I want to recommend this phone, but I can’t


OnePlus had changed from the scrappy upstart that launched a hard-to-get phone at a crazy price. In some ways (okay, a lot of ways) it’s matured as a company. But, although it’s doing better than it ever has before in a pure business sense, OnePlus also seems to be stumbling, losing track of precisely what made it great, even as it celebrates its triumphs. As I see it, nothing better defines the current state of OnePlus, a victim of its own success, than the OnePlus 9 Pro.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

The OnePlus 9 Pro is a big phone — but this time around, I’d say it’s “pleasantly” big with its 6.7″ screen. While numerical dimensions aren’t’ that different from the 8 Pro or 7 Pro, it is slightly shorter and narrower, which makes a surprising difference. The OnePlus 9 Pro is much easier to hold for a Plus/Max/Ultra-sized phone, and right at the upper edge of what I’d consider comfortable. It’s large, but it’s not unwieldy, and just the right weight for the size.

Like most flagship phones, the OnePlus 9 Pro has an aluminum and glass body that feels solid — though this time around, the camera bump’s protective glass has an exposed frosted edge, which may not be the most durable design. The frame down the left and right side is also a little more narrow than on prior OnePlus phones, reminiscent of older Samsung Galaxy S phones.

We reviewed the glossy morning mist color, which has a weird slightly pixelated gradient on the back, and looks everywhere from silver to blue depending on the light. I’d stick with one of the other seemingly nicer-looking matte options, if you get one.

OnePlus fans will note that although the company gave up the alert slider on the recent N10 5G, it’s here on the OnePlus 9 Pro. In case you aren’t familiar with the feature, it’s a three-position hardware switch that lets you adjust between three ringer modes — ring, vibrate, and silent — on-demand with just a single flick, sort of like you can with the switch on an iPhone. Low-key it’s one of the best features OnePlus phones have, and yet they’re alone among Android devices to get it.

The power button is on the right side of the phone beneath the alert slider, and the volume keys are on the left. On the bottom, you have the USB Type-C port, the SIM tray (this time around just single-SIM for the US unlocked model), a hole for the bottom mic, and a single speaker port. The top of the phone is bare, excluding another mic hole. Continuing last year’s trend, the OnePlus 9 Pro is IP-rated, regardless of where you buy it.

The OnePlus 9 Pro has a hole-punch display, with a mid-sized hole for the camera in the top left corner — large enough that the status bar is a little bit bigger to accommodate it. It’s also a fantastic screen, at 6.7″ across (excluding the rounded corners), 1440p, and 525ppi, with a 120Hz refresh rate. It’s big, it’s sharp, it’s smooth, and it’s bright.

This is also a new kind of screen that beats the high refresh rate panels of the last two years in one very significant way: it has an LTPO backplane. You can ignore the acronym — the takeaway is that this new screen uses less power and the refresh rate can be adaptive. OnePlus claims it’s the first phone that can scale all the way down to 1Hz from 120Hz, and we’re told it uses up to 50% less power compared to last year’s screens.

It’s still a curved display (which I actually enjoy, though that’s not a popular opinion), but OnePlus managed to cut down the radius to the point that any edge-distortion is minimal.

I also want to point out that the OnePlus 9 Pro is one of the first high refresh rate screens I’ve used that does not flicker for me in any circumstance. It’s subtle, but phones like the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4 series can flicker at certain lower brightness levels as they change between refresh rates, and I ran into a similar problem with the Galaxy S21 at maximum brightness outdoors, but the 9 Pro’s has no such issue. And while the 9 Pro is not perfectly uniform at low brightness levels, it’s close enough — no one should be complaining about splotchy backgrounds with dark themes at night if retail models match what I received. It also doesn’t crush blacks noticeably or have any other undesirable characteristics that I’ve noticed.

If you’ve yet to use a phone with an in-display fingerprint sensor, the one on the OnePlus 9 Pro will probably blow your mind. Even just a very quick tap is enough to get you in. The performance gap has finally closed between these optical sensors and the ultrasonic ones made by Qualcomm and used in Samsung’s flagships, which may be slightly faster, but the differences are slight — either way, you can reliably and quickly unlock your phone.

However, the fingerprint sensor in the 9 Pro does have one big flaw: It’s way too far down on the screen, close to the bottom edge. It’s not ergonomic, but it’s also just an awkward spot to hit accurately. Some long-term OnePlus users have also had issues with burn-in from the optical sensor’s display-based illumination.

The OnePlus 9 Pro has stereo speakers in the usual fashion, aided by the earpiece. Audio quality is good for a phone, and it got loud enough to fill my deck with sound as I luxuriated in the early spring weather, though bass was lacking. Call quality was also generally good. Haptic performance was better than the Android average (especially compared to last year’s phones and the S21 series), but not quite as good to me as phones like the Pixel 4, not that Android phones do as many nice things with haptics compared to iPhones.

In the box, you get the Warp Charge 65 power adapter, a OnePlus-themed bright red Type-C to Type-C cable, a SIM ejector tool, and the usual documentation. There’s no bundled case, as with some prior OnePlus phones, but you do get a pre-applied screen protector.

Software, performance, and battery

The latest version of OnePlus’ OxygenOS has grown on me a little over the last year. I still think some of the company’s visual changes are superfluous, but it is a comfortable environment. If you’ve used Android before, you should feel right at home.

I won’t go over every feature, but there are a few noteworthy highlights, like OnePlus’ Quick Gestures, that let you swipe around the screen while it’s off to trigger certain commands. There’s also the ambient display, which offers tons of different themes with details like upcoming events, music information, and even details like how much you’re using your phone. There’s also a quick reply in landscape feature, Parallel Apps for installing duplicate copies of apps, a video interpolation feature — it goes on. OnePlus strikes a good mix of added features, I think.

One of my favorite features of OnePlus phones is Comfort Tone, which adapts the display’s white point temperature to better match your environment, similar to Apple’s True Tone. Every phone should have it, especially considering TCL managed to put it on a $250 phone last year, and I resent that Google dropped its similar AmbientEQ feature in all of last year’s Pixels.

I am glad that OnePlus is switching more and more to using Google apps — at least, in the US. The stock launcher almost looks and feels like a Pixel now, between the Discover-integrated left pane and the general stock look, and the default SMS and call apps are both Google’s, which is a good move. If only Google would license the Pixel-exclusive Assistant features like Automatic Call Screen to OnePlus.

I did run into some bugs using the phone, but OnePlus has been pretty good about ironing out launch issues. I’ll point them out here (in case any of our readers run into similar problems), but they’ll probably be fixed within a few weeks.

  • Poor Bluetooth audio performance, with frequent disconnections (using OnePlus’ own Buds) even in uncongested areas.
  • Issues with dark themes in certain apps like Slack.
  • Weird stutters or green flashes watching videos in some apps.
  • Some missed calls with full bars — it just wouldn’t ring.
  • More frequently dropped calls in areas with a marginal signal.
  • The camera would sometimes randomly open when the phone was set on a surface or drop me into a “tap to launch camera” screen it shows when the camera is idle for too long.
  • Content declaring wide-color support dramatically adjusts white point and display temperature from your current configuration — distracting in apps like YouTube.

Update: OnePlus fixed all of the crossed-out issues for me with updates.

Surprisingly, I didn’t run into any major issues with delayed notifications, as I have on prior OnePlus phones due to how they handle memory management. That could just be a fluke, I don’t think OnePlus actually changed its ways there, but I’ll have to look into it in more detail for our next review update.

OnePlus also hasn’t kept up with software as well as it should. Long ago, its two years of OS updates and three years of security patches promise was competitive, but now it’s near the bottom of what you can expect for a flagship phone. The company is slow to roll out major OS updates and tends to ignore its older devices (when it isn’t just releasing buggy software on them). While I’m confident that OnePlus will give the 9 Pro the attention it deserves in 2021, I’m more concerned about how it will fare in 2022 or 2023 when the company has moved on to newer models, especially considering how well Samsung is handling updates these days.

General performance was quite good, as you’d expect for the latest Snapdragon 888, though I did have one weird hiccup: Something about touch latency felt odd or a little laggy at times, especially while typing fast in Gboard. But generally, it has oodles more power than most of us will need or use, and that means great gaming performance. OnePlus even has an optimized “Hyper Touch” feature for reduced input latency in certain games, starting with titles like PUBG Mobile and Call of Duty Mobile (among others), though future titles will require support on developers’ end to get the feature.

Although the Snapdragon 888 seems to run hotter than prior chipsets, I didn’t run into any issues with palpable heat on the 9 Pro, as I did on the Galaxy S21 — though I can’t wait to see how these chips hold up to summer weather later this year. However, another of us at AP did have a problem with the phone overheating a bit while fast wireless charging during the CPU-chugging first-time setup.

Carrier compatibility is also the same 5G mess we’re used to in the US. The phone launched with T-Mobile 5G support, and picked up Verizon certification just a few days later, but AT&T customers are left out in the cold with a max of 4G.

Battery life varied more than I’d like to see. Sometimes I’d get around five and a half hours of screen-on time in a day, sometimes about that same number across three days, and all without much difference in how I used it. So far, it seems like Qualcomm’s new 888 SoC is a regression (or, at least, not much of an improvement) over last year’s 865 when it comes to power efficiency.

We can’t talk about battery life without mentioning the new 50W wireless charging, even though it’s powered by a separate, optional accessory, and the combined price is a bit steep. The wireless charger itself is an extra $70, but you’ll need to spend $35 more on top of that if you want to keep your wired charging at the same time — the charger doesn’t come with its own brick, and it needs a Warp Charge 65 unit to work. That means the wireless charger will actually run you more like $105, which is a bit ridiculous.

Furthermore, the wireless charger is kind of loud with the fan on, and the fan stays on constantly while the phone is docked, even once it’s fully charged, unless you kick things over into “bedtime mode” for lower-power fan-free operation. At least OnePlus made the cable separate from the wireless charger this time. It also works with the phone docked horizontally, and the sweet spot for the charger is large.

Above: About the highest temperature the battery reported while wirelessly charging. Below: The charger.

Across a handful of wireless charging tests, I recorded peak temperatures around 40C (104F) for the battery, and 37C (98F) on the exterior, both of which should be well within safe margins. And it’s crazy fast — toss it on the charger for half an hour, and you’ll be pretty close to full. OnePlus claims 0-70% in 30 minutes, but my own tests seem to actually beat those numbers. I’m pretty sure that the OnePlus 9 Pro charges faster wirelessly than any other non-OnePlus phone in the US does with a wire.

On that note, the company also slightly upgraded its Warp Charge 65 wired charging. OnePlus tells us the phone sports reduced internal resistance to charge faster — it still maxes at 65W, but it’s able to sustain that rate longer. You are basically guaranteed a full charge (or very close) in half an hour, and you can literally sit with the screen on and watch percentage points tick by.

I really can’t stress how convenient OnePlus’ wired and wireless charging speeds are. Although thankfully it hasn’t happened with this phone yet, the fast charging on prior OnePlus models has saved my skin more than once in an emergency, and I’m really glad that the company keeps pushing the limit on charging speeds.

Cameras

So this is going to be a complicated subject, and I may even dedicate an entire post to it at some point, but I do think OnePlus at least partly made good on its promise to improve its camera performance with Hasselblad in real, tangible ways. But while the partnership is a little more than just a logo tossed on the back of the phone, OnePlus has a long ways to go.

Before I go any further, I should say that I personally love what OnePlus does with colors on the 9 Pro. Whether it’s attributable to the new partnership or not, I think the OnePlus 9 Pro often comes closer to what my eye sees compared to other phones. It can still get confused and wash out a scene or oversaturate, though, as prior OnePlus phones did. Twilight photos also tend to come out a little over-exposed, though general dynamic range in most scenes is good. (However, sometimes it can crush shadows and blacks pretty badly.)

With the new, larger sensor, depth of field is much-increased, the laser sensor provides fast autofocus, and HDR capture times have been reduced. All that means improved low-light performance, some artistic flair with stronger bokeh in up-close shots, and very fast photo capture with almost no shutter lag. I can almost always snag the shot I want during quick action without missing the moment.

Above: Left to right, from wide-angle to telephoto (3.3x optical, no digital zoom enabled).

Left: Pixel 4a in Night Sight. Right: OnePlus 9 Pro in Nightscape.

Low-light performance is interesting. I actually found in one particular example that the 9 Pro beat the Pixel when it came to ultra-low-light detail (above, see the shingles on the roof), but it has a tendency for strong lens flare as well:

Low-light gallery. 

And though it’s not a fair comparison, here’s a last set of the Pixel 4a vs the OnePlus 9 Pro comparing the various nighttime shooting modes. Even though the Pixel had a nearly three-minute exposure for its astrophotography mode, the 9 Pro did beat it when it came to the definition of the individual stars and the lines for objects blocking the view, all with a capture time of just a few seconds. OnePlus’ camera hardware itself is clearly several generations ahead of Google’s and I look forward to the day we get a Pixel with a crazy-big sensor like this.

Above: Pixel 4a in Astrophotography mode (left) and Night Sight (right). Below: OnePlus 9 Pro in Nightscape (left) and auto/normal mode (right). 

A camera is never blanket good or bad, and outside the unfortunately strong lens flare, I actually think the 9 Pro can do a good job in low-light. But my examples still show the sorts of inconsistencies that indicate unpredictable and unreliable performance. In short: The OnePlus 9 Pro doesn’t usually leave me saying “wow” on a positive note after shooting a photo, as the Pixel so frequently can.

Super macro.

Most smartphones that advertise a macro camera use a cheap and bad dedicated unit. OnePlus instead uses its wide-angle camera for up-close macro shots, and it’s a much better approach. However, the minimum focus distance this time is a bit further out compared to last year’s 8 Pro, so you won’t enjoy quite the same up-close perspective — it’s still miles better than the junky dedicated macro cameras most phones with one have, though.

Nice straight lines from the ultra-wide — almost no distortion. 

OnePlus also touts the wide-angle’s reduced distortion and massive sensor, and it is very good. Lines are straighter, and noise seems reduced. Dynamic range is also very good for a wide-angle. But even though OnePlus plays up the improvements, I still find that it still mangles fine details a little, as does the telephoto.

P1 monochrome mode vs “Mono” with the extra sensor. Same scene in color below.

The last of the four cameras on the back of the phone is a dedicated monochrome sensor. We’re told it’s used for a handful of undescribed things, but so far as I can tell, it only really impacts a single “Mono” monochrome filter mode. As in the case of the OnePlus N10 5G, I find that makes for slightly richer tones and contrast in that one black and white mode, but you’ll probably never use it. There’s also a new tilt-shift mode but its results are about as bad as what you can get on your own with GIMP and a gauss blur, it’s not even worth discussing.

I’m of two minds when it comes to OnePlus’ “Pro” camera mode: On one hand, you can use it to get a tough shot where you know you need a specific exposure setting, but in general, its utility is limited, and you’ll usually get better results from the normal mode — in this era of computational photography, manual camera controls hurt more than they help unless you really know what you’re doing. OnePlus touts 12-bit RAW capture in Pro mode, though, so it could come in handy for some folks.

The telephoto, which can be pretty muddy with faces and hazy. 

OnePlus has a long-standing reputation for wormy, muddy processing that tends to destroy the texture of faces or fine details, and so far, that’s still an issue with the 9 Pro. It’s not a small problem, and for some of us at Android Police, that makes this phone a $1,000 non-starter. While it does do a good job with strong contrasting edges, fine low-contrast details tend to get ruined. So the edges of objects or details like tree branches can come out nice, but it still manages to destroy the finer more subtle texture in scenes. On top of that, the telephoto is regularly washed out and outright bad. And it’s upsetting, because I really do like some of the photos I took with the 9 Pro, but I just can’t rely on it to do a good job every time like I can with a Pixel. 

Judging video performance is a whole other beast, and I am a bad videographer. However, the 9 Pro does do 4K 120fps video for high-res slow-motion, it can do 8K at 30fps, and it supports HDR in video, which is ostensibly great for recording in low-light. I hesitate to include any of my examples, but video quality seemed fine to me.

I know I sound like I’m being hard on the 9 Pro, but that’s just because I want OnePlus to compete with the smartphone photography big boys, and though prices continue to rise, it still doesn’t. Last year, I even preferred OnePlus’ camera quality to Samsung’s, though my opinion has switched again comparing 2021 models, especially as prices here have risen and fallen elsewhere.

Ultimately, I really like certain things about the 9 Pro’s camera — especially the colors I get from it, though camera performance can be very subjective. But the benefits of this Hasselblad partnership are overstated, and the quality of results remain OnePlus-inconsistent. If I had to choose a phone based on photo quality today, it would be a cheaper Pixel or a more expensive Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Should you buy it?

The OnePlus 9 Pro has some great individual features and several of my criticisms feel like nitpicks, even to me. But I still hesitate to recommend it to everyone outright, especially given the nearly $1,000 price. Even if you like the camera performance (which still has its objective drawbacks and the company’s usual muddy processing) OnePlus still has one very big problem right now: Updates. It just isn’t taking software seriously. The Android 10 rollout for the OnePlus 6 was botched last year, and this year the OnePlus 7 series had similar issues on top of being even later. I have zero faith that OnePlus will gracefully handle the Android 12 update for the 8 series next year, and that’s ignoring the fact that it’s base update policy simply isn’t competitive for 2021.

If OnePlus could raise its commitment to match Samsung (monthly security updates, three years of OS updates, and four years of security patches) and match that with better quality and faster updates for older devices, I’d increase our review score tomorrow. Who knows, it may even merit a Most Wanted award. But we’re keeping our phones longer and longer, and OnePlus’s middling software commitment does not justify the 9 Pro’s nearly $1,000 price. If I was buying an Android smartphone in the US in this range today, for my money, I’d probably opt for a Galaxy S21+ or wait for a sale on the S21 Ultra.

In a lot of ways, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a great phone, with a super-smooth screen, incredibly snappy performance, the fastest wired and wireless charging, and pleasant software. I even enjoy the camera — though it’s not $1,000 good. This phone has a lot going for it, and if OnePlus can make a better software commitment, the 9 Pro could be easy to recommend. But right now, the value just isn’t there.

Please, step up when it comes to software and let me update this review, OnePlus.

Buy it if…

  • You want a stock-like experience with high-end performance.
  • Super-fast charging and a great screen are important features.
  • You aren’t worried about buggy updates in a year or two and won’t keep the phone past three years.

Don’t buy it if…

  • Software updates are a priority or you plan to keep it longer than three years.
  • You can spend more, or you’re on a budget.
  • You want the best smartphone camera you can get.
  • You’re on AT&T — no 5G.

Where to buy

Pre-orders for the 9 Pro open today (though OnePlus told us Friday), though specific model and market availability may vary. Ultimately, the phone will be available at the following retailers:

One month later

As I expected would happen, OnePlus has fixed several of the problems I ran into in my early time with the 9 Pro — but not all of them. While my connectivity issues and the problem with wide-color content I noted in my original review have been fixed, and I haven’t seen the camera randomly open itself in the last week, there is still some general software weirdness surrounding automatic dark theme in some apps, and something about touch input still feels subtly delayed or wrong when typing quickly in Gboard. Bluetooth audio performance also remains mediocre for me, but the company has done a generally good job attending to launch issues, as it usually does. But one area where I’m not sure there’s been too much improvement in updates has been the camera.

I like OnePlus’s colors and dynamic range, and I love the narrow depth of field you can get, though sometimes it throws off focus.

Although OnePlus continues to claim photo improvements with updates, and things do seem slightly different in certain scenes (though I have no direct before/after update comparisons to offer), the overall performance remains inconsistent — very nearly the company’s trademark at this point.

These two photos were taken back to back.

As I’ve said before, I can get some good photos out of the camera, but I just never know what to expect until I see the results, while with a phone like a Pixel or a Galaxy S, I usually have a good idea of what I’m going to get when I tap the shutter. Often the camera seems to over-expose, and though dynamic range can sometimes wow me, it can also be just plain weird.

Sometimes things just look weird and unreal, though. What’s going on in those trees, and why does everything seem equally bright? This isn’t quite what I saw in the viewfinder or real life.

Updates also seem to have made battery life more consistent for me, but I still hesitate to praise it. Now I’m usually maxing out at around 6 hours of screen-on time. (For context, I usually see slightly above the average numbers when it comes to battery life based on how I use my phones.) While six hours is good, it’s not fantastic for a phone this size or this price, and we came closer to eight on the S21 Ultra in our review.

AP’s Artem Russakovskii has also run into issues with the camera, including it halting mid-recording with unspecified errors, focus problems, wildly oversaturated blues, and even overheating. On top of that, he’s run into more general software woes, like Gmail and Calendar failing to refresh in the background (potentially tied to OnePlus’s known background app management issues), Chrome throwing out of memory errors, an annoying picture-in-picture bug, and apps disappearing from the recents menu. Battery saver mode even turns off auto-rotate when it kicks in, and Oxygen OS loves to spit strange and continuous notifications, like continuously advertising Qualcomm’s aptX support, random “draining battery” notifications, and annoying “Advanced Message” prompts for paired BT devices.

I haven’t run into all of these same issues in my time with the 9 Pro — we all use our phone in different ways, and Artem is known to be a little harder on his hardware than most — but I have come to recognize these sorts of issues as characteristic of OnePlus’s software these days. Keeping abreast when it comes to updates for older OnePlus models, all I hear are issues, and the company’s timeline for major updates seems to be falling further behind each year.

This is all especially frustrating because OnePlus used to make great software. I don’t know what changed — maybe the flood of new models is drowning the software team? —  but I’m starting to get LG vibes from the situation, and I’m half-expecting a OnePlus Software Update Center to be announced soon. Frankly, I just don’t trust OnePlus phones for the long-haul anymore, and at this price, you have to, especially when Samsung is doing miles better at basically the same cost.

OnePlus’s recent pattern of behavior also has me a little sketched out. Despite insisting that the OnePlus 9 Pro would cost $969, here we are over a month since sales started, and all you can buy is the more expensive $1069 model — still. I know there are supply chain shortages, but OnePlus releases new models twice a year typically. While the 9 Pro might stick around longer, we could be coming up on 20% of its retail-facing life with only the most expensive model available, and that feels a little deceitful in the absence of more information.

In the end, I wish I could recommend the 9 Pro. I really do. OnePlus phones have historically been among my favorites — the OnePlus 7 Pro blew my mind, and though I didn’t love the OnePlus 8 Pro quite as much, it was still a fantastic buy — but I just don’t feel the same about the company’s products in 2021. Something critical has changed for the worse, and between the 9 Pro and the OnePlus Watch, I think the company needs to press pause here, catch a breath, and consider its future. Sure, it’s growing like crazy, but at what cost, and is it that growth going to be sustainable if they can’t catch up in other key areas?

All that discussion is out of scope here, though. When it comes down to it, unless you really want a phone to root/ROM (which is something OnePlus phones remain great for), I think you can do better than the 9 Pro.



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