Building on its strengths and improving upon some of its weaknesses, OnePlus 9 Pro jumps straight to the problem areas of its predecessor. Not that the camera performance was seriously lacking on the 8 Pro, but the smartphone world seems to advance in a different time and space dimension, coercing the consumer to expect bigger, greater and better every few months.
OnePlus went out and pulled a coup of sorts, bagging a collaboration with none other than Hasselblad, the premier maker of medium format cameras for professionals. While this is the highlight of the Series 9 phones, there are other accomplishments that the OnePlus 9 Pro seems to be proud of too. A 10-bit image pipeline to edit RAW photos and video, 4K @ 120fps, AMOLED display with LTPO technology that makes the always-on display even more power efficient, better thermal management for running cooler on hardcore games and even faster charging in both wired and wireless forms. But, even with all these changes under its skin, the 9 Pro doesn’t feel much different from the 8 Pro in your hands.
The 6.7in curved glass display is great, although for the keen-eyed purist, it will need some tweaking of colour temperature before it can be deemed as accurate. Accidental touches due to the curved edges do occur occasionally, but it’s not something of a bother, especially once your muscle memory adjusts the grip accordingly. The in-display fingerprint reader is placed towards the bottom and is quick to react, if you’re not the face unlock or passcode/pattern sort of a person. Once in, Oxygen 11 doesn’t look much different but there are changes under the hood aimed at making it slicker and faster. Sorcery like Virtual RAM and RAM compression use technology to use part of the phone storage (ROM) as RAM and even compresses data on the fly so it uses less memory. Overall, the effect via our test mule running Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 with 12GB RAM was effortlessly smooth, no matter how many apps were open at a time. All the other stuff remains intact like the Work/Life balance configuration, reading and Zen modes, customisable Always-on displays that has a really useful screen called Insight, designed by OnePlus and students from Parsons School of Design which shows the number of unlocks through the day and a coloured timeline depicts how long each unlock lasted. It’s a gentle reminder on the uptick in our digital lives and could serve as a wake-up call.
The big gun
But of course, the talking point are the new lenses, massaged by Hasselblad to extract the best colours possible from the Sony sensors. This is especially true in the PRO mode which allows for RAW 12-bit image capture, although OnePlus claims that even JPG files benefit from the colour science that Hasselblad has applied to the image pipeline. In terms of lenses, there’s an all-new 50MP ultra-wide that uses a free Freeform lens, claimed to reduce edge distortion down to 1% while other brands hover around 10-20%. A bane of OnePlus phones in the past, now even macro shots are taken by this lens, increasing their utility and value immensely and you really can get as close as 4cm from the subject to get a dramatic shot. The primary lens is a custom-built 48MP Sony IMX789 with OIS, HDR and complete control over ISO using the PRO mode. It’s aided by a 2MP monochrome lens to add more detail to B&W shots and is possibly the easiest to dismiss as a marketing ploy to increase lens count. Considering how good and abundant third-party filters are, a dedicated lens only for black and white photography seems...extra. Finally, a 8MP telephoto offers 3.3x optical zoom with OIS with an additional 30x digital zoom available for the persistent types. Front camera hasn’t changed much and is an acceptable 16MP affair that does what it’s supposed to well...which is reducing blemishes and softening just a smidgen to make you look a little bit less flawed, thankfully!
Results from the rear cameras are both stunning and average, depending on the mode you’re in and how much time you’re willing to invest in getting the perfect shot. Straight up, there’s no concealing the fact that it is slightly aggressive on the HDR and sharpness, which along with the AMOLED screen makes the colours look deeper, richer and more saturated than they actually are. Transfer them on a high-quality display monitor and you can clearly tell the edge distortion caused by added garnishing of sharpness and the colours take on a different hue too. The PRO mode is where Hasselblad’s famed expertise in colour calibration is used and along with RAW capture, you can use Snapseed or Lightroom to your heart’s content for an image that could be jaw-dropping. But, and this is a big but, PRO mode isn’t a guarantee by itself of taking a great shot. It’s best used for still life or very slow-moving objects as the manual controls do take practice to operate swiftly and even then, what you see isn’t always what you get. Thankfully there are two custom presets that you can set in PRO mode, but their efficacy will depend on the lighting conditions. To put it simply, Hasselblad isn’t going to magically make your images better, it really will depend on your own creativity, skill and the editing app that you use to tweak the RAW images. Surprisingly, with all the power and camera knowledge at their disposal, there’s no option to adjust the focus or aperture after taking a Portrait mode shot, like you can on other flagships. Also, processing Nightscape images does take longer than I’m used to, upto 3-4 secs until you can take the next shot. But it does reveal a lot of hidden detail in the darker areas and makes for great, if not the most accurate, results. If you aren’t the kind who judges every picture on a professionally calibrated monitor or a reviewer who constantly compares it to five other phones, the OP9 Pro is a great camera performer.
Pictures taken from the ultra-wide camera benefit the most from the increased resolution and display more detail, less noise and better tonality than the iPhone 12 Pro’s ultra-wide camera. It does flatten out highlights but besides that, this is the best ultra-wide camera lens on any phone out there. OnePlus’ claim to reduce distortion towards the edges of the frame has some truth to it too and can be seen in direct A/B comparison. Tilt-shift is another new addition to the camera options menu and while it’s fun, it’s also something that was easily accessible via third-party apps, so it doesn’t break any new ground.
There are tons of options available in video mode too, with even [email protected] and [email protected], while 1080p tops out at 60fps for the smoothest everyday video. Video portrait mode works well only when the subject is within 4-5ft and stays in that radius, losing the shallow DoF the moment the subject wanders outside this radius. So unless you have a tripod-mounted audition to be shot or your loved ones on a tight leash, this remains a hobbyist mode. Thankfully though, the traditional resolutions are solid and work well, with 8K genuinely serving up more detail than 1080p. Turn on super stable mode though, and 4K resolution drops to 30fps and 8K becomes unavailable. Again, customisation is the name of the game here and if you just like to point-and-shoot, you’ll have to acclimatise yourself with what all the options can do first.
However, the best trait of the OnePlus 9 Pro remains its smoothness of operation and battery life. Through an entire day of heavy use and testing out its cameras, I still had 22% left in the can and with the blazing 65W charging, you can be back up to 80% in 15 mins with a full 1-100% charge claim of 29mins. Even the new wireless fast charger manages 50W, which is more than what the competition is offering with wired charging! Backwards compatibility is built-in with other devices as well, albeit at a reduced power of 45W. All this power means you can also harness the Gaming mode without the heat from the 12GB RAM and Snapdragon 888 frying your hands. New thermal management and a new hyper touch display mean latency is reduced considerably between your taps on the screen and the processor registering the input. Playing Call of Duty casually was a pleasant experience, although admittedly, I’m not a hardcore gamer but the stereo speakers, crisp graphics and the positive reactions to my inputs did make it an engrossing exercise.
There’s an overwhelming amount of expectation when a name brand like Hasselblad gets linked to a product and while the OnePlus 9 Pro camera is good, it honestly could’ve just been a natural progression of the OP 8 Pro, which was largely a great snapper itself. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact benefits that Hasselblad brings to the table, especially since the difference between the predecessor and this isn’t vast. Sure, you get more information in the ultra-wide and the 12-bit RAW capture is great, but the PRO mode where supposedly all the goodness resides doesn’t encourage you to take quick, in-the-moment shots that generally make for the best photos. Overall though, this is a solid phone with fantastic battery life, refinement in the OS and UI that’s hard to beat, doesn’t ever feel stressed or stutter under any circumstances and has a great hand feel. So, if you want the latest and greatest OnePlus, the 9 Pro definitely fits the bill but if you want the greatest overall camera experience, it still only just misses the mark.