OnePlus was one of the first Android phone manufacturers to release ‘flagship killer’ devices. When their original model appeared in 2014, it was hard to know how it could be built for the low price-tag that was attached. It worked though, and the brand went from an outlier to a major player. Today, the OnePlus catalogue includes flagships of its own, along with various offerings across a wide range of prices.
But, how did it get here? We explore the fascinating history of one of the most important phone manufacturers of the last decade.
One plus one
The OnePlus story started with two men – Pete Lau and Carl Pei. The former was previously the vice-president of the Chinese phone manufacturer Oppo, while Pei had worked for Nokia then under Lau at Oppo as its international marketing manager. Together they envisioned a company that would make a ‘more beautiful and higher quality product’, as Lau told The Verge, with inspiration taken from the Japanese homeware company Muji, whose simple, premium but affordable products were already popular at the time.
When the first device arrived, in the form of the OnePlus One, it did so with a very unorthodox approach to sales. OnePlus didn’t take out any TV ads or even make the phone available in stores. Instead, you had to apply for an invitation to buy it!
This was unheard of at the time. A new startup, restricting access to its product and not spending big on marketing. Surely this was a recipe for disaster? In actual fact, it was a way of controlling stock levels, as OnePlus didn’t have huge amounts of devices on hand at the beginning. It also added an air of mystique that phone buyers weren’t used to. Usually companies implored them to buy the latest releases, but OnePlus was basically saying you can’t have it unless you’re one of the chosen few.
It could have been a short venture if the product itself wasn’t so enticing. But, due to the savings made by selling direct online, avoiding the classic, expensive ad campaigns, and keeping profit margins low, OnePlus was able to offer a high-spec phone for a budget-tier price. The OnePlus 1 came in two variants, 16GB or 64GB of storage, both with a 2.5GHz Quad-Core Snapdragon 801 processor and 5.5in full HD display. The pricing stole the headlines though, starting at $299/£229. OnePlus also used CyanogenMod as the operating system, based on Android KitKat. This was already popular with tech enthusiasts who liked to root their phones and Lau had previously overseen the Oppo N1 project that used the OS on the phone.
This combination of apparent exclusivity, powerful components, cheap prices and tapping into the existing tech community made the OnePlus 1 an huge success. The company had expected to sell 50,000 units, which would have been respectable for an unknown manufacturer, but instead the phone went on to sell a million. OnePlus had arrived.
The difficult second album
While the initial outing from OnePlus had been more than they could have hoped for, there were the normal teething problems that every new company experiences. Some users complained about the lack of expandable storage, and there were also reports of a yellow band appearing at the bottom of the display.
The OnePlus 2 arrived around a year after its predecessor, in July 2015, with lots of excitement around how the company would improve the already impressive platform. It wasn’t without its hitches though. Problems with the launch meant that deliveries of the pre-ordered devices saw significant delays, with some customers waiting up to a month before their devices shipped.
Again there was no microSD slot, wireless charging, NFC or removable battery (remember those?). But important upgrades did appear in other areas, such as a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip and the introduction of USB-C (one of the first phones to feature this now ubiquitous connector). There was also a switch from CyanogenMod to the bespoke OxygenOS that would become a mainstay of OnePlus devices.
The company continued its invite-only approach at the initial launch, but dropped this later on, and Carl Pei hosted the launch event itself in a streamed VR setting – another first. You could also buy clip-on covers for the back on the device, with some unusual wooden textures only adding to the sense of originality that being a OnePlus user embodied.
In our own review of the OnePlus 2, Marie Black crowned it “a magnificent Android phone”, and it seemed that plenty of the company’s customers agreed.
Buoyed by the initial success, OnePlus would consolidate its efforts with a steady stream of products over the next few years. The OnePlus X appeared at the end of 2015, which was basically a rebadged OnePlus One with an AMOLED display and OxygenOS and acted as the company’s first exploration of developing a budget line.
This was followed in 2016 by the OnePlus 3 which won many more plaudits for its improved build quality, specs and cameras. It also was the first OnePlus phone to feature the metal unibody design. OnePlus did get caught optimising performance by overdriving the processor when benchmarking software was detected. It was not alone in this, with companies like Samsung having gone down the same route on occasions. Although, it was an issue that would reappear with other OnePlus phones.
November 2016 marked the entrance of the ‘T’ model. These would become the regular six-month upgrades to the standard model, bringing minor tweaks to specs and establishing the two main phones a year pattern that would continue for almost all OnePlus flagships to come. The OnePlus 3T brought a bump to the processor, front facing camera, and added a 128GB storage option for the first time.
There would be no OnePlus 4, as the number is deemed unlucky in China, but when the company returned it would do so with a new approach.
In his review of the OnePlus 5, our own Henry Burrell said, “The phone feels like the end of OnePlus phase one and a bridge to whatever the company does next. It might not be the obvious bargain price OnePlus is known for but it’s still significantly cheaper, is incredibly fast and has improved cameras”.
The reason for this was that prices were beginning to creep up for the OnePlus flagships. Whereas the OnePlus 1 had wowed buyers with its bargain basement pricing, now that the company was more established, the costs were starting to increase. The OnePlus 5 and successor OnePlus 5T marked a step into the mid-range in terms of what you had to pay, with asking prices around $500/£450. Still a bargain, especially considering the improved specs and build quality on offer, but noticeable in terms of where they were placed in the market. Also, it made room for lower priced models which would make their debut within a couple of years. A phase two strategy seemed to be coming into play.
So, what made the the OnePlus 5 and 5T worthy of the extra expense? A move up to the Snapdragon 835 SoC ensured the performance, plus there was up to 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage and a dual lens camera array on the back. The 5T also boasted improvements to the cameras, a move to a 6in display with a 18:9 aspect ratio, plus the introduction of facial recognition to unlock the device.
2018 saw the same pattern, with the OnePlus 6 arriving in April and being the first to wear the dreaded notch that plagued phones around that time. The aspect ratio was stretched to a taller 19:9 and the back was covered in glass. Contrary to some reports, there was no wireless charging or waterproof rating, keeping the long trend with OnePlus devices. The 6 was the first OnePlus phone to offer 256GB of built-in storage, plus there were also some upgrades to the cameras. Befitting the name, it also came with a 6.28in AMOLED display.
October the same year was when the OnePlus 6T was unveiled, which was mostly the same except for an even bigger 6.41in AMOLED display with a fingerprint sensor under the panel, and the addition of a night mode in the camera app.
OnePlus goes Pro
With the baseline prices creeping up, OnePlus now moved into what seemed to be the next phase of its evolution with the introduction of its first Pro model. At a launch event in 2019 the standard OnePlus 7 arrived as expected, only this time it had to share the stage with the OnePlus 7 Pro. Both were powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 SoC, aided with UFC 3.0 storage, but the Pro model increased the screen size once more, now clocking in at 6.67in curved AMOLED display that rendered in 3K and had a 90Hz refresh rate. It could also be configured up to 12GB of RAM and 256GB storage, making it the most powerful and capacious OnePlus so far.
OnePlus 7 Pro
So impressive was this new tier, the phone was awarded a full 5 stars and Editor’s Choice by us, with Dominic Preston summing it up like this, ‘The OnePlus 7 Pro is a remarkably good phone. The display, camera, and core specs are essentially all best-in-class – or close enough to count – while the few shortcuts (wireless charging, an IP rating) are easily explained away by a price point that still undercuts the closest comparable rivals by some way.’ OnePlus had done it again.
The range expands once more
2020 was also a banner year for the company, as not only did it capitalise on its success by launching the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro, again with rave reviews and the arrival finally of a full IP68 waterproof rating and wireless charging on the Pro which helped gain it our Flagship of the Year award, but the final part of the strategy fell into place. The more affordable OnePlus Nord, OnePlus Nord N10 5G and Nord N100 all made their debuts, fleshing out the catalogue to offer devices all the way from budget to flagship. The OnePlus Nord also garnered the company another Editor’s Choice from Tech Advisor, as we thought it the best mid-range phone you could buy at the time.
Changes were happening behind the scenes though, as Carl Pei decided to leave the company in 2020 to start his own. This would become Nothing, which set about returning to the flagship killer roots that had made OnePlus such a phenomenon. His vision would take shape in the Nothing Phone (1) and Nothing Phone (2) which not only have excellent features, design and an affordable price point, but also livened up the smartphone market with the glyphs on the back that make Nothing a young company that has already a distinct style.
With the OnePlus now fully kitted out, the company went full speed ahead, releasing new phones for its tiers. The company also announced that it’s long-term collaboration with sister company Oppo would be more public, as the company reported it would be sharing more resources. Sadly, this period also marked a wobble in quality with the new releases. There was the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro, that while still good value, came with chunkier designs, colour-options that were frustratingly tied to certain configurations, and most surprisingly a collaboration with camera legend Hasselblad that coincided with mixed optical performance.
It was a similar story with the OnePlus 10 Pro, the only flagship the company released in 2021, which had some great appointments, including a brilliant 6.7in, 120Hz Quad HD+ AMOLED display with energy efficient LTPO 2.0 technology, but which also suffered with inconsistent camera performance.
The 10 series continued the single model trend with the OnePlus 10T being the only release for that cycle and featuring many of the specs from the 10 Pro. It managed to give OnePlus another Editor’s Choice award from us, but the lustre that made OnePlus such a special brand at the beginning had seemed to change so that it was just another solid manufacturer of quality Android phones, but lacked the wow factor that made the initial releases so special.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
Now, in 2023, a single model has appeared once more – the OnePlus 11. It’s fitting then, that as we mark the history of this innovative and important company that the current offering is once again seeing the brand back on top form. In our review, Henry Burrell had this to say: “The OnePlus 11 is a fine evolution and one of the best phones you can buy for a price that undercuts many competing products.”
It’s good to know that nearly a decade after the One arrived, adding a plus 1 to that gives us a model that reinforces the ideal that quality hardware and software should be available to as many people as possible. Yes, the prices may have increased, but the OnePlus 11 represents some of the best value for money in the world of phones today. Just as it should.
To see what’s next in this story, be sure to check out our look ahead to what we can expect when the OnePlus 12 makes its rumoured debut in December 2023.