OnePlus's Boldest Move Is Focusing More on Design Than the Tech

Over the last few years, phone makers have been putting two, three, or even five or more cameras on the backs of phones, to the point that it’s giving some people trypophobia. But with the Concept One, OnePlus is trying to ease that camera anxiety while also flexing some of its design chops.

For the Concept One, OnePlus is once again borrowing inspiration from the car world and its previous collaborations with McLaren. However this time, instead of going with carbon fiber, OnePlus is being a bit more ambitious by trying to adapt electrochromic glass (or EC glass for short) for use on smartphones.

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On the $300,000 720s, McLaren uses EC glass to tint the glass in its sunroof to prevent your dome from getting toasty. The way it works is that by passing an electrical current through the glass, it’s possible for EC glass to go from transparent to almost totally opaque or anything in between.

The problem for OnePlus is that car glass is thick, and moreover, the time it takes for the 720s’ sunroof to go from clear to tinted doesn’t happen very fast, so before even putting EC glass on the Concept One, OnePlus had to dramatically improve both of those metrics. And after what OnePlus claims was months or research and development, it has created what it believes to be the world’s thinnest and fastest EC glass, which measures in at just 0.35mm thick and features a transition time of just 0.7 seconds. So basically, in the same time it takes for a phone to open its camera app, the EC glass on the back of the Concept One can go from black to clear so you can snap pictures normally.

This allows OnePlus to hide the phone’s triple rear cams behind tinted glass during normal use, making it appear as if they aren’t there at all. Though in strong light or with the help of some well-placed glare, it’s still possible to see dark spots behind the Concept One’s tinted glass. Even so, it’s a neat effect that could help combat the obnoxiously large camera modules we’ve been seeing on a growing number of phones like the iPhone 11 Pro, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and others.

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Under brightish light, you can still sort of see through the EC glass even when tinted.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Hiding cameras isn’t the only thing the Concept One’s EC glass can do either. By modulating the amount of electric current running through the EC glass, OnePlus can set its opacity at a specific level, effectively turning the glass into a neutral density filter.

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This lets you shoot longer exposures pics with lower ISOs when shooting in bright light, potentially letting a phone capture greater dynamic range. However, while the idea has a lot of promise, on the Concept One, OnePlus’s use of EC glass as an ND filter still needs some fine-tuning, as it appeared to add a slight greenish tint to the phone’s pics when activated. That’s something you expect from welding glass, not a smartphone.

You can see what the camera looks like normally on the left, and how things look when you turn on the phones ND8 filter.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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Aside from EC glass, the Concept One also uses a new physical vapor deposition technique that allows OnePlus to create a unique aluminum and 24K gold alloy, which gives the Concept One its distinctive shimmery umber frame. Though I’m not sure what other benefits this PVD aluminum really offers besides nice aesthetics.

That said, between EC glass that helps hide its camera, its gorgeous frame, and all that delicious papaya orange leather (which is the same leather McLaren uses on the 720s), the Concept One is easily the best looking phone OnePlus has ever made, at least from the back. Elsewhere, the Concept One’s front and insides are identical to what you get from the OnePlus 7T Pro McLaren 5G edition, which sort of brings me to my only real gripe about the Concept One.

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Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Because the phone is a concept, there’s no real pressure on OnePlus to actually make everything work perfectly like it would on a normal production device. And even OnePlus says it needs to spend a lot more time testing the EC glass’ durability before ever putting it on something you might actually buy.

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So when I saw OnePlus’ teases prior to its official announcement, I was hoping OnePlus would take this opportunity to show off something wild—something batshit crazy. And I still kind of feel that way; the Concept One feels almost too polished. Don’t get me wrong, the phone looks damn good, but I would have really liked to see OnePlus do something to the front of the phone too. Or just say hey, this thing has wireless charging. Now wouldn’t the be something?

I do want to give the Concept One credit as the best looking phone OnePlus has ever made. Bring back leather on phones. RIP to the LG G4.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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But for a company that up until now hasn’t ever had an official presence at CES, the Concept One is an interesting place for OnePlus to test out some forward-thinking design. Just go a bit harder next time please, after all, wild concept devices are probably the best thing about CES.

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About the author

Sam Rutherford

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.