OnePlus 3 Review

Chinese startup OnePlus has really made a name for itself over the past couple of years. The OnePlus One set the bar very high, as it took everyone by surprise by offering flagship specs in a phone that cost so little. They also quickly became known for their dreaded invite-only system, which was a good way to manage demand so that they didn’t exceed their manufacturing capabilities, but it was an even better way to annoy everyone that wanted to buy their phones!

In reality, the One set the bar a little too high, because the OnePlus 2 failed to live up to expectations; it was still a good phone with some very good specs, but the amount of hype it received, and the omission of features such as NFC, sadly set it up to fail. I still really liked my OnePlus 2, even though it did take me a few months of entering competitions before I managed to get an invite. OnePlus then followed that up with the release of the OnePlus X (which I also bought through their invite system) - an even cheaper phone targeted more squarely at the mid-range market.

With the OnePlus 3 however, the company appears to be returning to form. They’ve finally done away with the invite-only system, which meant I was able to order one as soon as it became available, and it arrived this morning (the 18th of June)!

This review has also been updated on the 26th of June to include additional thoughts now that I’ve been using the phone for a decent amount of time.

Specs

Here are the specs, in case you haven’t seen them all over the place already…

  • 5.5 inch full-HD (1080p) AMOLED display with Corning Gorilla Glass 4
  • Snapdragon 820 CPU
  • Adreno 530 GPU
  • 6gb RAM
  • 64gb storage (no SD card slot though)
  • 3000 mAh battery with dash-charge
  • 16mp rear camera and 8mp front camera
  • Oxygen OS based on Android Marshmallow
  • Fingerprint sensor and dual-sim slots
  • 152.7 (h) x 74.7 (w) x 7.35 (d) mm and 158 grams
  • NFC

That’s an impressive spec sheet! That’s the same CPU and GPU as the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, HTC 10, and LG G5.

Having 6gb of RAM is a little showy, and perhaps overkill (though I’d argue the same of QHD or 4k screens, but other manufacturers are still happy to include them), but could well have just been in aid of providing some future-proofing. Sadly, as reported by Android Authority, the OnePlus 3 doesn’t actually make use of all of its RAM, it does seem that custom ROMs will be able to though, but many people prefer to stick with the pre-installed OS rather than making the effort to install a custom one, so in those cases, the 6gb of RAM is nothing more than a selling point on a spec sheet. That being said, that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is still a very fast phone with no noticeable lag.

Thankfully, the lack of NFC on the OnePlus 2 has been corrected here, so Android Pay is an option now (though it refuses to connect my Amex to it). And all of this only costs £309 (£329 soon, because Brexit sucks) - basically half the price of any other flagship.

Design

Aesthetically, the OnePlus 3 is what you’d get if Apple and HTC had a baby. The aluminium unibody design is reminiscent of the design choices by both companies, which really isn’t a bad thing, as we’ve come to associate the sturdiness of aluminium unibody constructions with more expensive handsets. The 3 is also slimmer than the 2 was, so it’s sleeker and feels more sturdy. Unlike the sandstone back and plastic construction of the OnePlus 2 however, this thing is slippery! So you may want to thicken it a bit with a case to add some grip.

Like most phones, the front isn’t really anything special. It’s a standard black slab of glass with an indented fingerprint scanner combined into the home button at the bottom, just as it was on the OnePlus 2, and it’s even faster than that one was, with a quoted unlock time of 0.3 seconds. I don’t know how accurate that quote is because I haven’t timed it myself, but I’m guessing it’s pretty close, as it unlocks as soon as my thumb touches it!

Also as before, there are programmable touch sensitive navigation keys either side of the home button which illuminate for a few seconds with a single white LED when tapped. Beneath that on the bottom of the phone you’ll find the speakers, the USB-C port, and headphone jack.

The aluminium back is gently curved and nice to hold, with antenna bands highly reminiscent of those on the HTC One M9, and a square camera bulge similar to that of the Samsung Galaxy S6. The camera bulge is unfortunate, but seems to be the norm these days.

The left side has the volume rocker and the same notification switch as on the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X that allows you to toggle between Android’s various notification settings (all, priority only, and silent). The notification toggle is something I always liked about iPhones, so I’m very glad that OnePlus have continued to include an equivalent. And the right side of the phone has the power button and dual-SIM card tray, which is surprisingly useful when switching network providers or travelling abroad. It would have been nice to see the same implementation as on the OnePlus X and the Huawei P9, where one of the SIM slots could hold a micro-SD card instead, but with 64gb of internal storage the extra space shouldn’t really be needed (and considering the issues I had with that with my OnePlus X, maybe omitting it is for the best).

Considering OnePlus’s current motto is “Never Settle”, this design feels a bit like settling was the plan. The design is good and simple with a sort of purity to it, it feels sturdy and the phone is very nice to hold and use, but it’s also quite a safe option that won’t turn any heads; it’s a tried and tested combination of materials and design principles that many manufacturers are doing at the moment. That being said, I personally really like it. It looks and feels premium, is nice to hold (if a bit slippery), and is a little smaller than other devices out there with 5.5 inch screens.

Display

With the QHD resolution war currently being waged by the likes of Samsung, HTC, and LG, I actually find it quite refreshing to see manufacturers like OnePlus and Huawei sticking to less power-intensive 1080p screens. The OnePlus 3’s screen certainly doesn’t look as crisp as rivals like the Galaxy S7 when placed side-by-side, but assuming that you won’t be holding it next to a QHD screen every time you use it, you’d be hard-pressed to notice a difference. With a pixel density of 401ppi (matching the likes of the iPhone 6S Plus, and exceeding that of the 6S), this screen is still more than sufficient. It has a non-reflective display that is actually fairly visible in direct sunlight, which has decent contrast and, unlike some other AMOLED screens out there, doesn’t have washed out colours. All in all, it’s very good!

I’m sure many people will see the 1080p resolution choice as a compromise, and perhaps it is, but unless you need the higher resolution for things like VR (which is still very much in its infancy), this is a perfectly respectable compromise. It also comes with a factory-fitted screen protector, which would be a big plus if it was wide enough to actually cover the whole screen, but the slightly curved edges remain unprotected. The same is true of OnePlus’s own tempered glass screen protector.

Slightly more nerdy moment - skip this if you’ve heard enough about the screen already:
One criticism directed at this screen is that it’s a pentile display, so the sub-pixel structure is different to that of an IPS display. In essence, based on sub-pixel detail, you’re actually getting a screen closer to a 720p resolution. That being said, I still found this screen very detailed. OnePlus have also released a firmware update for the 3 that includes an sRGB mode within the developer options. This is important as most content for the web has been developed using the sRGB colour gamut, so this mode well help ensure that colours are truer to real life. However, this mode on the OnePlus 3 does look significantly less impressive than the standard display mode because, like many manufacturers, OnePlus have set their standard display mode to enhance colour vibrancy to make everything look more impressive. It’s something that might be worth toying around with though to see which you prefer.

Cameras

Speaking of compromises, the camera quality often suffers on cheaper phones, but I don’t think that’s true here. Yes, the camera isn’t as good as the OnePlus 3’s more expensive rivals, but it’s definitely not bad either, and it’s certainly an improvement over the 13MP sensor that I became used to on the OnePlus 2. The 16MP rear sensor is the same Sony IMX298 sensor that you’ll find in the Xiaomi Mi5, the Oppo R9, and the Asus ZenFone 3. It includes Optical and Electronic Image Stabilisation, as well as Phase Detection AutoFocus, Auto HDR, HD Mode and Dynamic De-Noise, which are basically just lots of big words and technical terms to make a camera sound better than it is. The fact is, it takes good photos and very happy with the quality of them, but if you know what to look for in the finer details, then you’ll notice that it’s clearly outmatched by the Galaxy S7 or the iPhone 6S. Under the right conditions however, the camera can capture an impressive amount of detail, and in low light conditions it still performs well (though not as well as its rivals).

Here are a few sample pictures, all using the camera in auto mode:

southsea-beach-huts-small.jpg southsea-beach-small.jpg southsea-dog-small.jpg southsea-esplanade-small.jpg southsea-plants-1-small.jpg southsea-plants-2-small.jpg

The 8MP front camera is apparently the same one that was used on the back of the iPhone 5S. To be honest, I doubt that, because I remember the 5S’s camera being better than this, and elsewhere I’ve heard claim that it’s the same sensor as was used on the back of the Nexus 5, which is probably more likely. Nonetheless, it does take good selfies. It also comes with a beauty mode to smooth your skin and increase your eye size (if that sort of thing matters to you), and a smile sensor which will take a selfie automatically for you 3 seconds after flashing the camera a smile. The smile sensor is a bit sensitive, but it’s a nice addition.

OnePlus’s camera app is pretty much the same as on the OnePlus 2 and X; it’s minimal and intuitive. It has its quirks and minor irritations, but it’s an otherwise decent offering. It also offers basic manual controls to adjust ISO, shutter speed, etc., and offers RAW image support for better post-shot editing.

Battery

The OnePlus 3’s 3000mAh battery is smaller than the offerings that were on the OnePlus One or 2. I’m not a power user, and I was able to get a good couple of days use out of my OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X before needing to charge them again (that included push notifications for emails, a fairly normal amount of web and Facebook browsing, and a little light gaming and music listening when on the tube); so with the improvements that Android Marshmallow made towards battery longevity, the reduced power consumption of the Snapdragon 820 over it’s 810 predecessor, and the decision not to include a QHD screen, I was fairly hopeful.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and HTC 10 both have the same processor and battery capacity as the OnePlus 3, but have a QHD screen, and still manage to get 1 - 2 days use on a single charge according to most reviews. So in an ideal world, the OnePlus 3 should best them…

After a week of use now (update from 26/06/16), I can say that the battery life is definitely good - it isn’t anything special, but it is respectable. With light to moderate use I’m getting a couple of days use from it, but for any heavier use you’ll more than likely be charging it each day. I typically get around 4 hours of screen on time with my general use, which is similar to what my OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X managed. After disabling a few features I don’t use however such as Google Now and GPS, and with the screen brightness set at just under half (but still in adaptive mode to adjust to lighting conditions), I have been able to get just over 6 hours of screen on time every now and again - that’s including a little bit of camera use, bluetooth constantly connected to my smartwatch, plenty of Facebook and Twitter checking and web browsing on Chrome (as the EU referendum had just happened), push notifications on for emails, varying signal quality, and watching a little bit of Netflix.

oneplus3-battery.jpg

Dash Charge

For those times when you need to give your phone a quick battery boost, OnePlus added “dash charge” to the 3, which is supposed to be able to give you 60% battery from only half an hour of charging. My first time charging the device it actually went from 0 to 64% in that time, and to 100% in just over an hour, so it certainly works!

The technology is more or less the same as the “quick charge” that most flagships phones are offering at the moment, which is a technology actually made available by Qualcomm (the manufacturers of the Snapdragon 820 processor). It therefore would have perhaps made sense for OnePlus to use the same technology, but what sets “dash charge” apart is that the power and heat management is handled by the adapter, rather than the phone itself, to reduce risk of overheating and damaging the phone.

It also makes sense that OnePlus would use this charging technology as a lesser known fact about the Chinese startup is that it’s actually a subsidiary of Oppo Electronics (which is in turn owned by BBK Electronics), which produced this charging technology for use in the Oppo branded line of phones.

Software

Most manufacturers are making a good effort not to distort Android too much these days. Some are doing a better job of that than others. I for instance have never been much of a fan of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface, but I still find it usable, whereas Xiaomi’s MIUI and Huawei’s Emotion UI feel like blatant attempts to give Android an iOS skin. But it was the Nexus 4 that made me really enjoy stock Android, and I continued to enjoy that experience when I bought the Nexus 5 as well. When I then moved onto the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X running Oxygen OS, I was very grateful that they were almost indistinguishable from stock Android. Oxygen OS is present here as well, so the same is true of the OnePlus 3.

Oxygen OS sits in a nice middle ground between unmodified Android and Cyanogenmod - it’s more or less the stock experience, but with a few extra enhancements snuck in. On the surface, you may not even notice that it’s OnePlus’s own OS. It’s only once you delve a little deeper into the settings that you start to notice the difference, such as the availability of lockscreen gestures to launch the camera app or turn on the torch, or the ability to choose whether or not to use the hardware buttons or on-screen navigation, and to be able to swap the buttons round. Oxygen OS also includes a nice dark mode so you can have black backgrounds throughout the phone instead of Android’s default white, as well as a night mode to use warmer colours that are easier on the eyes, and an inverted colour mode which could come in useful for high contrast viewing. You can even adjust the screen’s white balance directly in the software which is a nice touch. And you can choose your own accent colour for things like default buttons and toggles.

OnePlus have included a couple of their own apps, but nothing significant - certainly nothing that could be deemed bloatware. They have however included what they call “The Shelf”, which is a a page to the left of the homescreen that you can use to store things like recently used apps, contacts and widgets, or a few memos. Other than that, it includes all of the standard bells and whistles that Android Marshmallow does: Google Now, Now on Tap, etc.

Verdict

I won’t lie, there are better phones out there… but not for this price. The latest offerings from Samsung, HTC, and LG will give you a higher resolution screen more suited to VR, and a better camera, but will also cost you about £300 more. The 64gb iPhone 6S for example will set you back £619 (just over double the pre-brexit cost of the OnePlus 3) and the 64gb variant of its big brother, the iPhone 6S Plus, costs £699!

For this kind of price point, the OnePlus 3’s main competition are the Xiaomi Mi5 (if you can manage to get it) and Huawei’s P9 (which is available from GiffGaff for £369). I must admit I prefer Huawei’s decision to place the fingerprint sensor on the back of the P9 (just as they did with the Nexus 6P), but that really just comes down to preference.

The OnePlus 2 was marketed as the 2016 flagship killer, but it barely came close to meeting such a bold claim. The OnePlus 3 is pretty much there. For some, it would need a better camera and higher resolution screen, but it’s a flagship killer in almost every other way, especially in price! So if, like me, its small compromises aren’t a deal breaker for you, then the OnePlus 3 is definitely worth considering.


Posted: June 18th, 2016
Categories: mobile, reviews, tech