OnePlus One review: This ultra-affordable flagship puts you in control

I've been skeptical of the OnePlus One since I heard the first rumor. This new brand isn't exactly a household name, and it seems like a phone that's mostly catered to Android enthusiasts. OnePlus made some lofty promises that its new device will a "flagship killer," putting top-tier phones like the Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8), and LG G3 to shame.

The idea behind the OnePlus One is slightly utopian. Here’s a phone that’s free of carrier restrictions and powered by the latest hardware; it offers a wealth of customization options and it's also extremely affordable, starting at $300 off contract for the 16GB model, while most phones with similar hardware charge twice as much! Is this smartphone really worth all the buzz surrounding it, and will it get consumers to overlook companies like Samsung, HTC, and LG in favor of a new unknown? That’s what I'm trying to figure out.

A smartphone with a bit of flair

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Oh hey. Another smartphone.

From afar, the OnePlus One looks like almost any other Android phone: flat and thin with rounded edges, and a power button and volume rocker on either side. It's also outfitted with a velvety backing—a nice change from all the flimsy plastic and masculine-looking aluminum finishes that have become standard with this generation of devices, but I wouldn’t yet guarantee that the soft finish will withstand living inside your bag (though it's worth noting it did fine in mine).

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Girl look at that body. 

While I like the design of the phone, I find it to be entirely too big. Wielding it was a challenge, especially when I attempted to maneuver between holding the phone to read something and moving my fingers back under the phone with my thumb forward to begin typing something out. I was constantly afraid of dropping it, especially on transit, and eventually resigned to gripping it tightly with both hands when it was out of my bag.

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The OnePlus One is still too big for some hands. 

The One’s 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD display has a pixel density of 401 pixels-per-inch (PPI). That's lower than both the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One, which boast 432 PPI and 441 PPI, respectively (because their 1080p displays are a little smaller), but this incremental amount of pixel density isn’t something that’s usually noticeable to the human eye, and the OnePlus One is still perfectly equipped for watching video on the go.

Since it utilizes an LCD display, there will be an obvious difference in color gamut when you hold it up against devices like the Galaxy S5, but that’s because Samsung employs more saturated Super AMOLED displays. If you'd rather have that, the One offers a nifty feature where you can adjust the display to your liking.

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You can choose whether you want to display standard or vivid colors, or customize it otherwise. 

The biggest annoyance of the One's design is the unfortunate-sized bezel around the display, which seems to make for more chassis than necessary. As a result, it's slightly bigger than most of the other flagships out there. Yes, it has a 5.5-inch display, but so does the LG G3, which isn't quite as large.

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The HTC One (M8), the OnePlus One, and the Samsung Galaxy S5, all side-by-side. Of the three, the Galaxy S5 is the smallest. 

Fast-acting and long-lasting

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The One as seen held up to an ear.

The OnePlus One is powered by a 2.4GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM, so you can guarantee that it'll remain future proof for some time. I played Disco Zoo on it while downloading an app and listening to NPR simultaneously, and still the interface was speedy and fluid. I never had an issue with stuttering applications crashing on me, and that’s just what I like to see in flagship devices.

The One’s battery life could have fared better, though. Its 3100 mAh battery pack managed around 10 hours and 12 minutes of video playback time on Airplane Mode. That’s not bad at all, but I expected better performance from a battery pack that’s bigger than the Galaxy S5—its comparatively smaller, 2800 mAh battery pack managed a whopping 10 hours and 45 minutes. Call that the side effect of a larger display. As an aside, there are several power-saving options you can turn on in the settings to get a little more life out of that battery pack.

The One also has a capable set of speakers. They're located only on the bottom side of the phone, but they're comparable to the HTC One (M8)’s dual speakers, which are still my favorite pair of phone speakers to jam to. The volume on the OnePlus One can get pretty high, which is helpful if you like to listen to the news while you’re getting ready for work. As for headphone output, you can use the bundled AudioFX app to adjust the phone’s equalizer to your liking. This phone really is all about choice.

Filters and features don't a camera make

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The OnePlus One sports a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera sensor. 

Before its arrival, there was plenty of buzz surrounding the OnePlus One’s camera capabilities. Its 13-megapixel rear-facing camera features a Sony Exmor IMX 214 sensor and f/2.0 aperture lens for low-light shots, while its 5-megapixel front-facing camera is perfect for selfies.

I enjoyed the outside shots I took with the One; they were crisp and clear, with near accurate lighting and coloring. Auto mode adjusted to most shooting situations, whether I was in the office or walking around downtown, and I never experienced any shutter lag of any sort.

There are also a bevy of live photo filters that you can test out, but I wish OnePlus would have used a bit more discretion before bundling in filters like Emboss and Sketch. Those are the bottom of the barrel of photo filters in the Photoshop realm and I’m not sure I’ve seen it used anywhere since the 90's. Get with the program, guys: it's all about vintage filters nowadays.

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A tour outside with the OnePlus One.

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A close up of the OnePlus One's picture quality.

The One’s low-light performance was not as stellar as advertised. Compared to the Galaxy S5 and HTC One, it’s low-light performance was…well, blacked out. Consider using the flash in low-light situations.

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On top is the OnePlus One's low-light photo, and following it is the Galaxy S5's and HTC One's. 

It’s all about choice

The OnePlus One runs a custom version of Android by Cyanogen, dubbed CyanogenMod build 11S. Its custom firmware is built on top of Android 4.4.2, and while many of its interface elements look and feel like Google’s Android, it’s essentially its own operating system.

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The OnePlus One with a custom theme.

Cyanogen has always made it a point that it wants to put the power of choice back into the user’s hand, which is why the OnePlus One has so many customizable features. You can tweak the interface, fidget around with the settings, change the way the status bar and Quick Settings appear, and even choose whether or not you want hardware or software navigation buttons. The phone originally shipped with an always-on, voice-activated wake up feature, but according to users in the official forums, it went back to the Cyanogen labs for polishing.

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The One even lets you choose what you want displayed in the Status Bar or Notifications panel.

Personalize it to your heart’s content

The best feature of OnePlus One is the ability to customize the phone’s interface to your liking. If you don’t like the font or the icons, you can change it; if you’d rather there be fewer icons at the top in the Status bar, you can whittle them down to only the most essential; and if you’d rather skin CyanogenMod to look like Samsung’s Touchwiz, you can easily do that, too.

Theming doesn’t require rooting or going out in search of the most feature-equipped application, nor do you have to dig deep into the Settings to find what you’re looking for. I would, however, suggest that you go in search of Cyanogen-compatible themes in the Google Play store, as I wasn’t impressed with the ones immediately offered in Cyanogen’s Themes Showcase (I'm picky, though, what can I say?).

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Pick a theme—any theme!

As you download themes to your liking, you can also mix and match them. It’s ridiculously simple and this is surely something that even the most technophobic smartphone user will get a kick out of, especially since it doesn’t require any sort of hacking to do. If only Google’s Android made customization this user friendly.

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You can mix and match themes on the OnePlus One right from within the Settings panel. 

For those who want something a little different

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An affordable, attractive device. 

As with Google’s Nexus devices, you’re buying an unlocked device, so you can take it anywhere that supports its seven LTE bands, as well as penta-band HSPA+ and quad-band GSM/EDGE. In the US, it's only compatible on AT&T and T-Mobile's networks, but it's a good choice for those who travel frequently. And since Cyanogen and OnePlus have the Google seal of approval (and suite of standard Google apps), you’ll still have access to everything in the Play Store—something that many other Android forks don’t have.

I still don’t think that the One has the power to “disrupt” the Android world, however, but not because it’s not a great phone. In fact, if you’re looking for an “un-flagship” that’s free of carrier restrictions, is equipped with a beautiful display, offers up a multitude of customization options, and is powered by software that's supported by one very dedicated team of developers, it’s certainly worth considering over any other unlocked Android device. But OnePlus's weird marketing tactics and messy rollout make me question how successful it will be in the long run. Just don't let that deter you from trying out this phone.

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