Review: OnePlus One

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A handful, but not quite a phablet (Credit: Eric Mack/Gizmag.com)

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The OnePlus One was the sleeper smartphone of 2014 that very few people were able to get their hands on – which is a shame, because several months later we've found that it's still among the best devices out there despite a few flaws.

If you consider yourself a current or an aspiring Android power user, or just the kind of person who likes to tinker around the edges of a device and customize it to your liking, the OnePlus could be the phone you've been waiting for. Purists may appreciate Nexus devices a little more, but if you've got the spirit of a modder, we think you'll love the OnePlus One.

When first introduced in early 2014, the specs in the OnePlus One were near top of the line, with a quad-core 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 processor married to an Adreno 330 GPU, a whopping 3 GB of RAM, 5.5-inch full HD (1920 x 1080, 401 PPI) IPS display, 13 MP camera and plentiful 3,100 mAh battery.

While we're on the verge of transitioning to a world of 64-bit octa core chipsets, for now that Snapdragon 801 in the OnePlus still holds up fairly well in a very competitive marketplace with some newer high-powered phablets like the Nexus 6 and Galaxy Note 4, probably thanks in no small measure to the 3 GB of RAM it has to work with.

The HD display isn't the best you can find out there, but isn't by any means mid-ranged, and most users will find no reason to complain about it.

There is one piece of hardware on this phone that does more than keep up with the Joneses several months after launch: the battery continues to impress with its ability to go well beyond a single day's use on just one charge, even on heavy use days.

In our battery benchmark, streaming video over Wi-Fi (with brightness set at around 75 percent), it dropped about 13 percent per hour. That's a bit off the pace of rivals like the Galaxy Note 4 (10 percent per hour), iPhone 6 Plus (12 percent per hour) and Nexus 6 (also 12 percent), but it's still a good result.

The physical design of the phone isn't glamorous, but it is nice all-around. The metal frame around the top and sides of the screen is slick and the rounded plastic back on the 64 GB model is just slightly rough, like the finest grit of sandpaper you could find. It's a nice hand feel that won't slip. The physical buttons for power and the volume rocker are placed on opposite sides, which is a little odd for our taste and the buttons themselves feel a bit cheap, but we've yet to have any actual problems with them so far.

As we mentioned earlier, when the screen is asleep, you can also control the phone via a handful of gestures drawn on the screen that allow you to skip straight to the camera app, control audio or turn on the flashlight without ever having to mess with a lock screen or anything else.

There is a significant bezel around the display that includes space for three capacitive navigation keys, which you have the option to use or turn-off and instead enable on-screen navigation keys.

And that is just that start of a very long list of ways that the OnePlus can be customized to your every whim. Here's just a sampling of the things you can tweak via the current CyanogenMod interface, which is soon to change to a new OnePlus-exclusive skin dubbed "Oxygen" (more on that a little further down).

  • Change actions for short, long and double presses on soft keys
  • A native audio equalizer app lets you change and manage output for the speaker, Bluetooth and headphones
  • Turn the lock screen on or off with a simple tap
  • Change boot animations
  • A Privacy Guard feature allows you to manage access to data for specific apps.
    Five options for battery level displays
  • You can add or manage which of dozens of available tiles display in the notification drawer
  • Hooray, there's a full file manager included!

There's also access to a library of themes that let you customize the look and feel of your phone with all new backgrounds, icons, fonts and sounds. The possibilities for tweaking go on and on and on. Plenty of OnePlus owners go a step further and install custom firmware (ROMs) as well.

We have noticed with all the options for customization and tweaking the settings that performance and stability can quickly get a little wonky. Usually a simple reboot is all that's required, and fortunately the OnePlus reboots about as quickly as any phone we've seen.

You don't have to be a hacker or modder to appreciate and love the OnePlus, though. All the standard Google apps are there, along with a few cool extras like Screencast, which is an included app that records video from your screen and audio from the mic. Really great if you're into making how-to videos, we suppose.

Even with this big helping of praise, there's one last feature that probably deserves a separate standing ovation – the OnePlus One starts at just US $299 for an off-contract 16 GB model. That price gives the Moto G a run for its (small stack of) money in the race for the highest overall value in a phone. And the OnePlus has much beefier specs than Moto's mid-ranged wonder.

This phone isn't all unicorns and rainbows, though. The fact that it essentially doesn't work on Verizon, the largest carrier in the United States, as well as some other key carriers in Europe, is heartbreaking. There's also no microSD slot, which makes spending another $50 to upgrade to 64 GB seem inevitable.

CyanogenMod is also not 100 percent bug-free and many users report video glitches, which we've also noticed. The speakers are also just kind of okay.

There's also the matter of how hard it's been to get OnePlus to just take your money for one of these phones. The ordering process has slowly opened up and as of this writing the current method is that the company only takes orders on Tuesday. This is part of the way that OnePlus has made the One so cheap, by using "just in time" manufacturing and distribution processes that force the company to constrain demand on the front end to match a limited supply capacity.

"Our goal is to give users free phones and then eventually monetize through software services and content. (Free as in we're not making money on it, not as in it costing nothing)," explained OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei in a recent Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session.

Even as its availability remains relatively limited, OnePlus is marching forward. A sequel device is to be expected in the latter part of this year, and the company is dropping its partnership with Cyanogen in favor of Oxygen, its own in-house ROM based on Android Lollipop. Pei says the same spirit of customization will dominate in Oxygen.

For now, though, the OnePlus One is among the best deals you can find on a flagship level phone, so long as you aren't married to Verizon or any of the other CDMA carriers it can't support. And if you're at all into modding, or just enjoy customizing a phone to the extreme to suit your needs, we doubt you'll find another that allows you to spend as much time tweaking and tinkering.

Product page: OnePlus

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