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OnePlus is evolving, but it’s in a tricky place right now

By Nadeem Sarwar March 29, 2021, 8:25 am
iphone 12 pro max oneplus 9 pror vs galaxy s21 ultra pocketnow

It’s 2021. OnePlus has launched the first batch of its high-end phones that include the OnePlus 9, 9 Pro, and a curiosity called the OnePlus 9R. A quick look at the specs table of the OnePlus 9 and its Pro sibling, especially in the camera hardware, make it abundantly clear that these phones mean business. Say what you want about the Hasselblad partnership and whether it has managed to yield any noticeable benefit, but improvements have definitely been made. 

OnePlus has marched into the territory of big dogs, and the competition there is fierce!

But let’s not limit ourselves to just one aspect. The OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro are great phones for their asking price. But they are not the absolute best phones if you are willing to spend north of $700. Especially if you take into consideration the fact that the Samsung Galaxy S21 costs the same, or even lesser than the OnePlus 9 in the US market right now, thanks to some aggressive marketing and deals that are definitely paying off. And so does the iPhone 12, which has proved itself to be an excellent device for that sum. 


Yes, the OnePlus 9 shines when it comes to charging speed and a megapixel-heavy ultrawide camera, but the Galaxy S21 offers a more versatile camera setup and better software support – if one takes into account the solid update cycle of Samsung phones recently. The iPhone 12, on the other hand, blows both its Android rivals out of the water when it comes to video capture output. As for software, well, it is going to be on the iOS update roadmap for much longer than its competitors. We’ve made the relevant comparisons to help you pick the better device, go check that out. 

So, the question is, why would you shell out on a OnePlus sub-flagship when Samsung offers an almost flagship experience or Apple gives you its latest no-compromise vanilla iPhone for the same price, or even lesser? But that’s just half the story, and we’ll leave you to do the spec comparison and weigh the pros and cons.

oneplus phones pricing over the years pockentow
Pricing of ‘vanilla’ OnePlus phones over the years

But the situation becomes even tricker when it comes to the Pro model this year. Again, it has its own set of perks while going against the very well-received iPhone 12 Pro, a phone that is definitely a speed demon and has terrific cameras. And if video capture is something you care about, no phone in the market can touch it right now, except its own Max sibling. 

And if you got just a little over hundred bucks extra in your phone budget, the Galaxy S21 Ultra will offer you the same speed as the OnePlus 9 Pro, but even more versatile cameras, a truckload of tricks, stylus support, and zoom performance that is simply the best on any phone sold on the US soil right now. But the OnePlus 9 Pro beats it with some crazy fast charging tech. 50W wireless charging? Samsung and Apple’s latest don’t go that fast even with a wire!

oneplus 9 rear inhand pocketnow
OnePlus 9 is squarely against the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 in the US

However, I’ll say this again. The OnePlus 9 Pro is not a lesser flagship by any means. Where it lags against its more mainstream Samsung and Apple rivals, it leaves the competition far behind in certain areas. Needless to say, the buzzy company has definitely evolved past its flagship killer image and is now making phones that go against the best in the industry, both in terms of experience and pricing. 

OnePlus is definitely trying to woo the tech-savvy users in the US, a market where smartphone buyers are often torn between Samsung and Apple, and lack a serious third option. Sony is way past its glory days, and LG is not a shape to even think about competing with Apple and Samsung. If more carriers join hands to offer lucrative deals and OnePlus also gets a footing in the retail space, it has a good chance of success.

OnePlus 9 Pro
OnePlus 9 Pro is going against the likes of iPhone 12 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

At the end of the day, the Pete Lau-led company has evolved beyond its ‘flagship killer’ days and is now firmly in the mainstream. And going by the company’s track record of making solid phones over the years and a community-driven ambition to keep improving and offering the best, the company likely won’t suffer the same fate as LG or Samsung. 

OnePlus is singing a different tune in its biggest market

But the US is not the biggest market for OnePlus, and neither is it the most competitive one. That distinction goes to India – a market where OnePlus regained the top spot in the premium tier beating the likes of Apple and Samsung in Q2 last year. In the last quarter of 2020, OnePlus recorded a growth of 200% on a YoY basis and was at the front of India’s 5G phone market alongside Apple. However, a key takeaway here is that OnePlus remained the top brand in the affordable premium segment where phones priced between $400-$600. 

OnePlus 9R vs Galaxy S20 FE
OnePlus 9R

OnePlus doesn't want to loose its grip on the flagship killer moniker

Yes, OnePlus breached the limit of the upper range a while ago, but the company is still holding on to its appeal as the flagship killer brand. India is a price-sensitive market, and it also explains why OnePlus phones are cheaper here compared to other markets. Take for example the OnePlus 9, which starts at $729 in the US, but in India, it costs around $690. The difference was even bigger just six months ago with the OnePlus 8T that made its debut in the US market at $749, but was priced at around $600 in India. 

OnePlus is clinging to the success in that price bracket – one where flagship killers exist – for the Indian market. And the best example of that would be an exclusive phone (at least for now) called the OnePlus 9R. Actually, it’s not entirely a new device. It’s more like a T version of the OnePlus 8T in a new suit. Does that mean it is a bad device? No. Is it outdated by 2021 flagship standards? Not really. Is it as fast as 2021 flagships? Close enough. So, what’s special about it? The answer is simple – a very competitive price.

oneplus 9R
OnePlus 9R is a solid attempt at retaining the flagship killer appeal.

The OnePlus 9R will set you back by around $550 in India, which is actually a steal deal if you consider the fact that it rocks virtually the same hardware as the OnePlus 8T – a phone that was launched at $749. The only key change is that the OnePlus 9R goes for the Snapdragon 870 SoC instead of the Snapdragon 865+ SoC at the heart of OnePlus 8T, which is not a downgrade by any stretch. 

Now, OnePlus’ strategy of keeping its price-sensitive Indian fanbase appears to be a sound one on paper. And actually, it is not a hollowed attempt at making an affordable flagship. I asked a few people in the Indian tech industry and loyal OnePlus phone users about the OnePlus 9R’s appeal as a standalone flagship killer, and they are quite optimistic about the whole package at that sweet $550 price. 

OnePlus 9R is essentially OnePlus sticking to its roots, and it actually makes a lot of sense.

I actually quite like the approach of not alienating the buyers in your biggest market and staying true to the brand’s appeal. But in hindsight, it is also a mindfully cautious strategy to ensure that rival Chinese brands don’t exploit the void left by OnePlus in a segment that it has dominated for a while now. 

oneplus 9 angled rear pocketnow
OnePlus is contending with big players now – an evolution that has been in the pipeline for years.

Armed with the Snapdragon 870 SoC, Xiaomi (and its Redmi and POCO brothers-in-arms too) have also launched sub-flagships with some impressive specs and even better pricing lately. And with Xiaomi planning a return to this segment in India, the breathing room for OnePlus is definitely going to shrink. VIVO, which has a solid retail presence in India and is among the top smartphone sellers in the Indian market, has also gone all-in on the flagship and sub-flagship segment with its X60 range. Just like OnePlus, Vivo has also launched three phones, and they squarely target the OnePlus 9 trio, and even undercut it on the pricing front. 

OnePlus is a veteran at this game, but the competition has stepped up its game lately

More competition is always good for buyers, as it ensures that companies offer more for less to stay ahead. OnePlus is a veteran at this game, but the competition has stepped up its game lately. OnePlus has a chance here to guard its budget flagship kingdom in India if it can convince buyers to splurge their cash on the OnePlus 9R over some pretty amazing competitors from challengers. OnePlus definitely has an edge here with its stellar reputation, and the company would definitely want to milk that opportunity to the fullest. 

We’ll soon have the OnePlus 9R for a test drive and will share whether the gamble of sticking to the basics is likely to pay off for the brand. Stay tuned for the full review coming up on the Pocketnow website real soon!

View OnePlus 9 Pro at Best Buy

View OnePlus 9 at Best Buy


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