Weekly Cornerplay: OnePlus One is two good

In this edition, Jeffrey Yuwono reviews the OnePlus One, which he says is “pretty darn good”

oneplus feature done

Welcome to the Weekly Cornerplay, a guest column where each week we analyse a tech product or service.

I received an invite for the One from OnePlus a few weeks ago and pulled the trigger. I’ve used it as my daily driver ever since, replacing my iPhone 5S.

Yes, folks, the Cornerplay does reviews. If you have something you want us to look at, send it our way. We leave the factual details to excellent publications such as Engadget (rated the OnePlus One 9/10)Gizmodo (9/10) and PC World (9/10); and focus on providing insights into all the other things that make the phone interesting.

What I want to start off with is what an amazing job OnePlus has done marketing this phone. The smartphone market is super saturated, with giant corporations such as Apple and Samsung spending multiple billions on advertising their phones. Here is this tiny Chinese company that, without having spent much, if at all, on marketing, has made the OnePlus One famous among tech enthusiasts.

This is already a sought-after phone because of its flagship performance and low cost. Couple that with limited supply and what you’re left with is — incredibly — a status symbol among tech snobs. I can’t believe the amount of attention I’ve gotten because of this phone, both in real life and online. One guy found me on Instagram and started liking a bunch of my photos in the hope that I would give him an invite!

All this from a tiny Chinese company? Unprecedented. Amazing. Stupendous. Good job, OnePlus.

Let’s take hype aside. How is the actual phone? Pretty darn good it turns out.

I love how it looks. Only the HTC One bests it in terms of aesthetics and it’s on par with the LG G3 and Nexus 5. My opinion of course; beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The “floating” screen is a nice touch. The display is gorgeous with great colours and nice viewing angles. It’s bad in direct sunlight compared to the iPhone 5S, but still viewable.

I got the 64GB version with a sandstone back. At first, I didn’t like the sandstone — it felt like smooth sandpaper, or cheap PVC office carpeting. Then over the next couple of weeks I fell in love with it. It didn’t attract finger prints, had a nice tactile feel and didn’t get gross and grimy like most polycarbonate phones. Today, I merely like it. It CAN get grimy, and when it does, it feels worse than plastic. Fortunately, it takes a lot more to get there and it’s easy to clean. I’d place this material above plastic but clearly below metal.

OnePlus has a clever casing strategy. There are other novel materials in the pipeline, like bamboo, denim and carbon fibre. It’s a creative way to improve the feel of the phone without resorting to costly aluminum. Samsung, take notes!

I came from an iPhone 5S, so the phone felt huge at first. My fingers felt tired holding the phone and I had trouble using my thumb to tap apps and buttons on the other side of the screen. For many of you, this phone will feel too big.

After weeks of use, the size of the phone feels fine — I don’t give it a second thought any more — and it’s the iPhone 5S that seems comically small. So it is something you get used to, and there are a couple of tricks to manage the size better. More on that later. In exchange, you get a gorgeous 5.5 inch display that’s great for reading and playing games. It’s worth the trade-off.

The performance of the phone is fine. It has an 801 Snapdragon with 3GB of RAM — equal to or better than other flagship phones. It performs well, but the phone still doesn’t scroll as smoothly as my iPhone 5S, though thankfully it isn’t as laggy as the Samsung Galaxy S5 either. This isn’t a hardware issue as 3D games run beautifully on the OnePlus One.

The phone does get hot though playing 3D games. It got so hot one time, I worried it might actually affect the hardware.

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Battery life is fantastic. By the end of my work day, my One usually has 20 per cent more battery life than my iPhone 5S. The OnePlus One easily has all day battery life.

Speakers are great. There are two of them and the combination is nice and loud.

The only major disappointment with the phone is the camera. It’s a good camera on paper — 13 megapixels with f/2.0 lens from Sony — but it’s noticeably worse than my iPhone 5S. Low light performance is awful. Yet, according to multiple reviews, the OnePlus One camera is better than that of a Nexus 5. So we can probably peg it as “good, but not great.”

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My photos are uninteresting, so here’s one with the phone from Engadget

The phone has a version of CyanogenMod built specifically for the OnePlus One, so it should be faster and more stable than if you installed it on another phone. Out of the box, my software experience was just ho-hum; but after fooling around with its many customisation options, I’m in love. See here for a detailed breakdown on those customizations. Briefly, here’s what I like:

  • Turning on the phone with double tap and closing with a swipe-from-home gesture; I don’t ever have to use the power button and this makes the phone’s large size manageable
  • Unlocking the phone with face recognition, which works well on the One
  • Profiles. So when I’m connected to my home or work WiFi, the phone is smart enough to not require unlocking
  • Onscreen vs. capacitive buttons
  • Highly customisable themes
  • Customisable notifications and quick setting panels, including the ability to get either one depending on where you swipe down

I’m aware that most of the above can be achieved with myriad apps, but it’s nice to have it all out of the box and native to the device.

oneplusfluxMy home screen using the Flux theme

My only concern with CyanogenMod is that it’s not clear how quickly it’ll get new Android versions. The company says it’ll take three months to update to Android L, and for now, all we can do is take the company at its word.

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A minor annoyance is that Android still doesn’t have native support for volume controls on headphones. Speaking of headphones, I was surprised the OnePlus One didn’t come with a pair. It’s fine in that most of us already have headphones, but it’s a cost cutting measure that feels just that — cost cutting.

And that brings us to the price. This phone would be a contender even if it was US$600, but it starts at US$300 for the 16GB version and US$350 for the 64GB version. That is amazing value. If you can get your hands on an invite, it’s worth the purchase.

oneplusWhat a super-rare invite looks like

That’s probably the worst thing about this phone. Before I got my invite, I wondered whether it was all an elaborate scam where only a few phones get made — enough to sell to bloggers and journalists to create the perception that it’s real. A marketing campaign to attract attention to the brand and its sister company Oppo. At least one friend researched and purchased the Oppo Find 7 after giving up on waiting for the OnePlus One.

I wonder too whether I would’ve gotten an invite if I didn’t have the best tech blog in the universe.

Now that I have this phone in my hands, it does feel very real. This is the best phone you can buy for US$350, bar none. Get it if you can, and then bask in the envy of your tech-snobby friends.

The author, Jeffrey Yuwono, blogs at the The Cornerplay, a weekly column about the tech and startup scene.

The views expressed here are of the author, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them

e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested to share your point of view, please send us an email to writers[at]e27[dot]co

Jeffrey Yuwono

3-time tech entrepreneur, slaving away at http://feecha.com. Stanford MBA, Duke grad. Blogs once a day about tech, start-ups & gadgets at http://cornerplay.com.

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