OnePlus has been trying to craft a full-blown, “flagship killer” of a smartphone since day one, but how successful it’s been is up for debate. From my perch, the company’s first phone proved that a relatively unknown startup could build a high-caliber handset and a die-hard fanbase around it. Its second-generation device pushed it even further into the big leagues. And now there’s the $399 (£309) OnePlus 3, which launches today.
Make no mistake: The competition is even fiercer than ever, but OnePlus is trying to meet the challenge. Best of all, that pain-in-the-ass invite system is finally gone. Suffice to say, this year’s launch is a big deal for OnePlus, and it’s only fitting that the OnePlus 3 mostly represents this young company at its best. Indeed, right now you’d be hard-pressed to find any other phone this good for this price.
There’s no denying that last year’s OnePlus 2 was a well-constructed device, but it now looks like the days of sandstone polycarbonate are over. This year’s version is milled from a single block of “space-grade” aluminum, and the 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display up front is swathed in a very slightly curved pane of Gorilla Glass 4. It’s beautiful. More than that, its trim waistline — 7.35 mm — makes the OnePlus 3 feel sleeker and more elegant than you might expect from a phone with this big a screen. Think of it as a larger, much better OnePlus X and you’re on the right track. Oh, and in case you were worried, you can still purchase a sandstone case or an authentic bamboo case for old time’s sake; or you can go for the fancy black apricot version, rosewood version (both using real wood veneers) or Kevlar version.
The move might have been an obvious one — OnePlus wanted a cohesive design across its devices — but who cares? The result is a handsome, impeccably well-built smartphone. A few of my colleagues even mistook it for an HTC device, which I took as a compliment, considering how insanely devoted that Taiwanese company is to build quality. (Obviously, that statement is open to interpretation.) Anyway, yes, OnePlus has really upped its game this year. By the way, our review unit was attractive graphite gray, but a “soft gold” option will follow not long after launch. Seriously, does every company need to make a gold phone?
What’s inside the OnePlus 3 is pretty impressive, too. Just about every flagship Android phone released this year packs one of Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon 820 chipsets and an Adreno 530 GPU. The OnePlus 3 does too, but there’s a twist here: It also comes with 6GB of RAM. In fairness, the OnePlus 3 isn’t the first smartphone we’ve seen that packs that much RAM — that would be the ZTE Axon 7 — but it’s still nice to see a scrappy startup go somewhere most major manufacturers haven’t.
Speaking of, the OnePlus 3 also accepts two nano-SIM cards for multiple lines of service. It’s rare to see dual-SIM phones in the US, and the feature makes the OP3 a lovely travel companion, but that second SIM card takes up the space one might expect a microSD card to occupy. I’m not sure whether the team specifically gave up on expandable memory to accommodate another SIM; either way, you’re stuck with 64GB of storage. I’m a bit of a digital pack rat, though, so having more storage options would’ve been nice. Oh, and the physical alert slider is back, making it easy to manage your notification sounds without mashing on the volume buttons. I loved that little thing when it debuted on the OnePlus 2, and I love it just as much this year.
The rest of the spec sheet is pretty typical of modern flagship phones. There’s a USB Type-C port for charging and data transfer on the bottom, a 3,000mAh battery inside, a snappy and accurate fingerprint sensor that doubles as a home button and a pair of capacitive navigation buttons on either side of it. Above the screen sits an 8-megapixel camera for selfies, paired with a 16-megapixel main camera around the back. Oh, and unlike last year, the OnePlus 3 has an NFC radio for all those sweet, sweet Android Pay transactions.
Display and sound
I was half-hoping this was the year OnePlus would trick its flagship out with a Quad HD display, but that just wasn’t meant to be. After all, building a phone like this for just $399 (£309) means trade-offs were inevitable. That doesn’t mean the screen hasn’t been improved. Rather than use an IPS LCD like it did last year, the company went with a 5.5-inch, 1080p Optic AMOLED display (the better to see VR content with a Loop headset, my dear). The switch leaves us with the same pixel density (401 ppi) and thus the same sharpness, but also punchier, more vivid colors. Blacks are especially deep, and whites are pretty crisp by default, but you have the option to make the display warmer or cooler depending on your preference.
Not enough? You can also turn on a proximity wake feature similar to what Motorola offers, where you can wave your hand over the screen to activate parts of it to display the time and notifications. Too bad it’s not as accurate or as elegant as what Motorola has built; the feature works best with slow, deliberate waves, while a Moto X will wake up with even quick waves.
Alas, the OnePlus 3’s single bottom-mounted speaker doesn’t fare much better than the one we got last year. Audio is generally pretty clean, and you can crank up the volume surprisingly high, but things can get a little muddy if you do. The MaxxAudio equalizer we got with the OnePlus 2 is conspicuously absent, so you can’t tweak audio levels right out of the box, but I can’t imagine too many people used it in the first place.
If you spent only a few minutes with a OnePlus phone, you’d be forgiven for thinking it ran a stock build of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. Well, not quite. The OnePlus 3 again runs OxygenOS, a modified version of Android I like to refer to as “stock plus”; there are plenty of additional features that don’t cross the line into bloat. The overall effect is more subtle than other companies’ approaches, and I think it’s more valuable as a result.
The most obvious addition is the so-called Shelf, and you’ll catch wind of it first because you’re asked if you want it during initial setup. When you swipe right from your home screen, you’re treated to the date, local weather, recently used apps and contacts you’ve been in touch with lately. There’s a memo function too, for leaving yourself quick notes (with the option to create reminders from them), and the space serves as a neat place to add widgets without cluttering up your home screens. The Shelf first appeared on the OnePlus 2, and I’ve mostly ignored it since then, but some will certainly find it handy. Throw in some perfectly adequate Gallery and Music apps and you’ve got the most obvious additions to the usual Android formula.
The fun stuff, however, can require a keener eye. There’s an option to invert colors and enable a Night mode in the quick-settings tray; the latter is meant to reduce eyestrain and preserve the sanctity of your sleep cycle by giving the display an orangey cast. It’s a good idea in theory, but the execution leaves much to be desired. You’re supposed to be able to tweak how warm you want the Night mode display to be from the device’s settings, but sometimes that doesn’t work and the phone does whatever it wants. Bummer. By the way, if your eyes just don’t like light colors, you can toggle a Dark mode that replaces Marshmallow’s bone-white menu and app-launcher backgrounds with stark black.
Customization options go even further: You can modify Android’s accent color, icons packs, the notification LED’s color, what the home and capacitive buttons do when long-pressed and double-tapped. And if you don’t like those capacitive buttons, you can turn them off completely and use on-screen buttons instead. Drawing gestures on the screen while it’s off works the same this year; when the function is enabled, tracing a circle launches the camera, and doodling a V fires up the flashlight. I’ll admit it: I totally forget about them at first, but it wasn’t long before I was whipping the OnePlus 3 out of my pocket and launching the camera with a swipe of my thumb.
Ultimately, that’s what I really dig about OxygenOS: if you want a more traditional, stock Android experience, it’s there for the taking. But if you’re a power user, or just want a little extra control over your phone, there’s plenty of extra functionality waiting for you.
Smartphone makers agonize over their cameras, and with good reason — chances are it’s going to get plenty of use, and it’s easy to let people down. OnePlus was limited by cost, so it went with a 16-megapixel sensor with an f/2.0 aperture lens from Sony, and you know what? It’s perfectly adequate. Colors were bright and mostly well saturated (they occasionally came out a little weak), with a more than respectable amount of detail. You can get a little more nuance out of shots if you use an included HD mode, or output them as unprocessed RAW files.
I was concerned at first that the OnePlus 3 would fare worse than last year’s model in low light because the size of the sensor’s pixels has shrunk from 1.3 microns to 1.12 microns, but it’s basically a wash. In the end, the OnePlus 3’s main camera is a solid utility player; it’s pretty good in every situation, but it certainly won’t open your eyes the way other smartphone cameras can.
That said, a few additions make shooting photo a pleasant than before. In addition to having optical image stabilization, the OnePlus 3’s camera also has phase-detection autofocus (like the OnePlus X), which makes locking on to subjects nearly instantaneous. It’s too bad, though, that OnePlus did away with the laser autofocus module from the OnePlus 2 — the cost of the 3’s other components probably made the team cut it. The phone also ships with a manual mode that offers access to ISO, shutter speed, exposure and focus settings. Thankfully, shooting in full auto is just about always good enough.
The same can be said for the 8-megapixel front-facing camera, which consistently produced handsome selfies. Even better, there’s an option for a smile detection mode that usually does a fine job detecting grins on your face and initiating a selfie countdown. It’s not as good at noticing subdued, coy smiles, so just grin and bear it for a moment until the countdown begins.
Performance and battery life
As you’d expect from a phone with a first-rate list of specs, the OnePlus 3 just flies. My week of testing involved putting the phone through my usual workday routine, plus lots of extracurricular time playing Real Racing 3, Mortal Kombat X and Hearthstone. None of that stuff managed to faze the OnePlus 3 — not even the sort of frenzied multitasking that only ever happens when I’m trying to break a phone.
Really, the best compliment I can pay the OnePlus 3 is that after a while, I stopped noticing how fast it was; everything just worked. It’s still not the quickest-feeling phone I’ve used recently, though. That honor goes to HTC’s 10 because of its super-low-latency touchscreen; it’s so good, it feels like you’re pushing the pixels around yourself. By comparison, there’s just the faintest hint of latency when swiping around the OnePlus 3’s interface, though I’m probably being a little picky here. After all, that’s the sort of distinction that’s apparent only if you’ve spent time playing with loads of new phones; few will take issue with what OnePlus brought to the table.
Samsung Galaxy S7
3DMark IS Unlimited
SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms)
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider 1.0.2: Android devices tested in Chrome; lower scores are better.
Same goes for the battery, mostly. It’s never fun to see a company use a smaller battery in the next iteration of its flagship device, but that’s exactly what happened here: There’s a 3,000mAh cell in the OnePlus 3, down from 3,300mAh in the OnePlus 2. Normally that’d be cause for much wailing and gnashing of teeth, at least in my house. Fortunately, the shift hasn’t really changed much here. In our standard video rundown test (looping a video with the screen brightness set to 50 percent and WiFi connected), the OnePlus 3 stuck around for nine hours and 56 minutes, or about 50 minutes more than what its predecessor could muster. That’s not much less than the HTC 10 and LG G5, but flagships like the Galaxy S7 siblings pack enormous batteries that last more than 13 hours in the same test.
Day-to-day use is a different story, though. The OnePlus 3 typically finished a 12-hour workday with about 25 percent charge left, and even if I forgot to charge it, I could usually count on it to see me through an early lunch the next day. On the occasions you’ll need to charge the OnePlus 3 mid-slog, be sure to use the included Dash charger and cable — the company says they can take the device from bone-dry to about 60 percent full within 30 minutes.
In fact, Dash is actually Oppo’s VOOC tech rebranded. In this case, it uses a fast 4A current but with the regular 5V voltage, which keeps the device cooler than those based on other fast-charge technologies that use higher voltages; plus VOOC’s charging speed remains the same when the device is being used, unlike others which require lowering the voltage then. The downside of this is you need to use the bundled 7-pin USB cable to make full use of the Dash charger. As I write this, I have the OP3 connected to its original charger with a Nextbit USB Type-C cable, and it’s not charging even close to the advertised speed.
I’ve spent a decent chunk of this review comparing the OnePlus 3 with the HTC 10 and the Galaxy S7 siblings, but that’s not terribly fair. While they all share the same flagship ambitions, don’t forget that the OnePlus 3 only costs $399 (£309). That’s both a huge selling point and a hindrance; the former doesn’t need much explaining, but component and feature restrictions because of price mean the OP3’s competitors can bring more to the table. Ultimately, here’s how I’d break it down: If money is no object and you need a tremendous camera, get a Galaxy S7. If money still isn’t an object and you’re a sucker for great multimedia chops and build quality, get an HTC 10.
If you want an experience that gets awfully close to what those two devices can offer, and can live with a few trade-offs, the OnePlus 3 is a tantalizing choice for the price. The performance gap between these phones basically doesn’t exist, which frankly is sort of crazy when you think about it. The lone, seemingly direct competitor to the OnePlus 3 is ZTE’s Axon 7, with the same Snapdragon chipset paired with a Quad HD screen and 4GB of RAM for $449. That’s not a bad premium to pay for a higher-res screen, but it’s unclear whether the Pro version with 6GB of RAM will even make it to the States. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see how these two devices stack up soon.
At the end of the day, no phone is perfect, and the OnePlus 3 doesn’t try to be. What it does try to do is capture the essence of a flagship smartphone — impeccable performance, smart software and top-notch build quality — and squeeze it all into an affordable package. Guess what? The company succeeded. You can certainly do better if you’re fine with spending more money, and there are better deals to be found if you’re not a stickler for high-end performance. The careful balance OnePlus has struck here is impressive, though, and while the OnePlus 3 isn’t for everyone, anyone looking for high quality without the corresponding price should start their search here.
Richard Lai contributed to this story.