OnePlus 9 Pro: No flagship killer, a flagship regardless
Top performance, premium build and plenty of features make this a true contender
It’s often the fate of the rebels to take the place of those they strived to overthrow… and that’s what seems to be happening to OnePlus. Once the company of “flagship killer” smartphones — devices that offered most of the features of expensive models other manufacturers were selling, but at almost half the cost — OnePlus has endorsed high prices too these days, aiming to compete with the very giants it used to slay just a few short years ago.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is proof of that: at €949 for the more affordable model and €1049 for the more expensive one (through OnePlus’s online store), it has now fully endorsed flagship-level pricing. The question is: does it offer more than what the competition does so as to remain a preferable option for many consumers who have loved OnePlus products in the past?
Build quality and screen impress
First impressions matter when talking about 1000-euro smartphones, as expectations are understandably high, and the OnePlus 9 Pro is an instant winner in that regard. The company has come a long way as far as design and build quality are concerned, no longer looking for those “very-good-for-the-price” excuses usually offered by mid-tier devices. This is a flagship smartphone through and through, metal frame sandwiched between Gorilla Glass front and back, minimal bezels, no seams, no rough edges or embarrassing lines: a solid, beautiful object that feels good — and certainly premium — in the hand.
The one thing that impresses above everything else about the OnePlus 9 Pro is its screen. This not only is large and very, very, very bright — there really is no need for anyone to use it on 100% brightness indoors unless he/she wants to gape at how it handles certain Netflix films with spectacular HDR highlights — but also of high resolution, making everything seem almost printed just underneath the glass. Those 1440 lines of pixels do drain the 9 Pro’s battery faster than the typical 1080 ones and there’s always the option to revert to that resolution but… come on: there’s no point in paying for such a quality screen only to keep it from offering its best, right?
OnePlus did take extra steps to preserve battery life in a different way though: apart from the resolution downgrade option, users can activate the “Smart 120 Hz” refresh rate option instead of the fixed 60 Hz one. This adaptive function changes how quickly 9 Pro’s screen refreshes depending on the content currently displayed, from 120 Hz if e.g. a mobile game needs it, all the way to 1 Hz (!) for totally static content.
Sound does not reach such lofty heights but it is more than good enough. The device’s stereo speakers produce clear dialogue in movies and satisfying detail on music, although not without some distortion at high volume. It offered unexpectedly good sound for headphones through its USB-C port, either directly to a USB-C pair or to a traditional one using a 3.5'’ converter. The device’s DAC did an admirable job of passing along a number of difficult tracks in hi-res FLAC - and worked flawlessly with Sony’s 1000XM4 wireless headphones over Bluetooth with the same hi-res files.
There’s only one crack in 9 Pro’s multimedia playback armor and that is fixed storage: the device does not offer a way to expand its 128GB or 256GB initial pool via microSD cards as many other Android smartphones do. The storage that’s provided is enough for typical use and it is very, very fast (the USB-C 3.1 port makes file transferring a breeze too), but people who intend to snap a lot of uncompressed photos and/or record a lot of 4K/8K video will have to offload some of that material to external storage from time to time.
Top performance, updates remain important
The OnePlus 9 Pro sports Qualcomm’s latest and greatest processor, the Snapdragon 888, as well as its most powerful graphics subsystem, the Adreno 660. Those, coupled with fast RAM as well as fast storage make this device one of the most powerful smartphones on the market right now — not just in benchmarks (although the 9 Pro scored impressively high there too). It just feels so capable of dealing with anything one throws at it effortlessly, be it complex photo filters, extremely high-bitrate 4K video files, Asphalt 9 or PUBG Mobile at max settings. It’s ultra-responsive while navigating menus, quick at taking hi-res photos, just reliably nimble at everything.
Some of that speed and responsiveness has to do with Oxygen, OnePlus’s “skin” for the Android OS which is already established as one of the best around. It’s the next best thing to stock Android, now more streamlined than ever in its 11th version, offering a number of useful extras and tweaks without overdoing it or aggressively promoting other products and services. There’s a lot of room for customizing that one, too. Past OnePlus device owners will feel right at home with it, while new customers will feel more than happy with Oxygen’s minimal approach — especially compared to more garish ones from Android competitors who offer little to no added value by including a lot of extra software and functions with their “skin” for Android.
Updates are a somewhat different matter. On one hand, OnePlus has been better at supporting past handsets with security, performance and quality-of-life updates than most other Android manufacturers. On the other hand, those updates did not always come in a timely manner and some of them caused a few problems which had to be solved with different updates.
OnePlus promises two full Android releases in the lifetime support of the 9 Pro (so versions 12 and 13) as well as three years of security updates (usually once every two months). Provided that this promise is kept with no delays, it is more than good enough for people who like keeping their devices longer than two years or so. The 9 Pro has been out since the beginning of April and has already received two updates, which is encouraging. Here’s hope that OnePlus nails it this time, as software support is now considered to be a major factor in choosing a smartphone long-term (especially one that costs around or more than €1000).
Cameras: OnePlus’s best yet
OnePlus has been offering handsets of premium build, top performance and a good user interface for some time now, but there was one area where they were not competitive enough: photography. That’s why a lot of people were waiting for the 9/9Pro models in order to see the kind of progress OnePlus made through its much-publicized, much-talked-about collaboration with Hasselblad, one of the most respected brands in the history of photography. There’s good news and not-so-good news… but no bad news, which is important.
The good news: the 9 Pro is easily the best photo shooter OnePlus has offered so far, by some margin. The main, quad-camera system not only is the most advanced yet as far as sensors and lenses are concerned (no point elaborating on those as all tech specs can be found in detail right here), but it takes full advantage of the Snapdragon 888’s power in order to snap and process really quickly, even at the highest resolutions available (unless when shooting in RAW of course). Results from the main and the ultrawide camera are generally very good or even excellent at times in daytime shooting but in an effort to preserve detail they often appear oversharpened and a bit noisy. This is something that OnePlus can definitely address via firmware updates — the amount of compression and sharpening at the very least — because in RAW files these flaws are completely absent (but one can’t be shooting in RAW through the Pro Mode option all the time).
Hasselblad’s contribution to the 9 Pro’s photography credentials is focused on color reproduction. The idea was to go for as natural and true-to-life colors as possible instead of the vibrant, impressive but largely inaccurate palette other manufacturers are known for. This is indeed offered: colors may seem somewhat muted and compression is limiting their dynamic range — the latter does not happen in RAW — but the overall quality of most snaps is undeniable. Photos look more like what iPhones go for than what Galaxy S models go for and that is a good thing in many people’s eyes.
Video recording is also on a different level than what OnePlus has offered before. The device can shoot at up to 8K/30 fps but the most useful mode is actually the 4K/120 fps one, which can produce extremely smooth, detailed footage in 60 or 30 fps when edited. It’s a shame that image stabilization is locked at 30 or 60 fps, but the ultrawide camera can produce some amazing results based on that, even if cropped. The 9 Pro can even shoot 2K video in Nightscape Mode but results can vary wildly. Only one omission deserves mentioning and that is HDR recording, which would honestly be more useful than 8K recording for most people. Once again, it’s a software thing so it may be rectified in the future.
All in all, OnePlus 9 Pro’s mission as far as photography is concerned is accomplished: snaps taken by this device are not better than what one expects from top iPhones or Galaxy S models, but they are — at long last — comparable, which is an important step forward for OnePlus. The company may have overhyped the Hasselblad collaboration, yes, but that deal is a three-year one so we may yet see more important changes and options based on feedback from the Swedish. In the meantime OnePlus can tinker with its software in order to offer even better photos than what it currently does. Here’s hope that its engineers work on that, as it is quite obvious that the top-notch hardware has a lot of untapped potential.
Flagships are expected to come with some features that lesser (and less costly) handsets do not offer and the OnePlus 9 Pro delivers on that front too. First of all it’s 5G-capable, which might not mean a lot in 2021 while 5G networks are still in the first stages of their expansion, but it will by 2023. Then it’s IP68 certified, meaning that it’s as dust and water-resistant as one can expect from a phone to be. Its nano-SIM slot can accept two SIM cards. Most importantly, though: it comes with a quality, extremely fast charger.
That’s noteworthy not just because certain other manufacturers do not include a wired or wireless charger anymore, but also because this is a 65-Watt charger — and for the OnePlus 9 Pro this is important because by supporting ultra-fast charging and using this specific charger it can go from 0% to 100% in 30 minutes. No, that’s not a typo: 30'. It’s just as well, since this smartphone’s battery life is not really impressive: at first, it barely reached 5 hours of heavy use, but the second firmware update increased that to almost 6. Smartphone testing for review is more demanding than general use in “normal” circumstances, but still. In any case, the included 65-watt charger can give the 9 Pro enough juice in 10 minutes to make it through the rest of the day and that surely is impressive.
A flagship-killer no more, but rightly among the top 2021 flagships
Since it now costs almost as much as other flagship smartphones do, then, does the OnePlus 9 Pro offer more than those in order to remain a preferable option for consumers who chose OnePlus products? For those specific customers, yes. OnePlus fans can finally get their hands on a handset that is of premium build quality, is extremely powerful, is based on a mature user interface and does proper flagship photography (with room for improvement via updates). The “flagship-killer” days of the best phone OnePlus used to bring out each year are over. That phone is now no less a flagship than the iPhone and Galaxy S models of the same year.
iPhone users are notoriously reluctant to switch to Android, so OnePlus 9 Pro’s actual competition comes from Samsung, Asus and Chinese manufacturers that still have access to Google Mobile Services — so Xiaomi and Oppo. The 9 Pro retains a few advantages over some of those (including Oxygen OS and ultra-fast charging), is at a disadvantage in some areas (such as battery life and camera versatility) while priced at the same level or lower. None of the five smartphones of that group is a clear choice, considering that around €1000 all five are exceptionally good devices.
In the eyes of people who think of the mobile user experience and fast charging as more important than photography or gaming, though, the OnePlus 9 Pro edges ts Samsung and Asus rivals respectively, while being marginally preferable to Oppo and Xiaomi based on price. It’s a good place for OnePlus to be, especially if the software side of things improves even further via updates, consolidating 9 Pro’s success in securing a place among the Top 5 Android handsets of 2021. Now, of course, the real work begins… for staying there.
For more details on the OnePlus 9 Pro, please check out the expanded, highly detailed version of this review on Medium and the company's official product page for its tech specs.