In summer of last year, an unknown start-up based in Shenzhen, China saw a truly meteoric rise to the forefront of the consciousness of the tech world, when it released the OnePlus One smartphone. Self-styled as a “flagship killer,” it was hailed as much in rave reviews by everyone from The Verge to The New York Times, which called the phone a “unicorn” for its combination of low price and high-end specs.
In the smartphone arena, it was a David against the Goliaths of Apple, Samsung, HTC and the like. Despite this almost-universal praise and high demand, the only way to get your hands on the OnePlus One for much of the year was via an invite, which understandably made the phone extremely covetable. A woough act to follow under any circumstance, but the already much-hyped OnePlus Two, released a year and a half later, manages to surpass its progenitor in every possible way while keeping the same attractive price — however, this is not to say that there are some aspects that are sorely lacking from what’s expected of a next-gen smartphone.
The second smartphone from the cult company promises to shake up the status quo – again.
Comparing the OnePlus Two (top) to the OnePlus One (bottom).
At first glance, the OnePlus Two is quite clearly the successor to the OnePlus One, being identical in size at 5.5 inches and featuring the same sandpaper-like back. Upon lifting it out of its box, it is immediately evident the second-to-none build quality of the phone — the weight is reassuringly firm in one’s hand (175 grams to be exact), the sandpaper back miraculously feels more like stone than thin plastic, and the metal rim and Gorilla Glass touchscreen are premium touches taken from smartphones twice the price. The power button and volume rocker sit on the right side about two-thirds of the way up, while a three-step alert slider sits on the left side. The buttons provided a satisfying click upon pressing, although the power button suddenly lost this ability during testing, making for an exceedingly irritating experience in forcibly squeezing the button to turn it off. Meanwhile, a slightly recessed fingerprint-scanning home button provides a much-appreciated nook for your thumb, flanked by customizable capacitative buttons on either side. Twin speakers round out the ensemble at the bottom of the phone.
The size of the phone is not one of the OnePlus Two′s highlights. Coming in at somewhere between the size of an iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the OnePlus Two requires some nerve-wracking hand acrobatics to reach the home button or the far corners of the screen. However, the rough texture of the back prevents any unintentional slippage, making the prospect of dropping the phone to the floor less likely than when holding the smooth iPhone 6 Plus.
For those who want a little more visual pizazz, OnePlus is offering a choice of four other back covers for $27 USD each, including real bamboo, rosewood, stained black Moroccan apricot, and Kevlar. This makes for the most streamlined way to customize your phone without adding a bulky case, and unlike the Moto X Style, the look of the OnePlus Two can still be changed after leaving the factory.
Measuring in at 5.5 inches, the OnePlus Two features a 1080p full HD screen with a pixel density of 401pp. At this pixel resolution, individual pixels are not discernible to the naked eye. Text and images are generally crisp and a pleasure to view, with the screen capable of deep blacks, rich colors and high contrast. While it does not match the visual eye candy of the QHD screens found on competitors’ current flagship models, the OnePlus Two′s screen is one of, if not the best performing screen available at its price point.
While the OnePlus One’s camera was hardly up to par for its washed-out colors, OnePlus has made a huge leap for its second smartphone’s picture-taking capabilities. The OnePlus Two′s 13 MP rear camera can boast of a maximum aperture of f/2.0, laser autofocus, and optical image stabilization. The sensor contains 1.3 micron-wide pixels, which OnePlus claims are some of the largest available in the current crop of smartphones, thus allowing the OnePlus Two to capture more light and leading to better low-light performance. Complemented by a dual LED flash, the rear camera has panorama and time lapse options built in, and is able to capture 4K Ultra HD video and slow motion video at 120 fps. A recent software update also added a manual mode, allowing the user to control ISO, white balance, shutter speed, as well as the very nifty feature of manual focus, all via an intuitive dial-based interface. Users of the more narcissistic streak will appreciate the 5 MP front-facing camera that comes with a Beauty Mode, which smoothes blemishes and lightens your skin tone.
In good light, the camera performs well, focusing and shooting images without lag that pop with color and contrast. However, in dark environments, the camera sometimes struggled to focus on the correct subject despite multiple taps, and produced images that were lacking in details, although it did well capturing details in both highlights and shadows.
With a 3,300 mAh lithium-ion battery, the OnePlus Two packs a lot of juice, but then again, its large screen demands a larger battery given its higher energy consumption. In practice, the OnePlus Two could survive a full day under heavy use. However, there were some glaring faults with the charging methods — given that the battery is non-removable, it is essential to have quick charging, but the phone’s lack of this capability currently ups its recharge time to three hours, meaning that the only time it can be recharged without interruption is overnight. Furthermore, while the OnePlus Two′s reversible USB Type C is destined to be the future standard of wired interfacing, the technology is currently in the early stages of adoption and as such, you cannot depend any more on the multiple microUSB cords you might have lying around, or on other people to lend you one. Add to this the phone’s lack of wireless charging, and it becomes inevitable that you buy additional $5 USD Type C cords from OnePlus to keep your phone from an untimely death.
The general rule of thumb with Android phones is that the closer to the stock version of Android you are, the better — after all, manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC have an unhealthy tendency to add their own skins and bloatware, creating a user experience that is both sluggish and unsightly. The OnePlus Two makes do with a slightly modified version of Android 5.1 Lollipop called Oxygen OS, but largely keeps to the original flavor of Android that Google intended. Additions include the ability to access the camera, flashlight, and music controls by drawing shapes on the screen while the phone is asleep; control over permissions for individual apps; switching the function of the bottom capacitative keys, rearranging the icons in the notification drawer; and most notably a Shelf screen that replaces Google Now with a page that displays your most frequently used apps and contacts.
The OnePlus Two’s performance was snappy, with the Snapdragon 810 processor and 4GB of RAM handling the loading and running of web pages and games without a hitch. However, once in a while we noticed some lag between tapping on an app icon and the phone responding to the tap, but this is a minor, if noticeable annoyance. The fingerprint sensor could also be quicker, with OnePlus has promised it will improve in later software updates. Power users will appreciate the dual SIM card functionality and the physical alert slider, which allows switching between silent mode, priority notifications, or all notifications without even turning on the screen, although we did not find ourselves using this feature much. On the other hand, audiophiles love the ability to tweak exactly how their music sounds on the OnePlus Two, as the company partnered with MaxxAudio for an audio tuning feature built into the volume panel where different presets for music, games and movies can be chosen, as well as different genres of music.
One noticeable absence from the OnePlus Two is NFC technology which, while still a power user feature, is sure to blow up after this month when Android Pay goes live. Given that NFC sensors are standard fare in today’s smartphones, it is slightly puzzling as to why OnePlus has opted to forgo the feature in this year’s model.
Everything considered, the OnePlus Two is undoubtedly a solid phone in all the important areas, which is saying a lot given the its extremely competitive price. A premium build, attractive design, dependable camera and responsive chipset all in a package starting from $329 USD for the 16 GB version would have been unbelievable only a few years ago. While the absence of certain features is hard to ignore, especially concerning the battery, the OnePlus Two undoubtedly puts more momentum in the drive for premium smartphones at low-to-mid-range prices. One caveat though: the OnePlus Two won’t be found on the shelves of your neighborhood phone store as, much like its predecessor, it can only be bought with an invite, with over a million people on the waitlist. And it’s little surprise that the company cannot keep up with the high demand. Despite co-founder Carl Pei promising “30 to 50 times more stock available for launch,” the OnePlus Two only started shipping in large quantities to U.S. customers in early September, one month later than the initial shipping date — prompting Pei to issue an apology to its consumers, employees and partners. Our verdict: good things are worth waiting a little longer for.