Every year, phones get better and cheaper, and usually bigger. Latency decreases; network speeds double. Metal eschews plastic; wireless replaces wired; timeless overcomes flashy.
The commodification of our gadgets is a known quantity by now, but no single category of product has so profoundly affected our lives as the smartphone. So it is strange when we dismiss them as boring, stifled from years of small improvements.
It is important, then, to realize how important the OnePlus 3 is, not just to the unlocked Android ecosystem but to its more expansive counterpart, the mobile world at large. After struggling to scale for two years, necessitating a reputation-staining invite system that (admittedly) sent prospective buyers into simultaneous fervors of despair and anger, OnePlus managed to roll out its latest product to hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people, in dozens of countries, in a single day. And it managed to overcome perhaps the biggest problem of all: distribution to those countries through an e-commerce platform that localizes to a user's currency, taking into account customs charges and taxes. OnePlus did this with no carrier relationships to fall back on, and a parent company that is barely known outside of its home country.
In other words, the OnePlus 3 is a big deal.
That's why a comparison to the HTC 10 is so apt. Though HTC came at its latest phone with a strict focus on audiovisual superiority — better screen, best sound, and most ultra camera — it is still a relatively simple product. There is little in the way of excess features, just a solid smartphone from start to finish.
But it is in comparing the two phones that I start wondering, Is the OnePlus 3 so great because of its price, or in spite of it? Obviously, its $399 entry sweetens the deal over flagships like the HTC 10 that cost twice as much, but do HTC's tangible upgrades, and some intangible elements like software updates, justify its higher cost? And, as you're unlikely spending $699 up front on the HTC 10, or any flagship for that matter, does it really matter?
Let's take a look at all of these things in our OnePlus 3 vs. HTC 10 comparison.
What's in a spec sheet? On paper, the HTC 10 and OnePlus trade notable advantages: the former a gorgeous SuperLCD5 panel; the latter 6GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. Both devices have the latest Snapdragon 820 processor and sizeable, if Quick Charge-dependent, 3,000mAh battery cells.
So as with most things, the details matter. The HTC 10 packs a 12MP rear camera with comparatively large 1/2.3-inch sensor and 1.55um pixels, while the OnePlus 3's 16MP shooter is smaller at 1/2.8-inches and 1.12um pixels. As we'll see later, the differences aren't as stark as you think, and both excel in different scenarios. That's the curse of 2016: every phone is great. It's just about accepting one compromise over another.
From a design perspective, these two devices could be second cousins. Though the OnePlus 3 is taller, with a less pronounced back edge, they are both constructed of single pieces of metal with glass fronts, along with pronounced antenna lines and slight camera bumps. The OnePlus 3 actually more closely resembles an outsized HTC One M9 with its square camera, but it's certainly not a clear ripoff: there is still a small amount of OnePlus design DNA embedded in the squared-off edges and combination of modular capacitive buttons and fingerprint sensor-equipped oblong power button.
The HTC 10's smaller 5.2-inch screen and rounded back makes it more comfortable to hold and use in one hand, but both are relatively accessible if the other paw is occupied. Comparing the screens themselves, though, is a different story: the HTC 10's 2560x1440 pixel SuperLCD5 display is nothing short of stunning, with vivid colors, superlative viewing angles, and deep, fulfilling blacks despite the presence of a backlight. In contrast, OnePlus has been criticized for its inaccurate 1080p OLED display, but there is nothing particularly wrong with it, and even without the SRGB-enhancing update (which had yet to roll out by the time this article was written), I found no glaring issues with the screen's color gamut. This is, plainly, not an issue for most people. HTC's screen is better, but even with the resolution bump, certainly not twice as good.
Below each display, the phones' respective fingerprint sensors beckon beside capacitive buttons that seem like an acknowledgement that Samsung somehow won the fight. Though it's possible to enable on-screen buttons on the OnePlus 3, I've come to appreciate the uncomplicated nature of its capacitive duo, whose functions can be swapped around and customized according to each person's needs (though the defaults are good enough for me).
The HTC 10's SuperLCD5 display is nothing short of stunning, but the OnePlus 3's screen has been unfairly criticized.
Ultimately, both phones are tremendously well built, with the HTC slightly denser and thicker, and the OnePlus a slightly lighter, flatter approximation of the same thing. It's hard to say which one feels better — the HTC 10 certainly requires less adjustment to use with one hand — but it's not immediately clear that the more expensive phone was produced with better materials. Indeed, examining them closely reveals that the OnePlus 3 was chiseled with CNC machinery just as precise as the HTC 10, a claim we definitely wouldn't have said about last year's OnePlus 2 when compared to the One M9, HTC's 2015 flagship.
Internally too, there isn't much between the two phones. While the OnePlus 3 has an on-paper advantage with its 6GB of RAM, it's been shown than the company wants to prevent excess battery consumption by limiting the number of apps stored in RAM, essentially handcuffing it to around the same 4GB as the HTC 10. Though an OTA update is rolling out to address RAM efficiency, one is unlikely to notice an increase in performance from the extra memory. That the OnePlus comes with 64GB of internal storage and no microSD slot, however, is likely far more of an issue for some people — even if 64GB if double that of the HTC 10's standard allotment, and that of most phones these days. In any case, I applaud OnePlus for doing away with the anemic (and cheaper) 16GB model, even if it bumped up the price of its latest phone by $50 or so.
I just don't see the need for the OnePlus 3's Alert slider.
One hardware peculiarity still evades sense: the alert slider on the left side of the OnePlus 3. I just don't see the need for it, even if it can no longer be overridden by software like it could on its predecessor. Perhaps it's that I generally leave my phones on vibrate and meddle little with the volume buttons, but after using these two devices interchangeably for nearly three weeks I find little upside to a hardware feature software has mastered.
If I were to make one more small subjective claim, it's that the HTC 10 feels ever so slightly faster than the OnePlus 3 in day-to-day usage. Whether it's HTC's own graphics driver optimizations, or some software tricks of the eye, I generally enjoy using the HTC 10 more than the OnePlus 3.
Software and battery
I have developed an extreme fondness for both of these versions of Android, largely because they don't undo the good work that Google put into Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. Unfortunately, now that I know what Android 7 will be called (Nougat) and approximately when it will be available (October/November), the biggest strike against these two devices is how quickly (or should that be slowly?) they will be updated.
What's fascinating about OnePlus is, despite how seemingly similar its OxygenOS is to stock Android, how long it took the OnePlus 2 to get upgraded to Marshmallow. From its launcher to its Google Now-like Shelf, there are only minor cosmetic changes from what we'd find on the Nexus 6P, and even the major features hidden in the Settings — display color customization; gesture controls; navigation button modifications — wouldn't immediately seem to cause such foundational quandaries.
Still, OnePlus has done a great job getting over its rough split with Cyanogen Inc., building OxygenOS into a fast, stable and relatively feature-filled version of Android. OnePlus has also developed very good first-party gallery and music apps, while deferring to Google on everything else. And because there is no carrier influence, OnePlus controls the amount of bloatware (zero) and the update cadence (quick — when they finally arrive). Even the abstract wallpapers appeal to the DeviantArt-obsessed youth side of me.
While I don't use OnePlus's more complex gestures, I appreciate their presence; features like double-tap-to-wake and ambient mode (accessible by waving a hand in front of the proximity sensor) are table stakes, borrowed from other OEMs.
OnePlus has done a great job getting over its rough split with Cyanogen Inc.
One of those OEMs is HTC, whose version of Sense has been considerably toned down in this, its eighth incarnation. I admit to enjoying playing with HTC's Freestyle themes, though its regular amalgam of Material Design-influenced Sense icons and bits and pieces of stock Android make for just the right amount of differentiation. And while I miss HTC's excellent take on the gallery app, I appreciate the company's closer ties with Google, which spurred the removal of many first-party apps that duplicated those in that seminal folder present on every Android home screen.
HTC really got a lot right this year; even Blinkfeed (which I turned off as soon as the phone finished booting for the first time) is improved over previous versions, and not nearly as annoying. And though there are vestiges of previous Sense iterations, among them dubiously useful Motion Launch gestures like "Swipe right to launch Blinkfeed," most everything has been pared down and simplified.
That is, until headphones are inserted, which is when HTC's audio prowess kicks in, allowing for the creation of personalized headphone audio profiles based on a quick sound test. HTC has long been associated with aural superiority on smartphones, and while the HTC 10 eschews dual front-facing speakers for a space-saving hybrid combination of one front and downward-facing driver, I still appreciate the company's dedication to a somewhat niche aspect of smartphone ownership.
Indeed, the HTC phones are still the only ones to interface directly with AirPlay-compatible receivers, and using a three-finger swipe gesture can interface with practically any connected speakers, from AirPlay to Bluetooth to DLNA. And the sound quality is equally good, with separate and comparatively powerful amplifiers for the headphones and speakers.
The OnePlus 3 can't boast about such things, and its single speaker is anemic and soft in comparison. Thankfully, both devices' fingerprint sensors are fast and reliable, though the OnePlus 3 wins by a couple of milliseconds in our screen-off unlocking tests.
One area these two devices differ is in their implementation of fast charging. Both have it, and both use a USB Type-C plug to get there, but HTC's Quick Charge 3.0 implementation is the more standard fare, opting for an AC adapter that varies its voltage (5V/9V/12V) depending on the level of battery charge. This allows the HTC 10's 3,000mAh cell to go from zero to 50% in around 30 minutes, but a full charge takes around 90 minutes.
Dash Charge requires not only a specific adapter, but a specific cable — not ideal.
In contrast, OnePlus's Dash Charge technology is based on its parent company Oppo's VOOC standard, which opts for higher current (4A at 5V) in favor of variable voltage. While this allows for the OnePlus 3's 3,000mAh battery to reach 60% charge in that same 30 minute period, it also shortens its overall recharge time to just under 80 minutes. The catch is that Dash Charge requires not only a specific adapter, but a specific cable — the ones in the OnePlus 3's box — to achieve full charging speed. Not ideal, especially given the proliferation of USB Type-C accessories over the past year. It's also disappointing that OnePlus opted to maintain USB 2.0 speeds on the OnePlus 3, whereas HTC upgraded its whole charging module to USB 3.1 when it changed from micro-USB to Type-C.
Fast charging is all good, but what about battery life? As we outlined in our HTC 10 review, the device never quite lived up to its potential, lasting quite a few hours less than its 3,000mAh battery would suggest. Even after several updates, that is still the case, though I haven't experienced the enormous per-day swings that our own Phil Nickinson wrote about. Conversely, the OnePlus 3 has been a solid all-day performer since day one, and I've yet to worry about it getting to the red before suppertime. The one downside is having to remember to bring the Dash charger with me when I leave the house if I want a quick top-up — I may buy another just to scratch that itch — but I don't get that same anxiety as I do when using the HTC 10.
Both of these devices have excellent cameras, despite the seemingly wide delta between their specifics.
While HTC's 12MP sensor is larger and boasts bigger pixels, both it and the OnePlus 3's 16MP sensor are optically stabilized, which makes for more usable low-light photos. And despite the HTC 10's larger pixels, the quality delta when taking photos in poorly lit areas isn't as big as one would expect, though there is a clear winner. Curiously, in one low-light test, the OnePlus 3 chose to keep shutter speed of a non-moving subject to 1/17s while ramping light sensitivity to ISO6400; the larger pixels in the HTC 10 were able to get enough light at 1/12s to minimize grain with an ISO of 1000. Night owls are going to want to stick with the HTC 10.
Both devices take excellent daylight shots, though the OnePlus 3's photos are considerably more colorful and saturated. On the other hand, the HTC 10, despite its temperamental laser autofocus mechanism, appears to capture sharper, more detailed photos, but that is a consequence of an overabundance of sharpening, which is liberally applied to all photos.
Outdoor shots definitely benefit from the OnePlus 3's four million or so extra pixels, as the extra detail can definitely be seen when zoomed in to 100%.
In terms of their respective camera apps, though OnePlus's version has come a long way, HTC still gets the nod, with a simple, feature-rich app that hides the complication without obscuring it. Both phones have excellent manual/professional modes, but aside from shutter speed, focus, white balance, and ISO, HTC adds a useful exposure compensation tool, all of which can be overlaid on the viewfinder itself. And while OnePlus has the requisite panorama mode, HTC boasts hyperlapse, slow motion, and the still-cool Zoe, which Apple coopted for its Live Photos feature in iOS 9.
In terms of video, both phones do 4K, and do it relatively well, but HTC also captures high-resolution audio, and you can really hear the difference. Finally, both selfie cams are fine, but the HTC 10 wins with its optically-stabilized 5MP module over the OnePlus 3's 8MP sensor.
To me, the OnePlus 3 represents Google's initial dream of the Nexus One come to fruition: it's a well-made, accessibly-priced phone that is free from carrier influence, accessible to everyone, unlocked, through the web. It had clean, untarnished software and an excellent camera, and virtually no compromises.
It's also decidedly not a better phone than the HTC 10, but that doesn't really matter; the two are $300 apart. But that brings me back to my initial quandary: is the OnePlus 3 a great phone because, or in spite of, its $399 price tag? In fact, both answers are true, and despite enjoying the HTC 10 more, and thinking it a better overall product, I'd still steer the vast majority of people to the OnePlus 3. And that's not a criticism of HTC's excellent flagship, but a testament to just how far OnePlus has come in just two years.