Prior to writing up this review, I spent some time talking about how the Android landscape in the US at the ultra high-end level of phone has shrunk down to just two players: Samsung and OnePlus. You have Samsung’s Ultra phones in both S and Note lines, and then you have whatever the new Pro phone is from OnePlus. Every other serious player has essentially left the arena or isn’t putting out phones that can compete.
So that means the OnePlus 9 Pro is an incredibly important phone. OnePlus can’t screw this up. If they do, Samsung grows that lead even further and we may officially be down to Samsung alone.
After spending a number of weeks with the OnePlus 9 Pro, I think I’ve seen enough to weigh in on whether or not OnePlus rose to the occasion. Let’s dive into it with our OnePlus 9 Pro review.
What do I like about the OnePlus 9 Pro?
Display. When OnePlus turned their attention to smartphone displays with the OnePlus 7 Pro’s 90Hz panel, it set in motion their path to becoming one of the best in the business at presenting pixels to your eyes. Now with the OnePlus 9 Pro, we have a 6.7″ QHD AMOLED display at 120Hz and with LTPO, a display technology that tries to lower power consumption.
This panel, in case you were curious, is beautiful. It presents what I would consider to be incredibly accurate colors without the need for calibration. While OnePlus gives you plenty of options to tweak the color profile, it looks great out of the box as is.
The brightness levels on both ends are very good, with lows helping ease strain on your eyes and brightness good enough for outdoor usage. It has FHD or QHD options, a “Comfort tone” setting to adapt the screen to your environment, reading and comfort and dark modes, and a Hyper Touch setting that tries to “dramatically improve touch response speed.” I left that option off for the most part and thought this phone was ridiculously fast as is, so enjoy that extra boost if you use it.
This display is big, ultra-responsive, and can be fine-tuned like few other smartphone displays to give you the picture you want. Other than the curved edges that can be somewhat annoying to use, I’m not sure there are flaws to be found here.
Software. When OnePlus first introduced OxygenOS 11 with Android 11, we all got a first look at a heavily skinned version of Android from OnePlus that we weren’t expecting. Many have compared it to Samsung’s One UI, and yeah, that’s probably the best comparison. They tossed in bigger fonts, adopted the one-handed meta, curved some stuff, and left their stockish Android look behind. Some love it, others despise it. As someone who is a fan of One UI, I’m not necessarily offended by the new OxygenOS, as it just seems like the most modern take on a smartphone skin that everyone else is adopting.
For the OnePlus 9 Pro (v188.8.131.52), we aren’t getting a bunch of new features necessarily. What we do get is a further refined experience with OnePlus’ always-on display, all of the gestures that have been baked in for several years, the options for customizing icons and shapes and fonts and lock screen content, etc. Again, it isn’t a bunch of new stuff, it’s just better on some level.
One area I’ve noticed that OnePlus continues to change in, is with Google apps entering and their own OnePlus apps leaving. They may have changed some of these a while back, but the Google Discover panel is off to the left now and their Shelf is a secondary option you’ll probably never find. The Google Phone app is the default, as is Google Messages. There are only a few OnePlus apps left, like their gallery, recorder, and calculator apps. If you want a clean set of apps when you first fire up your phone, few do it as cleanly as OnePlus.
Overall, OnePlus didn’t give us a brand new software experience on the OnePlus 9 Pro, but it feels more polished than ever. It feels more modern than ever too. It’s certainly the most grown-up software to date from them.
Performance. Different. That’s what the kids would say about the OnePlus 9 Pro’s performance, I think. It hits different. Jokes aside, OnePlus really has found a magical touch to smartphone performance. I know that the 120Hz display, Snapdragon 888, 12GB RAM, and super fast UFS3.1 storage are all a big part of the way this phone feels as you use it, but it’s worth pointing out that there is a smoothness to animations, swipes, and navigation on OnePlus phones that no one can match.
And I’m not talking about a cheesy bounce effect or something along those lines. OnePlus’ OxygenOS has a silky motion that’s deliberate, without excess. You may remember when I complained about Samsung taking away that “Reduce Animations” option in their One UI 3.1, because it left a bloated visual experience that was more difficult to hide? OnePlus software is the exact opposite. There are animations and pieces of the UI that move, but they do it so precisely as your eyes want it to that it’s comforting to watch in action. If there is one thing everyone in this industry should be copying from OnePlus, it’s their software smoothness.
Camera. I know that the big story for the OnePlus 9 Pro is the camera system and their new partnership with Hasselblad. Just being straight here, but I don’t give a shit about the Hasselblad stuff. I know they likely felt the need to partner like this to change some minds about their cameras, so that’s good and all. The excessive branding of every little camera-related thing is a bit much. In the end, all we really care about is if the camera system is good. Thankfully, it is.
The 48MP main shooter combined with a 50MP wide-angle lens give you the flexibility you need to shoot in various situations. These are high-end sensors from Sony with all of the bells and whistles a $1,000 phone should have. There are additional 8MP telephoto and 2MP monochrome lenses, but let’s be honest – you aren’t using those in any serious way. For the 9 Pro, it’s all about those two big guns.
The OnePlus 9 Pro’s camera app has all of the options I’d expect, like portrait, nightscape, and pro modes. The pro mode has been fully taken over by Hasselblad branding, if you care. OnePlus even tossed in a goofy tilt-shift mode, as a return to 2012. You can record video at 8K/30fps or go really wild with 4K/120fps, set focus tracking, record in HEVC, shoot macros, etc.
During my shooting with the OnePlus 9 Pro, I had both sunny and cloudy days, found some indoor settings, and tested portrait on non-human objects. I shot flowers and the sun and waterfalls and beer and the beach and LEGOs. In almost any of those situations, the photos I captured came out lovely. The camera is fast and available, I only ran into weird shutter lag a couple of times, and generally came away impressed.
The only issue I’d point out is in the difference in color profile from the main shooter to the wide-angle. It’s pretty obvious that the 50MP wide-angle leaves images with a much more natural look, while the main 48MP sensor can ramp up contrast a bit more than I’d like. Other than that, well done here, OnePlus.
Specs list. Talking about the specs list of a phone is small talk, time filler chatter, but I can’t help it with this phone. OnePlus throws so much wild stuff into their phones that you have to give them props. A 6.7″ QHD AMOLED display at 120Hz with LTPO, up to 12GB LPDDR5 RAM and 256GB UFS3.1 storage, the Snapdragon 888, a 4500mAh battery that can use both 65W wired and 50W wireless charging, a Hasselblad branded camera system, WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, and an in-display fingerprint reader all have been included here.
Sure, the price is high, the battery could be slightly bigger, and the design isn’t as snazzy as the S21 Ultra’s, but there aren’t many other things to complain about. One thing OnePlus does well is bring the goods and they most definitely did again with the OnePlus 9 Pro.
What don’t I like about the OnePlus 9 Pro?
Battery life. As many nice things as I’ve had to say about the OnePlus 9 Pro, this here is a pretty big issue – battery life on this phone is not good at all. Over several weeks of testing, I kept hoping this phone would figure out my usage patterns and come around to lasting longer on a single charge, but it has not.
The 4500mAh battery on the OnePlus 9 Pro is a standard size for this level of phone. Sure, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 5000mAh battery, but other comparable phones are right around this capacity. The QHD display with 120Hz refresh rate is also a typical feature on this type of phone. So to see battery life this poor is a bit shocking.
My usage shows several days where battery life would drop into the teens (like 16%) at 7:30PM. Now, if that included a screen on time upwards of 5 or 6 hours, I might not be worried. However, my screen on time readings for this phone almost always show between 2.5 and 4 hours, which at this point in my life is on the low end for a day. I can’t even count how many times I had to find a charger for the OnePlus 9 Pro in the same day because I was worried it wouldn’t last until I went to bed. That’s unacceptable.
Thankfully, if you do need to charge the phone, you can do so in a few minutes time. The 65W wired charging will get you a full charge from almost nothing in about 40 minutes. The same goes for the new 50W wireless charging that OnePlus included. So that’s something you’ll have to wrestle with. Do you accept this one glaring issue when almost everything else is as good as it is, knowing you can always charge up without much time? You tell me.
Software update questions. As much as I like OnePlus’ OxygenOS, even after the big UI overhaul with Android 11, my concern here is in software updates over the long haul. OnePlus tends to be really good at updating their current flagship phone, but after the first year, we start to see the schedule slow down.
As an example, the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro both picked up Android 11 about a month after Google released it. For the previous year’s OnePlus 7 line, OnePlus ran into some sort of data decryption issue that delayed them for what turned into almost a 6 month period. This could be a 1-off delay, but we should point out the Android 10 update for the OnePlus 6 and 6T also ran into a number of issues that pushed its delivery out months beyond what OnePlus had promised and at least 3 months outside of the OnePlus 7.
My worry here is that OnePlus has taken on too many phones. They are continuing to try and support older phones, plus they’ve added a number of budget phones that already aren’t seeing updates in a timely manner. I just need to know if OnePlus is prepared to keep their top customers updated as often as competitors, like Samsung.
Availability. If OnePlus wants to be the other player in this Android game at the high-end level, they need to find more carrier partners. You can’t only sell your phones at T-Mobile in the US. I know that OnePlus will sell you the OnePlus 9 Pro directly too, but that’s just not how most people in the US buy phones. Most people want carrier deals and contracts that get them free phones or phones on the cheap, they don’t want to pay $1,000 out of pocket.
People here also like the idea of a support presence, like a carrier store where they can take their phone if there is an issue. If anything, I’d love to see OnePlus partner with uBreakiFix as Samsung has to get people same-day repairs should they run into an issue. They need something along those lines to be taken more seriously. Dealing with remote phone repair where you are without a phone for 7-9 days isn’t the option customers should get when they buy a $1,000 phone.
Should you buy the OnePlus 9 Pro?
There really are only two options left in the high-end Android game, so if you want a $1,000 phone that’s actually worth buying, you turn to Samsung or OnePlus. For Samsung, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is looking like the ultimate phone of 2021, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the OnePlus 9 Pro.
On the OnePlus 9 Pro, OnePlus gave us a really, really good camera system, a display that looks better than you can imagine, software performance few can match, and charging technologies that will blow your mind. The OnePlus 9 Pro isn’t perfect, though. Battery life is well below-average, the design of this phone feels somewhat dated, and the long-term software update situation needs improvement.
So I know you want me to tell you which of the two to buy and I just don’t have an exact answer. I think OnePlus has made really good phones for a while now and the 9 Pro shows their continued maturity. I also think you’d be happy with either phone, you just need to decide how important regular and long-term software updates are.