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OnePlus 3 Review: A premium smartphone at a not-so premium price

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
The OnePlus 3 is a powerful smartphone with a low price.

If you’re going to buy a new smartphone like the iPhone 6s off-contract, you’re going to have to shell out at least $650, $750 if you go for the larger 6s Plus. Want Samsung's Galaxy S7? That’ll set you back $670. But that’s the price you pay when you want a high-end smartphone, right? Not exactly.

The OnePlus 3, developed by Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus, is designed to be every bit as powerful and capable as Apple and Samsung’s offerings for hundreds less. And at $400, the handset is a steal as far as high-end phones go. And OnePlus knows it.

The company calls its phones “flagship killers” because they include everything that makes Apple’s and Samsung’s phones great without the price tag. And you know what? It’s true.

Design and style

Wrapped in an aluminum unibody, the OnePlus 3 looks and feels just as premium as Apple’s iPhone 6s and Samsung’s Galaxy S7 are. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to build a new smartphone that doesn’t look at least a little similar to its competitors. After all, there are only so many ways you can make a rectangular slab with a home button.

The OnePlus 3 and iPhone 6s Plus look very similar.

But the 5.5-inch OnePlus 3 looks a lot like the 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus, especially along its bottom edge. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting that the 3 doesn't look all that unique. If you're looking for a most distinct-looking handset, you can pick up one of OnePlus’ slick wood cases for the 3; I’m particularly fond of the bamboo case.

The OnePlus 3's bottom edge is nearly identical to the iPhone 6s Plus'.

Despite its resemblance to the iPhone, the OnePlus 3 is both smaller and lighter than Apple’s handset. The 3 measures 6.0 x 2.9 x 0.29 inches and weighs 5.6 ounces, while the iPhone 6s Plus measures 6.2 x 3.1 x 0.29 inches and weighs 6.8 ounces. Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the company’s flagship, comes with a 5.1-inch display, so it’s naturally smaller and lighter than both the OnePlus 3 and 6s Plus.

Big screen

The One Plus 3’s 5.5-inch AMOLED (active matrix of organic light-emitting diodes) display is an absolute stunner. It’s big, bold and beautiful. In my experience the Samsung Galaxy S7’s 5.1-inch, Super AMOLED display is the standard-bearer for smartphone displays. Colors viewed on the handset are incredibly vibrant and blacks are endlessly deep. But the OnePlus 3 gives Samsung’s handset a run for its money.

Colors look every bit as vivid on the 3 as they do on the S7 and whites are even a touch brighter. That said, blacks viewed on the S7 are a hair deeper than those viewed on the OnePlus 3.

Where the handset falls a bit short is its screen resolution. At 1920 x 1080 pixels, the OnePlus 3’s panel is sharp enough for normal use, but isn’t fine enough for using the handset as a virtual reality display. That’s because when you put your phone close to your eyes, a 1080p screen can look pixilated. And considering the fact that OnePlus sent me a VR headset with my review unit, the company clearly wants you to use the 3 as a VR display.

Samsung’s big-screen offering, the Galaxy Note 5, comes with a 5.7-inch screen with a 2560 x 1440 resolution, which helps ensure the image is relatively sharp when you use the headset with Samsung’s Gear VR headset.

Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus, like the OnePlus 3 has a 5.5-inch, 1920 x 1080 resolution screen, but Apple doesn’t expect you to use its handset as a VR display.

Compelling camera

OnePlus equipped the 3 with a 16-megapixel rear camera and it’s certainly a solid shooter. For my money, Samsung’s Galaxy S7 has the best camera of any smartphone and the OnePlus 3 easily matches it in terms of details. Colors captured with the camera, on the other hand, left something to be desired.

The OnePlus 3 doesn't capture colors as vividly as the Galaxy S7.

A shot of a pride flag with the Yahoo logo, for example, offered brighter whites and beautiful colors. The OnePlus 3’s shots, however, were noticeably duller. I saw a similar effect when taking a picture of the side of a police car. The blue of the NYPD logo and its white backdrop were incredibly bright and vibrant in the image take when the Galaxy S7, while the OnePlus 3’s shot was just a bit more muted.

The OnePlus 3 is unable to capture low-light photos as well as the S7.

The difference between low-light photos taken with the Galaxy S7 and OnePlus 3 wasn’t even close, though. The S7 was the easy winner, offering brighter shots without the flash and more accurate images with the flash on.

Breathing life into Android

One of the big reasons OnePlus is so popular among Android fans is that it runs a more or less unaltered version of Google’s mobile operating system. That's because OnePlus' Oxygen OS, a modified version of Android Marshmallow, makes few visual changes to Android, while adding features you can choose to either use or ignore.

The OnePlus 3 runs a lightly modified version of Android called Oxygen.

For example, you can enable gestures that let you double tap the phone’s display to wake up the phone. Or you can draw an “O” on the screen when it’s asleep to launch the camera app. Similarly, you can swap between using either on-screen or physical Android Back and Recent Apps buttons. You can even change the color the phone’s LED notification light flashes when you receive a notification.

Beefy performance

The idea behind the OnePlus brand is to provide consumers with a high-powered smartphone without breaking the bank. And that’s exactly what the OnePlus 3 has to offer.

Inside the handset includes a high-end processor and a ridiculous 6GB of RAM. This thing flies so fast it might as well have retractable wings. Even the speed at which the fingerprint sensor recognizes my print is impressive.

In addition to its speedy performance, the OnePlus 3 gets 64GB of onboard storage. To get that on an iPhone 6s you’d have to spend $750. An iPhone 6s Plus, meanwhile will cost $850.

Unfortunately, the OnePlus 3 doesn’t offer expandable storage, which means once you hit that 64GB cap — and that’s easily doable for some people — you’re going to have to rely on cloud storage. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, on the other hand, have just 32GB of onboard storage, but offer expandable storage via their microSD card slots. So once you fill those 32GB, you can pop in a microSD card and you’re set.

In terms of battery life, the OnePlus 3 and its 3,000-mAh battery pack will last all day. Once you do run out of power though, you can use the included Dash Charger, which can recharge 60% of the phone’s battery in just 30 minutes. That’s pretty impressive.

It’s important to note, though, that the handset uses a newer USB-C connector rather than an older microUSB connector, so you won’t be able to use the cable from your old phone on the OnePlus.

Should you buy it?

Okay, so the OnePlus 3 has a beautiful screen, attractive design, quality camera, and powerful performance. But what makes the handset so appealing is its price.

At just $400 off-contract, the OnePlus 3 is less expensive than Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Note 5, as well as Apple’s 6s and 6s Plus, not to mention the older iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. That’s a heck of a good price for such a powerful smartphone.

There’s just one major problem with the handset: It won’t work with Verizon or Sprint, because it doesn’t support CDMA cellular networks. That means you’ll only be able to use the OnePlus 3 with either AT&T or T-Mobile. That’s a huge letdown for folks like me who are already Verizon or Sprint customers and want to stay with their provider.

But if you’re interested in the OnePlus 3 and are an AT&T or T-Mobile customer, you really can’t go wrong.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.