The amazing story of OnePlus figuring out how to make great products people want.
A strange thing has happened between mid-2016 and today: OnePlus stopped screwing up.
The company that was notorious for poorly-considered marketing campaigns and forcing customers to wait months in virtual lines for new phones has improbably and wholeheartedly corrected course over the past nine months, turning into, at least from the outside, a well-run and confident machine. After releasing the OnePlus 3 in June of 2016 — a phone that our Andrew Martonik called "a downright great smartphone" — the company has begun manufacturing its phones in India to meet growing demand, expanded its profitable and surprisingly good accessories line, and ironed out its logistics enough to ship phones to order for the first time in its existence.
Then, in November, OnePlus surprised everyone by releasing an upgraded version of its then-three month-old flagship phone, and was among the first third-party manufacturers to release Android 7.1.1 only months after just hitting its target for a Nougat update.
A year ago...
OnePlus is hardly recognizable, in a good way.
A year ago, a list this breathless and expansive would have seemed impossible to anyone looking at how the company was being run. A mass exodus (or a planned consolidation, depending on who you speak to) of its software development team made apparent that the company was, at times, chasing its own tail, trying to decide how to best manage its explosive growth on a shoestring budget. But the company bore the criticism relatively well, admitting fault when necessary while doubling down on the core, early-adopter audience that gave it life back when it debuted in 2014.
Today, the company regularly releases software updates for both of its 3-series phones, and as I sit here with a newly-released Midnight Black OnePlus 3T running Android 7.1.1 Oxygen OS Open Beta 4, if you must know), I am simply floored at its uniformity, at how utterly cohesive and mature the thing feels, and how OnePlus managed to figure out how best to sell its products — that is, by doing simple and good better than any other smartphone manufacturer.
With release of the limited edition Midnight Black OnePlus 3T, it's clear the company's marketing machine is in rhythm with its product and logistics divisions, eking out as much goodwill and return business during the natural year-long product cycle before the whole thing begins again.
Yes, it's merely an updated color of an existing phone, itself a minor refresh of an existing phone, but the Midnight Black OnePlus 3T is a really stunning piece of hardware. Moreover, after using it for a few days, it's hard to imagine OnePlus ever falling considerably behind the competition again in terms of industrial design or build quality, nor — despite my own public concerns — reverting to a poor state of Android software quality.
Indeed, the worst criticism one can level against OnePlus's software is that it too quickly abandons its aging product lineup — the OnePlus 2, released in 2015, isn't getting Nougat anytime soon — but the same can be said of Samsung, LG and many companies.
Using the OnePlus 3T is a joy; it just works. Performance is superb, and the latest beta (which will eventually roll out to all users) addresses the touch latency problems that were evident on early Nougat builds. And there are some subtle things that I really like: the haptic engine is tuned just perfectly to my taste, even at its default setting. Tapping away on the keyboard evinces the exact right feedback response. The front fingerprint sensor, which doubles as a home button if you want it to, is incredibly fast, as is launching the camera, which I have done dozens of times to use the excellent rear sensor.
Using the OnePlus 3T is a joy; it just works.
Of course, the 5.5-inch 1080p panel isn't the most accurate or brightest out there, and it's framed by large top and bottom bezels that, after using the LG G6 and Galaxy S8, make the phone seem oversized and awkward in one hand. I have no doubt OnePlus plans to address this — as do most manufacturers with any aspirations of greatness — with the 3T's successor, but the design will look increasingly dated as the year rolls on. Still, this is a good phone, mainly for the fundamentals. And for that black.
I've heard the term "murdered out" to describe the exact shade of black that has become increasingly common on phones like the Galaxy Note 7, Galaxy S7, and, now, the OnePlus 3T, and I think that's fair. This thing isn't pitch dark — it shimmers in the light — but it carries the smooth, aggressive confidence of a much more expensive product.
Come a long way
Being just a regular OnePlus 3T in a new shade is one thing; the other part of the equation is the beta build I'm running, which should be rolling out more widely in the coming weeks.
I feel like I could hand the OnePlus 3T to anyone and not worry about the learning curve.
Open Beta 4 is still based on Android 7.1.1, but adds some major improvements to the launcher, which is quickly becoming my favorite manufacturer skin around. It now has a Pixel Launcher-like app drawer, which you swipe up from the bottom which, combined with the widely-loved 'swipe-down-for-notifications' gesture, brings it as close to perfect as I would want. It also supports icon packs, and comes with two excellent ones pre-loaded — I highly recommend Dives if you aren't using a OnePlus 3/3T — that just keep everything looking fresh and clean.
Here's the thing: I feel like I can hand this phone to someone who has never used Android before and feel confident in his or her ability to just pick it up and get to know the operating system. OnePlus has its fair share of gimmicks hidden in the settings — why would you want to draw an 'O' to activate the camera when double-pressing the power button does the same thing much more intuitively — but they're few and far between, and don't distract from the first-on experience.
A year later
I didn't expect OnePlus to get to this point so quickly; I thought it had a couple more years of growing pains yet. But I'm incredibly encouraged by what I'm seeing, both from an end user and company culture perspective.
It appears to have found some much-needed equilibrium to balance out the frenetic momentum that kept it afloat until now. The fact that the Midnight Black OnePlus 3T is just $479, undercutting many other high-end Android phones by more than $200, further sweetens the pot. As Alex Dobie pointed out in this smart piece, it seems that OnePlus plans to depress its handset prices indefinitely, even if it takes a loss on the hardware, to further other aspects of the business.
[These peripherals, like bags and headphones], say a lot about the growth of OnePlus as a brand, and hints at how it might make the bulk of its profit further down the line. The company has admitted that it makes very little profit on sales of phones like the OnePlus One, 2 and 3. That's no surprise when you're shipping devices with cutting-edge specs around the $400 mark.
But look at the accessories and gear sections of OnePlus's store. It's packed with much higher-margin items like branded power banks, earbuds and chargers, not to mention bags and clothing. By ensuring every customer feels like they belong to the OnePlus family, they're more likely to fork out for more expensive accessories either at the point of purchase, or further down the line. (The 3T also has a OnePlus Community app preloaded, which plays into that strategy.)
The phones, the community, the exclusivity, fosters a user base that makes people want to invest further in the brand. That OnePlus is a much more coherent, self-assured company with a working logistics arm that ships phones on time to match its ambitious sales goals is a bonus, and one that puts it in good stead for 2017 and beyond.
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- Latest OnePlus 3 news
- Discuss OnePlus 3T and 3 in the forums