OnePlus has officially grown up. Whereas a year ago we might have had to endure a series of callow online advertisements telling us to “Never Settle,” this year we’re seeing a bit more humility from the smartphone startup. It’s especially apparent with the launch of the OnePlus 3, which is hands-down the best smartphone OnePlus has ever produced.
Granted, this isn’t a particularly major feat for OnePlus, since it’s only manufactured three other smartphones. But it’s nice to see the company put less emphasis on excessive buzz-building and instead focus on delivering a premium product that’s worth its $400 price tag, and doesn’t skimp on essential features—unlike last year’s release.
Third time’s the charm
It might have taken three hardware releases to get here, but the OnePlus 3 is a stunning phone. It’s got a stylish aluminum and glass chassis that’s a little Apple and a little HTC, but OnePlus’s unique flair is all there—right down to the barely-there bezel.
The OnePlus 3 is also one of the thinnest phones I’ve held in a while (though not as thin as the upcoming Moto Z). It somehow makes even the Nexus 6P look bulky, despite the fact that both phones measure in at 7.3 mm thick. I especially appreciate that the official OnePlus back covers don’t add much bulk the way that the 6P’s cases do. Indeed, the OnePlus 3 will stay svelte as long as you don’t mind leaving it a little exposed.
As featured on its predecessor, OnePlus brought back the recessed fingerprint scanner that doubles as a Home button. It’s just as responsive as the rear-facing scanner on the Nexus 6P, and all it takes is one quick thumb-press to load up the Home screen.
The OnePlus 3 also features a small alert switch. It makes it a cinch to switch between silent mode and “let-everyone-bother-me-at-all-times” mode without unlocking the phone. You can customize exactly what your alert modes do—and who they shut out—in the Settings panel.
The OnePlus 3’s 5.5-inch 1080p AMOLED display can be strikingly bright at night, so you’ll want to shield your eyes with the help of the phone’s Night mode, which lives in the Quick Settings. This setting skews the display color to a warmer hue so that it’s less stark, thus making it more comfortable to catch up on your Twitter feed before bed. The OnePlus 3 also offers an ambient display like the Nexus 6P; it lights up when you get a new notification or pick up your phone, but isn't lit all the time like that on the Galaxy S7 or LG G5..
A little more RAM goes a long way
The OnePlus 3 runs on the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor as its competition, though it packs more of a punch, thanks to 6GB of RAM. That much memory might seem like overkill, but not once did the RAM-intensive Snapchat app crash on me as I attempted to make silly videos of my weekend at home. That’s pretty impressive considering the app crashes constantly on my Nexus 6P, and even on the pristine Galaxy S7, which uses the same processor.
The OnePlus 3’s benchmark numbers reinforce my anecdotal experience. It handily outperformed the Galaxy S7 Edge in PCMark, and marginally in GFXBench. It was also on par with the rest of the year’s flagships across the board, including the HTC 10 and LG G5, all of which are also driven by the Snapdragon 820. I like that OnePlus shoved in the extra RAM, too, because it future-proofs the phone for whatever lies ahead. It’s like plopping in a few extra sticks of memory into your PC for performance posterity.
The OnePlus 3 exhibited stellar battery life. The device’s 3,000mAh battery pack outlasted all three of this year’s marquee flagships in PCMark’s battery test, though it trailed behind them in Geekbench. For the most part, I had no problems getting through the day with the OnePlus 3 in tow, though it’s definitely a battery sucker if you have the screen set at a high brightness.
OnePlus still hasn’t opted for wireless charging (that's tough to do with a metal body), but it does bundle in a new feature called DASH Charge, which places the charging chip inside the power adapter rather than inside the phone's port, as is the case with other devices. The upshot is the phone won’t throttle down performance when you’re using it while charging.
With the compatible charging cord and adapter, OnePlus advertises that the OnePlus 3 can replenish 60 percent of its battery life in just half an hour. I can confirm this: I sat and counted as the OnePlus 3’s battery meter went from nothing to 63 percent in 31 minutes. It’s like Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 on speed. The only bummer is that this is proprietary technology that only works with OnePlus’s devices, so you’ll have to turn to its online store to purchase DASH compatible car chargers and battery packs.
Reliable camera performance
OnePlus’s camera capabilities have been pretty solid over the last two generations, and I’m happy to report that the OnePlus 3’s 16-megapixel rear-facing camera is on par with today’s competition. Though its aperture is set at f/2.0, I was impressed by the device’s ability to shoot low light scenes without the aid of a smartphone tripod or manual mode.
At times, OnePlus' post-processing engine is prone to over-processing. Nonetheless, there’s a Manual mode available with RAW image support if you’re aching for more granular control. Also, the OnePlus 3 employs both optical image stabilization (OIS) and electronic image stabilization (EIS), which helps ensure that both photos and videos are clear and sharp.
My favorite part of the OnePlus 3 is the 8-megapixel front-facing camera. I appreciate higher resolutions for the front-facing camera because every camera app can take advantage of these extra megapixels. I also like that there aren’t any beautifying features bloating up the software, as is the trend with other Android devices. There are plenty of third-party apps that can give us the airbrushed look, so this trick doesn’t have to be built in to the camera software. The OnePlus 3 also has a neat feature that starts a countdown once you smile; this should make group selfies easier to take. You don’t even have to flash your teeth for it to work.
Stock Android with flair
The new Oxygen OS 3.1.1—which updated to 3.1.2 during my testing—is a beefed-up version of the operating system we first met in last year’s OnePlus 2. It still features a Shelf, which you can access by swiping right on the Home screen, and it still offers the same array of customizable options in the Settings panel. You can even tweak a variety of interface elements, like which icons are displayed in the status bar, and whether to enable soft navigation buttons or physical ones.
Customizable gestures are also available for the OnePlus 3. For instance, you can choose what happens when you long-press or double-tap either of the navigation buttons. I set up the Home button to launch the camera with a double-tap, and the Recents button to open my last-used app with a long-press. This is a feature that we’ll eventually see in Android N, but it’s nice to see it included here, too. And you don’t have to worry about being left behind: OnePlus is already working on its version of Oxygen OS for the next release of Android.
OnePlus’s commitment to customization is appreciated. And if it turns out you’re not particularly keen on OnePlus’s interpretation, you can always install another launcher and have access to all the same wonderful customization options.
Should you buy it?
It took three tries, but OnePlus finally has a flagship that lives up to some of its absurd marketing slogans. And the best part is that you can buy this smartphone outright without having to jump through hoops to secure an invitation. That’s right: OnePlus is doing away with its invite-only system, and its online storefront is open to anyone who’s interested. This should help the company achieve more success among mainstream smartphone users, and not just hardcore Android enthusiasts with the inside scoop.
Unfortunately, the OnePlus 3 is not compatible with all four major U.S. carriers. You can’t use it with Verizon, but for $400 unlocked, the OnePlus 3 is a seriously great deal for those on T-Mobile or AT&T.
If OnePlus’s goal is to be a major player in the smartphone wars, it’s getting there—slowly but surely. With its newly refined hardware and decision to dump the antiquated invite-only system, OnePlus may be well on its way to a successful smartphone launch. It may never be the “flagship killer” we were once promised—that ship has passed—but it is a solid choice for your daily driver.