(Pocket-lint) - OnePlus started off as that limited, small batch phone-maker that only insiders knew about, before growing into a proper big-time brand. And yet, despite being available through proper partner carriers and in real stores, it's still not a company you'd consider hugely mainstream. It certainly doesn't have that mindshare that Apple and Samsung have enjoyed for years. 

Counting all the 'T' versions, however, we're now into the 13th generation OnePlus flagship. And in all of those generations it's always nailed the speed, performance and fluidity. The cameras, however, have always raised questions, never quite delivering to the same degree as the competition. To try and conquer this final frontier OnePlus has brought in some outside help from a partnership with Hasselblad.

So does the OnePlus 9 Pro, Hasselblad riposte at the ready, succeed in flying us to the moon and back?

So shiny 

  • Finishes: Morning Mist, Forest Green, Stellar Black
  • Dimensions: 163.2 x 73.6 x 8.7mm / Weight: 197g
  • IP68 water- and dust-resistant rating
  • Stereo speakers

OnePlus has three different finishes for the OnePlus 9 Pro. We've been using the silver coloured Morning Mist version, which is oh so shiny. At least, the bottom third of the back is. It's reflective enough that you can see your face in it (which also makes photographing it a real pain - not that this would be a concern to 99 per cent of the people who buy one). 

This reflective surface subtly gradients into a more misty, foggy look at the top. The surface of the glass on the outside is glossy and slippery, so attracts fingerprints like nobody's business. All in all meaning you may just want to use the case, or pick up the frosted glass Forest Green variant instead. 

Still, there's plenty to like about the 9 Pro's design. For one, the camera housing has a look about it that says the designers really cared about how it turned out. It's not just a characterless rectangle stuck onto the back. It's colour-matched to the back and each of the two main cameras has a metallic ring around the lens, making it stand out against the background. It'll certainly make it stand out from the crowd. 

The rest of the design is very familiar for anyone who's used a OnePlus phone over the past year. The glass curves on the back towards the edges, making an otherwise quite large phone feel a bit more comfortable than it would if it were completely flat and square. 

It's not the lightest phone around, but in its size category, squeezing in below 200 grams is a good thing. It makes it perfectly bearable to use day in day out. Plus, all the buttons being within easy thumb reach means there's not too much over-stretching going on to locate the alert slider or the volume rocker. 

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While we're on the subject of practicality, the Pro has IP68 rating against water and dust ingress. So when this slippery fish does inevitably slip out of your hand into a sink full of water, it won't get damaged (well, not from the water anyway!).

Unlike the standard 'non-Pro' version, the OnePlus 9 Pro doesn't have a completely flat panel, but the curves on the screen are definitely smaller than in previous iterations. That does mean the phone feels a bit chunkier than 7 Pro from two years ago, but it means it's less prone to accidental touches. Plus, the bezels are really skinny, giving an almost edge-to-edge screen with only a neat little selfie camera punching its way through the top corner. 

Display and software 

  • 6.7-inch AMOLED display
    • QHD+ resolution (1440 x 3216 pixels; 525ppi)
    • Adaptive frame rate up to 120Hz
  • Oxygen OS 11 (over Android 11)

It's not just in physical button placement where OnePlus has attempted to make its large phone comfortable to use. The software, Oxygen OS, went through a massive refresh for its Android 11-based version - which first launched on the OnePlus 8T. This update didn't just radically change the entire look and feel of the previously Google stock-like experience, it was designed so that the bits you need to reach with your thumb are easy to get to. Buttons and controls are shifted down, so you don't have to awkwardly stretch across to the top corner. 

The thing that works against this somewhat is that OnePlus has fewer of its own apps than it used to. It's gone all-in with Google, so apps like Messages and the Phone app are Google; similarly, as we saw with the 8T in 2020, the Shelf that used to live on the left of the Home Screen has been replaced by Google's Discover feed. 

None of these moves are bad, as Google's Discover is far more useful and more relevant than Shelf. That in itself hasn't disappeared completely, though, as you can get to it by swiping down on the Home Screen. It could be useful for things like getting quick access to favourite contacts, or remembering where you parked the car. We didn't find it all that useful, so we just changed the setting so that a swipe on the Home Screen dropped down notifications instead.

As for the screen, it's one of the best available on the market. It's a 6.7-inch AMOLED panel that has a top refresh rate of 120Hz, meaning it cycles through 120 refreshes per second to give the sense of smoothness.

Like Samsung's latest flagships - the Galaxy S21 Ultra at the top of the stack - the OnePlus also has adaptive refresh rate capabilities. Here, however it can go all the way down to just 1Hz when it detects a static page, which will help save battery life. It also means it's pretty much identical to the screen on the Oppo Find X3 Pro.

It's really bright and vivid, and - once you've enabled its maximum sharpness within the settings - it's crisp to the eyes too. One clever little feature actually enables you to toggle on a battery saver mode when you choose the QHD+ resolution, which means the screen can switch to a lower resolution if it's appropriate to do so. 

As usual, there are plenty of additional features, such as the ability to tune the appearance to your preferences: be that dark mode for night time, comfort tone for automatically adjusting the white balance based on the ambient light, or reading mode for, um, you guessed it, reading. 

On the whole, it's a mighty fine display. Colours pop, bright areas are almost searing, and animations are smooth. There's perhaps a bit too much contrast, while auto-brightness dims the output a bit much - as to not retain balance of highlights, shadows and colours - but most of the time we were impressed by it.

For those who want it there's plenty of customisability too. The display settings menu lets you adjust the overall look of the screen, making it more or less vibrant and adjusting colours and white balance. 

More hassle than Hasselblad? 

  • Quad camera system:
    • Main: 48-megapixel, f/1.8 aperture, 1/1.43in sensor (Sony IMX789), optical stabilisation (OIS)
    • Ultra-wide: 50MP, f2.2, 1/1.56" (Sony IMX766)
    • Tele (3.3x): 8MP f/2.4
    • Mono: 2MP
  • Front-facing camera: 16-megapixel
  • Video: 8K30p / 4K120p

So to the all-important cameras. Both the primary and ultra-wide cameras use high-end Sony sensors - which is OnePlus showing off that it's sourcing the best core kit for the job. For the most part, these sensors deliver good pictures.

The primary sensor looks like it's had the most love from Hasselblad's partnership, delivering natural-looking colours with good detail. Likewise, the ultra-wide sensor can take great pictures - and that's no surprise given it's the same sensor used by the Oppo Find X3 Pro in both of its two main cameras. 

In good light you'll get sharp mostly noise-free pictures, while the freeform ultra-wide lens will ensure you don't get lots of curving and distortion at the edges. In fact, it's very level and doesn't suffer from that fish-eye effect you sometimes see from such lenses. It's not as good in low-light situations as the primary sensor, neither is perfect once light levels drop. You'll start to see image noise introduced when it gets a bit darker, particularly in greys and blues in any shadows. 

The only inescapable problem isn't with either camera individually. It's when you compare them to each other. At some points it looks like results are from two different phones. Not in terms of angle of view, as that's inevitable, but with the final aesthetic. The ultra-wide often boosts warmth and saturation to give a really vivid (almost more orange feel), while the primary lens delivers a more neutral, cooler image where blues are more standout. 

You can see this difference when switching to Macro mode - which automatically switches to the ultra-wide sensor to perform the close-up shot - as well as when you shoot at night time using the Nightscape mode. 

Nighstscape mode seems to have improved from previous generations of OnePlus phones, though, with the 9 Pro able to draw in decent light. We did sometimes struggle to get results looking sharp though, with finer details and edges blurring - not an out-of-focus blur, more like a motion blur as if the camera's optical stabilisation can't quite compensate for hand-shake enough. 

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It wasn't the only time the phone's camera struggled with detail either. Using the telephoto zoom lens - which is 3.3x that of the main camera, and can reach up to 30x digitally - we found that detail simply lacked. It's not a great optical zoom.

If you scroll through the gallery above - which cycles through the cameras at ultra-wide, 1x, 3.3x, 5x, 10x and 30x - you'll see how the tree branches in the 3.3x shot turn into a weird-looking mush. And once you zoom past 3.3x the detail becomes increasingly ropey with the images at the top end looking more like an oil painting than a photograph. 

As for macro mode, that's pretty strong in good light. Details are sharp and in-focus, while the background blur adds depth and doesn't suffer from unnatural and nauseating bokeh like some dedicated macro lenses do. That's likely down to the fact the OnePlus 9 Pro is using the ultra-wide sensor, rather than have a poor low-resolution macro camera. 

On the whole, then, the 9 Pro's cameras are a bit of a mixed bag. It performs well, but the difference in colour balance between the primary and ultra-wide is confusing, especially given OnePlus' insistence on using Hasselblad's 'strict' tuning standards. The optical zoom lens is quite poor when it comes to detail, and night mode suffers a little with motion blur. 

The primary lens is great for the most part, but we'd just love to see that consistency between the different lenses. It'd turn this system into one that truly competes with the market leaders. The hardware is obviously there, we just need to see attention to detail on balance still.

Speed, I am speed

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 platform, 5G connectivity
  • RAM: 8GB/12GB LPDDR5
  • Storage: 128GB/256GB (UFS3.1)
  • 4,500mAh battery (2x 2250mAh cells)
  • Warp Charge 65T flash charging (1-100% in 28 minutes)
  • Warp Charge 50 wireless charging (1-100% in 43 minutes)

If there's one thing you can virtually guarantee from OnePlus when it comes to its flagship phones: they're all fast and fluid. For years the company has used whichever is Qualcomm's latest top-tier processor. For 2021 that's the Snapdragon 888

In all areas, the OnePlus 9 Pro performs like a proper flagship should. It's fast and smooth, loading any games and apps without stopping to think about it. We had no instances of stutter or delay. Part of that is also down to the screen's refresh rate, but also its touch sampling rate - which can read your fingers taps and swipes at a rate of 240 times per second. The animation on screen responds virtually immediately, making it feel nimble and instant. 

Even simple and mundane tasks like refreshing a Twitter feed or loading a web page is hassle-free. Plus, if you live in an area with 5G signal, you get that goodness too, for speedy cellular downloads. 

During our testing there were moments where - after an hour or so of gaming - the phone became a little warm, but it didn't feel uncomfortable. That's likely down to having an efficient vapour chamber and graphite-based cooling system inside, making this the most non-gamer gamer phone on the market. 

As for battery life, with the screen cranked up to its highest resolution and frame rate settings, the 4500mAh capacity is more than capable of pushing through a full day. Even on quieter ones, however, we never quite got the sense it'd make it through two full days.

On our heavier days with a three or more hours of screen time, we got to bed with somewhere around the 30 per cent mark left over. Here's the thing though: battery anxiety is never an issue because when it comes to charging few phones compare to the OnePlus 9 Pro. 

If you use the included 65W wired charger, you can get the battery from dead to 100 per cent in just 28 minutes. That's a full charge in less than half an hour, which is mind-boggling. Plug the phone in for 10 minutes and that'll provide  enough to get you through a good few hours.

But there's more: it charges fast wirelessly too. Using OnePlus' latest Warp Charge Wireless stand (an optional extra, at your expense), you can get a full charge in 43 minutes. Of course, if it's by your bed and you charge overnight you don't need those speeds, but it can be programmed to go into bedtime mode which charges slower and, crucially, quieter. The fan it uses to keep itself cool during the faster charging speeds is shut off to allow you to get to sleep. 

The Warp Charge Wireless is so quick that we'd often just leave the 9 Pro off charge at night, then put it on the stand while getting ready in the morning. It's a bit of a game-changer.

It's worth noting that - even though it charges quickly - OnePlus has kept its battery optimisation features in play, which ensure the device's battery isn't harmed by such speedy refills. It learns your charging routine and does the first chunk of charging quickly, before leaving it and then finishing the charge right before you wake up in the morning - which is good for battery health and longevity over an extended period of time. 

Verdict

The OnePlus 9 Pro attemps to address the series' historically biggest issue: the cameras. However, even with support from Hasselblad, it still doesn't quite hit the mark in that regard. But the core of the phone impresses, with fast wireless charging a truly brilliant feature, and the display being top notch too.

While it's possible to get great photos from the 9 Pro's cameras, the imbalance of colour between the two main sensors - with photos often looking like they've come from two different phones - and the poor results from the telephoto zoom just don't quite add up to what we'd expect. More hassle than Hasselblad, eh?

It's also worth pointing out that the 9 Pro's price has crept higher still, edging ever closer to the four-figure mark and, in so doing, sitting closer to other premium flagship competitors. That does mean it's still more affordable than some of the other top tier phones out there, but it's no longer the instant buy the series once was.

Overall, the OnePlus 9 Pro continues to deliver on the series' well-established strengths. Its fast and fluid, has a cracking screen, mind-boggling impressive fast-charging, and all for a price that undercuts the established elite. But it continues the series' ongoing weaknesses too, as those cameras still just aren't class-leading.

Also consider

Oppo Find X3 Pro

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In a lot of ways, the Oppo is very similar to the 9 Pro, offering similar hardware in terms of screen, battery size, charging and processing power. Where it differs is with a more consistent camera experience and a more refined designed. 

Samsung Galaxy S21+

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Pricing isn't all that much between Samsung's S21+ and OnePlus' latest top tier phone. It may have a plastic back, but its performance is strong in all the important ways. The cameras are a tad disappointing however. 

Writing by Cam Bunton.