“What phone should I get?” is not a question I hear as often as I used to. Most people have long since committed to an iPhone or a Galaxy, and anyone with a Nexus doesn’t need my help. But a friend had just shattered his Moto G screen and wanted a cheap, good-enough Android phone. His timing was providential, as I happened to be testing a OnePlus 3.
The OnePlus 3 is the fourth phone—and third flagship—from OnePlus, an upstart company from China. Two years ago, the OnePlus One redefined the expectations for a cheap phone. It was excellent, and so was the OnePlus 2, even with the iffy camera and questionable product choices. Those phones, like the OnePlus 3, attempted to answer the question: What’s the best phone you can make for cheap?
You can make a compelling argument that the $400 OnePlus 3 is the answer. It stuffs amazing specs (6GB of RAM? sure!) in an iPhone-thin body. It atones for the sins of the OnePlus 2 by improving the camera and including NFC. It’s a very good phone at any price, and best of all, OnePlus finally ditched its labyrinthine invite system. You just buy one. Imagine that!
Still, I found myself occasionally wishing that OnePlus had eased back the throttle just a bit. Muscle cars make a great first impression, but they can be tricky daily drivers.
Lots of Pluses
Let’s start with the good, though. The OnePlus 3 is a spec horse, with that 6GB of RAM, a muscular Snapdragon 820 processor, and 64GB of storage. That power pushes pixels on a 5.5-inch, 1080p AMOLED display with a whisper of a bezel. It offers all the advantages of AMOLED—colors are rich, blacks are inky—but and some of the disadvantages, the biggest being it lacks the brightness of a comparable LCD display. Still, that’s only a problem in the brightest sunlight, and even then everything remains legible.
And can you really complain when AMOLED displays are more efficient, and the OnePlus 3 easily makes it through a full day of moderate use without topping off? The USB-C port and a feature called Dash Charge gets you a little more than half full in about 30 minutes. Fast-charging is a blessing bestowed upon humanity by the gods. The OnePlus 3 doesn’t offer wireless charging, but there’s not much reason to until all the competing standards find a way to play nice.
It’s also just a nicely designed phone. It’s nothing fancy, basically “recent HTC on a diet” But the aluminum alloy body belies its price. It’s thin, but sturdy. People aren’t going to compliment you on how striking your smartphone is, but then, it’d be weird if they did.
The OnePlus 3 does draw your attention, though, when it’s working hard. Like the OnePlus 2, it gets noticeably toasty, even when downloading a large app. All that horsepower spared me from lags and hiccups, but made for finger-tingling temps.
The New Program
Still, the OnePlus 3 is silky smooth, and OxygenOS—a forked version of Android that OnePlus built—hews blessedly close to stock Android 6.0. That means it has handy features like Doze, which helps preserve battery life during long stretches of inactivity, and Google Now on Tap, which still isn’t as handy as it first seemed. Any differences from Android are innocuous or for the better.
Most notable is the array of customization options. You can switch to a “dark mode,” which places settings and such against a black background, and get granular with status bar icons and LED notification colors. There are a few added gestures here—you can draw a ‘V’ to toggle your flashlight off and on—and you can jigger your buttons to perform a variety of tasks based on a long press or a double tap. You can even choose whether to use hardware or on-screen buttons for home, back, and the like. Swiping to the right yields a handful of frequently used apps, rather than Google Now info.
If you’re a power-using tinkerer, you’ll delight in the control and how the OnePlus 3 responds to your various touches and taps. I largely left it all alone, because I figured any benefits were outweighed by the bliss of not having to learn a new input scheme, even one of my own design.
In an especially odd case of overkill, the OnePlus 3 features a screen protector. That’s good in theory, especially for someone with two toddlers apt to scratch and break anything they touch. But the tiny bezel means the screen protector doesn’t reach the edge of the display, creating a distracting vertical line at each side. I’d rather take my chances with the scratching.
That tiny bezel means the OnePlus 3 registers a lot of errant touches. What was meant to be a scroll would get me nested a few levels deep into a Twitter thread. Other devices with wall-to-wall displays often use software to minimize those accidentally registered taps and swipes; the OnePlus 3’s could use some fine-tuning.
The camera, at least, appears to have fixed some of the issues that marred the OnePlus 2. Its 16MP, Sony-made sensor takes crisp photos, with shutter speed and focus all up to snuff. It includes RAW support, for robust editing after the snap, optical image stabilization, and optional auto HDR. There’s even the requisite selfie gimmick; you can trigger the OnePlus 3’s front-facing camera just by smiling at it. It still falls short of the elite cameras found on other flagships, but it’s plenty good enough.
One of Many
I wonder, though, if “good enough” is good enough any more. The cheap phone space has always been crowded, but never with so many genuinely great products. The OnePlus 3 is really good $400 phone with a few quirks, but you can find a decidedly less flashy Nexus 5X for $100 less, or an equally elegant Nexus 6P for 50 bucks more. They may be less customizable, but they require fewer compromises.
The OnePlus 3 won’t disappoint you. And if horsepower and customizability are you top priorities, you should get one, regardless of your budget. But if you care more about fit and finish, you probably can find something that better suits your needs. As fun as 6GB of RAM sounds, I’d rather not worry about how warm my phone gets. As pitch black as that display gets, I’d rather not get a constant reminder of the screen protector.
Ultimately, I told my friend to get a Nexus 5X. It’s not as fancy as the OnePlus 3, but it’s more consistent. And that is the most important feature of any smartphone, whatever your budget may be.