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OnePlus 2 Review: The 2016 Flagship Killer?

OnePlus. A company that a lot of people love to hate. Their relationship and subsequent breakup with Cyanogen Inc. was all the media could talk about last year, probably to the pleasure of OnePlus who managed to sell around 1.5 million units of their debut smartphone. Regardless of your feelings about the company, it’s hard to deny that their unique style of marketing has bore pretty good results. Not unlike last year with the OnePlus One, OnePlus started up the #hype machine for the OnePlus 2 long before the official announcement of the device. Before its announcement, we already knew that it was going to feature a Snapdragon 810 SoC, fingerprint sensor, USB Type-C, 4GB of RAM, and Styleswap covers (for real this time).  

Finally, on July 27th, OnePlus brought us the news of the world. The “2016 Flagship Killer” would feature the following specifications:

  • Dimensions: 151.8 x 74.9 x 9.85 mm
  • Weight: 6.17 ounces (175 g)
  • OS: OxygenOS 2.0 based on Android 5.1
  • Network: (North America version)GSM: 850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz; WCDMA: Bands 1/2/4/5/8; FDD-LTE: Bands 1/2/4/5/7/8/12/17
  • Other Connectivity: Dual-band Wi-Fi: 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n and 5GHz 802.11a/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS
  • Display: 5.5 inch 1080p Full HD LCD In-Cell
  • Resolution: (1920 x 1080 pixels), 401 PPI
  • Battery: Embedded rechargeable 3,300 mAh LiPo battery
  • SoC: 64-bit Qualcomm© Snapdragon™ 810 processor with 1.8GHz Octa-core CPUs, Adreno™ 430 GPU
  • Memory: 4 GB/3 GB LPDDR4, 64 GB/16 GB eMMC v5.0
  • Expandable Memory: No
  • Rear-Facing Camera: 13 Megapixel f/2.0 Camera w/ OIS, Laser Focus, and 6 lenses to avoid distortion and color aberration. Supports 4K resolution video and slow motion video at 720p
  • Front-Facing Camera: 5 Megapixel – Distortion free

As far as specs are concerned, I was really pleased by the fact that they opted to have a North American version in addition to the Chinese and EU/Asia versions, meaning LTE support is more specifically-catered to the US spectrum availability. In other words: connectivity is better on the OnePlus 2 than on the One and it’s also probably better than a lot of other “international” model phones that shoot for the lowest common denominator.

If you look closely (or you follow the news) you’ll notice that they chose not to include NFC in this year’s phone. According to OnePlus, they noticed that a lot of people don’t use it on the OnePlus One and decided to forgo the feature on the OnePlus 2. I wish I could say I didn’t miss it, but that really wouldn’t be true. I certainly don’t need it, but nobody needs it. However the phone comes with Google Wallet installed (the old one). I’ve reached out to confirm, but I suspect they will be either removing or replacing the application with the new one in a software update.

Oxygen OS on the OnePlus 2

Speaking of software updates, the OnePlus 2 comes with an in-house version of Android 5.1 called Oxygen OS 2.0. Since my daily driver is actually the OnePlus One, I’m in a unique position to fully critique Oxygen when compared to the OS of their former partner in crime, Cyanogen.

OnePlus 2 Setup

Oxygen is now in version 2.0.2  (although 2.1 is currently rolling out), but it’s still in its infancy in the grand scheme of things. It’s still very similar to AOSP with a few tweaks that cater to the hardware offerings of the OnePlus 2. Much like the OnePlus One, they offer the same off-screen “gestures” for turning on the flashlight, the camera, and controlling music, as well as double-tap to wake. You also have the option to choose between on-screen navigation buttons or using the capacitive keys below the screen.

What I’ve found to be really cool is that you’ll notice that the capacitive keys on either side of the fingerprint sensor don’t have any kind distinctive markings, they’re just dashes. At first I was really turned off by this, but muscle memory doesn’t take long to catch up. The reason they did this, though, is because they let you remap the buttons to your heart’s content. You have options for single press, long press, and double tap for each of the buttons and you can map them to a wide variety of system functions such as swapping between the two most recent apps, opening the camera, and turning off the screen, to name a few.

Other features of Oxygen OS include swapping the system between a light and a dark theme, customization of the quick settings tiles on the fly, and configuration of how to use the two SIM card slots. You can set it up so that a particular card is preferred for data, calls, or SMS over another, making things very easy for people who are going to be using both of those card slots. They also included an equalizer app from MaxxAudio and the phone comes with Swiftkey installed. You may or may not prefer that over Google Keyboard, but options are always good (especially with a 64gb phone). 

OnePlus 2 MaxxAudio

Taking a cue from Cyanogen Inc., their former business partner, OnePlus also opted to include granular permissions control in their OS. Granted, that feature is coming to AOSP in Marshmallow, but there’s nothing wrong with it coming early! That said, using this feature is pretty much at your own risk and things may not operate as intended if you take away their permissions.

OnePlus 2 App Permissions

Oxygen OS also comes with a customized launcher. In many ways, it’s similar to the Google Now Launcher, but instead of Google Now when you swipe to the left, you have a panel with your most frequently used apps and contacts. You can customize this a bit by adding widgets; I added my CBS Sports widget, but you can put pretty much whatever you want in there. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like I used this panel much and felt a strong urge to install Nova Launcher, but it’s just as good as any other OEM launcher.

OnePlus 2 Shelf

With all of that said, I did notice some strange things happening with the software that I wasn’t particularly fond of. Notably, anytime I started a new SMS conversation using the stock SMS application (Google Messenger) it would send that message but then abandon that thread and start a new one when a reply came in. This seems to be a behavior only associated with starting a new SMS thread using the FAB or using voice actions in Google Now. Hopefully that can fixed with a future update as well.

In addition, it very well could be that I just have giant fingers and chose the wrong way to apply security to my phone but as you would expect, I use the fingerprint sensor on the OnePlus 2. This is used to bypass my primary security option, for which I chose to use a password. I was under the assumption that I would never have to enter my password and that it’s unquestionably the best way to secure a device, so that’s what I did. First, I’m not sure what causes it but sometimes I find myself in a situation where the fingerprint sensor refuses to work. The only way to get it working again is to reboot the phone or unlock the phone manually.

The other issue that I have is that since I use the normal password setting, my finger sometimes touches a part of the screen when I’m using the fingerprint scanner and that part of the screen is the space bar. Something you may not have known about the Google Keyboard is that holding down on the space bar allows you to switch between the installed keyboards on the phone. In summation, nearly every time I unlock the phone, I activate that feature and have to back out of it to continue with what I was about to do.

Battery Life On Oxygen OS

I think it’s very important to emphasize the fact that it’s running Oxygen OS when talking about battery life. I know this, because the battery life on the OnePlus One when comparing Oxygen and Cyanogen OS is like night and day. I use my phone all throughout the day for a wide variety of things including playing games like Clash of Clans (try your hardest not to judge me), listen to podcasts like the VergeCast (again, try not to judge me), and keeping up with emails. My day starts at 8AM and I don’t usually plug back in until midnight or later. On the OnePlus One running Cyanogen OS I frequently would still have nearly 50% battery when I plugged back in, while on Oxygen OS the phone would be clinging to life with around 10% left.

I say all of this because I think it’s important to note that the firmware is independent from the hardware and Oxygen is still very young. On the OnePlus 2 I got pretty similar battery life to what I had on the OnePlus One running Oxygen OS. The battery is a little bigger on the OnePlus 2, though, so it usually has around 20% battery left when I plug it in. I’m not going to try to put this into any kind of standard measure, because everyone’s usage is different. I can only tell you how it compares to my usage of other devices with relatively the same conditions. The OnePlus 2 has a 200mAh advantage on its predecessor, so I think it’s fair to assess the battery drain between Oxygen OS 1 and 2 to be about the same. Marques Brownlee graded the OnePlus 2 in terms of battery life as being a B+ and I would tend to agree. I’ve definitely been spoiled by the OnePlus One, but I’ve had my fair share of phones that had me tethered to the charging station.

The OnePlus 2 Camera

It’s gotten to the point with some smartphones that they’re entirely replacing our point and shoot cameras and that’s a big deal. On paper, the OnePlus 2 camera should be no different. It’s rocking a 13 MP sensor with f/2.0 aperture and is supported by OIS and laser focus, so you should always get a nice clear picture of exactly what you’re pointing at.

I have to admit, the laser focus is a hell of an addition to this or any phone. You can tell that it is employing that laser when it focuses on something because it is better at focusing on the thing that I’m actually choosing to focus on than any other camera I’ve ever used. See below where in the first picture I focus on the OnePlus charging cable in the background, while in the second photo I focus on the TeD statue in the foreground.

I’d definitely say that overall the photos taken on this camera rival those taken with other leading smartphones with one glaring exception. The low-light photos that I tried to take with this phone when there was any movement were abysmal. Every single shot was exposed for way too long and ended up looking terrible. This seems to have a lot to do with software because regardless of lighting, it always takes way too long to snap the photo.

To be sure, the camera on the OnePlus 2 is better than that on the OnePlus One (which I thought was a fairly decent camera in its own right), but it can definitely use some work with regards to optimization if it wants to play with the big boys.

The Speaker(s)

If you look at the bottom of the OnePlus 2, you see a very pretty symmetrical set of speaker grills flanking the USB Type-C charging connector (I’ll get to that later).

OnePlus 2 USB Type C

What you don’t know, is that only the right speaker grill has a speaker behind it. If you cover that part of the phone with your finger (which is super easy to do accidentally while you’re playing games) then you’ll cut off the sound entirely.

The sound itself  on the OnePlus 2 is actually very crisp and you have the option to assist the sound quality using MaxxAudio if you want to. I have nothing particularly against using only one speaker (pretty much everyone else does), it just seems a little bit dishonest albeit aesthetically pleasing to have the dual speaker grills.

Additional Thoughts & Conclusion

You may not agree (and many probably don’t) but I think that this phone is very pretty. It feels good in the hand and the metal band around the outside really contributes to that premium feel.

Styleswap covers are actually a thing on the OnePlus 2, so you can choose between black apricot, bamboo, rosewood, or Kevlar replacement backs and you can purchase them right now for $27 each. Personally, I’d go with the black apricot. There are also pins on the inside of the phone that are meant to read information from the replacement back to adjust the theme for the phone. This is currently only a feature in HydrogenOS (the Chinese version of the phone), but maybe something we will see in the future for Oxygen.

The fingerprint sensor and notification switch are additions to this phone that make it unique among many of the 2015 flagships. The only other Android OEM shipping with fingerprint sensors as of this very moment (BOLO for Nexus next week) is Samsung and from my experience with the Note 5 (BOLO for my review of that in the next couple of weeks as well), I think that the OnePlus 2 does a better job of handling the fingerprint scanning. Thanks to the capacitive key that is under the fingerprint scanner, it can sense that you’re touching it even when the screen is off and go of screen-off to unlocked nearly instantly with the touch of a finger. More importantly, though, it almost never misread my print (leading to an authentication failure).

My feelings towards the notifications switch are a little bit different. The switch has three positions: no sound (up), priority notifications only (middle), sound on (down). I felt like I only ever used priority or sound on, because I want the call to go through if there’s an emergency. The main problem for me, though, is that with the inclusion of the switch, they removed the “do not disturb” feature from the device. They did this because if you have do not disturb set, it might not match up with how the switch is set and cause confusion.

Personally, I’d prefer to have both options because I set my phone not to go off when I’m sleeping and I often forget to flip the switch on this phone (causing it to make me angry when it goes off at 4am to let me know that my village is being invaded in Clash of Clans). What’s interesting is that Android Wear is still capable of modifying those settings by using the mute notifications feature in Wear, but that’s not a reliable way of going about things.

I promised that I would mention the USB type-C connector and I want to address one of the “problems” that people have pointed out regarding it. The charging port on the OnePlus 2 is USB type-C, that is a fact. It also uses the USB 2.0 protocol. Neither of these things are contradictory, they’re just things that are. The fact that they didn’t include fast charging with this phone has nothing to do with the type-C connector, at least technologically speaking. USB type-C is compatible with fast charging. Why they didn’t use USB 3.1 I don’t know, but frankly I don’t care. I connect my phone to my PC maybe once every three months and usually that has something to do with flashing a ROM. I never connected the OnePlus 2 to my PC because why would I? The cloud exists and I can sync anything that I need from it painlessly and it doesn’t require me to be near a PC. The whiners will whine, but you’re not losing anything (except perhaps a video-out option) by not having USB 3.1.

Speaking of whining, OnePlus made a promise that they would tame the Snapdragon 810 on the OnePlus 2. There has been heated discussion throughout the year over whether this was the best chip to have in smartphones, but ultimately I think OnePlus delivered on their promise. The phone never got any hotter than any other phone I’ve ever used when under stress and it never hiccuped or lagged. Whether there is throttling involved to make this happen isn’t something I can comment on, but as long as it doesn’t affect performance, I don’t care.

I’ve been using this phone as my daily driver for a few weeks now and throughout the process I’ve been trying to decide whether, given the opportunity, I would keep this phone or keep my OnePlus One. What I’ve concluded is that despite the addition of the fingerprint sensor and USB type-C, I prefer the OnePlus One to the OnePlus 2. I don’t use it often, but NFC is a thing that I like to have. Battery life on the OnePlus One blows the OnePlus 2 away. The camera on the OnePlus 2 is better, but that’s not really that important to me.

My opinion is certainly not the official word on that; it’s my opinion. Other people might really want a fingerprint sensor or the camera might be more important to them, but for my usage the OnePlus One is a better fit. Of course if you’re on the fence between the two you have to worry about software support and touchscreen issues for the OnePlus One, so make the choice that’s right for you.

Undoubtedly, I would recommend the OnePlus 2 to anybody who wants a new 5.5” high-quality smartphone with 64GB of storage for under $400 ($390 for the 64GB model); it really can’t be beat in that category. The Moto X comes close, but the 64GB option is going to be $90 more, which is not an insignificant amount of money. OnePlus made some strange decisions this year (like the removal of NFC) that automatically count them out as an option for some people, but for others this could be the phone of their dreams.

Purchase: OnePlus