Inexpensive smartphones have always been about compromise. You may save a few hundred dollars over an iPhone, Galaxy S, or other high-end phones, but you have to give up something, whether that’s performance, build quality, camera quality, display, software experience, or any combination of those. This year, there have been many Android phones that challenge that convention, and none flipped it on its head more than the OnePlus 3, released in June.The OnePlus 3 retailed for just under $400, significantly less than a high-end $700 Samsung or Apple phone. Despite that price, it had the fastest processor available to Android phones, premium build quality and design, and a cruft-free software experience. Compromises were few and far between and you really had to dig to find them: no support for CDMA networks such as Verizon or Sprint, and no water resistance, which has become a headline feature of high-end smartphones recently. The OnePlus 3 was easily the best value, best-balanced smartphone to arrive this year.
But now you can’t buy the OnePlus 3. Instead, OnePlus has decided to replace it with an even better version: the OnePlus 3T. The 3T shares many of the same qualities as the 3, including the same materials and design; same size and resolution display; same 6GB of RAM; and same rear camera. But it has an even faster processor, a bigger battery, a better front camera, an option for more internal storage, and a new, darker gray color option. It still doesn’t work on Verizon or Sprint and still doesn’t have water resistance, but in other important metrics, it’s a slightly better phone than before. Even at its higher starting price of $439 for a 64GB model ($479 will get you 128GB of storage), the OnePlus 3T is even less of a compromise than its already-excellent predecessor.
I’ve been using a OnePlus 3T for nearly two weeks, comparing and contrasting my experience with it to the OnePlus 3 and other similarly specced phones, including Google’s new Pixel. In terms of speed, the 3T is as fast as anything else and might even be faster, but the differences in real-world use are negligible at best. The rear camera, though now covered in a more durable sapphire glass, is the same as the 3’s, which means it’s good, but doesn’t quite keep pace with the Pixel, iPhone 7, or a Samsung Galaxy S7. The differences are largely felt when the 3T’s camera hunts for autofocus more than the others, though the output also isn’t as impressive.
4K video recording, though available on the 3 as well, is slightly better thanks to improved electronic image stabilization. It’s not as freakishly steady as the Pixel’s video capture, and the autofocus will hunt back and forth during filming, but it’s an improvement over the 3. Likewise, the new 16-megapixel front camera, which replaces the 8-megapixel unit from the 3, is a little better than before, but not dramatically so.
While the processor and camera improvements were hard to see in practice, I certainly noticed the extra stamina afforded by the 3T’s larger battery. It is a 3,400mAh cell compared to the 3,000mAh battery in the 3, yet the thickness and weight of the phone remain unchanged. (OnePlus assures me this will not result in a Note 7-like explosion.) That’s only a 13 percent increase in capacity, but I’ve been able to get extraordinary battery life from the 3T, even when I’ve used it while traveling. Most days I’ve been able to eke out more than five hours of screen time on it before it dies, with location, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and LTE all enabled and the screen brightness set to automatic. Most phones, even the better ones, will struggle to meet 4 hours of screen time with my average use before calling it quits.
A larger battery plus improved software lead to noticeable gains
I suspect the 3T’s excellent stamina is a combination of its larger battery and new software optimizations implemented by OnePlus. It is running a newer version of Oxygen OS, the company’s lightweight take on Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and it likely has improved power management. Though the 3T is disappointingly not launching with Android 7 Nougat, OnePlus says that it and the 3 will be updated to the new platform by the end of this year. (Going forward, the company says that the 3 and the 3T will be on the same software update cycle, so owners of the 3 won’t miss out on anything coming to the 3T.)
Like the 3, the 3T uses OnePlus’ proprietary Dash Charging fast charging system, which promises to provide "a day’s power in half an hour" of charging. It lives up to that claim, rapidly charging the 3T’s battery in just a few minutes. But it’s not compatible with Qualcomm’s much more common Quick Charge platform, and it only works with OnePlus’ charging brick and USB cable.
The questions OnePlus 3 owners might be pondering are why did OnePlus release a better phone just months after launching the 3, and is it something they should consider upgrading to? OnePlus says it made the change because it had the opportunity to offer an even better experience and it didn’t want to wait a full model cycle (typically 12 months in the smartphone world) to provide it. That might not appease someone that just recently purchased a OnePlus 3, but I also don’t think the differences between the two are that great to warrant much concern. The most noticeable change is in the battery life, and while it certainly is better, the OnePlus 3’s battery life wasn’t terrible, so it’s a small improvement.
That leads to the question of do the improvements justify the 3T’s higher cost, and I think they do. For $40 more, you get a phone with better battery life; for $80 more, you get that better battery life and twice as much storage. The OnePlus 3T remains the best overall smartphone value you can buy, when balancing performance, features, and experience versus price.
There are certainly reasons to choose a Google Pixel, Samsung Galaxy S7, or iPhone 7 instead of a OnePlus 3T (and if you use Verizon or Sprint, OnePlus isn’t even an option), but the gap is narrower than ever. If OnePlus is able to keep up this pace of progress, and is able to maintain its excellent value proposition, a year from now, I wonder if there will be any reason to spend $700 or more on a new smartphone.
Photography by Amelia Krales.