Reviews

OnePlus 3 Review

OnePlus 3 Review

The OnePlus 3 is the company’s third flagship and the fourth phone since it set up shop back in 2014. Their first phone, the OnePlus One, was launched to much fanfare. The company never really invested in proper advertising but bombarded the social media with various marketing material that often talked less about the actual product and focused more on putting the competition down. This, followed with further, less than tasteful attempts at promoting the phone and the now infamous invite system, meant that the company was already off on a wrong foot for a lot of people.

The OnePlus One was followed by the aptly named OnePlus 2, which came with the tagline ‘2016 Flagship Killer’. This was for a phone that came out in 2015, which meant OnePlus had clearly not lost its hubris in the one year since its inception. Unfortunately for the company, the hubris was completely misplaced, with the products often failing to match the lofty expectations set by the company. Plagued with software issues and fledgling customer service, the company was struggling to meet its own motto of ‘Never Settle’.

Come 2016 and suddenly everything seems to have changed. The OnePlus 3 launched with an uncharacteristically non-existent brouhaha. There was no competition bashing, no weird contests, no tall claims. Best of all, there was no invite system this time, either. It seems the company was doing everything right, and this was even before anyone got their hands on the phone. Was this change for the better going to reflect in the product as well? As it turned out, it was. 

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Design

Not gonna lie, I have been a bit of a fan of OnePlus designs. Look at the OnePlus One, the OnePlus 2, and my personal favorite, the OnePlus X. There is simplicity and elegance in the design that is often lacking in Chinese products that seem to be trying just a little bit too hard.

The OnePlus 3 does not score too high in the originality department. The back of the phone has been compared to HTC designs by some people. While I can see where they are coming from, for me it is more of a passing resemblance rather than a straight-up rip-off.

But being compared to HTC is far from a bad thing. The Taiwanese manufacturer has consistently given us some of the best looking phones on the market and OnePlus comes close to matching that greatness. The back of the phone is really well-made and one of the best bits of the phone. The whole thing is one solid piece of aluminum that has been carved quite tastefully. The mostly flat back has gentle curves around the sides that end abruptly in a crease that is sharp enough to provide a reliable grip in hand but not enough to dig in. The sides are flattened and further help improve the grip. The top and bottom are gently curved towards the display and I particularly like the way the phone looks at three quarters.

Some interesting things around the back include the embossed OnePlus logo with a glossy finish, a raised camera lens with a polished, bevelled edge and a matching squared off flash below. Antenna lines that are gracefully integrated into the body unlike this eyesore. Along the sides, the buttons stick out considerably and have a wonderfully tactile feedback. It made me wonder why more phones don’t have such raised buttons until I realized that’s because it is awfully easy to press them even when you don’t want to. There is also the profile switch on the side that cycles between All notifications, Priority notifications, and Silent profiles. This is actually something more Android phones should have considering how easy it makes it to quickly put the phone in Silent mode. I even like the knurled finish on the slider switch, which, like the other buttons, is made out of metal.

The general feel of the device is great, too. It’s only 7.4mm thick, which feels quite thin but with a well-weighted and sturdy feel so it doesn’t come across as delicate. The metal curves in all the right places and like the OnePlus X and OnePlus 2 before, the OnePlus 3 is a joy to hold.

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What I’m not too keen on is the front. It looks like they ran out of design budget on the back and had to fall back on the janitor to design the front. It’s extremely generic and with the home button below the display looks like every other phone since, like, forever. The home button also happens to be the fingerprint sensor. It has a cool ceramic cover that is practically scratch proof unless you keep spare diamonds in your pocket. Unfortunately, it also looks oddly cheap, like a shiny trinket on an otherwise understated design. I do like the way the glass gently curves into the chamfered metal edges but that seems to be the only good thing about the front.

Having a 5.5-inch display, the OnePlus 3 is what most people would call a “big phone”. It does feel quite comfortable in my hands, though, and I never felt the size to be pushing my personal comfort zone, but your mileage may vary.

OnePlus also makes a bunch of first party cases for the OnePlus 3, five of them to be exact. Black Apricot, Rosewood, and Bamboo are made out of a combination of real wood and Kevlar. Karbon is just Kevlar, and lastly there is Sandstone, that has the same texture as the OnePlus One and 2, and is made out of plastic. At first I thought the case added unnecessary thickness to the phone but later on I got used to it. The two lighter colors, Bamboo and Rosewood, were clearly made for the Soft Gold color that will be coming later and didn’t work well with the Graphite colored phone I had. Out of the remaining three, Karbon was my favorite and Sandstone was a close second. I felt some of the cases were a bit loose on the sides, which is unusual for first-party cases.

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Display

The OnePlus 3 has a 5.5-inch, 1920 x 1080 Optic AMOLED display. The ‘Optic’ part is OnePlus’ branding for what is a latest generation Samsung AMOLED panel. The ‘Optic’ part also apparently refers to the dual polarizing filter on the display to reduce glare.

Coming to the display quality, there are two parts to this. The first is with the subpixel arrangement, which in this case is important. Samsung AMOLED panels are known to have a non-standard RGBG subpixel arrangement, also known as PenTile matrix. This means each pixel has either red and green or blue and green subpixels, instead of all three. The red and blue subpixels are twice the size of the green one. In this arrangement, you get full display resolution in the green color space, but only half the resolution in red and blue color space. PenTile arrangement helps reduce cost and power consumption since it uses fewer subpixels but has a negative effect on resolution, especially at lower pixel densities.

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This has to be brought up because the OnePlus 3 has a 5.5-inch 1080p display. As resolution increases, the lower subpixel resolution of PenTile displays becomes less apparent but at 1080p, especially at 5.5-inch, it is somewhat noticeable to those with great vision, especially in icons and small fonts. But where it becomes really apparent is in VR. With the display that close to your face and magnified by the lenses, it’s hard to escape the blurry icons and text of the OnePlus 3 display. Even the cheaper Redmi Note 3 has significantly better resolution in VR, since it has the exact same size and pixel resolution as the OnePlus 3, but with a standard RGB subpixel layout.

The second part of the display is with the color performance. OnePlus has seemingly calibrated its display for the NTSC color space, which seems to be a common trend for manufacturers for inexplicable reasons. Not only is NTSC color space not really used by anyone at all, Android OS itself doesn’t have native support for it. Without proper support from the OS and native content, the display ends up looking oversaturated.

But this is where my previous rant comes in. The thing is, the OnePlus 3 still looks good. If you are not going to be doing any color critical work on it and in general don’t give a shit about color calibration, you would be quite happy with the factory calibration of the OnePlus 3 display. I personally found it easy to live with, even though I’m quite particular about colors, and everyone I showed it to seemed to love it as well.

However, OnePlus did add an sRGB toggle in the developer options in the first update, which I think is a great addition. I was happy with the display before but I wasn’t going to pass up on the opportunity to use a proper sRGB color calibration profile that essentially makes everything look how it should. I have since then stuck with it. It’s hard at first to get used to the warmth and the toned down colors but after a while you start appreciating it and it’s a major asset while doing any sort of image editing on the phone.

Other than that there isn’t a lot to say about the display. It gets bright enough outdoors and thankfully, dark enough indoors. The viewing angles aren’t perfect and I noticed it loses some of its warmth in the sRGB mode when you tilt it off-center but it’s not a huge deal. The touchscreen worked fine, as you’d expect, but it is awfully sensitive so it should even work through gloves.

 

Hardware

The OnePlus 3 runs on the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 that has a quad-core Kryo CPU (2x 2.2 GHz + 2x 1.6 GHz) and Adreno 530 GPU. It also has that crazy 6GB LPDDR4 RAM and 64GB UFS 2.0 storage space.

In terms of connectivity you get dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, 4G LTE with VoLTE, dual SIM support, GPS/GLONASS/BeiDou, NFC, and USB Type-C based on USB 2.0. The NFC was something that was left out on the OnePlus 2 so it’s good to see being restored here. There is no IR blaster on this phone, so that’s something to keep in mind.

 

Software

The OnePlus 3 runs on Oxygen OS 3 on top of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. Oxygen OS is something that we first saw on the OnePlus One after Cyanogen Inc. turned into an asshole upon securing a deal with Micromax. The version of Oxygen OS on the OnePlus One was a very early build that didn’t have any of the polish of the Cyanogen OS it was replacing, and that’s saying something as Cyanogen has never been polished.

The OnePlus 2 is where we got to see it in its final form. Unfortunately, despite being impressive on paper, the software on the phone was unstable and had endless list of bugs, long after the phone was released. Things didn’t change a lot with the OnePlus X, and the software remained one of the weakest points of the OnePlus devices.

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I didn’t have high expectations when I first started using the OnePlus 3. It goes without saying then that I was more than just surprised when I discovered that the build of Oxygen OS on the OnePlus 3 was rock solid. Other people on forums did complain about a couple of issues with the device but I didn’t come across any of them during my use.

Unfortunately, as odd as it might seem, I did have some issues after the first software update, which introduced some bugs, almost as if to restore the balance of the universe. However, the update that came after claimed to sort the exact issues I was facing. Unfortunately, I had to send the phone back around the same time the update came out so I didn’t get to check properly if they fixed anything but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Still, this almost feels like nitpicking to me, which shows how far OnePlus has come in terms of software. I had none of the glaring, in-your-face kind of bugs I dealt with on the OnePlus 2 and the OnePlus X, and the ones I did come across were quite minor overall. This is a huge improvement, and it may have come at the cost of negligence at the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X update schedules (OnePlus is still quite a small company and has a hard time focusing on all their products at once) but the OnePlus 3 users are better for it.

This means one can finally appreciate the Oxygen OS for what it is. For those who haven’t used it, it is quite similar to Cyanogen in theory, wherein you take Google’s stock Android OS (AOSP), keep the general look of the device and just fill in some of the features that Google left out. The end result is something that looks similar to the OS on Google’s Nexus devices but is more functional, without being a top to bottom redesign like Samsung’s TouchWiz or Xiaomi’s MIUI.

The theory, then, is enticing and in practice, it’s just as good as you hoped it would be. OnePlus has shown good restraint in adding features but there is still plenty of new stuff here. The notification drawer, for example, can be brought down by just swiping down in the middle of the homescreen instead of stretching your thumb all the way to the top of the display. It also expands entirely when there are no notifications instead of making you swipe down twice like a fucking moron as on Nexus devices. The items in the notification drawer can also be moved around or disabled entirely. You can also customize the buttons below the display by switching them around to a more comfortable position, and also assign them addition functions to double tap and press and hold. I assigned the multitasking (or Overview) button to go to the last app on double tap and got so used to it I now double tap the multitasking button on every phone to jump back to the previous app (Google has added this now in Nougat). I also assigned the back button to turn off the display if you press and hold and home button to launch the camera on double tap. Moreover, if you’re one of the psychopaths who prefer on screen buttons, you can even switch to those and disable the capacitive buttons below entirely.

There is ton of other clever shit like this, like being able to download icon packs meant for other launchers and use them with the built-in launcher, a dark mode that works across the device in stock apps, and lockscreen gestures that let you turn on the flashlight or start the camera by drawing shapes on the screen.

Stuff like this is something I grew really accustomed to during the month or so that I used the phone and now miss it on every other phone. Almost all the features OnePlus added feel useful and the rest you can just turn off and ignore. It’s something I enjoyed on the OnePlus 2 as well and now that it finally works properly on the OnePlus 3, I couldn’t be happier.

 

Performance

With a spec sheet like that, one would expect the performance on the OnePlus 3 would be insanely good. Unfortunately, it’s not.

The good thing is that the phone feels fast. Everything opens and closes instantly. Games run silky smooth. The hardware just brute forces everything into happening quickly.

What it can’t seem to brute force, though, is fluidity. The familiar Android jank rears its ugly head here and the scrolling just didn’t seem as fluid as it should be on such a powerful device. It’s not at all terrible by any means but a phone like this should feel silky smooth at all times and sometimes, it just doesn’t. The stutter every now and then while scrolling really tends to stand out on a phone that otherwise performs tremendously, and becomes hard to ignore.

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Another problem is memory management. With more RAM than my MacBook Air, you’d probably expect to open an app two years later since you bought the phone and still have it in memory but that’s not quite the case. The memory management is quite aggressive and only keeps the last half a dozen apps or so in memory. It was particularly bad when the phone had launched and OnePlus fixed it to some extent with the first update. But even then it could only keep 7-8 apps in memory for longer duration and particularly heavy apps like browser or games would be flushed a lot more frequently. OnePlus’ reason for this bizarre behavior is to conserve the battery, but it also entirely defeats the purpose of having 6GB memory and reduces it to a meaningless number on the spec sheet. In real world use, the phone honestly feels like it has 2GB actual memory instead.

The multimedia performance is pretty good. The display obviously is fantastic to watch content on. I was hoping for a decent codec support but it seems OnePlus didn’t want to pay for AC3 and DTS licensing, so now we have to download and install VLC Player. The sound quality through headphones is good and it also gets pretty loud. You can also use USB Type-C headphones with the phone, as I did, using the LeEco earphones, which worked perfectly fine after the OTG option was enabled through the settings on the phone. What didn’t work was the LeEco Type-C to 3.5mm adapter, which I suppose requires an analog signal through the Type-C port, something the OnePlus 3 doesn’t seem to provide. The loudspeaker was a bit of a surprise, being both loud and clear and one of the better speakers I’ve seen on a phone this year. It is placed on the bottom left of the phone, however, so when you hold the phone in landscape mode it gets blocked by your hand. VR performance, as mentioned before, isn’t great but that isn’t a huge deal considering how useless VR is on phones right now.

 

Camera

The OnePlus 3 has a 16 megapixel Sony IMX 298 sensor at the back with f2.0 aperture and phase detection autofocus. OnePlus has dropped the laser autofocus on the OnePlus 2 in favor of PDAF on the 3 but I would liked to see a combination of the two. PDAF works great in most situations except when you don’t have a lot of light to work with, in which case both contrast detection AF and PDAF are known to flake out. Laser autofocus, on the other hand, can work in pitch darkness since it supplies its own infrared light for the focus mechanism to calculate the distance to the subject.

OnePlus has a new camera app to complement the new hardware. The app is somewhat basic in appearance but does have most of the necessary functions. The standard mode lets you point and shoot and tap to lock focus and exposure, with a circular ring to adjust the exposure manually. You can quickly change the aspect ratio, which I thought was quite convenient. In Pro mode, you get some extra options such as ISO, shutter speed, white balance, and manual focus. The manual focus option is and also isn’t useful. It’s useful for locking the camera to its minimum focusing distance but for farther objects, the lack of a 1:1 preview or focus peaking (Xiaomi phones have this) makes it mostly useless as it’s hard to tell if the thing is in focus and you are better off letting the phone focus automatically. The shutter speed goes quite long, and I did manage to get some nice trails on some shots. OnePlus handily includes a RAW mode that saves a RAW version alongside the compressed JPEG so you can edit the uncompressed image at your leisure later. Where the app lags behind the best of the business is in video options, but I’ll get to that later.

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In terms of image quality, I was generally pleased with the rear camera on the OnePlus 3. The daylight images had impressive detail, color, and contrast. The sharpening was a bit excessive but not to the extent that it looked unpleasant. The dynamic range was decent but the HDR mode helped extend it further. The HDR tuning was quite good, where in would bring down the highlights as well as bring up the shadows, while most phones just tend to do the latter. In low light, the phone by default is strangely poor. There is plenty of visible noise and the colors just wash out creating quite an unpleasant image at times. This where the HQ mode comes into play. When used during daylight it just over-sharpens the image, which caused me to ignore it at first until someone on Twitter brought it to my attention. Turns out, using it in low light magically turns the phone into a DSLR. Well, not quite, but there is a massive improvement in image quality, with the noise almost non-existent and the colors far more vibrant. With HQ enabled, the OnePlus 3 takes some of the best low light images I’ve come across.

The video recording quality wasn’t as impressive. Even at 4K you can see some compression artefacts in the video. One of the recent updates altered the bitrate and codec of the video, which inflated the file sizes but had no visible improvement to my eye. It’s not bad but it isn’t as good as it could be. But that’s not all. The optical stabilization system isn’t the best around and the video does look a bit jerky when shot handheld. Lastly, and this is what I alluded to before, but there is no 60fps option at 1080p and the slow motion video is limited to only 720p at 120fps with no sound. These are some of the things that you do kinda expect from high-end devices now. Even the iPhone has these options now, and the iPhone camera app sucks.

As for the front camera, as you can probably tell I’m not a huge front camera user. But the one on the OnePlus 3 is quite good, and one of the better ones I’ve used in recent times.

The camera overall is quite fast in starting up and taking images, and there aren’t any slow downs in processing HDR or HQ images even at full size.

Check out all the sample images here.

 

Battery Life

The phone has a 3000mAh non-removable battery. During my usage, the battery life was all over the place, to the point where I’m not really sure what the battery life is really like. I have gotten upwards of 7 hours of screen-on time, which is crazy considering the battery size and hardware on the phone, but then I’ve also gotten 3-4 hours of screen-on time. As usual, your mileage may vary, but it might just vary a lot in this case.

The good thing is that it charges like an absolute monster, if a monster had a charging port and a high powered charger. After the utter lack of any sort of fast charging on the OnePlus 2, it’s nice to see OnePlus go all out on this one. For the OnePlus 3, OnePlus has lifted a piece of tech from its parent company Oppo, called VOOC. Except here it’s called Dash. What VOOC, and now Dash, do is move all the charging circuitry from the phone to the charger, which results in fewer parts inside the phone heating up while charging. On most phones, the charging is slowed down when you are using the phone to prevent overheating the phone but with Dash, the phone can charge at full speed even when the phone is being used. To be honest, the phone still gets warm while charging but as long as it doesn’t affect the charging speed I don’t care.

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Due of the way Dash works, it needs a proprietary cable. With VOOC, Oppo used a version of microUSB with additional pins, so it was still microUSB connector and worked with standard cables. With the OnePlus 3, OnePlus is using Type-C with the same technology essentially, so even though it looks like a standard Type-A to Type-C cable, the one that comes with the phone is a proprietary version and is absolutely necessary for Dash charging to work. This means you not only need the Dash charger but also the cable for Dash charging. Mind you, the phone still charges with any old charger and Type-C cable, but you need the stuff that comes in the box (or its exact replacement) for the high speed charging.

But holy Pokéballs does it charge fast. The first 50% comes in just 20 minutes of charging and by 45 minutes the phone has reached 90%. Full 100% charge takes about 70 minutes, as after 90% the charging slows down significantly. Still, along with the VOOC enabled phones, this is one of the fastest charging phones I’ve seen.

 

Overall

If you read through all of that, first of all, do you not have anything else to do in life? Secondly, you may have noticed I was generally happy with the phone. And that’s true as there is a lot to like about this phone. But what I’m mostly pleased about is that this is finally a OnePlus phone that I can recommend without attaching a proviso. There are no things to keep in mind or conditions that you have to meet. If you want a phone and have exactly ₹27,999 burning a hole in your pocket then you buy this phone. It’s as simple as that. And no, it’s not a good phone for the price. It’s just a good phone that also happens to be priced well.

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I like how far OnePlus has come in a short amount of time. No drama at launch, no outlandish mottos, no smack talking the competition, and no godawful invite system to deal with this time. The phone has been readily available for purchase on Amazon any time you want, since the day it launched, and that alone is a huge deal.

Overall, I think it is a great phone. I’m not saying you should buy the OnePlus 3 if you have the budget for, say, a Note7; it’s not that good. I think high-end phones still have their place in the market. It’s just that you don’t need to spend 60k anymore if you want a great phone. If you don’t want the absolute best there is then you will be perfectly happy with the OnePlus 3 for a lot less money.