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Featured Review: OnePlus X

November 16, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

The tech world moves fast, and so do the companies that supply the seemingly never ending swath of new phones.  Every now and then though one of those startups makes a name for itself right out of the gate, one that sets it apart for a long time to come no matter what product is released.  OnePlus has been one of those companies since its inception nearly two years ago, and it’s year and a half old original flagship, the OnePlus One, is still held in many people’s minds as a successful product in every way.  It broke the misconception that a good smart phone had to cost $600 or more, and while the OnePlus 2 may have done some damage to the company’s reputation they’re back with a third phone to try it again.  This time around OnePlus is aiming for the mid-range price segment of the market and is pumping its new phone with most of the same specs as its flagship from last year, all that along with an amazing new build and design.  Let’s see what $250 nets and if it’s worth it when compared to the competition.

Specs

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The 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974Pro-AA) processor that powered the OnePlus One is found inside the OnePlus X, as well as the same Adreno 330 GPU clocked at 578MHz.  3GB of LPDDR3 RAM keeps apps in RAM for a long time, especially since there’s “only” a 1080p 5-inch AMOLED display up front with Gorilla Glass 4 covering it.  Inside is 16GB of internal storage and there’s support for up to 128GB microSD card expansion here inside of the dual-SIM tray.  On the back is a 13-megapixel ISOCELL 3M2 sensor with f/2.2 aperture and dual-LED flash, as well as an 8-megapixel OmniVision OV8858 sensor with f/2.4 aperture up front.  Powering the whole experience is a 2,525mAh battery packed inside of the sleek frame which measures 140mm high, 69mm wide and 6.9mm thin, and either weighs 138g for the Onyx version or 160g for the Ceramic one.  Last but not least there’s support for 4G LTE bands and OxygenOS 2.1 is packed in on top of Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.

In The Box

OnePlus isn’t just selling a phone and a charger for $250, it’s also including a case with the phone as well.  Inside of the box you’ll find that case and the phone of course, a SIM eject tool as well as a wall charger and the same microUSB cable that was included with the OnePlus One.  This cable has a unique looking end to it for plugging into the standard sized USB port but is not reversible as we saw on the OnePlus 2’s cable.  Either way it’s unique looking and quite attractive in the white and red OnePlus color scheme.

Display

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For the first time OnePlus is eschewing LCD for an AMOLED display, a move that’s geared toward both delivering a higher quality display and saving extra battery.  AMOLED displays have become increasingly common in Android phones this year, more significantly though is that phones under the premium price-point level are now seeing this technology at their forefront.  AMOLED panels deliver perfect black levels, significantly higher contrast ratios and more vibrant colors among the list of advantages over LCD.  Usually though these panels aren’t quite as bright outside and end up choosing that wow factor for vibrant colors over color accuracy.  While Android 6.0 Marshmallow introduces a new sRGB color space to help with these overly saturated colors, that option isn’t available for the OnePlus X just yet since it’s still on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.

As expected the colors and black levels are incredible here and deliver a significant wow factor when using the display.  Unlike some AMOLED panels this one is quite bright and is very easy to see outdoors, even in bright sunlight, although not as easy as some LCD panels out there.  Viewing angles are mostly fantastic and color shifting is only readily apparent when holding the screen at extreme angles, something no one would ever do in daily use.  White balance is a little on the cool side but not too bad, and the refresh rate of the panel is incredibly good, leaving no trailing or color changes even when scrolling highly contrasting patterns slowly.  This is a better panel in every respect when compared to the ones on considerably higher priced phones that just launched like the Nexus 6p or HTC One A9.  The panel also feels like it’s floating on top of the glass, an effect that the “2.5D glass,” as it’s called, delivers via the slightly curved sides.  Even the digitizer is phenomenal, something that OnePlus struggled with on its first phone for quite some time, and responds perfectly every time I used it no matter how fast I typed.

Hardware And Build

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First impressions are everything, and if the screen doesn’t grab you than the build certainly will.  OnePlus has crafted a phone that’s not necessarily super unique looking in the space of smartphones in every way, but it doesn’t necessarily look like every other phone out there either.  There’s plenty of influence here with trends across the industry, but overall the phone looks like it’s been unmistakably made by OnePlus.  The front and back of the Onyx version that we have (which is the standard version of the phone) features Gorilla Glass 4 all the way up and down for extra scratch resistance.  Both the front and back have smooth curves to all edges of the glass that keep your finger running smoothly to the metal frame that surrounds the glass.  17 micro-cuts in this metal frame give it an interesting and delightful texture, while the power button and volume rocker on the right side feature a circular cut pattern on them.  The dual-SIM/microSD card tray rests above these buttons and nests snugly within the frame.

On the left is a grid-textured priority slider button, and it works exactly as it did on the OnePlus 2.  On the bottom you’ll find dual-speakers and a microUSB port inbetween them, while up top there’s a 3.5mm headset jack and noise cancelling microphone.  On the front you’ll find three capacitive buttons below the home screen designed similarly to the OnePlus 2.  This time around the home button is just a circular capacitive one with two non-descript dashes on either side since custom actions can be assigned to them.  This phone feels incredibly good to hold and the slick material OnePlus put on it gives it an ultra high quality feel, delighting the hand every time the phone is picked up.  Unfortunately that means that this is one slippery devil and will likely fall out of your hands at some point, especially if you live anywhere that’s even remotely cold.  That’s a shame too because it likely means most people will be covering this beauty up.  There’s also no NFC here, a big negative that’s likely to impact OnePlus’ sales of the device in regions where NFC has become mainstream.  That means no mobile payments and no tap to share or NFC pairing, among other things of course.

Let’s of course not forget about size in this little overview of the hardware though.  So many users have complained of smartphone size crawl for years, and it’s not only refreshing to see one with this size screen but one that keeps the footprint of the phone down too.  The biggest offender of size here is that chin, as the capacitive buttons likely make it artificially larger than it needs to be, but it’s not exactly huge and it gives a nice place for grip at the very least.  Being thin and small makes this one almost invisible in any pants pocket, and even the tighest of skinny jeans shouldn’t have an issue putting this one in effortlessly.

Performance And Memory

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The Snapdragon 801 was no slouch when it launched at the beginning of 2014, and while it’s definitely showing its age it’s likely faster than anything else you’re going to find in a phone at this price point.  Performance wise you’re looking at something just under last year’s Galaxy Note 4 which was packed with the more powerful Snapdragon 805 processor, a testament to how much resolution can affect performance.  Daily tasks were mostly lag free although I did run into a bit of random jitter and framerate drops in the strangest of places, and I could never consistently replicate any of these stutters.  Something feels weird about these performance hitches and makes me think OnePlus is downclocking the phone as often as possible to save battery, so a future update could eliminate these if that’s the case, as this isn’t something that shows up on the OnePlus One with nearly identical specs.

Gaming was mostly good although again, that Snapdragon 801 and Adreno 330 GPU are starting to show their age.  Most games ran just fine but I found that more graphically intense games like Lara Croft Go, and Need for Speed: No Limits had some framerate issues to deal with.  Dialing down the detail a bit in games that support it might be advised if you’re looking for that perfect 60fps all the time, but users that are less finicky about their framerate performance will likely be just fine here.  Multi-tasking was absolutely perfect though and I never once had an app reload on me.   3GB of LPDDR3 RAM is fast, and at 1080p you’re looking at less of a footprint for each app to fill that RAM up, keeping most apps paused in the background for instant loading when switching back and forth.  That dedicated Overview button is a massive change from most phones in this price range, especially ones from China, and makes all the difference in the world.

Benchmarks

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Benchmarks are on par with the OnePlus One, which should be expected given that it’s basically the same hardware.  That’s nearly on par with performance in some aspects, although internal storage speeds leave a bit to be desired and are an obvious place that OnePlus seems to have skimped to keep that price point down.  The memory speeds aren’t horribly slow or anything, however given the fact that it’s not encrypted out of the box and still has slower storage speeds than phones that ship software encrypted is disappointing.

Phone Calls And Network

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The OnePlus X supports plenty of different bands worldwide and even includes FDD-LTE bands; something most phones sub-$300 just don’t support, particularly in the US.  The catch here is that it doesn’t support all of the bands that T-Mobile US and AT&T use, namely Band 12 and Band 17, which takes away some significant portions of the LTE networks of both carriers.  Still Bands 2 and 4 are supported and I generally got excellent LTE coverage in the greater Orlando area no matter where I went, especially on T-Mobile.  Check out our more detailed LTE tests here but know that coverage is going to wildly depend on the network topology in your region.  At the very least there’s 3G HSPA fallback for both carriers here and full support for all of those bands.

I ran the phone with dual SIM cards the entire review period, one T-Mobile SIM and one AT&T SIM.  I found this to be incredibly effortless thanks to Android 5.1 Lollipop’s native dual-SIM support, and all apps that needed to choose between networks asked me before doing so.  Default data is selected within SIM card settings so you don’t have to select that every time it needs to be used, and both SIM cards can be labeled to keep headaches from happening when having to choose between the two.  I generally got an incredibly strong signal everywhere I went and found it to be better than most phones impressively enough.  Call quality was good, but I didn’t have HD Voice support on either network, something that will surely be missed by anyone who’s experienced it.  Check out all the supported bands for each of the two versions of the phone below:

US variant:

3G HSPA Bands: 1/2/4/5/8

4G FDD-LTE Bands: 1/2/4/5/7/8

Asia & Europe variant:

3G HSPA Bands: 1/2/5/8

4G TDD-LTE Bands: 38/40

4G FDD-LTE Bands: 1/3/5/7/8/20

Battery Life

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A 2,525mAh battery isn’t all that big, but for a phone of this size it’s not uncommon to see.  OnePlus used an AMOLED panel here and even changed the default color scheme of the OS to be blacked out in many places, and has even included plenty of mostly-black wallpapers for that visual effect of extra contrast, all while saving battery.  Since AMOLED panels can turn off individual pixels it makes sense to black out the UI, as the only pixels that are being lit (and therefore, powered) are the ones displaying light and color.  This leads to significant battery savings and I found that it lasted just as long as my trusty OnePlus One in everyday situations despite the smaller battery.  That equates to about 4 hours of screen on time on most days, including heavy usage days filled with lots of music streaming, Bluetooth connectivity and phone talking.  Very heavy users will find themselves needing a recharge sometime during the day without a doubt, but that’s not too bad since there’s 10-watt quick charge here which will charge the phone from 0% to 100% in about an hour and a half total.  Battery life tests showed quite a bit higher than I was able to achieve, leading me to believe this phone might have wildly different battery life depending on how you use it.

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Sound

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One of OnePlus’ specialties with its previous two phones was in the audio department where they continue to be one of the only OEMs to ship a high powered DAC and a fully customizable EQ along with it.  The OnePlus X is a bit of a defector here, as it doesn’t come with the AudioFX panel or any of the additional audio capabilities that OnePlus added in its other phones.  This is a shame and I found myself being incredibly disappointed with the lack of customization in this area, however, it’s at least worth noting that the audio quality from the phone is excellent and ranges among the higher quality audio I’ve heard from an Android phone.  Everything is mostly well balanced although it’s a bit heavy on the bass side of things, but thankfully still gives lots of audio range and keeps the mids from sounding tinny.  You’ll find that the OnePlus X can easily stand toe-to-toe with phones significantly more expensive in this department, a joy that’s liable to be felt by everyone saving that cash this year.

OnePlus built in an FM tuner which means as long as you’ve got earphones plugged into the 3.5mm headset jack you can use this as an FM radio.  In addition to that, they’ve built an incredibly beautiful and easy to use app for the FM radio, something that shows they’ve put real thought into this functionality.  Sound from the speakers on the bottom wasn’t bad in quality, but it was a little too quiet in general.  Speakerphone is difficult to hear in a moving vehicle on it and of course, music will just be passable while listening through these speakers.  Their placement is bottom facing, so while it’s not as good as front-facing speakers are it’s much better than a rear-facing speaker.  The earpiece was clear and loud, though, so talking on the phone while other noise is happening shouldn’t be an issue.

Software

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OnePlus is launching the OnePlus X with OxygenOS 2.1.2 built upon Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.  This is the latest build of their custom version of Android and sticks with all the same features you’ll find on the more expensive OnePlus 2.  That’s great for users not wanting to spend too much cash but still wanting that look and feel of OxygenOS, a modification of Android that’s more style than substance at this point.  There’s a good amount of features here that will keep users happy, especially ones used to just stock Android, and even users who are used to heavier skins from the likes of Samsung and LG will feel a breath of fresh air with OnePlus OS design.  Users looking for an Android 6.0 Marshmallow update should be happy, as OnePlus has confirmed that they’ll be delivering one in the near future, although no particular timeline has been announced.

Security is a big concern for many, and on that front privacy as well.  OnePlus has implemented a full app permission dialog within system settings to control this, and while it’s not quite as elegant as the official implementation in Android 6.0 Marshmallow it’s certainly better than nothing.  Apps won’t ask you to approve permission before launching for the first time, but users can retroactively go into this app permissions dialog and allow or deny specific permissions for each individual app.

Gestures and Notifications

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The signature OnePlus gestures make a full comeback here and are better than ever.  These four are all activated by tapping or drawing on the screen while it’s off, launching the camera, toggling the flashlight or pausing the music by simple swipes.  In the past, these gestures could be hit or miss but this time around OnePlus seems to have upped its digitizer and sensor game and provided a solution that not only never once went off in my pocket but always responded to my deliberate gestures when I wanted them too.  We saw this improvement on the OnePlus 2 from the OnePlus One and now it’s even further of an improvement.

In addition to this, the Ambient Display mode from Android 6.0 Marshmallow and various Motorola phones is here in all its heavy breathing glory too, giving you quick glances at your notifications as they come in without wasting battery or having to pick the phone up.  Those wanting to do a quick check of these notifications can simply swipe their hand over the top of the phone near the earpiece, which will activate a single “breath” of the Ambient Display to give you a quick glance at any notifications that might be awaiting your response.

Notifications in general, are controlled via the priority slider on the left side of the phone, which features three toggles that correspond to Android Lollipop’s All, Priority or None notification modes.  This is a phenomenal implementation of Android’s priority modes and shows some real innovation in hardware-software synergy on OnePlus part.  This was included in the OnePlus 2 but is here as well.  The biggest disadvantage here is there appears to be no way to schedule priority modes since it’s tied to a hardware slider and can’t be moved on its own, so if you forget to slide it to priority before bed you might be woken up in the middle of the night by an annoying email.

Customization and Themes

OnePlus styled the Android community when CyanogenMod launched on the OnePlus One, making it the most customizable phone out of the box available on the market.  While this phone doesn’t feature quite as much customization it’s still more than most Android phones will allow you to do, and includes changing the system theme between white or dark and selecting different colors for highlights and the notification LED.  There’s 8 colors to choose from in addition to the default color (totaling 9), and any of these colors can be chosen for either the accent colors throughout the UI or that notification LED.  Custom actions can be selected for the hardware capacitive buttons including ones for both short and long pressing each button.  If you don’t care for these you can enable the standard software buttons which come with less customization but might be preferable for some users, as it gives an extra lip to grab the phone.

Camera

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Cheaper phones have to come at the cost of something, and in this case, it seems the camera was the casualty of this decision.  While the camera isn’t bad by any means, it’s not great either and uses Samsung’s 3M2 ISOCELL sensor at 13-megapixels.  Users of the Galaxy S5 will likely recall that photos from the device aren’t horrible, but they aren’t great either, often times ending up muddy and soft looking, especially in low light.  That’s definitely the case here and many photos look muddy or soft when zoomed in thanks to a ridiculous denoise algorithm that seems to be attached to these ISOCELL camera sensors.  One of the benefits of ISOCELL was supposed to be that it could push higher ISO than other sensors.  This means bringing in more available light but at the cost of producing more noise.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the denoise algorithm wasn’t so aggressive, but as it is even in bright light this algorithm kills any semblance of detail when zooming into the picture.  This makes for pictures that really only look good on a smaller display like a phone or on social networks where picture resolution is often cut down significantly.

In addition to this it doesn’t even seem like ISOCELL’s advantages are being used here, as low light photography was poor to say the least.  Dining in a restaurant with normal dim restaurant lighting resulted in pictures that were too dark to make out any real details, or when you could they were often soft and unpleasant.  Color accuracy drops significantly at this lower light level and overall this just isn’t a great low light camera by any means.  HDR is also hit or miss thanks to both a slower shutter speed between exposure brackets and lack of optical image stabilization (OIS).  While OIS was a big part of the OnePlus 2’s camera it isn’t present on this module, and it’s likely due to the cost of such mechanical parts.  Daylight shots are passable and can be seen below, but none of them can really be called great, even at this price range.  Honestly, I was much more impressed with the 8-megapixel front-facing camera, and I almost think we would be better off if OnePlus used that as the rear-facing camera instead.

The same camera software that launched with the OnePlus 2 is here in all its features, and not much has been changed since then either.  The interface features a single swipe up or down to move between camera modes, in all including photo, video, slow motion, panorama and time lapse.  The navigation issue when moving to panorama mode is still here and hasn’t been fixed unfortunately, which means moving your phone to vertical mode to swipe back to other modes or taking a panorama.  It’s awkward and annoying and needs to be addressed.  There’s also no manual modes here as the most recent OnePlus 2 camera update brought, which could always be added in with a future OTA.  Thankfully the manual exposure ring is still here and is great to see in a time when even Google doesn’t include such a thing on its flagship phones.  This allows exposure to be adjusted on the fly after clicking to focus.

Video is mediocre at best and really only worthwhile in broad daylight.  Even under the canopy of trees there wasn’t enough light to keep the video looking good, and it often ends up a blurry mess.  Lack of OIS and stabilization makes things shaky when walking or doing anything at all besides standing still.  Dynamic range is not great to say the least and any overly bright or dark sections will seem more extreme on the video than they are in real life.  Overall this one needs a lot of help in the video section, and even though there’s some slow-motion video here none of it is really worth using outside of some simple quick shots for social networks and the like.  Check out the full gallery below including plenty of sample photos and videos.

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The Good

Low price, high value

Fast device, great multi-tasking

Amazing build

AMOLED screen

Size of the device

Dual-SIM, good network band support even in the US

OxygenOS with plenty of tweaks

FM Tuner

MicroSD card support

The Bad

Camera is just bad in most situations

Battery life was all over the place

LTE could be spotty in the US

No NFC

Final Thoughts

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There’s a reason the list above is almost all positives and a few negatives, but those few negatives could be a huge deal breaker for some.  Still for $250 it’s very difficult to be overly critical of a device that’s built this well and performs nearly as well, all with the latest build of OxygenOS and promises of Android 6.0 Marshmallow updates right around the corner.  The camera is bad but could be tweaked, as OnePlus has done in the past, and the exclusion of NFC once again will alienate users that need it for payments and other uses.  Still there’s so much good here it’s nearly impossible to not recommend the OnePlus X, which is definitely one of the better small phones of the year without a doubt.

Buy the OnePlus X from GearBest