In April of 2014, a startup based in Shenzhen, China unveiled its first smartphone. The company was OnePlus, and the phone was the OnePlus One: an Android model that attracted attention for its high specs, low price ($299), and emphasis on not ruining Google’s mobile operating system by messing around too much with it.
The proposition turned out to be so appealing that the company has sold 1.5 million phones, even though the One has often been hard to get and available only through an invitation system designed to help its maker keep up with the demand.
Now the company is finally announcing its second phone, the much-rumored-about OnePlus 2. OnePlus is no longer a dinky startup: Cofounder and director of global Carl Pei told me that the company has 900 employees, including 200 engineers. But it’s still a small outfit compared to most of its competitors, and is still figuring out how to deal with all the challenges of the business.
In fact, when I visited with him recently, Pei spent as much time talking about the lessons OnePlus has learned as he did walking me though the OnePlus 2’s features. And he did so in an unvarnished manner that’s rare in the tech industry. “It’s been a growing experience, but it’s also been quite painful to not be prepared for all this growth,” he told me.
Designwise, the OnePlus 2 is recognizable as a follow-up to the One, but it steps the concept up a notch. The edges are now real metal, rather than the fake-metal plastic used in the first phone. OnePlus offered swappable casebacks in different materials for the One, but it turned out that the phone’s design made them a manufacturing nightmare. “We fought so much with the factory that they really didn’t want to make it for us,” says Pei of a bamboo back the company ended up selling with a disclosure that it was less than perfect. The OnePlus 2 has been rethought to make the casebacks more practical; the company will offer them in bamboo, rosewood, Kevlar, and other variants.
The new phone keeps the 5.5-inch display from its predecessor, and the company didn’t see any point in upping the 1080p resolution. But it’s now lit by as many diodes as a higher-resolution screen: “It’s superbright,” says Pei. The company also kept the 13-megapixel resolution of its earlier camera, but built in laser focusing and a sensor that’s 30% to 40% larger, for better image quality in murky lighting.
The OnePlus 2 will be one of the first phones to sport USB Type C, the next-generation connector that, like Apple’s Lightning, has a reversible jack. That would be notable in itself, but OnePlus’s cable has a full-size USB connector on the other end that, unlike stock USB, is also reversible, letting you plug it into your computer with one try, every time. It’s a brilliant hack that the company says it has patented. It plans to sell these cables at cost to help popularize USB-C, Pei told me.
Like the iPhone–and very few Android models–the OnePlus 2 has a physical switch that lets you silence it. Uniquely, it has three settings: off, on, and a mode that alerts you only when notifications come in from people you specify. The phone also has a fingerprint scanner that–at least in Pei’s demo for me–looks like it does its job swiftly and effectively.
OnePlus says that this phone is “the first in the world to ship with OnePlus’s own operating system, OxygenOS.” Giving the software a name and referring to it as a new operating system seems a bit overblown; OxygenOS’s overarching virtue appears to be that it’s a lot like Android in its stock form. It does have some tweaks, however, including a file manager, manual camera controls, an audio tuner, and the ability to let users choose between capacitive buttons or ones that appears on screen. OnePlus prides itself on having designed its own software using Google’s Material Design guidelines, so the seams between baseline Android and its additions are as invisible as possible.
With its first phone, OnePlus was eventually able to ramp up manufacturing enough to remove the reservation system and sell to all comers. But that turned out to cause new problems, because the company wasn’t yet experienced at managing its supply chain. “We ended up with a little too much stock, which we had to liquidate at a loss,” Pei says. “We lost $3 to $4 million.”
So for the OnePlus 2, it’s erring on the side of caution by bringing back the invitation process. It should be easier to snag an invite this time: There will be 30,000 to 50,000 units on hand for the launch, as opposed to the 1,000 it had available when it introduced the One. The idea is that being careful at first is a smarter way to prepare for broader distribution: “Anything that can free up our cash flow and reduce inventory risk can help us move away from the invitation system quicker,” Pei told me.
The OnePlus 2 will ship on August 11 in a version with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage for an unlocked, unsubsidized price of $389. A budget model with 3GB of RAM and 16GB of storage will arrive later for $329. Neither version matches the OnePlus One’s $299 starting price; Pei says that some fans may be irate over the higher price points, but that the new phone costs more only because the company’s costs went up as it chose better components.
One other thing about the OnePlus 2 is out of the ordinary. The company started out planning to introduce the phone at a bash to be held at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center, sometimes used by Apple for its own media events. Then it decided that it wanted to hold something that OnePlus fans everywhere could attend, not just a tiny group of hand-picked invitees. So it decided to hold its launch in virtual reality. The company event designed its own improved version of Google’s Cardboard VR viewer, with thicker cardboard and a surface resistant to forehead oil.
Prospective buyers who prefer real reality over VR will be able to get some hands-on time with the new phone at pop-up stores in nine major cities starting on July 31.
As unlikely as the OnePlus One’s success was, the OnePlus 2 is a bigger deal–the phone that will tell us whether this company has any staying power. “We don’t want to be remembered as this one-hit wonder,” says Pei. “The second album has to do well.”