The OnePlus 9 Pro is a good phone, but it’s certainly not a great one, with a compromised camera and clunky design. Strong specs and fast charging help make the case for the 9 Pro, but for the first time rival flagships deliver consistently better value.
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The OnePlus 9 Pro – and the 9 series in general – marks a turning point for OnePlus.
Over the past few years few in the tech industry have had a bad word to say about the ascendant phone brand. Expansions from its core mid-range offering into Pro flagships and the Nord budget line were met with acclaim, and even the company’s headphones and first TV have been highly praised. OnePlus could do no wrong.
The winds began to change in 2020. OnePlus’s relationship with sister company Oppo began to tighten, with merging R&D departments and new budget Nord phones that looked suspiciously like existing Oppo counterparts. In the midst of this, co-founder Carl Pei departed the company to launch his
new venture Nothing, and whispers that OnePlus had lost its way began to get louder.
Until now, none of this had affected the company’s core portfolio. That’s changed with the
9 series. For the first time OnePlus feels like it’s missed the mark on hardware design, while the much-touted camera partnership with Hasselblad doesn’t deliver the goods – crippling noise issues and inconsistent colours mean that in many respects this camera is actually a step back from last year’s 8 Pro.
The OnePlus 9 Pro certainly isn’t a bad phone. The core specs are impeccable, the battery life and charging speeds are among the best in the business, and the software remains a key selling point – though almost all of these are also to be found on the significantly cheaper
For the first time though, the new OnePlus simply doesn’t add up.
Design and build
Let’s start with the bad. The OnePlus 9 Pro is the ugliest OnePlus phone I can remember reviewing.
I’ve been testing the phone in the reflective Morning Mist finish, which offers a gradient from a mirrored bottom edge to a misted top. The initial impression is closer to a budget phone, and it only gets worse once fingerprints start to turn the whole phone into one big smudge.
In fairness, I suspect that the Stellar Black and Pine Green models might fare better, but other design flaws will affect every colour equally. There’s the drab camera module, which seems to have been assembled with no particular care for symmetry or design. There’s the slick, cheap hand-feel, with none of the subtle texturing of previous OnePlus flagships. Or the way it’s just a little bit thicker than last year’s phone, in a year when other manufacturers are slimming their flagships down, making it feel disproportionately chunky.
The practical side of the design remains strong at least: Gorilla Glass on front and back (though only version 5, not the more recent 6 or Victus), an IP68 water-resistance rating, and the familiar OnePlus alert slider to let you quickly switch notification settings. Dual stereo speakers deliver audio, though of course there’s no headphone jack – no surprise now.
If you plan to slap your phone into a case the moment you buy it and never take it out, then of course the actual look and feel doesn’t matter much anyway. But it’s pretty striking that this is the first OnePlus phone I’ve ever reviewed that I prefer to keep in a case than out of one.
This is death by a thousand cuts, with lots of little flaws that add up to
compromise the look and feel of the phone as a whole. It’s especially striking from a company that normally nails its design language, leaving me genuinely confused as to how it all went wrong. Did Carl Pei take the design team with him when he left?
Hardware design is a traditional OnePlus strength that’s somehow all gone wrong this time around. By contrast, camera performance is a long-time OnePlus weakness that the company insists it’s fixing, in this case with the help of Swedish camera company Hasselblad.
Don’t get too excited though. The Hasselblad logo may be emblazoned on the camera module (and even the phone’s packaging) but its contributions are, for now, limited: a free-form lens for the ultrawide camera to reduce edge distortion; colour-calibration support; and branding touches like an orange shutter button in the app, a painstakingly recreated Hasselblad leaf shutter sound, and a re-designed Pro mode.
It’s odd that Hasselblad’s chief contribution is colour calibration because this is clearly the 9 Pro’s camera’s major weakness, especially when it comes to colour consistency across the lenses. Check out this collage of shots from each of the phone’s three lenses, taken within seconds of one another:
This dim sunset lighting is more challenging than most conditions, so it’s no surprise to see some discrepancies between the lenses. Still, this is one of the most extreme cases I’ve ever seen, and helpfully highlights each lens’s tendencies: the main lens tends to exaggerate colours, the ultrawide washes them out, and the telephoto skews to warm, orange tones. It’s worth pointing out that none of these captured this shot entirely accurately, though the telephoto comes closest.
Inconsistent colours aren’t the biggest issue in the world, but they highlight the fact that despite Hasselblad’s work, none of these lenses is quite capturing things right.
The 48Mp main camera, using a custom Sony IMX789 sensor, pumps colour up to the point that shots begin to look artificial and exaggerated. Greens and blues suffer especially, to the point where it looks like I’ve been photoshopping blue skies into my photos.
The ultrawide – 50Mp, using an IMX700 sensor – fares better for the most part. Colours are less vivid and saturated than in the main camera, though some tones still pop unnecessarily. Hasselblad’s sole hardware contribution – the freeform lens – helps reduce edge distortion on this camera, so you won’t see unexpected curvature on your wide shots. Most phones solve this problem with software, but this hardware fix does seem slightly more reliable.
The 3.3x telephoto handles colours best of all, to my surprise, frequently delivering the most true-to-life palette. The digital zoom goes up to 30x, but anything beyond about 5x is essentially unusable.
The fourth rear lens is a 2Mp monochrome shooter. It’s only really used to provide extra contrast information for the phone’s black-and-white filter – nifty, but niche.
The 16Mp selfie camera is more of a success – I wouldn’t describe results here as exceptional, but they’re very solid, and don’t have the same problems with colour balance as the rear lenses.
Setting aside colour calibration, there are wider problems with the 9 Pro camera that seem to afflict every lens equally.
Details are hit-and-miss – some photos are sharp as a razor, while in others the clouds look like watercolours. There’s clearly a lot of sharpening going on, which has the effect of introducing excessive noise and grain across almost every image the phone puts out, even in good lighting.
In bright light almost every lens struggles with glare – especially the front-facing camera – and the HDR clearly needs work. It tends to balance most around bright spots, leaving darker areas stripped of all detail. It also significantly worsens the noise problems, so you might even prefer to just turn it off entirely.
I began to wonder if I was being unfair, so I took last year’s
OnePlus 8 Pro out for a spin to compare. In all but a few instances I preferred the 8 Pro’s results, which offered more natural colours, sharper details, and far less noise. Most of the 9 Pro’s wins came from the telephoto, which did beat last year’s on colour grading – though even here the newer phone suffers from the signs of excessive sharpening.
Portrait mode works across the main, telephoto, and selfie lenses, and this does work well. There’s also a macro mode that uses the ultrawide camera to unexpectedly decent results – though you’ll want to turn off the aggressive auto macro mode, which kicks in any time you try to photograph something within a metre, let alone the 3-4cm recommended for macro photography.
The camera is also broadly a success in low light. The default mode captures shots fairly well in dim light, though can’t cope in real darkness. Nightscape mode makes a real difference here, delivering a massive reduction in noise while enhancing detail at the same time.
While some phones now deliver most of their night mode oomph in the main camera mode, clearly here there’s still a lot to gain by using Nightscape. It’s available on both the main and ultrawide cameras, but without OIS the wide-angle doesn’t get quite the same results. Disappointingly, Nightscape isn’t available at all for the selfie camera.
As for video, you can now record 4K footage at up to 120fps, or 8K at 30fps, but there’s likely little reason for you to do either. Video portrait and night modes are more useful, though both cap at 1080@30fps.
I’ve been testing the 9 Pro on pre-release software of course, and there’s still time for OnePlus to improve things. But there’s a lot of room for improvement, and right now for every step forward on image processing, OnePlus has taken two backwards.
Specs and performance
Let’s get to what the OnePlus 9 Pro gets right at least.
Like most flagships this year, the 9 Pro is powered by Qualcomm’s top-tier
Snapdragon 888 5G chipset. It’s paired with either 8GB RAM and 128GB storage, or 12GB RAM and 256GB storage – the model I’ve tested. The phone’s finishes are also tied to specific colours, so make sure to check availability in your country: if you want a specific spec, that may limit your colour options. Note that there’s also no microSD slot, so storage can’t be expanded.
Performance in benchmarks is essentially what you’d hope for. The 9 Pro keeps up with the rest of 2021’s flagships in the Geekbench CPU test, while in the GFXBench graphical tests it’s an almost exact match for the
Xiaomi Mi 11 and
Oppo Find X3 Pro, which feature the same chipset, resolution, and refresh rate.
Benchmarks aside, that means fast, smooth performance across the board, and a phone that should very capably run through even the most demanding modern mobile games. The cooling system also seems capable, which goes someway to making up for the slight extra bulk on the build, with none of the thermal throttling I saw from the Oppo.
Outside of dedicated gaming phones like the
Asus ROG Phone 5, you really won’t see much better performance out there.
The display is another fairly clear win for OnePlus. Following on from last year’s strong screen, the company has smartly decided not to reinvent the wheel.
Once again, you’re getting a 6.7in, 120Hz, QHD+ AMOLED with 10-bit colour support – essentially a top spec across the board.
There are a few more notable features. First up, this uses the same LTPO adaptive refresh rate tech as the
Galaxy S21 Ultra. This scales the display’s refresh rate up and down depending on what the phone is doing, and thanks to some software tweaks OnePlus can even get it down as low as 1Hz.
This is essentially just battery-saving tech. The phone feels just as fast and fluid in normal use, but it will conserve battery when appropriate by dropping the refresh rate to match the framerate of video, or go even slower for static images. Gamers will also appreciate a touch sampling rate of up to 360Hz, so inputs should register even faster in compatible games.
There’s one other small tweak, though it’s less welcome. OnePlus has kept the screen curved, but reduced how much of the actual screen goes into the curve, supposedly to reduce mistouches. This really just means the side bezel is thicker than before, while reducing usable screen real estate.
As you’d expect, the display includes a built-in fingerprint scanner. This is fast and reliable, and worked for me first time, every time.
Battery and charging
OnePlus insists that the adaptive refresh rate tech cuts the display’s power drain by up to 50%. I can’t verify that specific number, but I can say that battery life is one of the phone’s strong points.
Breaking the 10-hour line in the Geekbench battery test, this is one of the longer-lasting Snapdragon 888 phones we’ve tested so far. In use the 4500mAh cell comfortably lasts a day, though won’t quite make two – but it at least frees you from having to plug it in every 24 hours.
If battery life is solid, battery charging is exceptional. Wired charging uses the second-gen of the company’s 65W tech, dubbed Warp Charge 65T. OnePlus claims it offers a full charge in 28 minutes, though it wasn’t quite that fast for me: 15 minutes got me to 56%, while by the 30-minute mark the phone was sitting pretty at 96%. And yes, the charger is included in the box, and will also double as a USB-PD charger for laptops, a Switch, or similar.
Wireless charging is arguably even more impressive, charging at up to 50W – supposedly a full charge in 43 minutes. This requires the official OnePlus Warp Charge 50 wireless charger, sold separately for £69.95, though you can still charge at a more modest 15W speed on compatible Qi standard wireless chargers.
In China the OnePlus 9 series may be jumping ship to Oppo’s ColorOS, but fear not: the Western release will still run on OnePlus’s own OxygenOS, on top of Android 11.
There have been few new additions to the software since last autumn’s OnePlus 8T, but you’ll get all the benefits of
Android 11, including the new media controls and conversation features.
OnePlus is continuing to move the aesthetic of its OS away from stock Android, but from a usability perspective, it’s still comfortingly clean and straightforward.
You get the best of Google’s OS, along with a few OnePlus extras like a hidden app drawer, the OnePlus Shelf activity feed, and the dynamic always-on display options added to the software last year.
Updates should also be reliable: OnePlus typically delivers three Android version updates and three years of security patches for its flagship phones, which is at the upper end of Android offerings, lagging behind only Google, Samsung, and of course Apple.
The 8/128GB model costs £829/€899 (this version is unavailable in the US), while the 12/256GB version is more at £929/€999/$1,069. For reference, that’s a £30/$70 increase on the equivalent OnePlus 8 Pro models from last year, though prices are actually fractionally lower in Euros.
It’s also £200/€200/$340 up from the OnePlus 9, which mostly looks like a better buy. It lacks the telephoto camera and uses a different sensor for the main lens, but still at 48Mp – and camera performance is hardly a strength here anyway.
Perhaps more importantly the display is a touch smaller, not curved, and doesn’t have dynamic refresh rate, and you also lose the IP68 rating, but even taken together these changes don’t quite justify the price hike.
The additional challenge for OnePlus this year is that while it’s brought prices up, rival brands have generally nudged them down a touch. The
iPhone 12 (£799/€719/$799),
Samsung Galaxy S21 (£769/€849/$749) and
Xiaomi Mi 11 (£749/€749) all undercut the 9 Pro’s starting price while matching many of its specs – and all three trounce the 9 Pro on camera.
Of course, the price comparisons look different once you factor in the iPhone 12 Pro Max or S21 Ultra, but outside of specific specs like charging speeds or dynamic refresh rate the 9 Pro doesn’t beat Apple & Samsung’s core flagships this year, let alone their top-tier models.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is a good phone, but it’s certainly not a great one.
With clunky hardware design and a camera that is at times downright bad, two of the phone’s core pillars simply aren’t here.
Strong specs and great charging options help to make up some of the shortfalls, and OxygenOS remains among the best Android operating systems, up there with Google’s own Pixel software, but is that enough?
You can find a Snapdragon 888 and fast charging elsewhere, meaning OxygenOS is the only unique selling point here. I’m not sure it’s enough to recommend spending more than you would with Samsung or Xiaomi.
Tech Advisor's Deputy Editor, Dom covers everything that runs on electricity, from phones and laptops to wearables, audio, gaming, smart home, and streaming - plus he's a regular fixture on the Tech Advisor YouTube channel.