A good, not great, phone


There was a time not that long ago that OnePlus phones were a guaranteed excellent value. That’s no longer the case as the company has increasingly focused on flagship devices and carrier partnerships, pushing the cost of some devices over $1,000. Still, that doesn’t mean OnePlus is incapable of delivering a good value anymore. The new OnePlus 9 is only $729, which is more than two Benjamins less than the OnePlus 9 Pro. It’s even cheaper than the OnePlus 8T it replaces, which is a welcome reversal of trends.

The OnePlus 9 (or “OP9” as I’m going to frequently call it) loses some showy display features and the new primary camera sensor from the Pro variant, but the trade-offs seem worth it if you’re looking to save a little money. The OP9 still has the new Snapdragon chip, an improved ultrawide camera, faster wired charging, and wireless charging. It even compares favorably to Samsung phones like the S20 FE and S21 that cost around the same.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

Physically, the OnePlus 9 is a dead-ringer for the 8T. The two phones are the same size, and the buttons are all in roughly the same places. The camera array is in the same approximate location on the back, but the shape is different yet again. Perhaps the most notable design change, and one that will prove contentious, is the move to a plastic frame. The back panel is still glass, but the edge is plastic composited with fiberglass and treated to look a bit like metal. It doesn’t have the cool, unyielding feel of the aluminum frame on the 9 Pro, though. I’m not worried about the phone snapping in half or anything, but the plastic frame will probably show more wear if you don’t use a case.

Luckily, OnePlus has incredible first-party cases; the 8T case fit seemed a bit off, but the sandstone case I’ve used for the OP9 is superb. The back of our review unit is “Astral Black,” which is glossy on the outside with a matte layer under that. It picks up more fingerprints than the blue and purple matte glass options.

The power button is on the right, and the volume rocker is opposite that. Above the power button, you get the trademark three-position OnePlus notification slider. You can toggle between ring, vibrate, and mute without even waking up the phone. This is still a great feature, and I’m surprised no other Android OEMs have copied it. There’s no headphone jack (still), but you do get stereo speakers in the usual downward/earpiece arrangement. If you want wired audio, you’ll have to get an adapter (sold separately) and plug it into the USB-C port on the bottom. The unlocked phone I’ve been reviewing is not IP68 rated, but the version you get from T-Mobile is (we don’t believe there are any hardware differences, though).

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Occupying almost the entire front of the phone, we’ve got a 6.55-inch flat OLED screen clocking in at 1080p and 120Hz. The bezels around the screen are ever so close to symmetrical, but not quite. OnePlus went through a phase in recent years characterized by mediocre OLED panels, but that seems to be over now. Like the 8T, the OP9’s OLED looks very uniform, even at low brightness. The brightness range isn’t as impressive as a high-end Samsung phone, but it’s legible outdoors and won’t completely blind you in a dark room. It crushes blacks a touch, but even pixel-peepers should be happy with the display. There’s a hole-punch for the selfie camera in the upper left corner; it makes the status bar a little taller, but it’s not as bad as some phones.

The in-display fingerprint sensor feels a little faster than past phones, too. I no longer need to linger with my finger on the sensor so it can decide if I am who I say I am. Just a quick tap, and the phone unlocks. The days of fretting about in-display sensor speed are over, but I do take issue with the location of the sensor in the OnePlus 9. It’s just 7mm from the bottom ofthe panel, which is even a little lower than the favorites row on the home screen. By comparison, the OnePlus 8T sensor starts 26mm from the edge of the panel, and I felt like that one was in the perfect location.

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There are some odds and ends that I think warrant a quick mention, too. Not that this should affect your purchase decision, but I really like OP’s SIM tray design. It’s dual-SIM (one on each side of the tray), and cards stay put in the holder while you jam it back in there. OnePlus has usually been near the top of the heap for haptic feedback, and that continues with the OnePlus 9. The vibration is precise and tight, but not as strong as I’d like. It’s not as good as Samsung or Google, but OnePlus beats most everyone else.

This phone comes with a 65W Warp Charge plug and a C-to-C cable. The box is bereft of accessories, unless you think the SIM ejector counts (I don’t). There is no clear case like you used to get with OnePlus phones, nor is there a 3.5mm adapter. You do get a pre-applied screen protector, though.

Software, performance, and battery

The OnePlus 9 ships with Oxygen OS 11, which is Android 11 with a few tweaks. The OnePlus skin is a bit more… comprehensive than it was a few years ago, but the changes aren’t as dramatic as One UI, for example. The home screen has Google Discover, and the app drawer scrolls the right way (for the record, Samsung, that’s vertically). OnePlus builds in a handful of custom features like Parallel Apps for services that only support one account at a time and Screen Off Gestures to control the device while it’s asleep. Personally, I love being able to turn on the flashlight with a swipe. It’s no Moto chop-chop, but it’ll do.

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OnePlus phones in 2020 suffered from more bugs at launch than we were used to seeing. The OnePlus 9 seems to be in a better place, and yet, there are still a few annoying glitches. For example, Android Auto crashes about 90% of the time, and on a few occasions, the system navigation just stopped working. Most of my other software complaints are minor — the occasional jank animation, a couple of dropped calls, and delayed notifications.

The software’s in a tolerable state, but I’d like to see a bug fix shortly after launch. I trust that will happen, but what about down the line? OnePlus’ update performance is a potential worry here. It used to be among the fastest to get updates out the door, but now it’s lagging behind, sometimes skipping patch cycles entirely. Hopefully, things are better in 2021.

A high-refresh screen doesn’t do much good if the phone is too slow to render those frames. Say what you will about OP’s early growing pains, it never neglected performance, and that remains true today. OnePlus tunes its phones to feel as fast as the chip inside allows — the UI can look a little inelegant at times with the sped-up animations, but you won’t spend any time waiting on the phone. This phone runs on the latest and greatest Snapdragon 888. I’ve only used a few devices with this chip, and they’ve all been very solid performers. Based on this limited sampling, some on the AP team are concerned that the 888 might be more of a battery hog than the 865 was. My battery life with the OnePlus 9 has been above average, though. I usually see around seven hours of screen time over a day or a day and a half of reasonably intense usage. I see no reason why this phone can’t last two days on a charge with lighter usage.

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Even if the OP9 had worse battery life, it might still get my seal of approval thanks to the stupid-fast charging. Warp Charge 65T has the same 65W ceiling as last year’s phones, but it can maintain higher wattage for longer. The result is a 75% charge in about 20 minutes. I don’t even bother plugging the OnePlus 9 in at night because I know a couple of minutes on the charger is enough to get me through the day and then some. The only bummer is that Warp Charge is a proprietary standard, so additional chargers will be spendy. You also don’t get wireless Warp on this device, but 15W wireless charging support is still better than the zero watts supported by the OnePlus 8T.

Cameras

OnePlus is talking up its Hasselblad partnership, and yes, we’ve heard that before—shades of Huawei’s Leica cameras. However, OnePlus claims Hasselblad has done more than slap its branding on the back of the phone. The OnePlus 9 has a new image natural color calibration, which looks great. The images I’m getting from the OnePlus 9 have much more realistic, almost Pixel-accurate colors. There are also some design and UI tweaks to the camera app based on the Hasselblad branding deal, none of which I have strong feelings on. For example, there’s a new Pro camera mode, but I think you’ll get better results most of the time shooting on auto.

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OnePlus’ image processing still isn’t entirely to my liking, even with the new color profile. The phone over-sharpens edges and smooths over details too aggressively. Fine textures sometimes become little more than a blurry pattern, which makes cropping any of your photos a no-go, and that’s more problematic because there’s no telephoto camera. The OP9 shooter also suffers from blurriness and questionable white balance in low light.

While the OnePlus 9 didn’t get the new primary sensor from the 9 Pro, it does have the higher-resolution ultrawide. It’s an IMX766 with a 50MP resolution, and the “freeform lens” reduces distortion at the edges compared to other phones. I’ve found this sensor is more usable with close-up objects because of the low distortion. It’s also used for Super Macro mode shots, and the results are better than any dedicated macro sensor I’ve ever used—check out this dog nose.

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I am a little baffled by OnePlus’ continued inclusion of useless auxiliary sensors on its phones. The third camera sensor is monochrome, clocking in at a mere 2MP. The only photo mode that uses this sensor is at the end of the filter list—all the others use filters on the main sensor. It’s not discoverable in the slightest. I’ve taken a few fun shots with it (see above), but it’s not good enough to go out of my way. You can just apply black and white filters to regular photos taken with a better camera sensor. I would have preferred a telephoto camera instead of this, even if it bumped the price a little bit.

The biggest issue with the OnePlus 9’s cameras is a lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) for any of the sensors. Both the OnePlus 8T and the new OnePlus 9 Pro have OIS, but the OnePlus 9 has to make do with electronic stabilization. I’ve found this to be good enough when I’m standing still in good light, but the camera constantly warns me about excess shaking when I’m walking. Those shots are more likely to come out blurry, but I’ve still gotten some good ones while on the move.

Should you buy it?

Quite possibly. The OnePlus 9 nails a lot of things—it’s fast, has a great screen, charges obscenely quickly, and it’s a good value next to the 9 Pro. From the moment you pick up the OnePlus 9, it’s full-speed ahead with smooth animations and scarcely a hint of lag. I really enjoy using this phone, and I’m willing to overlook shortcomings like the middling primary camera and only kinda fast wireless charging. I love that I have basically stopped worrying about how much charge this phone has. If I find I need to step out (an admittedly uncommon occurrence these days), I know I can plug in the Warp Charger and have more than enough juice by the time I’ve put on pants and found my keys.

OnePlus has resisted smartphone industry trends and made this phone cheaper than its predecessor. With the OnePlus 9 at nearly a grand, the $729 OnePlus 9 is more appealing than the last few non-Pro devices. The lack of a telephoto camera is a bummer, but the new ultrawide sensor is impressive. It takes great macro shots and doesn’t have any detectable edge distortion. I just wish OnePlus would take a closer look at the way its processing smudges fine details. It’s the last thing that really keeps OP phones from competing with the imaging leaders.

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Left: OnePlus 9, Right: OnePlus 8T – Note the simpler branding on the OP9.

The biggest knock against the OnePlus 9 is the software situation. There are some bugs at launch, and while none of them are severe, there are more than you’d see on a modern Samsung phone. OnePlus is also getting worse at updating its phones, with missed security patches and OTAs for old phones that introduce new and innovative bugs. OnePlus needs to get this sorted out because as it stands, its promise of two years of update support doesn’t mean what it used to.

You can pre-order the phone now, and it’ll ship on March 26th. T-Mobile will have it in stores as well. The unlocked phone will work just fine on Tmo, and Verizon 5G certification is pending. AT&T? don’t hold your breath.

Buy it if…

  • You want a clean build of Android with the fastest performance possible.
  • You always forget to charge your phone until it’s too late.

Don’t buy it if…

  • You take a lot of photos.
  • You want the best and can afford to spend a little more on a flagship phone.

Where to buy


updated 9 Pro review. However, I will note that it’s ridiculous that more than a month after launch you still cannot get the base model phone. All we’ve got is the $1,069 version with upgraded RAM and storage. That’s more expensive than the Galaxy S21+, which is not a good place for OnePlus to be. I just don’t think you can justify buying the 9 Pro right now.

So what about the OnePlus 9? This feels like the only phone OnePlus should have released this cycle. It’s not an incredible deal, but it has a niche at $729. You get most of the same specs as the 9 Pro like the Snapdragon 888, 65W Warp Charge, and a pretty good 120Hz display. The OnePlus 9 also gets much better battery life than the 9 Pro, which continues to be mediocre. The OnePlus 9 makes it through a day and then some, and I still love the high charging speed. This is the one undeniable advantage it has over Samsung devices.

The animations on OnePlus phones are a bit hurried compared to most other Android devices, but let me tell you, this phone still feels fast, even after extended use and cluttering it up with apps. Even flipping through multiple apps with background services filling up RAM, the OnePlus 9 keeps pace with me. OnePlus has taken some heat for its aggressive background app management, but I haven’t seen as many problems this time around. I did turn off the advanced “Optimize app power consumption” setting, so give that a shot if you’re seeing apps vanishing in the background. Regardless, there are still a number of bugs in the software, even after a post-launch OTA. For example, some apps have weird dark mode glitches if they’re open when you switch themes.

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OnePlus cases feel like part of the phone.

This phone has a plastic frame instead of aluminum, but that hasn’t bothered me because I almost never touch it. I prefer to use this phone with one of the first-party cases, which are fantastic. The sandstone case I’ve got fits like a glove—it really feels like part of the phone, and I still love that texture. I wish OnePlus would just make phones out of it again.

The OnePlus 9 didn’t get the upgraded primary camera sensor from the 9 Pro, but I don’t think that matters very much. Ryne has not been impressed with the 9 Pro’s camera performance, even with that hardware bump. I’m not blown away by what the OP9 does, either, but at least it’s cheaper. It can snap a good photo outdoors, but most of my indoor shots are passable at best. It’s gotten to the point that I can correctly predict whether or not the OP9 is going to do a photo justice before I even take it. If the light is at all challenging (eg. backlit and dim settings), I try to take a bunch of shots because I know most of them aren’t going to turn out. The lack of consistency is a problem.

If you’re looking to spend less than standard flagship money on a new phone but budget offerings aren’t powerful enough, the OnePlus 9 is a good choice… for the moment. It’s in the same pricing neighborhood as last year’s Galaxy S20 FE. Depending on what you’re after in a phone, the OnePlus 9 might be worth buying over the S20 FE. However, Samsung is probably going to release a Galaxy S21 FE in late summer that could steal the show.

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