Looking back at the OnePlus One — $300 phones have come a long way

OnePlus One
OnePlus One (Image credit: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

OnePlus makes some of the best Android phones on the market, and it's hard to imagine that the manufacturer launched its first phone just six years ago. The OnePlus One debuted on April 23, 2014, and OnePlus managed to build a lot of hype around the device ahead of its launch. In that sense, not much has changed in the last six years.

The OnePlus One was an important phone in the larger Android ecosystem, because it furthered the idea of value flagships in Western markets. The OnePlus One wasn't the first affordable flagship; Xiaomi was already on the rise in China by that point, and devices like the Mi 3 — which was introduced in September 2013 — allowed the manufacturer to increase its presence in its home market.

And while Xiaomi made its foray into India with the Mi 3 and eventually went on to become the largest phone manufacturer in the country, the OnePlus One stood out because of the fact that it was sold in Western markets.

OnePlus introduced U.S. customers to the idea of value flagships.

With Xiaomi, Huawei, Lenovo, and other Chinese manufacturers primarily focused on Asian markets, OnePlus sought out the U.S., UK, and other Western countries from the very beginning. It is this focus on global markets that allowed OnePlus to amass such a sizeable mind share in the smartphone segment over the last six years, one it is now leveraging as it turns to the budget segment with the Nord N10 5G and N100.

As a refresher, the OnePlus One offered a 5.5-inch Full HD LCD display, 3GB of RAM, 16/64GB of storage, 13MP camera, 3,100mAh battery, and a Snapdragon 801 chipset. While those specs seem quaint now, the fact that it launched at $299 for the 16GB version and $349 for the 64GB model garnered it a lot of attention from enthusiast users.

For some context, Samsung's flagship at the time — the Galaxy S5 — was also powered by the Snapdragon 801 chipset, but came with 2GB of RAM and 16GB/32GB storage options, and retailed for $649.

The low pricing allowed the OnePlus One to become an immediate hit, and the company's forums were soon flooded with invite requests (remember those?) as fans clamored to get their hands on the device. I picked up the 64GB version after securing an invite a few weeks after the phone's debut, and the first thing that struck me was the finish: that Sandstone Black finish really was a standout option.

The OnePlus One catalyzed the value flagship segment, and in turn OnePlus became the go-to company for anyone looking to get the best value. While hardware was one part of the story, OnePlus' success was because of its software.

The OnePlus One ran CyanogenMod out of the box, and OnePlus introduced its own OxygenOS skin with later devices. Its focus on delivering a clean software without any bloatware was a radical idea at the time, and it cemented the company's position with power users.

Pixel 4a Alex Back Outside Wall

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Six years on, the value flagship segment looks very different. Manufacturers pay much more attention to aesthetics, and the internal hardware has come a long way. But the core tenet of value is still unchanged thanks to phones like the Redmi K20 Pro and Realme X50 Pro.

While most affordable flagships focus on hardware as the differentiator, Google went in another direction by offering a flagship-grade camera with the Pixel 4a. The phone isn't the fastest in this category, but the camera on offer and three years of guaranteed Android updates make it a standout choice, and the fact that it is available for just $349 is just the icing on the cake.

There are plenty of other options that deliver a similar value. The Galaxy A71 5G is particularly noteworthy for its vibrant AMOLED screen, 5G, 64MP camera, and sub-$500 pricing.

These phones do a great job reminding us that we don't have to shell out over $1,000 to get a device with a stellar camera or the latest hardware. And that wouldn't have been possible today were it not for the likes of the OnePlus One.

Harish Jonnalagadda
Senior Editor - Asia

Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.