OnePlus One – The Best Android Phone You’ve Never Heard Of

OnePlus One - Android flagship killer

OnePlus calls its OnePlus One phone the “flagship killer.” It’s true. The OnePlus One is one of the best phones on the market, able to hold its own against the iPhone 6 and offering more than any of the other leading Android phones. It’s taken the tech community by storm with cutting edge specs for half the cost of other flagship phones.

You haven’t heard of it because it’s not sold through AT&T or the other carriers. It’s purchased “unlocked” directly from OnePlus, which means you pay its full price, then you bring it to a carrier to have it activated on that carrier’s system. Most of the carriers (with the exception of Verizon) are rebuilding their service plans around unlocked phones, with more options for prepaid service and monthly service without a two-year contract.

One important thing: The OnePlus One phone cannot be used on Verizon. Most people in Sonoma County should stay on Verizon because Verizon’s coverage is far superior to AT&T in most parts of the county. If you’re a Verizon customer, you’re limited to the phones that Verizon sells. Buy an iPhone 6 or a Samsung Galaxy S5 or HTC One. Verizon hates unlocked phones, and the OnePlus One does not work on Verizon’s network – it’s GSM only, with no CDMA support.

Price

Let’s make sure you understand phone prices. When you buy a phone through a carrier and pay a “discount” price for it on a two-year contract, you’re still paying full price for the phone. An iPhone costs $700, no matter how you pay for it. When you pay $199 to Verizon or AT&T for an iPhone, you’re making monthly payments for the balance as part of your bill. The sneaky part is that if you keep the phone for longer than two years, the carriers don’t reduce your bill after the phone is paid off. You just give them extra unearned money every month.

When T-Mobile launched cheap plans without two-year contracts, it put pressure on the industry to change that practice, and AT&T and Sprint are now becoming more open to unlocked phones. If you bring an unlocked phone – a phone that you purchased separately, not tied to a particular carrier – you can activate the phone with a prepaid or monthly plan that does not lock you down to a two-year contract. There are many potholes and details to trip you up! Phones may not be as “unlocked” as they seem, and the carriers’ plans are getting more labyrinthine, harder to unravel and compare. It’s possible to reach the goal – spend less on a phone and on phone/data service – but it’s not easy. Here’s a primer on unlocked phones.

With that in mind, you can appreciate the first feature of the OnePlus One: The unlocked OnePlus One is $299 (16Gb) or $349 (64Gb). That’s roughly half the cost of an iPhone or any other flagship Android phone. Mine is activated on AT&T with a $65/month plan with unlimited phone and messaging, plus 3Gb of data. There are cheaper plans from other carriers and from less well-known providers like Straight Talk.

Buying A OnePlus One

Funny story! You can’t buy one, at least not without effort.

OnePlus is a Chinese company that might or might not be controlled by the giant Chinese manufacturer Oppo Electronics. Its finances are a mystery. From the outside, it appears the company does not have enough money to produce millions of phones right away, so it has a different business model: it sells its phones on a low profit margin and makes just enough money from one batch of phones to manufacture the next batch.

Buying one requires an invite from someone who has already bought one. I don’t have any invites but I might get some at any time. Drop me a note if you want to buy one and I’ll keep you in mind.

Occasionally the company takes orders from the website. I bought mine during a pre-order window that lasted one hour in November. There was another window on Black Friday for a few hours. No one knows whether the phone will be easier to come by in 2015.

Customer service? Repairs? Pshaw. If those things matter to you, buy something from Verizon or AT&T so you’ll have someone nearby to complain to later.

If you want to buy a OnePlus One, start Googling and keep an eye out on Twitter for invites and notices of order windows. Here are the guidelines from OnePlus about how to buy the phone.

Size & specs

The OnePlus One has a 5 1/2 inch screen – in between the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+, bigger than the Galaxy S5. It’s a large device, perhaps too big for smaller hands.

There are hundreds of tech sites that list all the specs in detail and compare them to specs of other phones and obsess about minute differences in benchmarks. Let me cut through all of that for normal people: The OnePlus One is at or near the top of the pack in all respects – screen quality, processor speed, battery life – with no compromises. It’s a true flagship phone that includes the best phone technology available at the end of 2014.

Two specific things.

The case is one of the best parts. The back and sides have a texture that makes it easy to grip the phone securely. It doesn’t feel like plastic, it’s not metal – whatever it is, it feels great in the hand. The phone is thin and light but does not have the slipperiness of the iPhone. It’s the most comfortable phone I’ve ever held.

The camera is fine but not breathtaking. It’s got a 13 megapixel rear camera (5 megapixel front) and it takes great pictures in outdoor light, like the best cameras on other flagship phones. But it doesn’t rise above them, and it’s outclassed by the iPhone 6 and the best Lumia phones. It’s odd – at the moment there is no Android phone with a knockout camera.

Android

Let’s start with the important part: the OnePlus One ships with a version of Android that is elegant and pure. There’s no overlay skin like those adopted by Samsung and HTC that more often spoil the Android experience instead of enhancing it. And there are no extra apps forced on by the manufacturer or the carriers, which has become a problem just like crapware on PCs. Google has occasionally released Nexus devices that feature the “pure” Android experience, just as Microsoft ships “Signature Edition” computers with Windows and no additional crapware. The version of Android on the OnePlus One is like that.

But it’s not quite the Android that you see on all the other phones. Android isn’t quite what you think it is. You’ve heard that Android is “free,” but there’s a more complicated story.

Android starts out as open source code developed by Google but released for use by any company for free, big or small. Some companies customize the open source version of Android (known as “AOSP” – “Android Open Source Project”) and release something that barely resembles the original. Best known example: Amazon has a heavily customized version of Android running on the Kindle Fire tablets.

Other than Amazon devices, you’ve never seen a device running that free open source version of Android.

You see, if you get an Android phone or tablet, you expect it to have the Google apps on it – Google Search, Google Maps, Google Search – and you expect to be able to add apps from the Google Play store. Manufacturers have to pay license fees and meet extensive licensing and compatibility requirements to use a Google-certified version of Android. It might as well be a requirement – no company could sell an “Android” phone that couldn’t do a Google search or run Google Maps.

The OnePlus One runs Cyanogen, a modification of Android in a special world of its own. On its face, it looks like the pure Android experience offered by Google on Nexus devices. Under the hood, it is a separate open source project with enhanced features and far more customizability, created without paying the license fees to Google. Cyanogen is the preferred choice for people who root their phone – the equivalent of wiping a computer hard drive and installing a different operating system.

So OnePlus is distributing a phone that runs Cyanogen – and it got the phone certified by Google so it could ship the phone with the Google Play store and Google apps. No other phone available in the US has that distinction. The result is an Android phone with access to every Google and Android app, along with the enhancements in Cyanogen that allow deep tweaking of every aspect of the phone.

The OnePlus One is running Android 4.4.4. OnePlus promises that Android 5 will be available as an upgrade soon, perhaps in the next couple of months.

It adds up to a package that deserves the title “flagship killer.” You can see why the New York Times reviewer called it “one of the best smartphones I’ve ever used,” and the Wall Street Journal said, “The OnePlus One beats the iPhone 6 and Galaxy S5 in many ways.” If you’re looking for a unique Android experience at a budget price – and you’re not wedded to Verizon – start looking for a way to buy a OnePlus One.