There was once a time when new smartphones felt exciting to the public, whether it was because of enhanced touchscreen displays, dual cameras, or tall and slim form factors. But nowadays, it feels like manufacturers are packing in as many unnecessary features as possible to distract consumers from what are really just incremental improvements.
Rather than follow suit, Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus has decided to shift focus and radically improve upon just one feature for its OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro: imaging. And, in the process, it may just have reignited our passion for phones all over again.
Thanks to early (and very controlled) leaks from the OnePlus Twitter account, you may be aware that its latest flagships were developed in partnership with Swedish camera company Hasselblad.
Sure, Hasselblad may have made a name for itself by partnering with NASA in the past, but OnePlus isn’t planning on sending its 9 and 9 Pro to space (although, that would be kinda cool). Instead, it’s on a mission to set a new standard for smartphone cameras here on planet Earth, incorporating Hasselblad’s natural image processing into its 9-series phones in an effort to produce true-to-life shots.
Improved edge-to-edge display • 120Hz refresh rate • All-day battery life • Wireless charging on both models • Charging brick included in the box
Pricey for OnePlus • 5G connectivity varies • Nightscape portrait photos need improvement
The OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro are the company’s most expensive phones yet, but significant improvements in camera quality make them an easy sell.
That’s a very tall order and one that’ll definitely trickle down, hitting consumers’ wallets. Which is why OnePlus has yet again increased the price of its flagships. The 6.5-inch OnePlus 9 starts at $729 and the 6.7-inch OnePlus 9 Pro starts at $969, making these the company’s most expensive phones to date. Pre-orders for both will go live on March 26.
For the price, you also get additional features like a 120Hz display, 5G connectivity, wireless charging, and the promise of all-day battery life. But since those were also included in last year’s models, we already know they work well.
The question remains: By doubling down on image processing, did OnePlus succeed where other phone makers and their bloated flagships have stumbled? Let’s find out.
Out with the old and in with the new
Aside from the logo stamped on the back of the phone, the one element that has always defined a OnePlus device is its pill-shaped camera module. But with the 9 and 9 Pro, that design is no more.
Much like it did with 2020’s OnePlus 8T, the company has again gone with a more traditional rectangular shape to hold its sensors. It’s a common design choice that we see on most modern smartphones nowadays.
And yes, I’m sad about it because it makes the phones look somewhat nondescript. I would’ve preferred it if OnePlus had attempted to get a bit more creative with the module — similar to how Samsung redesigned its S21 line by integrating its lenses into a metal frame.
On the bright side, the camera bump isn’t as obtrusive on the 9 and 9 Pro, and it doesn’t get in the way of your fingers when you’re holding the phone.
To be fair, there was a valid reason behind this design change. Like the 8T, the 9 and 9 Pro have two batteries and two wireless charging coils underneath their backs, so the camera module had to be moved in order to fully optimize the batteries and wireless charging capabilities.
The rest of the phones’ design remains the same as previous models. On the front is an edge-to-edge display with a 16-megapixel hole-punch selfie camera. On the left side of the phone is a volume rocker, while the right features an alert slider (to set your phone to ring, vibrate or silent) with a power button underneath it. The bottom of the phone has a USB-C port, dual nano-SIM card slot, and dual speakers.
All OnePlus 9 Pro devices are IP68 certified, meaning the phones are dust- and water-resistant, and can also be submerged in 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. The OnePlus 9, on the other hand, will only come with that certification on devices sold through T-Mobile.
Color options for the phones will vary depending on the model and configuration:
OnePlus 9 (8GB/128GB): Astral Black or Winter Mist
OnePlus 9 (12GB/256GB): Astral Black or Winter Mist
OnePlus 9 Pro (8GB/128GB): Morning Mist
OnePlus 9 Pro (12GB/256GB): Morning Mist or Pine Green
As for my review units, the company sent me the OnePlus 9 in Astral Black and the 9 Pro in Morning Mist. There’s not much to rave about with the black OnePlus 9 — it’s subtle and doesn’t really look all that special. Morning Mist makes more of an impression. It has a shiny mirrored finish and its edges gradually shift from silver to black depending on how the light hits it.
But the 9 Pro is a fingerprint magnet and I often found myself wiping the back of it on my shirt. I would’ve much preferred the Pine Green model, which has a double layer matte finish that’s supposedly resistant to those gross smudges.
Finally, no more accidental touches
Aside from pricing and cameras, the display is one of the biggest difference between the OnePlus 9 and the 9 Pro.
The 9 features a full HD 6.55-inch display (513 ppi) with a flat panel versus the curved display found on the 9 Pro. You also have the option to manually choose between a 60Hz or 120Hz refresh rate. I’d say it’s the better option for those with smaller hands because its size provides a more comfortable grip.
The 9 Pro has a larger 6.7-inch Quad HD+ AMOLED display (525ppi) with HDR10+ certification and a dual curved panel as seen on the OnePlus 8 Pro. But this time around, the curves are a lot less pronounced — a decision made as a result of last year’s feedback (mine included) regarding annoying accidental app launches.
Thankfully, with the 9 Pro, there’s more of a “micro” curve, which is certainly an improvement. Even with my small hands, I was able to comfortably scroll and navigate apps like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram one-handed without accidentally hitting other tabs or buttons.
The 9 Pro also has an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate. So rather than simply choosing between 60Hz and 120Hz, it alters the refresh rate based on what you’re viewing. If you’re looking at a static image, it’ll drop down to 1Hz and then ramp back up to 120Hz if you’re scrolling through social media or playing a mobile game. According to OnePlus, the adaptive refresh rate uses up to 50 percent less power, so it helps preserve battery life.
Those who use their phones for mobile gaming might also lean more towards the 9 Pro for its “hyper touch” feature, which reduces latency by 25 to 30 milliseconds. At launch, it’ll be supported by four mobile games including Call of Duty, PubG, Brawl Stars, and League of Legends: Wild Rift, with more titles being added throughout the year.
Speedy performance and great battery life
Under the hood, the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro are powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chipset and offer 5G connectivity. The 9 Pro supports mmWave and sub-6 speeds, while the 9 only supports the latter.
But 5G connectivity is currently only available through T-Mobile’s network. If you’re using the 9 and 9 Pro on AT&T or Verizon, it’ll only run on 4G LTE as of right now.
Both phones pack 4,500mAh batteries and support OnePlus’ new Warp charge 65T, which enables the phones to charge from zero to 100 percent in 29 minutes.
This sort of tracked with my own testing. After plugging the OnePlus 9 in at 13 percent, it only took about a half hour for it to reach 96 percent. When I plugged in the 9 Pro at 37 percent, it took the same amount of time to reach a full charge.
I used the 9 Pro as my primary phone throughout the last couple of weeks and found that I could squeeze a full day’s worth of battery, and then some, out of it. As I’ve been saying with every phone review since the pandemic started, it’s a bit tough for me to fully push the boundaries of battery life because I’m always home and on my laptop rather than staring at my phone.
After using it throughout the day to scroll through social media and answer messages, I still had about 50 percent battery left by midnight. And even when I took it out to shoot photos during the day and night, I still had about the same amount left. Of course, that’ll vary depending on your own personal usage. Regardless, between the dual batteries and fast charging capability, you’ll rarely have to worry about battery life.
While the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro come equipped with a 65W charging brick, you can also purchase its new Warp Charge 50 wireless charging stand for $70. It can charge the phones from 1 to 100 percent in 43 minutes.
Yes, these cameras actually deliver
Before we get into all the details about how Hasselblad has helped to improve the OnePlus camera systems, let’s talk about the sensors on the back.
The OnePlus 9 Pro has a quad-camera setup that includes:
a 48-megapixel main lens with f/1.8 aperture
a 50-megapixel ultra-wide angle lens with f/2.2 aperture
an 8-megapixel telephoto lens with f/2.4 aperture
a 2-megapixel macro lens
The OnePlus 9 has a triple-camera setup that includes similar cameras as the Pro, but there are a few differences to note. For starters, the 9 doesn’t have a telephoto lens. So that really only impacts how far you can zoom in on a subject. Without that telephoto lens, the 9 can only zoom in up to 2x optically and 10x digitally. Meanwhile, the 9 Pro has a 3x optical zoom and 30x digital zoom.
And while both phones share the same megapixel count, they each use slightly different sensors. The 9 uses a Sony IMX 689 48-megapixel sensor, while the 9 Pro uses a more updated Sony IMX 789 48-megapixel sensor. What that means is that the 9 Pro collects more color than the 9, resulting in more detailed photos.
Another difference to note is that the 9 Pro features digital overlay HDR (DOL-HDR) for shooting video. It captures images simultaneously and then overlays them to capture a lot more detail in the background. Whether that’s a shadow on your subject, or specific colors, the feature makes it easier to pick up on those details. Both phones are also capable of shooting footage at up to 8k (at 30 frames per second).
Now, back to that Hasselblad partnership I mentioned before…
Essentially, OnePlus collaborated with Hasselblad to create what’s called “natural color calibration.” Basically, this means the phone is supposed to produce images that are both natural and rich in color.
OnePlus only focused on improving its camera software — mainly color tuning and sensor calibration — with the help of Hasselblad. Over the next two years, however, this partnership will eventually evolve and produce hardware improvements such as custom lenses.
In an effort to see whether or not OnePlus really did put in as much work on its color science as it claims, I mainly compared it to last year’s OnePlus 8 Pro. And, well, I can easily say the company wasn’t bluffing — the proof is in the photos.
Based on the software changes alone, I was super impressed with the images I took using the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro. Not only did the cameras capture colors accurately, but they consistently produced photos that looked a lot more balanced. Rather than blowing out the saturation on the subject, as OnePlus did with the 8 Pro’s cameras, it evenly and subtly applied it throughout the 9 and 9 Pro’s photos without going overboard.
Below are samples I took with only the OnePlus 9 Pro. So this is a reflection solely of the 9 Pro’s image processing. That said, shots taken with the OnePlus 9 shouldn’t be drastically different aside from producing slightly warmer color temperatures and somewhat reduced dynamic range. But the 9 Pro is the better option of the two, if you want those higher quality shots.
Do I even need to explain this one? I mean, just look at the difference in the redness of the chair. On the 8 Pro it looks super saturated and also loses a lot of its detail. On the 9 Pro, the chair is more muted and you can clearly see how worn the velvet material is.
The gold tones are also a lot more punchy on the photo taken with the 8 Pro. While its vibrancy might make more of an impact at first glance, it looks as though it’s been heavily edited.
The 9 Pro also nailed the cooler color temperature here. Since the photo was taken in a very low-lit room, the warmer tones on the 8 Pro don’t accurately portray the mood of the environment.
Here’s more evidence of that obvious difference in saturation.
Color temperature was, yet again, also a lot more accurate on the 9 Pro. Since I was sitting under a roof, with the sun blocked off, the lighting was darker with more shade. On the 8 Pro, the scene looks a lot brighter as though I had the help of natural light above me.
The difference between these two photos isn’t as drastic as the previous images. The main thing to point out here is the color of my yellow jacket. The 9 Pro does a better job at capturing the exact yellow shade, while the 8 Pro enhances it.
There are also a few differences that are easy to spot when looking at the ice cream. The waffle and the sprinkles look a lot sharper on the 8 Pro.
I was super impressed with Portrait mode on the OnePlus 9 Pro in daylight. The tone and smoothness of my skin looks the most normal on the 9 Pro as compared to the 8 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21. On the 8 Pro, it looks weirdly gray and blotchy, while the S21 Ultra makes it look magenta.
As for the rest of the photo, I think the 9 Pro does the best job at separating the subject from the rest of the scene, meticulously capturing depth and accurately adding blur where it needs to be.
However, I can’t say the same for Portrait mode photos taken at night on the 9 Pro because this is an area where it certainly falters. While it was able to separate the subject from the background, it struggled with the shadow of my white mask. The smiley faces look as though they’re under a blacklight.
That said, OnePlus did improve on it since last year. The photo on the left is awful in comparison — it doesn’t even look like it’s taken in Portrait mode (which, I promise it was). The S21 Ultra definitely came out strong here as it was able to produce a really clear image, mask included.
As for standard Nightscape photos, the OnePlus 9 Pro does a good job, especially over the 8 Pro and the S21 Ultra. While the 8 Pro loses detail in the shadows (such as the black windows and the gray awning), the 9 Pro manages to retain it so it looks a lot more sharp and clear.
The 9 Pro also handles the lightbulbs a lot better than both the 8 Pro and the S21 Ultra. There’s a lot less flare that makes the photo look less harsh and far easier on the eye.
All three of these photos were also taken using the ultra-wide angle lens. With the 9 Pro, OnePlus says it’s improved distortion on photos taken with the ultra-wide angle sensor (down to 1 percent, to be exact). So, rather than that fish-eye lens look, it’s supposed to “perfectly capture straight lines” near the edges of the frame.
But after taking tons of ultra-wide angle photos, I really couldn’t see a difference between the straight lines on any of these photos.
Here’s another example taken with the 9 Pro and the Galaxy S21 below:
To give it a fair chance, I took photos of a building with straight lines near the edges of the frame.
Again, I don’t see a difference in distortion between the two. At least, not enough for OnePlus to be touting the capability. If anything, the longer I stare at these two photos, the more the S21 Ultra shot actually looks straighter.
I also tested digital zoom on the 9 Pro against the S21 Ultra, given Samsung’s improvements to its zoom capabilities this year. Even though the S21 is a lot sharper, the 9 Pro still produced an impressive shot.
And, lastly, for those of you leaning more towards the OnePlus 9 than 9 Pro, here’s a sample of the Pro’s 2-megapixel macro lens.
As for improvements from last year’s model, the 9 Pro definitely produces a more detailed shot. The 8 Pro looks a lot more overexposed in how saturated the color is, which leads to a much flatter image.
These OnePlus flagships live up to the hype
The OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro aren’t the most exciting smartphones — neither of the two have insanely large camera sensors, huge displays, or crazy zoom capabilities. But that’s totally fine. Rather than injecting the phones with mediocre features, the company chose to laser focus on perfecting image quality.
Sure, the 9 Pro doesn’t produce jaw-dropping shots, but it does live up to its promises in terms of natural color calibration. There were moments where I was genuinely shocked at how accurately it managed to capture colors and tones of subjects. And while there are things that could still use some work, like low-light portrait mode photos and its ultra-wide angle distortion, there’s no denying it’s a drastic improvement from the OnePlus 8 Pro.
Which brings me to my next point: If you’re looking to upgrade from last year’s model or the ones before it, then both the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro are worthy investments so long as you take plenty of photos. I also prefer them to the Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra, particularly because the colors don’t appear as sharp or oversaturated.
In addition to offering essential features like fast charging, a high refresh rate, and long battery life, the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro deliver balanced shots you can upload unedited to social media. It’s the ideal smartphone for those of us who can’t be bothered with opening a photo-editing app.