With its OnePlus 9 Series handsets, OnePlus has finally vaulted into the upper echelon of premium smartphones alongside Apple and Samsung. To do so, the firm received a much-needed assist from Hasselblad.
But before diving into the review, I would like to take a step back and quickly examine how OnePlus and its “Never Settle” mantra have changed in recent years.
With its earliest handsets, OnePlus was about value above all else: It provided flagship-level components with its own unique software customizations and optimizations via a single handset each year and a price that deeply undercut the most popular premium smartphones of the day. But this strategy shifted over time. First, OnePlus began offering a second “T” model each year, offering a refinement over the previous release. And then OnePlus began offering three or more models each year, usually with Pro, non-Pro, and T models.
During this time, OnePlus prices began rising, and while they have consistently undercut the most expensive phones from Apple and Samsung, the handset maker began to lose some of its traditional value-focused customers. This became particularly problematic with the introduction of 5G networking, since the cost of those components is particularly high. So most recently, OnePlus also began offering two or more lower-end models to better compete in other parts of the smartphone market, including in emerging markets.
This shift is a double-edged sword for fans of the company. On the one hand, OnePlus now offers a large and confusing range of devices, and its flagship-class handsets are now expensive. And while OnePlus still undercuts the market leaders on price while generally meeting or beating them from a functional perspective, its brand is relatively unknown in much of the world and probably feels like a risky choice to many potential customers. “Never Settle” is still a thing, but its meaning has changed.
What does this mean to you? It means that the OnePlus 9 Series offers significant advantages over the best that Apple and Samsung have to offer, and it does so at lower prices. Not much lower, but still lower. And in those areas in which OnePlus has traditionally fallen short, most notably photography, the firm is finally in the running for the first time. Put simply, OnePlus must now compete evenly with the best in the market, as it can no longer fall back on the dramatic cost savings it once offered. And it’s unclear whether consumers will embrace this new brand or just stick with the established and well-understood leaders.
We’ll see. But I can say this: The OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro are just as good, and in many ways better, than anything you can get from Cupertino or South Korea. And if you aren’t familiar with this brand, or are suspicious of it for some reason, it’s time to at least take a look. These may be the first OnePlus handsets in which the term “Never Settle” can be taken literally.
Both OnePlus 9 Series handsets feature a stunning, modern design, though both differ in minor ways as well. Each is a glass sandwich, of course, like all modern flagship smartphones, though the non-Pro OnePlus 9 features weight- and cost-saving plastic on the outside edges instead of aluminum. If OnePlus hadn’t told me this, I’d never know: The OnePlus 9 is no less elegant or pleasant to hold than the OnePlus 9 Pro. And not that anyone asked, but I’ll never understand the smartphone market’s aversion to plastic.
The front and back of each handset are coated in Gorilla Glass 6, and not the newer and more hardened Gorilla Glass Victus, raising concerns about not just scratches and other damage but also smudges and fingerprints on most models. Most OnePlus 9 Series buyers will get a case to protect the expensive device, I hope, but those that don’t will want to be extra careful with this slippery bar of soap.
OnePlus ships each handset in a variety of colors but there’s no color that’s common to both. OnePlus 9 buyers can choose between Winter Mist (a light purple gradient), Arctic Sky (a light blue with a matte finish), and Astral Black (a matte black). And the OnePlus 9 Pro can be had in Morning Mist (a glossy silver), Pine Green (with a double-layer matte finish), and Stellar Black (a frosted matte glass with a subtle, sandstone-like texture). The review units are Astral Black and Morning Mist, and both are fingerprint and smudge magnets, but I used the cases provided by OnePlus for the duration.
The colors are nice, but I particularly like how OnePlus has evolved the multi-lens camera module on the back of the handsets. There’s some subtle Hasselblad branding to celebrate the new partnership, the module looks clean and organic overall, and it neatly mimics the rounded rectangle shape of the phone on which it sits.
OnePlus has long provided some of the best displays in the smartphone industry, and that trend continues with the OnePlus 9 Series. Both handsets provide tall, thin, and edge-to-edge display panels with high, 120 Hz refresh rates, and both are bright, punchy, and immersive. But there are some key differences.
The OnePlus 9 uses the same flat 6.55-inch Full HD+ (2400 x 1080 at 402 ppi) AMOLED display panel that it previously shipped in the OnePlus 8T, and it’s excellent. It has a tall and thin 20:9 aspect ratio, provides 1,100 nits of brightness, is HDR10+ certified, and can automatically switch between 8,192 levels of brightness as the surrounding conditions change. It also provides an Apple-like feature called Comfort Tone that shifts the color temperature of the display to match those conditions, and you can manually switch between two refresh rates, the standard 60 Hz and the smoother 120 Hz.
The OnePlus 9 Pro’s AMOLED display panel is curved at the edges, is slightly bigger at 6.7-inches, offers a higher Quad HD+ (3216 x 1440 at 525 ppi) resolution, and has a slightly different but still tall and thin 20.1:9 aspect ratio. It offers an incredible 1,300 nits of peak brightness, native 10-bit color depth, HDR10+ compatibility, and automatic color temperature adjustments, and DisplayMate, as part of its A+ rating of the panel, described its color accuracy as “visually indistinguishable from perfect.”
The OnePlus 9 Pro display is what the firm calls Fluid Display 2.0 because of its integrated LTPO technology that allows the phone to automatically switch between 1 Hz and 120 Hz in 1 Hz increments, providing claimed battery life savings of up to 50 percent. For example, when you’re reading or viewing photos, the display will slow its refresh rate to as low as 1 Hz, but it will jump to 24 Hz when watching videos and up to 120 Hz when scrolling for the smoothest-possible experience.
The OnePlus 9 Pro display also provides Hyper Touch capabilities with up to 6 times the response time when gaming when compared to other OnePlus displays. Hyper Touch lets the handset sync the processor and display at up to 360 Hz, a dramatic jump from the 60 or 120 Hz sync speed offered by other flagship smartphones, making this handset ideal for mobile gamers. Well, assuming you play compatible games: At the time of this writing, only PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty Mobile, League of Legends, and Brawl Stars are compatible with Hyper Touch.
Both of these displays are fantastic, but OnePlus is trying to please two different audiences here, those that like curved displays and those that don’t. It has worked to minimize the mis-touches that are typically common on curved displays, and that effort is successful based on my testing. But the only real argument for curved displays now is aesthetic: As we see on laptops, curved edges make the device seem thinner than it really is. I very much prefer flat displays.
Hardware and specs
Both OnePlus 9 Series phones have the same basic system components. They’re powered by the top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC (system on a chip), which includes Adreno 660 graphics and the X60 chipset and its 5G capabilities. And each ships with 8 or 12 GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 128 or 256 GB of UFS 3.1 2-lane storage depending on the model.
The two handsets that OnePlus supplied for review are both the higher-end configuration, with 12 GB of RAM and 256 of (non-expandable) storage. But any of these configurations are basically overkill for my needs, at least for now: I’m not a mobile gamer, and aside from photography, I mostly use my phones for music, audiobook, and podcast playback; reading, social media posts, text messaging, and phone calls (and pretty much in that order). But coming off of several months with the mid-level performance provided by the Pixel 4a 5G, using a OnePlus Series 9 is like pulling onto the Autobahn in a finely-tuned sports car. Everything happens instantly and there are no lags, pauses, or stutters. Ever.
Both handsets have a bottom-mounted USB-C 3.1 port for power and connectivity to a PC.
The OnePlus 9 Series handsets provide modern connectivity capabilities that include 5G/LTE cellular networking, dual-band Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2 (with aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, and AAC support), and NFC.
One note on the 5G capabilities: While both phones support 5G, only the OnePlus 9 Pro supports Verizon’s faster but more fidgety mmWave technology. I’m on the T-Mobile-based Mint network, so I wasn’t able to test that anyway.
Like its most recent predecessors, the OnePlus 9 Series phones provide dual stereo speakers, and they provide rich and immersive 3D sound courtesy of Dolby Atmos audio and a Qualcomm audio chipset that provides, among other things, speaker amplification and noise cancelation capabilities for the microphones. I don’t typically listen to a lot of audio this way—I typically use earbuds when enjoying audio or video content on my phones, and I don’t play many mobile games—but the quality here is good enough to make me reconsider.
With the OnePlus 9 Series, OnePlus has finally overcome its long-time Achilles Heel, the quality of the photographs produced by its camera systems. Now, customers are treated to a mostly excellent array of camera hardware that is backed by a top-notch set of camera software and capabilities. It’s good enough to vault OnePlus into the upper echelon of premium smartphones, and while some individual camera features across flagships from Apple, Google, Samsung, and especially Huawei are still superior, OnePlus is, for the first time, in the game.
This is overdue, for sure, and there are still some quirky aspects to the OnePlus camera experience—like the weird monochrome lens—that just don’t make any sense. But don’t let any of that overshadow the enormity of the accomplishment. Photography is my number one concern when it comes to choosing a smartphone, and I would be happy with either of these handsets. In fact, I plan to continue using the OnePlus 9 Pro for as long as I can.
The base camera configuration is similar between the two handsets. Both offer the same front-facing camera, a 16 MP fixed-focus lens with an f/2.4 aperture and electronic image stabilization (EIS). I’m not a big taker of selfies, but it works well, albeit without a particularly wide view that would be useful for including more people.
The rear camera systems are a bit harder to explain. Both feature a 48 MP main (wide) lens, a 50 MP ultra-wide lens, and a goofy 2 MP monochrome lens, and while the latter two lenses are identical between the two handsets, the main lens, inexplicably, is different though both offer almost identical specifications. It’s complicated.
There are two differences in the main lenses. The OnePlus 9 uses a Sony IMX689 sensor, while the main lens on the OnePlus 9 Pro uses a newer Sony IMX789 sensor. And while the OnePlus 9 has to make do with EIS, the OnePlus 9 Pro provides superior optical image stabilization (OIS). Beyond those, the specifications are the same—48 MP with an f/1.8 aperture, and each has the same pixel size, lens quality, and focal length. I can’t say that I noticed any major differences between the two, though I did little in the way of side-by-side tests. What I can say is that the main lens is a bit less consistent than the ultra-wide in that some shots are a bit on the bland side while others have what I think of as an acceptable amount of vibrancy and contrast.
… but this photo, taken in the same area and just seconds later, is washed-out
The ultra-wide lens, which is common to both handsets, is superior in both quality and consistency, and you can really see this when you get too close to a subject and the camera automatically switches from the main lens to ultra-wide because of the latter’s macro capabilities: The image shifts, and the color and clarity pop. (Yes, you can turn off this automatic lens switch if you want, but I’ve rarely been disappointed when it happens.)
From a specifications perspective, the ultra-wide lens provides 50 MP of resolution with an f/2.2 aperture and a perceived focal length of 14 mm. And in addition to being superior to the main lens, it also uses a combination of hardware and software to correct the edge distortion that’s common to ultra-wide lenses. It can’t eliminate all distortion, of course, but where most ultra-wide lenses distort the edges of shots by 10 to 20 percent, the OnePlus 9 Pro lands at between 1 and 2 percent.
OnePlus makes a big deal of the fact that its ultra-wide sensor, a Sony IMX789, is over three times the size of the sensor in the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and for good reason: A larger sensor can let in more light, improving image quality, and it should offer less noisy shots, especially in low-light conditions. And sure enough, my low-light photography experience has so far been both excellent and consistent, and I’ve rarely needed to turn to the camera app’s Nightscape mode.
The monochrome lens makes little sense to me since you can easily de-colorize any image with software if you like black and white shots. I just don’t get it.
And then there’s the telephoto lens, a unique differentiator for the OnePlus 9 Pro, with its 3.3x optical zoom and 30x digital zoom capabilities with OIS. Sadly, it’s not much of a differentiator: Even at 3.3x, images are blurry and have that weird watercolor-like effect that I saw on last year’s Samsung flagships at much higher zoom levels.
And anything above, say, 10x is likely going to be unusable: Between your hand’s minor shaking and the mediocrity of the hardware, zoom just isn’t this camera’s strong point. The telephoto lens is better than nothing, for sure. But that’s about it, and if OnePlus is looking for a way to improve the camera experience even further in a future flagship, I recommend working on the telephoto lens before the main lens.
From a software perspective, OnePlus worked with Hasselblad to improve the quality of the photos taken with the camera app, resulting in a system the firms call Hasselblad Camera for Mobile. It brings a few changes to the experience.
First, the camera app uses the awkwardly named Natural Color Calibration with Hasselblad to ensure that the photos taken with this system are as color accurate as possible. This effort seems mostly successful, though again, the ultra-wide lens is more colorful and detailed than the main lens, and the shots provided by this camera system often (but not always) lack the HDR “pop” effect we’ve come to expect from Samsung and Huawei.
Second, there is a new Hasselblad Pro Mode in the camera app that’s designed to resemble Hasselblad’s image processing software, but otherwise offers all of the manual controls that pros expect. I’m more of a snapshot taker than a serious photographer, but I will try to experiment more with Hasselblad Pro Mode and its support of 12-bit RAW images in the future and potentially write that up separately.
And third—and really, I’m just including this one for fun—the camera app emits a new and surprisingly pleasant sound when you take a picture. I’m told this is the sound that Hasselblad’s expensive standalone cameras make. Whatever, it’s delightful.
For those interested in video, both handsets offer similar capabilities, with 4K video at 30 or 60 fps (or, with the OnePlus 9 Pro, 120 fps), 8K video at 30 fps, super slow-motion video at 720p/480 fps and 1080p/240 fps, and time-lapse video at 1080p/30 fps and 4K/30 fps. Video recording supports Nightscape, HDR, and portrait mode too. Quality will vary according to the lens used—again, the ultra-wide delivers better quality—and the switch between lenses during record is abrupt, with no transition. I don’t shoot a lot of videos, but I found the quality to be decent, and while I don’t see anything in the documentation about image stabilization, it seems to do a good job of eliminating the bobbing effect when recording while walking.
So where does the OnePlus 9 Series land in terms of the competition? This is a bit rough because I don’t have Apple’s or Samsung’s newest models on hand, but I see the OnePlus camera experience landing below Huawei and Samsung overall and being very similar to iPhone, though I expect Apple’s video capabilities are better. The point here, again, isn’t for OnePlus to magically vault ahead of these well-established players, but rather to improve enough to be competitive. And it has absolutely done that. OnePlus, finally, is in the game.
That said, if you’re looking for the best smartphone photography experience, Samsung seems like the obvious choice today, especially since Huawei has slid out of the picture thanks to the U.S government. You’ll pay the price of Samsung’s bloatware and advertising, of course, but this company’s flagship smartphones offer excellent photography performance, and their zoom capabilities are untouchable.
OnePlus has provided the best in-display fingerprint reader in the smartphone market for years, and that tradition carries forward with the OnePlus 9 Series. Say what you will about physical fingerprint readers and their preferred placement on the device, or about Windows Hello-like facial recognition capabilities. But this is my favorite way to sign in on a phone, as it’s fast, reliable, and deliberate, and there are no extra swipes or other steps to take.
For those who do prefer facial recognition, OnePlus also provides Face Unlock capabilities, but my understanding is that it’s not particularly secure. I haven’t tested this feature.
Both OnePlus 9 Series handsets come with dual 2,250 mAh batteries for a total capacity of 4,500 mAh. That’s quite large, and while neither handset can last for more than a day of use, based on my testing, both support 65-watt Warp Charge 65T wired charging. And if you use the supplied power brick, you can charge a completely dead phone to a 100 percent charge in less than 30 minutes. That’s the best I’ve ever seen.
The OnePlus 9 also supports 15-watt Qi wireless charging, which is pretty standard these days in the premium smartphone space: The iPhone 12 series, for example, also supports 15-watt wireless charging via MagSafe. But if you step up to the OnePlus 9 Pro, that’s where the magic happens: Combined with a $70 Warp Charge 50 Wireless Charger, this handset achieves an industry-best 50-watts of wireless charging, which is capable of charging a completely dead handset to 100 percent in under 45 minutes. But yes, you can use any Qi charger for slower wireless charging if that’s what you have.
As noted, battery life wasn’t anything special, and this was especially noticeable coming off the mid-range Google Pixel 4a 5G, which, thanks to its smaller display and less powerful components, typically achieved two full days of battery life during my pandemic usage. But I feel like the fast-charging capabilities more than make up for that, and the OnePlus 9 Series battery life overall is, if anything, typical for premium smartphones today.
Unique hardware features
As with previous OnePlus handsets, the OnePlus 9 Series handsets both provides a unique three-way Alert slider, found on the right side of the devices just above the power button. This slider lets you toggle between ring (the default), vibrate, and silent alert modes, and it works instantly, even when the display is off and you’re not signed in. There’s a nice on-screen notification that appears when you change the alert mode, and that also works whether the display is on. This is a great feature and a true differentiator. I’m not aware of any smartphone that has anything quite like it; the only thing that comes close is the iPhone’s ring/silent switch, which supports two modes.
Both handsets also support IP68 water and dust resistance, but that’s only official on the base OnePlus 9 if you purchase the handset directly from T-Mobile in the United States. I assume that’s for cost reasons—the rating isn’t free to handset makers—but if you pop out the SIM tray on either device, you’ll find the same protective seals. I assume the phones are identical internally, IP68 rating or not, too, since making two versions of the same phone would be expensive and obviate the savings from not getting the rating. Yes, that’s a risk OnePlus 9 buyers will have to take unless they’re on T-Mobile. But that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.
Anyone familiar with OnePlus knows that OxygenOS, the firm’s highly optimized and streamlined take on Android, is one of its device’s key selling points. This tradition carries forward with the OnePlus 9 Series, which includes the Android 11-based OxygenOS 12. (And yes, maybe it’s time to sync up those version numbers, folks.)
To my mind, OxygenOS is the ultimate expression of Android, meaning that it is even more streamlined than the version Google provides with its Pixel handsets while providing important efficiency, performance, and customization advantages and no bloatware at all. There are also no ads anywhere in OxygenOS, which seems like an odd thing to point out until you realize that Samsung has been spamming its own customers for years with unnecessary, redundant apps and services and rampant advertising. If you’re looking for the cleanest—no, the best—version of Android anywhere, this is it.
I’ve seen complaints in the past year that OnePlus has started down a Samsung-like path with recent versions of OxygenOS, but I don’t see it. Yes, the firm has started applying a semi-unique look and feel to apps like Calculator, Clock, Gallery, and others that provide a Windows Phone-like aesthetic with lots of white space at the top. But that’s just part of the firm’s focus on efficiency: This design makes it easier to access on-screen controls with one hand.
OnePlus’s additions to Android are as numerous as they are thoughtful and useful. It would take a book to adequately describe them all, but there’s a Zen Mode for detuning from all the interruptions and distractions, and in OxygenOS 11, you can invite OnePlus-wielding friends to join you while relaxing. Gamers will enjoy the Games hub, which is much more than just a place to see all your installed games; instead, games launched from this experience will automatically launch with whatever customizations you’ve configured into the unique OnePlus Gaming mode or Pro Gaming mode. And a few other utilities, like Gallery, which provides smart imaging editing features, OnePlus Switch, which can help you migrate from other handsets, including iPhone, and Recorder, an audio recording app. All of this is useful, and none of it can be described as bloatware or crapware.
OnePlus added always-on display (AOD) capabilities to a previous OxygenOS version, including fun Insight displays that integrate with Android’s digital wellbeing capabilities. But with OxygenOS 11, we get a wider range of customization capabilities that provide unique clock and notification displays. There’s a fun and unique Canvas option that converts your home page wallpaper into line art for the AOD, providing a neat transition between the two when you sign in. And OnePlus has partnered with Snapchat to bring BitMoji avatars to the AOD, though that feature isn’t yet available from what I can tell.
One of my favorite aspects of OxygenOS is the sheer amount of personalization that’s possible. When you long-tap an empty spot on a home screen, you get the same three choices—Wallpapers, Widgets, and Home settings—that you see on any Android phone. But unlike with other handsets, you can customize almost every aspect of the home screen, including the layout, search gestures, notification dots, icons, and more. There are also some truly unique choices like swiping down on the home screen (which launches a weird OnePlus dashboard called Shelf by default but can be configured to display the notification shade instead), double-tapping the home screen to lock the phone, and swiping towards the top and bottom of the display simultaneously to show a hidden UI called, go figure, Hidden Space. The possibilities seem almost endless.
And that’s just the home screen: Wander into the Settings app and you’ll find an entire Customization area that lets you personalize the AOD, accent color, and fonts too.
Are there any real downsides to OxygenOS? I can think of two.
The most serious is that OnePlus only guarantees two years of Android system updates and that those updates tend to arrive at a more relaxed schedule than is the case with other premium handsets, especially from Apple and Samsung. OnePlus does deliver security updates on a bi-monthly basis, however, which is OK, but only for three years. So, anyone truly interested in taking advantage of the future-proof OnePlus 9 Series hardware should know that doing so will be somewhat undercut by the firm’s system update policy.
The second issue is perhaps less serious, but it’s something I’ve run into regularly over the past few weeks: OxygenOS is really aggressive about preserving battery life as part of its efficiency mission and so it warns you about apps that are draining the battery far too often. In my case, the most common culprits have been Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Edge, and Google Photos. You can, of course, turn off these notifications or visit the Battery Optimization interface (in Settings > Battery) and configure how or whether each app handles battery optimization. Still, it’s annoying, and I would like to see a “Stop warning me about this app” option in the actual notifications.
Pricing and availability
The OnePlus 9 is currently available in a single configuration with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, in Astral Black or Winter Mist, for $729. But a second configuration with 12 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage is on the way, and that version will cost $829.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is currently available in one configuration, too, but it’s a higher-end version with 12 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage that retails for $1069 and comes in either Morning Mist or Pine Green. A lower-end configuration with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage will cost $969 whenever OnePlus makes it available.
Recommendations and conclusions
The OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro both offer superior performance and future-proof specifications, terrific displays, excellent camera systems, and the most efficient and customizable version of Android anywhere.
You can’t go wrong with either handset, but choosing between them may be difficult. The less expensive OnePlus 9 has a flat display, which is preferable, but the OnePlus 9’s curved display is technically superior with an interesting automatic refresh rate capability. And while the OnePlus 9 lacks the Pro’s telephoto camera lens, it’s not particularly good anyway and will rarely be missed.
At their respective price levels, these handsets do undercut their Apple and Samsung rivals. But not by all that much, at least in Samsung’s case: You can pick up a Galaxy S21+ with a 6.7-inch display and 128 GB of storage for $999, for example, and Samsung always has great trade-in offers and ongoing sales. Apple is more expensive, especially at that screen size, as an iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1099. But the smaller iPhone 12 Pro starts at $999 too, and the iPhone 12 can be had for as little as $799. Samsung and Apple both offer longer software support, too.
Combined with the relative obscurity of the OnePlus brand, those may be the firm’s only remaining hurdles with consumers. Its shift in focus from pure value to matching the features and capabilities seen elsewhere is understandable and has certainly seen some successes. But now that OnePlus handsets are not much less expensive than the well-known flagships, they are conversely a tougher sell too.
But when you consider every aspect of the OnePlus experience, the OnePlus 9 Series still offers a compelling package, and it’s one that I prefer, overall, to anything offered elsewhere. The OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro are both highly recommended. These are phones that I would use myself. And will.
- Next-level performance
- Excellent multi-lens camera systems
- Gorgeous displays
- Premium build quality
- Lean and optimized system software
- Less expensive than Apple and Samsung flagships
- Lackluster OS update policy
- OnePlus brand is still relatively unknown with consumers