Smartphone survival test: OnePlus X ideal for international travel

This stylish Android handset from a unique global-facing boutique Chinese manufacturer is a solid performer with few compromises at $249 -- if you do a lot of international travel.

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Image: ZDNet

We've completed our third week of the Smartphone Survival Test, and it's become increasingly apparent to us that when it comes to Android performance, RAM is everything.

In the first two weeks of our experiment we looked at two phones with very similar designs based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615/616 chipset. Both cost around $200.

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At the $200 price point with current Android phones, there isn't a ton of wiggle room on Bill of Materials, or BOM. Both phones chose to sacrifice certain things in lieu of others to meet certain design and pricing objectives.

In the case of the ASUS Zenfone 2 Laser, they chose overall functionality in lieu of sleekness. In the case of the Huawei Honor 5x, they chose sleekness over functionality.

The ASUS has more RAM and a better camera/flash combo, whereas the Huawei is thinner and has a fingerprint reader.

If you could get the best of both phones at $200 you'd really have something. But right now that economy of scale has not been met.

But for $50 more, you can have a OnePlus X.

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Image:GSMArena.com

OnePlus, based in Shenzen, China, was formed in December of 2013 by the former Vice President of the Chinese consumer electronics giant Oppo and is largely funded by that company.

As of 2014 the company had about $400M in posted revenue and serves 42 distinct international markets.

So while the company could be considered boutique compared to its Chinese competitors, it has a global presence through a largely web-based direct-to-consumer channel, not entirely unlike Apple and how they handle their online presence.

In fact, based on how the company presents itself in terms of how they style their products and engages in advertising, I would say they are taking a number of pages from Cupertino's playbook.

Which is a good thing.

The OnePlus X, which was launched in November of last year, is the company's third smartphone.

The company has made some remarkably premium component choices for what I would regard as an entry to low mid-entry smartphone price point. They include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 with 3GB of RAM, a 13MP rear camera sensor with LED flash and phase detection, an 8MP selfie camera, 2500mAh battery, 16MP flash storage, and SD card expansion and dual-SIM capability.

It also is more in line with the form factor and design elements of what American consumers expect, with a 5.0-inch 441ppi HD screen (rather than a 5.5-inch or larger) and a unique ceramic and metal body that gives it a premium feel.

This device proves that OnePlus can make lower-cost, but well-engineered and stylish phones with solid components.

I have to say I loved using this phone, coming from someone who is a iPhone 6S user. The form factor felt familiar and the premium design touches were welcome on even a relatively low-cost device.

With the speedy Snapdragon 801 and the 3GB of RAM, I had no problems with using any of my regular workload Android apps running the device's modified version of Android 5.x known as OxygenOS. No complaints.

So at three weeks, Survival Test over, right? We've reached a verdict with a perfect low-cost phone, right?

Well, not quite.

While the device supports up to LTE Cat4 150/50 speeds and most of the major European bands, which is good if you plan to do a good amount of travel and are looking for a relatively low-cost device for that purpose, it has limited LTE radio band support in the US.

In the US it only works with bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8. I use AT&T whose primary LTE band is 17, and is moving more of its network to band 12, so a lot of the time, the phone is going to drop to HSPA or 3G.

T-Mobile's primary band is 12 so you would encounter similar issues. Same with Verizon, which uses Band 13 for much of its network.

On Sprint I wouldn't recommend using this phone at all since none of the LTE bands would work, as they use 25, 26 and 41.

I've spoken to the folks at OnePlus and they agree that the North American direct-to-consumer market is an increasingly important one for them, and future products will not have these band limitations.

So for the time being the OnePlus X is an excellent international travel phone, but not something I would recommend for someone who is using it domestically.

However, what I do think this device proves is that OnePlus, as a company, can make lower-cost, but well-engineered and stylish phones with solid components.

It's able to do this because instead of relying on a traditional sales and distribution channel it sells directly to the consumer via its web site, bypassing a lot of the costs that larger companies have to incur.

Still unknown is how OnePlus will be able to continue to navigate a highly competitive market, particularly one that is becoming massively commoditized by its much larger competitors in China, such as Huawei, Xiaomi, ZTE and even Meizu which are working feverishly on their own beach heads in North America.

Nevertheless, I look forward to the company's future products and appreciate their highly customer-focused, pragmatic and direct distribution approach, which are attributes I would like to see more from its competitors that have much more significant resources.

Does little OnePlus have a winning formula with its international focus and direct to consumer products? Talk Back and Let Me Know.