Anton D. Nagy contributed to this iPhone 12 Pro Max vs OnePlus 9 Pro comparison post.
I’ve done this comparison for years, and every single time, I walked into it knowing the outcome. There was just no way the iPhone could win because regardless of how much better it could be, the law of diminishing returns would prove that the added price would not compensate for the differences.
It’s as if OnePlus had this perfect formula where no matter how it fell short, you just couldn’t argue with its value proposition. It became this no-brainer recommendation, almost making the idea of spending more to be kind of dumb.
And that maybe explains why my soft spot for the company has been eroding since the 8 series. We get this dramatic turn from value prices to premium prices, and the implementation wasn’t really ready for that. It almost leaves you in this weird middle ground of expectations where we’ve always known Apple products are great but expensive, so that’s no surprise, but what happens when OnePlus products get expensive? You start asking yourself if they can really live up to it.
On one corner we have the OnePlus 9 Pro, the company’s latest flagship, and yes. A pretty penny if you’re trying to buy it in the US at least. On the other, we have the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the best phone Apple makes, which is now priced so close you can only help but wonder how this comparison is gonna end.
I have a serious problem with the word Pro being used to define a phone. Pro means Professional, which in turn is defined as being competent or skilled, and I mean, it’s not like if phones that aren’t a Pro are incompetent. Yes, there are phones that overpromise and underdeliver, and while that will be a major theme of this video, let’s just be clear that these phones do a bit more than others, but aren’t necessarily better.
Visually, they follow pretty different philosophies as to what consumers want, where OnePlus favors curves everywhere, and Apple has gone as flat as it gets. Similarities are scarce, at least except the obvious inspiration of the three-way mute slider on the 9 Pro, which the iPhone did first with its two-way switch. Now, one reason to go Pro is that you get better materials on both, but then this is the first area where the iPhone wins. We’ve got a stronger stainless steel border on the iPhone versus aluminum, and then the front glass is a ceramic shield, which is a more modern solution than the Gorilla Glass 5 on the 9 Pro.
I’m also more inclined to Apple’s matte finish as it looks clean and elegant even with heavy use, while this Morning Mist from OnePlus is half matte, the half mirror just waiting for your fingerprints. They’re both pretty durable, but not indestructible. Also, the glass is expensive to repair, and the borders on the iPhone get *very* scratched up given the shiny finish of the material.
Where the tables turn is when you flip them around. The Fluid AMOLED is at least two years ahead of Apple’s Super Retinal XDR OLED. Sure, they’re diagonally the same size, but the 9 Pro offers no notch to interrupt your content, is brighter in certain scenarios, and provides more pixel density given the added resolution. You might not be able to tell a difference between them since they’re both great at color accuracy and share most certifications, but then the 9 Pro continues to swing with its variable refresh rate at 120hz, with this LTPO panel being another pro feature. It offers always-on capabilities and even an on-display fingerprint scanner that’s become handier in today’s world. That said, speaker quality on both is just as good.
Comparing specs is kind of pointless given their different approaches, but it’s interesting to note that the chip powering both phones can also be found on each of the company’s more affordable offerings. You go Pro for a bit more RAM on both, but then only more starting storage and battery on the iPhone. The reason why it makes sense on the 9 Pro is that this is their only phone with both flavors of 5G and an IP rating on the unlocked variant, where on the iPhone that’s just as standard here as on the non-Pro variants.
Where OnePlus wins is in what you get in the box, with its fast 65-watt wired adapter being included, and which by the way, is powerful enough to even serve most laptops, while Apple offers nothing but a wire on its environmental excuse. They then offer very different approaches to optional wireless accessories, where MagSafe on the iPhone is probably the most portable way to get 15 watts, and the magnets also serve some cool uses later, but let’s be real, it’s no match for the 9 Pro’s 50-watt capability through its Warp Charge 50.
The funny part is that you might not be using the charger on either phone that much. I’ve tested both devices extensively all around New York City and I can’t say I can kill either of them in a day, though I feel the 9 Pro finishes each day with a tad more juice. Both were tested on T-Mobile’s network where 5G is a bit more ubiquitous in the city and data speeds were pretty consistent, and even callers say they couldn’t tell much of a difference on both, though the iPhone did sound a tad crisper.
One of the major reasons for the added endurance is because both companies take software seriously. OnePlus has been nurturing OxygenOS since its second smartphone and has evolved it to satisfy user demand by giving them stock Android looks, with improved performance and features. Doesn’t matter what you do with this phone, it feels snappy all around and is probably the most customizable skin on top of Android 11. The added perks help you use this phone to read books, play games with more power, or even take a break from it periodically.
Now the way this comparison usually played is that it’s far better than Apple’s dated approach, but that changed. iOS 14 is has evolved dramatically, not just to support widgets, but to show them in a more cohesive structure, and even let you stack them on top of each other. Even its approach to the App Tray is smarter than the old alphabetical order we get from any Android phone.
Then there’s the topic of ecosystems. OnePlus has slowly been building its own with headphone offerings and a smartwatch, but I think we can all agree that these are very early attempts that are no match to the maturity Apple has achieved. Cupertino is really good about locking consumers in with how its products, services, and accessories talk to each other. That said, given how bad the first Apple Watch was, it is sort of proof that OnePlus has potential. The problem is that if we’re real, that could take years, and you’re spending money now, so it’s why I’ll give this one to Apple.
Maybe the most evident way where companies differentiate Pro phones is in the camera, but again, think more cameras and capabilities than anything else. Any Pro photographer who claims to have switched away from a mirrorless camera for a phone is just marketing BS. What makes these cameras special though is that the 9 Pro has some of the best sensors in the industry, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in a partnership that now involves tuning and a Hasselblad brand on the hump. Apple on the other hand has never needed co-branding and offers the unique in-body stabilization that can only be found in mirrorless cameras.
During the day I’d say results are comparable, with the iPhone being a tad warmer, less saturated, and less sharpened than the 9 Pro. The effect is good if you’re looking for a bit more contrast and darker tones in the looks, but that then gives Apple more headroom for improved dynamic range when trying to capture sunsets or other scenarios where the light hits the lens directly. The 9 Pro has the versatility of giving you macro photography from the Ultra-Wide, with the iPhone only offering different zoom capabilities, which the 9 Pro matches. My biggest problem is mostly that the OnePlus isn’t as good in its shutter speed, so moving subjects are handled better by the iPhone, and also the detail that’s most evident as you switch cameras.
This is even more evident in low light where this Hasselblad tuning leaves us with some weird results at times, and where the 9 Pro becomes so slow in its need for pulling in light, that even if you took a shot, it might not be useful after. The iPhone isn’t my favorite phone in low light, but it definitely beats the pants off the 9 Pro every single time.
If anything I’d say the 9 Pro handles portraits better, but not selfies, given how its fixed focus will affect the detail it can pull from shots. Something the iPhone doesn’t struggle with at all.
In video recording, sure, the 9 Pro has 8K and even 4K at 120fps, which the iPhone can’t do, but if we were to measure the quality of the results at any resolution or framerate, the iPhone provides results I can trust, with better dynamic range, less over-sharpening, and better color reproduction. Even if stabilization is a close call, the iPhone is clearly a better tool.
But then there’s the fact that 9 Pro shoots selfie video at 16 times less resolution than the primary camera. Like seriously, what year is this OnePlus? Where the iPhone matches the 4K at 60 from the primary just fine and then beats the pants off the 9 Pro in dynamic range and crop. I would definitely trust my memories or even my b-camera footage to the 12 Pro Max versus the 9 Pro in every way.
To conclude, I think you understand why I’m scratching my head here. Yes, I realize we’ve pressured OnePlus into giving us a real flagship, which they have since the 8 Pro at least from a numbers perspective, but the problem is that this is a clear example of why specs aren’t everything. You’ve got all this power on the 9 Pro, plus a price to match, and yet the implementation of that very feature used to call this phone a pro is just not there.
To go back to my original premise, yes, even the iPhone lacks anything deserving of the Pro title, but if there’s one thing we can all praise Apple for, is that the few things it can do, it’ll do great, or even better than most.
This is one of those weird cases where the iPhone is actually giving you less for your money, and yet achieving so much more than the 9 Pro. And sure, you technically spend a bit less for the 9 Pro, but that depends on where you are, as in the US, it seems you’re stuck to the variant that gives you double the storage of the iPhone, but with all those caveats at nearly the same price.
I don’t know about you, but if this were my money I’d pick the iPhone, for the first time ever in a comparison against a OnePlus phone. Once you add the element of perception, let’s be real, at Apple prices, it’s rare for anyone to pass out on the Apple product over an alternative. I can’t call the 9 Pro a bad phone, but I seriously think if OnePlus can’t launch products that live up to these prices, the best is for them to go back to their roots and focus on value.