It’s 2017, so I doubt OnePlus needs an introduction anymore, but let’s do it one more time just for fun. OnePlus, an offshoot of big Chinese phone maker Oppo, has been garnering global hype and adulation for its “flagship killer” phones since its first device launched in 2014. Taking a minimalist approach to both price and Android augmentations, the company has been delivering some of the best-value smartphones in recent times, and last year’s OnePus 3 and 3T models were easily among my top recommendations. If your budget doesn’t stretch as far as a Google Pixel, Samsung Galaxy S, or Apple iPhone, I’d point you in OnePlus’ direction without hesitation.
We’re just over a week away from the unveiling of this year’s iteration from OnePlus, the OnePlus 5, and my excitement for it is building due to two related reasons: 2017 has so far been a weird year for phones, with a bunch of basic usability issues cropping up, but I have the sense that OnePlus will be the one company to overcome those problems and just deliver an uncomplicated, good Android smartphone. Like it’s always done. In other words, my biggest wish with regard to the OnePlus 5 is for OnePlus to not shoot itself in the foot.
But let’s run through a few of the missteps I’ve noticed this year and the opportunity they allow for OnePlus:
A good fingerprint reader
Table stakes for any smartphone since the latter half of 2015, the fingerprint reader has gone through many variations and iterations, and it has almost inevitably been spoiled by companies overthinking the whole thing.
The worst offender on this front in 2017 has without doubt been Samsung, with its offset, rear-mounted fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy S8. I’ve used the larger S8+, where the reader is utterly unusable due to its position, and I’ve been using the regular S8 for a few weeks now, and it’s become a habit for me to hit the camera lens first, then slide over to the fingerprint reader, and then wait a couple of ticks for it to register.
LG’s G6 is unsatisfying to use for a similar reason: its fingerprint reader, also on the back, is quite tiny and unintuitive to reach, slowing down an action that I perform probably a hundred times per day. Sony puts its fingerprint reader on the side of the phone, which is also suboptimal.
The OnePlus 3 is still the fastest-unlocking phone I’ve ever used. The moment my finger makes any contact with the home button, the homescreen is up and I’m able to get on with the trivialities of checking Twitter or the serious business of… checking Twitter. (As an aside, I also found the action of double-tapping the power button to activate the camera worked most quickly and reliably for me on the OnePlus 3, it’s just a very well executed design). I want more of that instant responsiveness in the OnePlus 5.
I’m going to pick on Samsung again here, in spite of the new generation of TouchWiz being really very good. Samsung’s new Bixby virtual assistant is a persistent nag throughout the Galaxy S8 interface, and you’ve basically got no choice but to create a Samsung account and log in, just to be able to use the camera without being constantly reminded to activate Bixby. HTC still ships its phones with annoying preloaded apps like News Republic, and don’t even get me started on the amount of bloatware the LG G6 is saddled with in Korea. We pay a lot of money for smartphones, is it too much to expect to have a measure of control over the software running on them?
At a time when everyone else is getting bent out of shape chasing ephemeral differentiation (HTC has its own assistant, on top of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa), OnePlus has always played it straight. The OnePlus approach of leaner and cleaner has been a winning one, helping it produce devices that just feel faster by virtue of having nothing slowing them down. To a great extent, this is just exploiting the inherent strengths of Android and passing it off as minimalism, but this marketing has resonated with users. And it just makes sense: the company is giving people one of the fastest Android experiences while keeping its software development costs in check.
A winning price
This is where I’m starting to worry that OnePlus might perhaps give in to the same temptation as everyone else. The company’s phones have always been about flagship quality at sub-flagship prices, but when I look at the leaked image of the new 5, with its dual cameras and iPhone-esque aesthetic, I’m starting to suspect OnePlus might be looking to enter the premium price range. And I think that would be a mistake.
Huawei tried to premium itself up this year with the P10. I’m not sure how that venture’s panning out in terms of consumer sales, but it was widely panned by critics. Huawei’s 2016 strengths were almost indistinguishable from those of OnePlus: really solid design, excellent fingerprint reader, smooth and responsive performance, and a killer price. I still consider the P9 an outstanding choice for anyone not too fussed about keeping up with the latest specs. But the P10 hiked up the price, added design flourishes that weren’t necessary, and yet omitted the oleophobic coating that should be absolutely standard on every phone. I doubt OnePlus would make that last mistake, but I still think the company’s price differentiation is an essential element of its appeal.
If you create a loyal fan following on the basis of being more affordable than everyone else, but then go up in price, those same fans might simply lack the budget to stick with you.
A great camera
There’s a reason why, in spite of my praise for the OnePlus 3 and 3T, I’m not using either as my main phone, and that reason is the Google Pixel’s camera. Yes, I sound like a broken record at this point, but the Pixel truly redefined my expectations of what a mobile camera can do, and now I’ve become an extremist about it. The iPhone is absolutely not sharp enough for me anymore, the LG G6 is decent but overprocesses everything, and the Galaxy S8 is just about good enough to keep me interested. HTC’s U11 has shown itself to benchmark well, and I’d love to spend some extended time with it to verify its performance. This landscape is wide open for a company to come in and assert itself as the Pixel’s equal, and OnePlus’ partnership with photography experts DxO (they of DxOMark fame) gives me cause for cautious optimism.
More than anything, OnePlus needs to have faith in the strength of its own designs and execution. One successful phone might have been a fluke, two could be a great streak of luck, but the company now has four years of constantly improving and evolving devices. If OnePlus sticks to the strategy that’s brought it to its current position, I’m confident it’ll deliver a phone worthy of our curiosity and anticipation.
P.S. — I’m gonna be mad as hell if there’s no headphone jack.