels. Other key specs include 4G LTE connectivity across multiple bands, Bluetooth 4.0 LE and Wi-Fi 802.11ac. The only notable omission from the spec sheet is microSD card expansion; however, at only an additional $50 to upgrade from the 16GB model to the 64GB model, it is not a deal killer.

OnePlus One low-light photos sample 1

OnePlus One low-light photo sample 2

As you might imagine, the OnePlus One is a multimedia and mobile gaming powerhouse. Its 5.5-inch display is ideal for viewing movies and surfing the web when on the go, helping to reduce one's reliance on a tablet for these purposes - it is definitely an advantage of the form factor and part of the reason why devices this size have increased in popularity if can tolerate their oversize dimensions in your jeans pocket. The 5.5-inch canvas is great for games with onscreen controls; with smaller displays, using onscreen controls can adversely impact how much of the screen that you can still see. There are no such problems with the OnePlus One. The overall experience is boosted by decent sound quality from the two in-built speakers at the bottom of the device, or the excellent audio produced when wearing headphones.

There is a lot going for the OnePlus One as a device and from a sheer value for money perspective. As the first device from OnePlus, it is a fantastic effort, although question marks linger over how well it will support its customers in the medium to long term should anything go wrong. The only major criticism that we can level at the device or the company is the invitation-only approach that it has adopted to selling the device, which, quite frankly, has hindered rather than helped the image of the company. It might have been ok to adopt this approach for an initial period for the 'lucky' few to get their hands on it first, but to continue with this marketing approach well after it has launched seems counterproductive. There is too much competition out there to get too 'cute' with critical product launches.

If you can get your hands on one, the OnePlus One largely lives up to its claim of being a '2014 Flagship Killer' in delivering an almost unmatched combination of value, performance and looks. For a company launched in late 2013, OnePlus is an excellent example of the threat that Chinese Android handset makers pose to established players, Samsung notwithstanding.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



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