It’s been seven months now since OnePlus launched its flagship smartphone for the year 2021. The OnePlus 9 Pro was announced to much fanfare – as is usually the case for OnePlus phones, the occasion this year was that OnePlus had apparently finally fixed its cameras. And it did that with the help of none other than Hasselblad, the first company to put a camera on the moon.
Seems like quite the recipe for success, doesn’t it? After all, the camera was the one thing OnePlus phones were often most criticized for. So then why didn’t the phone blow us away when we first reviewed it back in March? Well, turns out, OnePlus did seem to have oversold everyone on the camera’s capabilities. And there also seemed some doubts regarding whether Hasselblad did anything more than put its name on the back of the phone.
Seven months is a decent amount of time, however. Over this time, we kept using the phone to see if maybe things could change, whether the OnePlus 9 Pro had finally become the phone that OnePlus had promised back in March. And should someone consider purchasing it in late 2021?
We now have the answers.
Back when the OnePlus 9 Pro launched, it didn’t quite wow us with its design. OnePlus’ designs have gotten increasingly generic over the years to the point where it would be genuinely challenging to pick them apart from the crowd. On the upside, they haven’t started plastering giant blocks of text on the back of their phones just yet.
But while the OnePlus 9 Pro design doesn’t really flex its creative muscles, it’s still a sophisticated and elegant-looking device. Of special note is the Morning Mist color, which gradually goes from cloudy silver to a shining mirror as you go down the back of the phone.
Unfortunately, the OnePlus 9 Pro is really quite big and heavy. One-handed operation feels like a chore, especially if you have a case on. And it’s particularly unpleasant to carry around in the pocket.
OnePlus also continues to make your life miserable by putting the volume and power button on either side of the phone, which apart from making you unintentionally take screenshots all the time, also forces you to adopt a weird claw-like grip every time you want to use the buttons on the side opposite to the hand you’re using.
The alert slider continues to be a source of joy on OnePlus phones. It truly is a mystery while this handy piece of technology was only ever adopted by two companies in the smartphone space. However, as soon as you put a case on, including first-party ones from OnePlus, the slider becomes rather difficult to use.
One thing you can’t fault the phone for is how well-built it feels. The weight and thickness are on the higher side but the phone feels like an absolute weapon in hand. It also has all the IP ratings you expect from a flagship phone these days.
Overall, the design and ergonomics disappoint but the phone is well-made and suitably premium.
The display on the OnePlus 9 Pro is flagship-grade. It’s quite large, possibly to its own detriment. It’s also curved, which is definitely to its detriment. It also has a bunch of features in the settings, many of which do weird things with the colors and frame rate and are generally best left off.
In terms of sheer image quality, the OnePlus 9 Pro display is one of the best on any phone currently on the market. The pixel density, the color accuracy, even the brightness and viewing angles, are all sublime.
Unfortunately, there’s more to a display than just image quality. At launch, the OnePlus 9 Pro touchscreen had truly abysmal palm rejection. The phone would constantly detect touches at the sides of the display, which was difficult to avoid since the display is curved and basically part of the sides of the phone.
Over time, OnePlus managed to reduce the severity and frequency of false touches but hasn’t gotten rid of it entirely, and it can still be a problem, especially if you use the phone in bed while holding it over you.
But what was possibly even worse was the way OnePlus had tried to tackle palm rejection in the early builds of the software. It failed to reject any actual accidental touches but would ignore very intentional touches.
The keyboard was most affected by this as the keys on the sides would simply not work at times. Important keys like shift or backspace had to be pressed multiple times because that part of the touchscreen would just go dead. You had to take a break from typing for a second before the entire touchscreen started working normally again, only to run into the issue a few seconds later. It was genuinely impossible to type anything longer than an emoji without wanting to smash the phone.
This actually took an embarrassingly long time for OnePlus to improve. It’s still not completely fixed, but it’s harder to run into the issue now than it was at launch.
What really solved most of the touchscreen issues with the OnePlus 9 Pro was using a case. The case separates your skin from the display when holding the phone by the sides and minimizes contact. While no one should have to put on a case, for this reason alone, it’s what we did, and it did help us. It also made us wonder if anyone even tested this phone without a case.
Overall, the panel on the OnePlus 9 Pro is absolutely gorgeous in terms of image quality, but the curved sides and shoddy software made the display a usability nightmare and required using a case to work.
The OnePlus 9 Pro comes with OxygenOS 11. It’s the last major version of OxygenOS designed and developed by OnePlus before it gets merged with the Oppo-developed ColorOS in the next version and essentially becomes ColorOS with a different skin.
OxygenOS 11 on the OnePlus 9 Pro has been a major disappointment. While it’s easy to be nostalgic about it because of how much of a breath of fresh air it used to be back in the day and how, in many ways, it is still superior to many of its contemporaries, the truth is that in terms of stability OxygenOS has been on a downward trajectory for a while now.
Using the OnePlus 9 Pro has involved constantly running into one software issue after another. In terms of the sheer number of bugs, it seems as if OxygenOS 11 has no equal in the industry. You may have issues with how some of the other Android skins are designed or what features they may have, but few of them are as frustrating to use on a daily basis like this.
One of the issues that frequently keeps popping up is that the media player control notification simply refuses to appear at times. You could be playing audio in your music or podcast player of choice and then go to the lockscreen or notification center to find that there are no controls there to playback. Your option at that point is to go back to the app that’s playing audio and then play/pause it a few times for the notification to finally pop up.
The frequency with which this bug appears is simply staggering, to the tune of almost every single time something is played on the phone. The best part is that the bug had existed for a long time from even before the OnePlus 9 series was announced. It appeared sometime last year and has remained unfixed.
There are many such issues that seem to have been around since time immemorial but have gone unnoticed. A lot of these issues aren’t big enough for even the user to take notice or be particularly upset about, but when you put them all together, they quickly add up, and the entire experience starts feeling like death by a thousand cuts.
For our part, we have always communicated our issues and grievances with OnePlus whenever we have come across them. To their credit, the PR team has always been very receptive to any feedback or criticism that we have sent their way. Unfortunately, as the information moves further up the chain, it tends to get lost somewhere along the way, and we neither hear about any action being taken nor do we see any of the issues we brought up being addressed.
The thing that saddens us the most is that OxygenOS 11 is still worlds better than many of its rivals in basic things like aesthetics, consistency, and striking the right balance between adding features and just throwing things at the wall and hoping something sticks.
However, there are just too many bugs and issues throughout the software that damage the user experience and makes it hard to recommend it to the average user.
As for the upcoming switch to the ColorOS codebase, it feels at this point, things can only go up for OxygenOS. One of the things OnePlus has promised with the switch to the new software is improved stability, and OxygenOS is desperately in need of some right now.
However, it’s also easy to be cynical about how the merger will also change OxygenOS for the worse aesthetically and functionally. While ColorOS is better than it used to be, many users would still prefer the way OxygenOS looks and works right now, and the improved stability might not be enough of an incentive if the OS just looks and works fundamentally different than what users have come to expect from OxygenOS.
We already saw this when we checked out the OnePlus Nord 2. It was the first phone to run on the new ColorOS codebase while still running on OxygenOS 11. That software, for all intents and purposes, is ColorOS once you look past the launcher and other basic UI elements, and that rubbed some people the wrong way.
Hopefully, with OxygenOS 12, OnePlus is able to strike the right balance between aesthetics, functionality, and stability.
The OnePlus 9 Pro runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 platform and is still pretty much one of the most powerful phones on the market right now. OnePlus has never been the one to hold back in terms of storage and memory, and so the phone has plenty of those, as well.
In terms of outright performance, the OnePlus 9 Pro is excellent. It’s funny how quickly you get used to it, though. Still, even if you go down one or two steps down the performance ladder, the difference is often very easy to notice. Suddenly you have an even greater appreciation for what the flagship phones bring to the table.
However, despite all that power, the OnePlus 9 Pro remains a mediocre gaming phone. OnePlus continues to hamstring its phones by capping the display refresh rate to 60Hz in games. Only a handful of games are allowed to breach this limit, and even those can only go up to 90Hz, not the display’s full 120Hz.
This does put a dampener on the overall gaming experience. Gaming is something that benefits the most from having a higher frame rate as it cuts down on the input latency and improves your reaction times. Having most games being limited to just 60Hz makes the OnePlus 9 Pro feel no better than a mid-range smartphone that can also achieve the same level of performance.
OnePlus also does other weird things with the refresh rate, such as locking it to 60Hz in the YouTube app. This makes the YouTube UI choppy, and the video has judder due to uneven frame pacing. A better solution would have been to have the full 120Hz in the UI and variable refresh rate while playing video. This is something other manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, and Xiaomi already do, so it’s not clear why OnePlus refuses to.
At launch, the OnePlus 9 Pro failed to live up to the hype that OnePlus had created around it. In our testing, we found the camera to not just be similar but also worse in some ways to the OnePlus 8 Pro, and we just couldn’t see the promised improvement in color performance that the collaboration with Hasselblad was supposed to bring.
Far forward seven months, and a lot has changed. OnePlus has been issuing regular updates to the OnePlus 9 Pro camera, and it’s now in a much better place than it was at launch.
For one, the oversharpening that we had pointed out in our review has been dialed back. The OnePlus 9 Pro had heavy sharpening applied at launch to make up for the fact that the images were now softer due to the increased field of view of the new lens despite having the same 12-megapixel effective resolution of the OnePlus 8 Pro. This has now been fixed in newer firmware, and the sharpening looks much more natural now with significantly reduced ringing and haloing, especially in areas of high-frequency detail like grass.
OnePlus has also reduced the noise that we had noted in our review. At launch, the OnePlus 9 Pro tended to have quite a bit of noise in the shadows. With newer updates, this is not a concern anymore, and the images are quite clean.
Moving to the all-important color performance, OnePlus has definitely made some subtle but noticeable improvements across the board. The white balancing performance is now very good, resulting in very consistent and reliable results in various lighting conditions, especially outdoors during the day.
Comparing the OnePlus 9 Pro now with the OnePlus 8 Pro, the OnePlus 9 Pro now consistently outperforms its predecessor in most areas. The OnePlus 8 Pro is still quite good, but the OnePlus 9 Pro generally has better color accuracy, especially in terms of white balance.
The OnePlus 8 Pro does still have slightly better detail, however, as its lens is not as wide as on the OnePlus 9 Pro and can thus capture more fine detail with the available sensor resolution. The OnePlus 8 Pro also usually renders flowers more accurately, as the OnePlus 9 Pro tends to consistently oversaturate flowers.
The overall image quality of the main camera on the OnePlus 9 Pro is now quite good, although there’s definitely room for improvement. OnePlus still has a tendency to crush shadow detail. This is not even a hardware limitation, as the RAW files have adequate detail in the shadows. It’s just an artistic decision from OnePlus that has plagued its phones for a while.
OnePlus also needs to better tune its HDR processing as it has a tendency to flatten highlights, removing any natural gradient and reducing them to one or two shades. It also tends to overexpose midtones and make them brighter than they should be. Once again referencing the RAW files, we can see a much more gradual natural dynamic range, gradation, and contrast captured by the sensor, but the processed JPEG file looks flat and unnatural.
The ultra-wide camera on the OnePlus 9 Pro is one of the better ones around, with surprisingly good performance in most lighting conditions. It also curiously often turns out better-looking images than the main camera, especially in terms of white balance and overall processing.
This does mean the two cameras don’t often match each other, but that is a bit of an overrated feature to have; it doesn’t matter if the two cameras match each other or not if each produces colors that are accurate to the scene that is within their field of view and some difference is to be expected when the field of view changes drastically, and new objects enter or leave the frame.
The telephoto camera, however, is mediocre. It seems to be the same as the one found on the OnePlus 8 Pro and has seen no improvement at all since. The images are soft, the colors are often way off from what they should be, it struggles to focus on closer objects, and if something gets within two feet of the lens, the phone just switches to the main camera with a 3.3x digital zoom applied. Also, while the other two cameras can shoot in 8K, the telephoto camera can’t even record in 4K and is only functional if you set the resolution to 1080p.
Speaking of video, the video performance on the main and ultra-wide cameras is really good. You can shoot up to 8K 30p on both, but 4K 120p only works on the main camera. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with the 4K 120p video on the phone, as there is no way to slow it down and get slow motion 24p or 30p footage from it.
Even if you export it to a desktop, you need a premium client like Adobe Premiere Pro or the paid version of DaVinci Resolve to edit it. A simple slow-motion option in the main Gallery app would have been nice as otherwise, the videos you get from this mode are useless to most people other than just playing it in 4K 60p on the phone (yeah, the phone can only play videos up to 60fps).
The camera app otherwise is a nice improvement over the older OnePlus camera app. The pro mode, in particular, has actually usable sliders and not the annoying infinitely spinning wheels of before. Unfortunately, locking focus/exposure is still done by an impossibly small lock icon that requires a microscope and a neurosurgeon’s precision to tap. You still can’t capture RAW files with the ultra-wide or telephoto cameras, and the video mode basically has no manual controls whatsoever.
OnePlus also recently added the XPan mode, which is inspired by the Hasselblad XPan camera from the 90s that was known for using a really wide 65:24 film for capturing panoramic shots. The XPan mode on the OnePlus 9 Pro just crops the top and bottom off, and you don’t actually get any extra width, but the aspect ratio is still pretty cool and can produce some interesting shots.
Unfortunately, OnePlus has saddled the mode with an abysmally slow animation that is designed to “reproduce the ritual sense of film developing” or some such nonsense. Every shot you take in this mode is followed by a nearly five-second long animation, and you have no choice but to wait for it to finish before you can capture another image. This is the worst sort of skeuomorphism and should have been left behind in the early 2010s where it belongs.
Some of these annoyances make you forget at times that the camera on the OnePlus 9 Pro is actually really good. It may have taken OnePlus some time but it seems they have finally achieved what they set out to do. If they just iron out the niggles in the software and replace the telephoto camera with something actually good for the next version, then the company may finally have the flagship-grade camera that people have been asking for years.
As an expensive flagship smartphone, the OnePlus 9 Pro has a lot to offer. It is built really well and has an excellent display, a relatively clean and minimal UI, great performance, good cameras, decent battery life, and fast charging.
The main issue with the phone comes down to the software. It almost feels as if for the past year or so, OnePlus just gave up trying to fix OxygenOS and make it work reliably, knowing it would get merged into ColorOS anyway. We really hope the merger brings the promised stability to this platform because using it in its current form has been a bit of a nightmare over the past few months.
Still, the OnePlus 9 Pro is not far from becoming the proper flagship smartphone that we were promised back in March 2021, and with the OxygenOS 12 update looming on the horizon, there’s a good chance it might just end up becoming that.
- Good build quality
- Excellent display performance
- Slick UI
- Good main and ultra-wide cameras
- Superfast charging
- Buggy, frustrating software
- Lackluster telephoto camera
- Most games limited to 60Hz
- Awkwardly large and heavy