Monday, September 20, 2021

OnePlus 9 Pro review: the best Android alternative to Samsung

The OnePlus 9 Pro is a legitimate flagship phone that is genuinely competitive with the best Android phones on the market — at least from a features and quality perspective. Yet in terms of market and mind share, it’s still destined to be a niche device for a small group of enthusiasts looking for a specific kind of elegance in their Android device.

And that’s great.

If you live in the US and you’re buying an Android phone, chances are very high that you’ll end up with a Samsung Galaxy phone. Samsung has the quality, carrier relationships, and marketing that have helped it gain market share. Motorola, LG, and even GoogleHere, OnePlus sells more phones than OnePlus.

OnePlus has been making great phones for nearly seven years, and dozens of them. The $1069 OnePlus 9 Pro is the only option in North America. Other parts of the globe have access to a slightly cheaper model. This phone achieves this goal with very few compromises.

OnePlus’ flagship phones always come with a laundry list of top-of-the-line specs, but what makes the OnePlus 9 Pro good isn’t the numbers; it’s how well those specs translate into one of the best experiences you can get using Android.

The OnePlus 9 Pro has an elegant design, but won’t support 5G on all networks

The OnePlus 9 Pro has an elegant design but won’t support 5G on all networks.

OnePlus 9 Pro hardware design with 5G support

The OnePlus 9 Pro’s hardware design is one of the most elegant and seamless that the company has ever created. It is also large. It has a 6.7-inch screen that goes from edge to edge in a body that’s narrow enough to make it just barely usable for me in one hand.

What I can’t help but notice is how far OnePlus has come in build quality. The glass on the front, back and sides curve into the aluminum rail along the edges with no seams. It’s well-balanced, beautiful, and solid.

Top: OnePlus 9 Pro; bottom: Galaxy S20 Plus. Both phones have similarly curved glass and molded aluminum rails.

Top: OnePlus 9 Pro. Bottom: Galaxy S20 Plus. Both phones feature curved glass and molded aluminium rails.

It has a three-stage ringer switch

It has a 3-stage ringer switch.

It’s also the spitting image of a Galaxy S20 Plus. Shift a couple of buttons around, move the selfie camera to the middle, and swap out the logo, and it’s the same design. I get that there are only so many ways to sandwich curved glass and aluminum together, but it’s uncanny.

To be fair, OnePlus does retain some of its identity through the three-stage ringer toggle, which allows you to toggle between a ringer and vibration, as well as fully silent. It may still be my favorite feature on OnePlus phones, and I remain baffled as to why more Android phone makers don’t adopt a physical ringer switch.

Speaking of vibration, the haptics on the OnePlus 9 Pro aren’t sloppy at all, unlike many Android phones. Unfortunately, the trade-off is that they aren’t very strong; I often can’t feel it vibrate in my pocket.

The top-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor powers the OnePlus 9 Pro. It is paired to eight gigs of RAM on a 128GB model. Unfortunately, this configuration isn’t sold in North America — OnePlus originally expected to make it available, but later said that supply constraints led it to offer only the more expensive version with 256GB of storage and 12GB of RAM. There’s no microSD card slot for storage expansion in either model. You get what you pay for.

It supports both Sub-6 and millimeter-wave (mmWave) styles of 5G, but there’s a significant caveat: the phone supports it, but OnePlus has only managed to land 5G certification from its carrier partner, T-Mobile. If you buy it unlocked, as of now, it will only work with T-Mobile’s 5G network. Everything else will be LTE. AT&T 5G support doesn’t appear to be in the cards at all, and as for Verizon, OnePlus says that it “continues to work with Verizon to certify both the 9 and 9 Pro on its 5G network.” Later, on March 26th, Verizon announced that it would support 5G on the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro.

OnePlus’ wireless warp charger can fully charge the phone in under 45 minutes

OnePlus’ wireless warp charger can fully charge the phone in under 45 minutes.

OnePlus 9 Pro Battery and Charging

OnePlus’s unique charging technology is the best spec. There’s a 65W charger included in the box, and it can charge up the phone ridiculously fast. The phone’s 4,500mAh battery is actually split in two, which helps further speed charging.

The 65W charger comes in the box (pictured with the regular OnePlus 9).

The box contains the 65W charger (pictured with the regular OnePlus 9).

If you like, you can spend an additional $69 on OnePlus’ new Warp Charge 50 wireless charger. It charges at 25W, but since the battery is split, it’s essentially the same as charging at 50W, wirelessly. You can also charge the phone in landscape mode. It took 45 minutes to fully charge the phone after it was completely dead. With ambient mode in Google Assistant on, it took a bit longer — but it was still wicked fast compared to other wireless chargers.

The 4,500mAh battery was sufficient to last me for a full day of moderately heavy use. However, OnePlus phones can be a little less reliable depending on how much you use them. I was able to finish the day shooting 4K video and pushing my processor with games with less than four hours screen-on time.

So while the battery life might not be best in class, the way OnePlus has built its ecosystem for charging means I’m able to top off faster than I can with other phones — provided I use OnePlus’ proprietary chargers, of course.

The OnePlus 9 Pro has an LTPO OLED screen, which can help with battery life

The OnePlus 9 Pro comes with an LTPO OLED display screen that can extend the battery’s life.

OnePlus 9 Pro screen

The OnePlus 9 Pro’s next standout spec is the 6.7-inch display. OnePlus has also switched to an LTPO OLED design, similar to Samsung. This style is more efficient and gives the company more control over the refresh rates.

The screen can go all the way from 120Hz on down to 1Hz, depending on what’s happening on the display. OnePlus has branded the touch response rate on the screen as “Hyper Touch,” clocked at 360Hz for certain games, and though I am dubious it makes that big a difference for gamers, OnePlus says it could. The screen resolution is 1440×3216 at 525ppi. It is possible to have both the high refresh rate and high resolution screen running at the same time. Doing so probably hits battery life, but to me, the point of this max-spec phone is to max the specs, so I didn’t turn down the resolution or the refresh rate.

Those are the specs on the screen, but it’s the experience that matters. Again, I think OnePlus did a great job. This phone feels a lot smoother than Samsung phones due to the way OxygenOS tunes the animations. I also appreciate the color tuning — although it’s not as subdued as an iPhone or even a Pixel, it’s more restrained than Samsung’s default settings.

The whole camera system on the OnePlus 9 Pro is solid, but has room to improve

The OnePlus 9 Pro’s camera system is solid, but there are still areas for improvement.

OnePlus 9 Pro camera

Without going into too much detail, I will only mention that OnePlus phones’ main problem was their camera quality. It’s a particularly bad way to fall down, too, because often, the clearest and simplest way to compare phones that otherwise look and perform nearly equivalently is to look at the photos they take.

OnePlus knows all of this and wants to position the OnePlus 9 Pro as a heads-up competitor — or at least a viable alternative — to the very best Samsung and even Apple have to offer. So it did something that many challenger brands do: called in the ringer.

Hasselblad is the ringer, which OnePlus has partnered with to improve its camera results. It will be a multiyear effort, and it’s far from guaranteed it’ll be a fruitful partnership. In fact, most of these sorts of deals don’t really do anything notable when it comes to the camera’s quality.

This year, Hasselblad’s participation with OnePlus’ development process amounted to helping the company tune the colors from the camera and lending a bit of its interface to the camera’s Pro mode. Hasselblad also allowed OnePlus’ logo to be placed next to the lenses.

I do think there’s some credit due to this color-tuning influence. In the same way that other smartphone brands have a “look” to their photos, I think OnePlus is developing its own. iPhone photos tend to be flat and neutral and tend to be warm. Pixel photos are contrasty and blue, while Samsung photos have the vibrancy slider set at maximum.

OnePlus 9 Pro: indoor with mixed lighting handles color well

OnePlus 9 Pro Indoor with Mixed Lighting Color Well

OnePlus tends to ramp up blue colors, which is usually fine but can sometimes get the camera into trouble

OnePlus is known for its tendency to increase blue colors. This is sometimes a good thing, but it can sometimes cause camera problems.

OnePlus does a good job not adding too much vibrancy when it’s not there in the first place

OnePlus does a good job of not adding too much vibrancy when it’s not there in the first place.

The OnePlus 9 Pro’s image output lands mostly in the middle. It tends towards blue, and it lifts up shadows for more even lighting. Its photos are more striking but less accurate than what you’ll get out of an iPhone.

The camera system is good, but it can’t quite match the quality you get from an iPhone 12 Pro Max or Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — both of which cost more than the OnePlus 9 Pro. Although it can handle a variety conditions well, sometimes I had to take a second to compose my shot. It allowed me to better see what the viewfinder was showing, and it gave me enough time to try the shot again.

Galaxy S21 Ultra (left) vs. OnePlus 9 Pro (right)

Software is what I believe makes the difference with smartphone cameras. The colors that the 9 Pro produces are great, but sometimes it tries too hard and makes mistakes. OnePlus seems to be trying to bring a little bit of the Pixel contrast magic, but instead it oversharpens. While it is possible to lighten shadows, this can be a good thing but distracting from the image.

The camera can try too hard to brighten shadows, introducing noise

The camera can sometimes try to brighten shadows too much, creating noise.

The camera oversharpens sometimes, too. Take a look at the fringing around the runners on the lake in this ultrawide shot

Sometimes, the camera can oversharpen. This ultrawide shot shows the fringing around runners on the lake.

The main camera uses a new 48-megapixel Sony sensor with OIS, though when I pressed OnePlus to tell me what exactly that sensor brings to the table, I didn’t really get a clear answer. You can shoot 12-bit RAW images in the Pro mode (which is two bits more than last year, if you’re keeping count).

That’s all nice, but the interface on Pro mode is what gets me. You can clearly see what’s set to manual and what’s in auto mode. It’s simple and easy to use, too. Best of all is focus peaking, which draws little lines over the part of the image that’s in focus. It’s a lot easier and funnier than tap-to focus on other phones. You can also do that here.

The OnePlus 9 Pro’s other cameras include a big, 50-megapixel ultrawide with a sensor that’s quite a lot nicer than the usual step-down sensors ultrawides get stuck with. It was great to use, right up to the point it stopped sharpening. OnePlus added a custom lens that helps with distortion at the edges. It works just as well as software fixes to keep straight lines from bowing.

The telephoto camera is 3.3x, and it’s not anything special at that zoom level. Digital zoom is pretty much useless beyond that. It gets snubbed by the S21 Ultra, which has a periscope-style zoom. There’s also a monochrome camera that serves only as a helper for the rest of the system, but I suspect it’s not doing anything especially important. OnePlus did drop the gimmicky and pointless “color filter” camera from last year’s 8 Pro this time around. If I had to guess, it will likely drop the monochrome camera next.

30X zoom. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (left) vs OnePlus Pro 9 (right).

OnePlus’ software-focused Nightscape mode works really well for capturing nighttime shots, although to my tastes, it over-brightens the image. Portrait mode can be a mixed bag. Heads often appear artificially cut from the blurry background. Again, I can get decent shots. But portrait mode was often one of those situations that required me to take the shot again. The selfie camera is good in good light, but it falls apart quickly in the dark.

Video is also messy. Although the OnePlus 9 Pro allows you to shoot at 8K 30 or 4K120, neither look good. Regular old 4K30 has that same overprocessed and sharpened look you see in smartphones. The main new feature is HDR for backlit subjects. However, the effect is minimal at best.

That’s a whole pile of critical takes compared to phones that cost more than this phone. But despite the price difference, I think the OnePlus 9 Pro’s camera should be held to as high a standard as possible — it’s a flagship phone. It can sometimes hang with the best of the best, and that’s a win.

You can put all your widgets in a drop-down menu instead of on your home screen.

You can put all your widgets into a drop-down menu, instead of on the home screen.

OnePlus 9 Pro performance & OxygenOS 11

Even though the camera is often the main differentiator for an Android phone, it’s not necessarily everybody’s highest priority. When I’m not pixel-peeping photos, the OnePlus 9 Pro is the best Android phone I’ve used so far this year. The performance is excellent. I’m especially impressed with the optical in-screen fingerprint sensor, which is super fast and doesn’t seem to be thrown by weird lighting conditions.

OnePlus’ version of Android is called OxygenOS, and it’s now at version 11. The company has borrowed Samsung’s idea of shifting content down to meet your thumb and added in support for an always-on ambient display. The animations are smooth, and OnePlus has learned the hard way how annoying it is to have apps running in the background all the time.

OnePlus has committed two major OS updates and three-years of bimonthly security upgrades. This puts it ahead brands like LG, but behind Samsung or Google.

You can also customize the icons and fonts. My favorite customization is an ambient display mode that displays a colorful bar that shows how often you’ve been using your phone throughout the day.

One feature borrowed from Apple and / or Microsoft is the ability to put your widgets into a separate panel so they’re not littering your main home screen, accessible via a quick swipe down. I love it, but I wish it wasn’t mapped to the same thing other Android phones use to quickly bring down notifications.

OxygenOS is a feeling that OxygenOS doesn’t really have. ChillIt is a lot cheaper than Samsung. OnePlus isn’t pushing its own ecosystem of apps and services (though with a new OnePlus Watch coming, perhaps that may change). It’s also not festooning its own apps with advertisements, unlike Samsung.

OxygenOS 11 is smooth and less annoying than other versions of Android

OxygenOS 11, which is a smoother version of Android, is less annoying than other Android versions.
Photo by Vjeran Paic / The Verge

The OnePlus 9 Pro (top) and OnePlus 9

The OnePlus 9 Pro (top), as well as the OnePlus 9.

The OnePlus 9 has a slightly smaller screen

The OnePlus 9 (right), features a slightly smaller display.

The OnePlus 9 Pro is not a “flagship killer.” It’s a flagship. It is still a more expensive phone than its top-tier counterparts, but it makes a lot of promises. It usually delivers on these promises. OnePlus phones make up a small percentage of the market, but it has a long history that is strong enough to be considered an established brand.

If you’re considering one of the new OnePlus phones, I am actually hard-pressed to make the case for the OnePlus 9 Pro over the regular OnePlus 9, which Allison Johnson reviewed. The regular OnePlus 9 is $240 less, and the things you lose are mostly the nice-to-haves that justify the Pro’s existence: fast wireless charging, OIS, a telephoto lens, mmWave 5G, and the slightly larger screen. Although the OnePlus 9 is less expensive, it lacks telephoto. However, its other cameras can take photos that are almost as good as the pro. It has a high refresh rate screen, fast wired charging, wireless charging (though it’s not as fast), and most importantly, a nice OnePlus software experience with great performance.

The reason to opt for the 9 Pro over the regular 9 is in some ways the same reason you’d opt for a OnePlus phone over a Samsung phone in the first place: it’s just a little nicer and a little different than what everybody else has in their pocket.

Updated March 26th at 5pm ET Verizon announces it would support 5G on the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro and OnePlus confirmed they will not work on AT&T’s 5G network. The review has been updated to reflect the new information.

Updated July 27, 2021, 4pm ET OnePlus stated that it did not intend to do so, despite its initial intention. it won’t sell the base model OnePlus 9 ProNorth America

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