OnePlus Two smartphone

Teardown: OnePlus Two smartphone

China’s other hip start-up takes a further step closer to the mainstream.

One main product leads this month’s teardown, the OnePlus Two smartphone from the eponymous Shenzhen-based OEM. But the story is mostly about how this product illustrates one country’s and two quite similar companies’ ambitions in consumer electronics.

OnePlus and its Beijing-based rival Xiaomi are poster children for China’s attempt to exploit the world leadership it has earned in manufacturing so that it can start exporting high-profile and stylish products of its own. They also want to be hip players, offering a Sino-spin on the Apple cachet.

As both unveiled new products this August, there was importantly a sense that the upstarts are at a turning point. It could see them soon tack closer to the mainstream in terms of marketing and hardware/software design.

Their new handsets are not competitive in every sense, but there is significant overlap.

Xiaomi has unveiled the $125 (£80) Redmi Note 2, based on an eight-core, 64-bit Helio X10 processor from Taiwan’s MediaTek. Significantly, the X10 has ARM’s power-efficient but less chunky A53 Cortex cores - an important performance trade-off.

OnePlus is accepting orders for its sophomore invite-only Two (the OnePlus One was the Teardown in October 2014). It costs £289 in a configuration with 64GB storage and 4GB RAM. The Two has a powerful Qualcomm processor, an eight-?core Snapdragon featuring A53 and heavier-lifting A57 cores.

Both phones target the phablet segment, with 5.5-inch diagonal/1080p displays, but different subsegments.

Xiaomi wants to reach beyond an existing base of high-end Asian consumers into the mass market (hence the bargain price). OnePlus wants to disrupt the high end globally: it launched the Two’s invite programme at pop-up shops in eight countries outside China (including one in London).

Still, there are two common aspects to the Xiaomi and OnePlus launches, though this might be the last time we see them together.

Both companies are going for ‘maximum bang, minimum buck’, packing high-end hardware into their devices while making deep sacrifices on margin, even for the commoditised cellphone business. The Redmi Note’s price speaks for itself. Then, here are some of the OnePlus Two’s leading specifications:

  • Custom Snapdragon 810/ Adreno 430 GPU
  • 64GB or 16GB storage
  • 13MP rear camera with image stabilisation/5MP front camera
  • 3GB or 4GB RAM
  • 3,300mAh battery.

Comparing like-for-like elements with the iPhone 6, the OnePlus Two has a bigger battery and higher main-camera pixel count. An unlocked iPhone 6 costs upwards of £539 (£619 for a 64GB model). The 64GB £289 OnePlus Two comes unlocked as standard and has a dual-microSIM tray.

Xiaomi and OnePlus have built brands by constraining supply and developing followings as a rock band does its fan club. They sell the bulk of their stock online during time-?limited regional windows and, in OnePlus’s case, require customers to ‘earn’ an invite.

This has generated plenty of positive hype so far, but the approach may have run its course. The companies and their key suppliers want to take their increasingly established brands into the mainstream. OnePlus executives have hinted that they are discussing traditional network operator partnerships in Europe. Xiaomi, which has confined itself to Asia, is also testing Europe by test-marketing its peripheral products (e.g. powerblocks) in Spain and Italy.

Some technological features in the OnePlus Two and the design decisions behind them also suggest that its creators see the new handset as a prelude to an assault on the wider market. Foremost among these is the custom Snapdragon 810 implementation, said to address claims that the chip was prone to overheating. ‘Custom’ is an important word here. The 810 is a Qualcomm chip. As the world’s largest semiconductor company, Qualcomm will only partner to that degree with a client that either is in or - in this case - is likely to enter its top tier.

Beyond that however, one has to wonder whether OnePlus’s aggression on margin today might be toned down in future.

The OnePlus Two’s highly specified main camera also features electromechanical actuators on each side of the lens for image stabilisation and an infrared laser rangefinder. The phone is one of the first to feature the new low-profile, symmetrical USB-C port. And there is a fingerprint sensor. This kind of technology does not come cheap - and at £289 really is a steal. Remember, this global price point is less than half that of a top-of-the-range unlocked iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.

OnePlus’s rivals suspect that the company might today be offering products at the thinnest of margins while intending to seek higher ones in future. After all, with its invitation system, it can control just how many handsets it makes and sells at wafer-thin profit before it brings out its next model.

Finally, our usual thanks to the teardown team at iFixit, who produced the images here and gave the OnePlus Two 7/10 for repairability.

Among the more significant things iFixit noticed compared with the OnePlus One was that the new handset has a more modular hardware design. That will help control manufacturing costs, furthering the company’s quest for tight margins and low retail price points.

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