The OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro smartphones are out now, and normally we’d be intrigued. Over the years, OnePlus has played a game of priorities, offering the newest processor and latest display enhancements for hundreds of dollars less than its peers do. With Verizon joining T-Mobile this year in offering OnePlus, it seemed like the little phone maker was on the verge of its big breakthrough.
That breakthrough might not happen, unfortunately. While the newest OnePlus phones certainly bring the goods, with stunning displays, impressive camera arrays, and gorgeous designs, they also bring a change no one will like: Their prices have gone up. A lot. It also doesn’t help that OnePlus is removing its biggest competitive advantage at a time when millions of people are suddenly unemployed, and premium phone sales are cratering.
No matter which model you choose, you’re going to be paying significantly more for the OnePlus 8 than you would have for last year’s 7 Pro or 7T. The top model fetches four figures. Here are the new models and prices:
To be fair, Qualcomm’s pricing for the Snapdragon 865 and X55 5G modem has driven up the price of every premium Android phone this year, including those by OnePlus. And for what you’re getting—a top-of-the-line processor, speedy RAM and storage, great displays, and 5G—the OnePlus prices are right, even good. Still, you’d be paying at least $100 and possibly $300 more for a 2020 OnePlus phone than a comparable 2019 version.
Playing in the deep end
The OnePlus brand was never just about low prices. With its user-focused “Never Settle” philosophy, the company exposed how things like wireless charging and IP-rated water resistance unnecessarily drove up the cost of smartphones. Instead, OnePlus invested focused on smaller, more meaningful features. It delivered speedy wired charging and included a super-fast power adapter in the box when others were still shipping 5W adapters. It upped the refresh rate in its displays and experimented with notches and selfie cams. It resisted the urge to pile on marketing gimmicks and focused on smart customizations that made its minimal Android skin feel even lighter.
By choosing to load up its newest phones with the latest everything, OnePlus has crossed its own line. Sure, compared to the $1,200 Galaxy S20+, the $999 OnePlus 8 Pro is still something of a bargain—but it’s not the same bargain as the 7 or 6T was. Now buyers are going to want to know why they should buy a OnePlus 8 for $699 when an iPhone 11 costs the same.
I’m not sure OnePlus can properly answer that question. The screen is gorgeous, but so is the one on the Galaxy S20. The design is great, but Apple’s iPhone 11 is plenty pretty. Oxygen OS is very nice, but Android 10 on the Pixel 4 is still better. Wireless charging is nice, but 30W charging is overkill, especially when you need a $70 stand to take advantage of it.
Then there’s the camera. The OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro bring excellent hardware, with tri- and quad-camera arrays that have 48MP main sensors and ultra-wide lenses. But as we’ve seen before, hardware alone doesn’t equal good photos. Based on my initial testing, it doesn’t seem like OnePlus’s processing has made enough of a leap to take on the Pixel’s Night Sight or the iPhone’s Deep Fusion systems.
Even if OnePlus could convince customers that the 8 Pro is equal to the iPhone 11 Pro and Galaxy S20+, it still has challenges. Look at its 5G: Because you’re really only getting sub-6GHz support, the only carrier that will be able to take advantage of it is T-Mobile (and perhaps Sprint, at some point). AT&T’s network isn’t supported at all, and Verizon subscribers will need to spend $800 on a OnePlus 8 UWB model that’s locked to the network.
This is a time when OnePlus’s traditional formula would have made an immediate splash. People who need a new phone right now are dismissing the Galaxy S20 in large part because it’s too much phone. The OnePlus 8 Pro has the same problem, even if it’s technically cheaper than Samsung’s flagships. People won’t see an affordable S20+, they’ll see a more-expensive 7 Pro.
Even the cheaper OnePlus 8 isn’t the bang-for-your-buck model it should be. Despite the $100 price hike, it still doesn’t have wireless charging or IP-rated water resistance, let alone a 120Hz display. In the face of phones like the upcoming iPhone SE and Samsung A Series phones, which cost hundreds of dollars less than the cheapest OnePlus 8, not to mention the raft of affordable 5G phones that will be powered by the Snapdragon 765 processor, it seems like OnePlus made the wrong choices.
There’s a glimmer of hope. We’ve heard rumors for years about a so-called OnePlus Lite phone that would have been perfect alongside the 8 Pro. Maybe one that uses the Snapdragon 765 with an integrated 5G modem, has normal wireless charging, dual cameras, and a 6-inch 90Hz display for $499. That would allow OnePlus to retain its mid-range crown but still compete with the Galaxy S20 at the high end.
Maybe that phone will arrive this year. But until then, OnePlus is going to have a very hard time convincing buyers that it’s still the best bargain in the business.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.