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OnePlus 3 review: A fantastic midprice phone

You just don't see cheap phones with this combination of price, polish and prime-time specs.

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Lynn La
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Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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8 min read

In June, the OnePlus 3 redefined the boundaries of what a midrange phone could deliver. For $399 or £309 (about AU$590), you get a top-of-the-line processor, a nimble 16-megapixel camera, and a long-lasting battery. You also get a speedy performance that rivals much more expensive Android champs such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5. Its greatest limitation is that it supports only carriers using GSM technology; that's everyone in the UK and Australia, but only AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, which excludes Verizon and Sprint customers.

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8.9

OnePlus 3

The Good

The OnePlus 3's sharp camera, powerful processor and enduring, quick-charging battery make a knockout combo when you factor in its low price.

The Bad

The camera has a distinct bulge. Power users may be disappointed that the phone doesn't have a swappable battery or expandable storage.

The Bottom Line

At $400, the OnePlus 3 is the best budget Android phone you can buy, with a premium look and feel, and performance fast enough to go head-to-head with any high-end handset on the market.

Fall 2016 update

The landscape shifted again in August, however, with the introduction of the Asus ZenFone 3 and Huawei Honor 8. The ZenFone 3 draws on aesthetic elements of the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S but delivers midrange specs at a very competitive price point. Starting at $249 for the 32GB model (£170 or AU$350), it's a simply a fantastic deal -- currently limited to folks in Asia, however. The phone is scheduled to launch in the US, where it will likely be sold unlocked, and the UK in Q4 2016.

12 awesome cheap phones you can buy right now

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We've only had a preview of the Honor 8 so far, but we like the look of its glossy, reflective coating. It's similar to last year's Huawei P9, which featured two rear cameras, a slim design, plenty of power, and a vibrant screen, but the 32GB Honor 8 comes in at a much more affordable $400 compared to the P9's 2015 introductory price of $650.

In short, the 2016 midrange phone market is bursting with excellent options that include the OnePlus3, ZenFone 3, and Motorola Moto G4 (and G4 Plus). What a time to be alive for phone-loving penny-pinchers.

Editors' note: The original OnePlus 3 review, published in June 2016, follows.

Last year, my idea of a fantastic "high-end" budget phone was something like the Google Nexus 5X -- a bit smaller than your usual flagship with a decent-but-not-mindblowing camera and a processor that, while not at the top of the class, still made gameplay and movie streaming fun. But for less than $400, that was about the best you could get.

The OnePlus 3 changes everything. For $399 or £309 (which converts to about AU$590), you get a top-of-the-line processor, a nimble 16-megapixel camera and a long-lasting battery. You also get a speedy performance that rivals reigning (and more expensive) Android champs such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5.

Like all OnePlus phones, the handset only works with carriers using GSM technology. That's everyone in the UK and Australia, but in the US that means AT&T and T-Mobile (it won't be compatible with Verizon and Sprint users, unfortunately). But unlike previous launches, you won't have to wait for an invitation to get your hands on it. OnePlus is releasing it to the masses right at launch and you can order it from the OnePlus website. This is great news for anyone in the market for a new handset, because the OnePlus 3 hits enough high marks to be your next phone.

Design: High-class metal looks

With a new aluminum unibody design, the OnePlus 3 looks better than all of OnePlus' past devices (which either had a plastic or glass backing). It still looks similar to the HTC 10 and other smartphones, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing -- after all, the 10 is a pretty handsome phone. If you're not into the metal look of this slim and attractive device, OnePlus offers snap-on covers made of wood, bamboo and other materials.

On the right edge is OnePlus' familiar toggle. You can not only slide this to turn notifications on and off, but also to turn on priority notifications. Below the display, the home button doubles as a fingerprint sensor, and on the bottom edge are the speaker, headphone jack and USB Type-C port for charging.

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With an aluminum-clad body, the OnePlus 3 features polished looks.

James Martin/CNET

On the back is the rear camera, which bulges outward from the surface of the handset. Many well-known phones do this too, including the iPhone 6S. It doesn't damage the camera or hinder your use of it, but OnePlus 3's camera bulge is quite thick and a bit unseemly.

Despite all that, there's much to like about the phone. The 5.5-inch, 1080p resolution display is bright and sharp, and I like the way its edges smoothly curve down into the bezel. There are also chamfered details around the display and charging port, which catch and reflect light in interesting ways.

All in all, the OnePlus 3 has a truly elevated aesthetic compared to its predecessors, and it's good-looking enough to beat most budget phones. Not only does it have premium specs on the inside, but with its aluminum construction and subtle detailing, it now flaunts a premium exterior to match.

Software and other features: Keeping it clean and simple

The device features OnePlus' own OxygenOS interface that runs on top of Google Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow (though it will be able to updated to Android N at a later date). Aside from a few choice Google services, the handset barely has any pre-installed (read: potentially annoying and unneeded) apps. And you can download and install anything you're missing from the Google Play Store.

You'll also get OnePlus' signature Shelf feature. Shelf is an extra homepage that gives you access to your recent apps, favorite contacts and any other widgets you want to add. I found it can be useful when I wanted to quickly check email or jot down a to-do item, but if you're not a fan you can disable it.

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OnePlus' signature Shelf home page (left), and the various ways you can customize the homescreen (right).

Lynn La/CNET

With OxygenOS, there's plenty of room for you to customize the interface. You can choose different accent colors for the menu items and change the color of the LED notifications light. You can also load your own icon packs and turn on on-screen control buttons. There are also plenty of gesture controls, such as double tapping to wake up the screen (a feature included on many LG phones), or drawing an O shape to launch the camera.

One of my favorite goodies is Night mode, which will tint the display to reduce eye strain when you look at the screen in the dark. This feature just arrived natively to Android N and was introduced in iOS 9 as Night Shift. And lastly, the OnePlus 3 will see the return of the Near Field Communication chip (it was missing from the last two OnePlus flagships). These days, NFC is considered a standard among smartphones, and it allows them to communicate wirelessly with other NFC-enabled objects -- it's critical for mobile payment services such as Android Pay.

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Watch this: How to set up the OnePlus 3's look and feel
How to set up the OnePlus 3's look and feel
1:46

Camera: Capture great photos without really trying

Photo quality on the device's 16-megapixel camera was solid, and I was impressed by how bright and clear images turned out. In well-lit situations, colors were true-to-life (especially the white hues), and objects were sharp and in focus. In dimmer settings or environments with tricky lighting, photos still turned out clear and evenly exposed. Check out the picture quality of the sample photos over the page. And be sure to click on each image to see it at its full resolution.

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The water fountain in this outdoor image is in focus and the buildings and sky in the background are clear too.

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In this tricky photo of the San Francisco MOMA sunroof and skybridge, you can see the detailing of the sky outside as well as the silhouette of the hanging mobile.

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The flowers are bright and vibrant and the detailing of the petals are sharp in this closeup shot.

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In this dim indoor shot, the different light sources are exposed well and you can still make out the objects and people in the picture.

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As for the camera itself, it operated smoothly and I didn't notice any lag or delay with the shutter. OnePlus kept the interface super simple, and I appreciated the minimalistic, intuitive interface. The camera has automatic High Dynamic Range shooting, which will allow the camera to decide when it's best to capture an HDR image. There's also an HD Mode you can turn on, which improves a picture's clarity and sharpness. (Note: I turned off both of these settings in the photos above.)

If you want more control over your photos, manual shooting mode lets you configure things like ISO levels and white balance. But you can also shoot in raw for more editing control after you've taken the picture. When it comes to video, the camera has 4K video, as well as time-lapse and slow-motion movies.

Hardware and performance: A (literally) cool speed demon

I've reviewed several phones that have the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor as the OnePlus 3. All of them operated so quickly and smoothly that it was hard to discern with the naked eye if any of them were definitively "faster" than all the others. But when I used the OnePlus, I was able to tell that things really did operate speedily. (It's important to note that the device also has 6GB of RAM, compared to the 3 or 4GB you usually get with high-end handsets.) Tasks like launching Google Now, calling up the keyboard and opening the app drawer were noticeably swift. Even during the setup process, when it populated the homescreen with my previous apps, rebooted or registered my fingerprints, it was all done quickly and seamlessly.

The phone didn't heat up much when running benchmarks, either. With other handsets I tested, it's common for them to feel warm to the touch after a run. But the OnePlus 3 managed to stay quite cool during the process and it didn't warm up during charging (more on that later). This means that its processor and battery aren't working overtime to perform the task at hand, giving you a more efficient device.

Compared to its competition, the OnePlus 3 trounced every one of the top flagships on all our tests, including both Geekbench 3 tests and 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited. The OnePlus 3 also edged out the reigning Android handset, the Galaxy S7.

OnePlus 3 Benchmark Scores

OnePlus 3 2407 5640 30337Samsung Galaxy S7 2323 5429 29031LG G5 2313 5345 27758HTC 10 2316 5014 27724Google Nexus 6P 1286 4313 24224
  • Geekbench 3 Single-Core
  • Geekbench 3 Multi-Core
  • 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Battery life

The phone has a 3,000mAh non-removable battery that easily lasts the workday with mild to high usage. During our lab test for continuous video playback (on Airplane mode), it lasted an average of 14 hours and 17 minutes, which is much longer than nearly all its competitors (though it doesn't beat the Galaxy S7's time of 16 hours).

In addition, the device has Dash Charging, which is a charging technology trademarked by OnePlus (and is different than the Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 technology you hear from other marquee handsets). It basically means that the battery charges super quick, but doesn't overheat. When I tested it out, the phone shot up from 0 to 65 percent after 30 minutes and 96 percent after an hour. The OnePlus 3 also stayed relatively cool during the charging process. A full charge took about 1 hour 15 minutes, which is pretty fast considering other phones with QuickCharge 3.0 take about 1.5 to 2 hours to fully charge.

OnePlus 3 specs comparison chart

OnePlus 3Samsung Galaxy S7LG G5HTC 10Google Nexus 6P
Display size, resolution 5.5 inches; 1,920x1,080p pixels5.1 inches; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.3 inches, 2,560x1,440 pixels5.2 inches; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.7 inches; 2,560x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 401ppi576ppi554ppi564ppi515ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.01x2.94x0.29 inches5.6x2.7x0.3 inches5.88x2.90x0.30 inches5.7x2.8x0.35 inches6.3x3.1x0.28 inches
Dimensions (Millimeters) 152.7x74.7x7.35 mm142.4x69.6x7.9 mm149.4x73.9x7.7 mm145.9x71.9x9 mm159x78x7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.57 oz (158g)5.4 oz (152g)5.61 oz (159g)5.7 oz (161g)6.3 oz (178g)
Mobile software Android 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow
Camera 16-megapixel12-megapixel16-megapixel, 8-megapixel wide12-megapixel12.3-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel5-megapixel8-megapixel5-megapixel8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapgradon 820 processor2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202GHz eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
Storage 64GB32GB, 64GB (varies by region)32GB32GB, 64GB (varies by region)32GB, 64GB, 128GB
RAM 6GB4GB4GB4GB3GB
Expandable storage None200GB2TB2TBNone
Battery 3,000mAh (nonremovable)3,000mAh (nonremovable)2,800mAh (removable)3,000mAh battery (nonremovable)3,450mAh (nonremovable)
Fingerprint sensor Home buttonHome buttonBack coverHome buttonBack cover
Connector USB-CMicro-USBUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Special features Notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash ChargingWater resistantPull-out battery, two rear camerasOIS on front-facing camera, BoomSoundPure Google Android OS
Price off-contract (USD) $399AT&T: $695, Sprint: $650, T-Mobile: $670, Verizon: $672, U.S. Cellular: $672AT&T: $689, Sprint: $576, T-Mobile: $630, Verizon: $624, U.S. Cellular: $636$699$499 (32GB), $549 (64GB), $649 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £309£569£539£569£449 (32GB), £499 (64GB), £579 (128GB)
Price (AUD) Converts to AU$590AU$1,149AU$1,099AU$1,099AU$899 (32GB), AU$999 (64GB), AU$1,099 (128GB)

OnePlus You

I try to remain skeptical of anything that garners as much hype as the OnePlus phones do. Following its first two flagships, OnePlus cultivated a loyal fanbase. But lo and behold, the OnePlus 3 lives up to its promise.

True, it won't satisfy everybody. It won't work with carriers using CDMA technology, and it isn't water resistant like the Galaxy S7 and certain Sony Xperia and Motorola Moto handsets. Power users won't like its lack of a removable battery or expandable storage either. And because it isn't a Nexus, you won't get OS updates right when they're available from Google. But if these things aren't a top priority for you, the OnePlus 3 should be your next phone.

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If you're into VR, OnePlus also released a headset in conjunction with the flagship launch.

James Martin/CNET

Many of the problems we saw with OnePlus handsets in the past have been dealt with -- the annoying invite-only system is gone, the camera is solid and the software is stable. Even its limited use with certain 4G LTE bands (which was a problem with the OnePlus One and the mid-tier OnePlus X) has been solved.

What's left is an amazing and affordable device. At $399 or £309 (which converts to about AU$590), you'll get serious hardware specs that are comparable, if not better, than other high-end Androids that run you $100 more at full price. And they're all neatly wrapped inside an attractive design. When there's this much talk about a product, the manufacturer has to deliver something outstanding. In this case, OnePlus definitely did.

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8.9

OnePlus 3

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 9Camera 8Battery 9
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