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Featured Review: OnePlus 2 – The 2016 Flagship Killer?

August 18, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

OnePlus is well known for their controversial marketing, and their flagship phones are at the center of it all.  Last year the OnePlus One changed paradigms with its #NeverSettle campaign where they packed high-end specs into a phone that’s half the price of the big names out there, and that device was arguably one of the finest of year year despite some significant problems early on in its production cycle.  This year OnePlus has upped the ante with its marketing, so unlike last year where OnePlus was satisfied with saying that its 2014 phone would be the 2014 flagship killer, this year they’re going full force stating that the OnePlus 2 is the 2016 flagship killer.  Mighty big words for a sophomore device, but do they hold up in practice?  Let’s take a look!

Specs

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This year the OnePlus 2 is a little more expensive than last year’s OnePlus One when it debuted, dropping at $389 for 64GB of internal storage and 4GB of RAM.  In a few weeks or months a second less expensive version of the phone is slated to launch for $329, coming packed with 16GB of internal storage and 3GB of RAM.  Having two different models isn’t anything different for OnePlus, who debuted a Chinese and an International version with the One, but the 2 only differs in the amount of internal storage and RAM.  Let’s take a look at what’s inside the devices:

  • 5.5-inch 1080p JDI IPS Display
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, 1.6GHz Octa-core CPU MSM8994 (listed as 1.8GHz)
  • Adreno 430, 630MHz GPU
  • Choice of one of the following:
    • 4GB of RAM, 64GB internal storage, no microSD card support
    • 3GB of RAM, 16GB internal storage, no microSD card support
  • 3,300mAh Li-Po battery
  • Android 5.1 OxygenOS 2.0
  • 13MP rear-facing camera, LED flash
    • Omnivision OV13860, 1.3-micron size pixels, 1/2.6″
  • 5MP front-facing camera
  • 151.8mm tall x 74.9mm wide x 9.9mm thick
  • 175g
  • Dual-SIM card support (nano SIM)
  • TouchID Fingerprint Scanner
  • USB Type-C Port

In the Box

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Unlike last year’s OnePlus One this isn’t a fancy box, rather the OnePlus 2 comes in a bright red box of similar size and shape to most phone boxes on the market.  Inside you’ll find the phone, a pack of manuals, a wall charger and a brand new USB Type-C cable.  Owners of the OnePlus 2 will need to remember to either carry this cable around with them or purchase additional USB Type-C chargers, as a microUSB cable will not work with this phone.  In addition to having the new USB Type-C port on one end, the other regular-sized USB end of the cable also features a reversible design; a moment of sheer brilliance from a team that’s been pretty consistent about great design.  Also worth noting is that a screen protector is included and already adhered to the screen of the phone, adding in a layer of extra protection without having to do anything or adversely affecting the feeling of the screen.

Display

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OnePlus swore by JDI’s IPS LCD displays last year, and this year they haven’t changed their tune at all.  JDI’s IPS displays are known for their color accuracy and overall quality image, although being an LCD inherently means that black levels aren’t the best when compared to something like an AMOLED display.  That being said black levels were actually pretty incredible for any sort of LCD, providing nice deep blacks and great contrast with lighter areas.  Viewing angles destroy the black levels without a doubt but only from certain angles, and at the it’s not enough to ruin the image quality when showing someone a YouTube clip or something like that.  Predictably the colors are fantastic and refresh rate is about as good as it gets.

This 1080p panel is lower resolution than some other flagships with 5.5-inch displays, and because of that there will likely be some turned off by the prospect of buying a flagship phone in 2015 without a Quad-HD resolution screen.  In all honesty though I have to agree with the many QHD naysayers out there that say the resolution is simply too taxing without any good payoff, as this panel looks phenomenal and I never once felt myself wanting more.  Those wishing this could be a mobile VR machine might think otherwise though, as the difference between 1080p and QHD is pretty substantial when looking at pixel structure up close.

Last year OnePlus had some substantial problems with the digitizer used in the OnePlus One, a problem they weren’t likely to reproduce in this year’s device.  That is indeed the case here and this is just as good as any other top-notch digitizer I can think of, registering up to 8 touch points without spazzing out like last year’s device did.  Because of the significant issues seen in last year’s device before the fix we always test the digitizer of each phone we review and note when digitizers aren’t exactly up to snuff, as this causes many problems when typing fast and using multi-touch apps.

Hardware and Build

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The $40 price difference at launch between the OnePlus One and OnePlus 2 is mainly being cited due to the increased build quality of OnePlus’ sophomore phone.  In that regard it’s certainly possible that the build quality and design of the device is easily the best part of the upgrade from the One to the 2.  Unlike the One the OnePlus 2 features a fully metal build that’s likely to please even the harshest of critics.  The device feels solid in the hand, has a very nice weight to it, and feels incredibly sturdy in general.  Even sitting in my pocket I could notice the difference between the two devices without even trying, this is one seriously well-built phone.  It’s funny to think but even something as miniscule as the vibration motors feel higher quality and have a distinct solid feel to them, giving off a more subtle yet crisp feedback through the metal frame.

The metal frame extends to the trim that wraps around all edges of the phone, as well as the strip found on the back of the device.  It’s this metal trim that seems to be the secret in dissipating the heat caused by the Snapdragon 810 processor, a move that feels nothing short of brilliant when considering the ramifications the 810 has had throughout the industry.  Around the edges you’ll find the volume rocker and power button on the right side, followed by a unique priority mode slider on the left side.  We’ll cover this slider in more detail in the software section.  Up top is a 3.5mm headset jack and a noise-cancelling microphone, while the bottom houses the new USB Type-C port flanked by stereo speakers drilled into the frame via some very familiar looking holes.

Unlike the One, the OnePlus 2 features a fully removable back which comes off easily via a set of clips situated around the edge of the plate.  Pulling off the plate takes only a little bit of effort, giving the feeling that this won’t be coming off accidentally but isn’t anywhere as near as difficult to remove as the OnePlus One’s back.  OnePlus ships with the Sandstone Black back but 4 additional backs can be purchased: Kevlar, Black Apricot, Bamboo and Rosewood.  These are all real materials rather than just painted plastic, so they should be built to last.  We’ll have to see if the Sandstone back stands up to the test of time though, as the original One’s back rubbed off after a few months’ usage.

The back of the phone has a pretty unique looking placement for the camera lens, one that initially doesn’t look all that great.  As soon as I started to use the device, however, I quickly realized the reason for this placement.  When holding the device and taking pictures typically your fingers will rest on the corners of the back of the device, and if the camera placement is right up to the edge the lens will be covered by fingers.  Dropping the placement down about an inch as it is clears this area for your hands, and the advantage logically follows.  Above the lens is a dual-LED flash, while below it sits the laser auto focus unit for the camera.

On the front of the device sits the 5.5-inch screen surrounded by smaller bezels than its predecessor.  Capacitive keys are still here from the original phone but the home button has been enlarged and now has a rounded-square raised edge around it, resembling a physical button that clicks but rather is a capacitive home button that houses the new fingerprint scanner.  On either side of this home button sit two anonymous buttons that can represent practically anything, as they can be changed easily in the software.

Performance and Memory

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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 was the company’s first big 64-bit octa-core chipset when it debuted in Spring 2015, and a lot of hopes were riding on its performance in the market.  Once the bad news about the heat problems with the processor came in people started to worry though, and some phones that pack the processor have significant performance and overheating issues after prolonged usage.  We’ve chronicled the problems with the processor for months now so it is likely not a surprise to hear about these issues, but it was a surprise to hear that OnePlus was using it in their first 2015 flagship device.  Thankfully OnePlus seems to have been able to successfully engineer a solution to these issues, and through a series of grueling tests we were able to confirm that the OnePlus 2 not only doesn’t get any hotter than any other phone on the market after prolonged use, but also that the performance of the device doesn’t falter like other Snapdragon 810-powered phones have been.

Running through our usual suite of benchmarks shows just how powerful this phone is, pulling 60k in AnTuTu and the best scores among any mobile device out there for every benchmark that was run.  For reference these scores were on average nearly double what the OnePlus One achieves.  The GPU/OS combination here even supports the latest in mobile graphical standards, OpenGL ES 3.1, ensuring games that support it will look and maybe even run better than their 3.0 counterparts.  Internal storage speeds were excellent and shouldn’t cause any obvious bottleneck, and the 4GB of RAM found on our review device proved plenty no matter what was being done on the phone.  Multi-tasking is a joy both thanks to the dedicated Overview button as well as plenty of RAM, and I never once saw even the most demanding of applications have to reload when switching back and forth between tasks.  Overall the phone absolutely flies through everything, with no noticeable stutters anywhere, no slowdown of any kind, and no sign of any sort of thermal throttling.  This is easily one of the fastest and most fluid phones I’ve ever used on any operating system or platform.

Battery Life

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Using a newer processor, the same resolution screen and a 300mAh larger battery than the OnePlus One (totalling to 3,300mAh) might make you think you’ll easily get better battery life from this phone than many on the market.  Unfortunately that was not the case in my time with the phone, and no matter how easy I went on it I couldn’t achieve the same results as I can with the OnePlus One.  Often times I found myself having to recharge the phone after a normal work day, with maybe 25% of the battery left by mid-afternoon on most days.

This was an incredible disappointment given the previous phone’s longevity, and possibly even more problematic since the battery isn’t removable.  Heavy users will definitely want to carry around one of those handy external batteries that charge the phone if they’re planning to make it til the absolute end of the day.  This is something that can be fixed with software, and hopefully will as OxygenOS matures.  In my time of using it the phone took about 2 hours to charge fully from completely dead to 100% battery, a time period that’s not super fast but isn’t exactly a long time either.

Phone Calls and Network

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Just as the OnePlus One supported almost every international band you can think of, so does the OnePlus 2.  I had no problem pulling great LTE connections on T-Mobile and AT&T, with fantastic reception no matter where I went.  Call quality was fantastic and clear, with a loud earpiece speaker that supports HD Voice through Hangouts calls and possibly your carrier of choice.  The speakerphone was nice and loud as well, easily audible in the car on the highway and both parties could easily hear eachother with no problems.  With the number of bands supported it feels almost impossible not to have coverage no matter where you live in the world, in fact the list of bands not supported is likely a shorter list than what you’ll find below.

2G: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G HSPA: 850/900/1700/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE: Bands 1 (2100MHz), 2 (1900MHz), 3 (18000MHz), 4 (1700/2100MHz), 5 (850MHz), 7 (2600MHz), 8 (900MHz), 12 (700MHz), 17 (700MHz), 20 (800MHz), 38 (2600MHz), 40 (2300MHz), 41 (2500MHz)

Software

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It was only a handful of months ago that OnePlus released their very first original build of Android called OxygenOS.  Much like CyanogenOS that powered the OnePlus One, OxygenOS is a non-skinned version of Android that carries loads of features with it.  It’s likely that the increase in price for the OnePlus 2 over the original phone’s pricing is also due to OnePlus now having to pay a team of software developers too, unlike last year where Cyanogen developed for them.  It’s this team of talented developers made up from the Android development community, famous for popular Android ROMs like Paranoid Android for instance, that give OnePlus a new level of flexibility and control over unique features for their phones.  OxygenOS 2.0 powers the OnePlus 2, a release that’s likely to come for the OnePlus One shortly, and has feature parity with much of the CyanogenOS that currently powers the One.  It’s especially important for OnePlus to carry these features over for power users and it’s pretty obvious that OnePlus is intending to continue to add features to its homebrew OS if the massive leap from OxygenOS 1.0 to 2.0 is anything to go by.  Check out of full software overview below to see what it’s all about.

Fingerprint Scanner

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The fingerprint scanner is one of the big selling points of the OnePlus 2 without a doubt, featured on the initial tease of specs from the company and continuing on into some of the marketing that’s being used for the phone.  OnePlus uses a unique capacitive solution that scans fingerprints via a simple touch, much as the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S6 do for instance, and can scan fingerprints saved at any angle.  This makes it convenient to pull the phone out of your pocket and quickly unlock the device by just placing your fingerprint on the button, which is situated in a place that you’re already likely to grab the phone from anyway.  The phone can be unlocked either with the screen on or off, giving you the option to see lockscreen notifications first or just jump right into the last open screen without delay.  The scanner itself was at least 90%  accurate in my usage of the phone, possibly higher, and I registered both my thumbs so that I can pull it out of any pocket and quickly unlock it.

There are a few shortfalls with the fingerprint reader though, one that should be easy to fix and one that never can be.  Firstly I found that sometimes the button doesn’t work at all, vibrating as if it were supposed to be registering a print but never actually doing anything.  Unlocking the phone via PIN and relocking it consistently reactivated the button, an obvious software glitch and may very well be fixed before it even reaches most consumers hand thanks to the invite system.  The second problem that won’t ever be fixed is the mobile payment situation, a hallmark of Android 6.0 Marshmallow that will unfortunately never reach OnePlus 2 owners.  OnePlus didn’t include NFC, or Near Field Communication on the OnePlus 2 for reasons seemingly unspecified.  Some have speculated that this was partly to keep heat down or maybe to even keep costs down, but there wasn’t a particularly compelling reason given by OnePlus as to why.

Sound

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When the OnePlus One debuted I was blown away by the sound offered through the Yamaha chip paired with the CyanogenOS equalizer.  After a few months OnePlus partnered with MaxxAudio, a company specializing in producing equalizers and audio codecs that enhance the sound output.  OnePlus has kept that same MaxxAudio partnership with the OnePlus 2 and has taken it a step further, adding in more features and a brand new, even more powerful and customizable equalizer.  Better yet there’s a super easy way to toggle between the included movie, music and game presets by simply pressing the volume rocker to bring up the volumes panel, followed by choosing the preset of choice.  Accessing the full EQ is done by clicking the EQ icon in the top right of the same volume panel and offers preset and customizable sounds for each category, so for instance if you want your music master setting to use the Hip Hop preset for extra bass you can keep your movie preset toned more for voices, and games for whatever else you’d like.  Audio output is just as good as the OnePlus one and remains one of the best sounding audio outputs I’ve ever heard on any device.

Back in the hardware section we talked about the new priority mode slider included on the left side of the phone for easy toggling.  This priority mode slider works hand-in-hand with Android Lollipop’s notification management and features three positions that toggle between all notifications, priority notifications only or alarms only.  As is the case with any Lollipop-powered phone users can select which sorts of notifications are important to hear, so things like calls or messages can be independently selected to be heard when in this mode.  Toggling vibration still works the same, i.e. press the volume rocker then either drag the volume down to vibrate or simply press the little bell icon to toggle between sound and vibration modes.

Camera

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This year OnePlus has eschewed Sony’s successful line of camera sensors for a company who’s name isn’t all that familiar to some.  OmniVision, who likely got their biggest fame with the original HTC One M7’s UltraPixel sensor, are the makers behind the sensor in the OnePlus 2.  This 13-megapixel sensor is exclusive to OnePlus this year and features larger 1.3-micron pixels than the 13-megapixel found in the OnePlus One, which features 1.12-micron pixels.  On paper this means better low light support, lower ISO needed (and inherently less noise), and better dynamic range between the brightest and darkest points in a picture.

Software

Before we get into the meat of the pictures and video produced here let’s make sure to note that the camera software absolutely isn’t finished.  It’s a pretty buggy mess right now and doesn’t include all the features OnePlus is planning on putting into the phone such as manual mode.  The interface itself looks like the iOS camera and Google Camera had a baby, with the large red/white record/shutter button from iOS obviously present on the screen, while the slide-from-the-left navigation from Google Camera is also present.  Swiping up or down anywhere on the screen moves between modes and provides a quick way to change it up, a similar concept to the One’s camera but different in practice.  The biggest problem here is that panorama mode is stuck in portrait, so holding the landscape mode, so when holding the phone horizontally as a camera normally would be you need to swipe left or right to move between modes, an obvious bug that needs fixing.

Swiping out from the left side of the screen normally will bring up the navigation menu to select between modes, while swiping out from the right side of the screen pulls up the last taken picture or video.  The biggest problem here is that the last taken picture is only a thumbnail, and clicking on it will bring it up in your gallery of choice.  By default this is Google Photos, and for whatever reason it would not only sometimes bring up a picture that wasn’t full size (i.e. you can’t zoom in to see details), but you can’t swipe between pictures or videos taken once opened up in this mode.  Other times swiping just wouldn’t work at all no matter what direction was pressed.  All signs of early software for sure, but over the testing period we received an update to the camera that fixed some other qualms we had, so these are definitely being worked on.

When not running into the navigation issues above taking pictures and video is easy, although not having separate shutter and record buttons is a slight inconvenience for those used to such things.  When clicking to focus anywhere on the screen an exposure wheel wraps around the focus reticule, allowing you to change the exposure on the fly without hassle.  While this was nice to do I didn’t feel like the exposure level changed very much and could use some adjustment, but in practice this worked extremely well and was much nicer than going through menus to do the same thing.  Without even adjusting any settings though the white and color balance of the shots are incredibly accurate.  There was never a time in my testing when either of these categories weren’t spot on, and while the exposure wheel was there I never actually had to use it, just played with it for testing purposes.

Pictures and Video

Dynamic range is significantly improved from the OnePlus One and offers some of the finest dynamic range I’ve seen on a phone, providing an almost HDR-like quality to the shot’s dark and light areas without having to use the feature.  HDR mode out of the box is also phenomenal for those areas of extreme dark and light, and not only takes the shot instantly but processes it in a fraction of a second, allowing near burst-mode speeds of HDR shots.  Moving objects could appear blurry depending on the shot, but for the most part even in bustling environments with cars and people the shots were taken at such a speed that double imaging or ghosting was almost never present, and there aren’t any nasty haloing, cartoony colors or other tell-tale HDR artifacts either, just a more natural looking shot.

Clear image was one of the greatest things to ever happen to the OnePlus One’s camera.  Essentially the way it works is take a bunch of pictures instantly and stitch them together, effectively taking the noise out of the photo (since noise is random) and creates more details at the same time.  This time around OnePlus enables denoise by default and has a completely different denoise filter than is on the OnePlus One too, one that acts more like the kind LG uses.  This means that when zoomed in things tend to resemble a watercolor painting, but zoomed out the shot appears completely noise free and clean.  Thanks to the combination of OIS and a good denoise filter the Clear Image mode here presents some incredibly crisp, balanced photos with minimal processing time.  It would be nice if this processing could be done in the background as Google’s HDR+ mode does on Nexus phones, but it’s not long enough of a processing time to get annoying.

Low light imaging is nothing short of phenomenal on the OnePlus 2.  Auto mode does a great job of producing an image that seemingly grabs light out of nowhere, illuminating parts of a scene even in dark areas that the eye can’t see quite as well.  Using Clear Image for these types of modes gives a superior low light image over most phones on the market without a doubt, drawing plenty of detail out of a low light scene while producing almost no noise.  HDR mode is worth trying in low light situations as well, as the denoise isn’t quite as strong and the balanced lighting can produce a better picture at times.  For the most part though auto is great in a pinch or for those times when a fast snap is needed, and Clear Image produces the best picture in any lighting situation where HDR doesn’t make sense.

Photos focus fast and accurately thanks to the laser auto focus, and the bugs I found at the OnePlus 2 unveiling event a few weeks ago regarding poor autofocusing have been fixed.  Video quality is much improved as well, with crisp and clear 4K video that’s stabilized via a new hardware optical image stabilization (OIS) on board the camera module.  Couple this with the larger pixels that accept more light and the wider dynamic range and you’ve got some truly incredible looking video coming from this phone in any light.  Check out all the samples below to see for yourself.  Other video modes include 720p 120/30FPS, 1080p 60/30FPS and timelapse mode.  You can also take snapshots of the action while filming video via a small white circular shutter button under the red recording button.

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Conclusion

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Two years in now and OnePlus has presented us with what they call next year’s flagship killer, a controversial statement that’s meant to prove more that specs don’t mean anything and that user experience is everything.  While it’s certainly plausible to think that the overall user experience could be better than anything else released next year, especially once OnePlus actually finishes developing the OS, there is one key thing missing that make it impossible to kill next year’s flagships.  Lack of NFC is a major, major blow to the title, keeping users from enjoying the simplicity of mobile payments, an industry that’s likely to really take off when Google launches Android Pay with Android 6.0 Marshmallow this fall.  So long as this isn’t a deal breaker for you and you don’t really care about paying with your phone you might just find that this could turn out to easily be one of this year’s best phones.

A killer camera with some super beta software, a phenomenal display, some of the best build quality of any phones on the market, interchangeable backs and stupendous audio output all come together to make this a must-have phone for anyone looking to spend under $400 on a brand new high-end device this year.  There’s little to complain about here once the bugs gets squashed, a probability that’s very likely to happen by the time you’re actually able to order one.  Once again the biggest stumbling block is actually getting one through the invite system, one that’s just started and has had a bit of a rough patch in just the first few days.  Time will tell just how well OnePlus has improved the system, but if it can manage to get this into more hands than it did with the One there will certainly be more happy Android users out there than not.  Is this a 2016 flagship killer?  No, but it is one of the best devices you’re going to be able to buy in 2015.

Those looking to get their hands on the phone ASAP without an invite can buy it over at GearBest.  This is the Chinese specific model so be sure to check the bands supported on the GearBest page to make sure your carrier of choice is supported.