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OnePlus 3 review: price isn’t everything

OnePlus has been infamous for its “2016 flagship killer” claim about its OnePlus 2 being a “flagship killer” that didn’t have NFC. The marketing was just hype, though, since Google had plans for Android Pay (which mandated NFC). Now, OnePlus, a subsidiary of Oppo, is back with its OnePlus 3 flagship that offers high-end specs at an affordable price. OnePlus has been aiming to do this over the last 3 years, but what does this newest generation bring to the mobile space? Let’s dive in to find out.

Display

OnePlus 3 display

The OnePlus 3 features a 5.5-inch, Optic AMOLED display with a Full HD resolution of 1,920 x 1,080p (401ppi). The “optic AMOLED” marketing here is nothing other than a special term OnePlus uses for its own AMOLED panels the company purchased from none other than Samsung. “Optic” refers to the company’s own tweaking of Samsung’s AMOLED panels, though I don’t know why OnePlus would need to tweak the best display on the market. Still, when companies alter color reproductions of pixels with a given panel, the company gets the right to alter the name of the display ever so slightly. Don’t read this and assume too much, however.

Corning Gorilla Glass 4 has been applied here, which is more than what can be said for the HTC 10 (where HTC doesn’t tell us if it’s using GG4 or GG3, etc.), and matches what we’ve seen in the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge as well as the Google Pixel and Pixel XL.

OnePlus retains the 5.5-inch screen size, though finally dropping LCD panels in favor of AMOLED (which has inkier blacks and far more saturated and vibrant color output). Apart from that, you’re getting the screen size and resolution of last year’s OnePlus 2. That’s neither good nor bad, but it goes to show that OnePlus hasn’t changed the panel experience all that much.

5.5 inches is sufficient for high-end flagship screen sizes nowadays, seeing that even Google has placed a 5.5-inch AMOLED panel on the Pixel XL; Samsung has done the same on the Galaxy S7 edge. At the same time, though, the Pixel XL and S7 edge cost twice as much as what you’ll pay for the OnePlus 3: the OnePlus 3 costs $399 while the Pixel XL costs $876 and the Galaxy S7 edge costs about $800. The Galaxy Note 7 with its 5.7-inch AMOLED screen was priced at $945.

While the AMOLED panel on the OnePlus 3 is sufficient, it doesn’t have the same display quality as Samsung’s AMOLED panel and overall brightness. The OnePlus 3 doesn’t get as bright or as dim as Samsung’s AMOLED panel on the Galaxy S7 edge, which means that, out in sunlight, you’re bound to be disappointed with the Optic AMOLED panel as opposed to Samsung’s AMOLED panel. The one change I’ve noticed for which I can applaud OnePlus is that the new AMOLED panel definitely looks more vibrant in color than the washed-out LCD panels the company used for its OnePlus 1 and OnePlus 2. Let me say that OnePlus has stepped in the right direction with the AMOLED panel.

Simply put, anyone can buy an AMOLED panel – but what they do with the panel after purchasing it is another matter entirely.

Processor and RAM

OnePlus 3 processorOnePlus 3 processor and RAM

The OnePlus 3 features Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon 820 processor and 6GB of RAM, and the Snapdragon 820 processor is expected for the high-end market nowadays. The processor is nothing unusual, so, as is the case with the 5.5-inch screen size and resolution, OnePlus is trying to spec-match what its more premium rivals are offering in the hopes of making the case for its phone over the others. OnePlus went with the controversial and overheating Snapdragon 810 processor last year for the OnePlus 2 (version 2 instead of version 1), so the Snapdragon 820 is a large improvement over Qualcomm’s predecessor.

The 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM is, however, a noteworthy spec for a phone available for purchase in the American market – with this spec beating all other high-end flagships available in the US (Galaxy S7, S7 edge, Pixel, Pixel XL, HTC 10, LG G5, and even the LG V20 and Moto Z). OnePlus went with 6GB of RAM because the 6GB RAM spec has become commonplace in the Chinese market. Of course, OnePlus only sells from its OnePlus.net website, but American consumers looking for some raw specs over which to drool will find the OnePlus 3’s 6GB of RAM to be a welcome change to the typical 4GB RAM standard. It should be said, though, that lots of RAM can take a toll on battery life. Additionally, the OnePlus 3 was slower in performance and speed than the Galaxy S7 edge until the company issued an update to fix the problem – showing that optimization is its greatest problem.

So far, I haven’t noticed any cases of stutter and lag on this phone, and, with the processor and RAM, I wouldn’t expect to have any. I’m not much of a speed-fiend as many a tech reviewer may be, so I don’t have any specific instances of lag to point out. Battery life is another story, however, but that’ll be covered later on in this review. Keep reading.

Storage

OnePlus 3 storage

Last year’s OnePlus 2 featured 64GB of storage under the old eMMC standard; this year’s OnePlus 3 features 64GB but has now seen a step up to UFS 2.0 (Universal Flash Storage) instead of the old embedded multimedia chip standard of yesterday. What this means is that data read/write speeds are faster and that data is more protected (and not as sluggish) as that of eMMC, which should excite anyone using a high-end smartphone that stays concerned about speed and performance.

The 64GB storage capacity was a bragging right for OnePlus last year, particularly in the US where most flagships are announced and released with 32GB of storage (the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge, LG G5, and the HTC 10, among others, don’t have 64GB storage options available in the US via carriers in particular). LG has 64GB of storage in its V20, though, which is now stateside, and Samsung placed 64GB of storage in the Note 7 (its first high-end phone to feature 64GB for everyone without market distinction) before the product was discontinued and pulled from shelves. Google has dropped its 64GB storage offering available in the Nexus 6P last year and gone with 32/128GB storage options (similar to Apple in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus).

The OnePlus 3 doesn’t have a microSD card slot, for which I am extremely thankful. I know, the microSD card slot is coveted by many Android users, but I think that UFS storage would perform a lot better and mandate no installation process (turn on the phone, sign in to Google services, and you’re set) rather than worry about placing a small card in a slot without losing it. 64GB is more than enough for most smartphone users, though some heavy local storage proponents may want more storage. There’s always Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, Dropbox, and others, for those who want more storage. You can use private cloud storage services, too.

Currently, on my OnePlus 3, I have nearly 9GB of storage used, with 52GB remaining – so those who get the OnePlus 3 will have lots of storage available unless you use it as your daily driver. I haven’t though, so I only have 4GB of apps and 5GB of images on the device. For more specific totals, I have 41 images downloaded, 400 camera photos taken, and 290 screenshots. So, with that said, you’ve got lots of storage to spare in the OnePlus 3. This spec is nothing different, either, so OnePlus decided to fix what needed fixing and keep the old in the mix if it worked last year. There’s nothing wrong with refinements, though, and OnePlus has done that here with the change from the old storage standard to the new.

Cameras

OnePlus 3 camera

The OnePlus 3 aims to remain relevant in camera specs, too, with an 8MP front-facing camera with an f/2.0 camera aperture and a 16MP back camera with an f/2.0 aperture. These numbers are high-end specs, of course, though Samsung has OnePlus beat with the f/1.9 and f/1.7 apertures found in its high-end Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+, Galaxy Note 5, and this year’s Galaxy S7, S7 edge, and Galaxy Note 7 (now-deceased). At the same time, though, the Pixel and Pixel XL has an f/2.4 aperture for the 8MP front camera and an f/2.0 aperture for the back camera. The numbers mean that the OnePlus 3 should have better lowlight performance with the selfie camera and an equal or on par performance with the back camera. I decided to compare the OnePlus 3 with the Google Pixel XL. OnePlus photos are the first in each pair, Pixel XL photos second.

OnePlus 3 selfie photo

Pixel XL selfie photo

Taking a selfie photo of me, I can say that the Pixel XL (bottom of the above pair) I have takes a livelier photo. Sure, the OnePlus 3 photo looks more realistic and more in the moment, but it looks lifeless, dead, still and makes my complexion look rather pale. The Pixel XL does tend to oversaturate my face in the light (which is a known problem), but it takes a far more pleasing photo. Zoom quality on selfie photos is not good at all for the OnePlus 3, as I started seeing noise with slight zooming. The Pixel lets you zoom in and even see facial scars and count your eyelashes, for example.

The OnePlus 3 camera doesn’t perform terrible selfies; it’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t provide saturated colors while maintaining accurate color output as I’d expect of a high-end flagship camera. It does a good job of getting you “good enough photos,” but that just isn’t good enough when you’re claiming that your phone is as good enough as other flagships that cost twice as much.

OnePlus 3 vegetable decoration

Google Pixel XL vegetable decoration

OnePlus 3 oven mitt

Google Pixel XL oven mitt

As for back camera performance, the OnePlus 3 maintains color fidelity, while the Pixel XL provides more lighting but sometimes washes out darker colors and makes them lighter. Orange carrots in a frame decoration are even lighter with the Pixel XL (second photo), and red coloring on apples turns “pink” with the Pixel XL. The Pixel washes out the pink fruit coloring on an oven mitt as well as the green leaves themselves while the OnePlus 3 maintains accurate pink shades and colors.

OnePlus 3 tree stump

Google Pixel XL tree stump

A picture of a tree stump shows that the OnePlus 3 grabs greater detail while the Pixel XL provides too much light in some places and even changes the color of the green grass. The Pixel XL also has some blurring going on at the fringes of photos. The Pixel XL also shows traces of sunlight on the old tree stump while the OnePlus 3 smooths out the sunlight to have a more lively look across the photo. The win for the tree stump will go to the OnePlus 3.

OnePlus 3 house door

Google Pixel XL house door

OnePlus 3 dirt photo

Google Pixel XL dirt photo

Taking photos of a house door, I noticed that the Pixel XL (second) takes the sunlight and bakes it across the brick while the OnePlus 3 (first) maintains the redness of the bricks and the door. Another photo of red dirt/mud shows the OnePlus 3 getting a more realistic shot with accurate colors than the blue/green grass color of some strands in the Pixel XL photo.

OnePlus 3 sky and sun

Google Pixel XL sky and sun

The OnePlus 3 photo of the sun and sky shows that the OP3 washes out the sun and sky ever so slightly and overexposes the sun, though it provides an accurate color of the scene. The Pixel XL, on the other hand, provides a more photoshopped photo that’s the result of a lot of post-image processing, but it isn’t accurate (though it does a good job of keeping the sun, and possible overexposure, in check). In a photo with a car to the right, and trees and bushes permeating the scene, the OnePlus 3 gets the more accurate colors – though the Pixel XL is indeed, a beautiful photo with its vibrant colors. The green bushes, however, have a lighter green color at the top of them (which doesn’t exist in the actual scene).

OnePlus 3 flower bouquet

Google Pixel XL flower bouquet

A bouquet of flowers taken in the kitchen is misrepresented in both photos from the OnePlus 3 and Pixel XL, but the OP3 overexposes the background daylight while the Pixel XL keeps it to a minimum. The brighter and lighter red color for flowers isn’t accurate by any means, and the “rose pink” flowers in the background aren’t realistic or accurate, but the OnePlus 3 has a haze over the photo that takes away from its color output. OnePlus has more accurate color output than the Pixel, but the background daylight “spread” over the photo takes away from what could’ve been a winner for the OnePlus 3.

Overall, the OnePlus 3’s photography abilities give a good effort, though they’re nothing home to write about. You won’t get the best lighting always, nor will you get the most detail of any smartphone camera you’ve ever used, but you will get consistently good photos that you can rely on. The camera is probably one of the better parts of the OnePlus 3 experience – but that’s not saying much.

Battery, Battery Life, and Charging

OnePlus 3 DASH charger

It is to battery performance that we now turn.

The OnePlus 3 has a 3,000mAh battery with USB Type-C charging. The battery itself, specwise, matches what we’ve seen from other flagships on the market such as the LG G5, Galaxy S7, and HTC 10. As with all specs, there is an expectation that, if the OnePlus 3 is as much a flagship killer as a phone can get, it will surpass these flagships in battery performance.

In reality, though, it doesn’t do this at all. This past week, I charged the phone up in 67 minutes (the Dash charger is the fastest I’ve ever used) and let the phone stay on WiFi all night. When I picked up the phone nearly 10 hours later, the phone’s battery had drained from 100 percent to 92 percent. I started using it around 10:30am that morning to browse the Web; by 1PM, while still web browsing, I noticed that the battery was now at 47 percent. The OnePlus 3 drained 45 percent in just 2.5 hours. Another 2.5 hours of web browsing saw the battery dwindle down to 10 percent. 30 minutes later, the device battery was under 5 percent.

I should also mention that, when using the device on Verizon’s network (the OnePlus 3 is Verizon-compatible though not authorized by Big Red), 3G web browsing will only get you about 3-4 hours at most (4 if you’re lucky) and LTE from Big Red is non-existent here. If you’re a heavy web browser then, or someone who works and lives in mobile, the OnePlus 3 is not the phone for you.

Google’s Doze Mode, a part of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, works flawlessly on the OnePlus 3. There’s very little battery drain when the device is idle (8% in 16 hours at rest), but things take a turn for the battery-guzzling when you start using the device.

OnePlus 3 DASH charger plugin

Sure, the Dash charger lets you juice up quickly, but a phone with such a massive battery should run at least 12 hours. It just doesn’t make sense to charge $399 for a smartphone that runs slightly over half a workday before it dies. With the OnePlus 3, I’d never be able to have any juice left to use the phone when I get off work from a long day. The Dash charger will let you charge from 0 to 60-65 in 30 minutes, but if I’m having to charge multiple times a day, then, as Samsung’s former commercial says, I’m a “wall hugger.” Fast-charging capabilities do not eliminate the responsibility of OnePlus or any other manufacturer to make longer-lasting batteries.

Overall, though, with light usage, the battery performance is sufficient for the day though you’ll still need to juice up at day’s end.

Some want to know about the average battery life you can expect out of this device, and I can say that you’ll likely get 15-20 hours out of it – but only 4-5 hours of screen-on time (SOT) consistently. This isn’t good, though, when you consider that I’ve only had the OnePlus 3 for 3 months (purchased it in August) and battery life and performance decline over time. The Pixel XL can get 6-7 hours SOT on average and so can the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge. The Galaxy Note 7 could get 8-10 hours SOT regularly. The LG G5 was getting 8+ hours SOT when I purchased it, so yeah, OnePlus 3 battery performance is lacking. Visit the OnePlus 3 battery stats link below to find out just what battery life I’ve gotten in my own tests.

When it comes to battery performance and stamina, the OnePlus 3 could do better – extremely so. If the OnePlus 3 is a flagship killer, it kills its own chances when it comes to battery life.

OnePlus 3 battery stats

What’s to like about the OnePlus 3

OnePlus 3 alert slider and volume rocker

This is a section where I give my thoughts on what I like and what I don’t. First, let’s start with what I like about the OnePlus 3.

I like the Alert Slider switch that lets you turn off the majority of notifications (except for those priority ones that are urgent). I like the icon packs that let you edit and change up the icons on apps on your device (you can change up the icon for the Google Play Store, and even Gmail, among others). The icon packs are handy when it comes to using a device such as the OP3 that doesn’t have a theme store like HTC or Samsung. Next, OnePlus keeps the volume rocker and power button on different sides of the device – an excellent move for an an intuitive user experience. I do not like the Pixel XL’s volume and power buttons that are on the same side (not every user has the phone in his or her right hand).

Next, I like the fact that the OnePlus 3 is Verizon-compatible right out of the box. Few unlocked phones from China are, and OnePlus is to be commended for this. Being a Verizon customer, I was able to take my SIM out of my Galaxy S7 edge and place it in the OP3 and start making phone calls and talking right away. The 64GB of base storage is another win in my book, and I’d like to see OEMs offer this for all their flagships, not just some of them (LG and Samsung, I’d like 64GB minimum storage in the LG G6 and Galaxy S8, please?).

The Dash fast charger is excellent and one of the best in the business, and it is in the area of fast charging that OnePlus has something to be proud of in the OnePlus 3. You can get nearly two-thirds battery life back in just 30 minutes, and an entire charge recovered in a little over an hour. Next, there are the software customizations that let you add gestures such as “double tap to wake,” “toggle flashlight,” “open camera,” and “music control,” change the software navigation buttons (place the back key on the left side instead of the right, if you’d like), along with long presses and double taps that add functionality to your experience alongside of a dark mode that lets you eliminate the white spacing from your battery stats and phone settings.

I also like the “Active Display” feature that brings the time up while the screen is off to signal to you that you have a new notification or two (or several). It’s not the Always On Display of the Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge, and LG G5, but it is a nice, subtle touch to the black screen. I wish OnePlus had brought an Always On Display (AOD) to the OnePlus 3, however.

These little extras are not beloved by everyone, but they are by me. I love the fact that OnePlus hasn’t decided to settle on vanilla Android and call it a day. Not everyone wants a bland Android experience, and OnePlus does sweeten the deal some with gestures and button customizations and icon packs that give your experience a little “flavor.”

And finally, I like the fact that OnePlus offers a home button with an embedded fingerprint sensor – even if the button is glued to the panel and isn’t as clicky as Samsung’s on the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge.

What’s not to like about the OnePlus 3 

OnePlus 3 phone stands up

Yes, with commendations always come criticism. That’s the case here as well, seeing that I’ve had a good 3 months to assess what this phone offers and what I find lacking. So, without further ado, here goes.

First, the design is trite and unoriginal. Yes, I understand that there’s only so much that can be done with a phone, but the OnePlus 3 looks like a Galaxy Note panel from the front and an HTC 10 from the back. It’s the most common, overused design layout of any phone I’ve seen. I mean, for $399, I just shouldn’t get a design that looks as if it wasn’t factored into the price of this handset. $400 is still not cheap to most folks, nor is it as budget-friendly as OnePlus deems it to be.

Next, the battery life of the OnePlus 3 isn’t flagship-worthy. Battery life isn’t everything, and even flagship batteries have issues, but to drain the battery 92% in 5.5 hours as I did is nothing short of terrible. The OnePlus 3 is not a phone with stamina, and that’s disconcerting for anyone who buys into the hype surrounding the OnePlus 3 and believes it provides a comparable experience to other flagships on the market. It has the specs to match but its 3,000mAh battery and AMOLED panel don’t seem to provide anything in the way of a significant rivalry to other phones with the same specs.

The home button of the device is also nullified by its existence because it’s a home button that isn’t clicky. HTC placed a fingerprint sensor on the HTC 10 that works like a home button but looks like a sensor. OnePlus has added a home button (which I applaud) but glues it to the glass panel and only allows it to be used as you would a fingerprint sensor. I don’t see the use or reason behind implementing a home button that acts as a fingerprint sensor instead. A home button is a home button and should act as such; if OnePlus doesn’t want the home button to act as a home button, my suggestion is to make a fingerprint sensor next year instead.

My final thoughts

OnePlus 3 display in sun

I’ve spent a lot of time covering what you’re getting in the OnePlus 3, but I think something should be said about the price and offering.

It has been said that the OnePlus 3’s $399 price tag is fantastic for what you’re getting, but I disagree. Sure, the OP3 has great high-end specs for half the price, but how much do consumers believe these specs really cost, anyway? In most high-end smartphones, the processor (SoC) and display panels cost more than most everything else (even fingerprint scanners and home buttons are relatively cheap), so it’s not as if the specs alone cost $700 or $800. The price tag reflects not only specs but also labor, marketing costs, and research and development (R&D). This is why Samsung can charge $700 and $800 for its devices and do so well within reason.

So, in taking this into account with the OnePlus 3, we can see that the price itself isn’t fantastic; instead, it’s purely utilitarian. The OnePlus 3 costs $399 because 1) the design is trite and unoriginal, 2) the build quality is nothing new we haven’t seen before, 3) the cameras aren’t all that impressive and rather underwhelming, 4) the 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM doesn’t seem to help battery life, and so on. The Dash fast charging and software customizations could prove to be big for the company, but that’s about all you’ll find impressive about the OnePlus 3 (if even that).

With the OnePlus One, OnePlus CEO Peter Lau said that his company was selling the phone at cost, meaning that OnePlus was making zero profit from the first device. The OnePlus 1 was priced at $249 and the OnePlus 2 at $299, but the OnePlus 3 has now been priced at $399. The OnePlus 3T, announced this month, is now priced at $439 (64GB) and $479 (128GB). In other words, OnePlus is now doing all it can to make money off its “flagship killer” – even raising the price of its flagship every year to do so. And I have a feeling that the OnePlus 4 headed to market in 2017 will be at least $439 (the price of the 3T) if not higher.

At the end of the day, the budget-friendly market only benefits the consumer, not companies looking to grow in financial profit. OnePlus wants to benefit the consumer, but not to the point where the company continues to sell “at cost.” Funny, but doesn’t this mindset match what every major smartphone OEM thinks? After two years, OnePlus, claiming to disrupt the establishment, is now becoming part of the same establishment it said it would disrupt. This isn’t a surprise to me, but it may be a surprise to you.

I know, some would say that you can’t beat what you’re getting for $399, but I don’t think that affordable pricing is an excuse to live with a smartphone that doesn’t cut it. If the OnePlus 3 is a flagship, then it must be tested in every area. No one can expect the world for $399, and some will be content with what they get, but why write off its weaknesses because “it’s $399”? There are phones out there that are less than $100; why spend another $299 if you can get the best specs for $100?

Price isn’t everything. That, and specs, aren’t enough for the smartphone race anymore because so many smartphones have premium specs nowadays. And yet, OnePlus seems to sell “spec bait” in the OnePlus 3. It is truly the Spec-Bait Phone: designed to get you drooling over specs and the price so much that you forget about software R&D, originality, and cutting-edge tech like wireless charging, fast wireless charging, water and dust resistance, Always On Display (AOD), iris scanners, a Theme Store, and battery-saving modes. These are things that cost money, and OnePlus has been making so little of it that customer choice on price has forced its hand.

And yet, when you’re calling your phone lineup “the flagship killer,” you better make sure it can square against the best. Unfortunately, the OnePlus 3 does not. It’s a “meh” experience, slightly better than vanilla Android devices like the Pixel phones in software but lacking behind them and non-vanilla Android phones in battery life, camera performance, and wireless charging (the Samsung “Galaxies”), among other things. This is spec-baiting at its finest, a phone that offers you so much from afar but delivers an ordinary, normal experience once you own it. The specs are designed to attract you to a phone that you would never even consider otherwise.

The OnePlus 3 sold me on why other companies offer the same specs, but it also sold me on the experience of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 edge (and S7), too. For $400 more, I’m getting the edge functionality, fast wireless charging, AOD, the best AMOLED panel, water and dust resistance, MST technology for mobile payments, and more – things that are worth the extra $400. Yes, I’m not against paying premium for the best, but the OnePlus 3 was not designed for me but for those who’re too blinded by the price to see the tradeoffs from afar.

Deidre Richardson (dual B.A., History and Music, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) stumbled upon tech a little later in life than expected. After picking up her first smartphone (the Galaxy S3), the rest is history. She currently writes for SamMobile, the largest Samsung fan site worldwide, as well as smartwatch site smartwatch.me.

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