Why I hold OnePlus to a higher standard
Probably one of the most influential smartphone makers in the tech-enthusiast sphere, OnePlus has been on everyone’s minds in one way or another in recent months. With the Nord taking the Internet by storm thanks to OnePlus’s unrelenting media blitz, I have started to realize why I feel I have been overly critical of the company at times. I purchased the OnePlus 3 and the OnePlus 6 with my own money, and I remember back then having to go over pieces I had written to dial things back a bit of my own volition. In some ways, I was harsh—overly so at times—in ways that I wouldn’t be when talking about other device makers.
OnePlus’s own origin story is tied to XDA history, with the OnePlus One shipping with Cyanogen OS, a commercialized version of the now-defunct CyanogenMod. The OnePlus One was, in pretty much all aspects, the enthusiast’s device. I remember at the time trying to get my hands on an invite, though I failed and had to settle for the Nexus 5 at the time. The irony of the “Never Settle” mantra at the time was not lost on me, given that it was extremely hard to actually get the device that I wanted. The OnePlus One certainly had its own fair share of compromises, but they were easy to ignore given the value on offer. Of course, OnePlus would then later go on to engage in a series of rather questionable advertising campaigns. Matters were made even worse with the launch of the OnePlus 2, which launched without NFC.
Even throughout this whole ordeal, OnePlus was still an enthusiast’s favorite. Bootloader unlocking, software images to fix your phone if it breaks, and in the case of the OnePlus One, two operating systems that you could choose from — these were enough to keep people hooked. When their deal fell through with Cyanogen, OnePlus began to develop what would become known as OxygenOS, and you could choose either Android variant to flash on your device. XDA forum users were finally being catered for directly by a company, something that hadn’t really been done before past the Nexus series of devices. Even then, Nexus smartphones were aimed at developers primarily, while OnePlus tried to cater for both developers and enthusiasts alike.
OnePlus has had a long and turbulent history, which puts it in a rather unique position from the viewpoint of an enthusiast like you or me.
The OnePlus 2 and the OnePlus X set the company back considerably
Following the success of the OnePlus One, the OnePlus 2 was riding on the coattails of greatness. However, it failed to stick the landing. On paper, it was arriving without NFC, which riled up members of the enthusiast community considerably. However, when it arrived, things went from bad to worse. OnePlus was calling this device the “2016 flagship killer”, despite it launching in 2015, and it cost a decent bit more than the predecessor. It also came with the now-infamous Snapdragon 810, though it was admittedly a revised one that didn’t run as hot. OxygenOS did have some cool features, but it didn’t come with features that the users wanted. The drama finally reached its apex when end-users discovered that, despite being promised two years of updates, the “2016 flagship killer” would not get the 2016 Android version—Android Nougat. The company had gone back on one of their initial sales promises, and to enthusiasts who love getting smartphone updates, this was a grave error.
Following the release of the OnePlus 2, the company came back out again with another smartphone—the OnePlus X. Featuring the Snapdragon 801, it was designed to be an affordable mid-range. However, support for this device was dropped quite quickly, and it was yet again a testament to their lack of willingness to support their devices. It wasn’t a good look, and enthusiasts were beginning to become even more annoyed as they felt tricked. Around this time is when the company began the device-seeding program, a program where they would provide devices for free to developers.
The salvation of OnePlus: the OnePlus 3
The OnePlus 3 was arguably the company’s first serious phone, and after the incredible mismanagement of the OnePlus 2, it was back to the drawing board. They needed to launch a smartphone that could compete with the best, fly under the “flagship killer” banner, and stand by the enthusiast community the entire way. It launched with OxygenOS 3, 20W wired charging known as “Dash Charge”, and NFC. All three of these things were enough to draw the enthusiast community back over, and what’s more, there was no invite system. This was the first smartphone from the company that I was able to afford, having bided my time with my Nexus 5 until I could no longer hang on to it.
The OnePlus 3 marked a new trajectory for the company. Guaranteed updates, promises made directly to the development community, and devices sent to custom ROM developers helped to mend burned bridges. One such promise was the release of camera blobs so that developers could use the OxygenOS camera and its processing capabilities on custom ROMs. While this wasn’t explicitly released, OnePlus designed the camera system in a way that allowed developers to pull the camera app, camera processing libraries, and port them to custom ROMs. One of the only major criticisms of the OnePlus 3 was its camera, though the release of the Google Camera mod a year later skyrocketed its popularity as it largely fixed this problem. The OnePlus 3 even had three major updates, seen by many as an attempt to make up for the OnePlus 2’s letdowns.
OxygenOS could have been so much more
Because the company’s own OxygenOS was created in the absence of what was essentially a commercialized custom ROM, I remember having high hopes for OxygenOS. I knew I wasn’t the only one either—I remember seeing discussions on /r/Android talking about how the OnePlus could be the cheaper, better Nexus series for developers and enthusiasts alike. With massive influence from the custom ROM community, I think many had visions of an operating system close to stock Android, but at the time, what they thought they would get was certainly not what they did actually get. OxygenOS took a long time to get right and lacked features deemed crucial by enthusiasts.
In the case of the OnePlus 2, there was a complete lack of customization features, and those coming from the OnePlus One felt conned. Cyanogen OS was feature-packed, and OxygenOS was just getting its feet off the ground. Plagued with battery problems and crashing apps (Facebook was a particularly bad offender), the custom ROM community saved the day for many who had this device. A friend of mine still had his own OnePlus 2 up until recently, and he told me how OxygenOS was basically unusable. It slowly improved over time, though OxygenOS on the OnePlus 5 was caught out for benchmark cheating—by us at XDA. One of the communities that OnePlus had relied on for enthusiast support had caught it out on its own negligence.
As OxygenOS improved over the years, it took a long time to get even the basic features right. The company only recently added a basic toggle for dark mode in OxygenOS 11, alongside an always-on display. Both of these features have been available on the phones of competitors for years. Enthusiasts love features, and OnePlus has barely provided them. OxygenOS is a bloated operating system, and not in the way that you may think I am talking about. There are now pre-installed apps from Facebook and Netflix, but it’s the bloat that you can’t see.
Under-the-hood is where the biggest problems lie. The notifications system has been broken for years across multitudes of OnePlus smartphones. It was a problem on the OnePlus 3, on the OnePlus 6, the OnePlus 7 series, and it’s still a problem on the OnePlus 8 series and the OnePlus Nord today. My girlfriend’s OnePlus 7 Pro has even missed alarms, my own OnePlus 8 Pro frequently misses messages and emails, and my OnePlus Nord missed WhatsApp messages and emails. These issues aren’t confined to my bubble of contacts either—DontKillMyApp lists Oneplus as the worst offender across all OEMs for app killing. Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO? OnePlus is worse than all three, yet those are the three that have the worst reputation. Somehow, OnePlus often flies under the radar. Apps are killed all the time on all of my OnePlus devices, to the extent to which I’ve not seen before.
With a renewed brand identity in 2020, the company launched OxygenOS 11, one of the biggest stylistic changes that OxygenOS has undergone ever. Many have dubbed it a One UI lookalike, and I can honestly kind of see it. It puts a large emphasis on moving content that you interact with down to the lower half of the phone so that it’s easier to use one-handed. Many have an issue with this as they see it as a departure from the “stock Android” look that OxygenOS was known for, even if I would argue that it never really was stock Android. OxygenOS 10 had so many changes not only under the hood but visually as well.
However, it can’t be denied that OxygenOS 11 is a world apart from OxygenOS 10. I personally quite like it, but it’s yet again another decision made that enthusiasts are not too fond of. The comment threads announcing this update were rife with criticism, with many questioning OnePlus’ change of direction. It’s not only just the company’s hardware, pricing, and developer community that has changed, but even their software has changed so drastically that many are looking to other brands for their enthusiast fix.
What OnePlus could have been
Look OnePlus, I get it, the enthusiast market isn’t the most profitable. Enthusiasts want everything as cheap as possible like the OnePlus One. They want affordable tech at the right price. They don’t want smartphones that rival the Samsung Galaxy S20 in price, but all of that is slowly what you have become. While I would argue that the OnePlus 8 Pro is fantastic value for money when compared against other flagships of a similar price, your company has become far-removed from its origins. I love my OnePlus 8 Pro, and I wish I could have reviewed it as it is one of my favorite phones of this year. I know I’ve been harsh at times, and the OnePlus 8 Pro would have been the most glowing review of one of your devices yet. Many of the software issues that I had with the OnePlus 7T Pro were fixed, but alas, it’s still not perfect. “Never Settle” feels like any other basic company tagline now, not a statement of excellence to be touted as a sign of superiority over other brands.
The OnePlus Nord is a prime example of what feels like an exploitation of the “Never Settle” tagline. This company was born out of a dedication to enthusiasts, yet €400 is a tall ask for a mid-range smartphone. I can pick up the POCO F2 Pro for anywhere from €400 to €439 on Amazon in Europe, and it far outclasses the Nord. There’s no 90Hz display, but everything else about it is far superior. The Realme X50 even offers the same Snapdragon 765G and a 120Hz IPS display, and that costs about £70 less. The Nord felt undercut in the market before it even arrived in the market, yet seemingly survived on hype and brand recognition alone. OnePlus has always been about hype, but the Nord feels like more than that. It feels like a complete departure from what OnePlus once stood for.
I could generally always excuse the creeping up of prices as the company always had more to offer with each iteration, and the OnePlus 8 Pro feels very close to a perfect smartphone in a lot of regards. It offers a near-perfect smartphone experience for a price still consistently less than the very top-end smartphones, and that still feels very OnePlus to me. The company made use of the enthusiast community to help build its stature at the very beginning, and yet a lot of what it does now feels like neglect to that very same community. OnePlus has begun to stand on its own, and seemingly no longer feels the need to go blow-for-blow in terms of features with competitors to compete. It survives on brand recognition alone, and that brand recognition includes a public perception of OxygenOS being a bloat-free, clean, close-to-stock experience that it just is not.
And then there’s that recent news that co-founder Carl Pei stepped down from the company with ambitions to start a new hardware venture. The company’s other co-founder, Pete Lau, is still at the company and holds the position of CEO. However, he recently took on an additional role as Senior Vice President and Chief Product Experience Officer of OPLUS, an investment firm that oversees OnePlus, OPPO, and possibly others. Why did Carl Pei leave the company so soon after a major product launch? Who can say? However, departing the company at this time has had many wondering the reason for Pei’s departure. There are also rumors that OnePlus will be launching two new affordable Nord smartphones in the US too, so it’s clear that OnePlus has been very busy.
There has been a total shift in brand identity from OnePlus, and I think Pei’s departure is evidence of that. OxygenOS has been redesigned from the ground up and OnePlus as a whole is also making a massive push with their Nord branding. With a smartwatch on the horizon, it’s clear that OnePlus is no longer the small, enthusiast-built company it once was. They’ve already made a TV, they’re investing in audio heavily, and now they’re having a go at the mid-range and budget segments too. As OnePlus dilutes its portfolio with more and more products, it will shift its brand identity entirely.
I’m particularly harsh on OnePlus as it still feels like the enthusiast brand, but with each new release, it feels like it strays further and further towards being just another OEM.