One year ago, the OnePlus One became the best off-contract smartphone you could buy. An unheard of Chinese company managed to deliver a high-quality Android handset for a crazy-low $US300 price. Now, it looks like that awesomeness wasn't a fluke. Behold: the OnePlus 2.
Left: old and busted. Right: new hotness
Starting at $US330, the new OnePlus 2 is only a hair more expensive than the original, and yet it's improved in so many ways I barely know where to begin. Hell, it might be faster to tell you what's missing: it doesn't have a gorgeous 2K screen or wireless charging like the Galaxy S6, and it doesn't have a removable SD card, battery, or fancy manual camera controls like the LG G4.
Oh, and there's no stylus. You weren't expecting a stylus, were you?
Got all that? Then it's time to talk about just how beastly this phone actually is. 8-core Snapdragon 810 processor? Check. LTE? Check. Two nano-SIMs for hopping carriers? You bet. USB Type-C so you're ready for the future of charging? Definitely. A fingerprint reader? Yep! Plus a 5.5-inch 1080p display, a 13-megapixel OmniVision camera with optical image stabilisation and laser focusing, and up to 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM.
Yet the most impressive parts of the OnePlus One have little to do with specs. They're about how this phone feels. (It feels excellent.)
The moment you touch this phone, you won't believe it costs just $US330. Why? Because in terms of materials and build quality, it's only a stone's throw away from the best you can buy: Samsung, LG and HTC devices that cost hundreds more.
If you turned up your nose at last year's OnePlus One because it was made of plastic, you'll do a double-take when a OnePlus 2 shows up. The only plastic you'll find on this sucker is the flexible kind you'll find when you pry up the removable rear cover. No more shitty plastic buttons, either: it's all precise, tactile metal for your power button, volume rocker, and (my personal favourite) three-way mute switch. More on that later.
The metal does make the phone nearly half 15g heavier (174g) and it's nearly half a millimetre thicker (at 9.85mm) but I didn't find myself minding one bit. It's also a millimetre shorter in both directions, and I actually think it may improve the ergonomics. The One was a bit wide for my tastes; the 2 fits easier into my hand.
I do kind of miss the metal lip that gave the OnePlus One a distinct look even from the front, but the 2 still keeps the same spirit with a chamfered metal edge beneath its Gorilla Glass. Depending on the size of your hand, it might still add a little bit of grip.
But glass and metal is only half the story when it comes to tactile delight. The rest comes in the form of the OnePlus's optional $US27 rear covers, which use actual wood (bamboo, rosewood, black apricot) or Kevlar for a really awesome look and feel. Even stock, the OnePlus 2's "sandstone black" rear cover feels pretty great (and definitely far grippier and grittier than the one on the original phone) but real Kevlar or bamboo is where it's at.
I've gotta say the Kevlar's my favourite so far, but I could actually see myself buying more than one and swapping 'em out after a while. It's a level of personalisation we've never really seen in a smartphone before: even with the Moto X, which let you colour-coordinate your phone when you bought it direct from the factory, you'd be forever stuck with your choices.
The screen is pretty much always the most important part of a smartphone. I don't need to tell you this, because you're probably reading this article by swiping on a smartphone screen right now. And the original OnePlus One's screen was, how-do-we-say, not particularly wonderful. I vividly remember taking pictures side by side with the Xiaomi Mi Note and the OnePlus One a few months back -- two phones with the exact same Sony camera sensor -- and wondering why the pictures seemed so much worse on the OnePlus. It turned out that it was actually just the screen, which looked washed out.
Well, the 1080p LCD screen on the OnePlus 2 is bright and beautiful by comparison. The company claims it reaches 600 nits of brightness, more than the iPhone 6 Plus. Personally, I don't think it's anywhere near as gorgeous as the 2K OLED screens you'll find on a Samsung Galaxy S6 or as glassy and smooth as some of Apple's displays -- I can definitely see rows of pixels if I look close -- but for a $US330 phone it's outrageously good.
And speaking of the camera, it's way the heck better as well. While I definitely didn't get to take enough shots to tell how it stacks up against an iPhone 6 Plus, Galaxy S6, LG G4 or Lumia 1020 -- the smartphone camera elite -- the OnePlus 2's new 13-megapixel Omnivision sensor is perhaps the clearest evidence yet that megapixels mean nothing. Same number of megapixels as the previous phone, but WAY better images right out of the box.
Here are a couple of 100% crops from the OnePlus One and OnePlus 2 in good light. Just look how much less noise and how much more detail you see in the image on the right.
And impressively, the image from the OnePlus 2 was half the filesize. Here are the originals:
Have to say the OnePlus 2 pic is lacking a bit of contrast, though.
Here are a couple showing off the improved dynamic range.
Just look how much more you can see in the bright and dark regions of the image. (You might have to click the magnifying glass and download the picture to zoom in.)
Sadly, the camera doesn't have any manual controls or RAW image support, though OnePlus says both are coming in a future update.
So if this phone is so great, why you run out and preorder it right now? Particularly since -- like the last OnePlus phone -- it's invite only, the company has limited stock, and there's no guarantee how quickly they will make more?
Well, there are the usual review caveats. We've barely tested this device. We haven't even tried to make a phone call with it, let alone use apps for longer than a few minutes. (They seemed to run smoothly, but isn't that true of all new phones these days?) We haven't tried to take a lot of pictures in challenging environments, and we have no idea if the (slightly larger 3300mAh battery) will still put up a fight given the new processor and bright new screen. The new fingerprint reader felt awesome and quick and accepted my fingerprint from any angle, but who can say whether it will be reliable in a pinch without more testing?
Also: though it sure looks like it, this phone doesn't actually use stock Android 5.1 Lollipop, and isn't guaranteed to get new updates quickly. Instead, it uses OxygenOS, a customised version that allows for pretty cool tweaks like drawing a symbol on the screen to turn on the flashlight even when the screen is off, or connecting to a new wifi network right from the notification tray.
It's got an awesome futureproof new USB Type-C port for charging, but that means none of your micro-USB cables will work. You'll need new ones ($5 each for OnePlus's cool new reversible cable, which is admittedly a pretty good deal.)
And if you want to pay only $US330, you'll have to wait an unspecified period: as of today, only the $US390 model with 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM is on sale.
If I'm being a good, unbiased journalist, I'd say wait for the reviews. But personally, I have to wonder if it's time to leave my telco and give it a go. After the OnePlus One, the Nexus 5 and the Sony Z3 Compact, I'm tired of missing out on great unlocked Android phones.