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From a Newcomer, a High-End Smartphone at a Great Value

But it's not for everyone. And getting one will require some patience.

It’s always hard being the new kid on the block, especially if that block is called Smartphone Avenue and it’s ruled by a couple of big kids named Apple and Samsung. But that isn’t stopping some fresh faces, like OnePlus, from coming in and showing that the little guys can scrap, too.

The Chinese startup recently released its first smartphone, called the One (not to be confused with the HTC One), which serves as the company’s flagship device. Created around the company’s mantra of “Never settle,” the One packs in many of the high-end features that you’d expect in today’s top devices, including a full-HD display, 13-megapixel camera and quad-core processor, but at a fraction of the cost of what you’d pay for one of today’s top-tier phones without a contract.

The 16 gigabyte One costs $299, while the 64GB model costs $349. By comparison, the 16GB Nexus 5 starts at $349, and other high-end Android smartphones, like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One, cost around $650 off contract.

OnePlus One

Typically, a lower price means compromises, and the One has a few, such as the lack of expandable memory. But overall, it’s an impressive device that features a solid design and good performance. Plus, the smartphone offers a high level of customization that lets you tweak everything from the general appearance of the phone’s interface to the animation that appears every time you turn on the handset.

That said, the One isn’t for everyone. If you’re on a super-tight budget, you should opt for something like the Moto G or Moto E. Though you’ll give up a bit in screen size and quality and speed, among other things, they’re much cheaper at $179 and $129, respectively. Also, if you’re a first-time smartphone buyer, or don’t plan to use any of the software-customization features, the One is probably overkill.

The One is best for Android fans who want the latest and greatest features and the freedom to personalize their devices. But you’ll need a bit of patience if you want one.

Currently, OnePlus is only letting people buy the smartphone through an invitation system. You can sign up to receive an invite on the company’s website, or if you know someone who has one, he or she can invite you. OnePlus said it will continue using the invite system for a little while, at least until it can ramp up production. When that happens, the company will open up sales to everyone. In the U.S., the One is compatible with AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s 4G network.

OnePlus One

The One falls into the “phablet” category, with its 5.5-inch touchscreen and larger size. At 6.01 inches tall by 2.99 inches wide and 0.35-inch thick, it’s difficult to use one-handed, but not any more so than other phablets. The 64GB model, which I tested, features an interesting finish on the back with a bit of a felt-like texture, but slightly rougher. I’m still trying to decide whether I like it or not, but it definitely makes the phone less slippery and doesn’t have the plastic feel of the Galaxy S5.

The One’s display was bright, sharp and responsive. The user interface feels very much like the stock Android experience, which I prefer to Samsung’s TouchWiz interface or the HTC Sense, since it’s less busy. But the beauty of the One is that you get to decide which UI is best for you.

The One is running the latest version of Google’s Android operating system (4.4.2 KitKat), but on top of that, it’s running software called CyanogenMod 11S. For those unfamiliar with CyanogenMod, it’s a popular platform with Android enthusiasts that allows users to modify almost every setting on their Android smartphones or tablets. Usually, this requires a process called “rooting,” which can be confusing if you don’t know what you’re doing, but with the One, everything is built in.

OnePlus One

From the preloaded Themes Showcase app on the phone, you’ll find different wallpapers, icons, fonts, sounds and more to download and use on the phone. Some are free, while others cost a couple of bucks. I had fun tinkering with the different options. I downloaded one theme called Blue Next, which changed my wallpaper to Catwoman (not because I’m a fan, but because it was free) and switched the default rectangular icons to circular ones. I also switched up the font and downloaded some new sound packs.

The showcase definitely needs some work, though. The selection is pretty limited at this time, but the catalog will grow. When this happens, I’d like to see a search function or a way to be able to filter selections by price and other criteria.

Customization on the One goes beyond just looks. You can also instruct the phone to perform certain tasks using gestures (for example, you can launch the camera by drawing a circle on the screen when in standby mode), reassign or reorient the functions of the phone’s physical and virtual buttons, control app permissions, and more.

As I mentioned earlier, this level of personalization is probably too much for the smartphone newbie or casual user, not to mention that it’s not clearly explained anywhere. But it’s nice to have the option for those who care.

OnePlus One

As a smartphone, the One performed well. The Qualcomm quad-core processor kept things running smoothly. I didn’t experience any crashes or major lags. Using T-Mobile’s network, I made several calls on the One in the San Francisco Bay Area, and call quality was loud and clear. With moderate use, I was able to go a full day before needing to recharge the One’s battery.

The only aspect that was slightly disappointing was the 13-megapixel camera. Like many smartphone cameras, the One did fine when shooting outdoors, but shots taken indoors or in dimly lit environments were a bit grainy and washed-out.

Still, the One is an impressive first effort from newcomer OnePlus. It delivers on design, features and performance, with the bonus of vast customization. If you’re in the market for a high-end Android device, but don’t want to pay for the privilege of being free of carrier contracts, the One’s value is hard to beat.

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