The OnePlus 9 Pro is a Samsung phone. That is a compliment and a criticism. Let me explain.
A Samsung phone is stuffed to the gills with specs, specs, and — wait for it — more specs. It has so many features that you need a lexicon to decode what each feature is and a map to find where the setting is. A Samsung phone tends to be unparalleled on paper, but as I’ve learned reviewing them year after year, it’s often not more than the sum of its parts.
Now that you know what it means to be a Samsung phone, you know the OnePlus 9 Pro is equal parts impressive and disappointing. That is the burden of succeeding the OnePlus 8 Pro, the best Android phone of 2020 with one of the most consistent and reliable camera systems.
In a spec-for-spec duel, the OnePlus 9 Pro is stacked. Here are a few (but not all) of the premium specs the OnePlus 9 Pro is packing: the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip; a big AMOLED display with bleeding edge LTPO screen technology that adjusts between 1Hz to 120Hz to save on battery life; a dual-cell 4,500 mAh battery that supports 65W fast wired charging for 1-100 percent in 29 minutes and 50W fast wireless charging for 1-100% in 43 minutes; up to 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM; a 300 percent larger vapor chamber for better cooling when gaming; and, of course, a quad-camera system (including a 48-megapixel main sensor and 50-megapixel ultra-wide lens) that’s been designed in collaboration with Hasselblad.
Every single one of these features tickles my inner nerd and will elate Android enthusiasts. But after two weeks of using the OnePlus 9 Pro, my feeling is that many of the features don’t live up to the OnePlus hype. At least not on OxygenOS 220.127.116.11.LE15AA that I’ve been running on. OnePlus has a long history of pushing out big software updates that iron out the kinks in new phones so there’s a possibility that everything I’ve experienced will be fixed or at least improved. Until that happens (if it happens), OnePlus cedes its crown as God Emperor of Android to Samsung’s mighty Galaxy S21 Ultra.
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Rating the hype
This review is going to be structured a little differently than my past phone reviews. Because there’s so much going on, there’s only one proper way to review the OnePlus 9 Pro: break down each of the major new features on the OnePlus 9 Pro and decide if they pass the reality distortion field test or not. Far too many phone reviews waste your time telling you things that are obvious — so I won’t. You don’t need me to tell you this phone has a massive camera bump or a USB-C port, but you do need me to tell you if the features are gimmicks or not.
First, the specs. You’re gonna look for them, so here they are:
- 6.7-inch Fluid AMOLED 2.0 display (3,216 x 1,440 QHD+) at 525 ppi with LTPO, 120Hz, and 1,300 nits of peak brightness
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip
- 8GB of LPDDR5 RAM + 128GB of UFS 3.1 storage or 12GB RAM + 256GB storage
- 4,500 mAh battery (dual-cell; 2,550 mAh each) with Warp Charge 65T (wired) and Warp Charge 50 (wireless charging)
- Quad-camera system on rear: 48-megapixel main, 50-megapixel ultra-wide, 8-megapixel telephoto, and 2-megapixel monochrome
- 16-megapixel selfie camera
- 8K video recording at 30 fps or 4K at up to 120 fps
- IP68 water and dust resistance
Boring design, feels great
My OnePlus 9 Pro review unit is the “Morning Mist” color. OnePlus says it “shimmers from silver to black like fog on a glossy mirror.” Exactly like a dirtied mirror, this glass finish looks horrible unless you use a case and does nothing to repel fingerprints. It feels like a step back from the 8 Pro’s sleek matte glass. There’s a Pine Green version that has a matte glass back and a Stellar Black model with a texturized back that’s supposed to evoke the old Sandstone texture of the original OnePlus One, but… 1) Stellar Black won’t be available in the U.S. and 2) OnePlus sent me the least aesthetically pleasing model to test so I can’t speak for the other versions. Also, this looks like a million other Oppo phones.
The metal frame on the OnePlus 9 Pro feels good at least and the Alert Slider is still present (I was worried it might get cut since the Nord N10 and N100 nixed them). And yes, yes, yes OnePlus reduced the curvature of the glass sides; I rarely experience accidental touches on phones with curved displays, but I do hate watching videos and taking pictures on them. I’m really glad the OnePlus 9 Pro inches back to a flat display. It’s not fully flat like the OnePlus 9, but it’s an improvement. Interestingly, even though the phone is 8.7mm thick (0.2mm thicker than the 8 Pro), it’s 2 grams lighter. I’m not complaining — the overall hand feel is nicer with better weight distribution. One thing I don’t like: The in-display fingerprint reader is lower. I found myself doing more finger gymnastics to reach down to it. The sensor is still best-in-class and I usually set up face unlock, but that’s less secure.
Phones with fast refresh rates are awesome. Scrolling is smoother, animations are snappier, and games benefit with less screen tearing and smoother performance. The OnePlus 9 Pro builds on the 8 Pro’s responsive 120Hz QHD+ display with “Smart 120Hz” which uses LTPO (low-temperature polycrystalline oxide), a new OLED display technology that automatically adjusts the frame rate depending on what you’re doing. The S21 Ultra has this same feature called “adaptive refresh rate.” The S21 Ultra’s display can drop down to 10Hz when idle to conserve power. The OnePlus 9 Pro one-ups that with a screen that can drop down to 1Hz.
In theory, this should mean serious power savings — OnePlus claims up 50 percent power savings. But in reality, I’m not seeing any benefit. The battery doesn’t appear to be better (more on this below) and — I’m not sure if this is a software bug or not — Smart 120Hz on the OnePlus 9 Pro feels just the slightest bit less responsive to me than on the 8 Pro. It’s almost as if the LTPO is spending an extra second or two ramping up to 120Hz from lower refresh rates. (I’ve also noticed that adjusting the display brightness is not instant.) It’s not easy to see this 120Hz dip with the naked eye, but I can feel that scrolling and swiping are worse. At first, I thought it was maybe the pre-installed screen protector creating some extra resistance, but I peeled it off and the 8 Pro still feels faster to me. I don’t know if OnePlus can fix this in an update, but maybe it could add a setting to turn off the “smart” part because it doesn’t feel that smart to me right now.
Smart 120Hz on the OnePlus 9 Pro feels less responsive than on the 8 Pro.
This is separate from the 120Hz and refers to the touch sampling rate or how fast the display can sync input. For gaming, a higher touch sampling rate is preferred to reduce every millisecond of lag. Most phones come with 60Hz or 120Hz touch sampling rates. The OnePlus 9 Pro’s display supports 360Hz and can reduce input latency by up to 30ms. This is one of those enthusiast features that you will not appreciate unless you are a hardcore mobile gamer. And even if you are, it only works on select games including PUBG, Call of Duty Mobile, League of Legends, and Brawl Stars. In Asia, where mobile gaming is more popular and on a completely different competitive level, Hyper Touch may be a major selling point for the OnePlus 9 Pro. I’m less moved by the feature since I don’t play any of these games on phones much and it doesn’t improve any of the games that I do play like Genshin Impact, Among Us, or Asphalt 9.
Worse battery life
The 4,500 mAh battery in the OnePlus 9 Pro is 10 mAh less than in the 8 Pro and considerably less than the 5,000 mAh in the S21 Ultra. I don’t know about other reviewers, but the battery life on my OnePlus 9 Pro has consistently been worse than on the 8 Pro, and not just by a little. The OnePlus 9 Pro drains quicker regardless of what I’m doing — 10-15 percent more power loss than the 8 Pro in standby and around 8-10 percent faster battery drain while browsing apps like Instagram and Twitter. It’s nearly impossible for me to kill the S21 Ultra in one day even using it nonstop. On the other hand, the OnePlus 9 Pro has me reaching for the Warp Charge 65T charger (thankfully included in the box) way sooner and often every day. This is either a flaw or a concession of the dual-cell battery design (two 2,550 mAh batteries instead of a single 4,500 mAh cell) for faster wireless charging.
Wicked fast wireless charging
The OnePlus 9 Pro battery is a letdown, but the fast wireless charging is not. I called the Warp Charge 30 Wireless Charger stand a “mini marvel” in my 8 Pro review and the new Warp Charge 50 Wireless Charger is even more of a game changer. It can wirelessly the OnePlus 9 Pro’s dual-cell battery at 25W each, which is far faster than the max 15W fast wireless charging on the S21 Ultra. It’s also faster than the 15W MagSafe and 8W Qi wireless charging for iPhone 12 series. The stand is slightly larger than the previous one, but it comes with one advantage: you can place the OnePlus 9 Pro in either portrait or landscape orientation thanks to a second charging coil inside of it. This is easily the best wireless charging stand for the OnePlus 9 Pro (or any phone with wireless charging). The only downside is that it doesn’t come with a power adapter. But that’s not really a problem since you can use the one that comes with the OnePlus 9 Pro.
300% larger vapor chamber
Another feature aimed at gamers. Like Samsung phones and many gaming phones, the OnePlus says the 9 Pro has better thermals thanks to “Cool Play,” a thermal system with a 300 percent larger vapor chamber, more copper foil, and thicker graphite sheets to dissipate heat and lower temperatures when you’re gaming. I didn’t take a thermal gun to the phone or anything (I’ll leave that to Dave Lee), but I’m not seeing the 9 Pro run shockingly cool or anything. Graphics-heavy 3D games like Genshin Impact and my all-time favorite for heating up phones, Asphalt 9, produced about the same warmth on the back of the OnePlus 9 Pro compared to a Galaxy S21 Ultra. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Blazing 5G speeds
5G is still a mess in the U.S. On Verizon, it’s a nightmare with mmWave rolling out in such a half-assed way and mid-band 5G barely better than LTE. Same for AT&T. It’s so bad, 5G on the OnePlus 9 Pro doesn’t work on AT&T and it’s LTE only on Verizon (5G is coming, but later.) But if you’re on T-Mobile and live in a big city like me, you’re gonna see some fast 5G even in the outer boroughs (shoutout from Flushing, Queens in NYC!). On the 8 Pro, I got around 140 Mbps downloads. With the X60 5G modem in the Snapdragon 888 chip, the 9 Pro is pulling down 5G data at 480 Mbps on average (about 242 percent faster 5G downloads) and almost 100 Mbps uploads. My iPhone 12 Pro gets about 420 Mbps down on 5G and 90 Mbps uploads so the difference is narrowing. The dream is still to get 1 Gbps downloads over 5G, but that’s a carrier thing, not OnePlus’ problem since the phone is capable of up to 7.5 Gbps (if your network supports it).
The 9 Pro is pulling down 5G data at 480 Mbps on average (about 242 percent faster 5G downloads).
Improved haptics and louder speakers
The haptics motor and the stereo speakers are both better on 9 Pro than the 8 Pro, but only by a little. Every small improvement counts and I applaud OnePlus for tweaking the smallest of features, but it’s not like anyone is going to buy this phone solely because of better vibrations and marginally louder speakers.
Oxygen OS 11
I loved OnePlus’s near-stock version of Android for many years. But then Oxygen OS 11 hit and now each major update works less like stock Android. The most noticeable changes are to OnePlus’ apps (redesigned for better one-handed use) and the swipe-down gesture that pulls down the OnePlus Shelf instead of quick settings. It trips me up every time I set up a new OnePlus phone as new now and is a concerning reminder that OnePlus is getting perhaps ready to go beyond stock Android. The China version of the OnePlus 9 series is ditching Hydrogen OS (China’s version of Oxygen OS) for Oppo’s ColorOS. OnePlus is downplaying any plans for global versions to switch to ColorOS. How much trust do you have in OnePlus? Much of the hardware from OnePlus phones is borrowed from Oppo phones and scaled up through their shared manufacturing channels so it seems inevitable that software is next. After all, one unified platform would be a bigger threat to iOS and Android (Samsung’s version at least, which is the one installed on most phones) than Oxygen OS going at them alone. I have little frustration with Oxygen OS 11 — it’s still fast and responsive and very customizable — but the fact that Oxygen OS 11 seems to be borrowing design queues from Samsung’s One UI again shows how Samsung-like it’s becoming.
Smartphone cameras are getting harder and harder to test. They keep getting more complex with more lenses, larger image sensors, better video recording, and manual modes that give you more control. Not to mention, there’s always new AI and machine learning to take into consideration.
With the OnePlus 9 series, OnePlus called in some help from Swedish photography experts Hasselblad. Earlier this month OnePlus announced a $150 million investment in developing camera technologies across the board for its future phones, one of which involves a three-year deal with Hasselblad to lend its expertise.
OnePlus 9 Pro camera system:
- Main: 48-megapixel f/1.8 Sony IMX 789 sensor + OIS + EIS (optical and electronic stabilization)
- Ultra-wide: 50-megapixel f/2.2 Sony IMX 766 sensor (freeform lens with super macro mode)
- Telephoto: 8-megapixel 3.3x optical zoom (30x digital zoom) f/2.4 + OIS
- Monochrome sensor: 2 megapixels
- Selfie: 16-megapixel f/2.4 Sony IMX 471 + EIS
- Video recording at 8K 30 fps, 4K 120 fps
I was eager to find out if Hasselblad really helped improve the OnePlus 9 Pro’s camera in any meaningful way or if it was more like the branding and partnership that Huawei phones have with Leica. OnePlus CEO Pete Lau has been busy boasting about “Natural Color Calibration with Hasselblad,” a color science that aims to produce images with more realistic colors. He’s also been touting the 48-megapixel main camera’s Sony IMX 789’s sensor (3.2x larger than the sensor in the iPhone 12 Pro Max) and its ability to take better low-light photos than other flagship phones; the 50-megapixel ultra-wide lens with Sony IMX 766 sensor and a “freeform” lens that reduces distortion in-lens as opposed to with software correction; and the “Hasselblad Pro Mode” manual mode that gives users full control over settings like 12-bit RAW format, shutter speed, ISO, and more.
My conclusion after two weeks of shooting: the OnePlus 9 Pro’s camera is miles better than the one on the 8 Pro, especially when it comes to low-light shooting. Despite OnePlus’ daily bluster on Twitter, the camera isn’t that much better than the iPhone 12 Pro Max or Galaxy S21 Ultra. OnePlus and Hasselblad have tweaked the colors, toning down saturation and making subtle tweaks to skin tones, but the iPhone remains better at capturing lifelike colors and the Galaxy S21 Ultra camera has more resolution (108 megapixels) and superior zoom. I don’t think anyone who buys a OnePlus 9 Pro will hate the pictures, but I think it’s tough when the S21 Ultra camera system is more versatile. Despite my preference for the iPhone 12 Pro’s reliable and consistent camera, I have been finding myself reaching for the S21 Ultra more for its longer zoom and macro mode. The OnePlus 9 Pro has a great macro mode for getting within an inch of stuff, but the S21 Ultra does too, so it’s not exactly special.
The OnePlus 9 Pro’s camera is miles better than the one on the 8 Pro.
Before I shut up and get to the comparisons, I do want to shout out the Hasselblad integration. The camera app has been redesigned with Hasselblad heritage in mind. Little things like the squash-colored shutter button and a new shutter sound ripped from a Hasselblad camera are nice touches. The laser autofocus and PDAF are also wicked fast with no hunting like the ill-fated S20 Ultra.
Hasselblad or Hasselblah colors?
I really wish I owned or had access to a Hasselblad camera to compare the color science of the OnePlus 9 Pro’s photos. Sadly, I’m not rich enough to own a Hasselblad. (If you have one, let’s work something out!). Still, I’m not sure Hasselblad color science really means a whole lot for phone cameras. To me, it’s just a fancy way to say “the colors are not quite as realistic as iPhone and not as saturated as a Samsung.” That’s not a bad place for the OnePlus 9 Pro to land between.
People love the iPhone’s camera because colors are always the most consistent on all the lenses and the camera app is reliable. The OnePlus 9 Pro camera catches up on both. There are some times when the image processing is questionable (particularly loss of details in shadows and occasional blocky artifacting for water), but I’m satisfied with most of the images that come out of the camera system. They look good on a computer monitor and better on the OnePlus 9 Pro display, which supports 10-bit color depth for 1.07 billion colors; I can see detail on it that I can’t even see on my MacBook Pro screen that supports DC-3 wide color gamut.
Ultra-wide lens hype
OnePlus made a big fuss over the OnePlus 9 series’ Sony IMX 766 ultra-wide lens. The “freeform” ultra-wide lens can reduce the distortion of straight lines from the typical 10-20 percent down to 1 percent. This would have been a groundbreaking feature to reduce the fisheye distortion that’s characteristic of ultra-wide lenses. But the reality is, most smartphones use AI or some kind of software correction to straight out egregious distortion. It’s cool that the ultra-wide on the 9 Pro reduces distortion entirely with hardware, but not many people will notice. The edges and corners are slightly sharper in 9 Pro ultra-wides compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max and S21 Ultra, but not by a wide margin.
That’s really all I have to say about the telephoto lens on the OnePlus 9 Pro. It’s an 8-megapixel 3.3x optical zoom and it’s not good at all. And the 30x digital zoom... complete garbage. OnePlus focused on the main and ultra-wide cameras and left the telephoto for dead and it shows.
The Sony IMX 789 is a monster-sized image sensor for a smartphone. At 3.2x larger than the sensor inside of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the OnePlus 9 Pro’s main 48-megapixel camera can take some really good low-light photos even without Nightscape mode turned on. Low-light photography on smartphones is so good now, you really have to pixel peep to see the differences. In this batch, taken at nearly midnight, much of the darkness in the outdoor dining shacks on the right side has been lifted. Also, take note of the sky in the photos; the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s image processing is looking extra crunch compared to the pixel-binned photos from the OnePlus 9 Pro and S21 Ultra.
Phone cameras still struggle with night portrait photos. As with all the photos in my testing, I let each respective camera autofocus on its own. The results... are mostly soft. These would have come out a lot sharper had my assistant tapped-to-focus on my face. You can see below the OnePlus 9 Pro completely blows away the OnePlus 8 Pro. It’s no contest. The Pixel 5 took the clearest photo without user intervention — again highlighting the power of AI — but you can also see where it fails to blur out the trunk window on the SUV behind me.
Tilt-shift and macro
You already know I love macro cameras. The OnePlus 9 Pro has a new tilt-shift shooting mode. It’s... meh. Tilt-shift photography is supposed to make scenes look like miniatures. The mode can simulate a tilt-shift photo much like the editing setting on Instagram, but it’s quite gimmicky.
I apologize for having to look at my pandemic grooming. Looking at all six of these selfies, the OnePlus 9 Pro selfie is dangerously similar to the OnePlus 9 and 8 Pro. It has more highlights in the hair and a touch more warmth to the image, but skin tones are darn close, which is to say, kind of dull. The iPhone takes the best — meaning the most true-to-life — selfie IMO. I want to see the selfie camera get better in next year’s OnePlus flagship; they’ve been quite stagnant for the past few years.
For your eyes, here’s a gallery of shots taken with the OnePlus 9 Pro camera system. Looking for something more specific? Feel free to DM me on Instagram (@sourlemons) or Twitter (@raywongy) and I’ll take a sample if I can!
Ultra beats pro
I like the OnePlus 9 Pro. It’s a good phone. But I don’t love it. Not like the way I completely fell for the OnePlus 8 Pro. There’s no question that in trying to outdo the 8 Pro in every possible way, the OnePlus 9 Pro fails to stick the landing for that perfect score.
The most disappointing parts of the OnePlus 9 Pro are the short battery life, wonky Smart 120Hz, and the lack of anything fresh to the software (where’s this year’s Reading mode or Zen mode?). OnePlus put all of its eggs into improving the camera and, yes, it makes the OnePlus 8 Pro photos look bad. But as a whole, the OnePlus 9 Pro feels like the Galaxy S20 Ultra — it looks great on paper, but it’s no standout the way the 8 Pro was and the S21 Ultra is.
Dynasties are hard to establish in the Android world.
This is par for the course for OnePlus. When you’ve made the best, it is very hard to top yourself. By doing too much, it feels like OnePlus took its eye off the ball with the 9 Pro. The stakes are now really high with the S21 Ultra and even higher when you consider the frequent and steep discounts you can get for Samsung’s best several months after launch. Samsung dropping the ball last year with the S21 Ultra gave OnePlus the opening for first place and the 8 Pro delivered. The 9 Pro has no such handicap this time and no outstanding features that justify it over the S21 Ultra other than a lower MSRP ($969 for 8GB of RAM/128GB of storage and $1,069 for 12GB RAM/256GB storage). It may sound like I’m being extra harsh on the OnePlus 9 Pro, but dynasties are hard to establish in the Android world. You win one year, you lose another.
More OnePlus stories:
- OnePlus 9 Pro review: Samsung’s second-best phone
- OnePlus 9 Pro vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra: Which takes better night photos?
- OnePlus says screw it, here's the OnePlus 9 Pro from every angle
- Everything we know about the OnePlus 9’s Hasselblad cameras so far
- OnePlus and Hasselblad join forces for killer cameras on OnePlus 9
- Everything we know about the OnePlus 9 Pro’s display and ‘Smart 120Hz’ refresh rate so far
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