Buying an affordable phone isn’t like it used to be. A few years ago, there were only one or two genuinely good options, and even then these devices made big sacrifices to achieve a budget price. Thanks to the unstoppable march of progress, however, we’re at a point where every phone, expensive or not, is good. You no longer need to spend $700-$800 to put a decent computer in your pocket.
While OnePlus didn’t spark the budget phone trend, the Chinese startup played a big part in taking it mainstream. Two years ago, the OnePlus One defied logic by combining high-end specs with a wallet-friendly price. It was a bonafide hit and earned our top phone honors for 2014. The company then followed that up with the OnePlus 2, and again with an even cheaper OnePlus X—both very decent handsets.
Now, it’s 2016 and you don’t have to look hard to find a good, cheap phone. The market is no longer so much a race to the top as it is a race to be affordable; nobody is going to catch Apple and Samsung, but there’s still plenty of business to go around. With so much competition rising up to the challenge, where does that leave the OnePlus 3?
At $399, the “Flagship Killer” offers a compelling argument as the cheap phone to beat; it has bonkers specs, a gorgeous design, and software that’s silky smooth. Oh, and there’s no longer a confusing invite system, which means you can buy one right now. Like, right now, or maybe later at 4 a.m. (We get excited about the weirdest things.)
With the OnePlus 3, OnePlus has atoned for its past sins—NFC is back; the camera is good—creating a phone that’s damn near perfect.
Let’s just address this up front: The OnePlus 3 bears a striking resemblance to phones made by HTC, notably the One M8 and One M9. Without the requisite logos, you’d have a hard time telling them apart. Sure, it would have been great to see OnePlus find its own personality as it did with the sandstone beauties of 2014 and 2015. But there are only so many ways you can design an aluminum unibody device. Also, we brought this up with OnePlus CEO Carl Pei in a meeting, and he said the phone actually resembles the original OnePlus One in form (it does) and that the antenna bands need to exist where they do. So there’s the explanation, for what it’s worth.
Despite looking familiar, it’s still gorgeous. It’s razor-thin and features a subtle curve that makes picking it up off flat surfaces effortless. The screen features virtually no side bezels and the buttons have a nice tactile feel. The fingerprint sensor is lightning quick, and the Alert Slider is back, too, which is about the best invention known to mankind.
But the design, as pleasant as it is, isn’t why the device stands out. The OnePlus 3 is a beast, with a Snapdragon 820 chip, 6GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a 5.5-inch, 1080p Optic AMOLED display. It’s a striking and perfectly acceptable screen in a market enamored by Quad HD—blacks are deep, colors are vibrant. Never did I pine for the resolution to be unnecessarily cranked up.
Part of the reason OnePlus went with a 1080p panel is because it’s more battery efficient. With its 3000mAh cell, the OnePlus 3 is capable of getting through a full day of heavy use without breaking a sweat. (It always varies depending on your usage but in my experience battery life was pretty good.) In the event you do run out, there’s always Dash Charge to fall back on, which will replenish more than 60 percent of your battery in just 30 minutes. The nice thing is that you can continue to watch video and play games while charging, though you need to use the included USB-C cable and wall wart for this to work.
The aesthetic quality of the device seems at odds with its price; it feels premium, elegant, sturdy, and will likely elicit a few envious glances. OnePlus devices have always looked nice but the OnePlus 3 is a step above.
It’s not just beautiful on the outside, but the inside, too. The OnePlus 3 sports OxygenOS, which is based on Android 6.0.1, and it’s about as close as you can get to vanilla Android. All of Marshmallow’s best features are available, including Now on Tap and Doze, the latter of which helps preserve battery during bouts of inactivity; the former is not quite as useful as we thought but it’s improving.
What makes OxygenOS such an enjoyable fork is its myriad extras, which have been carefully crafted to enhance the Android experience in a meaningful way. There is a “dark mode,” for example, and Google search bar customization. You can also easily change system icons and configure which information shows up in the status bar. You can even swap between hardware and software buttons by toggling a simple setting.
The control afforded by OnePlus is fantastic and never feels overwhelming or unnecessary. Don’t feel like tweaking anything? You’ll still have a great experience, one that’s sleek and satisfying. Not to mention there are gesture controls, an app management function, file manager, and more. The bloat is minimal—Shelf isn’t terribly useful—while retaining the best Android has to offer.
There has been a minor controversy regarding how the device manages RAM but I found it to be a non-issue. Basically, it was found that the OnePlus 3 limits how many apps can be open in the background, making multitasking a bit of a slog. However, OnePlus revealed it does this in an effort to save on battery, so there’s a positive trade-off. I prefer better battery over having a few dozen apps open in the background. As it is, I only bounce between three or four apps throughout the day.
Note: About a week after I ceased testing OnePlus released an update claiming to offer better RAM management and more accurate display calibration. I have not used the device since the update hit, so I cannot speak to whether it not it changed the experience.
One of those apps happens to be the camera, which is much improved over previous OnePlus models. It sports a 16-megapixel Sony sensor with an f/2.0 aperture lens, along with optical image stabilization and electronic image stabilization. It also sports Phase Detection Auto-focus that, in normal parlance, means the device is capable of focusing quickly—OnePlus says in as little as 0.2 seconds.
The images produced by the OnePlus 3 are excellent—but that’s not unusual for smartphones today. Really, most high-end devices produce pictures that are good enough for sharing on social media, and the OnePlus 3 is no different. Auto-focus is fast, pictures are sharp, and the stock app is easy to use. If you want more control, there’s a manual mode and RAW image support for editing in post.
We did a more thorough analysis of the camera in the video above. During my time with the device, exposure and dynamic range were strong, while low light performance was decent. What I liked most about the images was how they didn’t exaggerate colors. Color is fairly flat, providing more flexibility in post. It’s a personal preference—many people prefer the saturated look of Galaxy S7 images—but I found the OnePlus 3’s camera to be very good.
There’s so much to like about the OnePlus 3—and I’m not the only one who’s smitten. It has a wonderful (if unimaginative) design, clean software, and powerful specs, all expertly engineered to create one of the most well-rounded devices money can buy. At $399, the value is astonishing.
It does fall short in some areas; it doesn’t support CDMA networks and you can’t expand the device’s storage. But as far as I’m concerned, these are the minor gripes. I’ve played with a lot of phones this year and the OnePlus 3 deserves to be at the top of the pile. You’d be crazy not to at least consider picking one up.
My only real concern is how quickly OnePlus can keep up with software updates. With Android Nougat on the horizon and some rumored Nexus powerhouses in the pipeline, the OnePlus 3 will soon be up against even tougher competition. For now, however, the device is currently the best budget options on the market.