The OnePlus honeymoon period ended today, as the OnePlus 7T and 7T Pro – the company’s most advanced phones ever – were largely greeted with apathy.
For many years it was easy to root for OnePlus. In an era when smartphones pushed beyond four figure price tags, the underdog pushed back with flagship-esque, well-made phones, once a year, for well under £500. That created an immense amount of good will among smartphone buyers and the media alike. And rightly so.
OnePlus has since pushed other phone makers to slow their roll, to think about mid-market consumers as the dominant class of smartphone users, deserving of something better than yesterday’s silicon, plastic screens and crappy cameras. It opened consumers’ eyes to brands outside of the establishment, enabling lesser-known makers like Xiaomi to gain footholds.
OnePlus arrived on the scene with a forthright proposition; to give loyal fans one phone a year and to bring them along on the journey. It was refreshing, especially in a climate where Apple preferred to elicit whoops from a well-chosen audience of sycophants at launch events. That transparency is a tactic that Google has now adopted with the Pixel 4.
Related: OnePlus 7T Pro Review
For the longest time it felt like buying a OnePlus phone was sticking it to the established order, those who jacked-up prices when truly discernible gains had become minimal. In truth, it probably hurt the likes of HTC, Sony and LG more than Apple and Samsung, but there was a time when OnePlus’ Pete Lau and co. had an air of punk rock about them.
However, if you’re around long enough and experience enough success, you often become the very thing you were rebelling against in the first place. This irony is true in most walks of life. Like Green Day, you eventually grow into the establishment and, before you know it, you’re doing duets with Bono.
OnePlus’ success now means it must be judged on the same standing as the big smartphone players. And the good will – which once insulated OnePlus from too much spotlight on its shortcomings – is beginning to wane.
In many ways the company is becoming the very thing it was refreshingly different to. Prices are creeping up (the OnePlus One started at $299 in 2014) and now there are Pro editions with bigger, better screens, larger batteries and faster charging, costing £800.
Related: OnePlus 7T Pro vs OnePlus 7 Pro
OnePlus has segmented the customer base and is reserving the best tech for the more affluent, just like Apple and Samsung. “Naturally, there’s going to be a Pro version, right?” the company said during the launch event today. Naturally? Well, not until May this year. And don’t get me started on that pointless, bourgeois McLaren Edition either.
The Never Settle edict was once perfect, but it has become a millstone. Customers are settling for a phone that still doesn’t offer wireless charging, because OnePlus is continuing to argue it isn’t necessary. They’re now settling for a USB-C dongle to plug in their favourite headphones, when OnePlus once refused to follow that crowd and actually listen to customers. Users are also setting for a camera experience our OnePlus 7 reviewer described as “for the most part good for a flagship, but work still needs to be done to improve its low-light performance.”
If customers buy the standard edition, they’re settling for an inferior phone, without that fancy pop-up selfie camera and all-screen display.
Related: OnePlus 7T Pro vs OnePlus 7T
Look, it’s increasingly difficult to break the mold in the smartphone world in 2019, but if OnePlus is going to act like Apple and Samsung, it now deserves to be judged like them. Our reviewer called the OnePlus 7 a “steady, slightly predictable update to the OnePlus 6T,” and there’s little in the OnePlus 7T to suggest a real leap forward has been made.
When you drip-feed so much of the information ahead of time, you won’t generate the same level of excitement on launch day. That’s just the trade-off you make, and I actually prefer that approach.
However, you can certainly generate excitement during the build-up, and nothing about the countdown to this phone has given loyal fans that ‘can’t wait’ feeling.
I just listened to OnePlus spend an hour talking about how much better this phone is, but the release still feels iterative – and how could be anything more, when it arrives less than five months after the OnePlus 7 range? At least iPhone 11 and Galaxy Note 10 owners have a full year of feeling like they have the latest phones in their hands.
The OnePlus 7T and 7T Pro will be likely be great, well-reviewed and probably well-bought phones that still come in significantly below the price points of the true flagship phones from Apple and Samsung, while rivalling them in admirable ways.
In that respect, OnePlus is living up to its founding principle of providing the top specs at a lower cost, but the gap is becoming increasingly less pronounced. The flagship killer is now in the firing line itself. Which manufacturer will step up to fire the first shot?