OnePlus 3 review: A fantastic midprice phone

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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.

8.9 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 9

Fall 2016 update

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Now playing: Watch this: How to set up the OnePlus 3's look and feel

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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