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First Look: OnePlus One Smartphone Equals Nexus Killer?

One of this summer's hottest Android smartphones may not come from Samsung or HTC.

Bonnie Cha/Recode

You’ve probably never heard of the company OnePlus before, but it’s a name you might be hearing more often if its upcoming Android smartphone delivers on its promise to be a “flagship killer.”

Launching in mid-June, the OnePlus One is the startup’s first device, and it’s drawing attention not only for its long laundry list of features, but also for its affordable price tag. The phone starts at $299 for an unsubsidized, unlocked 16-gigabyte model and $349 for the 64GB model. By comparison, the unlocked 16GB Nexus 5 starts at $349, while other top-tier Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One go for around $650 off contract.

The cheaper price doesn’t mean any trade-off in features, either. It can go toe to toe with the Galaxy S5 and HTC One with a 5.5-inch full HD display, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a five-megapixel front-facing camera. It uses Qualcomm’s latest quad-core processor and offers 3GB of RAM. The phone is also compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE networks.

What makes the OnePlus One a bit different from the others is its CyanogenMod partnership. For those of you unfamiliar with it, CyanogenMod is open-source software that allows you to modify your Android device with custom themes, features and options not available on the preinstalled operating system.

While the OnePlus One is based on Google’s latest Android 4.4 KitKat OS, it’s running a special version of CyanogenMod, which offers such features as a privacy guard that lets you control what type of data your apps access. There’s also an advanced Gallery app that lets you not only view and edit pictures taken with the camera but those stored in other services like Flickr, Google+, Facebook and Dropbox.

Cyanogen held a special launch event for the phone in San Francisco today, where I got my first chance to check out the device. My first impression is that the OnePlus One will appeal to power Android users, but it’ll be a harder sell for general consumers.

The OnePlus One’s design is nice enough, but I can’t say that it stood out from any other smartphone today. At 6.02 inches tall by 2.99 inches wide, it definitely falls more into phablet territory, but it’s relatively thin and light, which made it manageable. The curved back also makes it more comfortable to hold. The back cover is removable, and the company plans to sell different colors in the future. For now, the OnePlus One will be available in black or white.

The user interface is where things get interesting. Overall, the experience feels like Android, though certain apps have different names. It’s simple and void of any bloatware, which is nice.

Of course, one of the biggest draws of CyanogenMod has been its customization capabilities, and there’s a dedicated Themes app where you can change everything from the fonts, icons and sounds to the type of animation that appears when you power on the device.

With the deep personalization and lower price point, the OnePlus One seems like an ideal device for Android users who have the desire and knowledge to modify their phones. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s all a little too much for the general consumer. I think about my mom and dad, who just want a phone they can use right out of the box, and I know they’d be overwhelmed with the OnePlus One. This is something Cyanogen seems to be aware of, and the company has made some efforts to cater to a more general audience, whether it’s renaming some apps or providing on-device tutorials.

Since I had such a short time with the phone, I can’t say anything definitive about its performance. In my brief hands-on time, I was able to navigate through the menus smoothly, and apps launched quickly. The camera was also fast, but I wasn’t all that impressed with the picture quality. I’m looking forward to really putting the handset through its paces when it comes out in June.

The OnePlus One will initially be available in select countries, including the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Hong Kong and Taiwan, among others. And though general availability is slated for June, the company is accepting and shipping a limited number of orders through an invite system now. You can find more information on OnePlus’s forum.

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