CONS: Its 1080p screen isn’t quite sharp enough for comfortable VR – not compared with Samsung’s latest Galaxy phones, anyway. VERDICT: The best performance we’ve ever seen in a smartphone for just half the cost? This is how you make a flagship killer.
OnePlus – the company, that is, not their eponymous phone – has been trying for a few years now to craft an affordable flagship killer. They’ve always come close to the mark but haven’t managed to hit it square. Then you pick up the new OnePlus 3, and you ask yourself, “Could this be it?”
It could, indeed. OnePlus has finally made a device with a bite to match its bark. There’s power unlike anything we’ve seen before and a slick, simple cleanliness to match. It’s a smartphone with tradeoffs that feel fair, rather than foul; one that sacrifices features you probably won’t miss, especially when you consider just how much money you saved in the process.
The OnePlus 3 feels like a flagship phone. Granted, it takes more than a few design cues from Samsung and Apple. Samsung phones usually sport that squarer camera bump and lozenge-shaped home button; Apple’s circle-hole speaker grille along the bottom edge seems like a subtle detail, but it’s nevertheless iconic. Still, I found myself not caring. The phone is thin without being painful to hold and elegant and stylish without being overstated.
I’m also a huge fan of bottom-mounted headphone jacks. By convention, most phones put them up top, which is annoying for two reasons. First, the cord can get in the way of the screen when you hold the phone in your hand. Even more of a nuisance, you have to drop it into your pocket upright so the cord doesn’t coil. When you reach into your pocket to grab the phone, you can’t just pull it out and look at it; you have to flip the phone around in your hand. By mounting the jack on the bottom, the OnePlus 3 avoids these issues. Are they nitpicks? Sure. But not dealing with them day-in and day-out is surprisingly refreshing.
That’s really the story of the OnePlus 3: It’s refreshing to use. The fingerprint scanner worked every time for me, without fail. I never – I stress, not even once – noticed any software hiccups or glitches during use. Staples of the OnePlus line, like the dedicated three-notch toggle switch for notifications, are crisp, snappy and intuitive. And Oxygen OS, OnePlus’s take on Android 6.0.1, is utterly unobtrusive while still letting you customize things just a bit more than stock Android. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I may actually prefer it to stock Marshmallow.
It’s not all good news, though. The single most glaring concern is the screen, which is only 1080p compared to the 1440p displays common to today’s Android flagships. Apple fans, of course, have never had 1440p displays and won’t feel the absence here, and in day-to-day use, you’d never notice the lack of pixels. I didn’t even realize the OnePlus 3 only had 1080p resolution until it came time to test the phone’s VR capabilities.
Mobile virtual reality is still more of a fad than a real use case. OnePlus partnered with ANTVR to create the Loop VR, a plastic headset that’s basically a fancier version of Google Cardboard – it doesn’t plug into your phone or have extra sensors like the Galaxy Gear.
With any mobile VR solution, the more pixels you have on the screen, the better because the lenses inside the headset focus in on that screen. Fewer pixels means it’s easier to spot the individual dots of color, which is distracting. To be fair, it’s not a terrible experience – the OnePlus 3 is still really fun to use with a Cardboard-like headset, whatever its resolution – but it’s a definite downside. If you’re not planning on using VR, then you probably won’t miss those extra pixels.
When it comes to the best smartphone cameras, Samsung and Apple are always going to have a leg up on the competition. Digital image processing is perhaps the most important factor in getting great images from a phone. As such, what OnePlus has managed to accomplish with its camera is rather impressive.
The front-facing shooter on the OnePlus 3 packs a sizable 8MP sensor, as big as you’ll find in the selfie category, though there’s a distinct distortion to the lens that gives it a wider field of view. This means you have to work a bit harder to position your face so you don’t have on overly large chin or forehead in your picture, but it’s much easier to fit everyone into group selfies.
The rear-mounted camera is a big selling point for any top smartphone, and OnePlus has clearly tried to impress. It has 16MP, 4K video, slow-motion video at 120 fps and phase-detect autofocus for quick captures. With an aperture size of only f/2.0, you might find yourself wishing for just a bit more light in dark rooms. However, it’s still impressive and quite capable. Focus and exposure adjust very quickly and colors are accurate. The camera’s manual controls are a joy to play with if you want to dig into them.
After running 75 separate benchmark tests and gathering over 400 distinct data points, there’s no doubt on our end: The OnePlus 3 is one of the fastest, most capable smartphones. I was consistently surprised by just how well it performed, since it’s operating the exact same system-on-a-chip (SoC) as the Samsung Galaxy S7. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 is a beastly processor, and you’d expect most phones that run it to perform comparably. Yet the OnePlus 3 is an outlier.
There are two reasons why. First, on this phone the processor doesn’t need to push as many pixels. With a display that’s only 1920 x 1080, there’s far less screen here for the processor to fuel than the other displays. That means less processing power needs to be devoted to showing tasks and more can be devoted to doing them.
Second, the OnePlus 3 has a staggering 6GB of memory – the most we’ve ever seen in our smartphone reviews. More memory means more cache space to hold programs for rapid access. This gets you quicker response times just about everywhere.
The least interesting thing about the OnePlus 3 is its battery because the 3000 mAh cell is as average as you get. The phone managed eight hours and 33 minutes in our test and eight hours and 15 minutes in PCMark’s work battery test. These are decent scores comfortably in line with major flagships. There’s no wireless charging option like the Galaxy S7, though, nor can you remove and replace the battery like you can with the LG G5.
One battery feature worth mentioning with the OnePlus 3 is Dash Charge. The company’s take on rapid charging isn’t that different from its competition’s, promising over 60 percent charge in about 30 minutes. What is different is the power block, which handles most of the power management necessary for Dash Charge to happen. This greatly reduces the amount of heat buildup in the phone during charging. It also means you have to use the OnePlus adapter if you want to take advantage of rapid charging technology. On the plus side, there’s a car charger for the OnePlus 3 that builds in that Dash Charge speed boost. It allows you to quick-fuel your phone on the move.
For two years, I’ve been skeptical of OnePlus’s vision. It has committed itself to building powerful smartphones at budget or mid-tier prices. Unfortunately, it has had trouble getting noticed thanks to long waitlists and not-quite-good-enough builds. With the OnePlus 3, it’s finally time for this company to step onto the grand stage. Refined and powerful, this is the phone for anyone who wants flagship performance at mid-tier costs. It’s made me a believer.