The OnePlus 3T is almost Pixel perfect, and it's a fraction of the cost

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The OnePlus 3T is a relatively light revision of the impressive OnePlus 3. It brings the phone right up to date, putting it head-to-head with the Google Pixel.

A Google Pixel XL will cost you $770, but the OnePlus 3T is $440. That’s a massive savings, and although OnePlus bumped the price of the 3T up by $40 over the OnePlus 3’s $400 price tag, it’s still way cheaper than the Galaxy S7, the LG G5, or any other big-brand flagship Android phone on sale today. The insanely low price is weird enough to make you wonder: Is this phone that cheap because it’s terrible?

The OnePlus 3 was the best phone OnePlus had made, and one we highly recommended. Can a revision that adds newer hardware to a winning package do anything other than improve on the original? We’ve been finding out.

Put the OnePlus 3 next to the OnePlus 3T and unless you are familiar with the colors — the OnePlus 3T ditches silver for a stylish gunmetal finish — it’s absolutely impossible to tell them apart. They’re so alike, if they moved in together, it would be into a pod. There was no sense in changing the OnePlus 3’s design after just six months, because it was gorgeous to start with.

The OnePlus 3T replaces the sandpaper-like body of the old OnePlus 2 for smooth metal, and the overall design has a level of minimalism that makes us almost weep with joy. There’s a solitary OnePlus logo stamped on the back, bookended by iPhone and HTC-like antenna breaks, and a slightly raised camera lens. That’s it. It’s a real beauty.

Pick it up, and the sides are subtly curved and completely smooth. It fits in your palm extremely well. We hold our phones many times during the day, and comfort is very important. However, since the OnePlus 3 made its debut, in-hand comfort has been taken to the next level by phones such as the ZTE Axon 7 and the Huawei Nova. The OnePlus 3T can’t quite match the thought and effort that went into shaping the Axon 7’s body in particular. It’s not like it’s covered in thorns, but the game has definitely moved on from the somewhat sharp edges of the 3T.

It’s also surprisingly compact. Samsung and LG have 5.1-inch and 5.3-inch screens respectively on their top phones this year, and although the OnePlus 3 has a 5.5-inch screen, it’s barely wider than the LG G5 and a millimeter or so longer. It’s even thinner, too, and weighs 158 grams, which is nearly the same as the G5 and S7.

If you swooned at the sight of the OnePlus 3, then the 3T will make you weak at the knees, too. As for us? It’s so pretty, we’ve had to pick ourselves up off the floor a few times.

A pane of curved 2.5D Gorilla Glass 4 covers the screen, completing the slickly modern design. It’s punctuated only by the fingerprint sensor, which doubles as the home button. On the side of the body, the notification alert slider makes a welcome return. The two-stage switch lets you selectively mute alerts, based on importance. It’s a time-saver, and the switch itself has a cool knurled pattern for grip. Its placement at the top left of the device is a little odd, but only if you’re right handed.

The fingerprint sensor always recognized my print with astonishing speed, and there’s NFC in the OnePlus 3T, so the phone supports Android Pay. Mobile payments are hit or miss, but Android Pay’s problems are hardly unique to the 3T.

The OnePlus 3T has a 5.5-inch Optic AMOLED screen with a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution. What’s Optic AMOLED? According to OnePlus CEO Carl Pei, the Samsung-supplied screens feature a dual-polarizing layer that’s tuned for improved color temperature and contrast. On the OnePlus 3, it was always a pain to “tune” using the basic controls, but that’s changed on the OnePlus 3T. Out of the box, it looks amazing, and the true whites really shine through in a way that was difficult to achieve on the 3. If it’s too stark, under a Screen Calibration setting, there’s an eye-pleasing sRGB option, and a custom setting with a warm-to-cool slider.

Don’t for one second think the 1080p resolution holds the OnePlus 3T back. It’s stunning, and further proof a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution isn’t really essential on a smartphone of this size.

The primary change between the OnePlus 3 and OnePlus 3T is the replacement of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 with the newer and more powerful Snapdragon 821 processor. The RAM remains the same at 6GB, and although there are a few other alterations, the chip swap is undoubtedly the main reason why the 3T is more expensive. Therefore, you’ll want to see a noticeable performance bump, right?

It’s difficult to tell the difference. It’s not like the OnePlus 3 performed like it was wading through six feet of sludge. Putting the two alongside each other and seeing if there was any visible difference seemed like a good place to start. A few searches in Chrome, scrolling through lists on Twitter, and playing side-by-side games revealed … no discernible difference whatsoever.

Time to turn to benchmarks. Putting the OnePlus 3T up against the OnePlus 3 this way is perhaps the easiest way to find any differences. AnTuTu 3D on the OnePlus 3 scores 144,131, and the same test on the OnePlus 3T comes back with 166,912. Both were run in the same environment, with no other apps running, and on the most up-to-date public release version of OxygenOS.

That’s a big difference, and not only does it crush just about every other phone out there, but the spankings continued through other tests as well. Geekbench 4 returned 4,133 multi-core on the OnePlus 3 and 4,390 multi-core on the OnePlus 3T. We ran 3DMark’s Slingshot ES3.1 gaming benchmarking test on both, too. The OnePlus 3 scored 2,561, while the OnePlus 3T came back with 2,700.

However, many will be asking that If you can’t see the differences going about your day-to-day business, is there really any point? If you already own the OnePlus 3, then no, probably not. However, by selecting the 3T you’re getting a newer phone that will still keep pace with high-end phones for longer, and longevity is very important in the smartphone world. It also makes the phone even more cost-effective.

There are some other changes that won’t be instantly noticeable, either, but are definite benefits. The OnePlus 3T runs cooler when under pressure than the 3, and the increased power efficiency offered by the Snapdragon 821 means the larger capacity 3,400mAh battery will last even longer.

There wasn’t a moment when the OnePlus 3T felt like anything other than a rocket ship, and there was no point where more power would have been helpful. This is simply one of the highest performance smartphones you can buy, and one of the fastest smartphones we’ve ever tried.

It’s the same 16-megapixel camera on the OnePlus 3T that was found on the OnePlus 3. It has an f/2.0 aperture, optical image stabilization, HDR, and a 1.28-inch sensor. However, OnePlus has tweaked the software. The ultra-high contrast images taken with the OnePlus 3 have been toned down ever-so slightly, so the OnePlus 3T takes pictures that are more natural, but still pleasingly vivid.

Close-up photos blur the background very nicely, and on a sunny day, blue skies shine beautifully. With HDR activated, shadowy areas were lightened sufficiently without sacrificing detail. In low-light, plenty of detail is revealed, and although it can’t quite keep pace with the iPhone 7 Plus, you won’t be disappointed. Shots of lit buildings in the dark saw the 3T create fantastic, inky blacks, but the OIS couldn’t quite keep things steady enough to maintain detail.

Around the front, the OnePlus 3T has a 16-megapixel selfie camera. The reason for this massive sensor is not just for selfie-lovers, but for live-streamers who demand a high-definition image. It’s great, and even in low-light — when the camera combines pixels to artificially boost the light — it does well. There’s a simple beauty mode, and a feature where it’s supposed to recognise smiles and activate the shutter that never worked for us.

Swipe to the right to access a manual mode, where ISO, focus, shutter speed, and brightness can be adjusted. A tripod is necessary to get the best from the manual mode, and the OnePlus 3T takes great photos without messing around with the settings. The software is fast and easy to use, but when shooting video, it oddly shows a far larger image in the viewfinder, meaning objects you think fill the frame are actually far too close. Hopefully a software update will fix this weird problem.

The OnePlus 3T covers Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow in the OxygenOS user interface, modifying the operating system slightly from Google’s vision. It’s not a drastic alteration, and it’s closer to how Motorola deals with Android than the heavy UIs of Huawei or Samsung. Purists will be pleased to note the app drawer is present and the notification shade is as Google intended. An Android 7.0 Nougat update with OxygenOS is expected to arrive by the end of 2016, and our review model had the November 2016 Android Security update, making it one of the most up-to-date Android phones we’ve used recently.

There are a few modifications included in OxygenOS. The most noticeable is Shelf, which slides in from the left of the home screen, where you can find shortcuts to frequently used apps, space for Android widgets, the weather, and a space to write memos. It’s easy to turn off OnePlus’ Shelf option if you don’t like it.

OnePlus installs its own gallery app, file manager app, music player, voice recorder, and a new Community app. This is an odd one, but in line with OnePlus’ commitment to interacting with its loyal users. It gives direct access to the company’s busy online forums, and it’s a bit like looking at a self-diagnosis website when you’re sick. The forums have plenty of complaints and moans, most of which are isolated incidents, but it can make you go looking for problems when none really exist.

For example, dig about in the Community app, and there are complaints about a touchscreen responsiveness issue, but it’s not something we noticed on our review phone, so is either not a widespread problem or only shows up in specific situations. OxygenOS was unshakeable and we didn’t see any stability issues showing up in the first days of use. The 3T happily played some of the more obscure games I downloaded from Google Play. SwiftKey’s keyboard is an option, although we chose Google’s Android keyboard, which performs brilliantly, and we love the subtle haptic feedback.

Depending on which model you buy, you can get either 64GB or 128GB of internal memory, but sadly there’s no MicroSD card slot to increase your storage. OnePlus decided not to go for one of the new dual-SIM trays that has the option of using one of the slots for a memory card, so the 3T is a strictly dual-SIM device. For this reason, we suggest opting for the 128GB OnePlus 3T, especially as the phone’s performance will see it last for several years before it needs replacing.

Even though the OnePlus 3T has the same dimensions as the OnePlus 3, it contains a larger capacity 3,400mAh battery, which we found to last about a day with moderately heavy use. You can elongate battery life even further, using the battery saver, which turns off location, background data, and the vibrate feature. You know when it’s active, because the notification bar turns bright orange. One thing we do like is the chance to display the battery icon as a circle and not a bar. It’s much easier to visualise the remaining time, if you choose not to show the percentage figure.

The Dash Charge fast-charging system is back, and OnePlus claims it will charge the battery to 60 percent capacity in just 30 minutes. Our tests showed this to be accurate, and a timed run saw 60 percent arrive in 31 minutes. A full charge was completed in an hour and 20 minutes. The same as we achieved with the OnePlus 3.

The much-hated invitation system is a thing of the past, and you can buy a OnePlus 3T through OnePlus’ own online store right now. If you’re in the U.K., OnePlus has secured its first network deal, and the phone can be purchased through O2 with a two-year plan.

However, we always recommend buying a phone without a contract, if possible, and it’s definitely the way to buy the OnePlus 3T; but it’s more expensive that the OnePlus 3. It’s $440 for the 64GB model, which is $40 more than the equivalent — and now discontinued — OnePlus 3. In the U.K., the price has increased to 400 British pounds, up from the 330 British pounds the 3 cost during the summer, and a whopping 80 British pounds more than the 310 British pounds it started out costing.

OnePlus has a one-year warranty on its devices in the United States, where device defects will be repaired or a replacement device will be provided for free, including the shipping and handling costs. It doesn’t cover wear and tear, or water damage. Alternatively, OnePlus offers an extended warranty plan though Assurant Solutions called On-Guard. Plans can be for a year, 18 months, or two years, and see devices repaired or replaced in the U.S., rather than China. This means the turnaround should be quicker. Costs range from $20 to $110 extra.

The OnePlus 3T has enough power to birth small galaxies, and more style than the pages of a glossy fashion magazine, yet still manages to leave hundreds of dollars in your pocket when you choose it over the competition. One or two software problems did show up — video recorder, and the smile shutter for example — but we hope these will be fixed in the near future, and they aren’t enough to put us off.

Is there a better alternative?

Based on the processor it uses, the OnePlus 3T is by far the best value smartphone on sale today, and because it’s so technically “fresh,” it’s potentially one that won’t need replacing for several years to come. That’s important. Yes, the OnePlus 3T will be superseded, but you probably won’t care.

If money isn’t the main driver, then the Google Pixel is likely the only Android phone that comes close to the  OnePlus 3T in terms of our own recommendation. Its camera is superb and it has Android 7.0 Nougat with Google Assistant installed; but it costs $770.

Since its announcement, the ZTE Axon 7 has been our most recommended smartphone for $400, just edging out the OnePlus 3 in many circumstances. The OnePlus 3T costs a little more, but the extra is worth paying for, as not only does it contain newer technology, but a Nougat update is coming very soon, and OnePlus’ security updates are more timely, too.

However, the OnePlus 3T now costs more than the magic $400, and if that’s all you want to spend, the Axon 7 is the choice to make.

How long will it last

The OnePlus 3T isn’t a rugged phone, and misses out on any water resistance, so you’ll have to be careful with it if you want it to last. It’ll be worth it, because the processor is only in a handful of phones at the moment, and won’t be widely available in more until early 2017. That gives OnePlus 3T owners a head-start on gaming and app trends, ensuring their phone will handle the best software for some time to come.

We mentioned the Android 7.0 Nougat update is coming, and that the November 2016 Android security patch is already installed on the OnePlus 3T. Provided OnePlus keeps this up, software won’t be an issue, either.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The OnePlus 3T is a ridiculously good value smartphone, without any of the drawbacks you’d expect from anything labeled a “good value.” It’s beautiful to look at, great to use, takes impressive pictures, and is technically capable enough to give years of service. All for $440? Just buy one.

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