Think about how difficult it is right now to break into the smartphone market. You’ve got Apple and Samsung at the top of the pile in developed world, gobbling up well over 90 percent of the global smartphone market’s profits each quarter and toppling former heavyweights like BlackBerry, Microsoft and Palm. Then you’ve got established players like LG, Sony and HTC struggling beneath them. Despite their big budgets and sleek smartphones, they haven’t been able to get much traction at all in recent years.
At the low end of the market, you’ve got a slew of Chinese smartphone companies churning out shockingly capable handsets at rock bottom prices. Then you’ve got Xiaomi, which took the world by storm when it copied Apple’s every move but sold smartphones at half the price of the iPhone. But even Xiaomi’s sales have hit a wall, so the company is looking to expand its reach in search of growth.
Is there any room for another player in this crowded market? OnePlus found a niche by creating unique flagship-grade smartphones that appeal to hardcore Android fans but sell for far less than any high-end iPhone or Galaxy S handset. Now the company is back with the OnePlus 3, a stunning device that is easily OnePlus’s most impressive accomplishment to date.
In the past, OnePlus has built smartphones that hover somewhere between mid-range handsets and true flagships. The OnePlus One was a terrific start and the OnePlus 2 was an improvement in every way, but key features like design, case materials and display quality weren’t quite on par with the likes of Apple, HTC and Samsung.
Despite OnePlus’s “flagship killer” claims, its prior high-end handsets didn’t really kill anything at all. Instead, they were fantastic options for true Android fans looking for something a little different at a great price.
The OnePlus 3 is an entirely different beast.
On paper and in the hand, the new OnePlus 3 is a true “flagship” phone in every sense of the word. The specs are on par with any top smartphone out there, from the world’s most powerful phone (HTC 10) to the world’s fastest phone (iPhone 6s). And while specs on paper don’t always translate to a smooth and fluid user experience, they absolutely do in the case of the OnePlus 3.
But let’s begin on the outside of the phone.
Remember when I mentioned that previous OnePlus phones weren’t on par with leading flagship handsets when it came to design and materials? Well forget all that because the OnePlus 3 is a flagship through and through. From top to bottom, inside and out, OnePlus has crafted a smartphone that sits among the greats at the highest tier of the smartphone market.
The OnePlus 3’s housing is made entirely of metal and glass. Its design is reminiscent of an HTC One series phone but there are also elements from the iPhone and Galaxy phones to be found. But to be frank, the end result is more sleek and stylish than any model the OnePlus 3 borrows from.
OnePlus’s new phablet measures 7.35mm thin at its center, which is roughly the same thickness as Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus. The back slopes inward at its edges though, resulting in an ergonomic design that feels much thinner.
The phone is also 18% lighter and over 3mm more narrow than the iPhone 6s Plus despite having the same size display. Both of these details contribute to fact that the OnePlus 3 is so much more comfortable to hold and use with one hand than the iPhone 6s Plus. The only flagship phablet I’ve used that might be more comfortable is the Galaxy S7 edge, which is even narrower than the OnePlus 3 and has a curved face and back.
OnePlus’s design and shape on this third-generation flagship device are as close to perfect as you’ll find among currently available phones. The smooth metal is solid but it has a soft finish that provides far more grip than an iPhone 6s. The curvature of the back and the narrow width make the phone a pleasure to hold and to operate with one hand or two.
The entire face of the OnePlus 3 is covered with a single sheet of 2.5D Gorilla Glass 4 that is interrupted only for the ear speaker at the top of the phone and a large oblong home button near the bottom. That home button houses a fingerprint scanner covered by ceramic, which is even stronger than sapphire crystal, and it’s lightning-fast when reading prints. If it’s not as fast as Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint scanner, it’s darn close.
The right side of the phone is home only to a power/sleep button and a dual SIM card tray, while a volume rocker and a physical toggle button are found on the left side. The toggle switches between standard notification mode and priority notifications only.
There is nothing but smooth aluminum on the top edge of the OnePlus 3, and a standard 3.5mm audio jack, a loud speaker and a USB Type-C port are located on the bottom. A camera lens, LED flash and OnePlus logo are located on the back of the handset.
Where the camera is concerned, OnePlus has made tremendous strides between the OnePlus 3 and prior generations.
The 16-megapixel Sony sensor on the back of the OnePlus 3 features an f/2.0 aperture along with both optical image stabilization (OIS) and electronic image stabilization (EIS). The combination of hardware and software stabilization doesn’t just help keep 4K videos stable, it also helps reduce motion blur in still photos.
In general, I was impressed with the quality of images captured by the OnePlus 3. I found that the camera shines brightest when it comes to color reproduction and contrast, though clarity isn’t the camera’s strongest suit. Photos look incredible on the phone’s display but full zoom on a PC monitor reveals a bit more blurring and noise than you would find with a leading camera phone like the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 6s Plus.
The OnePlus 3’s rear camera is still better than most smartphone cameras I’ve tested recently, and it’s no accident. A OnePlus executive told me that the company has a 15-person team dedicated solely to camera tech and camera tuning. This team of engineers has already added some impressive features, and we can expect more improvements as software updates are released.
One example is a smart software feature that actually captures four images each time the user snaps a photo. The phone then analyzes the images behind the scenes (having 6GB of RAM certainly helps here) and saves only the best image of the four. Another software feature automatically enables HDR when lighting conditions aren’t optimal, resulting in cleaner and brighter photos in low light.
I found the camera app itself to be a mixed bag. The interface is nice and minimalistic, but the clean design sacrifices functionality in a few key areas. For example, some camera apps make it easy to quickly snap a photo or begin recording a video as soon as the app opens. In the case of the OnePlus 3, the app opens in photo mode and then you have to swipe in from the side of the screen and find the video option in the menu before you can start recording.
Apple’s iPhones don’t have the best camera app in the world, but even the iOS camera app lets you switch to video mode with one quick tap or swipe.
Where features are concerned though, the OnePlus 3 has most of the bases covered. Available camera modes in addition to Photo and Video include Time-lapse, Slow motion, Panorama and Manual, which gives the user complete control over ISO, shutter speed and more. The OnePlus 3 can also shoot RAW photos, which is an important option for photography enthusiasts.
Back around front, the OnePlus 3 features a 5.5-inch Optic AMOLED screen with Full HD 1080p resolution that stretches almost to either edge of the handset thanks to wonderfully narrow bezels. This is one area where OnePlus saved some money, though the average user likely won’t notice much of a difference between the 401 ppi pixel density on the OnePlus phone and the tighter pixels on quad HD phablets.
Where quality is concerned, there is a clear difference between the OnePlus 3’s screen and top-of-the-line AMOLED displays like the ones used by Samsung. Colors aren’t quite as vivid, blacks aren’t as deep and nothing compares to Samsung’s class-leading contrast. That’s not to say the OnePlus 3’s screen is a bad one, it’s just a rare area where the new OnePlus phone isn’t quite on par with what you’ll find on other flagship phones.
Moving from the outside of the OnePlus 3 to the inside, Android fans are going to be quite impressed with how much tech OnePlus managed to pack into such an affordable smartphone.
Beginning with the phone’s processor, OnePlus chose a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor to power the OnePlus 3. The popular 64-bit chip features two 2.2GHz cores paired with two 1.6GHz cores and an Adreno 530 GPU. This dynamic chipset is ideal for mobile phones because it offers low power consumption when in standby and when operating simple tasks, and tremendous oomph when the phone needs it.
About that oomph…
I’m not a very big fan of benchmark tests since they don’t necessarily paint a picture of how a phone functions in the real world. They are useful in some comparisons though, and they do help users see how a phone performs when it’s pushed to its limits.
So how did the OnePlus 3 fare? In my tests, the phone managed an average score of 142,215.
That incredible score has only been topped by one other phone I’ve tested, the HTC 10. It’s more than good enough to beat every other flagship smartphone out there though, including Samsung’s Galaxy S7 line and Apple’s latest iPhones.
Processors don’t work alone, of course, and the rest of the OnePlus 3’s internals are equally impressive. The phone has a whopping 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM along with 64GB of UFS 2.0 storage. There are no other storage options and you also won’t find a memory card slot.
While 64GB will be enough for many users, I definitely expect some feathers to be ruffled by the phone’s lack of storage options. All that tech undoubtedly draws plenty of power, but OnePlus managed to fit a large 3,000 mAh battery into the OnePlus 3 despite its slender housing.
Battery life is another enthusiastic check in the plus column for the OnePlus 3. I had absolutely no trouble at all making it through a full day on a single charge, and that remained true even while I was testing the phone for this review and pushing it to its limits far more than a user would on a normal day.
When the battery does get close to running dry, OnePlus packed its own fast charging technology into the OnePlus 3 called Dash Charge.
Like other fast charging tech, Dash Charge allows the OnePlus 3 to recharge its battery much more quickly than a standard phone would. OnePlus’s tagline for Dash Charge on the OnePlus 3 is “a day’s power in half an hour.” While that’s certainly a cute little rhyme, it’s also accurate — in about 30 minutes you’ll see the battery go from empty to about 60%, which is more than enough juice for a full day.
We don’t need to dive too deep into the technology that enables Dash Charge, but there is one interesting aspect of OnePlus’s solution that separates it from similar tech like Qualcomm Quick Charge. The OnePlus 3 moves the power management hardware used to regulate current out of the phone and into the wall adapter itself. As a result, the intense heat you feel when you charge a normal smartphone is completely absent from the handset; instead, the wall adapter collects and dissipates the heat.
Lastly — and most impressively — OnePlus says that the Dash Charge car charger charges the phone just as quickly as the wall charger. While I didn’t time any charges during my tests, I can confirm that the phone charges much faster in the car than any other handset I’ve tested.
All that tech is in place to power OnePlus’s “OxygenOS,” which is easily among my favorite versions of Android.
There are two main camps when it comes to Google’s mobile operating system. Enthusiastic users always seem to want a device with “pure” Android, meaning an Android build that’s free of vendor customizations and carrier bloatware. Then there’s everyone else, who focus mainly on buying a device they like and less on what software customizations are on it.
The OnePlus 3 will appeal to people from both camps.
OxygenOS looks and feels just like Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, which is the Android build on which it is based. The phone ships with nearly all of Google’s stock apps, and many of OnePlus’s customizations are practically invisible to users. Most Oxygen-specific features cover things like settings and customizations — here’s a list of features OnePlus has added or changed in Android 6:
- Adaptive brightness
- Ambient display
- Proximity sensor
- Home screen and screen-off gesture controls
- Custom icon pack support
- App permissions
- Accent color customization
- Night mode
- Swiftkey keyboard
- File manager
- Gallery and Music apps
As you can see, there isn’t really anything there that will offend Android purists. In fact, I’m not sure you can consider any of those features “bloat,” even if you don’t use them.
There is one other addition in particular that OnePlus added in its software is called Shelf. It’s not a home screen replacement like the launchers companies like Samsung and LG use. Instead, it’s a page that you can access by swiping to the right on your main home screen.
On the Shelf, you can see the weather and also access recent apps. It supports widgets as well, and you can rearrange the Shelf to put sections in any order you like.
If you’re a savvy Android user, I know what you might be thinking but don’t worry. Unlike other recent phones with similar solutions, you can also place all the widgets you want on the main Android home screens — they’re not confined to the Shelf.
I’m a big fan of the customization options OnePlus offers in OxygenOS. For example, you can choose whether or not you want software navigation buttons at the bottom of the UI, or even change the functionality of the physical capacitive navigation buttons on either side of the home button. Want the back button on the right instead of the left? No problem. You can also configure different actions that are triggered by long presses or double taps on either capacitive button. For example, I have my review unit set so that a long press on the right nav button will open the camera.
There’s also optional gesture support on the OnePlus 3. For example, you can set it so that a double tap on the screen will wake it while it’s asleep. This is a particularly useful feature because the fingerprint scanner on the home button is so fast that you’ll miss any notifications on your home screen when you unlock the phone.
On top of all OnePlus’s customizations and the regular features you know and love in Android, you also get all of the great new features Google added to Android Marshmallow, such as Doze battery saving features and Night Mode, which is just like Night Shift on Apple’s iPhones.
One important note: while the look and feel of OxygenOS is incredibly similar to stock Android, one of the biggest benefits of pure Android doesn’t apply to OnePlus’s operating system. That’s right, OnePlus 3 owners will still have to wait months for new Android updates following their release.
When a small smartphone maker launches a smartphone it labels a “flagship killer,” that company had better have the goods to back up its bold claim. That simply wasn’t the case last year; the OnePlus 2 was a fantastic phone that offered tremendous value to buyers, but it was no match for leading flagship phones in terms of design or performance.
In 2016 it’s an entirely different story.
The OnePlus 3 doesn’t just compete with the current crop of flagship smartphones. In many ways it beats them. The design is sleeker and far more slim than the HTC 10. The guts are more powerful than the Samsung Galaxy S7. And when it comes to software, many users are going to prefer the pure look and feel of OxygenOS to HTC’s Sense software and TouchWiz on Android phones.
OnePlus is a small company that sells directly to consumers, so OnePlus 3 sales certainly aren’t going to kill any of the leading flagship phones out there. But in terms of style, features and performance, this smartphone is more worthy of being called a flagship killer than any other phone I’ve ever tested.
In an interesting move, the OnePlus 3 will only be available for sale through the OnePlus VR app for the first 2.5 hours following the phone’s launch. The good news is that this time around, you won’t need an invitation to purchase one.
Orders will begin shipping immediately, though it’s not clear how much inventory OnePlus will have at launch. Before you place your order, the online store will tell you approximately how long the wait will be until your order ships.