This issue we look at the 'killer' Android superphone.
A recent trend in Asian cellphone marketing has seen innovative start-ups bypass retailers and offer their wares on a web-only, pre-order and limited-volume basis.The strategy has worked well for Xiaomi and its Mi range of smartphones. The firm has built a cult following to rival Apple’s in China and begun to figure on ‘cool tech’ radar elsewhere.
Enter OnePlus. This Hong Kong and Shenzhen-based manufacturer has taken the highly constrained approach to supply and demand a step further with remarkable results. Among Android followers worldwide, its launch OnePlus One handset (not to be confused with HTC's recent One smartphone) has established itself as a 'must have' from a standing start earlier this year.
Alongside simple and sleek industrial design, the OnePlus One differentiates itself on three levels: customisation, performance and – perhaps now most significant – price.
Customisation is the area that attracted most initial comment. The One runs the open-source CyanogenMod variant of the Android OS. Although once controversial, many expert users have now flashed it onto their phones because of its efficiency, adaptability and functionality.
For example, it enables tethering services that some carriers still try to charge for. It also includes advanced VPN support, a 'Privacy Guard' that manages app permissions more closely, and CPU overclocking. At the same time, it avoids the 'bloatware' that slows the performance of some custom Android builds.
This is the second phone with CyanogenMod pre-installed, although most major Android OEMs have now issued at least one device that supports it. More significantly, the OnePlus One incorporates the software's first bespoke release for a single device: CyanogenMod 11S, based on Android KitKat (4.4.2).
In terms of performance, the OnePlus One matches the latest generation smartphones. The engine room is a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 with 3GB of RAM. The battery is an above average 3100mAh, albeit not replaceable by the user. The 5.5-inch, 1920x1080 display places the phone in the larger 'phablet' category. The six-lens 13MP rear-facing camera is strong, but the 5MP 'selfie' front-facing one is particularly highly specified.
Then there is the price. This unlocked, high-performance superphone costs £229 for the 16GB version, and £269 for the 64GB one. No need for a carrier commitment. That is just astonishingly cheap.
Unfortunately, you probably can't get one. OnePlus currently sells the phone only to special friends: people who have taken part in beta campaigns and competitions or engaged with the company on social media. Beyond that, once you get invited to own a One, it comes with invitations to pass on.
Technically, OnePlus has nothing to hide. An iFixit teardown confirmed the One's high-end specifications as present and correct. Complaints concentrated instead on the unreplaceable battery, an awkwardly positioned daughterboard and a fondness for glue. These led to a mediocre repairability score of 5/10.
Our own experience was limited to a couple of days stuffing a SIM inside a One borrowed from a colleague. But it supported the One's claims to robust battery life and rapid bloatware-free responsiveness.
This is not a formal product review, but based on that brief road-test and reports elsewhere, the One appears to deliver the functionality of devices that cost over $600 unlocked at around half the price.
It is here though that some awkward questions arise, economic questions this column is more qualified to consider.
OnePlus's launch strategy has created a global buzz, cut out the need to satisfy retailers' margin demands and allowed the firm to closely match orders to stock.
That last point has been the downfall of many an entrant to consumer electronics – but there is another aspect to consider.
In recent teardowns of Amazon's Fire Phone and Samsung's Galaxy S5, IHS iSuppli esimtated that these heavy hitters achieved combined bill of materials (BoM) and manufacturing costs for their devices of $201 and $256 respectively. IHS's numbers are for hardware and assembly only. They do not include software development, marketing and other costs, but they do allow for the economies of scale that big players can achieve.
So what is OnePlus paying for the One? Search me. The firm is rumoured to have China’s OPPO electronics group behind it – though it claims complete independence – so it’s nigh-on impossible to say how much supplier leverage it has.
OnePlus is generating vast amounts of free marketing through its invite-only strategy both from the press and word-of-mouth in the huge Google community. But fanboys will only take you so far. Indeed, this campaign may have taken on a life of its own that just makes unit-cost ever more important.
When first mooted, the One was a geek play: it would deliver the customisation inherent in CyanogenMod inside a highly specified, state-of-the-art and fully supported package. Now, though, most of those seeking invitations want a cheap, unlocked superphone where customisation is a nice extra.
OnePlus may have intended its price tag to be introductory, even an evangelistic act to promote how Android should move forward with users having greater control. But the One is now defined, for good or ill, by “a mere £229… or €269… or $299”.
The big issue is whether OnePlus can sustain its numbers and truly disrupt the smartphone business after it has seeded enthusiasm and moved into the wider market. If not, the road ahead may prove very bumpy.