OnePlus: a look at its flagship journey over the years

OnePlus as a brand has been in the country for about nine years now. How well has its flagship journey been? Read on and find out more.

OnePlus is among the most recognised brands in the flagship smartphone space. Before the company reached this stage though, it was an enthusiast-centric and value-for-money name. Many tech aficionados, such as myself, remember the days when OnePlus smartphones were exclusively available via an invite system.

That has since changed with the Chinese smartphone giant foraying into several segments in the electronics consumer market. From undercutting Samsung and Apple to setting on a path to rival them, OnePlus’ nine-year journey has seen a roller coaster of a ride. In this piece, I want to chart the company’s journey through its flagship smartphone offerings as we approach the launch of the OnePlus 11.

OnePlus 1

My first thoughts upon hearing the name OnePlus were that of mild cynicism. I believed the company was trying to capitalise on its quirky name to sell products in a space dominated heavily by the likes of Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony. However, when one of my friends brought the OnePlus 1 to my house, I was actually very impressed.

The OnePlus 1 (review), for its asking price of Rs 21,999, not only offered the fastest silicone at the time ie. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801, but also backed it up with 3GB of the fastest LPDDR3 RAM. Its display was top-class at 1080p resolution and the camera experience was also great via its 13MP primary. However, it was the clean CyanogenMod UI that won me over and was a breath of fresh air in a world where the clutter of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface dominated. It was clear that OnePlus was here to disrupt the market and so was born the famous tagline “Flagship killer”, synonymous with the brand for so long.

OnePlus 2

The OnePlus 2 (review) was my first device purchased from the company and it was obtained via the invite system. However, my experience with the handset was not as superlative as I had imagined. True that it was using flagship-grade silicone, transitioned to a USB Type-C port, incorporated a faster charging solution, and had up to 4GB of RAM. It also marked the introduction of OnePlus’ famous alert slider.

However, the device was prone to heating up and clogging up the interface. Apart from that, the OnePlus 2 was quite bulky in comparison to other smartphones and available only in a single Sandstone-finish, which was not to my liking. Its launch price of Rs 24,999 still undercut the competition though. 

OnePlus 3 and 3T

With its third iteration, OnePlus rectified a lot of the issues plaguing the previous handset. A top-to-bottom upgrade in performance capabilities came to the forefront, as was expected from the company. Qualcomm’s new flagship chipset, LPDDR4 memory, and faster UFS 2.0 storage, were just a few things that made the OnePlus 3 a processing powerhouse. In addition, the screen transitioned to AMOLED and bumped up the back camera to 16MP resolution. More importantly, OnePlus managed to bring down the thickness and weight of the device to better reflect market standards at that time.

This was also the time OnePlus’ popularity surged and the company scaled its production levels to remove the cumbersome invite-only system. Personally, I was a big fan of the device, and it gelled utility with its Rs 27,999 price point. Just six months later, with the OnePlus 3T (review), the company further improved the processing with a Snapdragon 821 SoC and upgraded the selfie shooter to 16MP.

OnePlus 5 and 5T

Skipping number 4, OnePlus started to push its price point higher and higher. The OnePlus 5 (review) retailed for Rs 32,999 and again the USP of the device was its processing prowess. The Snapdragon 835 SoC was at the helm, a chipset being utilised by OEMs around the world at a much steeper price. The smartphone also introduced dual cameras for the first time, a promising feature first initiated by the iPhone 7 Plus. The OnePlus 5 also shared a very similar external look to Apple’s flagship offering at the time.

For me, the selling point was the 8GB RAM variant, which to my knowledge, no other smartphone maker was utilising at the time. Also, OnePlus’ OxygenOS UI’s year-on-year improvements became a vital part of the OnePlus 5’s fluidity. The OnePlus 5T (review), announced in November 2017, was basically the same phone but with an elongated 18:9 display and an all-new 2D facial unlock feature while the physical fingerprint sensor shifted to the back.

OnePlus 6 and 6T

By the time, OnePlus 6 (review) hit the market, new players in the affordable flagship space like POCO started to emerge which undercut even OnePlus’ proposition. The fundamentals of OnePlus did not waiver with regard to its overall experience, especially in the performance department. The notched design had been picking up pace in 2018 and the OnePlus 6 was no different in this regard. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 SoC was the choice of SoC on the phone but apart from that there were no significant upgrades from the last generation.

Compared to the phone’s selling price of Rs 34,999, the POCO F1 offered more-or-less the same specs but for a lower starting price of Rs 19,999. In an attempt to differentiate, OnePlus furnished a more unobtrusive waterdrop-style notch on the OnePlus 6T (review) and introduced an in-display fingerprint reader. However, it further ramped up the pricing at Rs 37,999 and it became clear that OnePlus was slowly creeping into premium flagship territory.

OnePlus 7, 7 Pro, and 7T

The first year in which OnePlus announced three phones was also the year in which the Chinese OEM announced itself as a flagship-level brand. The OnePlus 7 (review) was your standard year-on-year performance upgrade over the OnePlus 6T. However, the OnePlus 7 Pro (review) had a host of new innovations that clearly put the brand apart from its competitors. For one, the device had a pop-up selfie camera which enabled a seamless and uninterrupted display.

The panel transitioned to 90Hz refresh rate for a smoother experience, and QHD+ resolution for more sharpness, with curved sides mimicking Samsung’s Galaxy S series. Apart from that, the storage had been bumped up to UFS 3.0, the RAM had been upgraded to 12GB and the chipset moved to the Snapdragon 855. Even the cameras saw a bump to a triple-lens setup which included a 48MP primary shooter and a 3X telephoto lens. The phone also introduced faster 30W charging speeds as well and a stereo speaker setup. In every sense of the word, the OnePlus 7 Pro was a true flagship experience but retailed at a lower price point of Rs 48,999 as compared to devices from other OEMs. This was also the year when OnePlus became the leader in India’s premium smartphone category with a 43 percent market share. 

For the T series, OnePlus’ upgrades were fairly minimal as its winning formula was reaping the rewards. The 7T and 7T Pro had only one difference, which was the use of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855+ SoC. Also with the 7T, OnePlus made at least a 90Hz refresh rate standard on its upcoming flagship products.

OnePlus 8, 8 Pro, and 8T

The OnePlus brand completed its transition from a flagship killer to a true flagship offering in 2019 and in the following year, the company doubled down on its new philosophy. Not much was changed with the OnePlus 8 series in terms of overall design such as the camera layout, materials used, and curved panel. However, the Pro model did get a higher 120Hz refresh rate display while the pop-up camera module was replaced by a punch-hole-style cut-out. There was an additional 5MP colour filter lens on the back which didn’t provide any utility other than to, briefly, see-through plastic objects. Performance again got upgraded with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 SoC while the storage and memory options remained the same as last year. This time the OnePlus 8 Pro (review) started at Rs 54,999. 

Regarding the incremental T update, this time around OnePlus did not release a OnePlus 8T Pro, opting for a regular 8T model instead. Here the USP was the quad-camera setup and an upgrade to 120Hz refresh rate. The rest of the specs remained exactly the same as the regular OnePlus 8. In my opinion, the device did not resonate very well with the OnePlus audience and more importantly, players like Xiaomi and Realme were making bigger strides to undercut OnePlus in the premium category at the time.

OnePlus 9, 9R, and 9 Pro

With rising competition, OnePlus again looked at features that could differentiate it from the market. Enter, a partnership with Swedish photography company Hasselblad. The OnePlus 9 Pro (review) marketed its photography capabilities quite heavily and it reflected in the company’s choice of camera hardware. It was the first device to use the 48MP Sony IMX789 primary shooter and also implemented a 50MP IMX766 ultra-wide sensor.

OnePlus 9 Pro

In our review of the OnePlus 9 Pro, we found the device’s optical experience quite good but not at the level of flagships in the range. This is an important point of note because, at the time of launch, the OnePlus 9 Pro set you back Rs 64,999 for the base variant. Other aspects of the phone were flagship-level such as the Snapdragon 888 SoC, a QHD+ 120Hz panel with LTPO technology, and up to 65W wired charging and 50W wireless charging. This was also the first OnePlus phone in India to support 5G capabilities.

The OnePlus 9 (review) and 9R targeted the mobile segment which the company had moved forward from in the past couple of years. Both phones had about the same specs but the differentiation lay in the chipset being employed. Apart from this, the OnePlus 9RT (review), launched in October, matched the specs of the OnePlus 9, including the silicone, at a lower price point.

OnePlus 10 Pro, 10T, and 10R

OnePlus abandoned its two-phone launch strategy by releasing just one flagship phone at the beginning of 2022 and it was the OnePlus 10 Pro (review). Among other things, the phone made use of the 4nm-based Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 SoC. However, since the chipset was prone to thermal throttling, the device’s performance took a slight hit. Also, I felt, during our review of the device, the new Samsung JN1 ultra-wide sensor did not output images as well as the IMX766 from last year.

OnePlus 10 Pro design

The primary shooter also did not find any upgrade from the 9 Pro although OnePlus continued its Hasselblad partnership. The only major change came with an LTPO 2.0 panel being employed on the front and an upgraded 80W charging solution. With its Rs 66,999 price point, the device had moved into the premium flagship territory but competing products had definitely caught up. 

The OnePlus 10T (review), launched six months later, solved the throttling issue with the new 8+ Gen 1 SoC. However, the device did not impress in the image-taking department. A similar story can be charted for the OnePlus 10R and 10RT, both of which were kept below Rs 50,000 mark but could not capture my imagination as holistic products.

What’s next for OnePlus?

OnePlus is now gearing up to launch the OnePlus 11 in India while having already announced the device in Chinese markets. It is clear that we as consumers have certain expectations from OnePlus based on its history in the flagship space. The brand prided itself on launching the latest high-end Qualcomm silicone on its smartphones before other OEMs caught on. However, the emergence of iQOO as a serious competitor could act as a dampener. Can the OnePlus 11 woo customers? That remains to be seen, but the details of the new flagship will be revealed on February 7th.