If you look at our picks for the best smartphones of the year, you'll see familiar names like Apple, Samsung, Google and LG. Unless you're a mobile junkie, though, you might not recognize the maker of the best mobile value of 2016, Chinese firm OnePlus. The company's updated OnePlus 3T is a slightly-better, slightly-pricier version of its mid-2016 predecessor. Read on for our review.
The OnePlus 3T, like its forerunners, forces you to question how much you value the few missing features that separate it from the most expensive flagships. Because at US$439 full retail, the 3T can compete with – and sometimes beat – phones that cost $200-350 more.
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Start with its sleek aluminum build. This looks and feels like something you'd find in a $650+ flagship, oozing premium craftsmanship.
The phone hits a pleasant middle ground in size, with a spacious 5.5-inch screen on a body that won't burst your pant seams. On the spec sheet, its 1080p display appears a notch behind pricier rivals with QHD displays, but in practice the color-rich, AMOLED panel looks terrific.
And while its camera isn't groundbreaking like the Google Pixel's, with inferior low-lit photography, the OnePlus 3T still delivers indisputably high-end results (and its front camera also got a resolution boost over the OnePlus 3).
The 3T also launches with a nearly-stock version of Android Nougat, pleasantly devoid of in-your-face UIs or gimmicks: Unlike Android phones from LG or Samsung, there's no attempt to use software for brand-building (apart from the garish and jock-worthy "Never Settle" motto that greets you on the default wallpaper).
Aside from sharper selfies, the only differences between the OnePlus 3T and the mid-2016 OnePlus 3 are an updated processor and larger battery. For an extra $30 over its discontinued predecessor, we think that's a fair tradeoff, with the overall value remaining high.
I'm tempted to say the 3T's real-world performance feels every bit as fast and buttery-smooth as the Pixel's, but I'd probably give the slightest of edges to Google's phone. Either way, the OnePlus 3T handles like one of the two or three zippiest phones of 2016.
It has a 13-percent bigger battery compared to the OnePlus 3 – and it logged a better score in our battery benchmark. Streaming video over Wi-Fi with screen brightness set at a consistent luminance, the 3T dropped just 8 percent per hour, 1-percent less than the OnePlus 3 did under identical conditions.
What doesn't the OnePlus 3T have? It lacks the water resistance found in Apple's and Samsung's latest flagships. There are no quality VR options like in Galaxy and Pixel phones. Ditto for the Hi-Fi audio you'll find in the LG V20 and HTC 10. You miss out on the half-gimmicky, half-useful dual rear cameras found in the V20 and iPhone 7 Plus; it also skips expandable storage.
If you can live without those features – and don't mind buying online, paying the phone's full price upfront – then your money won't go farther anywhere else. The best value in all of mobile, the OnePlus 3T is a beautifully-designed phone with flagship-leading battery life, performance that's also among the best, stock Android and a good camera.
One caveat: OnePlus flagships still won't work on Verizon or Sprint, so U.S. buyers of the 3T will need to stick to GSM carriers like T-Mobile or AT&T.
The best value in the smartphone world costs $439 for a spacious 64 GB storage; $479 boosts it to 128 GB. The OnePlus 3T is available now, though backordered.
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