Oneplus 3 Review: Finally All Grown Up
The Quick Take
OnePlus is finally ready to join the big leagues with the OnePlus 3. Gone are the days of justifying missing features with a cheap price, and no longer can we give it a pass for its upstart-style of operation. The OnePlus 3 is the real deal, ready to be compared and evaluated as the flagship phone that it is. It isn't going to wow you with oodles of new features or headline-grabbing, never-before-seen experiences — it's just a downright great smartphone, and that's precisely what most people are looking for.
In a marketplace flooded with great, affordable, high-end Android phones, it's easy to scoff at the disproportionate amount of attention that OnePlus has commanded for the past couple of years. Invite-only sales, questionable quality control, weak customer support and marketing blunders galore have gotten in the way of presenting the company's phones for what they were — really good hardware, backed up by solid software and prices that almost seemed too low.
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After the breakout hit of the OnePlus One, the somewhat-forgettable OnePlus 2 was affected most by the company's predisposition for shenanigans, quickly falling off the radar; and the mid-cycle affordable OnePlus X was almost forgotten altogether, even though it was a great phone for the money.
Whether you believe OnePlus has gotten its house in order, you can't deny that the company is no longer a fad nor a flash in the pan ... it's the real deal, and the best example of that is sitting right here in my hand: the OnePlus 3. No longer are we looking at a phone that's "good for the money" or downplaying shortcomings in light of the phone as a whole — the OnePlus 3 is aiming to just be a top-end phone, before you discuss the price or the company behind it.
OnePlus 3 Hardware
Looking at the full history of OnePlus phones, you see a very nice progression of materials. After the plastic OnePlus One, there was a metal-framed swappable-back OnePlus 2, which really stepped up the game, followed by the solid metal-and-glass OnePlus X. Now, we've gone full aluminum with the OnePlus 3.
With its fourth phone, OnePlus has chosen what has become a very popular design — a minimalist lightly textured silver all-aluminum body, broken only as necessary by solid antenna lines across the top and bottom. Viewed from the back, it's pure minimalism; things aren't much different on the other side. A sheet of Gorilla Glass 4 covers the entire front, save for a small speaker at the top and fingerprint sensor below, curving subtly down to the sides. If you look close you'll see ever-so-subtle shiny chamfers along the edge of the screen, fingerprint sensor, and camera protrusion around back.
The theme continues along the sides — nothing will particularly catch your eye. A standard oblong power button sits below a SIM card tray on the right side, with a volume rocker on the left accompanied by the OnePlus standard textured three-stage Alert Slider. The bottom has six nicely-drilled holes for the loudspeaker, along with a USB-C port and headphone jack.
It's understandably difficult to get excited about a phone with a design and materials that we've seen used a countless number of times in the past two years (the HTC One M8 and iPhone 6 perhaps kicking that off). The OnePlus 3 isn't breaking any barriers in design, or trying anything that's particularly new — but the one thing you can say about the way OnePlus has done it is just how precisely it nailed the manufacturing. You can't pick out a single place where it isn't absolutely spot-on. Every edge, every join of materials, every cut-out, every transition from curve to flat — every placement is perfect. This precision is hardly exclusive to OnePlus nowadays, as just about any manufacturer can now do things with metal and glass that were previously reserved to multi-billion-dollar companies just a few years ago. But just because you can do it now doesn't mean every phone is built as well as the OnePlus 3.
That precise manufacturing comes across in how the phone feels when you pick it up every single time. With a 5.5-inch display the OnePlus 3 is hardly small, but it nestles into the crook of your palm and the flat sides give you just enough to wrap your fingers around to get a sense that the phone isn't going to slide around much. The smooth and gently curved back, which maxes out at 7.35 mm in thickness, isn't ever going to be as easy to grip as the Sandstone-backed OnePlus 2, but this phone in return isn't nearly as harsh on your hand.
It's a pleasure to hold, look at and use.
In a continuing theme, for the third straight year OnePlus has stuck with a 5.5-inch 1920x1080 display. But as is often the case, the numbers don't really tell the story — we're now looking at an AMOLED panel as a successor to the washed-out and lackluster IPS panel used last year, and the benefits are immediately apparent.
Even without increasing the resolution, OnePlus has dramatically improved things by going with a nicer panel this time around. Gone are the washed-out colors and poor visibility in sunlight, and while the panel isn't quite up to the quality of those selected by Samsung for its own phones — particularly in direct sunlight visibility, because Samsung is tops there — this is a display anyone would be happy to have. It offers good viewing angles and great colors right out of the box, but if you'd like to tweak a little bit OnePlus offers a color balance slider in the settings as well.
And before you try and argue that 1080p isn't high enough of resolution, let's be real — 400 pixels per inch on a screen is plenty; and as I'll get into in further detail in this review, it definitely has benefits when it comes to performance and battery life. At some point you have to consider all aspects of the display, not just focus on resolution, when evaluating it.
The AMOLED screen also plays into the aesthetic of OxygenOS, which has lots of dark colors that really look great on this type of the screen — something anyone who has a OnePlus X can tell you. That goes a step further if you choose to enable the dark mode in the settings and turn on the ambient display mode (familiar to Nexus users) to glance at notifications when they arrive on your sleeping phone.
On the Inside
Underneath the aluminum shell, the OnePlus 3 is filled with plenty of the highest specs you'd expect to see from a top-end phone this year. It all starts with a Snapdragon 820 processor and 6GB of RAM, along with 64GB of storage and a 3000 mAh battery powering it all. There's 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 on-board, and we have NFC again, the first time since the OnePlus One — I used Android Pay as soon as I got the phone.
The OnePlus 3 is a touch narrower than the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus One, and also thinner, but is just barely taller than its predecessor. It's also the lightest OnePlus flagship so far at 158 grams, about 10% lighter than the OnePlus 2.
The Official Cases
If the all-metal build of the OnePlus 3 has you longing for the good 'ol days of the swappable backs, or you just want to have some protection and extra grip from time to time, OnePlus has you covered with a set of protective cases that are built using the same materials previously available on the OnePlus 2. You can pick up a wood veneer case in Rosewood, Black Apricot or Bamboo varieties, or go with a synthetic material in Sandstone or Karbon.
All five cases are form-fitting and minimal in their coverage, but they can all add style, protection and a little extra grip to the aluminum OnePlus 3. Expect to pay about $20 to $25 per case on the OnePlus website. There are also black, grey and sand color variants of a flip cover, which go for $20 each.
OnePlus 3 Software
With every Android phone launch, there's a very vocal group of people who point to the software as a reason for not considering the phone. Customized non-standard interfaces, carrier-imposed bloatware and delayed updates are always cited as downsides of buying most non-Nexus phones, and this is one area where OnePlus has excelled since it moved away from Cyanogen and to its own software experience called OxygenOS.
Knowing its target audience, OnePlus has crafted software that does what all of the enthusiasts are asking for: it takes a "stock" build of Marshmallow, adds a few features and opportunities for customization, and sends it on its way to the phone. What you get in OxygenOS on the OnePlus 3 just about precisely mirrors the Marshmallow update that just hit the OnePlus 2 — and that's a good thing for those who enjoy a simple, powerful software experience.
If you enjoy what Google has done in terms of design and interface in Android 6.0, you'll love the OnePlus 3 — on the whole, the experience isn't any different from what you'll find on a Nexus phone today. What has changed are a grouping of subtle but powerful features, most of which started as staples in the custom ROM community years ago, and many others introduced or popularized by various other Android manufacturers.
The bigger changes come in the form of quick customizations of the interface that normally would be set in stone on other phones. You have the ability to edit the quick settings toggles, the status bar icons, the color of the operating system theme, the notification light and the color balance of the screen. If you choose to use the OxygenOS default launcher, you get a nice set of customizations there, from changing icon sizes and app drawer grid sizes, to enabling quick gestures and changing the look of the search bar on your home screen. There's also built-in support for third-party icon packs.
Further, OxygenOS includes a batch of small additional features. You still have the choice of using on-screen or off-screen capacitive navigation buttons and can rearrange them and reassign long-press actions as you like. You can also turn on four different gestures to perform actions when the screen is off.
OnePlus includes its own Launcher, Camera, Music, Gallery and Files apps, but otherwise includes the stock Google apps for their default functions. You can also disable every one of the OnePlus apps if you wish — that means you don't have to bother with disabling a pile of unwanted apps or dealing with duplicates because the default system app can't be removed.
And of course if you aren't satisfied with what OnePlus has created, you can blow it all away and install something else thanks to an unlockable bootloader.
On Software Updates
The only thing to really be concerned about here is software updates ... or, the lack thereof. Since moving to in-house software development OnePlus has done quite well in shipping phones with solid software and keeping them updated with small bug fixes and even some monthly security patches (albeit not every month right on time). But it hasn't been up with the leaders in terms of getting large platform-jumping updates out there. As I write this review in the middle of June, the OnePlus 2 that was launched in August 2015 just got Marshmallow two weeks ago. The OnePlus X from November 2015 still doesn't have the latest version of Android.
OnePlus surely has every intention of getting large platform updates out to its phones in a timely matter. It has even previously committed to time frames for updates ... only to miss them badly. The problem right now is that nothing in the past has shown us that OnePlus can quickly and reliably get large updates out the door to its customers. That's a little worrisome as I watch the progression of the Android N Developer Preview, which will be ready for a full consumer release very soon.
None of the worry about updates should take away from the exceptionally positive view I have of the current software that actually ships on the OnePlus 3, but it's hard to ignore the past here. For as much as I like the software now, I know I'll be itching to have Android N in short order after it's finalized.
OnePlus 3 Daily Use
Using the Galaxy S7, Nexus 6P and OnePlus 2 interchangeably the past couple of months, the transition to using the OnePlus 3 for this review was smooth as can be.
Using the OnePlus 3 as my only phone, taking on every single task, I never experienced any stutters, slowdowns, hiccups, app force closes or reboots. The combination of the Snapdragon 820 and 6GB of RAM meant every single app opened quickly, and I can't recall a situation in which an app was forced out of RAM and needed to be reloaded unnecessarily. Every time I checked my memory usage in the settings, my average was just 3GB ... leaving plenty of runway for additional apps.
Setting the OnePlus 3 next to a couple of other modern phones and opening up apps, multitasking and doing a few basic things, my anecdotal experiences were confirmed — this phone is just as fast, or faster, than anything else on my desk right now. There are just a few other things that factored into my daily use as well.
One thing that OnePlus has absolutely cornered the Android market on is with its Alert Slider — this clever little three-stage hardware switch that lets you quickly move between all, priority and no notifications without touching the screen or tuning the phone on. You can explicitly choose what happens in the "priority" and "none" positions, from who can call you, whether media, alarms or events make a sound, and more. It's one of the little tweaks OnePlus has made that improves the experience of using the phone every single day.
Another part of the phone that has been of use every single day is the speaker, where the offerings in other phones can be rather hit or miss. The OnePlus 3's speaker performs admirably even though it's using a single small speaker at the bottom of the phone. It's louder and clearer than the similarly-sized and positioned speaker on the Galaxy S7, and even though it comes up short of the front-facing speaker setups on the Nexus 6P and HTC 10, it's loud enough for what I use it for and doesn't distort at higher volumes.
With over a week of experience under my belt I only found two unexpected software bugs — one where the capacitive navigation keys were inexplicably enabled after a reboot (and subsequently back to normal after a reboot), and another where the on-screen "back" navigation button would take a few presses to actually perform the intended action. I assume these two issues are related, and they were so sporadic that I couldn't nail down any one cause. The software I've been using for this review wasn't entirely final, and I received an update on my final day of writing that sized up at 260MB. Presumably this last-minute tune-up will sort out these two random — and honestly not in any way bothersome — issues.
Any time the battery size shrinks from one generation to the next it's an understandable reaction to be worried about battery life. Even though the OnePlus 2 on Marshmallow was very much a fantastic performer in this respect, a drop from 3300 mAh to the 3000 mAh non-removable battery in the OnePlus 3 isn't the direction most of us wanted to see the phone go. But of course, there's more to battery life than just the size of the cell inside.
Through a combination of factors — not the least of which is a more efficient Snapdragon 820 processor and AMOLED screen — the OnePlus 3 continues to have great battery life just like its predecessor. My average day with the phone, which includes plenty of social networking, dozens of photos, podcast listening, emails and all sorts of typical smartphone uses, left me with about 25% battery after 15 hours. I used the OnePlus 3 just as I would any other phone, with near-max brightness, automatic syncing in every app, full location services and everything else turned on fully — I don't punish the phone, but I don't back off on its capabilities in order to extend battery life.
A 10% decrease in battery size didn't lead to a big drop in battery life.
On a more relaxed day, such as this Sunday that I'm sitting writing this review, at 8:45 p.m. over 12 hours after I unplugged the phone I'm sitting at 58% battery remaining. With several opportunities to take advantage of Marshmallow's battery-saving Doze mode and quite a long time on Wi-Fi today it's been an absolute battery champ.
After over a week of using the phone exclusively I only had a single day in which I needed to charge before going to bed at night — a day that I traveled to San Francisco that included hours of podcast listening, four hours of screen-on time and some hotspotting thrown in for good measure. I still made it from 7 a.m. to about 8 p.m. when I decided to plug in at 10% battery. That's a situation in which normally I'd be plugging in my Nexus 6P while I was on the plane in the late morning and again looking for a charger in the afternoon.
If you end up getting into a situation where battery is draining faster than you'd like, the OnePlus 3 still includes Marshmallow's stock battery saver mode, which will cut back on location services, background data and performance in order to eke out some extra life. You can toggle it on manually, or have it come on automatically at 15% or 5%.
Though most of us have been using some sort of quick charging feature on phones for the past few years, OnePlus is for the first time shipping a phone that offers its own quick charging capabilities. Rather than stick with the most widely accepted standard, Qualcomm's Quick Charge (and its compatible derivatives from the likes of Samsung, Motorola and ASUS, among others), OnePlus has what it calls "Dash Charge" in the OnePlus 2. The idea is that you can still get that quick boost even while you're continuing to use the phone.
The only potential downside here is incompatibility with existing Quick Charge plugs.
A Dash Charge wall plug is included in the OnePlus 3's box (as it should be), and it's rated for 5V/4A, which is higher amperage than most other chargers out there (though the new Moto Z Force Droid Edition will ship with a massive 6V/5A charger).
When you plug in this charger to a OnePlus 3, it can add 60% to the battery in just 30 minutes (and then slows down a bit thereafter), which is a pretty impressive feat. OnePlus says that most of the smarts are in the charger itself, rather than on the phone's end, which purportedly helps with heat management so much that charging speeds don't need to be throttled back even when you're playing a game on the phone. The phone also charges just fine off of any other charger, but you won't get the Dash Charge speeds with a Quick Charge 3.0 charger or the 5V/3A charger from the Nexus 6P.
The Dash Charger comes with a standard USB-A to USB-C cable — with a little "Dash" logo on it — that has a slightly different design from its previous offering. The cable feels quite a bit more robust now, but unfortunately isn't flat like the last one, which I was particularly fond of — it also doesn't have a reversible plug on the USB-A end. Bummer.
You can also pick up a Dash Charge car charger for $30, which is small and offers a single USB output that can charge your OnePlus 3 as fast as the wall plug version. Additional Dash Charge wall chargers will set you back $20, and extra new USB-C cables are $15 each from OnePlus.
The OnePlus 3's fingerprint sensor, recessed a bit from the front glass underneath the screen, has worked just as well for me as the sensor on the OnePlus 2, Galaxy S7 or Nexus 6P. The sensor is always active so you can put your finger on the fingerprint sensor when the phone is sleeping and immediately unlock to the home screen. And of course with Marshmallow on the phone, any app that supports the operating system's standard fingerprint APIs can be unlocked with a quick tap of the sensor.
I'm not the biggest fan of having the sensor underneath the screen as opposed to in the middle of the back of the phone, but just like Samsung with its Galaxy phones' fingerprint sensors you can't blame OnePlus for keeping the positioning consistent from the OnePlus 2 to the next phone.
Image source: http://www.androidcentral.com/oneplus-3