When it comes to shopping for a high-end phone, there’s always something new and exciting for consumers. Hardware advancements continue to outpace the needs of users and the bleeding edge tech seems to be about two years ahead of what a typical person needs to get by.
While many of us are content to get by with devices and features that are a generation or two behind, there’s always going to be a segment of buyers who wants the best or newest. Fortunately, that’s a nebulous concept as there’s either a hot new thing that just arrived or another one that’s just over the horizon.
OnePlus has made its name on creating powerful and exciting devices with great value propositions. And although its phones are not so much “flagship killer” today, it’s handsets are “flagship” through and through.
The OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro, introduced in early 2021, are the brand’s latest products and both provide some of the best of what’s available in the market. On paper at least. But how do they do in practice and usage?
If you caught our review of the OnePlus 9 Pro, you already know we found it to be among the most exciting phones on the market. What about the standard model? What follows is our review of the OnePlus 9.
For a bit of context we should mention that we’ve spent an additional couple of months with this version. That’s not to say we didn’t have enough time to formulate a solid opinion of the 9 Pro. Rather, it’s to further drive home our feelings about the OnePlus 9 as we lived with it a little longer.
The OnePlus 9, like its Pro counterpart, has a sleek design that invites the user to look it over with curves and edges. OnePlus has done a great job of mixing the right materials (glass and aluminum) with color options, delivering an all-around aesthetically pleasing experience.
One of the hallmarks of a OnePlus phone is its dedicated ringer switch, located near the power button. It lets users jump directly to silent, vibration, and ringer with a simple slide. Is it necessary? Hardly. Do you miss once you’ve spent a fair amount of time with one? Definitely.
The OnePlus 9 is a little heavier than it appears but it’s a balanced weight. Holding it and looking at it from the front it feels like most higher-end phones, but flip it over and you’ll see a unique configuration to the camera. The multi-camera system takes up a rather significant part of the corner and it bears the Hasselblad branding. It’s not unsightly or off-putting, but it’s a departure from the clean strip that went down the spine of its predecessor.
Hardware and Features
The OnePlus 9 comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, putting it at the top of the ladder in terms of CPU. Moreover, it’s supported by 8GB LPDDR5 RAM with 128GB UFS 3.1 storage. That is to say that the handset is among the best on the market.
One area where OnePlus tends to shine is in its batteries, or more specifically, the charging. Here you get a 4,500mAh power source which is equipped to handle 15W wireless charging and up to 65W Warp Charge. Technically speaking, there are two batteries tucked inside and both can be charged at the same time. So, when you put a fast charger on it, you’re pulling in at twice the rate.
We’re a fan of the image quality and high refresh rate of the OnePlus 9 but we’re really fond of the flat screen. While it might sound like the OnePlus 9 Pro is a more exciting or well-rounded phone, we are more than content stopping here. To us the extra juice isn’t worth the squeeze (extra money).
The OxygenOS software experience is based on Android 11 and could be described more or less as a stock build. Indeed, it provides plenty of extras in the way of customization and user experience, but its UI is the same as what Google offers up with the Pixel line. Moreover, it doesn’t come with a bunch of clunky, unwanted duplicate apps, or carrier bloat.
OnePlus commits to two major software updates and three years of security updates for its phone. This is fairly similar to the Android One program and what Nokia and Samsung promises for its devices.
OnePlus does a pretty good job of offering software updates in a timely manner and that’s important to us. We also dig it when we’re able to tinker and modify, customizing our phones to be truly unique and feel like it’s “ours.” The OnePlus 9 does just that and manages to do so in a way that doesn’t require users to have a degree in engineering.
Historically, one of the more problematic areas for OnePlus phones is in its cameras. They’re often good, but they’ve never been truly great. While a common tactic has been to increase the number of cameras, it doesn’t address the overall quality. It doesn’t matter how many cameras you have on the back or how many shooting modes you have if the results don’t look very good.
As far as we’re concerned, it’s nearly impossible to beat what Google does with its cameras. That is to say for the “open the app and snap a pic” demographic. We often don’t fuss with ultra-wide or telephoto shots; it’s usually a standard pic or something with the portrait mode on.
For 2021 OnePlus turned to Hasselblad for its camera experience in both the 9 and the 9 Pro. In fact, this is the start of a three-year relationship between the two companies. The biggest task for Hasselblad and these new devices is the color-tuning and accuracy.
In our time with the OnePlus 9 we’ve found it to take good-to-great pictures, but only after a little bit of learning. Lighting is generally even; however, every so often it turns out a bit more blue. The same goes for over sharpening — it happens on occasion. even with using the different shooting modes.
About the camera samples: Images were resized to 1280 pixels wide and slightly compressed for the sake of file size. No other edits were made.
The OnePlus camera app is fairly intuitive, even for those who have not spent time with one of its devices. If you’ve used a OnePlus phone in the past, you’ll know your way around it.
One rule of thumb we tend to employ with phones and their cameras is to stay at least one step away from its maximum zoom settings. Just because you can zoom in on a subject doesn’t mean that you should. And here when you do that, you’ll find some less than desirable final results.
We suggest taking a few pictures of your subject whenever possible and spend time learning its limitations. Get out in the real world and try to snap some pics too early and you’ll come away with grain, noise, and unflattering shots. It’s a really decent camera experience, but you need to figure that out. By contrast, the Pixel 5 may not be as well-rounded but it’s easier to understand and master.
When it comes to power and performance, we had absolutely zero problems with running apps and games. We loaded our device up with all of the accounts and daily titles straight away and have used this as our main phone for a few weeks. Suffice it to say, it’s on par with the OnePlus 9 Pro in terms of handling our needs.
This brings us to the topic of whether it’s necessarily worth spending the extra money for the more premium model. From our perspective we don’t think it’s justifiable to pay more of features that we may not fully appreciate. It’s not so much that the 9 Pro isn’t a value, it’s that the standard model is just that good.
What does the extra money provide? Features include faster wireless charging, a telephoto lens, optical image stabilization, mmWave 5G support, and a slightly smaller screen.
The displays are technically different, too, but we bet you’d hardly notice. And if we’re being fully honest, we like the flat screen on the 9 better than the curved edge of the 9 Pro.
With a little over three months of semi-daily usage under our belt we feel pretty confident in saying that the OnePlus 9 is a hell of a phone. The OnePlus 9 isn’t quite a “flagship killer”, it’s a “flagship.” Shave $100 off of it and you’re looking at one of the best packages available.
Having been able to compare the 9 and the 9 Pro we have a tough time advising most people spend the extra money. Yes, it does come with extras, but they’re nothing that’s necessity. Those features include faster wireless charging, a telephoto lens, optical image stabilization, mmWave 5G support, and a slightly smaller screen. Yes, the displays are technically different, too, but we bet you’d hardly notice. But as we mentioned above, we like the flat screen on the 9 better than the curved edge of the 9 Pro.
We were fans of the scrappy upstart brand and the whole “Never Settle” attitude that OnePlus started out with some years back. It has gone through an occasional rough patch but we’ve come to respect it and look forward to its big releases.
The OnePlus 9 builds on an increasingly strong line of devices and deserves to be included in conversations when the topic shifts to best phones. We’d love it if it were more readily available if only because more customers deserve to know about it.