Back in January 2007, Apple released the original iPhone as an AT&T exclusive, and people switched carriers en masse for the chance to own the world’s first true smartphone. Ten years later, it’s rare for any device to be a carrier exclusive, and unheard of for a smartphone to be so good that its fans switch providers just to own it.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I started reviewing the OnePlus 3T, but I’m thinking about it now. Here is a smartphone that’s simple, elegant, comfortable, usable. It scored better in our benchmarks than any other Android phone on today’s market. It has a 16MP selfie camera. It has both a USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the device. It improves on its predecessor, the OnePlus 3, in virtually every way, and it does it all at an MSRP that’s hundreds less than comparable devices from Apple, Samsung or Google.
Having spent dozens of hours with the OnePlus 3T, I am seriously considering a switch away from Verizon, our pick for best cell phone provider, just so I can buy myself one. It’s a simply wonderful phone.
Admittedly, the OnePlus 3T’s aesthetics won’t win any awards. From the outside it looks exactly like the OnePlus 3, and bears all the same external components – the same 5.5-inch, 1080p display; the same 16MP camera with 4K video, phase-detect autofocus and an f/2.0 aperture; the same antenna lines and three-notch notification switch. In fact, there’s no easy way to tell the 3T from the original OnePlus 3 without turning it on and running it through its paces.
There’s a downside to this similarity: Certain failings of the original OnePlus 3 haven’t been fixed. Its edges, for example, are still slightly sharp, which means you may prefer the feel of the phone when it’s snug in a case. Fortunately, OnePlus’s official cases are stylish and relatively comfy, without adding noticeable bulk.
Much of what makes the OnePlus 3T so great comes down to its software, a custom Android 6.0.1 overlay called OxygenOS. I’m not usually a fan of Android skins because manufacturers so often add unnecessary bloat or ugly theming in a vain attempt to differentiate. OxygenOS is one of those rare exceptions that add to Android rather than subtract from it. It’s almost identical to the stock operating system, but has a few nice extras – tap-to-wake gestures, hardware controls and customization, and so forth – that add to the overall experience. The level of polish even extends to the pleasing vibrations that fire every time you tap a button on its virtual keyboard – vibrations that are comfortable, understated and honestly add to the overall typing experience.
The biggest failing of OxygenOS is the slow pace at which the software gets upgraded. Google has already released Android 7.1 for smartphones, but as of our testing, OnePlus has yet to release an updated version of its software. Fortunately, the company promises a non-beta, Android Nougat edition of OxygenOS is rapidly forthcoming, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to get all of Android’s latest core features.
Not much about the rear-facing camera changed between the OnePlus 3 and the 3T. The 3T uses the same 16MP sensor, f/2.0 aperture and single-LED flash. Its phase-detect autofocus isn’t as fast as the Galaxy S7’s shooter, but it still lets you quickly refocus on the fly and can handle landscape shots particularly well.
One great addition: electronic image stabilization, or EIS. The OnePlus 3T already has optical image stabilization, or OIS, which helps reduce the blurring effect that can come from shaky hands as you’re trying to take a picture. EIS takes this principle a step further, applying it to video. As you’re capturing a movie, the phone uses its internal gyroscope to monitor how the camera shakes in real time, then compensates for it. The resulting videos aren’t always perfectly smooth, but they’re surprisingly fluid, even if you’re walking along the road or sitting in the passenger seat of a moving car.
While EIS is the only major addition to the OnePlus 3T’s rear-facing camera, its front-facing camera has gotten an overhaul, having been bumped up from 5MP to a massive (for a selfie camera) 16MP, mirroring the rear-facing shooter. The selfie cam doesn’t have OIS and can’t take 4K video, but with all those extra pixels to work with, its pictures are significantly improved over its predecessor’s.
One of the biggest improvements made to the OnePlus 3T comes in the form of its processor, known in the mobile world as the system-on-a-chip, or SoC. Like most Android manufacturers, OnePlus turned to Qualcomm and their Snapdragon SoCs for its latest phone. Where the OnePlus 3 used a Snapdragon 820 chip, the 3T uses a Snapdragon 821.
The difference between these two chips is pretty minor. We run each phone we get through dozens of benchmarks, and the 3T only eked an extra 3 percentage points of performance out of its newer processor. The real boon comes in heat reduction. The 820 chip was an overheating mess, notorious for getting hot and staying hot through even simple tasks. The Snapdragon 821 doesn’t suffer from the same malady, which means your phone stays cooler longer.
In addition to the new 821 processor, the OnePlus 3T boasts 6GB of onboard RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage, depending on which model you spring for. Keep in mind when making your decision that it doesn’t support SD cards, so you can’t expand your storage options beyond that initial allotment.
There are two factors to consider when thinking about a smartphone’s battery: life and charge time. The OnePlus 3T’s battery life is solid, but relatively average for a device of its size, clocking 10 hours 27 minutes in our web browsing test. That’s just 11 minutes shy of the iPhone 7 Plus’s performance in the same test, and is a tremendous improvement over the OnePlus 3, which only managed 8 hours 33 minutes. Squeezing an extra two hours of life into the exact same chassis is no easy feat, and should delight any OnePlus fan.
Almost as important as battery life, of course, is charge time. OnePlus has been delightedly marketing the 3T with the tagline, “a day’s power in half an hour.” Obviously the veracity of that claim depends on your usage patterns, but we’ve found it pretty accurate. Within a half hour you’ll get well over a 50% charge, and you’ll be able to hit 100% from empty in under 90 minutes. Even if you’re a very heavy user, if you can find 20 minutes to charge up halfway through the day, you’ll likely make it to bedtime without trouble.
In almost every way, the OnePlus 3T improves upon its predecessor. It has either identical or better components compared to the OnePlus 3 in all but one respect: For whatever reason, OnePlus decided to drop the 3’s internal barometer, leaving with 3T without a means of accurately judging altitude.
In all fairness, barometers don’t see much use. While top smartphones tend to have them, they’re usually included for somewhat esoteric reasons – a good barometer can track how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed, for example, but few people will otherwise need to know precisely how high they are above sea level.
Aside from the missing barometer, the 3T has all the same ports and sensors as the OnePlus 3. The fingerprint scanner is as reliable as what you’ll get from an Apple or Google phone; you can use Google Pay to charge purchases with contactless payments; and yes, there’s a headphone jack on the bottom of the device, which means the cord won’t flip in front of the screen when you’re trying to switch songs, or in front of the camera while you’re trying to snag that surprise photo. The only major feature I wish were present is water resistance, but given its mid-tier price point, that’s easily overlooked.
The OnePlus 3T is a GSM phone that you buy unlocked from the manufacturer. This means here in the U.S., it will only work on one of the country’s two GSM networks: AT&T or T-Mobile. If you’re a Verizon or Sprint customer, the 3T isn’t an option; it can’t even see their cell towers, much less connect to them.
If you’re already an AT&T or T-Mobile customer and you’re looking to buy a new phone, the OnePlus 3T demands your consideration. It’s one of the best Android smartphone around, and that’s before you consider how affordable it is, available for $200 to $300 less than its immediate competition. It’s not impeccable – the lack of waterproofing and its 1080p screen in an age of 1440p displays are both clear cost-cutting measures – but it’s darned close.
Should Verizon or Sprint users switch carriers just to buy it? That’s a much harder question to answer. For whatever it’s worth, were I not on my family’s Verizon plan, I’d probably have already made the jump. The OnePlus 3T is almost too good to miss.