Android phones 2016

Review: OnePlus 3 is a flagship phone for careful spenders

This Android smartphone offers great performance and high-end features for far less than its competitors.

Android phones 2016

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The OnePlus 3 smartphone raises two difficult questions: Just what is a flagship product? And why should you care?

Flagship phones -- the ones with the fastest processors, best screens and slimmest profiles -- tend to cost about $800 and often still tie you to carriers. The OnePlus 3 costs just $399 (vendor price) and packs tech that's as powerful as any of them. It gets you 95% of the way to a deluxe smartphone for half the price. And it comes unlocked and without bloatware.

Physically, the phone isn't particularly appealing. It comes in gray (gold is promised Real Soon Now). It's 6 x 3 x 0.25 in. and weighs 5.5 oz. That's about a quarter-inch taller and wider than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10, and the same width but a quarter-inch shorter than the iPhone 6S Plus. (Thicknesses differ by a matter of a millimeter or two.)

The OnePlus 3 weighs 5.57 oz. compared to 6.77 oz. for the iPhone 6S Plus, 5.68 for the HTC 10, and 5.36 for the Galaxy S7. It feels a little flatter and thinner than most and while it's a bit more sculpted than an iPhone, it is lacking the solidity and heft of the HTC 10.

One big difference between the OnePlus 3 and previous OnePlus models is that you can actually get one. OnePlus was legendary for a purchase process that felt like getting tickets to a secret concert by Kanye West: Would-be customers had to jump through hoops and apply online for invitations that then let people place orders -- that were slow in getting filled. Now, you can order a phone online quickly and simply through OnePlus.

For the most part, you'd be hard-pressed to find the compromises. Like most other high-end phones, the OnePlus 3 runs a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820. It's got 6GB of RAM -- half again as much as other top-of-line phones, which tend to come with 4GB -- and a hefty 64GB of onboard storage. There's certainly no sense of hesitance or slack in normal operation, and the AnTuTu Benchmark put performance at better than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and its peers. (For a comparison: the OnePlus 3 benchmarks at 140208; the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge at 134599 and the Apple iPhone 6S at 133781. Higher is better.)

The screen is a 5.5-in. AMOLED with 1080 x 1920 resolution, same as the iPhone 6S Plus but short of the 1440 x 2560 sported by the HTC 10 and the Galaxy S7. It's not gorgeous, but it'll do just fine. No claims are made about water resistance.

The phone's dual-SIM tray is along the right edge, just above the power switch. The compromise here is omitting an SD slot in favor of the second SIM tray; with 64GB of storage onboard and the phone's unlocked availability on three continents, that may be a reasonable tradeoff.

On the left edge is the volume rocker. Above that is a three-position slider switch that controls Android's notification functions: all, priority or silent, making the OnePlus 3 the only high-end phone other than the iPhone with a physical mute button. The switch is textured so you can find it quickly in your pocket or in the dark, a thoughtful touch.

There's an oval fingerprint sensor on the phone's chin. The speaker, microphone, USB-C port and headphone jack are all on the bottom edge.

The front camera is an 8MP unit that can do 1080p video at 30fps. The main rear-facing camera is a Sony 16-megapixel unit. It can shoot 4K video at 30fps, has electronic image stabilization and supports RAW images. There are several shooting modes: slow motion, time lapse, panorama and manual. The camera allows you to set separate focus and exposure points manually; I'm not sure I've seen that on other smartphone cameras. Image quality was OK, although other more expensive phones -- the Galaxy S7 jumps to mind -- do a better job in low light.

The OnePlus 3's non-replaceable battery stores 3000mAh, and it took the AnTuTu battery test about four hours to drain it -- about the same as the others I've benchmarked. The OnePlus 3 can charge to 100% in about 90 minutes using an included fast-charging cable they call Dash Charge. The bad news is that the Dash Charge uses a technology other than Qualcomm's increasingly common Quick Charge, so you need to use the OnePlus cable to charge at that speed. Without it, charging takes about an hour more -- which is still not bad. The phone doesn't do wireless charging.

OnePlus 3 has a lightweight skin over Android Marshmallow (6.0.1) called OxygenOS. It's pretty unobtrusive and has some nice add-ons. You can put the navigation buttons on the screens or on the phone's chin on either side of the fingerprint sensor, and you can swap them to account for handedness. The Home, Recent and Back buttons can all be programmed to respond to long presses or double taps. And you can have the phone wake by tapping the screen twice, open the camera from sleep by drawing an "O" with your finger on the screen, toggle the flashlight with a "V" and pause music by swiping downward with two fingers.

Bottom line

OnePlus doesn't sponsor sports leagues or run ads in the subway or on the Super Bowl or put kiosks in big-box stores. That may be a big reason that the OnePlus 3 sells for half the price of its competition. It sure isn't because there's anything wrong with the phone. Go ahead: Dare to spend less.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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