OnePlus X (unlocked) review:

Beautiful and cheap, with a baffling lack of wide LTE support

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OnePlus X (onyx)

(Part #: OnePlus X-onyx)
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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good The inexpensive OnePlus X is fast, beautifully designed and has some nifty customizable features.

The Bad The glossy handset is slippery and has limited compatibility with key LTE bands in the US.

The Bottom Line The OnePlus X is one of the best budget phones of the year, but its limited LTE support make it a crapshoot for US customers who want high-speed data.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 9.0
  • Camera 7.0
  • Battery 7.0

I was ready to crown the OnePlus X as one of the best budget smartphones of 2015. Compared to other $250 unlocked devices, it's more powerful than the Motorola Moto G, more beautiful than the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 and runs a more updated OS than the Huawei P8 Lite. With its stylish design and faster speed than its rivals, I was ready to buy into the OnePlus motto to "never settle."

There's just one problem. If you live in the US (and in some parts of North America), like I do, you might have to settle for slower data speeds. That's because the OnePlus X won't work on a couple of important LTE bands used by US carriers AT&T and T-Mobile. Though I personally experienced stable data speeds, many others reported spotty and slow data coverage.

If having inconsistent LTE doesn't bother you that much, or you live outside the US (in which case this shouldn't be a problem, and you can easily cross reference with your provider's bands to see if your OnePlus X is compatible), the handset is a terrific phone with big value. But if you're in the US and having solid LTE is a crucial, it's best to look elsewhere than risk the possibility of surfing with sluggish data.

Editors' Note: This review has been updated on January 28, 2016 to reflect OnePlus' elimination of its invite-only policy.

How much is it and how to get it

As with its other phones, OnePlus made the X available by invite only (and it was invite-free temporarily from December 5-7). But as predicted, the company has now lifted its policy and now you can buy it without an invitation.

Unlocked, the X costs $249 and £199 (which converts to about AU$430). A special ceramic edition (more on that later) will be available only in Europe and India. That one will cost £269 in the UK or €369.

Similar with its first two smartphones, OnePlus made the X available through invite only. It is now available for purchase without one.

Josh Miller/CNET

Compared to the 2, which starts at $330, £239 (or about AU$450 converted) for the 16GB version, and $390, £289 (or about AU$535) for the 64GB model, the X is an even bigger value than its flagship counterpart. True, it's smaller and has scaled down hardware all around, but it does give you more bang for your buck -- especially when consider it also has expandable memory (which the marquee handset doesn't have).

Lastly, because OnePlus is a burgeoning mobile manufacturer based in China, you should bear in mind that its customer support may not be as far-reaching or fast as big-name companies such as Apple, Google and Samsung. That's not to say it's completely nonexistent, and indeed the company's website lists a support number, a live-chat tool and a way for users to file a support ticket. But it's something to consider if you need quick and easy access to a company rep should you need to troubleshoot a problem, report a repair or check your warranty.

Design and build: High-class looks for a low cost

  • 5-inch display with 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and 441ppi pixel density
  • 5.5 by 2.7 by 0.27 inches (140 by 69 by 6.9mm)
  • Onyx: 4.86 ounces (138 grams); Ceramic: 5.64 oz. (160g)

The attractive device sports a slim, elegant design with glossy glass panels on the front and back, and a surrounding silver metal trim. It's reminiscent of a bigger, sleeker Apple iPhone 4, and I think it looks more polished and refined than the OnePlus 2. But while its aesthetic is sophisticated and pleasing, it collects fingerprints easily and it's quite slippery. Every time I held it I worried it would slip through my grip. Maybe it's all myh past experiences with glass-clad devices -- like the aforementioned iPhone 4 and that time my Google Nexus 4 cracked from a 2-inch fall -- but I was also a little anxious when I held the handset.

The phone comes in two design variants: Onyx, which has a glass display that smoothly curves down the edges of the phone, and the more expensive Ceramic, which has angled edges. The two versions are hardly discernible, but the latter does catch and reflect light in interesting ways. OnePlus manufactured just 10,000 units of Ceramic, so if you want that one, good luck.

The phone's two design variants: the angled-glass Ceramic (left) and Onyx, which has smoother glass panels.

Josh Miller/CNET

Personally, I prefer the onyx. Even though it's not the more premium version of the two, the smoothness of the glass feels more attractive to the touch, and I just think it looks better up close. And compared to other budget phones, it's one of the best looking in its price bracket. It raises the bar on what you expect a "cheap" handset to look like, and its solid build quality definitely feels more expensive than its $249 price tag.

OnePlus is also selling rear covers that come in several colors and materials besides the usual plastic, including wood, bamboo and kevlar.

On the left is a physical button that you can toggle to turn on and off notifications and sounds. Overall, the buttons stick out from the surface, which makes them easy to use by feel, but also easy to accidentally activate while it's rattling inside a bag or backpack. That's bad news when the device turns itself on and drains its battery when you're not using it. I had one instance when the handset was completely out of power one morning, even though I didn't use it at night and kept it in my backpack. Unlike the OnePlus 2's USB Type-C port, the X has a more common (but less cutting edge) Micro-USB port (that's the one used by most Android phones today).

Unlike the OnePlus 2, the X has a Micro-USB port for charging and transferring files.

Josh Miller/CNET

For the first time, OnePlus is switching up its display, from the usual LCD, which you find on phones like the LG G4, to an AMOLED display, which Samsung and Microsoft Lumia phones have. This mostly won't mean much to you, but if you were to hold LCD and AMOLED phones side by side, you'd see blacker blacks and better image contrast. AMOLED phones are also said to help save on battery, though gains are more incremental than not; we're not talking hours of battery saving, here. At any rate, the X's screen is sharp and bright, and images were very clear. Games and videos in high-definition were vibrant and comfortable to watch, and text and app icons looked smooth. White hues, however, did come off a bit blue. This can be adjusted with the X's "color correction" feature nestled in its Accessibility menu, but even the device notes this option is "experimental and may affect performance."

Software and other features: Colorful, clean and customizable

  • OnePlus' Oxygen operating system
  • Based on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
  • Ambient display and FM radio app

The phone runs OnePlus' OxygenOS, which is proprietary software based on Android 5.1. One of the best things about OxygenOS is how easy it is to customize. It's neat that you're able to choose the accent color for your menu items, or the many colors that LED light will flash depending on the type of notification you receive. You can choose whether you want to navigate the X using physical buttons below the screen, or through on-screen controls instead. In addition, you can customize what each of these keys does when you double-tap or long press it.

Like the Google Nexus and Motorola Moto devices, the X lets you know you've missed notifications by flashing on your lock screen when you approach your handset. There are a couple of useful gesture controls too that you can use while your display is sleeping. For instance, you can double tap to wake up the screen (a feature included on many LG phones), draw an O shape to launch the camera, or turn on the flashlight in a pinch by writing a V on the screen.

The handset's shelf homepage (left) and the OnePlus radio app.

Lynn La/CNET

The OS features an extra homepage called "shelf" that gives you quick access to your recent apps, favorite contacts and any other widgets you want to add. As for bloatware, the X fortunately doesn't have much. Other than OnePlus Radio, an FM radio app that features an attractive minimalistic design and bold neon colors, you'll get Google staples like the Chrome Web browser, Gmail, Hangouts, YouTube and more. If you're already an Android user, it shouldn't take any time for you get to know this device.

One thing to note, however, is that the handset doesn't have a Near Field Communication chip, which allows it to communicate wirelessly with other NFC-enabled objects. This isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, but NFC is considered a standard among smartphones these days and it's a bit of a bummer that the X doesn't have it.

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