OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro Review: Hardware over everything

There’s a lot to love here, but will Canadians finally start noticing OnePlus?

The Pros

  • Hasselblad helps the camera compete for the crown
  • 120 Hz screens are nice
  • Solid build quality
  • Fastest charge in the west

The Cons

  • Oxygen OS is a little buggier than competitors
  • Camera is sometimes inconsistent
  • Glossy back is a dust and fingerprint magnet
  • OnePlus 9 isn't waterproof

OnePlus has come a long way since its flagship killer smartphones — now it just releases killer phones, period.

As near perfect as the OnePlus 9’s hardware is, its buggy software and OnePlus’ recently slow update track record diminish what should be a perfect experience. It’s also important to point out the fact that you can’t subsidize the smartphone’s cost through a carrier in Canada, which keeps the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro far from cheap and far from consumers’ eyes here.

If you don’t care about the above issues, there’s a ton of performance to be squeezed out of this year’s camera thanks to OnePlus’ new Hasselblad partnership. And on top of that, the phenomenal screen, quick charging battery and the modern Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset places the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro squarely in the top tier of mobile devices.

I’m of two minds when it comes to this year’s OnePlus flagships. Since the price is so high, I can’t really see myself shelling out the cash for one in Canada when I could subsidize another great device with better software support from a carrier.

Having said that, my more nerdy and less fiscally responsible side loves the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro for their top-of-the-line specs, powerful chips and killer cameras.


What sets them apart

While both the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro share many of the same internals, there are some differences between the two devices.

At first glance, you can clearly see that the OnePlus 9 is slightly shorter than the 9 Pro and has a flat display. The 9 Pro’s screen features slightly tapered edges like the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro. However, the company reduced the curve significantly compared to the 8 Pro and so far, I haven’t had any accidental touches like with the older phone.

The display size isn’t the only difference either. The 9 Pro features a new LTPO display panel that allows it to alter its refresh rate dynamically depending on what you’re doing. This lets the phone’s screen shift down to 1Hz when it’s displaying a static image and back up to 120Hz for gaming. OnePlus says this cuts the screen’s power consumption by half, but in my use, I didn’t feel like it had a substantially longer battery than the OnePlus 9. This cutting-edge phone screen tech is also featured in high-end Samsung flagships and newer Apple watches.

The OnePlus 9 includes a fluid 120Hz display, that can bump down to 60Hz in some instances, but it doesn’t feature an LTPO panel so, in theory, it uses more power. To my eyes, it’s still a decent display and can be quite punchy. The OnePlus 9 Pro has a wider colour gamut when you compare the phones side-by-side, but each device features a great screen.

On the back, the two devices are separated by their camera setups. Each phone has the same 50-megapixel ultra-wide lens that uses the Sony IMX766 sensor. The main camera on the 9 Pro is a 48-megapixel Sony IMX789 while the OnePlus 9 has the 48-megapixel IMX689 sensor that’s also in the OnePlus 8 Pro.

“…Both the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro take excellent shots, which I’ll get more into later”

Both phones also have a monochrome camera, but the 9 Pro has a better rear microphone, a laser autofocus system plus a 3.3x zoom lens.

That being said, both the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro take excellent shots, which I’ll get more into later.

Inside, the devices are very similar and feature a Snapdragon 888 chipset, 5G support, fast UFS 1 storage and LPDDR5 RAM specs.

The final distinction is how fast each phone can wirelessly charge. The 9 Pro can charge with a special OnePlus wireless charger at 50-watt speeds. The OnePlus 9, on the other hand, is only capable of 15 watts when charging wirelessly.

Hasselblad helps

The real star of the OnePlus 9 series and the 9 Pro specifically is the revamped camera. For years, OnePlus has fallen outside of the main camera showdown between Google, Apple and Samsung. That tide started to turn last year with the OnePlus 8 Pro and 8T, and the company may have taken the top spot this year.

For at least the next three years, Hasselblad is partnering with OnePlus to “revolutionize” the mobile camera system included in the company’s smartphones. If you’re unfamiliar with Hasselblad, it’s a high-end Swedish camera company that notable for building the cameras used on the moon. In modern days it’s still popular, so this move is similar to Huawei working with Leica and Nokia with Zeiss.

So far, this partnership has resulted in several software tweaks related to the phones’ colour science so they better match the output you’d expect from a Hasselblad camera. However, this hasn’t fixed the OnePlus issue where all three lenses have slightly different colour profiles. It’s better than previous years, but still not perfect, with wide-angle pictures appearing slightly more washed out.

You’ll notice the camera interface also uses the signature Hasselblad orange and has the same shutter sound now too.

As part of the Hasselblad partnership, OnePlus has also revamped how its wide-angle lenses work to eliminate the fish-eye effect. This works great and you can only notice the slightest warping, but compared to other smartphones, it’s leagues ahead. This takes the fish-eye camera from a funky camera effect to a more usable shooter, and time will tell if consumers actually want that or if they just liked the fun look.

OnePlus 9 Pro gallery

You can look at all the 9 Pro samples images in their full resolution here. 

The OnePlus 9 Pro also features a decent 3.3x optical zoom lens, but once you start zooming in beyond that, the picture quality degrades. Even at 3.3x zoom, the picture isn’t as sharp as the main or ultra-wide lenses, but I’m still glad OnePlus included it since having a zoom is very handy.

Where the 9 Pro really shines is the main lens. The colours are punchy and even the reds maintain a bit of that signature Hasselblad pop. While the quality still looks like a smartphone camera, the amount of detail it gathers in most instances, even compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, is a step up for phone photography. It didn’t outperform the iPhone in every circumstance since I found colours to be less consistent. But when it hits, it really hits.

The OnePlus 9 features a decent main lens as well, but when you compare it to the 9 Pro, it seems more average in most regards. I still trust it to be my daily shooter since it’s a solid camera, but I’d always opt for the 9 Pro over it every time.

I found the ‘Portrait’ mode and ‘Nightscape’ are pretty hit and miss on both phones. In some circumstances, the devices performed well, but they struggled with colour and realistic bokeh in others. Both modes are handy to have, but they still need some work.

Both phones can shoot 12-bit RAW images, allowing you to capture as much colour and photo data as possible from a smartphone image. Apple’s new ProRaw format and Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra also shoot at this level. If you really care about colour, you’ll get a bit more control if you shoot in RAW.

Both major improvements (12-bit RAWs, non-warped ultrawide) to the camera seem geared more towards professionals rather than consumers. The photography nerd in me loves all the high-end specs, but I don’t really see anyone using a handset for professional photography anytime soon.

OnePlus 9 gallery

You can look at all the OnePlus 9 samples images in their full resolution here. 

I like that OnePlus is able to leverage Hasselblad’s expertise, and there’s no denying these are great phone cameras with fantastic colour science behind them. But until smartphones can come closer to interchangeable lens cameras in overall quality, I’m unsure how much effort needs to be placed into pushing ‘pro’ features to camera phones.

Overall, both the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro offer solid mobile camera performance, but smartphone cameras have plateaued over the past few years. So while the new features are exciting if you’re a photography nerd, they don’t add much to the overall experience for most people beyond some punchy reds and a fantastic ultra-wide shooter.

To see how the 9 Pro stacks up against an iPhone 12 Pro check out this comparison.

Ultra-Fast charging is underrated

OnePlus is pushing fast charging boundaries in the west once again with the OnePlus 9 Series. Both phones can top up with their included Warp Charge 65t chargers to 100 percent in 29 minutes, absolutely blowing any competition out of the water.

The 9 Pro can even Warp Charge on last year’s or on the new OnePlus wireless charger. It can only do 30-watt charging on the old charger, but the new one is capable of delivering power with a 50-watt connection. This means that if you have the OnePlus wireless charger, you can top up your phone faster than most wired chargers from other manufacturers.

The new OnePlus wireless charger even works when a phone is in landscape, making it a lot easier to watch videos without draining your battery. The wireless charger costs $100 in Canada, so I’m not sure it’s worth it since you can warp charge in 29 minutes with the cable included in the box for free, which in today’s smartphone world, is a great bonus.

OnePlus is able to achieve these impressive charging speed speeds by utilizing two 2,250mAh batteries in each phone that can both be charged at the same time — instead of filling one giant battery, the charger only needs to charge two small ones.

“Overall, the OnePlus 9 Pro feels like a premium device, but in 2021 when almost all phones feel premium, it’s getting harder for OnePlus to stand meaningfully apart in Canada”

Once the battery is fully charged, I’ve been able to easily get more than a day out of each device. I didn’t find the standby time overly impressive. The battery dropped the same amount regardless of how often I’m using the smartphones when I’m running the QHD+ resolution and the 120fps refresh rate. When using the FHD+ and the 60fps mode, I’m able to squeeze around 30 hours out of the phone with heavy use.

Gaming phones without being gaming phones

What’s the secret number one use case for a OnePlus phone? I think it might be Android gaming. Hear me out; other companies keep selling gaming phones for a reason right? There must be an Android gaming market and I think that the best Android gaming phone is actually the OnePlus 9 Pro.

Starting with the obvious, the company’s phones have a solid haptic engine, a large 120Hz screen and a really solid heat dispersion system to deal with its fast charging and high RAM usage. All of those are great features for mobile gaming.

Beyond that, the battery is huge and since you can top it up in 29 minutes, you never really need to be away from your games for that long.

OnePlus also has a stellar gaming mode that blocks notifications, boosts vibrations and focuses performance on your games.

The only real issue here is the price. You can get a smartphone with comparable specs for a little less as long as you don’t mind your device looking like a gamer phone like the RedMagic 5s. If you’re a big Android gamer and really like taking photos with your phone, the OnePlus 9 series, and specifically, the OnePlus 9 Pro is the best bet to satisfy both those needs.

Who is the 9 Pro for?

OnePlus’ top-of-the-line phone is for techies through and through. If you want a taste of all the best tech that can be packed into a phone, you should try out the 9 Pro. There’s a lot to love here if you care about phone specs, camera tech and want a large form factor handset.

For the most part, this phone lives up to expectations. However, in the past, I’ve experienced numerous bugs with OnePlus phones, and even now, I have to restart the two review units OnePlus sent me far more often than I’d like. If you value software updates, that’s also something that might prove tricky with OnePlus. The company has been incredibly slow rolling out Oxygen OS 11 to the OnePlus 7 series, which was only a year old when Oxygen OS 11 launched. The updates will come, but the days of OnePlus phones getting speedy software releases day and date with Pixel devices are gone.

Most of the time when I use the 9 Pro as my day-to-day device, it works well and I love having access to its slick camera and great screen. That said, I’m not tied to them in any way and I think users could get more value out of other smartphones on the market that are likely to get updates faster, can be subsidized through a carrier and have comparable camera performance.

Overall, the OnePlus 9 Pro feels like a premium device, but in 2021 when almost all phones feel premium, it’s getting harder for OnePlus to stand meaningfully apart in Canada. If this phone could be bought through a carrier, it would be a no-brainer for a lot of people, but I think it’s a harder sell since it can’t be.

The OnePlus 9 Pro starts at $1,349 CAD for the 8GB RAM model with 128GB of storage. The version with 256GB of storage and 12GB of RAM costs $1,499. The 9 Pro comes in ‘Morning Mist’ and ‘Pine Green’ in Canada.

Is the OnePlus 9 for me then?

I’m not sure who the OnePlus 9 is for in the context of the Canadian market. To me, I feel like regular users aren’t buying these phones since they’re not sold through any Canadian carriers.

If you’re a OnePlus fan who can only wrangle up $1,000, the OnePlus 9 is a really great phone, but it’s lacking many stand-out features that I assume OnePlus fans are looking for.

The OnePlus 9 camera is really stellar, and wireless charging is nice, but for this price and how good the OnePlus 8T and 8 are, you might as well opt for last year’s phone since you’ll save $200 to $300. This device is even the same size as those and has the same flat display as the 8T.

After the success and the hype of the OnePlus Nord (the good one, not the N10 or N100) I’m surprised to see OnePlus release two flagship-level phones, instead of a flagship and something more mid-range. Seriously I think the OnePlus 9R would do well in this market.

I think that the 9 Pro is likely the phone that’s going to satisfy OnePlus fans, but it would have been great to see a device geared at the mass market. I don’t want to hate on OnePlus that much since it’s a miracle in some sense that the company even sells phones here, but I just wish it paid a little more attention to the Canadian market or at least partnered with one carrier to make these phones more accessible to Canadians.

The OnePlus 9 starts with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage for $999. The version with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage costs $1,149. You can buy it in either ‘Astral Black’ or ‘Winter Mist.’

You can buy both phones from the OnePlus website.

"OnePlus fans should look at the 9 Pro, but unless you really really care about camera specs the price might be hard to swallow."