The good: Beautiful and sleek design, Clean user interface that’s easy to navigate, Affordably priced, Fast fingerprint scanner
The bad: Sometimes difficult to grip, Camera suffers in low light, No expandable storage
Who should buy: Anyone looking for an affordable and reliable Android phone
Chinese startup OnePlus has been billing itself as the “flagship killer” ever since the company released its first smartphone, called the One, in 2014. The slogan is meant as a swipe at companies like Apple and Samsung, which charge upwards of $600 without a carrier agreement for their new smartphones. OnePlus claims its smartphones offer an experience that’s just as good — if not better — for a far cheaper price.
After testing the OnePlus One two years ago, many critics agreed with that assessment. Now, the company’s new phone is even better equipped to take on its rivals. The $399 OnePlus 3 is a noticeable improvement on last year’s OnePlus 2. The design feels slimmer and more polished, the battery charges faster, and it now includes NFC for mobile payments. Overall, it’s an excellent and affordable choice for Android fans that want a reliable phone that covers all the basics.
The OnePlus 3 is the first phone from the company to be completely made of metal and glass, giving the phone a more premium feel that helps justify its higher price tag (last year’s model started at $329 at launch). The new model feels like a cross between an iPhone 6s Plus and an HTC 10 in terms of design, although OnePlus’ device is more flat and rectangular than HTC’s phone (I prefer the OnePlus to HTC’s handset.)
The most noticeable physical difference between the third generation OnePlus and its predecessor is its aluminum back. In the past, OnePlus used a coarse sandstone panel for the back of its phones, which gave them a distinctive feel. The new design is more attractive, but it also makes the OnePlus 3 look more like lots of other phones on the market. The slick aluminum feels a bit slippery as well, sometimes making it difficult to grip the phone without using a case.
The phone’s home button also includes a fingerprint sensor that unlocks the device as soon as your finger touches the scanner — it’s among the speediest fingerprint readers I’ve ever used. Since the home button is flush with the device’s body, it cuts out the need to depress the button to wake up the phone’s screen and rest your finger for an additional second. In addition to featuring the standard volume controls and power button along the side of the phone, the OnePlus 3 comes with a slider just for managing notifications, making it easier to switch to silent mode without unlocking the phone.
OnePlus, unlike some phone manufacturers and carriers, doesn’t heavily modify Android by adding its own apps and services. On Samsung phones, for example, you might find two different apps that do the same thing, such as Samsung’s email app and Google’s Gmail — not to mention the apps and widgets some carriers add to Android phones. (The version of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge I reviewed included a whole folder of Verizon apps.)
The lack of extra apps — “bloatware” — makes the overall experience feel cleaner and more enjoyable. Among the few modifications is what OnePlus calls its Memo Shelf, which is a home screen for keeping notes and finding things like the weather and frequently used apps. Although I didn’t use the Memo Shelf too often, I appreciate its slick interface that doesn’t stray too far from the plain version of Android.
The software does support some optional shortcuts, like the ability to launch the camera by drawing an O on the phone’s screen even when the display is turned off. This is optional, though, and doesn’t interfere with the general experience when not in use.
The OnePlus 3’s camera captures clear, bright images in ideal conditions, like daylight or a well-lit room. But it suffers in low-light performance compared to its competitors. The phone comes with a 16-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization, a standard feature on today’s flagship phones that accounts for the blurriness that may occur from shaky hands. Those who shoot video on their phones will benefit from the additional electronic stabilization on the OnePlus 3, which eliminates wobbling from the captured footage.
To test the OnePlus 3’s camera, I compared it against images from the Galaxy S7 Edge, iPhone 6s Plus, and Nexus 6P. The photos below, which were taken at the same location during the same time, show little difference. The most noticeable discrepancy is in the iPhone 6s Plus’ photo, which shows deeper greens. When examining the image closely, however, I did notice that the white flowers in OnePlus 3’s picture looked slightly yellowish compared to those in the other photos. Despite the subtle color differences, the OnePlus 3’s camera was generally reliable.
iPhone 6s Plus
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
You can really see how these cameras differ by testing them in low-light situations. I snapped these photos of my cat in a dimly lit room with no flash, and he’s barely visible in the image taken on the OnePlus 3.
iPhone 6s Plus
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
Battery life isn’t a problem for the OnePlus 3; I was able to churn through roughly a day and a half without having to plug it in. This is about the same battery life I’ve been seeing from other similarly-sized phones, like the iPhone 6s Plus and Galaxy S7 Edge. Battery life always varies depending on what the device is being used for (Turning up the screen’s brightness, using your phone as a hotspot, and turning on Bluetooth are known to be battery drainers), but the phone lasted for more than a day when used for basic tasks. For those instances when you do need to plug in the OnePlus 3, you won’t have to do so for long. The phone comes with fast-charging tech that the company claims can replenish the battery by 60% in 30 minutes. In my own testing, I found that the battery did indeed charge quickly: it jumped from 19% to 70% in about 25 minutes.
The OnePlus 3’s gorgeous design, affordable price, smooth performance, generally good camera make it among the best smartphones I’ve used this year. With the OnePlus 3, it’s clear the company emphasized the points that matter most to the general smartphone shopper, like the way the phone looks, how long its battery lasts, and how easy it is to use. It doesn’t check all the boxes (there’s no wireless charging or expandable storage), but for $400, I didn’t expect it to. In a lower-end market that’s increasingly competitive, with even companies like Apple making more affordable smartphones, OnePlus’ latest effort delivers.
4 out of 5 stars