Review

OnePlus 3 review: everyone gets a flagship

The OnePlus 3 is the company’s third attempt at creating an affordable, stylish device, which can stand on its own and even go head to head with flagships from the likes of Samsung, HTC and Apple. While previous models came close but ultimately missed the mark, the OnePlus 3 might truly be an affordable flagship, packing in powerful specs, a good OS and a great design. At least that’s what the company claims. I used the OnePlus 3 for a couple of weeks as my daily driver device and pushed it as much as I could to see whether these claims are true. Here’s what I found.

The short version

I’m just going to say it right off the bat: OnePlus nailed it! Its older devices never appealed to me that much. Those previous designs seemed bland, the specs, while good, were not cutting edge, and the now-abandoned invite system was too much of a hassle to have to go through for a mediocre phone. But all those wrongs were set right with this third device and the combination of specs, price and build quality for the OnePlus 3 made it an instant winner.

I was impressed by the solid build and the high-quality feeling you get when using this device. The fingerprint scanner is probably the best I’ve used, the cameras do a perfectly fine job, the Snapdragon 820 breezes through tasks, even under sustained loads, and the 64GB of on-board storage suited my needs perfectly. The Dash charging method also fit in well with my daily life, with quick stops for a “power nap” that could charge up my device half-way in a matter of minutes.

Don’t get me wrong though, it’s not a perfect device for everyone: the screen isn’t the best out there, battery life could be further improved, and the device is a bit big for my taste. But these are just matters of finesse; they’re not issues, they’re just items on my personal phone wish list.

If you’re looking for an Android device and want to get the best price/quality ratio, then you really can’t go wrong with the OnePlus 3. The device is priced at $399 in the States, though that will run you up a bit more in Europe at €399, and even more in the UK where the OnePlus just received a price bump to £329. The Dash charger and a pre-applied screen protector are included in the price.

Design

The OnePlus 3 is a good-looking device. You might argue the smooth back, glass front, “black slab” design isn’t exactly new or original at this point, and you’d be right. But that wouldn’t change the fact that many of today’s handsets, including Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones and Apple’s iPhones follow this exact trend, so OnePlus is just going along with everyone for the ride.

But even so, the OnePlus 3 manages to stand out, albeit in a subtle way. While some design elements are indicative of the wider industry trends – i.e. copying something Apple did at one point – the OnePlus flagship doesn’t feel like a “me too” device; and it doesn’t look its price, the way some of the company’s previous models did.

Instead, it stands on its own. OnePlus features an metal backplate, with rounded edges and corners, broken by two antenna lines across the very top and bottom of the device. The back also houses the one-LED flash, the camera with its noticeable rounded-square hump, and the engraved OnePlus logo. The overall design is a bit reminiscent of HTC's phones, and that's a good thing.

The sides, covered by the same piece of machined-aluminum as the back, feature the volume rocker, 3-step notification toggle, dual-SIM card tray and the power button. All of these feature the same brushed-metal design, with only the notification toggle featuring extra texture for a good grip.

The top is completely clean, with no jacks, ports or buttons. Instead the USB-C port with its Dash charging capability is on the bottom, alongside the speaker, 3.5mm headphone jack and microphone.

Flipping the device over brings us to its 5.5-inch AMOLED display. The Corning Gorilla Glass 4 screen goes from rounded edge to rounded edge, with barely any bezel to speak of on the sides. On top, there’s the front-facing camera, speaker and light sensor, while the bottom houses three capacitive buttons with the central Home button doubling as a fingerprint scanner.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the OnePlus 3 was its weight. I was half-expecting it to be super light and “airy” similar to an iPhone. Instead I was impressed to feel some real weight and heft inside of the device. Don’t misunderstand, at 158 grams the OnePlus 3 is not the lightest of phones, but it’s definitely not the heaviest either. Personally, I think it’s just right.

Coupled with the high-quality build and its very thin profile, the weight gives it the feeling of robustness. Just like a good watch should be felt on the wrist, so too does the OnePlus 3 give you a feeling of expensive, compact craftsmanship.

Its thickness, or rather lack thereof, is another aspect I appreciate about this device, one that makes using it that much better. The OnePlus 3 can easily slip into your jeans’ pocket. It can also fit comfortably inside of pocket of a shirt or jacket.

Its smooth back and 7.4mm thickness also make it easily slip out of your hands. It’s not as bad as other devices – for example it doesn’t even compare with an iPhone, but I did find myself fumbling a bit to keep the phone in hand when picking it up or taking it out of a pocket. Obviously, this isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s just something you need to watch out for if you’re not gentle with your electronics. A case may save the phone from a drop, and luckily OnePlus offers quite a few to choose from.

Finally, I wanted to touch a bit on the size of the device. Personally I found it just a tad big, because while the screen is 5.5-inches, arguably the perfect size, the phone overall is about an inch bigger diagonally. If you’re a man-child with small hands like me, you might have trouble using the phone with one hand. Then again if you’re not, you’ll probably find the OnePlus 3 comfortable to use.

Specifications

I’m picturing the OnePlus team responsible for the specifications in this device looking around the market and asking what’s the newest, best thing on the market: Snapdragon 820? Done. 4GB of RAM? We’ll have 6GB. An iPhone still starts at 16GB of storage? We’ll have 64GB. 12 megapixel cameras? We’ll get 16 megapixels. You know what? Make the pixels bigger too!

There’s no getting around it, the OnePlus 3 is, in general terms, a beast. It comes with some great specs, powerful internals and an obvious attempt to future-proof the device. As a user, I respect OnePlus’ decisions here and I think they tried and succeeded to do right by their customers.

The only department where the company seems to have compromised on is the screen. But that’s not regarding the quality, just the number of pixels. Sitting in at 1080 x 1920, the OnePlus 3’s display seems a bit out of date compared with the latest flagships that are pushing the 2K and 4K boundaries and reaching new pixel density records.

But I think OnePlus made the right choice here. A higher resolution screen would have added little benefit for regular users, with the 1080p “Optic AMOLED” display still doing a very good job and offering about 400 pixels per inch. The colors are crisp – sometimes too crisp so there’s a toggle if you want to tone them down a bit – the color range is great, the brightness is perfectly adequate, albeit not very impressive, and the 1080p HD resolution makes sure you don’t waste too much battery life moving pixels around. The screen is also great in daylight or sunshine provided you tweak the brightness to your liking. But in general, it performs great even in full, summer, noon sunlight.

I’ll get more in depth will each of those features in their respective sections, but until then, here’s the OnePlus 3 full spec sheet to give you an idea of what this device can do.

OnePlus 3 Spec Sheet
Body and Dimensions 152.7 x 74.7 x 7.4 mm, 158 grams
SIM Dual nano-SIM
Screen 5.5 inches, Optic AMOLED, Gorilla Glass 4
Resolution 1080 x 1920 px, 401 ppi density
Chipset Qualcomm MSM 8996 Snapdragon 820
GPU Adreno 530
RAM

6 GB

Storage 64 GB, non-expandable
Camera

Primary: 16 Megapixels, f/2.0, phase detection autofocus, OIS, single LED flash, 4K recording, 120fps @ 720p recording

Secondary: 8 Megapixels, f/2.0, 1.4 µm pixels, 1080p recording, smile detection

Battery 3000 mAh, non-removable, Dash charging
USB 2.0, type -C reversible
Connectivity

Wi-Fi 801.11 a/b/g/n/ac. Wi-Fi direct, DLNA, hotspot

Bluetooth 4.2 LE

NFC

Other Fingerprint scanner, notification LED

Oxygen OS

I wanted to have a special mention for OnePlus’ operating system, because I think the company deserves congratulations for what it's done. Having been a long-time Nexus user, I was skeptical about OnePlus’ claims that I would prefer its OS to stock Android, but it has managed the impossible and convinced me.

I’m still not completely sure that the company “gets it” when it comes to modding Android, but so far Oxygen OS has been ...a breath of fresh air.

If you’re not familiar with it, Oxygen OS is OnePlus’ take on Android, featuring very slight and useful modifications of the original operating system, while keeping everything that’s good about Android on the surface instead of burying it, like competitors do.

And that’s the key here. There’s no useless skinning to clog up the graphics processor, there’s almost no extra crapware to fill up the phone, and there’s no slowdown or disabled stock Android features. Instead, Oxygen OS brings a few small extras that turned out to be useful: night mode, dark mode, gestures, Swiftkey being pre-loaded, a manual camera mode in a perfectly adequate camera app, and so on. All of these turned out to be meaningful additions that made my life easier and my experience of using the phone better – Samsung take note!

That’s not to say all of the operating system’s aspects were useful or pleasurable to use. For example, I’m not at all a fan of the way the OS tuned my screen brightness when set to Automatic. On stock Android, the operating system would let me choose the general level of brightness and would then fine tune it automatically based on the light sensor. On Oxygen OS, the system radically dimmed or brightened the display without taking into account my manual settings, oftentimes being too dark while indoors.

The OnePlus launcher is also something I didn’t care for too much. While its fairly standard, with the app drawer and the almost stock Android design, the “Shelf” – which replaces Google Now, is fairly pointless. It collects your recently used apps and contacts, and displays weather, as well as a few extra tidbits of info. I found it useless for my day to day usage so I quickly turned it off. Still, by Android standards this is minimal customization, so I was able to get the device to my liking in just a matter of minutes instead of the hours or days you sometimes have to spend on other flavors of Android.

I was also impressed by the company’s speed when it came to fixing mistakes. The reason why this review is a bit later that you’d expect is because I decided to wait for OnePlus’ software patches that fixed many issues reported since the OnePlus 3 launched. The original patch bumped the OS up to version 3.2.1. It wasn’t exactly a “day one patch” as it probably should’ve been, but users didn’t have to wait months and months to get important fixes for RAM management, notifications issues and security patches. The second patch, came a few weeks later and updated Oxygen OS to v 3.2.2, continuing to fix the most important issues reported by the community and bringing the latest security updates from Google. This is in stark contrast to the way other manufacturers handle software updates.

If OnePlus manages to push out Android Nougat quickly enough, and that’s a huge ask, given the company’s track record, I’ll finally be convinced that someone else can do Android as well as Google.

Performance

Its powerful internals allow the OnePlus 3 to pretty much breeze through any and all tasks thrown at it. I’ll be honest, I didn’t find any instance where the device slowed down or felt laggy at all. Even under sustained loads as in benchmarks, VR apps or graphics-intensive games, the OnePlus 3 held its ground and performed excellently.

The fingerprint reader that OnePlus used gets a special mention because it's lightning fast and very accurate. I generally seem to have trouble with other devices when it comes to using fingerprints, oftentimes, having to set the same finger as multiple prints just to get consistent recognition. But the OnePlus 3 worked excellently in this department, consistently unlocking the phone in a very fast and convenient manner. The only issue I had with the scanner was after a shower when my pruny fingers wouldn’t get recognized without a few tries.

Getting back to general performance, in terms of RAM management, I had no issues. As mentioned previously, this review included the latest Oxygen OS patch which addressed some complaints on these subjects, so I’m glad to say OnePlus seemingly did a great job here.

OnePlus makes a big deal about how its flagship is “cooler” than other devices, not just in terms of style but in terms of actual temperature even while charging. I have to say that this claim seems a bit unfounded.

The OnePlus 3 consistently gets warm even with regular browsing or when using low-impact apps, and can quickly get very hot when filming 4K, playing games and/or streaming video. It only gets dangerously hot, meaning you can no longer hold it comfortably, only when running prolonged stress tests, designed to push the device as far it will go.

The excellent news is that even under sustained loads and increasing temperatures, the OnePlus 3 does not throttle its performance. It took continuous use of the processor for more than 20 minutes before the phone eventually decided it had had enough and started limiting its processors. The phone was also set on the couch among fabric covers that limited its cooling, so you can probably get even better performance based on where and how the phone is set and whether its allowed to cool efficiently.

Battery Life

The OnePlus 3 comes with a non-detachable 3000 mAh battery, featuring a form of quick charging called Dash charging. The company claims you can get a full day’s use out of 30 minutes of charging, and that the phones battery should last you around two days before needing to be plugged in.

I’m disappointed to say that in my day to day use I found those claims to be a bit too optimistic, and that daily charging will probably remain part of your routine if you pick up the OnePlus 3. I’ve given up on using regular benchmarks for battery usage because they almost never reflect real-world situations and batteries react differently to continuous discharging as opposed to sudden power draws.

With that in mind, I’m here to report that the OnePlus 3 will likely last you up to a full day (12-14 hours) with moderate usage. That includes a few phones calls, web browsing, streaming music over LTE, lots of texting, and relying on the phone’s adaptive screen brightness. With that scenario I consistently came back home in the evening with around 20% battery left. If I wanted to, I could stretch that until the next day by taking manual control of brightness and setting the device to battery saving mode, but there’s not much point in doing that.

With low usage, you can get to the estimated two days of battery life that OnePlus indirectly boasts about. But that limits your usage to a few phone calls per day, only listening to local music and relying as little as possible on cellular data.

At the other end of the spectrum I pushed the phone as much as I could with day to day heavy usage. Using it around the city, with brightness set to 100%, filming 1080p FHD, taking images, streaming podcasts over LTE, continuously texting, tweeting and IM-ing, and continuously syncing with my Fitbit over Bluetooth, I managed to get around 5 hours of full-on usage before the battery saver kicked in. The phone also got hot and stayed quite hot during this time.

Overall, these results aren’t that impressive, but luckily many of the issues presented are mitigated by the Dash charging feature. I’m very glad to report that OnePlus’s claim, 30 minutes of charging for 60% battery, is entirely accurate.

Unlike Quick Charge, which relies on pushing out more power to the battery by using higher voltages for the first stage of charging, Dash charging just relies on having more current flow through the charger. The Dash charger included in the box puts out 4 amps at 5 volts, compared to the regular two or three amps that other smartphone chargers put out. This keeps the phone cooler while charging, and in theory should preserve batter life for longer, but also allows the device to get a lot of juice quickly.

In my testing I consistently got to 50% charge in less than half an hour, and consistently topped up the battery to 100% in just over one hour. You can probably shave off a few extra minutes if you keep the phone turned off during charging, but that’s not necessarily convenient.

Still, having the peace of mind that only a few minutes of charging can buy you quite a lot of battery life definitely changes the way you use your device. Forgot to plug in overnight? It’s never needed with OnePlus 3 anyway, but even if it was, it’s no problem while you get your coffee and take a shower, the phone is already more than halfway charged.

Combined with the phone’s battery saving features, and Android’s own battery saving tricks – which got further expanded in Android Nougat – the OnePlus 3 offers a good experience. The battery doesn’t last the longest, but it doesn’t need more than a few minutes of charging before you go out the door.

Camera

I personally enjoyed using the OnePlus 3’s shooters, though your mileage and results may vary. Overall, I found the pictures taken to be satisfactory, with some occasionally great shots. I wouldn’t say I was blown away by anything in this department, but the OnePlus 3 can definitely stand on its own when it comes to photography.

You might be able to tell that I have mixed feelings on this topic so let me explain. The really good news is that hardware-wise, the cameras, both front and back, are great: they performed well, and they’re super fast. And I mean incredibly fast, especially when it comes to the world-facing 16 Megapixel shooter on the back that’s powered by a Sony IMX298 sensor. If you hold the button pressed, you can capture continuous shots and there’s absolutely no lag between frames.

The cameras also performed excellently in good lighting conditions. Outdoors, on a fair day you can take incredibly detailed shots for some really great results. There’s surprisingly little chromatic aberration and, for the most part, color reproduction is on point. Even in low light, see the image with the pencils above, color reproduction proved to be good. I did have occasional shots that seemed to miss the mark, especially close-ups that became oversaturated, but these are few and far between.

The front-facing selfie-cam can also handle its own, thanks to the 8 megapixels, electronic image stabilization, and 1.4 µm pixel size.

Image quality begins to suffer in low light however. The optical and electronic image stabilization do help out, but ISO goes up quickly and images may end up soft and noisy.

Filming is fine. It’s not great, it’s not terrible, it’s just fine. The OnePlus 3 supports up to 4K at 30 frames per second or 120 frames for 720p slow-motion filming. The OIS doesn’t seem to help very much when walking around and movies can be a bit nauseating if you’ve had too much coffee and can’t keep the device steady, but otherwise you’ll have good, if slightly bland, results in this department.

Now the important bit that needs to be mentioned here is that some of the highlighted issues, which to be honest are mostly nitpicks than real problems, can very likely be fixed by software fixes.

The low-light performance can be increased by relying on manual mode and setting things up just the way you like them. In fact, manual mode can help out in tons of situations proving that the camera’s hardware is indeed up to par. You can also improve image quality by editing pictures afterwards since the phone can save RAW files as well.

OnePlus has already addressed a couple of minor issues with the cameras and they seem to be listening intently to user feedback. If that’s the case, the next patch might improve low-light performance and color balance in Auto mode too.

Conclusion

OnePlus set out to create an affordable, high-quality flagship device, with great performance, impressive specifications and an excellent price/quality ratio.

The OnePlus 3 has no real weakness. The occasional issues mentioned above, need to be taken into context, as small faults in an almost-perfect phone. OnePlus has achieved all the points listed above and have done so in an impressive manner. I have absolutely no reservations in recommending the OnePlus 3 to anyone looking for a powerful but affordable device.

That being said, there’s one aspect that I feel I need to caution you about, and that’s the company itself. While I have no qualms in recommending their device, I do have some reservations when it comes to dealing with OnePlus itself.

From the botched UK launch, to the botched “we’re sorry for the UK launch” campaign, to the horror stories in dealing with OnePlus support, OnePlus seems to be failing when it comes to helping out its customers. I personally feel like if you have a OnePlus device and something goes wrong with it, you’re almost completely on your own. And that’s not the feeling you want from a company that tells you to “Never Settle”.

That being said, the OnePlus 3 seems solidly built, future-proofed and looks to be a great investment, so if you're in the market for a new smartphone, you really need to give it a try.

Thank you to Gearbest for providing us with a review unit. If you'd like to purchase the OnePlus 3, Gearbest has occasional offers and discounts which might be of interest. Check out their store page here.

 

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