December 2, 2023

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Specialists in technology

This is what the OnePlus 8 Lite should look like

The first OnePlus phone arrived in 2014 at £279, less than half the current cost of the OnePlus 8. Its higher end OnePlus 8 Pro is more expensive than the iPhone 11.

OnePlus has been accused of losing its original value-packed appeal, which saw it rise with the viral intensity of the most popular Kickstarter projects at crowdfunding’s peak. But unlike the £599 jetpack you “ordered” and never received on Kickstarter, the OnePlus One was real, quite brilliant, and the best value phone you could buy in 2014.

OnePlus repeated the same successful formula several times, turning a lack of ad spending into a selling point, one that told buyers more of their money was put into the phone itself. However, in the background OnePlus put down roots. It established relationships with networks across the world, which would go on to sell its phones, such as Three and O2 in the UK.

This was the real sign of OnePlus maturing. And this tells us OnePlus CEO Pete Lau didn’t come up with the idea of a new, cheaper OnePlus phone the day before the Fast Company interview in which he announced the plan. Contrary to what some Reddit commenters may think.

OnePlus has likely considered a “cheaper” phone every year, and it actually released one in just its second year of trading. The OnePlus X was the 2015 budget alternative to the OnePlus 2, and it became perhaps the biggest failure in the company’s history to date.

The OnePlus X cost £199, had a metal and glass frame (ceramic also an option), OLED screen and the previous year’s high-end Snapdragon 801 CPU. And a slightly dodgy Samsung-sensor camera, but you can’t order the whole menu with a Primark budget.

The phone still seems an incredible deal five years later, but the OnePlus X unperformed and was silently discontinued eight months after launch. It went “out of stock” one day, never to return. So why should an affordable OnePlus 8 Lite or OnePlus 8 Z be any different?

Crucially, the OnePlus X was only £40 cheaper than the OnePlus 2, which beat it in every area unless you were into the idea of a smaller phone. At this point OnePlus was still largely known only to tech fans for whom “more” is usually better.

However, OnePlus’s gradual price increases have changed that dynamic, particularly this year. “It will be a stretch for some of its userbase to upgrade to the expensive 5G-capable 8 series when most of them might not even see a 5G rollout in their country for next couple of years,” says Neil Shah, partner at Counterpoint Research.

If a OnePlus 8 Lite, call it what you will, is £40 cheaper than the OnePlus 8, sure, it will fail. But there is potential for it to cost £200-300 less.

“5G capability this year increased the overall cost/price for OnePlus flagships and pushed it to an ultra-premium $600-plus territory, leaving a big gap in the now fast-growing $300-$600 4G smartphone segment,” says Shah. OnePlus has completely left the category that was once its entire reason to exist.

But what else should the OnePlus 8 Lite offer?

There are two good options for the processor. The OnePlus X had a flagship chipset, but one already a little old at launch. Transposed to 2020, this would suggest the use of a Snapdragon 855 or 845. These are still great CPUs for a new phone. But unless OnePlus stumbles across a million of them going cheap, one of Qualcomm’s newer 7-series processors seems a much more likely fit.

The Snapdragon 765G and 768G are obvious options. These are mid-tier processors with faster clocked GPUs, letting manufacturers market them as performance chipsets even if their power is not close to that of the Snapdragon 865. They also have the Qualcomm X52 5G modem, widely seen as the key to bringing down the cost of 5G.

Samsung and Huawei have also made lower cost 5G hardware. Samsung’s is called Shannon, Huawei’s Balong. But OnePlus is yet to use a non-Snapdragon processor and Huawei’s 5G hardware has a radioactive glow of controversy at present. Social distancing advised.

Does a Snapdragon 765G or 768G take OnePlus back to its roots? No. The first few OnePlus phones had the same processors as the other flagships at half the price, but there’s no way for it to do the same for a OnePlus 8 Lite without increasing costs too much, and making the rest of the OnePlus 8 range look bad. The real-world differences in performance are marginal when paired with well-optimised software, fast RAM and fast internal storage. Tech nerds: this may be a compromise you just have to accept.

But how do you signal that a phone is lower end in its design? Apple has used bold colour, and a shift from stainless steel to glass side, in the iPhone 11 and iPhone SE.

Most Android manufacturers do their best to hide the difference, but make the phone’s back out of plastic rather than glass. This is the kind of cheapening OnePlus should look to avoid if the OnePlus 8 Lite is to seem a cut above the many high-value affordable phones from other Chinese companies like Xiaomi, Honor, Huawei and Oppo.

There is one change it can make, though. The OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro both have curved Gorilla Glass 5 on front and back. Those front parts are relatively expensive to implement, as the screen has to be curved, too.

OnePlus should, and almost certainly will, use flat “2.5D” glass for the front of the OnePlus 8 Lite. 2.5D glass was briefly a buzzword in phones, but it just means the edges of the glass panel are slightly contoured, effectively softened so they become an active part of a phone’s curves.

This means the OnePlus 8 Lite will have marginally thicker screen borders than the OnePlus 8, and will fit slightly fewer screen inches into the same footprint. But it’s an important visual and design distinction that will let OnePlus make a cheaper phone that does not have an iPhone SE-style “small” display.

If OnePlus made a phone with a 16:9 screen like that, it would be laughed off its own fan-packed forum. Instead, the OnePlus 8 Lite will likely have just a slightly smaller screen than the OnePlus 8, perhaps 6.4 inches.

OnePlus does not need to make a small phone, it just needs to make a genuinely affordable one. And by not reducing the size too much, we won’t have to see any sacrifice in battery life. OnePlus would actually be well served by making the phone slightly thicker and using a 5,000mAh battery that lets the phone plod on longer than its family members, just doing so slightly less glamorously.

There’s even a good argument it does not need an OLED screen, seen in every generation since the OnePlus 3.

OnePlus has two good options for the OnePlus 8 Lite’s display tech. It could use one of the new low-cost 90Hz Full HD+ LCD panels seen in phones like the Realme 6, or a 60Hz OLED panel. OnePlus likely can’t afford to use a 90Hz OLED screen without adding too much to the cost.

But which should it choose? This is a case of favouring HDR and contrast, by picking an OLED, or prioritising flavour of the month refresh rate with a 90Hz LCD.

OLED is a better choice if OnePlus wants to sell the 8 Lite as a no-nonsense sensible buy with very high basic standards. By using a teardrop notch rather than the punch hole of the OnePlus 8, we would also get the dual benefit of (possible) cuts in manufacturing spend and a visual throwback to previous OnePlus generations. That’s no bad thing in this case.

Screen tech is one of the most important choices in making the OnePlus 8 Lite sit comfortably in the OnePlus line-up. But it is perhaps one of the least important for day-to-day use. Almost every Full HD phone screen today, LCD or OLED, is excellent by the standards we judged them by just a few years ago. You may not see searing brightness fit for sunny days, but you do get 95 per cent of everything else.

The OnePlus 8 Lite camera is a different case. There are definitely wrong moves to make here, and some of the most interesting “right” ones aren’t feasible.

For example, the Xiaomi Ni Note 10 proved Samsung’s 108MP ISOCELL Bright HMX sensor is cheap enough to fit into a mid-range phone and yet can provide good 2x zoom, great general image quality and solid enough results in low light. But OnePlus can’t put a 108MP sensor into its cheap phone when the most expensive models have 48MP ones.

It may also be tempting to suggest the OnePlus 8 Lite should use the same Sony IMX363 sensor as the long-standing budget camera champion, the Google Pixel 3a. Look just a little closer and you’ll realise this is no silver bullet. The Nokia 8.1, Pocofone F1 and Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite all use the same sensor and don’t perform nearly at the same level as the Google Pixel 3a.

Software and processing are the real stars of today’s phone photography, at least until you reach the heights of ultra-expensive features like the 5x “periscope” zooms of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and Oppo Find X2 Pro.

OnePlus’s best option is therefore a dull one, to stick to what it knows best. The OnePlus 8 Lite should have the same Sony IMX586 primary sensor it has used since the OnePlus 7 days. And the same 16-megapixel ultra-wide.

To stop there will test OnePlus’s restraint. The key trend in affordable phones today is to pack them with very low-cost additional sensors that barely add to the camera’s capabilities. This is done because they also barely add to the phone’s cost. They are the toy in the Happy Meal.

But the OnePlus 8 Lite has no need for the OnePlus 8’s 2MP macro camera. It is better to do fewer things well, as the iPhone SE and Google 3a prove. The crucial addition is something else. We want to see the OnePlus 8 Lite have a Night mode as effective as, or at least close to, the OnePlus 8’s. With the same hardware this shouldn’t be a problem, right? Not quite.

Modern night modes merge multiple exposures in order to improve detail and radically increase dynamic range. This means a lot of work for the processor, the ISP (image signal processor) in particular, in a short space of time. OnePlus’s challenge is to bring what it created for a top-end Qualcomm 8-series Snapdragon processor and make it work with a much less powerful 7-series platform. That is, short of OnePlus performing a fiscal magic trick and fitting a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 into the OnePlus 8 Lite.

This seems unlikely to happen if the OnePlus 8 Lite is to be anywhere near as affordable as it should. You want a return to OnePlus’s roots? That means a starting price of around £299, for a phone with 128GB storage and perhaps 6GB RAM. There is also room for a 256GB, 8GB RAM, edition at £349. And phones not currently available in the UK, like the Redmi K30 5G, suggest these prices may be realistic with 5G.

Those who make a hobby of digging into spec sheets may say this view of the OnePlus 8 Lite seems too ordinary, just another Chinese phone. No top-end Snapdragon processor, no deal. However, both the phone market and OnePlus have changed radically since 2014. And this image of the OnePlus 8 Lite is one we can buy into, and one that starts to make 5G seem the new normal.

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