Recommending an Android phone used to be that simple. While Tom’s Guide has his list of best android phones for all kinds of budgets, my standard answer is “what phone should i get?” has been: “the latest OnePlus phone.” Not any more.
It is no longer so easy to make such a recommendation. In fact, I think it’s simply difficult. OnePlus now has a suite of phones, some of which are no longer as priced as the “flagship killers” that came before them.
And with the likes of Samsung, Google and Apple all offering flagship phones (or at least those with flagship features) at or below the $ 800 mark, OnePlus̵
Goodbye to the flagship killer
I’ve been using OnePlus phones since OnePlus 5, so I was pretty late to the party. But I came in when the company had refined OxygenOS to be a light reskin for Android and have phones that had almost all the features of flagship phones; Wireless charging was one of the few features omitted, but proprietary super fast charging made up for it.
And every OnePlus phone I’ve used since delivered serious flagship performance, thanks to the latest Snapdragon 8 Series chips and plenty of RAM. And all have had impressive screens and a build quality that snapped at the heels of Apple and Samsung.
These OnePlus phones came with prices that undercut iPhone, Pixel and Galaxy phones the same year, by several hundred dollars (in my case British pounds). So that meant it was easy to overlook the camera performance of OnePlus phones, which have long been good to very good, but never quite up there with the full Android flagship, and easily fly the OnePlus flag.
Even when I tested the latest high-end phone, and when someone asked if they would get it, I would simply answer that they are probably better off with the OnePlus. And it comes from someone who frickin ‘loves flagship phones.
Not only did OnePlus phones offer screaming performance, a high-quality handset and plenty of storage at a good price, they also introduced new technology earlier than regular brands. OnePlus 6 had tear notches, 6T had an optical fingerprint scanner under the screen, and OnePlus 7 Pro brought in a 90Hz refresh rate and pop-up selfie camera. OnePlus was ahead of Samsung and left Apple in the dust when it came to pushing the envelope.
Speaking of Pro, that’s when things started to change for OnePlus. In 2019, there were not two OnePlus phones over 12 months, but four: OnePlus 7 Pro and standard 7 and then OnePlus 7T and 7T Pro. They all came with solid specifications and prices that undercut such as the Galaxy S10, but they were not as affordable as they used to be; The $ 500 price point was good in hindsight.
A year later, the OnePlus 8 Pro arrived (next to the somewhat forgettable OnePlus 8) and fetched not only flagship specifications, but also a flagship award. It delivered its promises, with wireless charging and a camera setup that traded blows with the Galaxy S20 and iPhone 11 Pro.
It was good to see OnePlus finally just make a real flagship. But then it had no flagship killers in itself, as the OnePlus 8 was good but more expensive than before and did not necessarily provide the specifications needed to torpedo rival Android phones. And it was easily overshadowed by the Pro siblings.
Nevertheless, when I heard that OnePlus did not make a “T” version of the 8 Series, I was thrilled when the next phone could combine the best pieces of the latter 8 Pro, but still deliver a precious handset like the flagship killers to yore. In my OnePlus 8T review I found that was not the case.
It’s a good phone, but at $ 749 in the US it’s definitely off Samsung Galaxy S20 FE with its excellent spec list and cameras, and Google Pixel 5 with its class-leading brace of cameras, both of which cost under $ 700 at launch.
The OnePlus 8T is still a beautiful phone, but it did not have anything that made the OnePlus phones so special a couple of years before; the software was not as nice as before, the performance was smooth but not fantastic, and the cameras were quite disappointing. Recent updates have improved the 8T, but given the choice I will reach for the Pixel 5 first.
Now in the year 2021 we have OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro. While both are excellent phones, they certainly do not have the flagship killer that OnePlus phones used to have, and it’s a bit sad for a longtime fan and difficult for a technical journalist looking for simple phone recommendations.
OnePlus: Many more phones may be equivalent to too many
Going for full flagship is one thing, but OnePlus has not made things easier across the board either. While OnePlus Nord looked like an exciting comeback to make well-equipped phones at budget prices, it undoubtedly missed the mark.
North is good and offers a lot for its price. But if you want a solid smartphone that has a solid camera and wonderfully clean software for under $ 500, it’s pretty hard not to recommend Google Pixel 4a. It does not help that the North is not available in the United States either. Her successor, the OnePlus Nord 2, will not hit American soil either.
North, however, was just the tip of the iceberg for a number of affordable OnePlus phones. Now we have OnePlus Nord N10 5G, den OnePlus Nord N200 5G and OnePlus Nord CE. These are all good, or create good budget smartphones that offer decent specifications like a 90Hz refresh rate monitor and sufficient for good performance.
Sounds good? That’s until you compared these phones to a number of affordable handsets that have also embraced the more-for-less philosophy. That’s it Realme GT with its 120Hz screen and Snapdragon 888, Realme 8 5G, den Motorola Moto g100, Moto G Power, Redmi Note 10 Pro and Samsung Galaxy A52 5G.
These phones offer some flagship specs, or features that were flagship class 12 months ago, for prices below (and in many cases well below) $ 500. So OnePlus’ current and next budget North phone faces a lot of stiff competition in this segment.
Now, I can not blame OnePlus for introducing a series of phones to the market, nor do I think it will lose its way. Rather, OnePlus is apparently becoming more Samsung, offering a myriad of phones to a number of markets.
I’m sure it provides a good business understanding for people who are better at metaphorical prayer counting than I am. But that does not change the feeling that OnePlus I once fantasized about is no longer OnePlus today.
All filler, no killer
And it makes me sad when I feel that OnePlus, as successful as it is now, has lost its secret sauce. I feel that no smartphone maker now makes a proper Android phone that combines impressive specifications, performance, design and pure software in one handset.
Xiaomi makes phones with serious specifications at good prices, but it does not offer software experience or hardware design (without a doubt, as beauty is in the eye of the eye) as OnePlus can. And America has said a resounding no to letting Xiaomi phones be sold on the broad.
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE is great, but it’s still $ 700, and the One UI is not as clean as I would like it to be. Pixel 5 offers the best iteration of Android around, but it lacks the right power and a 120Hz refresh rate.
That’s not likely, but I’d like to see OnePlus go back to its roots and just make one or two phones a year that really are the best they can be for their price. Market factors and semiconductor shortages will not make it easy.
But if OnePlus could take advantage of its closer partnership with its sibling company Oppo, we might see the return of OnePlus’ flagship killer. Oppo Find X3 Pro offers a serious rival to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, so that OnePlus does not have to give the parent company BBK Electronics another flagship phone.
Instead, OnePlus could use Oppo’s camera and imaging expertise, along with the production lines they already share, to deliver a flagship killer phone OnePlus fans used to be crazy about, but also help deal with some of the camera’s shortcomings on these phones.
As it stands, the future still looks bright for OnePlus. I just hope it manages to keep the core of what made it great instead of just being another Samsung.