OnePlus X (unlocked) review: Beautiful and cheap, with a baffling lack of wide LTE support
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
Cameras and video: A decent shooter for casual pics
- 12.4-megapixel rear-facing camera
- 8-megapixel front-facing camera
- Can record 1,080p video (rear and front)
- Time-lapse and slow-motion video
Photo quality was good but not overly impressive. Though scenes with low-lighting didn't fare very well (images came out grainy with a lot of digital noise), environments that were brighter or better lit looked sharp and vibrant. Objects taken up close were in-focus with defined edges and true-to-life colors. Wider shots looked good too, but some shots I captured, however, looked a bit artificial, with the light lending a sort of cinematic quality to them. And while the front-facing camera didn't take photos as clear as the rear (especially when viewed at full resolution), they still retained a lot of detail with selfies having an even skin tone and a clear focus.
As for video, the camera was also reliable. It adjusted quickly to different lighting situations and focus areas, and both moving and still objects remained in focus. Distant audio picked up well enough, but I was impressed by how clearly nearby audio was recorded, as voices sounded clear and distinct. For more about photo quality, check out the pictures below. And be sure to click on each image to see it at its full resolution.
The device includes a handful of camera controls, but overall has kept the interface simple and clean. In addition to a digital zoom, touch focus and flash, there is HDR, panoramic and burst shooting. The camera also has geo-tagging, an exposure meter, and grid lines to help with composition. A "beauty" option softens lines and skin tones for selfies, and "clear image" takes multiple photos consecutively and combines them into one ideal shot. You can shoot photos in three possible photo ratios: square 1:1, widescreen 16:9 and standard 4:3.
As for video, users can shoot in 720p HD or 1,080p full-HD video, as well as time-lapse and slow-motion movies.
Hardware performance: A benchmark champion for its class
- 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor
- 16GB of internal storage with up to 128GB of expandable memory
- 3GB of RAM
- 2,525mAh non-removable battery
Overall, the X operates smoothly and swiftly. Apps open quickly, with the camera taking a mere 1.34 seconds to launch and the phone taking 32 seconds to reboot. Daily tasks like browsing through the app drawer, returning to the home page, calling up the keyboard and swift typing feel effortless, with little to no lag time. Though it does take a beat for the camera to open using the O-swipe gesture, it's relatively quick, and the V-swipe to turn on the flashlight takes no time at all to execute. Playing the graphics-intensive game Kill Shot also yielded crisp images and high frame rates that looked smooth and clear.
While the X did fine in day-to-day use, it didn't score as high as the flagship OnePlus 2 on benchmark tests. But amongst its own competitors in the same price range, the X had the highest marks. To give you an example, for the 3DMark Ice Storm (unlimited) test, it scored over 17,000, while the OneTouch Idol 3, the P8 Lite and the Moto G's scores ranged from 4,000 to the high 8,000. In addition, both its single- and multi-core results on Geekbench 3 were above that of the other three devices.
While these numbers sound great on paper, it's important to keep in mind that benchmarks don't tell the whole story. The phones all handled about the same in the real world, like opening apps and launching the app drawer. Really, the speed differences were pretty negligible.
Call quality, data speeds and that whole LTE issue
- GSM: 850, 900, 1,800, 1900 MHz bands
- WCDMA: Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8
- LTE: Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 20
- Wi-Fi 2.4Ghz b/g/n
As an unlocked global phone , the device works on carriers using GSM technology. In the US, that means networks like AT&T and T-Mobile. Unfortunately, it's incompatible with carriers that use CDMA technology, like Verizon and Sprint.
If you intend to make calls at all, you'll be happy to know that the OnePlus X is pretty good at the audio thing. I heard a bit of echo when I tested the X in our San Francisco offices by calling a landline. I heard a little bit of myself echo in the beginning of a conversation I had with my calling partner, but that quickly went away. Through the rest of the call, my partner sounded clear and easy to understand, and I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or echoes. Signal was also strong and I didn't pick up any static. Likewise, my partner told me that I sounded clear and he didn't pick up any distracting noises on his end.
Audio speaker was also great. Though my partner's voice sounded a bit thinner, the dual speakers at the bottom did well to bump up the noise level. I could still hear the conversation when I held the handset an arm's length away, and my partner came in loud and clear.
4G LTE data speeds using an AT&T SIM card was fast. Though I did have some difficulty latching onto an LTE network at first (more on that later), once I did, my connection was stable and consistent from there on in. According to Ookla's speedtest app, the average down- and upload rates were 15.79 and 23.29Mbps, respectively. It took 2 seconds to load CNET's mobile page and 25 seconds to display the desktop site. The 48.03MB game Temple Run 2 took a minute and 49 seconds to download and install, and downloading the 1.7GB movie "Gravity" in high-definition took 9 minutes and 18 seconds, which is a relatively decent time to clock in, based on past data speeds I've observed for AT&T.
It's important to note that for US customers, the X isn't fully compatible with certain LTE bands used by GSM carriers -- specifically, AT&T's LTE Band 17 and T-Mobile's LTE Band 12, the former of which is the carrier's most frequently used LTE band. While I didn't notice any problems during my time with the device aside from the first few minutes of inserting a SIM that I mentioned earlier, others might not be so fortunate. Depending on your area's coverage, you may see more instances of the OnePlus X connecting to these carriers' slower 3G HSPA networks, which is a major drawback of the handset and can be a frustrating day-to-day endeavor. As always with data tests, speeds differ widely depending on several factors such as location and time of day. What I experienced is just a small sample and given the phone's lack of certain LTE support, it may be entirely different than what you experience in your location.
As for those outside the US and North America, check with your carrier and the LTE bands used to see if the OnePlus X is fully compatible.
OnePlus 2 (unlocked on AT&T) average data speeds
|4G LTE download rate||15.79Mbps|
|4G LTE upload rate||23.29Mbps|
|CNET mobile site load||2 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||25 seconds|
|Temple Run 2 app download (48.03MB)||1 minute and 49 seconds|
|"Gravity" movie download (1.7GB)||9 minutes and 18 seconds|
The device's embedded battery is great, and it lasted a full work day with me surfing the Web, running benchmark tests and taking photos -- all without requiring a charge midday. During our lab tests for continuous video playback, the handset lasted 10.5 hours. That's longer than the P8 Lite, whose 2,200mAh battery lasted 8 hours and 3 minutes, as well as (oddly enough) the OnePlus 2, which has a bigger 3,300mAh battery but lasted only 9 hours and 46 minutes. The Moto G's 2,910mAh battery and the OneTouch Idol 3's 2,470mAh battery outlasted all these phones, however, clocking in at about 12.5 and 13 hours, respectively.
The battery doesn't have wireless charging or Quick Charge technology. Using its stock charger, it took 2 hours for the completely drained battery to fully replenish to 100 percent.
Conclusion: A terrific value...unless you're in the US
With all its promise, it's unfortunate that OnePlus made such an oversight with its X. If you take a step back from the lack of wide LTE in the US issue, the device would have been a top contender in the budget category. Especially in the sub-$250, £199 (or AU$430 converted) price bracket, there are a lot of decent and reliable phones available, but many of them didn't have a lot of oomf. The X, however, had that oomf. It's one of the most beautifully and solidly designed phones I've come across, its speeds outpaced its competitors and it has expandable memory (a goodie the OnePlus 2 doesn't have).
But because it lacked full compatibility with some key LTE Bands for US carriers AT&T and T-Mobile, it could never fully win me over. As a potential US buyer, that's a problem.
With that in mind, your best alternative would be the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (5.5-inch version) or the Motorola Moto G. The OneTouch Idol 3 doesn't look as refined, but it has a bigger display with the same 1,080-pixel resolution, a slim design and a solid 13-megapixel camera.
As for the Moto G, true, its processor isn't as advanced as the X and its screen isn't as sharp. But it is comfortable, waterproof and has a great battery.
Best of all, both these handsets have more reliable data coverage, and I'd take fast and consistent data speeds over aesthetics any day.