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OnePlus 9 Series First Impressions

Posted March 25, 2021 | Android | Mobile | OnePlus | OnePlus 9 Series | Windows


I’ve long been impressed by the quality of OnePlus’s hardware designs, though the firm has staggered unevenly between matte-type designs and flashy, colorful designs that reflect color in interesting ways. With the OnePlus 9 Series, the company seems to be splitting the difference: The color schemes this year are mostly muted—and are unfortunately different between the Pro and non-Pro models, again—and seem to land on the staid and professional side of the design fence. I happen to like it quite a bit, but whatever: You’d be crazy not to cover this glass and aluminum sandwich in a case.

The OnePlus 9 review unit is Astral Black; the other option is Winter Mist.

The OnePlus 9 Pro review unit, meanwhile, is Morning Mist. But I’d love to see the Pine Green color in person.

There are, of course, the usual OnePlus niceties like its unique three-stage notification slider and an excellent in-display fingerprint reader.

Internally, the OnePlus 9 Series is stacked with the types of high-end components we’ve also long come to expect from this company: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processors with Adreno 660 graphics, X60 5G chipsets, 8 or 12 GB of RAM, 128 or 256 GB of high-speed storage, and gorgeous, large, and tall Fluid AMOLED displays. Plus, high-speed wired and wireless charging, both of which are improved yet again for these products.

OnePlus sent a 50-watt wireless charge to test as well

(But here’s something odd: OnePlus users can only connect to 5G networks in the United States with T-Mobile. For some reason.)

The OnePlus 9 Series also carries forward a new version of the firm’s optimized Android experience, called OxygenOS, and its reasonable suite of non-crapware software, which includes things like Game mode, Zen mode for relaxing, and much more. We expect the design to be clean and modern and the performance to be exceptional, and that’s what OnePlus has always delivered.

This is all wonderful. But OnePlus is pushing its new-found photographic chops very heavily for this release and with good reason: Photography was the Achilles Heel of previous OnePlus handsets, which were almost universally excellent over several generations and, more recently, a surge in the number of available models.

Consider some commentary from my previous OnePlus review.

“I wanted to love the OnePlus 8T … but if camera quality and/or wireless charging matters to you, the OnePlus 8T is a non-starter,” I wrote of that handset. “The OnePlus 8 Pro is an excellent flagship smartphone that measures up well against the best that Apple and Samsung have to offer, aside from its camera system,” I noted one year ago. “Your mileage will vary according to need, but the biggest issue for me is the camera, which, again, underperforms overall, an ongoing problem with OnePlus handsets,” I wrote of the OnePlus 7 Pro a year earlier than that.

You get the idea. OnePlus has needed to fix this issue for years and with the OnePlus 9 Series, it appears to have finally received the wake-up call. If OnePlus can just get this right—i.e., make the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro at least competitive with the market leaders—then we’d have a real contender on our hands.

Everything looks good on paper. Both handsets feature a 48 MP main lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) and an ƒ/1,8 aperture, a 50 MP ultra-wide lens with an ƒ/2,2 aperture, and a 2 MP monochrome lens. And the OnePlus 9 Pro adds an 8 MP telephoto lens with OIS and an ƒ/2,4 aperture. And we’ve all heard about the Hasselblad partnership, which has a few obvious ramifications in these products: Dramatically improved color accuracy, new photographic software including the Hasselblad Camera for Mobile app and its Hasselblad Pro Mode, plus automatic ultra-wide distortion correction and 8K video capabilities.

Test shot: Main camera lens

But dig a bit deeper and you will find some areas of concern. The ultra-wide lens doesn’t have any OIS capabilities, which is inexcusable in 2021, especially in flagship handsets. The telephoto lens looks lackluster, as was the case with the OnePlus 8 Pro, with just 3x optical (really hybrid) zoom. For those who prize the color-rich HDR imagery provided by Samsung (and, optionally, on Huawei) handsets, the color-accurate images created by the OnePlus 9 Series might come off as somewhat bland, and like what we see with recent generation iPhones. (Obviously, some may prefer that as well.) And the monochrome lens is just weird.

Test shot: Ultra-wide camera lens

My biggest concern is consistency. What I’m looking for—and, to be clear, I am of the “point and click” school of photography, and not a pro—is reliability. A consistent shooting experience and, hopefully, one that delivers excellent overall shots. I pretty much get that with the Google Pixel 4a 5G that I’m currently using, but I miss a telephoto lens sometimes (and I find the Pixel display a bit small and dim). And I get that with the increasingly aged Huawei P30 Pro, the last of its kind to come with Google software.

But I’m looking for this experience on a more modern handset with more powerful and feature-proof components. Is the OnePlus 9 Series—in particular the 9 Pro—that phone?

Maybe. Hopefully, given how much I like the rest of the OnePlus experience. But only time—and lots of testing—will tell that tale. So far, I’ve only taken a small handful of test shots, and it happens to be dull, gray day today, unfortunately.

Before moving on, we do need to discuss the prices. OnePlus, as I’m sure you know, has been steadily raising its prices over the years, though the spike was particularly high last year with the addition of 5G chipsets.

So where did we land this year?

The OnePlus 9 starts at $729 for a model with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. By comparison, the OnePlus 8T started at $749, though it offered more RAM (12 GB) and more storage (256 GB). The OnePlus 8 from one year ago started at $699. And looking at the competition, the iPhone 12 starts at $799, as does the Samsung Galaxy S21.

The OnePlus 9 Pro starts at $1069 for a model with 12 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. The OnePlus 8 Pro from one year ago started at $899 for a model with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage; a comparable OnePlus 8 Pro cost $999. The OnePlus 7 Pro from 2019 started at $669 (in those pre-5G days). Looking at the competition, the iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1099 and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G starts at $1199.

So yes, these prices still undercut the high-end Apple and Samsung flagships. But in the latter case, Samsung handsets are routinely price-reduced and placed on sale over time. And both firms offer better-than-usual trade-in values right now, further undercutting the difference.

OnePlus doesn’t just include a charger in the box, it includes a 65-watt charger

My point? As OnePlus raises prices, it needs to compete more on quality and functionality while trying to also overcome the relative unfamiliarity of its brand.

More soon.

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