OnePlus 3 Review: Third time’s the charm?

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The general wisdom on consumer electronics is that you shouldn’t buy the first generation of a product. Bug fixes, refinements, or price drops, it might be safer to wait for a second generation gadget, but honestly, we consumers really don’t seem to start taking a company seriously until we’ve seen them in the market for three product releases. This is a big year for OnePlus. Not only reaching a third smartphone, but also growing up and dumping the invite purchasing system used in the past.

Any review of this phone can take one of two courses. We can focus on the performance of this device as it relates to the price, or we can treat this phone as more of a competitor to higher priced flagships. For the sake of expediency, we’ll be focusing on the former more than the later. We can just take it for granted that all value judgements and opinions should end with the phrase “for the price”, so that phrase won’t be repeated ad nauseam throughout this review.

Video Review

Design

This is an attractive handset. The aluminum frame tapers gracefully, and edges are nicely finished. These clean simple lines aren’t breaking any new style ground here, but OnePlus is clearly refining the brand’s look with each successive phone release. We’ll call that progress. There is an evolution of sorts moving from the OnePlus 2 to this phone, though there are some clear “inspirations” from companies like Huawei and HTC. It’s exceedingly difficult to make an all metal body phone, with cutout antenna bands, look unique in this day and age. Thinness helps as a style point, though the thinness is a bit marred by the camera bulge.

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It is a clean looking device. It might not turn heads when used in public, but it certainly won’t be derided. We do miss some of the bolder design choices from previous phones like the sandstone back on the OnePlus 2. OnePlus’ solution is to offer snap on cases, so most of the time spent reviewing this phone, it’s lived in the sandstone snap on case. A nice throwback to the feel of the OP2, but not quite as elegant as having this material built into the back of the device.

Specs

On paper this phone has a respectable balance of specs. The 5.5” display is a 1080p AMOLED panel, more on the screen a bit later in this review. Below the screen we’ve got a snappy always-on fingerprint sensor which doubles as the home button, and above the screen you’ll find the 8MP front facing camera.

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The OP3 comes with a Snapdragon 820 to power the device, and it is nice using the current top of the line chipset from Qualcomm here. This powerful chipset is backed up by 6GB of RAM which you can’t quite really use all of, and 64GB of built in storage. There’s a dual sim card tray, but no microSD card expansion.

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That rear camera bulge holds a 16MP camera with OIS, which we’ll also detail later on in this review.

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Along with the shrink in case thickness, the battery also shrinks to 3000mAh from last year’s 3300Ah. It’s not too upsetting a compromise though as this is a more power efficient processor, and this battery capacity still keeps pace with most flagship phones released this year. OnePlus was early to the USB Type C game, and now adds their own flavor of fast charging to the mix. A proprietary “Dash” charger and USB cable are in the box.

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For $399 it’s a solid list of hardware features.

Display

The display has already generated a little controversy. Moving from an LCD last year on the OnePlus 2 to AMOLED this year would normally be a move we’d praise, but the screen on this phone really isn’t one of the OnePlus 3’s strong points. I still stand by my comment from our first impressions video that it’s generally fine at arm’s length, but it’s dimmer than last year’s OnePlus. You’re taking a subtle but noticeable step backwards for outdoor readability.

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Another issue comes down to this subpixel arrangement. On the OnePlus 2 LCD, we see a proper RGB stripe. Every pixel has corresponding red, blue, and green subpixels. Moving to AMOLED means we lose some of those subpixels in a pentile arrangement. This diamond subpixel layout delivers fewer red and blue dots than green dots. Short story long, this means text and fine detail just won’t be as crisp on this phone as it was on last year’s.

We still wouldn’t call this a deal breaker, but seeing as how looking at a phone screen is kind of a major thing that people do throughout the day, we can totally understand why this might sour some folks on the OP3.

Software

Moving to software, another sign of this company’s maturity, oxygenOS has developed into a strong competitor against the Touchwizs and Senses out there. As Android has gotten prettier, it’s taken a lot of the pressure off of manufacturers to skin it like crazy. The Oneplus 3 user interface is largely stock with a few elements to tweak the experience.

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A slide to the left from the home screen launches a handy little side panel where you can customize a vertical column of widgets and shortcuts. The OP3 has a handful of helpful gestures to wake the screen or launch the camera. We’re really happy to see a simple, alphabetized app drawer, and the dark theme comes in handy especially when using the phone at night.

And, OnePlus aficionados will be happy to see that the user can still choose between software or hardware navigation controls. This is a customization feature we wish was built natively into Android.

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The main gripe we can point to might be the home screen arrangement. There’s a ton of wasted space up top where a whole extra row of icons could live. It’s intended for a permanent Google Search bar, but you can’t use that space for shortcuts or widgets if you deactivate the Google Search bar. We can change the app drawer grid spacing, but not the home screen tiles.

Performance

But how does this software run? We’re happy to report that in-app performance is terrific. No surprise as this is the same processor you’ll find in most flagships. Sliding through the UI is slick and smooth.

Looking at apps which will tax this hardware, games play great. Implosion ran like butter, and while we saw stutters on Marvel Future Fight, the lower screen resolution seems to help here over phones like the Galaxy S7. We’re happy to report that after a handful of missions, the phone runs cooler than metal backed devices running last year’s Qualcomm 810 chipset.

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Getting back to my jab about the RAM, Oneplus considers this a feature and not a bug. This phone will aggressively dump background apps from memory to preserve battery life. We covered this phenomenon shortly after the phone’s release. If you’re just swapping back and forth between a handful of apps, you’re unlikely to encounter issues, but then why have 6GB of RAM?

We hope OnePlus will loosen the restrictions on this behavior, like Samsung ultimately did with similar RAM management last year on the Galaxy S6, but if you can’t wait, the groovy dudes over at XDA already have found a workaround to get a bit more kick out of this hardware.

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Network performance on AT&T was solid around town, though reception often lagged a couple decibels behind the Galaxy S7, and indoors, I would occasionally find the phone completely disconnected. This is a situation we hope will be addressed in a future update.

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WiFi Performance is similarly mid-pack, and your connection to a router will fall off faster than when using more expensive phones.

Camera

Moving to the camera, we have the most in depth review of the OnePlus 3’s capabilities available online as a separate video which you can watch right here.

You won’t find a deeper dive covering all aspects of this camera’s performance than in the above video, but as a brief overview, this phone is a solid performer with a handful of compromises.

Photos are largely well exposed if a bit on the juicy saturated side. Spot metering helps make sure the camera is exposing for what you focus on, and the phase detect focus system was reliable enough for us shooting around town.

Low light performance is kind of a grainy mess though, and there’s a separate HDR style de-noise setting to help clean up output, but it’s not well communicated to consumers what this setting does. The camera app is clean, simple, and well laid out, but it could do with a little better conveyance for explaining how it all works.

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Video performance is weak. While this phone can shoot a medium quality bitrate for UHD resolution video, and it’s paired with Optical Image Stabilization, we did see a lot of compression artifacts in the sky. Also, the OIS doesn’t have a very wide range of movement, so there was quite a bit of jittery movement throughout most video samples, event those where we tried to stay as still as possible. The limited OIS might also explain why the camera’s low light performance is so poor, relying on high ISO settings instead of longer shutter speeds.

Lastly, the phone employs aggressive audio  noise reduction, and any video shot with consistent sound in the background will have severely degraded audio, which you can hear in our camera video review.

OnePlus 3 Camera Sample Pocketnow (37)

The slow motion does come out smooth though, so that’s fun, and the selfie camera is about as competent as any other front facing shooter we’ve played with this year, so no serious issues there.

Audio

Now let’s have a chat about the audio. It’s one of the most glorious moments as a reviewer when a phone truly takes you by surprise. I like to listen to variety of musical genres when reviewing a phone. Classical, Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop, Electronica, and Pop. However, one of my favorite torture test tracks is WTF by OK GO. It’s a funky pop riff, with some obvious Prince inspirations, but it’s also mixed extremely loud, limited to within an inch of its life. If you push the bass even a little, it dulls all of the fun guitar distortion and synth/sample buzzsaw sounds. If you lean too hard on the treble, the highs are piercing and unpleasant to listen to.

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Initial anecdotal impressions of the OP3 were very positive. This phone has a clean, punchy, balanced output from the headphone jack, and this amp is more powerful than the hardware found on the Galaxy S7 or LG G5.

OnePlus 3 Headphone Amp output

From left to right: OnePlus 3, Galaxy S7, LG V10

Running this phone through some analyzer tools, it handily beat those two flagships, and trailed directly behind some of our absolute favorite music phones like the HTC 10 and LG V10, just nipping at the heels of the iPhone 6S. This was shocking in the best way possible. The OnePlus 3 sounds like a very good option for the audiophile on a budget.

OnePlus 3 Audio Stats

The bottom firing speaker is no slouch either. Not the loudest we’ve tested for alerts and notifications, but providing detailed and crisp playback.

Battery

What good is all of this technology if your battery can’t hang?

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A Qualcomm 820 paired with a 3,000mAh battery is pretty well understood territory these days, and we easily got all-day run time with some juice to spare after dinner. Looking at our media test, streaming 30 minutes of HD video over WiFi at 50% brightness, the OnePlus 3 drained 5% of its battery which is top tier performance.

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And if you should need to top off during the day, you won’t have much of a wait. Plugging the phone in for 30 minutes delivered a 53% charge. A word of warning though, as this fast charging system is a proprietary solution from OnePlus. It’s not related to Qualcomm’s quick charge, so you might not get this speed if you aren’t using the supplied charger and cables.

Pros

+ That Price

+ Very Good Photos

+ Great Headphone Playback

Cons

– Mediocre Screen

– Derivative Design

– Twitchy Video

Conclusion

Ignoring marketing slogans for a second, this is a superb phone at $399. It represents an excellent bang for buck. It’s been an exciting year for mid-rangers, watching companies push more top tier hardware into lower price tiers. We have a proper competitor to the iPhone SE here, and it trades blows well with many phones from last year which have fallen in price.

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Taking a swipe at OnePlus PR though, we do have a some settling to do. The dimmer grainy screen. There are some camera compromises. The quick charging system depends on proprietary hardware, and the RAM management is restrictive. Plus, some folks may be concerned about support and software updates given the company’s history, another area where cost needs to be built into the price of a device.

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OnePlus doesn’t talk about killing flagships anymore, which is good, as this thing can’t quite kill flagship phones. It’s not really fair to this phone to compare it against substantially more expensive offerings even if the processors are the same. We’ve gotten some complaints from readers that we have focused more on the “bang for buck” instead of spending more time comparing it against devices where the OnePlus 3 is sure to lose most fights. Even though the company might brag about “Never Settling”, it doesn’t mean we need to set this phone up to fail, and spending that much time to set up those comparisons might confuse the discussion for folks who might really benefit from this value proposition.

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The OnePlus 3 gets us pretty darn close to a true blue top tier phone experience, for a lot less cash. Judged by that criteria, it’s a successful experiment from a company we’re happy to see grow up.

Related

OnePlus 3 vs OnePlus 2: Should you upgrade?

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About The Author
Juan Carlos Bagnell
Juan has been geeking out on personal computing since before PCs had GUIs. After studying Theatre in college, Juan worked with a contractor that supported servers and mobile devices for Department of Energy facilities. After moving to Los Angeles California, and working as a commercial casting director, he now dedicates his time to discussing the tech landscape as a consumer advocate. You’ll often see him pop in local news broadcasts. Passionate about mobile content creation, he recently published his first book on smartphone photography.