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OnePlus 9 Review

The OnePlus 9 is a powerhouse smartphone designed to offer flagship features at a more pocketable price. It’s a direct rival to the Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 lines that aims to entice buyers by offering quality inclusions, chief among which is a rear camera co-designed with photography heavyweight Hasselblad.

Verdict

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The OnePlus 9 is a fantastic phone, with a screen that’s tailor-made for gamers and people who regularly stream movies on their mobile. However, the fact its screen doesn’t feature a variable refresh rate panel puts it a step behind some rivals when it comes to battery life.

Pros

  • Well calibrated screen that’s perfect for gamers and movie fans
  • Solid camera with an advanced pro mode for tinkerers
  • Outstanding, future proof performance

Cons

  • Lack of variable refresh rate means the screen eats up battery in its highest setting
  • Camera’s image processing can be a little heavy handed
  • 60×74.2×8.7mm
  • 192g
  • Winter Mist, Arctic Sky, Astral Black
  • OxygenOS based on Android 11
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • 8/12GB LPDDR5
  • 128/256GB
  • 4500 mAh (non-removable) Warp Charge 65T (10V/6.5A) 15W Qi wireless charging
  • 6.55-inch 120 Hz AMOLED
  • 16-megapixel Sony IMX471
  • 48-megapixel Sony IMX689 main and 50-megapixel Sony IMX766 ultra wide

The OnePlus 9 is the latest flagship smartphone from the Chinese tech upstart that’s behind the winner of the Trusted Reviews Awards’ best 5G phone category in 2020.

It’s the cheaper option in OnePlus’ 2021 flagship line, sitting below its OnePlus 9 Pro sibling, which features a more advanced variable refresh rate screen and slightly newer rear camera setup.

This puts it squarely in competition with key handsets, including the base iPhone 12, Galaxy S21 and Xiaomi Mi 11. It aims to entice buyers away from those rivals by offering a wealth of custom features, the biggest of which is a new partnership with imaging heavyweight Hasselblad – which OnePlus claims has let it deliver “a giant leap forward in mobile photography”.

After a solid week using the OnePlus 9, I can confirm it’s a great phone. It would be the perfect choice for any mobile gamer and discerning tech aficionado, offering robust performance and a wonderfully well setup screen. The only downside is that niggling flaws in OnePlus’ formula remain, chief among which are the ongoing lack of a formal water-resistance rating and the absence of a variable refresh rate screen, which has a heavy impact on battery life.

The OnePlus 9 is available now on the OnePlus store in two configurations. The lowest offers 8GB RAM / 128GB storage and retails for £629/$729. The more premium edition features 12GB RAM / 256GB storage and retails for £729/$829. We’re waiting on US prices.

  • The OnePlus 9’s frame is built of a custom fibreglass-reinforced polymer
  • There’s no formal IP water-resistant rating
  • The smartphone includes a handy switch control on its side

OnePlus describes the 9 as having a “burdenless design”. Taking the phone out of the box, the reality is that the OnePlus 9 immediately feels a lot like all the other flagships I’ve reviewed this year.

Specifically, the device has slightly curved edges that wrap around a Gorilla Glass front and a fiberglass-reinforced polymer rear and frame. The only obvious design feature is the rear camera housing, which juts out of the phone’s top-left side.

The lack of metal and glass is pretty common on phones at this level, with Samsung having opted to do the same with its base Galaxy S21. In hand, the curves a make the OnePlus 9 significantly more comfortable to hold than flatter models such as the Galaxy S21 Plus.

The only feature I’m not sold on is the back’s finish. OnePlus claims it has used a custom manufacturing process to create a “glossy, premium” finish. However, like all glossy back phones, I found my “Winter Mist”-coloured review unit a magnet for fingerprints. Within seconds of having it in my hands, the phone was covered in prints. Thankfully, a case is included in the box.

OnePlus 9 smudges

And I’d recommend any phone buyer use the case – although the device felt well made through testing, its rear offered more flex than expected when pushed down, indicating it might crack easily if dropped.

In addition, OnePlus fails to offer this handset with a formal water or dust resistance IP rating in a bid to keep down costs. As such, you won’t want to use it when caught in the rain.

Aside from these minor issues, the OnePlus 9 ticks all the design boxes I’ve come to expect from a phone at this price.

At the bottom sits a solo USB-C port, which handles the phone’s cabled charging and one of its dual stereo speakers. Under the hood there’s also support for 15 Qi wireless charging.

The in-screen fingerprint scanner performed well during testing; I found it just as responsive and accurate as the one that features in the S21 Plus. The scanner recognised my finger without issue in normal conditions. The only time it struggled was on using it in a minor downpour with wet fingers.

I’m also a big fan of the slider switch control that OnePlus has loaded onto the phone’s right side. This is a shortcut control that lets you set the phone to ring, vibrate and silent profiles. It’s a minor addition, but one I’ve always appreciated, making it quick and easy to switch the phone to silent when watching movies or in a meeting where it would be impolite to start playing with your phone.

OnePlus 9 switch

  • The handset features one of the most customisable screens you’ll find on a phone
  • A display that’s a perfect fit for mobile gamers
  • The lack of a variable refresh rate can impact battery life

OnePlus made a big splash in mobile displays when it debuted what, in many people’s minds, was the world’s first mainstream high-refresh-rate mobile phone – the OnePlus 7. Razer actually did this first; it just didn’t make quite as many waves at the time.

Refresh rate is a metric that dictates how many images a screen shows each second. It’s a staple feature in gaming hardware that helps make a screen feel smoother to use and more responsive, which is the reason it’s no surprise the OnePlus 9’s 120Hz “Fluid AMOLED” panel is absolutely great for gaming.

The screen is big enough to game comfortably, and the 120Hz mode makes for a wonderfully smooth experience. This is further aided by the phone’s robust haptic feedback, which I found was noticeably stronger than that of rival devices. The only handset I’ve tested with more rumble recently is the Black Shark 3 Pro, which is bespoke designed for gaming. The only minor downside is that, during testing, I found the phone’s 8.7mm thickness meant I couldn’t fit it into a Razer Kishi controller dock.

However, what really sets the screen apart is that it’s well calibrated and customisable. Out of the box, the AMOLED screen is set to a fairly garish Vibrant mode, which makes colours look punchy but slightly saturated. However, jumping into the phone’s Display Settings menu I was treated to a wealth of customisation options that made it quick and easy to get the neutral profile I wanted.

Switching to the “natural” setting offered a far more realistic colour profile that met my needs. But what really sets the OnePlus screen apart is the ability to set it to target colour gamuts. For non-techies, these are specific colour profiles used by creative professionals such as photographers and cinematographers to guarantee quality. Specifically, they’re a key factor that helps to ensure colours appear on-screen as the creative intended. The DCI-P3 gamut is particularly important for streaming since most movies use it.

OnePlus 9 screen modes

Evaluating the screen quality using an X-Rite colorimeter, I found the colour profiles are excellent. Coverage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 gamuts is fairly average in the out-of-the-box Wide AMOLED option. However, switching to DCI-P3, coverage is outstanding. The only devices I’ve tested to offer better colour gamut coverage generally come from Apple, which has a long legacy of manufacturing devices for creative professionals. You can see colour gamut coverage across the two profiles in the table below.

  sRGB Adobe RGB DCI-P3
Wide AMOLED mode 90.1%  62.9% 65.1%
DCI-P3 mode 99.1% 79.9% 91.3%

The phone’s entertainment capabilities are further aided by its impressive maximum brightness levels. The screen is HDR 10+ ready, meaning it can operate at a peak brightness in excess of 1100 nits. A nit is a measurement of brightness; a single unit is roughly equivalent to a candle’s flame.

However, it only does so for very short periods when it detects an HDR signal, so that it doesn’t damage the screen. Through testing, I detected a peak 455.28-nit standard operating max brightness, which is atypically high. Most competing flagships operate at 350-ish nits.

This coupled with the deep blacks inherent to an AMOLED panel enabled me to enjoy wonderfully immersive movie-watching experiences. HDR 10+ content in particular looks great, with the deep blacks and 1000-nit-plus peaks looking great. Watching Bosch in HDR, the night-time city scenes really came alive, and I was able to see details that were completely lost on most competing non-HDR phone screens. HDR (high dynamic range) is a standard/technology designed to let creatives capture and display higher quality, more detailed and immersive images and video.

My only issue with the screen is that it still doesn’t feature a variable refresh rate. Unlike its Pro sibling, the OnePlus 9’s screen has to be locked to run at either 60Hz or 120Hz. A variable refresh rate lets a phone manually adjust its setting depending on the task the handset is running. This lets a screen offer the benefits of a higher refresh rate only when it’s required – when gaming, for example – and then dialling the setting down when it isn’t needed to save battery. The tech works a treat on the Galaxy S21 Plus, and I can’t help but wish OnePlus had found a way to get it onto its latest affordable flagship as a result.

OnePlus 9 refresh rate

  • A powerhouse 5G smartphone that’s more than powerful enough for gamers and creatives
  • The Oxygen OS Android skin adds a number of optimisations designed to avoid any slowdown

The OnePlus 9 is available in two configurations. The first nets you 8GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 128GB of storage. The other includes 12GB RAM and 256GB of storage.

Personally, I’d recommend opting for the latter, since it’s far too easy to use up that 128GB allowance if you regularly shoot video or photos in HDR/4K. Both configurations are powered by the blisteringly fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip.

In real-world use, I found the phone wholly capable of running every process I threw at it. Demanding games such as PUBG and CoD Mobile ran at their highest graphical settings with zero issues. The robust cooling system also ensured I never experienced CPU throttling, even when stress-testing the device using 3DMark’s Wildlife benchmark. This is a synthetic test that makes the phone run a cycle of incredibly demanding processes. Throttling is an issue that occurs when a component becomes too hot. Photo editing in Photoshop Express was also fine, even when working on large RAW files.

The phone’s OxygenOS skin, which runs on top of its core Android 11 software, also has a few nifty tricks designed to ensure performance stays top-tier long-term.

The biggest is Turbo boost 3.0, which OnePlus claims lets the phone run “25% more” apps and background processes at once than competing phones. There’s no easy test to confirm this claim, but in my time with the phone, I’ve found it super-capable at multitasking. Overall, I haven’t experienced any performance issues using the OnePlus 9.

The OnePlus 9’s synthetic benchmark scores mirrored my real-world findings, which also generally match the S21 Plus. You can see how the two phones compare in the table below. Geekbench 5 is a CPU-focused benchmark that checks a device’s single and multi-core performance. 3DMark is a GPU-focused testing suite designed to gauge gaming performance. In both tests, a higher score is better.

  OnePlus 9 Galaxy S21 Plus
Geekbench 5 single-core 1128 1081
Geekbench 5 multi-core 3614 3523
3DMark Wildlife 5740 5701
  • The camera has been co-engineered with photography heavyweight Hasselblad
  • Only the OnePlus 9 Pro uses the new Sony IM789 sensor
  • The OnePlus 9 doesn’t have OIS (optical image stabilisation)

OnePlus hasn’t got the best track record when it comes to mobile photography. While previous handsets from the company to pass through Trusted Labs haven’t been terrible, neither have they been frontrunners for the best camera phone title. The issues tend to be around software, with the OnePlus 7T and 8T both having a tendency to over-process shots when we tested them. This led to photos that didn’t look as realistic as the results you’d get when shooting on an iPhone, Pixel or Huawei P-series device.

OnePlus has made a bold move to fix this by partnering with photography powerhouse Hasselblad to “co-engineer” the 9 and 9 Pro’s rear cameras.

The basic 9 model comes with a triple-sensor rear camera that combines a 48-megapixel Sony IMX689 main, 50-megapixel Sony IMX766 ultra-wide and 2-megapixel monochrome units.

You’ll notice there isn’t a telephoto lens, as there is on the competing Galaxy S21 line. This is because, rather than focusing on the camera’s zoom capabilities, OnePlus has opted to push the camera’s ultra-wide sensor and colour accuracy as the primary selling points.

OnePlus claims to have customised the ultra-wide and main sensors to enhance their capabilities in a variety of ways. For starters, the ultra-wide features a curved Freeform Lens that radically reduces noise. OnePlus also has set it so you can use the ultra-wide camera to capture macro photos from distances as close as 4cm.

The main sensor has been tweaked to make it work with the camera’s more advanced Hasselblad Pro shooting mode, which lets you capture huge 12-bit RAW images. RAW is a file type that records significantly more data/information than the more common JPEG file type used by default on most camera phones. It’s a staple requirement that helps professional photographers make more detailed edits and changes.

Testing a camera through a lockdown was never going to be easy, but during my time with the OnePlus 9, I’ve generally been impressed with the rear unit.

Using the Auto setting, the camera offers wonderfully fast shutter and autofocus speeds, to the point I was able to actually capture usable shots of my cats during a particularly animated play-time. Believe it or not, the portrait captured below occurred right after Kenshin had pounced his favourite mouse toy.

The bokeh effect in this portrait is also very good, so long as you don’t massively blow up the image. Bokeh is an effect where the foreground image is in focus, but the background is blurred. Using my cats as ongoing test subjects, I found the mode generally shows good edge detection, although aberrations around their fur were visible on evaluating the images on a laptop screen.

The ultra-wide takes excellent landscape shots, too, offering rich detail and wonderfully wide views of the London skyline that were taken from my flat’s balcony.

My only minor quibble is that, like pretty much every flagship, captured images can come out looking slightly over-processed. This is particularly noticeable when shooting landscapes, where the sky looks over sharpened.

That level of processing can also make the app feel slightly sluggish. There was always a noticeable delay between the image being captured and the thumbnail appearing in the gallery. Switching between modes also felt a little sluggish compared to the experience I’d had using the S21 Plus.

This sluggishness was particularly noticeable in the Hasselblad Pro mode. Accessed in the main camera app, the mode features a UI based on Hasselblad’s own image-processing software. In general, it works in the same way as most Pro modes I’ve tested, letting you manually tweak ISO, exposure time, white balance and the focus area. The more interesting feature is its option to capture 12-bit RAW files.

OnePlus 9 camera app

Low-light performance here is also a step up on OnePlus previous efforts, but it still isn’t best in class – although images are good enough for sharing on social media. However, the lack of OIS (optical image stabilisation) means that noise does creep in if you don’t hold the phone super-steady.

The monochrome sensor does what it says on the tin, letting you take black-and-white stills. Ultimately, though, like all the monochrome phone cameras I test, it quickly stops being used after the novelty factor has worn off.

The same is true of the custom tilt-shift option. This is a weird mode designed to make “the world look like a miniature model”. In use, as far as I can tell, it simply blurs the top and bottom of captured images.

You can see a selection of photos taken on the OnePlus 9 below.

OnePlus 9 portrait

  • This handset will last a day of normal use
  • The OnePlus 9 is one of the fastest charging phones on the market
  • It supports wireless charging, too

The OnePlus 9 is powered by a 4500mAh battery. This is a fairly standard capacity for a phone of this size, although based on my experience of other 120Hz devices such as the Xiaomi Mi 11, the capacity left me nervous about the OnePlus 9’s longevity.

With the screen set to 120Hz, I found I could comfortably get a full day’s use out of the phone. Regular use entailed frequently checking incoming messages and alerts, making a few video calls during the work day, sporadic music listening, a quick blast on PUBG over lunch, and a few YouTube videos before bed.

More intensive tasks put a much heavier drain on the battery. Streaming video with the handset discharged an average of 7-10% of its charge per hour, which is a smidgeon higher than the 5-6% discharge rate I recorded running the same test on the Galaxy S21 Plus. Gaming in 120Hz, I recorded an average 24% discharge per hour. The figure went up even more when I started streaming games on GeForce Now with a Razer Raiju Bluetooth controller connected. Here, the phone died after less than three and a half hours play.

Thankfully, the phone makes up for its mediocre battery by offering a wealth of custom-charging features. The biggest is its support for Warp Charge 65T. This is OnePlus’ proprietary fast-charging tech. It’s particularly important on the OnePlus 9 because, unlike Samsung and Apple, OnePlus has included a compatible plug in the box. In tests, in topped up the phone from 0-80% in just 15 minutes at the mains.

I’ve generally been taking advantage of the OnePlus 9’s wireless charging support. In the US and UK phones support 15W Qi wireless charging, which lets you top up the charge just by placing the handset on a compatible plate.

OnePlus 9 upgright

The OnePlus 9 doesn’t revolutionise the flagship phone market in the way that the company’s past handsets have. Nevertheless, it’s still an all-round solid handset that ticks all the right boxes to compete in the top-end phone market. Highlights include a fantastic screen for gaming, powerhouse performance, and the best camera I’ve tested on a OnePlus phone.

  • You’re after a gaming phone that doesn’t look like a children’s toy
    If you want a phone to play games, but don’t fancy RGB lighting, then the OnePlus 9 is an excellent option. It offers powerhouse performance, a super-fast 120Hz AMOLED screen, and the best haptic “rumble” feedback we’ve experienced on a mainstream handset
  • You don’t like heavy-handed Android skins
    OnePlus OxygenOS is one of the lighter Android skins on the market. It features considerably less bloatware than both Xiaomi and Oppo’s software. This makes the OnePlus 9 a better option for people who prefer a more traditional Android user experience.
  • You care more about ultra-wide camera performance than zoom photography
    The OnePlus 9’s rear camera aims to offer the best ultra-wide camera performance on the market. In tests, we found it offers brilliant image quality that matches, if not beats its Samsung rival. The only downside is that it does so at the expense of advanced zoom capabilities.
  • You want best-in-class battery life
    The OnePlus 9 offers at best average battery life if you use it with the screen set to 120Hz. The lack of a variable refresh rate means it loses excessive amounts of power running intensive tasks such as filming video or playing games. Those looking for best-in-class battery life would be better off looking elsewhere as a result.
  • You want best-in-class low-light camera performance
    The OnePlus 9’s rear camera is one of the best the company has ever made, having been co-engineered with Hasselblad. But it still falls behind the Huawei P-series, Google Pixel and iPhone 12 family of phones for low-light performance. This is largely down to the lack of OIS, which means noise and blur can creep into shots fairly easily.
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