OnePlus 9 Pro Review—Keeping the slightest lead in front of Samsung

The new OnePlus flagship phones have arrived—the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro.

Both phones feature the Snapdragon 888, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a 4500mAh battery. The big news is that both devices are 120Hz with a 6.55-inch, 2400×1080 OLED on the OnePlus 9 and a 6.7-inch, 3168×1440 OLED on the OnePlus 9 Pro. Both phones get OnePlus’ excellent “Warp Charging,” now at 65W, just like the OnePlus 8T.

As for differences, the OnePlus 9 Pro gets a bigger, higher-res display with slightly curved sides, 50W wireless Warp Charging, IP68 water resistance, mmWave support, and a better main camera alongside an extra 3x telephoto camera. The OnePlus 9 has a completely flat display, only gets 15W wireless Qi charging, and isn’t water-resistant unless you buy the T-Mobile version.

But perhaps the most notable change will hit customers up front. Every year, OnePlus creeps the price of its devices higher. The OnePlus 9 Pro starts the year 2021 at $969 (up from $899 last year) while the OnePlus 9 is $729, up from $699 for the OnePlus 8.

What color is a mirror?

OnePlus 9 & OnePlus 9 Pro

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We’re mostly focusing on the OnePlus 9 Pro for this review. I was sent the “Morning Mist” color, which looks like what would happen if you melted a mirror and forged it into a smartphone. It’s so shiny. Every part of this phone is silver or polished chrome or a straight-up mirror. The back color is a gradient—it’s silver at the top and transitions to a mirror at the bottom quarter of the phone. OnePlus accomplishes this transition with an old-school dithered pattern in the back coloring, which you can just barely make out under the light. It’s certainly attention-grabbing. Your brain wants it to be a single color, but it never is.

Naturally, a mirror is a huge fingerprint magnet, so get ready to wipe this thing down until your thumb falls off. OnePlus’ reviewer’s guide tells me there is a “Stellar Black” version that “resembles the classic sandstone look and feel of the OnePlus One” and is “practically free of fingerprints.” That sounds nice.

With minimal bezels and hole-punch cameras now a standard thing from year to year, differences in phone design are pretty much down to the camera bump. As far as camera bumps go, the OnePlus 9 line looks nice! Most phones go with a single, big slab of glass that covers the entire camera bump, but OnePlus now has the two big lenses stick out from the camera bump. There are three height levels on the back, then: the major back panel, the top of the camera bump, and the two big, protruding lenses. Like many camera blocks, the phone is, unfortunately, wobbly on a table. If (like me) you often put a phone on a table and start poking at it, it’s going to rock around when you tap it anywhere above the halfway point.

SPECS AT A GLANCE
OnePlus 9 OnePlus 9 Pro
SCREEN 120 Hz, 6.55-inch 2400×1080 (402ppi) OLED 120Hz, 6.7-inch 3168×1440 (513ppi) OLED
OS Android 11 with Oxygen OS skin
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
RAM 8GB or 12GB, LPDDR5
STORAGE 128GB, 256GB UFS 3.1
NETWORKING 802.11b/g/n/ac/ax, Bluetooth 5.2, GPS, NFC
PORTS USB Type-C with 65W quick charging
REAR CAMERAS 48MP Main (IMX689)

50MP Ultrawide (IMX766)

2MP Monochrome

48MP Main (IMX789)

50MP Ultrawide (IMX766)

8MP 3X telephoto

2MP Monochrome

FRONT CAMERA 16MP 16MP
SIZE 160×74.2×8.7mm 163.2×73.6×8.7mm
WEIGHT 192 g 197 g
BATTERY 4500mAh 4500mAh
STARTING PRICE $729 $969
WIRELESS CHARGING 15W Qi 50W Warp
IP68? T-Mobile version only Yes
OTHER PERKS In-screen fingerprint sensor, alert slider

I guess this makes the camera block look more like an iPhone—especially the base models which already have two big, stacked lenses—but it still looks great. On my mirror version, both lenses have a bright chrome ring around them. Along with the chromed-out retro “Hasselblad” logo, it makes the whole camera assembly feel like it belongs on a 1950s car dashboard.

The rest of the phone is more or less standard. The 9 Pro has a display that is curved along the left and right sides, which is a bummer since it distorts videos along the top and bottom in landscape. This is not on the base-model OnePlus 9, which is perfectly flat, so I still don’t understand why manufacturers think a distorted screen is somehow “premium.”

One surprise this year was how much lower the in-screen fingerprint reader is compared to the OnePlus 8 Pro. The fingerprint reader is all the way at the bottom of the screen now. I’m going to take a guess and say that the fingerprint reader was lowered so that it could be clear of the battery compartment, but we’ll have to wait for a teardown to confirm. Anyone that’s used an iPhone with TouchID will be used to the ergonomics of this, but it’s more comfortable to have the fingerprint reader higher up, slightly lower than the middle of the display. That’s just a more natural location for your thumb to hit.

Super-speedy charging

One of the best reasons to buy a OnePlus phone is the company’s proprietary “Warp Charge” technology, which, with the included-in-the-box charger, will power up your phone faster than almost any other device on the market. This year we’re up to “Warp Charge 65T”—65W charging that will take your phone from 0-100 percent in just 29 minutes. OnePlus does all this without heating the phone up too much, thanks to a huge power brick that duplicates the heat-generating charging circuitry away from the phone. This way, the brick gets hot instead of the phone, which reduces some of the wear and tear on the battery.

Being able to charge this quickly is one of the biggest improvements to come to smartphones in recent years, and it can really change the way you use a smartphone. I don’t worry about charging my phone every night now, since plugging it in for just a few minutes (not necessarily even the full 29 minutes) can give you a significant amount of runtime. Charging a phone becomes more like gassing up a car rather than a nightly ritual, especially if you have light usage days. With only a half-hour charge time, you can power up your phone during your morning routine. If you’re doing really heavy usage, then being able to recharge quickly in the middle of a day, like during lunch, is also a huge deal.

On the OnePlus 9 Pro, OnePlus is on the second generation of its wireless charging technology—”Warp Charge 50 Wireless”—and as the name suggests, it’s now up to 50W. OnePlus says it will take the phone from 0-100 percent in just 43 minutes, which is faster than a lot of other phones charger through a wire. The non-pro OnePlus 9 has wireless charging this year, but it’s only 15W Qi charging.

OnePlus’ 50W wireless charging also means the company is on its second generation of wireless charger, and there have been some design improvements. The original version, which debuted with the OnePlus 8 Pro, came with the forehead-smacking limitation of a hard-wired cord on both ends, making it basically a charging nunchuck. On one end, you had a sizable power brick; on the other end was the even bigger wireless charging dock. This meant you couldn’t unplug anything to route the wire through a desk grommet or do any other kind of wire management. For the new charger, the wire is removable! Victory!

Yes, the Warp Charge 50 Wireless charge has a USB-C port on the back of the charging dock, so you can unplug the wire just like any normal piece of electronics. Unfortunately, with OnePlus’ newfound ability to disconnect the charging brick, it also forgot to put a charging brick in the box of the wireless charger. When you buy the wireless charger, you’ll get the dock and a USB-C cable, but no power brick—you’ll have to supply your own, probably the wired brick that came with the phone. So the wireless charger is a replacement charger, not an extra charger. The wireless charger is $70 and if you’re not using the phone’s existing power brick, an extra one is another $35.

Just like last year, the charger has a fan in it that blows the lightest whiff of air across the back of the phone for cooling. It’s inaudible from a normal distance.

The software

OnePlus’ build of Android 11 is fine. There are a bunch of small, inconsequential changes to things like the settings icons and recent apps screen layout. I’m not sure why OnePlus bothers, because you’ll barely notice these tweaks.

The big news with the company’s push of Android 11 was that OnePlus finally relented and added an always-on display. You’ll have to turn it on, but it’s super handy to always be able to see the time and your notifications at a glance, even when the screen is off. Other than that, there are few coming-in-Android 12 features that are here now, like the ability to pick a UI accent color and a Samsung-style list design that puts a big header and lots of whitespace at the top of the list. That option pushes the initial list content down the screen, so you can more easily reach it.

OnePlus includes a few junk apps that are, thankfully, completely uninstallable: a OnePlus Community app, a “Notes” app, OnePlus Switch (for transferring data from your old phone), Recorder, and Weather. Some junk apps aren’t uninstallable though, like a second gallery app besides Google Photos, a second file manager app besides Google Files, a “Games” app, and Netflix.

There’s a “OnePlus Account” now at the top of the settings that you can sign up for. It doesn’t seem to do anything, though. And even after signing up for one, the phone does not explain what it is or what it does. My auto-assigned username is apparently “G1616367344983.” Cool.

One area that OnePlus loses to the competition is its update policy, which frankly isn’t good enough anymore. The official line is that you’ll get two major Android OS upgrades and three years of “bimonthly” (once every two months) security patches. I do have to give OnePlus credit for regularly being one of the first third-parties to deliver that first major update, but after that, things go downhill. Google and Samsung both offer three years of major updates and monthly, not bimonthly, updates. Samsung even goes a step beyond Google and offers one more year of quarterly security updates after the first three years. OnePlus used to be able to use the excuse that it was cheaper than other options, but that is no longer the case.

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