Interview with Carl Pei from OnePlus pt3: Priorities, Cameras, Future Phones and the Developer Community

Interview with Carl Pei from OnePlus pt3: Priorities, Cameras, Future Phones and the Developer Community

OnePlus entered the Android market by providing good-value devices that enthusiasts end up enjoying and tinkering with — so much so that their latest smartphone’s sub-forum at XDA has become one of the most active ones in an impressively short time.

XDA Editor-in-Chief Mario Serrafero had a lengthy talk (Part 1)(Part 2) with Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, about the direction of the company and its place in the market, its new smartphones and their take on software, software updates and the developer community. This is Part 3, where we discuss smartphone cameras, priorities, upcoming devices, prompting development and more.

Mario Serrafero: As a small tangent, I think that the screen looks great, and when I get a 1440p AMOLED phone, I actually downgrade the resolution through ADB because I have pretty bad vision, so I don’t actually see any difference. When it comes to VR, I think that people were perplexed because with both the OnePlus 2 and the OnePlus 3 you had virtual reality launches, and in fact I have the headset right here that you shipped, so people could experience it, but then the phone itself is not VR-centric. Is there any specific reason for that?

Carl Pei: For us, we never let marketing get in the way of product. We don’t make fine choices based on what marketing programs, we made the product and then the marketing team will have to market it. The launch is like a marketing event, right? We can’t let that dictate our product strategy. We have to always try and make the best product, regardless of everything else.

M: Yeah, I just wanted that cleared up, because that was one of the arguments I’ve seen online. People are saying “Well, why are they releasing this VR headset and having a VR launch if it’s not a VR-centric phone?” But, either way, it was fun…

C: And well done, right?

M: It was fun. They are definitely fun events. And you can say that you did it before Samsung.

C: And maybe in a better way. Who knows.

M: But you are right. I haven’t seen anyone complain about the display anymore. It’s only when a new phone comes out, when they’re comparing phones “but this one has a better screen!”, but many people don’t actually notice the difference.

C: Those who are writing the comments are those who don’t have our phone, usually when people get the product, they stop writing negative things about it.

M: That was one of the huge disconnects we saw. The comments on OnePlus communities, compared to the comments of, say, Reddit. The comments on Reddit were being critical, while the comments of the people that actually had the phone were being very favorable about it, and then they were calling each other out. One side was saying “You don’t have the phone!” and then the others were saying “Well, you have the phone and are trying to justify the purchase.” It’s like an endless back and forth, but like you said, it just disappeared, and nobody talks about it anymore. Another big point that you massively improved upon with the phone, at least from what I feel and have tested and observed, is the camera.

I have the OnePlus 2 right here, and while the camera has gotten better over time, it was really not quite as competitive. The OnePlus 3 has a good camera that is fast, and your team has done RAM optimizations for it to launch faster. But at the same time, the premium OEMs have been substantially improving their camera performance. How does OnePlus plan on improving the camera? Is it something that is more difficult than other hardware factors? What is your strategy for the camera improvements?

C: It’s not that hard to improve the camera, but the camera is a sum of all the parts, it’s not just what sensor you use, it is also the software, or the ISP for the camera… for the OnePlus 3 there are some incorrect comments online saying that the sensor is not as good as other sensors because we wanted to save money. Right now, the main barrier to having great cameras on smartphones just has to do with sheer size; look at the Pixel for instance, it has a huge sensor but it is also 8-something millimeters — it’s very very thick, and although some people say “Hey, I don’t care, just give me a better camera, give me a better battery”, every company has their own set of considerations when they’re developing a product.

Going forward, we actually want to be known as having one of the best cameras

For us having a sleek product is also very important, how do you balance having the best possible camera within the thinnest possible build? That’s was our approach for the OnePlus 3, but if you look at the smartphone industry and if you look at the camera industry, the camera industry is basically dead. What it tells us is that everyone is using their smartphones instead of their cameras, so therefore the camera must be one of the top one or two selling-points of a smartphone. We made a lot of improvements to the OnePlus 3… going forward, we actually want to be known as having one of the best cameras, so you’ll see us improve here as well.

M: Ok that sounds exciting and, as you know, the video experience on the OnePlus 3 when the phone launched, the 4k video and the bitrate was not very good, but now it’s actually decent. I think it was a recent software update that actually made it perform really well, so I do believe in the power of software updates, and you have done a good job with software updates [on the OnePlus 3]. So I actually expect that if you say that you have good things in store, that should be exciting. When it comes to hardware, or balancing these characteristics, what would you say are the top things that the OnePlus users look for, and what do you think is the hardest thing to to nail as us a phone maker?

C: I know what OnePlus users look for because we do have studies on why people bought our product. And it might not be the reason why they bought the product, but the number one reason why people are satisfied about the OnePlus 3 is Dash Charge, and that’s from data. And to an outsider, it might seem strange… “Why are you so excited about Dash Charge, it’s just charging!”… but it is significantly better. and it operates in a totally different way. The setup is different compared to every other charging technology. But I would say probably, Dash Charge is the most important thing for us in terms of our product, then followed by the overall quality of the build and design, and followed by the camera.

M: So the camera is at the top, and we expect that to improve of course. The build quality is there as well. And Dash Charge, one thing that I think people don’t understand, and this is why we did a very in-depth article testing this, is that you can even be doing very heavy gaming, and it will still charge very fast. It won’t get any hotter. How do you feel about how difficult it is to market that kind of stuff? Something that is so conventional, something that people are used to and think is so boring…

C: I think it has kind of worked, you know? Like from our data, more studies and just from reading comments, we see that people love it. But how can we use it as a way of getting new users? I don’t know, like that’s where our marketing plans have a lot of cool stuff that’s going to get out there before the end of the year, so I guess we’ll see if it works or not. A lot of the content is about Dash, like you might have seen the comparison we did… the Dash Car charger vs. the “adaptive fast charging”, so after like half an hour the OnePlus 3 was fifty-five percent and then the S7 was eleven percent.

M: And again, Dash Charging is one of my favourite features because you can actually use the phone while charging it. Most people don’t realize that with Qualcomm Quick Charge if you use the phone while charging it, the phone can get really hot, performance will suffer, and sometimes you charge substantially slower. With the OnePlus 3, that just doesn’t happen, which is great.

C: And you don’t need to charge overnight, so it’s convenient. Just top it up whenever you need.

M: Definitely. And with reduced standby, I can just leave it on my nightstand and not have to worry. And I think that’s a good note to transition to talking about new hardware. We’ve heard rumors with this whole AMOLED shortage. I was personally very skeptical, but we did see a report of a model name registration that was pretty much the OnePlus 3 model name, plus 10. So what’s that all about?

C: (Chuckles) This will have to wait for another time! At a later time we can talk about other things…! This interview is more about software, and at a later time we can talk about other things…

M: Okay. Yeah, I would imagine that you wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. But something’s coming, right? Something new.

C: Maybe.

M: I just wanted to touch on that because if I recall correctly, during the AMA, one of you said that there was no small phone, a sequel to a OnePlus X, coming this year. So that leads me to believe this is not going to be a smaller phone (if it exists). And because it shares a similar model number, it kind of indicates that it may be like a OnePlus 3+. There’s a lot of speculation going on, and I just wanted to see if I could get some of that out of you but I guess you are being too secretive.

C: Time will tell. We might have something [REDACTED, but largely inconsequential].

M: Okay, yeah I’ll do that. It was worth a shot… Now, I want to touch on something that is really important to us at XDA, and that is the developer community, and tinkering and customization and enthusiasts and all that. How do you see that niche as a part of the OnePlus demographic? Do you think it is a sizable part, a substantial part? I know you said that you hear feedback rather than catering or pandering, but is it a sizable enough portion that it is the reason why you are quick to implement these changes?

C: Not necessarily. This is the way we think: We try to make the best Android flagships, and sometimes we do better than other times, but it’s always been our pursuit to try and make the best flagship product. I think when you do so, you automatically attract enthusiast users. Like, if we were to make a $100 smartphone, we probably wouldn’t have gotten an enthusiast following. No matter how hard we tried. It’s not about the fact that this group is large, but this group cares. So if you can satisfy these guys, the most demanding people when it comes to smartphone choice, then it also helps you satisfy other people. It’s kind of like a domino effect. Sometimes when you do one small thing it will help you solve a lot of larger problems. That’s kind of how we look at it.

M: Definitely. And that’s kind of where word of mouth marketing comes into play. A lot of OnePlus users are just enthusiasts in general. The kind of tech savvy person in the family who ends up recommending the phones, and all that stuff. We’ve seen you guys release the blobs for Dash Charging, which greatly sped up the development of custom ROMs, because it meant that custom ROMs could take advantage of Dash Charge, and meant that people weren’t giving something up to use custom ROMs. And again, I’m running CyanogenMod 14, and it still charges wicked fast, and of course a lot of people are thankful for that. But developers always want and need more. There’s been a lot of talk about the camera. Do you guys have any plans on helping with the development of the camera software for Custom ROMs?

C: We want to, and we’ve been talking about internally. So there’s a challenge with the camera because if we want a blob, then there are two major challenges. The first one being, the code relating to the camera is on a lot of layers, so you have something related to the camera on the framework level, something on the Android level, something on a system level. So we’re gonna have to rewrite a lot of code to be able to separate it in a way that allows us to blob it. And the second reason is, if we were to blob it the result is that the speed will suffer, so the speed of the camera UX on custom ROMs will suffer. We’re still trying to figure out a way of how we can release something that will help people improve the camera in their custom ROMs without making the experience become too bad. And we don’t want something with our logo to have a poor experience either. So it is going to be a little bit harder than we thought, but we’ve been discussing this.

M: Okay. I would imagine that we perhaps might not see an OxygenOS camera, but we may see some other enhancements.

C: Yes, maybe if we can somehow package more into our own camera app and maybe put it on the Play Store… but there are a lot of dependencies on the hardware and on the lower levels of the system.

M: Yeah. What is OnePlus’ relationship with custom ROM developers? I know that the company has handed out phones to custom ROM developers so that they could work on your devices. Grarak had CyanogenMod ready practically on launch day. Are you planning on doing more of that and kind of propping up the development scene further? Many phones are becoming increasingly locked down, and the OnePlus 3 is one of the best devices for this kind of stuff…

C: We’re always iterating… we’ve been running this dev program where we send devices to developers that we think do a good job, Back in the day we were also discussing with Jeremy about how to do it, because he knows the developer community much better than we do. We always like to try new things, and like listening to feedback. If you have any feedback on how we can improve the experience further for the dev community, that would be helpful.

M: We’ve seen reports of Android heading down this Andromeda route, and it has reinforced some fears that Google is going to stop focusing on AOSP, and increasingly focus on its property services. There’s a lot of my insecurity about the future of Android. At the same time, Andromeda does sound pretty exciting, and we’re just not sure if all the OEMs are going to be able to implement it. But either way, where do you see Android itself heading as a platform?

C: I think with the Pixel launch, Google has shown the market that you don’t have to always stick to AOSP for everything. Look at the launcher, for instance. It’s a brand-new launcher.

M: Yep. I’m running it right now actually.

C: In a way this gives everyone more flexibility, right? Back in the day there was a very vocal group of Android purists, and whenever you changed a tiny bit of Android you would be doing something wrong — you would be breaking “the law”! But now Google is breaking that, the style guidelines of Android, so that gives OEMs more freedom in a way. But if you talk about a “big topic”. like what’s the future of Android or how Andromeda is going to change the market… Then I don’t know, we don’t really think about those things. We focus much more on “Hey, what do we have here… how can we make it better, what are our users saying?” or “What’s our next product coming out?”… those are the things we are working on, much more than thinking about the future of Android. So we just don’t know! And we don’t pretend to know.

M: Right. Fair enough, and this is why I left this question for last. Because I increasingly realize you are a pragmatic guy and very narrowly-focused on the moment and the next launch of this or that product. Either way it doesn’t matter too much. Do you have any words for OnePlus 3 fans and developers at XDA?

C: I guess thank you! Because like I said we kind of look to redeem ourselves with the OnePlus 3, and I don’t think it’s bragging if I say that we kind of have! But that wouldn’t have been possible if all these people had not given us another chance. So thank you!

This is the end of our interview with Carl Pei. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed the talk itself. If you want to get the most out of your OnePlus 3 experience, be sure to check out our OnePlus 3 forums where you can find all sorts of tweaks and tips!

About author

Steven Zimmerman
Steven Zimmerman

Steven grew up wishing he could take the internet everywhere with him. His first smartphone was an HTC Legend, and he's been tinkering and playing with Android ever since. With a background in accounting, he strives to bring a unique perspective to the tech journalism world.