For years, OnePlus seems to have lost out on the competition. They offer the same old designs with minor updates, most of which usually did not end up making much sense to those who invested in the previous generation. And the same goes for those who owned smartphones from the generation before that, because the changes to the latest model were usually incremental upgrades. However, 2021 is quite different. The regular OnePlus 9 series has got yet another price bump and starts from a hefty ₹49,999. Part of that price bump appears to come from the “5G tax”, but OnePlus has played it safe and ensured some excitement by collaborating with legendary camera maker Hasselblad, and also added a juicy ultra-wide angle camera to the mix.
But this year is special in more ways than one, because OnePlus also seems to be looking at its humble beginnings. Alongside the usual, it launched a more affordable flagship (by OnePlus standards) called the OnePlus 9R that comes with slightly watered-down specifications, but is still a capable low-cost flagship.
So, will OnePlus 9 buyers look at the new affordable option instead? Not really! That’s because the 9 and 9 Pro are still in a league of their own. Is the OnePlus 9 still good value for money? Surprisingly, yes! But it will only appeal to a handful of buyers because those upgrades will only matter to a select few. In short, despite the new upgrades, it’s Groundhog Day all over again for the OnePlus 9 series.
OnePlus carries forward its burdenless design philosophy with the OnePlus 9. In 2021, it still works. The phone feels comfortable to hold, looks premium (save for that plastic frame) and looks like a OnePlus should. The Winter Mist option I received for review features a semi-mirror finish that looks subtle and classy, but it is also a fingerprint magnet and gets smudged easily. And then, there’s the Hasselblad branding that OnePlus really wants you to take note of. It’s on the raised camera island, stamped all over the packaging and even available as a watermark, just in case your friends forget that OnePlus has tied up with Hasselblad. I just wished that OnePlus went with something different for once. The phone looks a bit dull for 2021 and I was expecting a design that would help OnePlus stand out from the crowd, given the brand’s expertise with experimenting with materials. Oh! And given its premium price tag, there’s no IP rating either. A feature that’s surprisingly available even on the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE.
A quality display
The OnePlus 9’s display’s carries on from the 8T that was a launched last year. It’s a regular AMOLED panel that’s cranked up to 120Hz that makes OxygenOS feel buttery-smooth in day-to-day use and is also quite useful when playing games. It’s not an LTPO panel like on the OnePlus 9 Pro that’s smarter and adjusts to the type of content you are viewing. Still, battery life did not take much of a hit despite keeping the panel locked at 120Hz. When it comes to colour accuracy, there’s seems to some truth to OnePlus’ colour calibration efforts. Of course, it won’t be as good as the premium flagships from Samsung this year, but set it to ‘Display P3’ and you will get “sort of” accurate colours from it that are far better from the saturated mess of the default ‘Vivid’ screen calibration. Watching movies was a good experience with vibrant colours and deep blacks keeping in mind the HDR 10 support. Sadly, I just was not able to fire up the Netflix app due to some firmware/device-related issues. Newer firmware updates did not resolve the issue either.
The typical OnePlus software experience
OnePlus is all about OxygenOS. The fans love it and cannot do with anything else. And OnePlus over time, seems to have found its sweet spot between stock Android and a custom skin with some One UI influence. I reviewed the 12GB + 256GB option and things worked as expected. There was no hint of lag or stutter and apps (including games) remained in memory for quite a while. Indeed, this is the bit that makes a OnePlus smartphone, a OnePlus smartphone and will give Samsung’s flagships a run for its money.
Quite the performer
Software performance was not a problem and the same can be said while playing games. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset shines through, but I noticed that the phone will warm up after a while, when you max out graphics settings in games like Call of Duty: Mobile. Despite warming up, it did not hamper the gameplay. I even tried out Genshin Impact and the game ran smoothly at the default medium settings but became uncomfortably hot at ‘high’ and ‘highest’ graphics. In short, the Snapdragon 888 offers more than what most buyers will demand from a premium smartphone; just that it isn’t a ROG Phone 5 that’s built from scratch for gaming. With the dual-speaker setup, the phone also sounds fantastic not just while playing games, but while streaming video or music as well. The speakers are loud and don’t crack at high volume, which simply makes the gaming experience a whole lot better. Despite the minor heating issues, I’d still recommend this phone as a gaming device, but you have to keep in mind that gaming does take quite a toll on its battery life. Still, that’s not much of a problem given how fast this phone charges up using the in-box 65 W charger.
The Hasselblad bit… is a bit of a hassle
The camera setup on the OnePlus 9 may appear similar to that on the 9 Pro, save for the lack of a telephoto camera, but there are other differences. There’s no 10-bit colour pipeline present on the 9 and the 48MP main camera is also very different (it’s a different sensor) compared to what you get on the 9 Pro.
As for the Hasselblad influence, there’s not much of it that’s actually accessible to the regular consumer. Photos shot using the regular mode give out the same saturated look as before. Portraits come out soft with lesser detail, and while the dynamic range is spot on, the overall performance can be best described as inconsistent solely, because you cannot predict what the camera will do and how your shot will turn out. There’s also noticeable shutter lag, so get ready to miss the moment along with some blurry photos of fast moving subjects/objects.
The same level of uncertainly makes its way to the video mode. It shoots quality 4K 30fps video (with a decent bitrate) in proper lighting and does an average job in low light. Point it at a dark skinned subject against a brighter background and it struggles to gather any detail even with HDR turned on, which also makes the HDR or Dynamic video setting a bit of a gimmick. There was noticeable noise, plenty of purple fringing, blurred out details and also several instances where the subject or object randomly stays out of focus when recording. In short, it’s just not there yet. 8K is limited to 30fps but and showcases a good amount of detail, but at 500MB for a 25-second recording, I’d steer clear of it or risk running out of storage on a vacation. All-in-all, I was happier with the consistently better results from my year-old Apple iPhone 11 versus the sometimes good results of the OnePlus 9 when it comes to the main camera.
(Left side: iPhone 11 | Right side: OnePlus 9)
Switch to that 50MP ultra-wide angle camera and you will soon realise where all those extra monies that add to price tag were spent. The use of a freeform lens does wonders reducing edge barrel-distortion to the point that it’s barely noticeable and given that it’s a 50MP sensor, there’s also so much more detail. It’s easy to say that it performs better (for photos and video) than most other smartphones both in and above this price range. Given that it features an AF system, the lens also doubles up as usable macro camera that delivers impressive results. My good old iPhone 11’s FF ultra-wide camera felt ancient in comparison indeed. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the HDR or Dynamic video option is not available on the ultra-wide angle camera.
(Left side: iPhone 11 | Right side: OnePlus 9)
And then comes the Hasselblad influence. You have to dig a bit deeper and switch to the Pro mode (that had to feature the legendary ‘H’ logo because “collaboration”) and once you are in there, you will notice a very matured, natural-looking colour tone that’s not typical of the OnePlus camera. The blue’s look like… blue and it’s an approach seems similar to what we saw with Huawei P30 Pro and Leica a few years ago. The only catch is that you have to play around with the manual settings to get the most out of it. So, for the most of us, who don’t have the time for this stuff, that Hasselblad colour will mostly be out of reach.
(Left side: Auto mode | Right side: Pro mode)
Warp charge it!
4500mAh seems like a lot of juice for a flagship smartphone that’s supposed to be sipping on battery life. But given the capabilities of this phone including 8K video recording and high-end gaming, you will end up with about 30-20 percent left in the tank by the end of a workday. But if you don’t game a lot, the phone lasts quite a bit and even after a busy day of calls, messaging and some camera samples, can stretch itself to a little bit over a day. Still, it’s more of one-day smartphone.
While the battery performance isn’t stellar, I’m willing to forget it solely because it charges up quite fast. The OnePlus 9 goes from advertised 1-100% in just 29 minutes. 0-100% does take a while longer, but it’s still quite fast compared to what the competition offers. What’s missing on the models sold in India is wireless charging. Only customers in the US and UK will get access to the feature, but at 15W, I honestly could not be bothered.
From afar OnePlus 9 seems like a repeat telecast of last year’s 8 and 8T models. But look a bit closer and you will notice some minor improvements. While the 120 Hz display and 65 W Warp Charge were already available on the 8T, it’s the ultra-wide-angle camera that steals the show. It’s a massive improvement over every OnePlus model that came before it and even stacks up well against the competition. The Snapdragon 888 definitely makes the software experience effortless. But that’s about it.
It’s still lacking an IP rating, wireless charging and does not exactly look unique. There’s no telephoto camera and no OIS as well (available on the 8T). OnePlus indeed seems to have reserved all of the feature upgrades for the OnePlus 9 Pro and that’s going to cost you ₹64,999.
It’s supposed to be the equivalent of the Samsung Galaxy S21 (from ₹69,999) and checks the performance box on that front. But not in terms of looks and definitely not in terms of the camera.
With all of that in mind, it’s hard to recommend the OnePlus 9 unless all you care about is that ultra-wide angle camera or just want to own a smartphone with the latest chipset. Because you can pretty-much get everything else on last year’s OnePlus 8T (₹42,999), or the newly launched OnePlus 9R (₹39,999), including 5G.