The OnePlus 9 gives up a few of the 9 Pro’s features but costs $240 less
The OnePlus 9 is a very good phone that holds its own against other (often more expensive) flagships. It has all the things that truly matter: a great screen, excellent performance, good battery life, and a capable camera. But for better or worse, it still doesn’t feel quite like a device that’s well-suited for the mainstream. It misses a couple of features present on the competition like a stabilized main camera and broad 5G support.
Instead, it offers some neat but arguably not as useful extras, like really fast charging and an excellent ultrawide camera. It leaves this device in somewhat unusual territory: it’s good and well-priced, but it’s not the Android flagship I’d recommend to just anyone.
What’s here is good; it’s what’s missing that gives me pause. For example, it’s a 5G phone that, at launch, won’t work on two of the three major US carriers’ 5G networks: Verizon and AT&T. OnePlus says it’s working with Verizon on 5G certification, and on March 26th Verizon announced it would support 5G. However, OnePlus says that the OnePlus 9 will not support 5G on AT&T. (T-Mobile is selling the OnePlus 9 directly, and as a result, it has no problems with the carrier’s low and mid-band 5G service.)
Likewise with the main camera’s lack of optical image stabilization, you may end up with photos that look a bit soft due to camera shake in moderate to dim light. Taking a few extra shots will usually ensure that there’s a tack-sharp one in the bunch, but that workaround doesn’t suit everybody or every situation. OIS would also be a big help with keeping video steady; the 9 offers decent electronic stabilization for this, but results aren’t as smooth as when both technologies are used together. You might know already if you can live with these quirks, but they’re too significant to make this a top all-around pick for the average smartphone buyer.
If you’re curious how the 9 stacks up against the higher specs of its 9 Pro sibling, I have better news: if you opt for this less expensive model, you give up very little. The 9 offers the same Snapdragon 888 processor, top 120Hz refresh rate, 50-megapixel ultrawide camera, and Gorilla Glass back panel as the 9 Pro.
Here’s what you don’t get versus the more expensive model: a newer 48-megapixel Sony IMX789 main camera sensor, a telephoto camera, main camera stabilization, fast wireless charging, a higher-res screen, millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G, and in some cases, an official IP water and dust resistance rating. Sure, some of those features would be nice to have, but for an additional $240? Personally, I’d save the extra cash and go with the 9.
Compared to last year’s OnePlus 8, the 9 is a little more expensive but also a little better equipped. While you do gain some useful features including 15W Qi wireless charging, a refresh rate boost from 90Hz to 120Hz, Qualcomm’s latest processor, and a bit bigger battery, these feel like necessary evolutions. It adds up to a phone that feels like a small step forward, rather than a confident stride into mainstream flagship territory. That’s a shame because OnePlus had an opportunity to own this premium midrange category that it helped create with a clear standout.
OnePlus 9 screen and build quality
OnePlus likes to make a big phone, and the 9 is no exception. It has a 6.55-inch screen with a 20.1:9 aspect ratio, giving it somewhat tall proportions that make it a little more comfortable to use one-handed. The 1080p OLED display is slightly lower-res than the 1440 screen on the 9 Pro, but it offers the same excellent 120Hz refresh rate. This makes animations and scrolling appear very smooth. If you’re coming from a phone with a standard 60Hz display, using the OnePlus 9 will feel a little more slick and polished. Fancy, even.
You’ll find Gorilla Glass on the front and back panels of the phone, meaning there’s no step down in build quality from the Pro in that sense — the frame is plastic rather than aluminum, but it’s not something I noticed or minded in my time using the device. The 9 does use a flat display rather than the slightly curved screen on the Pro, but that feels like a matter of aesthetics to me and I don’t find it to be a great loss. The flat design is also less prone to accidental touches at the edges of the screen like we saw on the OnePlus 8 Pro. As on the 9 Pro, there’s an optical in-screen fingerprint reader that’s generally quick and reliable. I noticed some failures but not at a high enough rate to bother me.
Overall, it’s not a bold or groundbreaking design, but it’s a grownup-looking device with fit and finish well-suited to its $730-plus price. Glass on both the front and back make it feel suitably premium, and the branding on the black unit I tested is tasteful and understated.
The OnePlus 9 sold through T-Mobile — the only US carrier that will offer it directly — will include an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance, which is the standard in this flagship class right now. The unlocked version will not have that official rating, but OnePlus tells us that the hardware is all the same. I used the 9 in some of Seattle’s ever-present drizzle and nothing bad happened. So depending on how you buy it, the 9 may not have that stamp of approval, but you can rest assured it’s just as robust as its peers.
OnePlus 9 performance and UI
The OnePlus 9 uses a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 888 processor and either 8GB or 12GB of RAM. It’s as good as you’ll find in an Android phone at any price right now, so its presence in a $730 phone is a major pro for the 9. I tested the version with 12GB RAM, which is $830, so bear that in mind. But let me tell you — this thing is slick as all heck. Apps load quickly, and jumping from app to home screen and back is seamless. I couldn’t really throw anything at it to slow it down. This is a spot where the OnePlus 9 shines, and it’s an important one.
The 9 turns in good battery performance, too. The 120Hz screen draws more power than last year’s 90Hz display, but this year’s battery is a tad bigger, too: 4,500mAh compared to 4,300mAh. I don’t have any battery complaints, though my typical use is on the moderate side. It’ll get most users through a day and then some, and for those whose use is heavier, OnePlus has another feature to help out: fast wired charging. The included fast charger will take the battery from 1 to 100 percent in a scant 29 minutes. That’s fast enough for you to leave it unplugged overnight and just charge it up during a typical morning routine. Wireless charging is supported, too, which is a nice addition over last year’s model. The 9 is compatible with standard Qi chargers for up to 15W speeds.
The OnePlus 9 is a 5G phone, as all 2021 flagships must be, but it has a complicated relationship with the technology. The phone supports the more widely used Sub-6GHz frequencies and is certified for C-band when it starts arriving in late 2021 but not ultra-fast, super-scarce mmWave.
Not having mmWave is no great loss, but there’s the aforementioned incompatibility with Verizon and AT&T’s 5G networks. If you buy the phone unlocked, it’ll be LTE only on either of those networks, at least for now. OnePlus says it’s actively working with Verizon on 5G certification, but it couldn’t say if AT&T 5G compatibility would be added with a future software update. Being confined to 4G on AT&T and Verizon right now isn’t a big deal — honestly, it’s probably for the best since their 5G networks aren’t very good yet — but it would be a significant drawback when the carriers start deploying their newly acquired C-band frequencies and 5G performance improves.
The OnePlus 9 ships with the company’s OxygenOS UI built on Android 11. It feels modern and clean, with a few pre-downloaded apps but otherwise not much bloatware. It’s a grownup UI that doesn’t make you look at an ad to check the weather.
OnePlus will supply the 9 and 9 Pro with two major Android upgrades and three years of security patches — a healthy life span, but not exactly best in class. Samsung’s flagships get a minimum of four years of security updates, though they slow down toward the end of the device’s life span, while Google provides three years of updates and security patches for Pixel phones.
OnePlus 9 camera
The OnePlus’ rear camera array, relocated to the upper left of the back panel this year, includes a 48-megapixel main camera, 50-megapixel ultrawide, and 2-megapixel monochrome sensor. On the front is a 16-megapixel selfie camera. It’s a lot of cameras, but not outside the norm for phones in 2021.
The main camera sensor is the Sony IMX689 used by the OnePlus 8 Pro. We liked its image quality in that device, and that’s still generally the case here. Combined with the new Hasselblad color tuning, the OnePlus 9 takes very nice images in good light, and I think does a particularly good job with landscapes. This much-touted “natural” color is fine but didn’t blow me away; it seems prone to occasional oversaturation and white balance misses just as much as any other smartphone’s image processing. It’s certainly not a reason on its own to run out and buy the 9 or 9 Pro, but it hasn’t hurt the output either.
For those who want to get hands-on with image processing rather than leaving it up to the camera, RAW shooting is available. The 9 and 9 Pro shoot 12-bit DNG files via the Pro mode in the camera app. These files contain more color information than the typical 10-bit RAW file you’ll get from most other phone cameras, which is helpful for post-processing.
But unlike with a traditional camera, shooting RAW on a phone misses out on the multi-frame image processing that it applies in its standard JPEG mode, which is often better for the final image than editing a single RAW file — even a 12-bit one. It’s a feature that sounds good on paper, and some dedicated mobile photographers might appreciate it, but not one that I can get excited about.
The 50-megapixel ultrawide chip puts out very nice 12-megapixel images. This camera uses a new freeform lens featuring a nontraditional design to provide a wide view with minimal distortion. It also uses a 1/1.56-inch sensor that is substantially bigger than what you’ll find on the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21’s ultrawide cameras. Ultrawide cameras can sort of feel like an afterthought, and this one doesn’t, which I really appreciate.
Back to the main camera, though: it’s good in bright light, but darker conditions like dusk or dim interiors are a challenge. These are the kinds of conditions where optical image stabilization can be a big help keeping things sharp, but unlike the 9 Pro and virtually all of its competitors, the 9 only offers less robust electronic image stabilization. I saw this crop up in a set of portrait mode shots taken outside in dim light that came out a little soft. I got one sharp photo out of the bunch, but I suspect OIS would have helped improve my hit rate.
On the video side, the 9 supports 8K recording at 30p for up to five minutes per clip. Recording at 4K and 1080 is also offered at 60p or 30p. At 30p in either 4K or 1080 mode, you can enable HDR, though I didn’t see a meaningful difference in dynamic range with it on or off. The OnePlus 9 Pro includes a newer DOL-HDR mode that combines frames of different exposures, which should give better performance.
What’s missing from that stack of cameras and sensors is a telephoto camera, which puts the OnePlus 9 on par with the iPhone 12, but behind what Samsung’s S21 and a lot of other phones offer now. There’s still a 2x digital zoom shortcut in the camera app interface. Photos taken this way work okay in a pinch, but there’s an obvious softness if you look closely at them — it really isn’t a great substitute for an actual telephoto camera.
Oh, and that 2-megapixel monochrome camera isn’t one you can shoot with directly. As in previous OnePlus phones, its job is to supply additional information when using the monochrome filter mode with the main camera. If it makes a difference, we can’t tell and would much rather just have a telephoto camera next year instead, please.
The OnePlus 9 checks all the boxes required of a 2021 flagship phone: Snapdragon 888 processor, great high-refresh screen, good battery performance, and cameras aplenty. You’ll get top-of-the-line performance for about $100 less than the other base model flagships. That in itself is a great reason to consider the OnePlus 9.
But it’s not the phone I would recommend to absolutely everyone. Its unique propositions feel a little niche to me. Fast charging is neat, with lots of appeal to heavy phone users and travelers, but I think a lot of people are just fine with their overnight charging routine. I love that there’s an above-average ultrawide camera, but I’m probably in the minority here. And the Hasselblad color tuning is fine but nothing remarkable.
What should be easy to recommend — a well-priced phone with great performance — instead carries some significant ifs. If extremely fast charging or the bigger screen are especially appealing, then the 9 is a great option. But if you’re on AT&T and you’d like to keep your phone for a few years, proceed with caution. If you want top-notch camera capabilities, or if fast charging feels more like a nice-to-have than a must, then you might want to look elsewhere.
I think with a little tuning, the OnePlus 9 could have been an absolutely killer premium midrange device. And I still think it’s a great device for a subset of the smartphone-buying population. There are just one too many ifs for it to earn the title of class-leader. The OnePlus 9 is very good, but it isn’t a runaway winner.
Update March 23rd, 11:15AM PT: Added detail about the OnePlus 9’s use of plastic rather than metal in the device’s frame.
Update March 26th, 2021 5pm ET: Verizon announced it would support 5G on the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro and OnePlus confirmed they will not work on AT&T’s 5G network. The review has been updated to note the new information.