In the realm of Android phone manufacturers, OnePlus stood as a pioneer in introducing devices that earned the moniker of ‘flagship killers’. When their initial model emerged in 2014, puzzlement shrouded how it could be crafted without inflating the attached price tag.
Nevertheless, it proved its mettle, propelling the brand from an anomaly to a prominent contender. Presently, the OnePlus lineup encompasses its own array of flagships, accompanied by a diverse selection spanning a wide spectrum of price points.
However, the question arises: how did it arrive at this juncture? Let us delve into the captivating chronicle of one of the most significant mobile phone creators in the past decade.
One plus one
The saga of OnePlus commenced with the collaboration of two individuals – Pete Lau and Carl Pei. The former had previously held the position of vice-president at the Chinese mobile manufacturer Oppo, while Pei’s journey included stints at Nokia and later at Oppo under Lau, where he served as the international marketing manager.
Together, they conceived a vision for a company that would craft ‘more aesthetically pleasing and superior quality products,’ as Lau shared with The Verge. They drew inspiration from the Japanese household goods company Muji, renowned for its straightforward, premium, yet reasonably priced offerings that had already gained popularity during that era.
When the inaugural device, namely the OnePlus One, made its entrance, it did so following an incredibly unconventional sales strategy. OnePlus refrained from utilizing traditional television advertisements or opting for in-store availability for the phone. Rather, the process involved prospective buyers needing to request an invitation in order to make a purchase!
Such a concept was entirely unprecedented during that period. A nascent startup deliberately limiting access to its product and abstaining from lavish marketing expenditures – it surely seemed like a formula for failure, right? Yet, in reality, it was a strategic move aimed at managing inventory levels.
OnePlus found itself without substantial quantities of devices initially. Moreover, this approach lent an aura of enigma that mobile phone buyers were not accustomed to. In the usual scenario, companies urged them to acquire the latest releases, but OnePlus essentially conveyed that possession was only attainable for the fortunate few who received an invitation.
The venture might have been brief had the product itself not been so captivating. However, thanks to the cost savings achieved through online direct sales, bypassing the conventional and costly advertising campaigns, and maintaining narrow profit margins, OnePlus succeeded in presenting a high-performance phone at an affordable budget-friendly price point.
The OnePlus 1 arrived in two variations: one with 16GB and another with 64GB of storage, both boasting a 2.5GHz Quad-Core Snapdragon 801 processor and a 5.5-inch full HD display. Yet, it was the pricing that truly caught attention, commencing at $299/£229. Additionally, OnePlus adopted CyanogenMod as the operating system, a derivative of Android KitKat.
This choice had already gained popularity among tech enthusiasts who relished the ability to customize their phones, and it’s noteworthy that Lau had previously supervised the Oppo N1 project that incorporated this OS.
The fusion of perceived exclusivity, robust internal components, economical pricing, and engaging with the pre-existing tech community propelled the OnePlus 1 to remarkable success. While the company initially projected sales of 50,000 units, an accomplishment that would have been commendable for an unfamiliar manufacturer, the reality far surpassed expectations. The phone ultimately achieved sales of a million units, solidifying OnePlus’s position as a formidable player in the industry.
The difficult second album
Although OnePlus’s debut exceeded their most optimistic expectations, it didn’t come without the typical initial challenges that every fledgling company encounters. Certain users voiced their concerns about the absence of expandable storage, and there were instances of a yellow band emerging at the lower edge of the display, as reported.
Approximately a year following the introduction of its forerunner, the OnePlus 2 made its debut in July 2015, generating substantial anticipation about the enhancements the company would bring to an already remarkable foundation. Nonetheless, it encountered its fair share of setbacks. Launch-related issues resulted in notable delays for the delivery of pre-ordered devices, leaving certain customers waiting for as long as a month before their devices were dispatched.
Once again, the absence of a microSD slot, wireless charging, NFC, or a removable battery (a concept from the past) persisted. Nonetheless, noteworthy enhancements emerged in various other aspects. These included the incorporation of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip and the introduction of the USB-C port (one of the initial phones to adopt this now pervasive connector). The transition from CyanogenMod to the in-house OxygenOS also marked a significant change and would subsequently become a defining feature of OnePlus devices.
During the initial product launch, the company maintained its exclusive invite-based strategy. However, this approach was eventually discarded. Notably, the launch event itself was hosted by Carl Pei in a groundbreaking move—a virtual reality (VR) setting that was live-streamed. This marked a significant milestone. Furthermore, consumers had the option to purchase clip-on covers with unique wooden textures for the device’s rear.
This added an extra layer of distinctiveness to the experience of being a OnePlus user. In our personal evaluation of the OnePlus 2, Marie Black bestowed upon it the title of “a splendid Android smartphone.” Evidently, a substantial number of the company’s clientele shared this sentiment.
Boosted by the positive reception at the outset, OnePlus embarked on a path of consolidation, consistently launching a range of products in the subsequent years. Towards the close of 2015, the OnePlus X made its debut. Essentially, this device was a rebranded version of the OnePlus One, featuring an AMOLED display and OxygenOS. Notably, the OnePlus X marked the company’s initial foray into creating a budget-friendly product line.
Subsequent to this, in 2016, the OnePlus 3 stepped into the spotlight, garnering even greater acclaim for its enhanced construction quality, specifications, and camera capabilities. This model also marked a significant milestone as the first OnePlus phone to showcase a metal unibody design.
OnePlus did find itself in a situation where it optimized performance by pushing the processor beyond its limits when benchmarking software was detected. It’s worth noting that this was not an isolated case, as other companies like Samsung had taken a similar path on certain occasions. Regrettably, this issue resurfaced with other OnePlus phone models as well.
The arrival of November 2016 marked the debut of the ‘T’ model in the OnePlus lineup. These models would subsequently serve as the regular six-month updates to the standard version, introducing minor enhancements to specifications.
This established the trend of having two main phone releases per year, a pattern that would persist across nearly all future OnePlus flagship devices. With the introduction of the OnePlus 3T, notable improvements were introduced. These included a boost in processor performance, an upgraded front-facing camera, and the introduction of a 128GB storage option—a first for the company.
The OnePlus 4 was notably absent from the lineup, attributed to the unlucky connotation of the number in Chinese culture. However, upon its return, the company adopted a fresh strategy.
In our assessment of the OnePlus 5, our reviewer Henry Burrell expressed, “The phone gives the impression of marking the culmination of OnePlus’ initial phase and serving as a transition to the company’s future endeavors. While it may not adhere to the typical bargain price that OnePlus is recognized for, it remains notably more affordable, boasts exceptional speed, and showcases enhanced camera capabilities.”
The shift in pricing was a response to the gradual rise in prices for OnePlus flagship devices. While the initial OnePlus 1 had captivated consumers with its exceptionally affordable pricing, the company’s growing stature led to an upward trend in costs. The OnePlus 5 and its successor, the OnePlus 5T, signaled a move into the mid-range segment in terms of pricing. The asking prices for these models were situated around $500/£450.
Remaining a commendable deal, particularly given the enhanced specifications and construction excellence they provided, these models were becoming more conspicuous within the market landscape. This shift also paved the way for the introduction of more budget-friendly models, which would make their entrance in a span of a couple of years. This signified the unfolding of a phase two strategy for the company.
So, what justified the additional investment in the OnePlus 5 and 5T? The shift to the Snapdragon 835 System on Chip (SoC) ensured enhanced performance. Additionally, these models offered up to 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a rear dual-lens camera setup. The 5T, in particular, presented advancements in the camera department, transitioned to a 6-inch display with an 18:9 aspect ratio, and introduced facial recognition as a means of unlocking the device.
The year 2018 followed a similar pattern, as the OnePlus 6 made its debut in April. It became the pioneer in embracing the notch trend, which was a common feature in phones during that period. The aspect ratio was extended to a taller 19:9, while the back of the device was adorned with glass.
In contrast to certain reports, the phone lacked wireless charging and a waterproof rating, consistent with the ongoing tradition of OnePlus devices. The OnePlus 6 distinguished itself as the company’s first phone to offer 256GB of internal storage, alongside notable enhancements to the camera capabilities. Staying true to its name, it featured a spacious 6.28-inch AMOLED display.
In October of that same year, the OnePlus 6T was revealed. It retained most of the features from its predecessor, with the exception of a larger 6.41-inch AMOLED display that now integrated a fingerprint sensor beneath the panel. Additionally, a night mode was introduced in the camera app, enhancing low-light photography capabilities.
OnePlus goes Pro
As the baseline prices gradually rose, OnePlus embarked on what appeared to be the next phase of its evolution, introducing its inaugural Pro model. During a launch event in 2019, the anticipated standard OnePlus 7 made its appearance, but this time it shared the spotlight with the OnePlus 7 Pro. Both variants were fueled by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 System on Chip (SoC) and were enhanced by UFC 3.0 storage technology.
However, the Pro model took things a step further by expanding the screen size yet again. With a curved 6.67-inch AMOLED display that boasted a 3K resolution and a refresh rate of 90Hz, it delivered an immersive visual experience. Moreover, the Pro model offered the possibility of configuring up to 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, cementing its status as the most potent and spacious OnePlus device up to that point.
The excellence of this new tier was so remarkable that the phone garnered a perfect 5-star rating and was bestowed with the Editor’s Choice accolade by our team. Dominic Preston succinctly encapsulated the sentiment, stating, “The OnePlus 7 Pro stands out as an incredibly impressive phone. Its display, camera, and core specifications are essentially top-notch, or very close to being so.
The few trade-offs, such as the absence of wireless charging and an IP rating, can be easily justified by the phone’s price point, which significantly undercuts the closest comparable competitors.” Once again, OnePlus had achieved a notable feat.
The range expands once more
The year 2020 proved to be another noteworthy chapter for the company. Not only did OnePlus continue to build upon its accomplishments by unveiling the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro, both of which received enthusiastic reviews, but it also achieved significant milestones.
The OnePlus 8 Pro, in particular, garnered acclaim for its inclusion of a complete IP68 waterproof rating and wireless charging capabilities. These enhancements led to the device being honored with our prestigious Flagship of the Year award. With these developments, the final piece of the strategy fell neatly into place.
The year 2020 also marked a significant turning point for the company. Alongside the successful launch of the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro, the company unveiled the more budget-friendly OnePlus Nord, OnePlus Nord N10 5G, and Nord N100. This expanded the product lineup to encompass devices ranging from budget options to flagship models.
Notably, the OnePlus Nord earned the company yet another accolade, securing an Editor’s Choice recognition from Tech Advisor. This distinction was attributed to the belief that the OnePlus Nord stood out as the best mid-range phone available during that period.
However, changes were unfolding behind the scenes as well. In 2020, Carl Pei made the decision to depart from the company he co-founded, opting to venture into his own enterprise, known as Nothing. With a mission to rekindle the spirit of flagship-killing that had initially propelled OnePlus to its remarkable success, Carl Pei’s vision began to materialize through the creation of the Nothing Phone (1) and Nothing Phone (2).
These devices not only boasted impressive features, thoughtful design, and an accessible price point, but also injected vitality into the smartphone market by featuring distinctive glyphs on their backs. These glyphs have come to symbolize Nothing’s unique style, reflecting the identity of this young and vibrant company.
With OnePlus now offering a comprehensive lineup of devices, the company accelerated its pace by introducing new phones across its various tiers. Simultaneously, the company made its longstanding collaboration with sister company Oppo more transparent by disclosing its intention to share resources. However, this period also marked a phase of fluctuating quality with the introduction of the latest releases.
Notable among these were the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro. Despite still providing good value, these models exhibited bulkier designs and color options that frustratingly correlated with specific configurations. Surprisingly, the partnership with renowned camera manufacturer Hasselblad, which was expected to elevate optical performance, coincided with mixed results in terms of camera quality.
The OnePlus 10 Pro, the exclusive flagship introduced by the company in 2021, followed a familiar narrative. It boasted remarkable features, including an impressive 6.7-inch, 120Hz Quad HD+ AMOLED display enriched with energy-efficient LTPO 2.0 technology. However, the device was marred by inconsistent camera performance.
The OnePlus 10 series maintained its trend of offering a single model, and this time, it was the OnePlus 10T that graced the release cycle. Sharing many specifications with the 10 Pro, it secured another Editor’s Choice award from our team.
However, the allure that had once set OnePlus apart as a unique brand seemed to have shifted. The brand, which had initially captivated with its distinctiveness, had evolved into a reputable producer of quality Android phones. Yet, the initial “wow” factor that made its early releases so extraordinary appeared to have transformed.
As we find ourselves in the year 2023, a single model has taken center stage once more—the OnePlus 11. It’s rather fitting that, while tracing the journey of this pioneering and impactful company, the current offering heralds a return to the brand’s peak performance.
In our assessment, Henry Burrell succinctly put it, “The OnePlus 11 represents a commendable evolution and stands among the finest phones you can purchase, all while maintaining a price point that undercuts many of its competitors.”
It’s reassuring to acknowledge that nearly a decade after the introduction of the OnePlus One, the iteration of a “plus 1” model reinforces the core principle that high-quality hardware and software should be accessible to a wide audience.
Although prices may have experienced an increase, the OnePlus 11 encapsulates the essence of providing exceptional value for money in today’s realm of smartphones. This aligns perfectly with the brand’s ethos, ensuring that the OnePlus journey continues as it should.
To catch a glimpse of the forthcoming chapters in this narrative, make sure to explore our preview of what lies ahead when the speculated debut of the OnePlus 12 takes place in December 2023.