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Testing: OnePlus One Android Smartphone

By Norman Chan

Should a phone be recommended if very few people can buy it?

We just posted our OnePlus One phone review, and I wanted to distill some of those thoughts in a post for anyone searching on Google or looking to find more information about the phone. As I said in the video, this is one of the best Android phones I've ever used. It's faster than the HTC One M8 and costs less off-contract than even Google's Nexus 5. And as of today, I'm still using it as my primary phone, as the benefits of its awesome battery life outweighs the disadvantages of its massive size.

Aside from its price, here are some of my positive take-aways from testing the OnePlus One.

1080p is lovely for a 5.5-inch screen. I've seen the LG G3 in person, and couldn't tell the difference between icons, text, and photos on that high-density screen and the images on my 5-inch 1080p Nexus 5. Only 1400p video was noticeably better. The OnePlus One also has a 5.5-inch screen, but 1080p suits it just fine. In a blind test (covering up the bezels), text and photos on OnePlus looked indistinguishable from those on the Nexus 5, reinforcing my opinion 1080p is an optimal resolution for smartphones.

The camera is top-notch. One of the reason's I'm sticking with the OnePlus over the Nexus 5. It has a smartphone camera that I actually want to use on a regular basis. I haven't felt that way about a smartphone camera since switching over to Android from the iPhone 5. The 13MP Sony camera takes great HDR photos in good light conditions. Low light photos tax the shutter, and photos can get blown out if shooting toward the light source. I'm just a little bummed by the heavy JPEG compression, and am looking forward to Android L's RAW support. Also, shooting 4K video actually makes sense on this phone because I can pipe it directly to YouTube, which supports 4K video playback. (These still aren't clips I'm going to sync back to my desktop to edit.)

Battery life is unbelievably great. The big win for OnePlus. The OnePlus One is the first phone I've used that I haven't been able to fully drain in a day without forcing it. Outside of a video playback test where I was streaming a high-def video over a cellular connection, the OnePlus has never gone below 25% battery in any day I've used it. I'm a pretty heavily phone user, and use several milestones throughout the day to gauge battery depletion--when I get to the office, noon, early afternoon, and leaving work. With my use, the battery on other phones typically dip below 70% by noon, but it takes until 3pm or so to get to that point on the OnePlus. It's been consistently above 35% by the time I reach home at around 7:30pm.

Built-in Cyanogen is very polished. This surprised me. I was a little skeptical of a phone with Cyanogen built-in, since the experience can be inconsistent depending on what phone you have. But the devs at CyanogenMod have put a really polished Android experience on the OnePlus that gives it just the right amount of unique identity without going too far away from stock Android. The custom camera app, lock screen gestures and shortcuts, and notification bar features are functional improvements to Android KitKat, while the themes add a layer of easy customization that I really enjoy. It's also been rock solid stable, with timely incremental updates like the most recent OTA bug fix to 4.4.4 that addresses gyroscope wonkiness.

Other things I love: the distinct soft matte texture on the back is grippy, speakers are loud for music playback, the sleep button is positioned at a comfortable height, and the dedicated Android buttons give me a little more screen real estate for apps.

So if you were to ask me if the OnePlus One is a phone you should buy, I would say that you have two things to consider.

First is whether or not you want to use a large 5.5-inch phone. This is the first smartphone I've used that can't fully fit into my back jeans pocket. It's tough to manipulate with just one hand. It's significantly heavier than the Nexus 5 (which I loved for its lightness). The 5.5-inch screen in of itself doesn't offer a whole lot of everyday benefit over a 5-inch or even a 4.7-inch screen. Videos are more comfortable to watch, but that's basically it. You're choosing to use a large phone for its large battery, not its large screen.

Second is more of an uncertainty, but you have to consider whether or not you'd be comfortable relying on Cyanogen to update the OnePlus in a timely fashion. Nexus devices are going to get Android L first, and partner OEMs like Samsung and HTC will get code in advance to develop their own forks. From what I understand, the Cyanogen team gets the latest runtime code when the platform launches, so it's still equated with other custom firmware developers. Historically, Cyanogen has been several months behind the official Android release--Cyanogen's stable Jelly Bean 4.3 port was released six months after Google pushed it live, and the KitKat port had a two month delay.

Of course, none of this matters if you can't buy the OnePlus One, and that's how things currently are for the vast majority of interested users. OnePlus has been doling out invites as a glacial pace, and people who have ordered theirs have complained about numerous shipping delays. For what it's worth, the invite they gave me wasn't a special one and my unit arrived just a week after I paid for it. You'd do well to check the OnePlus forums to see how the latest batch of buyers are faring.

I really like the OnePlus One, but this is so far a unicorn of a phone. If given the opportunity to purchase it, is the OnePlus worth buying? Absolutely--and spend the extra $50 to pick up the 64GB model. But is it worth waiting several months for if OnePlus can't sort out its distribution plan and shipping schedule? No way. If you need a phone now, get the HTC One M8 on contract or the Nexus 5 (red model, of course) from Google.