Upstart phone maker OnePlus this week debuted an updated flagship phone, the 9 Pro, that checks most of the boxes for high-end features available from Apple, Samsung, and others.
The 9 Pro comes with a bright and colorful 6.7-inch screen, 5G wireless capabilities, and four cameras on the back. It also has its own quirks and features that are unique to OnePlus.
Here's what I especially liked about the new OnePlus and the one thing that drove me a little crazy.
Seven-year-old OnePlus has been a leader in fast charging, and the company stepped up its game this year. Not only does the phone come with a charging brick, but it's a 65-watt brick capable of OnePlus's impressive "Warp Charge." Using a phone with less than 10% battery left, I was able to charge it to nearly 60% after just 15 minutes.
That's crazy compared to rival phones.
I then tried using OnePlus's charger on other devices, to less effect. After 15 minutes, the battery on my Pixel 4a only gained about 20% of its charge.
OnePlus also sells a separate wireless charger for the 9 Pro, the Warp Charge 50 Wireless. It's not quite as fast as charging with the power brick, but for a wireless charger it's very fast.
To accomplish that feat with wireless charger, OnePlus had to make some concessions. The charger has a built in fan, to prevent the phone and charger from overheating, that's quite noisy and annoying. You can put the charger in "silent mode," but, as a result, the charger doesn't work as quickly.
I think I'll stick to the cord and power brick.
Good: The camera
OnePlus this week bragged about a new three-year partnership to develop phone photo features with famed camera maker Hasselblad. But for the 9 Pro, there's no Hasselblad influence on the actual lens and other hardware. For this initial year, the partnership consists mainly of some advice from Hasselblad about how the camera software renders colors. There's also a sort of Hasselblad-like visual vibe for the camera app, including an orange shutter button that mimics the iconic orange button on Hasselblad's physical cameras.
But even if Hasselblad contributed little more to the 9 Plus than its name on the camera bump and a bit of advice about its app, the phone's camera features are mostly top notch.
The standard camera produces photos as good as any other smartphone camera, at least in good light. It's night mode, however, didn't quite compare with the best from Apple and others. But the 9 Pro also has a fancier ultrawide camera than most rivals. It produced photos with better details than other phones and has an extra software trick that reduces the distortion of straight lines at the edges, an issue that plagues many ultrawide shots.
The 9 Pro, with an optical zoom of just 3.3X, doesn't have a great telephoto lens, however. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra's periscope telephoto lens can produce great shots at 10X and pretty good ones at 30X. And I didn't find any use for the fourth camera on the back, which takes only black and white pictures.
Good: The software
OnePlus has long been praised for its customized version of Google's Android software, known as OxygenOS. The latest software, based on Android 11, offers a clean and uncluttered interface without the pesky ads or preloaded apps that you'll never use which other phonemakers include.
There are also some handy additions to plain-old Android, like special gestures you can make on the phone's display when it's off to directly open a particular app. Draw an "O" on the black screen to open the camera, or draw a "V" to turn on the flashlight. It's all fully customizable, so you can set the letter drawing gestures to open whichever app you want. And the 9 Pro has Qualcomm's latest phone processor, the Snapdragon 888, which makes using gestures and the app experience quick and smooth.
Not so good: The design
My big problem with the 9 Pro is its design. The screen, which has a 20.1 to 9 ratio, is too tall and narrow, making it difficult to tap icons and buttons when holding the device with one hand. The mirrored reverse side of the phone is attractive, but it's also slippery and prone to smudging—mine was quickly covered with my fingerprints.
Speaking of fingerprints, as Marques Brownlee pointed out in his YouTube review of the phone, the under-screen fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone is placed oddly low on the display—less than a 1/2-inch from the bottom. That makes it a little harder than necessary to hit with your finger. Rival phones, such as Samsung's S21 series, got this detail right with a slightly higher finger sensor placement.
Then there is the display, which has curved edges where it meets the phone's body. Last year's 8 Pro model got dinged for a curve-edged display that led to too many false touches—clicks on the screen that the user never intended. So perhaps to avoid the false clicks, OnePlus put a slightly sharp edge around the display this year. Unfortunately, it just feels awful in my hands, which are used to the smooth transition from screen to body of almost any other flagship phone. If you keep the 9 Pro in a case, the edges are less distracting. But it's not so great when using the bare phone.
Not so good: Too expensive
Currently, only the global prices for OnePlus 9 Pro are announced. The OnePlus 9 Pro has most of the features that the best flagship phones from Apple and Samsung have. In the past, OnePlus also kept its prices lower than the competition. But this year, the 9 Pro starts at US $969 (~SGD $1304). That's US $70 more than last year's 8 Pro and about US $300 more than the 7 Pro from 2019, which was a great value. Given some of the design miscues, it's difficult to recommend the 9 Pro at this price.