Call it the smartphone-shopper's dilemma: If you want a state-of-the-art model like the HTC One M8 or the Samsung Galaxy S5, be prepared to shell out $600 to $700 -- or get in bed with a carrier for another two years in exchange for a subsidized price.
Last year, Google introduced a third option in the form of the Nexus 5, a powerful but unlocked phone starting at $349. Not only was the hardware more affordable, but you could take it to just about any carrier for contract-free service.
Following that same model, here comes the OnePlus One, a bleeding-edge unlocked phone starting at $299. But can a China-based startup really compete with the likes of Google?
Surprise: It does compete effectively with Google -- and with HTC, Motorola and Samsung. The One delivers virtually unrivaled bang for the buck, and although it's not without a few rough edges, it may just be the smartphone Android fanboys have been waiting for.
However, before I get into the details, there's a major caveat: At press time, you need an invitation to place an order. To come by one of those, you need to know someone who has already bought one (early invitees receive additional invitations to hand out). According to the website, there's another possibility: You can try "entering contests and promotional events hosted on our OnePlus Forums or social media channels." Alas, I couldn't track down any of either.
A company rep promised ramped-up production and easier-to-come-by invites as of early July, but wouldn't share any details about a traditional ordering process.
I tested my unit with H2O Wireless, an AT&T mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). Although the One supports both GSM and WCDMA bands, here in the U.S. it's compatible with only AT&T and T-Mobile (and their various MVNOs). Sorry, Sprint and Verizon Wireless fans: It doesn't work with their CDMA networks.
Though svelte and curvy, the One probably won't win any beauty contests, especially if it's competing with the silvery metal likes of an HTC One M8. Even so, I can't help comparing it to the Millennium Falcon: It's got it where it counts.
With its 5.5-in. Gorilla Glass 3 display, the One falls squarely into phablet territory, a term I despise but must apply here. It positively dwarfs an iPhone 5s and yet it's surprisingly thin, with a depth of only 0.35 in. I found the tapered 6-x-3-in. body comfortable to hold, and always expected to feel more heft when I picked it up. At 5.7 oz., the One is incredibly light for its size.
Its non-removable back plate, however, may be the ugliest I've seen on a smartphone. The "sandstone black" color is more of a dark, depressing gray (think: floor mat), and the surface has an almost cloth-like roughness. OnePlus plans to offer cases for the phone, including a couple of snazzy-looking yellow and orange numbers, but they're not available yet. My guess is you'll want one -- and not just for protection.
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