OnePlus X review: Super-premium experience at a budget price

Imagine the classic Nexus 5 if you will. Stock Android, Snapdragon 801, 5” 1080p screen, but… picture it all in sumptuous metal and Gorilla Glass 3 front and back. Add a much better speaker. and a gorgeous AMOLED screen. And capacitive buttons, to save on real estate. And a bigger battery. And an extra Gigabyte of RAM. And add a microSD slot. That’s basically what the OnePlus X is, albeit two years down the road from the Nexus classic, but the improvements are real and pretty compelling, plus the price is under £200 in the UK (though see the postscript about ‘invites’!) and extremely competitive wherever you are.

Something’s got to give, of course, but the showstoppers aren’t that serious, don’t worry. The build and materials used are top notch – the aluminium surround is nicely ridged, presumably for grip – of which more in a moment, while the glass front and back curve gently towards each edge – it’s extremely classy. The corners are perfectly rounded and all the glass has an oleophobic coating – in fact, a seriously slippery surface, front and back. Thankfully, this does make fingerprints trivial to wipe off, but it also makes the OnePlus X an extremely slippery customer and not one to be used ‘naked’ by the clumsy.

The OnePlus X

As it sits on a desk or table, you’ll go into the next room, hear a ‘thud’ and yep, it’s on the floor. Again. Even as you’re holding it, you’ll find it sliding out of your grip. Every time. The solution is to stick a $5 TPU case on it, but then what’s the point in all that lovely metal and glass? It’s a design decision that’s a little baffling (why did they not go with a textured ceramic back?), but as long as you’re careful then you can’t help but admire the construction here.

The OnePlus X - back view

Despite the super-thin form, only 7mm, OnePlus has fitted a 2500mAh battery, with microUSB to feed it – a surprise given the trials of USB Type C in the OnePlus Two. Still, I’m not complaining. No Qi charging at this price point, of course – or even Quick Charge compatibility, so best rely just on nightly recharges. The OnePlus X easily makes it through one day, but don’t push it beyond that point.

The OnePlus X - bottom view

Also down the bottom are a pair of speaker grilles, though only the left one has a component behind it, the right is just a (rather pointless) dummy. Speakerphone/podcast quality is good though – if all phone speakers were like this then I wouldn’t have to even remark on this aspect in other reviews. It’s not remotely in the same class as the Marshall London or even the Nexus 6 in terms of volume and quality, but it’s perfectly loud enough and of sufficient quality for absolutely anyone.

The OnePlus X - left view, showing the interruptions toggle

In addition to the usual power and volume buttons on the right, the left side has a three way slider that controls notifications – All/Priority/None, which is superb. Back in the early days of smartphones I grew to rely on the Handspring Treo ‘mute’ button, then this got adopted by the Apple iPhones, but most phones since then have relied on software controls, or on pressing and holding the volume buttons. To have a physical mute control on an Android phone, and with some granularity too (i.e. no Facebook or emails, etc, but let my family call through) is very refreshing and well done to OnePlus for going down this route.

The OnePlus X - clear screen

Well done too for the screen, which is clear and colourful in all light conditions – it’s typical AMOLED with perfect blacks, tying in well with the default dark theme across the interface and the black screen surrounds. You still get a shock when Gmail or Chrome of similar loads up ‘full white’ though – web browsing I can understand but when, oh when, is Google going to implement a dark theme for Gmail?

The OnePlus X - ambient notifications

AMOLED also helps for Android 5’s Ambient display. Just pick up the phone (i.e. accelerometer-driven), or wave your hands over the proximity sensor and up pop any recent notifications, ready for tapping on. They also pulse in as they arrive, of course, all with minimal power drain.

The OnePlus X - capacitive controls hard to see!
The OnePlus X – can YOU see the capacitive controls? Look closely. Look VERY closely. They’re there – and with large touch-spots (thankfully), but don’t rely on actually SEEING them in most light conditions!

Below the excellent screen are capacitive Android controls, almost a rarity these days away from the world of Samsung. These work perfectly but…. are almost impossible to make out with the naked eye, so you have to resort to guessing their locations. In fairness, you learn these in 30 seconds flat and they have large hotspots, so going back, home or bringing up ‘Recent apps’ is never an issue, but it would have been nice, OnePlus, to have been able to see the icons. Maybe use some reflective material next time if you can’t afford to put in backlights?

Oxygen OS, but don’t panic!

The alternative is to enable ‘On-screen’ controls, Nexus-style, and these work well, though I do prefer to keep them off and have the full 5” for displaying content. Still, it’s great to have the choice, here courtesy of Oxygen OS.

Apps
As you can see, it’s stock Android and Google apps all the way, always good to see on a phone!

“Oxygen what?” I hear you splutter. Don’t worry it’s stock Android plus a few bells and whistles, in the same manner as Cyanogen, which I’ve covered before. In fact, it’s an even lighter layer over the Android Open Source Project code than Cyanogen, with the only additional applications being SwiftKey and a rather modern (in a good way) FM radio utility. Although SwiftKey’s great and all that – the OnePlus X actually has the stock Google Keyboard as its default and I love that to bits. So well done all round and options aplenty.

The excellent little FM radio utility - it's barebones in that there are no presets, but it's delightfully 'neon' in the way it animates and scans.
The excellent little FM radio utility – it’s barebones in that there are no presets, but it’s delightfully ‘neon’ in the way it animates and scans.

The two main software additions to stock Android are firstly ‘Shelf’, occupying the usual experimental ‘off to the left’ homescreen slot, with a weather summary, shortcuts to recently used applications and to frequently contacted people. It’s nicely done and I found myself using it each day.

The 'Shelf' is an area for specific Oxygen widgets - weather, frequent apps and frequent contacts, though doubtless this will get expanded in updates; (right) accessing local movie files in Photos...
The ‘Shelf’ is an area for specific Oxygen widgets – weather, frequent apps and frequent contacts, though doubtless this will get expanded in updates; (right) accessing local movie files in Photos…

And secondly a range of always-on touchscreen gestures for controlling common actions with the display turned off. Tracing a circle turns the phone on with Camera ready for action, doing a ‘v’ shape turns the LED torch function on – and off. While ‘>’ and ‘<’ go forwards and backwards a track in Play Music. These are genuinely innovative ideas and – yet again – work well.

Settings
Delving into the additional settings for Oxygen OS on Android: on the left, enabling and playing with the on-screen controls – note also loads of long press and double tap options too; on the right, double tap to wake, plus a range of gestures that specifically work when the screen is completely off. Amazing!

There’s obviously a lot more that OnePlus – and specifically the Oxygen OS team – can do to add gestures and fill out the Shelf screen, I’m sure updates will follow in due course. This is still early days for the Oxygen skin.

The application set here is so ‘stock’, so minimal, that some reviewers have been left scratching their heads as to how to play media on microSD. The trick is to use the ‘Device folders’ function in Google Photos, which works perfectly (shown above), but I grant you it’s not exactly obvious. An easy solution is to install one of the many excellent third party media players, such as MX Player. Music is handled well by Google Play Music, though again there are plenty of third party alternatives in the Play Store.

A valid question is where to store all this media – there’s microSD support here, in addition to the integrated 16GB disk, with the card slotting in neatly into a dual-slot tray that ejects  from the OnePlus X’s right hand side. Or you can use this for a second nanoSIM if you so wish – but not both, which is a little bit of a compromise that someone away from Western markets might have to face head-on.

The side loading tray

Imaging

Imaging is absolutely as you’d expect for a no-frills 13MP rear phone camera in 2015. Reasonable detail, decent colours but not that impressive when light levels get low (no OIS) and subjects start moving (single LED flash and only f/2.2 aperture). The camera is supposed to have phase detection auto-focus, but it still wasn’t anywhere near as fast to focus as other phone cameras I’ve tried recently – average seek time for focus was in the order of a second, when going from macro to distance work.

Camera interface

However, don’t switch off, there’s extra interest here in the multi-shot ‘Clear Image’ facility – this isn’t explained in the camera UI, but if you enable it then, essentially, ten shots are taken in a fraction of a second. These are then combined to reduce digital noise and increase clarity, really useful in low light, at least if you have a steady hand or can brace the OnePlus X on a stable surface or post. Annoyingly, this can’t be combined with the existing (also) multi-shot HDR facility, also on-board, so you have to plump for one or the other. Given that the use cases for Clear image (low light) and HDR (bright light) are mutually exclusive, why can’t we have a Sony-esque ‘Superior Auto’ mode that uses multiple shots and decides for itself what to do with them, without the user having to look, think, analyse, decide and then tap a couple of times – potentially for every single shot. These are supposed to be smartphones, so let’s have smarter camera software please.

Here’s my OnePlus X photo gallery, with 1:1 crops where appropriate:

My suburban test scene, in weak winter sun, here shot in Clear Image mode
My suburban test scene, in weak winter sun, here shot in Clear Image mode
The 1:1 crop shows processing going on. Clear Image doesn't really add anything when there's plenty of light, but it's fun to experiment!
The 1:1 crop shows processing going on. Clear Image doesn’t really add anything when there’s plenty of light, but it’s fun to experiment!
A typical macro, nicely done by a late 2015 mid-range camera sensor
A typical macro, nicely done by a late 2015 mid-range camera sensor
And the 1:1 crop, showing detail
And the 1:1 crop, showing detail
Trying out HDR, albeit without any UK sun - results are good though.
Trying out HDR, albeit without any UK sun – results are good though.
The 1:1 crop shows almost perfect HDR shot combination
The 1:1 crop shows almost perfect HDR shot combination
In low indoor light, careful handling and the Clear Image facility can produce stunningly clean and clear results
In low indoor light, careful handling and the Clear Image facility can produce stunningly clean and clear results
The 1:1 crop, showing great results considering the low light
The 1:1 crop, showing great results considering the low light
In low light indoors, of course, moving subjects are a blurry mess. But this isn't unique to the OnePlus X. Turning on LED flash helps... a bit..
In low light indoors, of course, moving subjects are a blurry mess. But this isn’t unique to the OnePlus X. Turning on LED flash helps… a bit..
Clear Image comes into its own with a steady operator (me!) and in really low light - here it was much darker than the shot suggests....
Clear Image comes into its own with a steady operator (me!) and in really low light – here it was much darker than the shot suggests….
Although you can see processing artefacts, considering the amount of detail and interest gathered in extremely low light, I was impressed....
Although you can see processing artefacts, considering the amount of detail and interest gathered in extremely low light, I was impressed….

The front facing camera, top left, is better than average, at 8MP resolution and with just the one extra, a ‘Beauty’ mode to iron out your blemishes and wrinkles. At the top right of the phone is a notification LED and, like classic smartphones of the past, it’s multi-coloured – in fact, Oxygen OS lets you select any colour you like for notifications, plus any colour again for the various battery charging states. It’s only a short step from here to different colours for different types of notification, so we’ll see what updates come along these lines.

Setting up LED colours for the notification light, top right on the OnePlus X
Setting up LED colours for the notification light, top right on the OnePlus X

What’s the catch?

But back to my Nexus 5 comparison, two years on, but with a veritable raft of style, spec and component improvements where it matters. And for a distinctly lower-mid-range price. What’s the catch?

There is only one and it’s either trivial or a showstopper, depending on your expectations of a smartphone. You see, like a lot of Chinese-made smartphones, NFC isn’t included. I can only think that the designers don’t see a need, but I think they’re being short-sighted, since NFC is crucial to Android Pay taking off. Plus many of us do like pairing with accessories with a tap, transferring audio, copying content from phone to phone, that sort of thing. And NFC makes all of this possible, or at least a heck of a lot easier. And all for the sake of a $1 component.

Or you could argue that, heck, you don’t use NFC much now, so why would you need it on your oh-so-shiny new OnePlus X? In which case you’ve just found a premium smartphone at a bargain price.

Performance was generally great, thanks to the forward-thinking and future-proof 3GB of RAM, though minor stutters in games and the odd flicker in the interface when dragging stuff around show that – again – the Oxygen OS team have some work to do in optimising their code for this particular device. I’m impressed so far though, and I have confidence that updates will arrive – one was rolling out as this very device was being reviewed.

Invites

NFC aside, plus a worry about the OnePlus X making a bid for freedom from any level surface in your home or office, the only remaining hurdle is the frustratingly quirky ‘invite’ system for buying the OnePlus X in the first place. Anyone reading this is likely to have enough geek friends that have ‘spare’ invites from social media, but the man in the street has little chance. So I’m going to be the umpteenth reviewer to advise OnePlus to run a traditional ordering and pre-ordering system for their phones. It’s OK to say “Sorry, we’re out of stock” sometimes, you know, OnePlus. It’s how grown-up companies do business.

OnePlus X

Verdict

The quality standard for sub-£200 smartphones has been going up and up in recent years – and we now get to the point where you can have an utterly premium experience in your hand – materials, display, speed, audio, the works, all for a third the cost of an iPhone.

Corners have been cut here and there – the lack of NFC and the poor visibility of the capacitive controls, but these may well be trivial to you as a potential purchaser. In which case, run, don’t walk to get your invite and pick the OnePlus X up – it really is that good.

PS. A chatty video version of this review will be embedded here shortly.

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  • Paul_Wb

    love the review, honestly the best oneplus X review i read so far…excellent comparison with the nexus 5 that is surprisingly relevant after 3 years of existence..the catch here for the Onplus X is that as a chinese manufacturer and with the rise of fingerprint sensors available in the sub 250$ category from chinese OEM i would have loved to see it in the X..that would have sealed the deal and made it the best budget flagship android phone..maybe in the Oneplus X2!

  • dansus

    Worthy Moto G upgrade..