The OnePlus 9 is a premium midrange phone that gets a lot right


The OnePlus 9 is a very good phone that holds its own against other (often more expensive) flagships. It has all the things that truly matter: a great screen, excellent performance, good battery life, and a capable camera. But for better or worse, it still doesnt feel quite like a device thats well-suited for the mainstream. It misses a couple of features present on the competition like a stabilized main camera and broad 5G support.

Instead, it offers some neat but arguably not as useful extras, like really fast charging and an excellent ultrawide camera. It leaves this device in somewhat unusual territory: its good and well-priced, but its not the Android flagship Id recommend to just anyone.

Whats here is good; its whats missing that gives me pause. For example, its a 5G phone that, at launch, wont work on two of the three major US carriers 5G networks: Verizon and AT&T. OnePlus says its working with Verizon on 5G certification, and on March 26th Verizon announced it would support 5G. However, OnePlus says that the OnePlus 9 will not support 5G on AT&T. (T-Mobile is selling the OnePlus 9 directly, and as a result, it has no problems with the carriers low and mid-band 5G service.)

Likewise with the main cameras lack of optical image stabilization, you may end up with photos that look a bit soft due to camera shake in moderate to dim light. Taking a few extra shots will usually ensure that theres a tack-sharp one in the bunch, but that workaround doesnt suit everybody or every situation. OIS would also be a big help with keeping video steady; the 9 offers decent electronic stabilization for this, but results arent as smooth as when both technologies are used together. You might know already if you can live with these quirks, but theyre too significant to make this a top all-around pick for the average smartphone buyer.

If youre curious how the 9 stacks up against the higher specs of its 9 Pro sibling, I have better news: if you opt for this less expensive model, you give up very little. The 9 offers the same Snapdragon 888 processor, top 120Hz refresh rate, 50-megapixel ultrawide camera, and Gorilla Glass back panel as the 9 Pro.

Heres what you dont get versus the more expensive model: a newer 48-megapixel Sony IMX789 main camera sensor, a telephoto camera, main camera stabilization, fast wireless charging, a higher-res screen, millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G, and in some cases, an official IP water and dust resistance rating. Sure, some of those features would be nice to have, but for an additional $240? Personally, Id save the extra cash and go with the 9.

Compared to last years OnePlus 8, the 9 is a little more expensive but also a little better equipped. While you do gain some useful features including 15W Qi wireless charging, a refresh rate boost from 90Hz to 120Hz, Qualcomms latest processor, and a bit bigger battery, these feel like necessary evolutions. It adds up to a phone that feels like a small step forward, rather than a confident stride into mainstream flagship territory. Thats a shame because OnePlus had an opportunity to own this premium midrange category that it helped create with a clear standout.

The OnePlus 9 has a slightly smaller screen

The OnePlus 9 (right) features a slightly smaller 6.55-inch screen compared to the 6.7-inch 9 Pro.

OnePlus 9 screen and build quality

OnePlus likes to make a big phone, and the 9 is no exception. It has a 6.55-inch screen with a 20.1:9 aspect ratio, giving it somewhat tall proportions that make it a little more comfortable to use one-handed. The 1080p OLED display is slightly lower-res than the 1440 screen on the 9 Pro, but it offers the same excellent 120Hz refresh rate. This makes animations and scrolling appear very smooth. If youre coming from a phone with a standard 60Hz display, using the OnePlus 9 will feel a little more slick and polished. Fancy, even.

Youll find Gorilla Glass on the front and back panels of the phone, meaning theres no step down in build quality from the Pro in that sense the frame is plastic rather than aluminum, but its not something I noticed or minded in my time using the device. The 9 does use a flat display rather than the slightly curved screen on the Pro, but that feels like a matter of aesthetics to me and I dont find it to be a great loss. The flat design is also less prone to accidental touches at the edges of the screen like we saw on the OnePlus 8 Pro. As on the 9 Pro, theres an optical in-screen fingerprint reader thats generally quick and reliable. I noticed some failures but not at a high enough rate to bother me.

Overall, its not a bold or groundbreaking design, but its a grownup-looking device with fit and finish well-suited to its $730-plus price. Glass on both the front and back make it feel suitably premium, and the branding on the black unit I tested is tasteful and understated.

The OnePlus 9 sold through T-Mobile the only US carrier that will offer it directly will include an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance, which is the standard in this flagship class right now. The unlocked version will not have that official rating, but OnePlus tells us that the hardware is all the same. I used the 9 in some of Seattles ever-present drizzle and nothing bad happened. So depending on how you buy it, the 9 may not have that stamp of approval, but you can rest assured its just as robust as its peers.

OnePlus 9 performance and UI

The OnePlus 9 uses a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 888 processor and either 8GB or 12GB of RAM. Its as good as youll find in an Android phone at any price right now, so its presence in a $730 phone is a major pro for the 9. I tested the version with 12GB RAM, which is $830, so bear that in mind. But let me tell you this thing is slick as all heck. Apps load quickly, and jumping from app to home screen and back is seamless. I couldnt really throw anything at it to slow it down. This is a spot where the OnePlus 9 shines, and its an important one.

The 9 turns in good battery performance, too. The 120Hz screen draws more power than last years 90Hz display, but this years battery is a tad bigger, too: 4,500mAh compared to 4,300mAh. I dont have any battery complaints, though my typical use is on the moderate side. Itll get most users through a day and then some, and for those whose use is heavier, OnePlus has another feature to help out: fast wired charging. The included fast charger will take the battery from 1 to 100 percent in a scant 29 minutes. Thats fast enough for you to leave it unplugged overnight and just charge it up during a typical morning routine. Wireless charging is supported, too, which is a nice addition over last years model. The 9 is compatible with standard Qi chargers for up to 15W speeds.

The OnePlus 9 is a 5G phone, as all 2021 flagships must be, but it has a complicated relationship with the technology. The phone supports the more widely used Sub-6GHz frequencies and is certified for C-band when it starts arriving in late 2021 but not ultra-fast, super-scarce mmWave.

Not having mmWave is no great loss, but theres the aforementioned incompatibility with Verizon and AT&Ts 5G networks. If you buy the phone unlocked, itll be LTE only on either of those networks, at least for now. OnePlus says its actively working with Verizon on 5G certification, but it couldnt say if AT&T 5G compatibility would be added with a future software update. Being confined to 4G on AT&T and Verizon right now isnt a big deal honestly, its probably for the best since their 5G networks arent very good yet but it would be a significant drawback when the carriers start deploying their newly acquired C-band frequencies and 5G performance improves.

The OnePlus 9 ships with the companys OxygenOS UI built on Android 11. It feels modern and clean, with a few pre-downloaded apps but otherwise not much bloatware. Its a grownup UI that doesnt make you look at an ad to check the weather.

OnePlus will supply the 9 and 9 Pro with two major Android upgrades and three years of security patches a healthy life span, but not exactly best in class. Samsungs flagships get a minimum of four years of security updates, though they slow down toward the end of the devices life span, while Google provides three years of updates and security patches for Pixel phones.

The 9 features main and ultrawide rear cameras, plus a monochrome sensor for additional black-and-white information.

OnePlus 9 camera

The OnePlus rear camera array, relocated to the upper left of the back panel this year, includes a 48-megapixel main camera, 50-megapixel ultrawide, and 2-megapixel monochrome sensor. On the front is a 16-megapixel selfie camera. Its a lot of cameras, but not outside the norm for phones in 2021.

The main camera sensor is the Sony IMX689 used by the OnePlus 8 Pro. We liked its image quality in that device, and thats still generally the case here. Combined with the new Hasselblad color tuning, the OnePlus 9 takes very nice images in good light, and I think does a particularly good job with landscapes. This much-touted natural color is fine but didnt blow me away; it seems prone to occasional oversaturation and white balance misses just as much as any other smartphones image processing. Its certainly not a reason on its own to run out and buy the 9 or 9 Pro, but it hasnt hurt the output either.

For those who want to get hands-on with image processing rather than leaving it up to the camera, RAW shooting is available. The 9 and 9 Pro shoot 12-bit DNG files via the Pro mode in the camera app. These files contain more color information than the typical 10-bit RAW file youll get from most other phone cameras, which is helpful for post-processing.

But unlike with a traditional camera, shooting RAW on a phone misses out on the multi-frame image processing that it applies in its standard JPEG mode, which is often better for the final image than editing a single RAW file even a 12-bit one. Its a feature that sounds good on paper, and some dedicated mobile photographers might appreciate it, but not one that I can get excited about.

The 50-megapixel ultrawide chip puts out very nice 12-megapixel images. This camera uses a new freeform lens featuring a nontraditional design to provide a wide view with minimal distortion. It also uses a 1/1.56-inch sensor that is substantially bigger than what youll find on the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21s ultrawide cameras. Ultrawide cameras can sort of feel like an afterthought, and this one doesnt, which I really appreciate.

Back to the main camera, though: its good in bright light, but darker conditions like dusk or dim interiors are a challenge. These are the kinds of conditions where optical image stabilization can be a big help keeping things sharp, but unlike the 9 Pro and virtually all of its competitors, the 9 only offers less robust electronic image stabilization. I saw this crop up in a set of portrait mode shots taken outside in dim light that came out a little soft. I got one sharp photo out of the bunch, but I suspect OIS would have helped improve my hit rate.

On the video side, the 9 supports 8K recording at 30p for up to five minutes per clip. Recording at 4K and 1080 is also offered at 60p or 30p. At 30p in either 4K or 1080 mode, you can enable HDR, though I didnt see a meaningful difference in dynamic range with it on or off. The OnePlus 9 Pro includes a newer DOL-HDR mode that combines frames of different exposures, which should give better performance.

Whats missing from that stack of cameras and sensors is a telephoto camera, which puts the OnePlus 9 on par with the iPhone 12, but behind what Samsungs S21 and a lot of other phones offer now. Theres still a 2x digital zoom shortcut in the camera app interface. Photos taken this way work okay in a pinch, but theres an obvious softness if you look closely at them it really isnt a great substitute for an actual telephoto camera.

Oh, and that 2-megapixel monochrome camera isnt one you can shoot with directly. As in previous OnePlus phones, its job is to supply additional information when using the monochrome filter mode with the main camera. If it makes a difference, we cant tell and would much rather just have a telephoto camera next year instead, please.

The OnePlus 9s included fast charger is one of its unique features.

The OnePlus 9 checks all the boxes required of a 2021 flagship phone: Snapdragon 888 processor, great high-refresh screen, good battery performance, and cameras aplenty. Youll get top-of-the-line performance for about $100 less than the other base model flagships. That in itself is a great reason to consider the OnePlus 9.

But its not the phone I would recommend to absolutely everyone. Its unique propositions feel a little niche to me. Fast charging is neat, with lots of appeal to heavy phone users and travelers, but I think a lot of people are just fine with their overnight charging routine. I love that theres an above-average ultrawide camera, but Im probably in the minority here. And the Hasselblad color tuning is fine but nothing remarkable.

What should be easy to recommend a well-priced phone with great performance instead carries some significant ifs. If extremely fast charging or the bigger screen are especially appealing, then the 9 is a great option. But if youre on AT&T and youd like to keep your phone for a few years, proceed with caution. If you want top-notch camera capabilities, or if fast charging feels more like a nice-to-have than a must, then you might want to look elsewhere.

I think with a little tuning, the OnePlus 9 could have been an absolutely killer premium midrange device. And I still think its a great device for a subset of the smartphone-buying population. There are just one too many ifs for it to earn the title of class-leader. The OnePlus 9 is very good, but it isnt a runaway winner.

Update March 23rd, 11:15AM PT: Added detail about the OnePlus 9s use of plastic rather than metal in the devices frame.

Update March 26th, 2021 5pm ET: Verizon announced it would support 5G on the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro and OnePlus confirmed they will not work on AT&Ts 5G network. The review has been updated to note the new information.



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