OnePlus 9 Series First Impressions

Posted on March 25, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Mobile, Android with 23 Comments

I’ve long been impressed by the quality of OnePlus’s hardware designs, though the firm has staggered unevenly between matte-type designs and flashy, colorful designs that reflect color in interesting ways. With the OnePlus 9 Series, the company seems to be splitting the difference: The color schemes this year are mostly muted—and are unfortunately different between the Pro and non-Pro models, again—and seem to land on the staid and professional side of the design fence. I happen to like it quite a bit, but whatever: You’d be crazy not to cover this glass and aluminum sandwich in a case.

The OnePlus 9 review unit is Astral Black; the other option is Winter Mist.

The OnePlus 9 Pro review unit, meanwhile, is Morning Mist. But I’d love to see the Pine Green color in person.

There are, of course, the usual OnePlus niceties like its unique three-stage notification slider and an excellent in-display fingerprint reader.

Internally, the OnePlus 9 Series is stacked with the types of high-end components we’ve also long come to expect from this company: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processors with Adreno 660 graphics, X60 5G chipsets, 8 or 12 GB of RAM, 128 or 256 GB of high-speed storage, and gorgeous, large, and tall Fluid AMOLED displays. Plus, high-speed wired and wireless charging, both of which are improved yet again for these products.

OnePlus sent a 50-watt wireless charge to test as well

(But here’s something odd: OnePlus users can only connect to 5G networks in the United States with T-Mobile. For some reason.)

The OnePlus 9 Series also carries forward a new version of the firm’s optimized Android experience, called OxygenOS, and its reasonable suite of non-crapware software, which includes things like Game mode, Zen mode for relaxing, and much more. We expect the design to be clean and modern and the performance to be exceptional, and that’s what OnePlus has always delivered.

This is all wonderful. But OnePlus is pushing its new-found photographic chops very heavily for this release and with good reason: Photography was the Achilles Heel of previous OnePlus handsets, which were almost universally excellent over several generations and, more recently, a surge in the number of available models.

Consider some commentary from my previous OnePlus review.

“I wanted to love the OnePlus 8T … but if camera quality and/or wireless charging matters to you, the OnePlus 8T is a non-starter,” I wrote of that handset. “The OnePlus 8 Pro is an excellent flagship smartphone that measures up well against the best that Apple and Samsung have to offer, aside from its camera system,” I noted one year ago. “Your mileage will vary according to need, but the biggest issue for me is the camera, which, again, underperforms overall, an ongoing problem with OnePlus handsets,” I wrote of the OnePlus 7 Pro a year earlier than that.

You get the idea. OnePlus has needed to fix this issue for years and with the OnePlus 9 Series, it appears to have finally received the wake-up call. If OnePlus can just get this right—i.e., make the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro at least competitive with the market leaders—then we’d have a real contender on our hands.

Everything looks good on paper. Both handsets feature a 48 MP main lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) and an ƒ/1,8 aperture, a 50 MP ultra-wide lens with an ƒ/2,2 aperture, and a 2 MP monochrome lens. And the OnePlus 9 Pro adds an 8 MP telephoto lens with OIS and an ƒ/2,4 aperture. And we’ve all heard about the Hasselblad partnership, which has a few obvious ramifications in these products: Dramatically improved color accuracy, new photographic software including the Hasselblad Camera for Mobile app and its Hasselblad Pro Mode, plus automatic ultra-wide distortion correction and 8K video capabilities.

Test shot: Main camera lens

But dig a bit deeper and you will find some areas of concern. The ultra-wide lens doesn’t have any OIS capabilities, which is inexcusable in 2021, especially in flagship handsets. The telephoto lens looks lackluster, as was the case with the OnePlus 8 Pro, with just 3x optical (really hybrid) zoom. For those who prize the color-rich HDR imagery provided by Samsung (and, optionally, on Huawei) handsets, the color-accurate images created by the OnePlus 9 Series might come off as somewhat bland, and like what we see with recent generation iPhones. (Obviously, some may prefer that as well.) And the monochrome lens is just weird.

Test shot: Ultra-wide camera lens

My biggest concern is consistency. What I’m looking for—and, to be clear, I am of the “point and click” school of photography, and not a pro—is reliability. A consistent shooting experience and, hopefully, one that delivers excellent overall shots. I pretty much get that with the Google Pixel 4a 5G that I’m currently using, but I miss a telephoto lens sometimes (and I find the Pixel display a bit small and dim). And I get that with the increasingly aged Huawei P30 Pro, the last of its kind to come with Google software.

But I’m looking for this experience on a more modern handset with more powerful and feature-proof components. Is the OnePlus 9 Series—in particular the 9 Pro—that phone?

Maybe. Hopefully, given how much I like the rest of the OnePlus experience. But only time—and lots of testing—will tell that tale. So far, I’ve only taken a small handful of test shots, and it happens to be dull, gray day today, unfortunately.

Before moving on, we do need to discuss the prices. OnePlus, as I’m sure you know, has been steadily raising its prices over the years, though the spike was particularly high last year with the addition of 5G chipsets.

So where did we land this year?

The OnePlus 9 starts at $729 for a model with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. By comparison, the OnePlus 8T started at $749, though it offered more RAM (12 GB) and more storage (256 GB). The OnePlus 8 from one year ago started at $699. And looking at the competition, the iPhone 12 starts at $799, as does the Samsung Galaxy S21.

The OnePlus 9 Pro starts at $1069 for a model with 12 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. The OnePlus 8 Pro from one year ago started at $899 for a model with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage; a comparable OnePlus 8 Pro cost $999. The OnePlus 7 Pro from 2019 started at $669 (in those pre-5G days). Looking at the competition, the iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1099 and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G starts at $1199.

So yes, these prices still undercut the high-end Apple and Samsung flagships. But in the latter case, Samsung handsets are routinely price-reduced and placed on sale over time. And both firms offer better-than-usual trade-in values right now, further undercutting the difference.

OnePlus doesn’t just include a charger in the box, it includes a 65-watt charger

My point? As OnePlus raises prices, it needs to compete more on quality and functionality while trying to also overcome the relative unfamiliarity of its brand.

More soon.

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Comments (23)

23 responses to “OnePlus 9 Series First Impressions”

  1. Mcgillivray

    I was just watching that video the other day of Balmer "$500 For A Phone!?!?!?"

    That is history, and it's priceless.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to Mcgillivray:

      It *is* history. The history is that Ballmer was right about the iPhone.

      Also, this comment has absolutely NOTHING to do with this topic. I will be deleting comments like this in the future.

      • pecosbob04

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Give it a rest Paul! That's wishtory not history.

        • Paul Thurrott

          It's literally the truth.
          • pecosbob04

            In reply to paul-thurrott:

            Well Ballmer said it yeah that much is true. So where true it is irrelevant and where relevant it is not true. Also I read your 2016 article. It cracked me up when you referred to an instance where Ballmer "misspoke". If that had been Cook or God forbid Jobs it would have been "That expletive deleted liar told another expletive deleted lie" but that was 5 years ago and we've all grown so much since then. Anyway your house, your 'truths' your rules. Cheers!

            • Paul Thurrott

              No. There is just what happened---the truth---and then there is the nonsense history rewriting that you engage in. Please stop.
    • MikeCerm

      In reply to Mcgillivray:

      I'm not a Premium member, but it's absolutely true that almost nobody was willing to $500+ for the iPhone 2G Silverback. Apple cut prices a few months after launch, and within a year they standardized on the $200 w/2-year contract pricing that would be the norm for like a decade.

      • pecosbob04

        In reply to MikeCerm: The problem is characterizing the iPhone as a failure. Marketing erred in the original price point and swiftly corrected it. A problem that was corrected expeditiously does not constitute A 'FAIL' IMHO YMMV.

        • MikeCerm

          In reply to pecosbob04:

          Who said the iPhone is a failure? If I recall, Balmer said, "$500 for phone?", and called out a few of the missing features in the original iPhone. The iPhone did not sell well until the price cut, and got much more successful over time as Apple filled in all the missing features. Apple stuck with the $200 price for almost a decade, until the release of the iPhone 7, when the smartphone market was totally saturated and carriers gave up on subsidies. Ballmer was definitely not wrong about the price thing.

          • Paul Thurrott

            I wrote this up years ago. Ballmer was right about the iPhone, and Apple was forced to dramatically cut the price when it sold poorly out of the gate.
          • Paul Thurrott

            Some troublemaker wrote:
            "'Who said the iPhone is a failure?'

            That is Paul's go to narrative when discussing the original iPhone."

            We are not doing this anymore. That is not a "narrative." The original iPhone didn't sell well, so Apple dramatically lowered the price just two months in, and that helped. That's history. That's the truth.
  2. rupertholmes

    I am still looking for a phone that I can get a better photo out of than my "Former Flagship" Nokia 1020. Still need pixels, not trick processing. Stuck with an iPhone 12 Pro max at the moment, 12MP is not enough.

    • MikeCerm

      In reply to rupertholmes:

      You must be joking. Sure, it was a good camera at the time, but literally every flagship from the last 5 years takes much better photos, especially in low light. Also, you can snap photos 20 times faster because you're not waiting for an underpowered CPU from 2012 to process the pics. If 12MP from the iPhone just isn't enough, than pick up an Android phone with a 48MP, 64MP, or 108MP sensor. They'll all resolve more detail than the iPhone will in good condition, but in most situations where the lens is moving or the lighting isn't great, a good 12MP picture will look every bit as good as one from a sensor with a higher megapixel count.

      • rupertholmes

        In reply to MikeCerm: Not really. Granted the 1020 is slow, you needed to think ahead. It did not see in the dark, agreed, I cannot either. The tint was a little to the yellow. On the plus, it had good software to me. It shot two photos, one small, and one large enough work with. It had a shutter button. It had zoom before most, if not all. The lens was centered in the body, rather than on the edge where my fingers are always getting in the way, when trying to shoot landscape. When I moved from the Not so Pureview Nokia 9, I understood why so many photos are shot vertical. I wanted to get the Huawei P30 Pro, but lack of support in the States, stopped that. Tried the Sony, disappointed. Same for Samsung. Looked at Moto, but the good one was Verizon only, at least at the time. The only reason I am on Apple is that it works with just about everything and the rest of my family uses them. I dislike the Apple, but no more than the Nokia 9. Everyone has their needs; I want resolution as good or better than my SLRs for aircraft photography. I hope that Apple will step it up, but for now they are good for close-ups and photos of food. I carry an SLR or my 950Xl, if I expect a photo opportunity. As I have said before, all I want is a faster 1020. Just my thoughts. Sorry to run on. My comment probally has nothing to do with the article topic.
        • paradyne

          In reply to rupertholmes: You are so right! When I look back on some photos I took with the 1020 they are amazing (and I have a Huawei P30 Pro now for comparison). I also have shots from dance events where the lighting is minimal and people are moving but it still got great shots. I think the real xenon flash and maybe the physical shutter really helped there compared to the still weak LED flashes in everything else. The Huawei's have been the closest and certainly beat the 1020 camera in many areas but not all.

  3. wright_is

    The 10 year old is a little rough. You should really try the 18 year old or the triple cask. So much better.

    Oh, sorry, it was a phone review, I got side tracked! :-D

    The lenses look like they stick out a long way and have fairly angular edges, it looks like they could easily dent or gouge a takes if they are put down to hard or drawn across the table...

    I hope the cameras have the consistency you are looking for. I prefer the natural colours and putting effects on in post. That way, I always have the unadulterated "real" image to work from.

  4. robincapper

    I wonder when someone will admit that everyone uses a case and offer a truly premium phone with a plain plastic or simple metal back body. I just got a S21 Ultra and if that spec was in a plain body for a few hundred less would have gone for it. I was looking at the S21+ but pen support swung me, that means have to use a case (to hold it) anyway.

    • MikeCerm

      In reply to robincapper:

      Metal can interfere with signals like NFC and wireless charging, so no metal backs. Plastic is good though. The original Moto G had a removable plastic back, and Moto sold rubber cases that snapped on to the back and felt really nice, like they were actually part of the phone, because they kind of were. Too bad nobody does that these days. There's no reason a phone has to be two pieces of glass glued to a metal frame.

  5. winner

    I've heard that while it used to be that Samsung was very slow/weak with OS and security updates, and One Plus was much better, that the tides have sort of reversed. And this is important to me. My wife is getting ready to replace her older Samsung phone, and the choices appear to be the S21 (better camera) and OnePlus9 (better UI). Or wait for the next Pixel in the fall, and hope. Any thoughts?

    • rogeranderson

      In reply to Winner:

      I can't comment on Samsung updates but OnePlus updates have certainly slowed down. I have a OnePlus 7 Pro which is still waiting for Android 11. Not sure if the OnePlus approach to go for lots of new models ever year is hampering their ability to support their existing handsets.

      With ever increasing prices, reducing software update frequency and cameras that still don't rival the best it's becoming hard to justify a new OnePlus.

  6. pgiftos

    Looking forward to review. I currently have the 7T and I'm looking to upgrade

  7. eric_rasmussen

    Early reviews seem to indicate that the cameras are so-so. A step up from prior OnePlus handsets but nothing even close to the cameras in the latest Samsung, Apple, or Pixel phones. That's unfortunate, I was really hoping for a Huawei-class camera that happens to also make calls and texts.

  8. evictedkoala

    I had read that none of the lenses have OIS and instead have inferior EIS? Could be wrong.

  9. minke

    Not impressed with the snapshots provided here, but obviously these were very casual shots. Looking forward to seeing how it does in full-on camera tests against other phones. For what Paul does and most of the rest of us iPhones and Pixels will provide the easiest consistent shots right out of the phone without tweaking, though most of the top-end phones are close enough.