The OnePlus 2 & The Year of Smartphone Compromises
We are very close to entering the last third of 2015, and we have now seen many of the biggest flagship lines issue their latest iterations. Phones like the LG G4 and Galaxy S6 were some of the most anticipated devices in smartphone history, and the hype surrounding the M9 and OnePlus 2 had us discussing for weeks. But for the most part, the awe has vanished.
There is a feeling that virtually all of us at the XDA office couldn’t shake off after each and every phone unveiling, something which can loosely be described as “cool, but not enough”. Mind you, by this we mean “I wouldn’t upgrade to it”, and I am sure many of you have felt the same. We’ve discussed each phone in-depth, and arrived at the conclusion that it is not because they are bad phones, and certainly not because they are worse phones than the ones before, but because most of them don’t offer a no-compromise, thorough upgrade.
The global context at large is most likely a culprit. We’ve seen the rise of the affordable phone with the original Moto G, but now the trend has moved into the premium space by the increasingly powerful influence of Chinese OEMs like Xiaomi and Huawei, and start-up companies like OnePlus. Some manufacturers like Motorola have given into the pressure and revised their pricing, and others are reportedly considering cutting prices as well. As we approach the saturation point in the biggest markets, the industry is shifting towards emerging economies that see increased sales of affordable devices.
Balancing out hardware advancements, the desire consumers have for “premium smartphones” and competition with the low-end is not an easy task. While 2015 phones have seen clear-cut upgrades on many fronts, we are left feeling that there were compromises and half-measures in their development. This wouldn’t be so bad if the companies themselves wouldn’t try to market their phones as a “no compromise” flagship. Case in point, the OnePlus 2. In this editorial, I will dig into why the OnePlus 2 has failed to meet the hype it set itself up for, and why these compromises ultimately lead to user discontent.
OnePlus had a hit last year with their One flagship, and its bang-per-buck ratio trumped plenty of competitive offerings. The hardware was great, the pricing was excellent, and the phone’s software was good as well. However, the company did meet plenty of controversy over their invite system, quality control issues and very shoddy consumer support. They promised that they would improve upon all of this, and in some ways they did. The OnePlus 2 has been hyped for months and months on end, and with each little tease, the fandom the OnePlus One developed had higher and higher expectations. This week we saw the end result, and while it is a good product, OnePlus made some nonsensical decisions and claims. Is this really the “2016 flagship killer”?
Let’s start with the Snapdragon 810: OnePlus announced this would be the chipset in their new flagship, and they were instantly met with skepticism. The company then issued a statement where they said there was nothing to fear, as the chipset would deliver no compromises in performance… because it had been underclocked to 1.8GHz. This alone contradicts their “never settle” campaign but given the processor at hand, it had to be done. The marketing became more intense when Qualcomm VP of Marketing Tim McDonough, whose claims I once disproved, showed up at the launch event to once again remind us how good the Snapdragon 810 is. OnePlus called it “blazingly fast”, and in that sense they are right: early impressions suggest the device gets hotter than its predecessor, and hotter than plenty of the competition by reaching up to 47.7°C (118°F). Moreover, the early benchmarks we’ve seen show scores not just lower than many other Snapdragon 810 devices, but also than the OnePlus One itself.
Battery life is something the OnePlus One surprised all of us with, so we were expecting greatness out of its successor. Shortly before the launch, we heard confirmation of a 3,300 mAh battery, which instantly got many excited. I remained skeptical because we had learned (through AMAs) that the OnePlus 2 would not feature a removable battery, nor wireless charging (because they said it was “too slow and inefficient”). When the company announced the USB Type C standard, I saw myself having to ground my friends’ expectations, because USB Type C does not inherently mean higher charging speed. And it turns out I was right: OnePlus opted for a standard USB 2.0, and to make things worse, it has no Quick Charge. We now know it can take around 3 hours to get a full charge, through a port that is not widely adopted, without wireless charging and without the option to change batteries. What’s more, MKBHD’s battery benchmark and real-world usage suggest a regression in battery life (although it is still too early to make conclusive statements).
On to NFC: the company decided to leave out NFC support from their new flagship, because apparently “OnePlus One users were not using it”. This is something that I’ve heard before in my interview with Fairphone, and it shows that OnePlus did not project into the future: Android Pay will hit many markets soon, and expand to many stores. Alibaba is also popularizing mobile payments in China, one of OnePlus’ most important markets. This gives NFC the possibility of the widespread use it has not had since its introduction. OnePlus decided to incorporate a fingerprint scanner, but now it is mostly relegated to unlocking the phone, not mobile payments. What’s more puzzling is that Carl Pei himself had suggested an emphasis on biometrics for mobile payments, just not the close-contact kind which will expand with Android Pay, Samsung Pay, Alipay in China and Apple Pay (really original names, by the way) hitting more and more stores.
Finally, we have the screen. OnePlus had a very impressive screen with their previous phone, and this one does not look bad either. I am not the kind of user who is crazy about 1440p screens – in fact, I run my Note 4 at 1080p – but OnePlus once again showed nonsense: they have been advertising their Virtual Reality launch since it was announced, and they kept saying that Virtual Reality is the future. They even shipped out free VR Cardboards! Now, if there is a practical reason to have a high-resolution screen, that is VR. The fact that OnePlus has been pushing for VR while making their device a much less appealing option for VR is as retrograde as it gets. We had a feature on why VR can justify QHD and UHD displays, which we suggest you read in case you are out of the loop. You will see that QHD does have a noticeable effect on VR, and other manufacturers know this (which is why Samsung began its push for it with the Note 4).
Slow Death of Flagships
This is not the only phone to promise too much and deliver too little. The M9, for example, had many issues which we discussed time and time again — and not all were due to the Snapdragon 810. But this infamous SoC did put most OEMs in a troubling spot. LG and Moto opted for the less powerful but more stable 808, which is one of the few ways to avoid the flak the number “810” carries with it as well as possible performance inconsistencies. Rumors say that the 820 might come before we expected it to, around the last quarter of 2015. Hopefully this is the case so that other highly-anticipated devices (like new Nexus phones) can make use of a more powerful and more stable chipset. But the problem with the sales of 2015 smartphones, which didn’t meet expectations even for Samsung, is too complex to blame simply on hot chips or failed hype.
Like I said in the introduction, many of us just think that the advancements given are not enough, and the big compromises make us hesitant in making the jump, or even being enticed to do so. Many of the faults may be overblown and overplayed, but users opt out because of them, regardless of how bad they really are. Compromises such as the M9’s camera, the Z3+’s heating issues, the S6’s lack of microSD and removable battery, and the OnePlus 2’s clear cutbacks turn us off because, in the XDA team’s case, we already have devices that we carefully researched and thoroughly optimized. We bought them because they are either balanced or adjust to our use-cases. Thus, if new devices do not improve on what we want without sacrificing what we need, it becomes a no-go. Devices like the Nexus 6 and the Note 4 offered upgrades (over their predecessors) on virtually every aspect, while new devices like the M9 and the S6 do not. Sometimes not in terms of the specification sheet, and sometimes due to the resulting user experience.
So far, the “no compromise” phones have had compromises here or there. Some are big, some are not, but more often than not they are found in key areas of a phone. Regressing in something as important as the camera or battery life is not something anyone wants out of their precious and expensive upgrades. Now that flagships are powerful enough to last years (especially with good software or developer support from OEMs or XDA), there is less of a reason to upgrade. The market knows this, OEMs know this. Motorola has now split their flagship model into two, and the Moto X Pure is just $399. It features amazing specifications for that price. The Chinese giants are entering the West, and many first-world markets are beginning to show signs of saturation. Developing markets are more important than ever. In this context, balancing out every aspect while focusing on keeping a low price is a hard task.
The OnePlus 2 is not a 2016 flagship killer, because in many areas it cannot even kill 2014 flagships. But soon enough, there might be nothing left to kill: the high-end is beginning to merge with the middle-range. When most OEMs catch-up to the new model the market favors, OnePlus’ niche will go away. If Motorola is anything to go by, then it might just happen sooner than we expect.