Over the last few years, OnePlus has become something very surprising — a startup that has found success in the premium smartphone market. The OnePlus 1 and OnePlus 2 were both great phones for their low price tags if you were able to get your hands on one. Those first two phones were sold by invite only, which may have been for practical reasons but definitely helped drum up excitement around the brand. This year, OnePlus is leaving the invite system behind and taking on the rest of the smartphone world head on. It won’t be easy, though — while the OnePlus 3 is their best effort yet, competition for affordable flagship phones has gotten tougher.
OnePlus smartphones have always been touted as flagship killers, but the OnePlus 3 actually looks the part. They’ve fully ditched plastic in favor of space-grade aluminum, using a physical design that resembles the Huawei P9 paired with the bottom speaker grille of the iPhone 6. It’s got the harder feel of the HTC 10, which makes me think it could probably survive a few drops better than softer phones like the Huawei P9 or the LG G5. Also in keeping with current flagships, it has slightly curved Gorilla Glass protecting the display.
The OnePlus 3, like its predecessor, is a 5.5″ smartphone, making it larger than flagships like the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10 and closer to the S7 Edge and the ZTE Axon 7. It’s 7.4 mm thick and weighs 158 grams, which makes it comfortable to hold, but, like with all large and very thin phones, it’s not ergonomic, even with the slightly rounded back.
The fingerprint sensor is found on the front of the phone and doubles as the home button (in between two touch navigation buttons), leaving the back empty save for the logo, the rear camera, and the single LED flash. The sleep/wake button and the dual-SIM tray (the second slot cannot double as a microSD card slot, unfortunately) are on the right, while the 3.5 mm audio port is on the bottom. Besides the volume rocker, the left side has one very welcome addition unique to OnePlus — a physical notifications slider with three settings (full, priority, or silence). Usually it’d be necessary to silence notifications before bedtime using a phone’s settings, but the slider can be used without even waking up the phone.
The downward firing speaker is nothing special, but that’s one place we’d expect OnePlus to cut corners to get to their low price. That said, competition at that price is tougher now — the ZTE Axon 7 is only $50 more expensive and has dual, forward-firing stereo speakers (in addition to a better display).
The OnePlus 3 uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 SoC with 6 GB of RAM, which tells you right away that it’s going to be one of the best-performing smartphones on the market. 6 GB of RAM is excessive for most users in 2016, and there are some rumblings that the OnePlus 3 doesn’t put all that RAM to good use out of the box, but considering it hasn’t affected the price there’s no reason to complain. The phone will only be available with 64 GB of storage.
|PC Mark for Android Work||6640|
|GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan Offscreen||1,928 frames|
|3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.1||2557|
|PC Mark for Android Work Battery Life||9 hours, 45 minutes|
In the utilitarian PC Mark benchmarking test, the OnePlus 3 ends up near the top of all devices, beating out even the Huawei P9, a notably superb everyday phone that lags behind in more GPU-intensive tasks. It outpaces everything else on the market in AnTuTu, which incorporates more trying GPU tests. The results from the graphics-intensive GFXBench and 3D Mark tests are also near the top of the charts, beating out fellow Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 phones, meaning that you should expect top-notch gaming performance and movie streaming. In other words, you’re getting the best performing phone on the premium market for almost half the cost of a Galaxy S7. That’s pretty convincing.
So, it’s a bit of a downer that the phone only has a 1080p display — kind of. It’s an AMOLED display, so the image quality and contrast are terrific, although greens and blues seem oversaturated at times (an update fixing this is reportedly on its way). It’s not as bright as other flagship phone displays, which hurts its performance outdoors, but otherwise there’s not much to complain about. 1080p is a good enough resolution for most smartphone uses, making it satisfying for everyday use.
With superb GPU performance and 6 GB of RAM, you’d think the OnePlus 3 would be well-suited for VR, but it looks like OnePlus wasn’t too concerned with it. While they shipped out their own VR headsets to launch partners and media for the OnePlus 3 launch, that was a limited run, and they’re not available with purchase. As expected, VR doesn’t look great on a 1080p display. Then again, while intriguing, VR is very far from being a must-have feature right now. Ultimately, staying at 1080p for the sake of cost considerations was probably the right move here.
Battery capacity went down to 3,000 mAh from 3,300 mAh on the OnePlus 2, and OnePlus has moved on to a USB Type-C connector for charging. Fortunately, the phone seems to use the battery efficiently. Per its benchmark score, the OnePlus 3 is up there with every other flagship Android device released this year, even those with larger battery capacities. The OnePlus 3 lasted a full day with mixed to heavy use — as far as we’re concerned, if a phone can last from getting out of bed to getting back in, it’s good enough. If it’s not good enough, though, a dash charger and special USB Type-C cable give the OnePlus 3 monster recharge times. In 30 minutes, the OnePlus 3 went from 6% to 72%, which is spectacular. The bummer is that the dash charger and cable are part of an add-on package that costs a little over $30. Even then, the OnePlus 3 is the price champ, so we’re not too upset.
Here’s another place where OnePlus cut corners to get down to $400, although that’s not to say the OnePlus 3 has a bad camera. The Sony 16 MP rear sensor is joined by an f/2.0 lens, phase detect autofocus, single LED flash, and optical image stabilization. It doesn’t have the dual-LED flash or the laser autofocus of a lot of other premium smartphones, and it has no fancy dual-sensor rear camera array like the Huawei P9 or LG G5, but it takes fine pictures nonetheless. It’s capable of HDR and 4k video shooting (at 30 fps), too, so it’s not hurting for premium features. The 8 MP front camera is equally solid, and can take 1080p video. You can check out sample photos from the rear camera below, but in general, images are crisp and colors are accurate, even if some of the finer details are lost if you look closely enough. And, as usual for smartphones, low-light pictures are underwhelming and the autofocus time is occasionally too slow. There’s a drop-off between the excellent camera on the Galaxy S7 and the one on the OnePlus 3, but I’m not sure the drop off is going to be a deal breaker for that many people.
Software has always been a strength of OnePlus phones because there’s not much to write about — it’s as close to stock Android as it gets. The OnePlus 3 runs the latest version of Oxygen OS, which is based on Android 6.0 Marshmallow. The menus are virtually unchanged and there’s an app drawer, unlike with the Huawei P9 and LG G5. There are some tweaks, like a custom keyboard that puts numbers to the side in keypad mode when you switch to the numbers/symbols keyboard — I haven’t had time to get used to it, but I’m guessing it would grow on me, because it seems like it would make the phone much easier to use with one hand.
There are a few other great extra features here, too. A double tap wakes the phone up, which is a wonderful feature for anyone who often works with their phone on their desk beside them (taking the phone out of your pocket or purse will also wake it). Dark mode uses dark backgrounds instead of white ones system-wide, which is great for those looking to squeeze out a little more battery life. OnePlus also has the Shelf screen — swipe to the left of the home screen, and you’ll see a premade screen that displays time, weather, your five most frequently used apps, a widget for memos, and space to add more widgets as boards (similar to Google Now cards). The presentation is fine, but I think most Android users probably already have their preferred ways of organizing widgets and notes, especially the enthusiast crowd that OnePlus draws.
Not too many surprises here, although it’s nice to see that OnePlus has added NFC this time for the sake of Android Pay. The OnePlus 3 has 802.11ac Wi-Fi, LTE, and DLNA connectivity, as well. I made calls using T-Mobile’s network in San Francisco (through MetroPCS) and Skype over a Wi-Fi connection, and had no problems hearing others or being understood. One other minor note — the USB Type-C connector uses the USB 2.0 standard, instead of 3.0, so you should expect noticeably slower transfer speeds than on other Android phones using Type-C connectors this year.