Anton D. Nagy contributed to this OnePlus 9 Pro review.
This is the OnePlus 9 Pro, and by all counts, I think this is the phone the company has wanted to make for years. The product that will establish them more as part of the cool kids, where we see more established players like Samsung and Apple. Companies that have gained enough brand recognition to become status symbols, that have earned customer loyalty for years.
The biggest question is if this is the phone we’ve wanted them to make. This is the company that became famous for flagship killers. Products that defied that establishment with better value at acceptable compromise. There’s even proof that the strategy worked as we saw companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung diversify their lineups in order to launch their own sort of affordable flagships.
Now, in their defense, that flagship killer does exist in the OnePlus 9, which is such a dramatic improvement from before, that it deserves its own separate review. The Pro is more a showcase of everything the company can do, and I think the only way to judge it correctly is to forget the past. I get the impression that OnePlus is so certain of the 9 Pro’s capabilities, that this is the most expensive phone they’ve ever made. This price bracket is tough because we even debate the Apples and Samsungs that created it. That would mean that this phone is better than those, not just for the price, and there’s only one way to find out. This is our OnePlus 9 Pro review, in both video and text format.
OnePlus 9 Pro review video
Even if we’re going clean slate, the OnePlus 9 Pro seems like a blend of many successful ideas from the past. I think Huawei was first at calling any of its phones a Pro, and actually owning that title. Their reputation for cheap phones was so bad in the early days that I wouldn’t even care to review any of them before the Nexus 6P or P10, but then we saw the company drift so dramatically towards quality and capability, that they became a driving force that was hard to be ignored.
I mean, the P40 Pro Plus was my favorite camera on a phone last year. It also demonstrated the importance of co-branding with photography experts like Zeiss on Nokia and Leica on HUAWEI to prove that they’re taking photography seriously. What’s different with OnePlus is that this would be the youngest company to try to do all this, and for Hasselblad, a second chance at getting this right.
Visually, I’m gonna call this my favorite design on a OnePlus phone, ever. No more aggressive camera humps to wobble much on a table, and a far lighter build that feels more balanced in the hand. I’m not sure if it’s the cutout or the co-branding on it, but this phone looks like one of those classic Chevies from the 50s and 60s. I think the morning mist color plays a huge role in that appearance from the top, but the bottom is a mirror that made filming this phone a nightmare.
It does have this cool way of making fingerprints almost blend with the gradient, but I recommend you consider the other matte color options. Still, staples like the three-way mute slider are still here to remind you that this is a OnePlus phone.
From the front, we have the company’s best display on a phone. Dubbed its Fluid Display 2.0, we’re talking OLED with fewer curves, 10-bit color, 1300 nits of brightness, QuadHD+ resolution, and LTPO, so the variable refresh rate can go from 1 to 120hz based on your usage, and we have up to 360hz touch sampling for gaming. Certifications include HDR10+ from the panel and even Dolby Atmos from the speakers for content consumption. Oh, and by the way, this includes Qualcomm’s new Aqstic platform for improved wireless performance.
And since we began talking specs, In typical OnePlus fashion we also have the latest ones, with the amount of RAM and storage directly tied to how much you’re willing to pay. The latest Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, IP68 resistance, Dual flavors of 5G, and even a Dual-Cell battery that enables Warp Charge 65T, meaning crazy fast 65 watt PD from the charger that’s actually included in the box, or 50-watt wireless that’s only possible if you grab the optional stand. Also, that wireless charging is now reversible for accessories.
That said, I have a feeling you won’t need to charge this phone much. Testing any phone’s 5G in New York is rough, and even if Google Fi is still not pushing blazing speeds, they were good given the city’s infrastructure. Phone calls were loud and crisp even on Subway stations, but this would be the first OnePlus phone I test that isn’t dual-SIM. It might just be that the T-Mobile approach now became regional, so just keep it in mind. Regardless, after 10 days of testing, this proved to be an all-day phone every single time, no matter how hard I taxed it.
A lot of it has to do with Oxygen OS on top of Android 11. Even if OnePlus is not as quick as Google at pushing you new versions of Android, they’ve been number 2 for at least two years. It’s fast, aesthetically pleasing, includes the Google Feed on the launcher, the Power Menu in the power button, but then has its own set of perks focused on flexibility.
You can easily switch to Amazon’s assistant, you have Reading Mode which is still one of my favorites, Zen Mode to force you to take a break from your phone every now and then. Maybe my favorite is to use facial recognition to only show me notifications on the lock screen when it detects it’s me, and the fact that the optical fingerprint scanner on the display can also be used to lock specific apps.
But alright, if anything the first part of this review proves that this is very much a OnePlus phone in everything we’re used to, which is great. I’ve always been a big fan of using them and was accustomed to accepting the OK cameras because the price was just too good. Now we have a Hasselblad collaboration, and a retail ticket to match, and if you were to look at the spec sheet, OnePlus is not playing around. The Primary sensor is one of the best Sony makes right now, the Ultra-Wide is also the best on any phone right now, which doubles as a Macro camera, and even if the Telephoto is not designed to honor all the lunar marketing prowess that Hasselblad is known for, it looks pretty good on paper.
The results are.. Well, good depending on your scenario. If you have enough light you’ll get the typical photos you’ll expect from any phone with great color, contrast, and detail. In close-ups or macro shots, you get some really good dynamic range, though it can blow out colors when taxed too hard. The problem is that the slightest gloom will somehow have the camera software favor light over the shutter. This makes it really hard to capture detail unless you have a steady hand, and the darker it gets, the more the color tuning gets in the way of the detail.
And sure, inconsistencies are expected when switching focal lengths since each is a different sensor, but in some cases, even saturation varies. It’s as if the software magnifies the grain and sometimes makes a dark vehicle look cartoony. If you like to take photos of animals you’ll find yourself frustrated. I get the impression that the software wants to push that Hasselblad contrast so much that it forgets that all that is pointless without detail. Just keep in mind that on the phone they’ll mostly look good. My findings are when you pull these shots into a computer and compare them to other flagships.
That means that obviously at night, finding detail only becomes more difficult. Some photos are good, some are not. The way light reflections are handled could have a lot to do with it, again, because of that slower shutter being used.
You’ll see what I mean in portrait shots where unless your hand is ultra steady, the detail will be lost. Same story with Selfies where I struggle to find any shot that I can say I like as skin tones are just completely gone over this sort of hue the camera is trying to bring in how it handles light.
In video, sure, you have 8K and I love that the ultra-wide sensor is good enough to assist, pushing a far better crop than Samsung. You also have 4K at 60 and even 120 to get some really smooth cinematic shots. Just make sure you have enough light as that will require more shutter work.
Stabilization is somewhat inconsistent though, with some video working well and some not so well, so just keep that in mind. Really my problem is having selfie video that’s 16 times lower in resolution than what the primary cameras can do, throwing the versatility of what you can do with this phone just out the window if you care about being able to frame yourself in-home movies.
In photos, I feel a software update is needed urgently, and in selfie video, I mean the megapixels are there, and if the OnePlus Nord can do 4K, seriously the flagship should too.
OnePlus 9 Pro review conclusion
To conclude, I think that OnePlus has achieved a lot of what it intended with this launch. If the desire was to prove that it could launch a true flagship that competes against the premium sector, the hardware is all there, and all it needs is a bit more software tuning to become one of the best Android phones you can buy right now.
The only problem is perception, and it has a lot to do with how young the brand is. I asked at least 5 friends that were average consumers to pick between the 9 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro or the Galaxy S21 Plus, which are almost the same price, and none of them picked the OnePlus. Sadly, if the 9 Pro is not really a better phone, or doesn’t have a halo feature that makes those other phones look bad, once you remove the value proposition from the equation, it’s a hard sell.
For sure, in cases like photography, it has Improved a bit, but not completely. And then if the company chooses to trail behind in things like selfie video at a time when social media is a huge part of our lives, then why should you pay more for the 9 Pro if a regular iPhone 12 can tackle these things for less money? If there was one product that needed that whole Never Settle mentality, it’s this one.
If you’re a OnePlus fan, I have no problem recommending the 9 Pro. It’s definitely the best phone they’ve ever made and we know the company is speedy about software updates to address the shortcomings. Now, if you’re not, you might want to consider what features you care about most before choosing this over any of its flagship competitors.