OnePlus 9 Review

One small step for camera quality, but not enough

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3.8

OnePlus 9

OnePlus 9 5G

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

What We Like
  • Incredibly fast charging

  • Gorgeous 120Hz screen

  • Speedy performance

  • Long-lasting battery

  • Basic, sub-6GHz 5G

What We Don't Like
  • Inconsistent cameras

  • No water resistance

  • Half the storage of the 8T

  • No mmWave 5G

The OnePlus 9 comes up a little short in its value equation, but if photography smarts aren’t at the top of your wish list, it could be a very compelling alternative.

3.8

OnePlus 9

OnePlus 9 5G

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

We purchased the OnePlus 9 so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for our full product review.

Android smartphone maker OnePlus has the most aggressive hardware release schedule on the market, issuing a new flagship-level handset upgrade every six months or so. That means that the company always has something recent and fresh on offer, but the end result often is that the device-to-device enhancements are usually pretty incremental.

There’s a lot to love about the OnePlus 9, but there are still a couple of holes that keep it from matching the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Apple iPhone 12.

That’s true again with the new OnePlus 9, which follows last fall’s OnePlus 8T and isn’t significantly different from its predecessor. It has a new processor, but the feature set and core experience are mostly unchanged. Luckily, the OnePlus 9 starts to address the 8T’s biggest issue and delivers improved camera performance, even if it doesn’t quite match up to today’s best flagship phones. There’s a lot to love about the OnePlus 9, but there are still a couple of holes that keep it from matching the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Apple iPhone 12.

Design: Small, but solid upgrades

The six-month product cycle means that the OnePlus 9 hasn’t changed much in terms of looks from its predecessor. From the front, it’s essentially identical: the screen is the same size, the punch-hole camera cutout is still in the upper left corner, and they have the same silhouette. OnePlus has moved down the frame buttons ever so slightly, however, which is helpful for one-hand usage. The familiar OnePlus alert slider on the right side is a lingering perk, offering easy access to switch between Ring, Vibrate, and Silent notification settings.

The smudge-attracting matte backing glass of the OnePlus 8T has been replaced with a glossy finish, which is especially appealing in this pleasing, purple-ish Winter Mist style.

From the back, however, there are tweaks—and they’re all for the better. The new camera system, developed in collaboration with Swedish camera maker Hasselblad, has a more distinctive look. The OnePlus 8T’s busy “six-eyes” module that was loaded with cameras and sensors has been replaced with a pair of larger camera lenses, a smaller monochrome camera alongside, and a dual-LED flash, as well as a subtle Hasselblad logo.

Better yet, the smudge-attracting matte backing glass of the OnePlus 8T has been replaced with a glossy finish, which is especially appealing in this pleasing, purple-ish Winter Mist style (Astral Black is also available). It still attracts fingerprints and smudges, but they’re not as obvious and garish-looking as they were on frosted glass. OnePlus switched out the metal frame of past phones for plastic this time around, but this cost-saving move lands better than the more obvious plastic backing of the Samsung Galaxy S21. It’s tougher to tell the difference.

OnePlus 9

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

All told, the OnePlus 9 is sleek and attractive, and slightly more distinctive looking than the previous model. The downside, sadly, is that OnePlus still offers no water resistance for the unlocked version of the phone; only the T-Mobile carrier-exclusive edition has it. Nearly all other premium, flagship-level phones pack an IP68 water and dust resistance rating, but there are no assurances that the OnePlus 9 will withstand the elements. That’s disheartening for a $729 phone.

It may well be built the same as the T-Mobile version, and OnePlus just didn’t want to pay the certification fee for an unsubsidized, unlocked handset. Still, there’s no guarantee that your pricey phone is going to be fine after taking an unexpected bath.

Also, OnePlus has halved the internal storage tally from 256GB in the OnePlus 8T to just 128GB here, with no higher-capacity options for sale and no ability to use a microSD card for expandable storage. While 128GB might be enough storage for many users, it’s a notable downgrade that limits the phone’s versatility and value for people who want to store a lot of games or offline media, or who take loads of photos and videos.

At least the Galaxy S21 lets you double its 128GB storage tally for $50 more, but there is no higher-capacity OnePlus 9 model offered in the United States as of this writing.

What’s New: Modest enhancements

As detailed throughout the review, the OnePlus 9 is a modest upgrade over the OnePlus 8T, which was released in October 2020. OnePlus has implemented a new camera system created in collaboration with Hasselblad, included the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor for a modest power boost, and tweaked the look of the phone’s rear. The OnePlus 9 also adds wireless charging, but it has half the internal storage of its predecessor.

Display Quality: Crisp and smooth

Luckily, the screen is still excellent. Like the 8T, the OnePlus 9 has a 6.55-inch AMOLED screen at 1080p resolution, and it looks brilliant thanks to the speedy 120Hz refresh rate that delivers silky smooth transitions and animations.

OnePlus 9

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Put side by side with the 8T, the screen actually looks a little bolder and punchier than its predecessor, and it gets plenty bright and is nicely crisp at this size. Once again, I have no complaints in this department. The in-display fingerprint sensor also works well and proved both accurate and swift in my testing.

Setup Process: No surprises

The OnePlus 9 sets up like any other modern Android phone with a standard form factor. Just press the power button on the right side of the screen and then follow the on-screen prompts to set up the phone with your Google account and preferences. You’ll need to accept the terms and conditions and can choose whether to copy data from another phone or a cloud backup.

Performance: Smooth sailing throughout

The OnePlus 9 is one of the most powerful Android phones on the market today thanks to the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor. First seen in the Galaxy S21 line earlier this year, the Snapdragon 888 is the fastest chip for Androids right now, and you feel it in action throughout the OnePlus 9 experience. I didn’t notice a bit of slowdown across my day-to-day usage, with a hearty 8GB RAM here to ensure steady performance and smooth multitasking.

The OnePlus 9 is one of the most powerful Android phones on the market today thanks to the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor.

PCMark’s Work 2.0 benchmark test put up a score of 11,368, which was curiously a couple steps behind the 13,002 score that I registered with the Galaxy S21. However, the OnePlus 9 hit higher numbers in the Geekbench 5 test, hitting a single-core score of 1,123 and multi-core score of 3,743—the S21 scored 1,091 and 3,315, respectively.

In other words, it’s a wash between them. Both phones feel comparably swift and responsive, with the 120Hz screens aiding in that feeling of fluidity on both ends.

The newly-released League of Legends: Wild Rift runs like a dream on the OnePlus 9, too, and this phone should handle any mobile game with ease. GFXBench tests show a nice upgrade over the OnePlus 8T, with 58 frames per second in the resource-intensive Car Chase test—I only saw 46fps on the 8T—along with a similar result of 61fps on the T-Rex test.

Connectivity: Some 5G, but not all

The OnePlus 9 supports the common sub-6GHz 5G bands for T-Mobile and Verizon (not AT&T), but does not support the significantly faster, yet much less available mmWave 5G bands that both carriers have. The Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 support both kinds of 5G coverage, for example, but the OnePlus 9 sticks to the slower, yet more plentiful variety.

I tested the OnePlus 9 on Verizon’s 5G Nationwide (sub-6GHz) network and saw a peak speed of 117Mbps download, which is pretty close to what I’ve seen using other modern 5G phones while within that coverage range.

It’s an improvement over average Verizon 4G LTE speeds in this area, just north of Chicago, which usually land in the 50-70Mbps range. I’ve tested other 5G phones on T-Mobile’s sub-6Ghz 5G network and seen speeds more than double that of Verizon’s 5G Nationwide network, however, so your experience may vary based on location and carrier.

Verizon’s 5G Ultra-Wideband (mmWave) coverage is sparsely deployed as of this writing, mostly in urban areas with high foot traffic, but it is incredibly fast: I’ve registered speeds in the 2-3Gbps range with other, compatible 5G phones within the covered areas. However, the OnePlus 9 isn’t equipped to take advantage of that extra speed when it’s available.

Sound Quality: Stellar playback

The OnePlus 9 delivers quality stereo playback using both the bottom-firing dedicated speaker and the slim earpiece located above the screen. Music playback stays clear even at higher volume and provides well-balanced sound, even if it can’t muster much bass. Still, for watching videos or playing a bit of music without the aid of an external speaker, it’s very good. Speakerphone use is also strong, as is call quality when using the earpiece as normal.

Camera/Video Quality: Good, but still not great

Camera quality has long been the primary complaint about OnePlus phones compared to their flagship competitors. This time around, the maker brought in some fresh Sony sensors and teamed with storied camera brand Hasselblad to deliver what it claims is improved coloring and processing for the OnePlus 9.

OnePlus 9

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

While I agree that the results are slightly more consistent than with the OnePlus 8T, it’s still not quite enough to match up to the top smartphone cameras in the space. You get a 48-megapixel main sensor here along with a 50-megapixel ultra-wide sensor, and a 2-megapixel monochrome sensor to enhance black-and-white shots. Do you need a monochrome sensor? Probably not. A telephoto zoom lens, like on the Galaxy S21, would have been significantly more useful on a much more regular basis.

Well-lit shots when using the main sensor are routinely stellar, capturing a lot of detail and pretty well-judged color. The ultra-wide camera turns out darker shots with a bit less overall crispness, but they’re typically solid. But even with these new sensors and Hasselblad’s imaging smarts, the OnePlus 9 still struggles in lower-light scenarios and can misread the lighting in trickier shots, particularly indoors.

OnePlus 9

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

I have a camera roll full of indoor shots that are either unexpectedly dark, oddly soft, or somewhere in between. They’re mostly serviceable shots, but in head-to-head shooting against the Galaxy S21, Samsung’s sensor captures much more detail in low-light scenes and more ably contends with lighting in most scenarios. Even when using the night shooting mode, the S21 better illuminates scenes while the OnePlus 9 sometimes blows out lights pointed at the phone.

I don’t feel very confident that I can get a great shot in all scenarios with this phone.

It’s a small step in the right direction, but considering the gradual gains shown by other recent flagship phones, it doesn’t really feel like the OnePlus 9 made up much ground. Here’s hoping that software updates can smooth out the processing and increase the consistency because as of now, I don’t feel very confident that I can get a great shot in all scenarios with this phone.

Battery: Warp Charging is marvelous

The OnePlus 9 has a total 4,500mAh battery capacity split between two smaller cells, and it’s enough power to provide a heavy day’s usage. On a typical day, I’d finish with 40 percent or more of a charge remaining. That means that you’ll have plenty of breathing room on days where you lean on the battery more for playing games or using the GPS.

Even more impressively, the OnePlus 9 offers incredibly fast 65W wired fast charging, which is five times the charging rate of the Galaxy S21. The proof is in the pudding: I charged the OnePlus 9 from 0 percent to full in just 31 minutes. That’s incredible. And the first 20 percent of that came in just 5 minutes, which means you can get a solid top-up in a hurry before leaving home or the office.

OnePlus 9

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Thankfully, OnePlus includes the necessary Warp Charger, breaking from the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21-led trend of leaving the power brick out of the box. Between the dramatically faster charging speed and included wall charger, it’s an appreciated focus that makes me reconsider the weight of some of the omissions elsewhere in the overall OnePlus 9 value equation.

The OnePlus 9 also adds 15W wireless charging, which is faster than either the iPhone 12 or Galaxy S21 can handle on a compatible Qi charger (the iPhone 12 only hits 15W using Apple’s own MagSafe Charger).

Wireless charging is great for conveniently sipping power throughout the day, although it’s significantly slower than the wired option here. There’s also “reverse” wireless charging that lets you place other devices—such as wirelessly chargeable phones or accessories—on the back of the OnePlus 9 to share your battery charge with them.

Software: Oxygen is refreshing

The OnePlus 9 runs the latest and greatest Android 11 with the maker’s own OxygenOS skin on top of it. OxygenOS looks less like Google’s stock Android skin than in the past and a bit more akin now to Samsung’s take on Android, but it remains fluid and attractive throughout, with plenty of options for customization.

OnePlus hasn’t confirmed how many future upgrades will come to the OnePlus 9, but it’s likely to see Android 12 and 13 in time. Hopefully, OnePlus will make the same kind of three-year commitment to upgrades that Google and Samsung have.

Price: Less cash, but trade-offs

At $729, the OnePlus 9 is $20 cheaper than its predecessor, although it has half the storage and a plastic frame as apparent trade-offs—but it adds wireless charging. More importantly, if you’re looking at flagship-level phones right now, the OnePlus 9 is $70 cheaper than the Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12.

OnePlus 9

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

On the surface, that savings might make the OnePlus 9 seem like a better value. But you’re getting less-consistent cameras and no mmWave 5G on both fronts, not to mention no water resistance rating. If you’re willing to spend $700+ on a smartphone right now, then I’d argue that it’s worth the little extra cash for better cameras, water resistance, and wider 5G support. But the OnePlus 9T has its own unique perks, particularly with that incredibly fast 65W wired charging and long-lasting battery. What’s most important to you?

OnePlus 9 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Both the OnePlus 9 and Galaxy S21 have 120Hz Full HD screens and speedy performance thanks to the Snapdragon 888 chip within, but there are other advantages in both directions. The Galaxy S21 takes better photos in lower-light conditions and more consistent shots overall, plus it has a telephoto camera for crisper zoom shots. It also supports ultra-fast mmWave 5G where coverage is available and has an IP68 water resistance rating.

OnePlus 9

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

On the other hand, the OnePlus 9’s battery lasts longer and recharges in a hurry thanks to the 65W charger—which is included, while the Galaxy S21 has no wall charger in the box. All of these benefits are noteworthy, but I’d argue that the S21 has more of them in its direction. As someone who takes a lot of photos with my phone, I’d rather carry the Galaxy S21 for that reason above all. But if you don’t care as much about getting pristine shots in most scenarios, then the OnePlus 9 might seem like a better value.

Final Verdict

It hits right, but has strong competition.

I mostly love wielding the OnePlus 9, and that’s due to its dazzling screen, impressive speed, premium design, and excellent battery life. However, it’s the myriad weaknesses and omissions that push me towards the Galaxy S21 or iPhone 12 instead. Both are slightly pricier options, but they feel like more robust, feature-complete handsets. You’ll save a little bit of cash with the OnePlus 9, but considering what’s here, I’m not convinced that it’s the better value.

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Specs

  • Product Name 9
  • Product Brand OnePlus
  • UPC 6921815615606
  • Price $729
  • Release Date March 2021
  • Weight 6.9 oz.
  • Product Dimensions 6.33 x 2.92 x 0.34 in.
  • Color Astral Black, Morning Mist
  • Warranty 1 year
  • Platform Android 11
  • Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • RAM 8GB
  • Storage 128GB
  • Camera 48/50/2MP
  • Battery Capacity 4,500mAh
  • Ports USB-C
  • Waterproof N/A
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