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(Pocket-lint) - It's safe to say OnePlus has been on something of a journey over the past few years. It lifted itself out of that initial "plucky upstart" role and started to become a real smartphone company. 

It's gone from being a company that launched one or two new phones a year to launching six phones in 2020, with varying specs and at different price tiers. It also means that it's lost a bit of what made it special as it becomes part of the machine it was originally fighting against. 

In 2021 that glut looks set to continue - and it starts with the OnePlus 9.

Design

  • Dimensions: 160 x 74.2 x 8.7mm / Weight: 192 grams
  • Finish options: Winter Mist, Arctic Sky, Astral Black
  • 3D Corning Gorilla Glass back
  • Dual stereo speakers

Look at the camera housing and you'll see an evolution of design when you compare the OnePlus 9 to its most recent predecessors: the OnePlus 8T and OnePlus 8. The 9's two main cameras have very deliberate metallic ring around them, while the camera housing has been designed to colour-match the rest of the phone's rear panel. 

It's a classy and minimalist look, now with the addition of a Hasselblad logo. Because, yep, OnePlus is all about a camera partnership with this new series.

It's in the rest of the build where we've seen OnePlus move backwards compared to its previous models though. The 9's frame is made from a similar shiny plastic to what we first saw on the OnePlus Nord. Or, as OnePlus calls it: "fibreglass infused polymer". Thankfully, the back is covered in Corning Gorilla Glass for protection.

It's not the slimmest or lightest phone around either, certainly feeling thicker than previous models, but that's almost certainly down to the move towards a flat screen. Rather than have those curved edges on both sides of the phone, it only has them on one side, so you lose that more sleek effect. 

This appears to be the approach taken by OnePlus this year though. Compared to its sibling company, Oppo, the OnePlus 9 is noticeably thicker and wider in the hand than the Find X3 Neo, despite featuring very similar specifications. 

Of course, there are real benefits to having a flatter screen. There's very little chance you'll suffer from accidental touches, because it doesn't curve around the edges, so that makes the phone a bit easier to use. 

Using it as a primary phone day-to-day, that flat screen is unfussy and easy to type on two-handed when smashing out messages. So while the phone isn't the most compact around, its build and design does help it feel like a phone that easily slots into your life and becomes a tool you don't really have to worry about all that much. 

Buttons and ports are sensibly placed too, with all the buttons within easy thumb reach up the left and right side of the phone. One of those, on the right, is the alert slider which is arguably one of the best features of OnePlus phones. A simple push or pull on the slider switch will put your phone into silent, vibrate or ring modes. So much easier than trying to find an option in the menu somewhere. 

It has stereo speakers too, which are decent enough when watching movies. You get good channel seperation when watching movies and TV shows. However, as is the case for a lot of modern phones, the loudspeaker on the bottom edge is the more powerful of the two, so if you cover it while gaming, the sound becomes quieter and tinnier.  

Our own review unit is the Winter Mist model, which has a light purple colour, with the rear featuring a gradient refraction effect. That means the bottom part of the phone is really glossy and reflective, but the top is more frosted and gradients between these two finishes.

We think some people will like it, but we prefer the softer fully frosted look of some of the other colours. It's also a bit of a fingerprint magnet, which diminishes the overall finish effect.

Display

  • 6.55-inch AMOLED panel
    • Full HD+ resolution (2400 x 1080 pixels; 402ppi)
    • 120Hz refresh rate

OnePlus has focused on having lightweight and fast software for years. Its latest iteration of Oxygen OS is no different, and the display is primed and ready to take full advantage of that fluidity too.

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The AMOLED screen on the front of the OnePlus 9 isn't quite as sharp as that of the 9 Pro, but with a pixel density over 400 pixels-per-inch it's sharp enough for pretty much anything you could want. At arm's length it's impossible to tell individual pixels.

Of course, if you were to compare it side-by-side with the Pro set to its maximum QHD+ resolution, it does look a bit less sharp. You see it in rounded app icons and details like text on an ebook. But that's really splitting hairs here. 

Colours are really vibrant, which is great for colour-rich games and apps, but like the previous models we found the contrast was a tad too high. With the screen not set to a high brightness it begins to make colours look a bit dark and shadows too dark, giving the scene an unnatural look in its default 'Vivid' mode.

Not a major complaint, but something we noticed none the less. Besides, you can tune it to your liking as long as you have the patience to do so. Setting it to a more 'natural' callibration mutes the colours a little and reduces that contrasty look. What's more, crank the brightness up high and the issue seems to mostly vanish anyway, thanks to its 1100 nit peak brightness. 

Pocket-lintOnePlus 9 initial review: Two steps forward one step back? photo 15

With a refresh rate peak of 120Hz it doesn't struggle at all with animation speeds, it can keep up with any fast frame-rate gaming. It's smooth and fluid, responding quickly to onscreen gestures. It doesn't feature the same adaptive frame-rate tech of its bigger sibling, but that doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference to the end user experience. 

Like Apple's True Tone, there's a Comfort Tone feature that adjusts the colour temperature of the display to match your environment, which should be handy when reading ebooks on a white screen, making it seem a bit more like a paper surface.

On the whole it makes a decent canvas for OnePlus' latest iteration of Oxygen OS, which was first launched on the OnePlus 8T. The stock-like experience offered in previous years has been replaced by a more ergonomic software that puts buttons and controls in easy-to-reach places and still retains that sense of fluidity and cleanness that OnePlus is known for. 

Thankfully it still doesn't contain any duplicate or redundant apps, so things like messages and phone dialler apps are Google's own, as is the Discovery feed to the left of the home screen. 

You still get lots of customisation choices, like the ability to change the Horizon Light notification pulse colour, the fingerprint animation, plus the icon shape and style among other options. It's a great approach to software and one we think still sets it apart from the crowd although, its sister company Oppo has one-upped its customisation game and includes quite a few more options for the same customisations. 

Hardware and performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • 128GB/256GB UFS 3.1 storage
  • 8GB/12GB LPDDR5 RAM
  • 4,500mAh battery capacity
  • Warp Charge 65W charging
  • 15W Qi wireless charging 

With a top OnePlus flagship you know one thing for certain: you'll always get the latest, most powerful mobile processor. That means the Snapdragon 888 platform for the 9 series, along with suitably quick LPDDR5 RAM and UFS 3.1 storage. 

What that means in daily use is that, not only do the apps and games load quickly, but any downloads and installs will be fast too. That's helped further by 5G support, presuming you're in an area with 5G coverage, for speedy and low-latency connectivity.

All this power needs cooling for efficiency. For the OnePlus 9 there's something called the OnePlus Cool Play system. Essentially, the manufacturer has made the vapour chambers larger and added more layers of graphite and copper to dissipate heat when you're powering your most demanding games. 

Our experience with the phone matched the early expectation: this phone is very quick. Or feels it. Whether it's just down to how the animations have been tuned in the interface, the screen and touch sampling refresh, the pure power or efficient cooling, it all comes together to make one speedy device. 

Everything is effortless with the OnePlus 9. We played many, many hours of Mario Kart Tour on the OnePlus 9 and it was smooth sailing the entire time. The only thing we did notice was that the phone gets a tad warm after a stretch of time gaming in one sitting, but it never becomes uncomfortable. 

Regarding the battery and it's really the charging that sells this phone. You may remember OnePlus saying in the past that it didn't want to use wireless charging until it was as fast and convenient as its fast wired system. Well, for the non-Pro model in the OnePlus 9 family, it turns out it's forgotten all about that. 

The regular OnePlus 9 does have wireless charging, but it's not blindingly fast. Instead, it uses a fairly standard 15W Qi-compatible wireless charging. That means it's nowhere near as quick as the new Warp Charge 65T wired charging capability which can keep those 65W speeds pumping for longer and give you a full charge in under 30 minutes. 

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Thankfully, there's a 4500mAh battery inside - just like the Pro - and it comfortably got us through a full day with juice left over at the end of the day even after 3-4 hours of gaming and social media, plus music listening and camera testing.

On more moderate days it would finish the day with around 40 per cent left. Of course, this is with being home, on Wi-Fi and in a 4G area most of the time. For those using 5G, or travelling to and from work mileage will almost certainly vary.  

Cameras

  • Triple camera system with Hasselblad tuning:
    • Main: 48MP, f/1.8 aperture, Sony IMX689
    • Ultra-wide: 50MP, f/2.2, Sony IMX766
    • Mono: 2MP
  • Front-facing camera: 16MP
  • Video: 8K30p / 4K120p

OnePlus has listened to its critics over the past few years and says it's finally delivering a flagship level camera experience. That's thanks in part to its new collaboration with Hasselblad, to help tune the image processing to strict standards, ensuring your pictures should come out looking great. 

It's not just that tuning that's changed though. The regular OnePlus 9 features the same main camera sensor found in the OnePlus 8 Pro from 2020, and has the same ultra-wide sensor as found in the excellent (and more expensive) Oppo Find X3 Pro

Those two are joined by a low-res monochrome sensor for extra light detail, but that's it. No macro lens or gimmicky chroma filter camera in sight this time.

What that means is - surprise - the OnePlus 9 takes good pictures. Plus, in our experience, it's been more consistent and usable than the OnePlus 9 Pro. Its more expensive sibling often suffered with inconsistencies between the primary and ultrawide lenses, while the telephoto zoom lens often left a lot to be desired. 

By keeping it simple on the OnePlus 9, the company has arguably delivered a better all-round photography experience. The two main cameras deliver better matched results that are sharp, vibrant and with plenty of depth in good daylight. You can still use a digital zoom which crops into the sensor, and - again - despite not featuring a so-called 'optical zoom', the results were consistently sharp and detailed. 

Despite being technically less adept on paper, the actual experience of using the OnePlus 9 camera was more consistent than with the Pro. And that means there's finally a relatively affordable flagship on the market from OnePlus that doesn't come with the caveat of "but the cameras are a bit poor". They're not. They're good. Full stop. 

Switching to super macro mode does make detail a little bit rougher with noise starting to appear in the background, making quite a harsh bokeh effect. But it's not horrendous and retains sharpness unlike some low-res macro lenses. 

What's more, the video recording capability can reach the heights of 8K resolution at 30fps or - perhaps more impressively - can capture 4K up to 120fps, which should enable some fantastically sharp slow-motion video. 

Hasselblad's partnership has led to some other more inconsequential features, like the orange colour of the shutter button, and a leaf shutter sound when you press it. However, where you'll see the biggest influence is in the 'Pro' camera mode. 

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The user interface has been designed to look like one developed by Hasselblad for some of its cameras. This includes a focus peaking feature that will highlight in-focus areas in orange when you're using the manual focus. 

Verdict

The OnePlus 9 design may not have wowed us that much, but this company knows its users are all about getting the best performance out of every area of its phones. So if cutting corners and adding in a plastic frame means being able to stick two flagship cameras on the back, wireless charging, a capacious battery, and market-leading speed, then we think that's a compromise worth making. 

Having tested both and considering its price point, it seems this may just be the OnePlus 9 series phone to buy this year. The Pro might have a better display and sleeker curved design, but in all the ways that matter the regular OnePlus 9 matches it and - in terms of camera performance - is a more consistent phone. 

Of the two new phones, this is the one that delivers more on the old OnePlus promise of getting more performance and capability than you should for the money you put down. It's a proper flagship phone, and it's comfortably cheaper than a lot of the big name devices. 

Also consider

Pocket-lintAlternative photo 1

OnePlus Nord

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If you're all about price then the last-gen affordable OnePlus model is a sensible option.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

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Samsung has definitely upped its game when it comes to delivering great performance at great prices from 2020, and the S20 FE is the perfect example. It's a great all-rounder and in a similar price bracket to the OnePlus 9. 

Writing by Cam Bunton. Editing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 16 March 2021.