Wednesday, 14 July 2021

OnePlus 9

I have the OnePlus 9 here to review which has been available since the spring of this year around the world. Late to the party again, but sometimes that's a good thing as initial bugs can be fixed before phones get to me! I've not spent much time with OnePlus phones over they years but have always been pleased with their take on Android, remaining fairly neutral. Ahead of the departmental merger with Oppo, this could all be about to change of course. Hopefully not for the worse!

There is a variation on the model, the Pro, which is different in a few ways including having an aluminium frame, larger size all-round, updated brighter OLED screen with more ppi, a better array of camera options and faster wireless charging. But it's big! There's also variations of the 9 itself for different markets with little differences like no wireless charging in some and changed IP-rating. So look before you leap! The one I have here is the LE2113 with 8GB RAM and 128GB Storage. Many thanks go to Adrian Brain for the loan of the unit.

In the disproportionately tall box we have the usual array of papers, pokey-hole prodder for the SIM Card Tray, decent- enough looking clear TPU, a red USB A-to-C cable and the Warp Charger. Not sure why the box is so tall. Anyway, it has Hasselblad festooned all over it - the word in full and logo left, right and centre. They want you to know about this!

The phone is not as large as I thought it was going to be, for some reason. Probably because I had previously reviewed bigger OnePlus phones. I reviewed the OnePlus 6T in December 2018 and the OnePlus 7 Pro the following autumn. Two giant phones! It seems that here they are offering a slightly smaller experience and that's great in my book! It's still not a Pixel-small phone and at 160mm is just a tad shorter than my Motorola Edge+ and a tincture wider (but only because of the flat screen). I can just about meet my finger and thumb around the phone's waist with the TPU applied. Without? Easily!

I was delighted to see the Alert Slider on the side, but not sure if the right-side is the right side! We shall see. Like iPhones, this lets you silence the phone on-the-fly with a hardware slider and in this case, change it to vibrate-only too. The functions of the three positions are customisable. It sits just above the power button while the volume-rocker is the sole occupant of the left edge. Feels like it's all the wrong way round to me. The buttons all feel solid enough and blend in nicely with the Arctic Sky version we have here. The edge of the phone is plastic, but looks very much like metal. Some may think that at this price-point it should have been aluminium. I don't really care under a TPU. At 192g I'd say it's about the right weight in the hand and feels nicely balanced.

The same goes for the back. I'd have been OK with plastic and a lower price, but marketing is all about a 'premium' experience and that for most of us means glass and metal. The glass on the back is a shiny matt vision, not a shimmering one like many these days. I like that. It looks classy. It curves round subtly to meet the frame. There's a OnePlus logo in the middle and a camera island top-left in portrait with three lenses and an LED flash. It is a slight protrusion, but not noticeable with the TPU in place. Yes, it rocks slightly, but who cares. This version of the phone is not IP68-rated apparently - there seems some confusion over which exact model has which attributes, but I think this does not. There's certainly weather-protection inside the SIM Card Tray. Which, incidentally, takes a NanoSIM each side, both can be 5G-enabled if needed, I understand.

There's a factory-fitted plastic cover on the front glass, which I would waste no time ripping off, but can't as it's not my phone! Behave! Top-left there's a Selfie camera and in the middle, a front-facing earpiece speaker which doubles up in use for one of the two stereo outputs. The other is downward-firing on the phone's bottom-edge alongside a USB-C port, microphone and SIM Card Tray. Up the top there's just a microphone. No 3.5mm audio-out socket anywhere, sadly. Front and back are Gorilla Glass 5 so maybe that screen-protector should stay on after all. I have experience of GG5 micro-scratching in the past, so the usual payoff between better shatter-proofing and less scratch etc.

A further word on the factory-fitted screen-protector. I am finding the responsiveness of the screen with that in place, just dreadful. The way in which I am used to swiping and tapping the screen is at a level which often just 'misses' on this screen. I don't see the point in these things anyway, as it'll soon get scuffed up - and what do you do then? Take it off, of course! So you might as well have taken it off in the first place. I'm assuming that with it out of the way, the screen will be as responsive as what I am used to with all my devices. What you get used to, I guess. People getting used to harder swipes and taps will no doubt not think there's a problem!

The 'fluid' AMOLED display is lovely and bright, but not markedly different to my eyes than the Pixel 5 and Motorola Edge+ which I happen to have here and switched on. It is supposed to reach a high of 1100 nits in certain conditions, but I really don't see it. Maybe I would on the Pro version. But yes, nice and bright. Indoors and out. The screen goes right out to the edges almost with very, very small bezels left, right and top with a tad more at the foot. I like this. Good for Gesture Navigation. It has a hole-punch top-left (in portrait) for the Selfie camera and the option in Settings to shrink the viewable screen to drop below that (with rounded corners still) or include the whole panel for content.

On the Status Bar all the content starts to the right of the Selfie of course, but there are extensive controls in Settings to turn icons on/off, what to see in terms of clock, battery, percentage, or not at all. A good platter of options for the Status Bar indeed, which are often missing from Android phones. There are also switches to enhance the (already decent) colours and sliders for warm/cold temperature and vibrancy manually. 
The display is 1080p, 20:9 (with 402ppi) in ratio, 6.55" and can be set to either refresh at 120Hz or 60. I have tried both and can't tell the difference, as usual, but younger eyes and all that..!

There's an Always On Display with a few options to change if/when it comes on and how it looks with various notifications, data, icons and time/date. That's good, as OnePlus held out for a long time on this one, concerned about battery hit. I'm not convinced that it's not undercooked though as laying alongside other phones here the display is very dim in equal light conditions. It seems that they agreed to put it in, but were still very concerned about battery, so wound it down - with sadly no Samsung-style slider option for the user to choose the AoD brightness. There's also an Edge display for Notifications, like Samsung, but it's very basic with a choice of four colours. They call it Horizon Light.

The fingerprint scanner is an optical one under the screen and it is pretty low-down. These will be so much better when they routinely enable the bottom 25% of the screen as a touch-area instead of one circle/egg-shape which needs a direct hit. Having said that, it seems to work perfectly well. Never fails to read my finger, first time, every time and opens up instantly. You can turn it off of course and/or use in tandem with the face-unlock security which, again, works well in my tests, opening up the phone before it has a chance to even show you the scanner target almost! Lots of controls for all this in Settings, which they continue to make a good job of (if you see past the ever-present nag at the top to open a OnePlus account), not madly rearranged like some others have been.

OnePlus want you to use their 'Switch' app for setting up of course coming from your own phone, but I ignored this and did it the usual way from my Pixel which was executed very well, setting things up with very much of what was set up on the Pixel, making it across. Sometimes systems get caught out with this - little examples being Notification Settings inside Apps - but OnePlus did well. They also do well by making the Home Screens very much Vanilla with the option for right-swipe for the Google Feed, App Drawer and drag-down from anywhere for Notifications. You can assign the OnePlus 'Shelf' to this is you prefer, which is their own bunch of tools, hooked into some of their apps and services. It is editable and you can add Widgets directly to the Shelf. Some may like it, I don't! Apart from anything else, you do then need to swipe from right at the top of the screen to get the Notification Shade. It's an option, though.

The Notification Shade is pretty 'stock' as well, editable with various toggles and brightness control, clock, date and shortcut to main Settings. No surprises here. Long-press the Home Screen for plenty of settings, some of which are shortcuts in themselves to the same setting in Settings. There is a Hidden Space area you can use here (also by a right-swipe from the Apps drawer) where you can tuck away anything you don't want other over-the-shoulder peekers to see. You can imagine! You can password it, so once there's anything in there, the App is removed from the drawer and only lives in there.

You can change Icon Packs and adjust shapes of Home Screen icons, which users/creators have uploaded to the Play Store. They don't have a Theme/Icon Store of their own like Samsung, for example, that I can see - they all live in the Play Store. If you tap through, you can download/install/select which you fancy - and live with whatever the Developer has made their App to be constrained by, in terms of monetisation - In App Purchases/Adverts etc.

That whole Quick Gesture thing survives as well, so you can 'draw' various letters on the lock-screen to, for example, control music playback, launch the camera, or pretty much launch any app you fancy. Gesture Navigation is present of course but you can turn it off and take the more traditional 3 buttons if you prefer. Assuming you go with Gestures, you can turn on/off the bar at the bottom which is a placeholder visually but takes up a few millimetres in the process when on. There's so much to talk about with OnePlus add-ons, which is great for those who love those controls and making changes, tailoring the experience to how they like to use the phone, how it looks and functions. Check out my other OnePlus reviews linked to avove for a deeper dive on this. Good job, done well - which we hope isn't undone by the recent departmental merger with Oppo.

We're all fired up then, Home Screen laid out as we like, Widget-sizing working nicely, options for font (Roboto or OnePlus Sans), Google Feed in place, Status Bar and Navigation as we like it - so time for Apps! OnePlus have added a bunch of their own Apps which 
can't be uninstalled (but can be hidden in the aforementioned Hidden Area) and they are Clock, Calculator, File Manager, Game Space (which takes you to an online curation of downloadable games which feels like it's just a copy of the Play Store Games section) and Gallery (seems so unnecessary with Google Photos there). Not too bad, I guess, but just annoying that they are doubled-up often with the standard Google ones. At least they have left Google's Phone, Contacts, Calendar and GMail alone! I know people who disagree though. Each to their own. The Apps which can be uninstalled are Notes, Community, SwitchWeather and Recorder. Some might like to make use of any or all of these and I'm sure they have some merit. The Recorder looks capable enough for sound recording and Weather, well, not great compared to others.

Driving all the above is the SnapDragon 888 chipset - my first time looks at this. I really can't tell much difference in these top-end chipsets these days in terms of functionality and use. the phone flies in every department that I want to use, but then so do 7xx-series SnapDragons too. It does sometimes feel like change when it's not needed. Like the 8GB RAM too - I have phones here that work perfectly well keeping tasks open in the background with half of that and another with double that and it just seems to make no difference. My usual caveat being that I am not a big gamer, so beyond testing with car-racing games and checking for stutters and so on, I'm not saying heavy users won't see the difference.

This example has 128GB UFS 3.1 Storage too, with no microSD Card slot, so for those shooting lots of 4K video, they might want to check out the alternative 256GB model (with 12GB RAM). I have had no problems with copying data from a computer, nor a microSD via adapter, nor my 2TB SSD drive. It all flies and behaves as expected plugged into the USB-C port. Imagine my surprise to also discover that the phone supports HDMI-Out! Hurrah! Cabled up to the telly, any media or content you have on the phone is displayed right on the big screen. I really wasn't expecting that as so many manufacturers are taking it out or not bothering to include it, so a big plus point!

The phone is running Android 11 with OxygenOS 11.2.7.7. It has May 2021 Google Security as I write at the beginning of July, so that could be better I suppose. OnePlus do have a new commitment to timely updates and as this is, pretty much, their flagship range, you'd think they'd at least pay attention to it - even if the Nords lag behind. It looks like Oxygen 12 will be along when Android 12 arrives, but there doesn't seem to be a specific timescale. There is an Android 12 Beta available for the OnePlus 9/9 Pro but as it's not my phone, much as I wanted to, I did not dare! Anyway, again, we all hope that the Oppo merger doesn't mess with this kind of forward-thinking on the part of OnePlus. In the meantime, Oxygen 11 brings that Samsung-feel of dropping down some of the content to make one-handed use easier and there's much dark everywhere if wanted. They're all now copying each other - which is great if you like it, not so much if you don't! As long as the options remain!

The stereo speakers are good and loud, but quality is not great. The top earpiece speaker remains the left channel whichever way you turn the phone and bottom, right. I think it's another case of faux stereo where the bottom speaker is a tad richer than the top, but placed in front of the head, the balance is good and stereo separation via software does the trick. However, the sound highlights the high-end frequencies more than anything and renders output too tinny for my liking. Furthermore, there's what is supposed to be a system-wide Dolby Atmos setup but firstly, there's no quick way to get to the controls (like via the Quick Toggles up-top, for example) so you have to go to Settings>Sound every time to adjust it, secondly it's very basic and doesn't do much for the speakers' output - whichever of the three settings you use (Film, Music, Dynamic). No customisation options either - and thirdly it only offers a bit more control with headphones connected. So yes, sound is good and loud, but you'll want to turn it down to stop flinching!

There's no 3.5mm audio-out socket so headphones use is bluetooth or USB-C. I tested both here and you can certainly tell that there's 24-bit enhanced capability here. I used as-basic a dongle as I could and plugged in my reference headphones - immediately the sound was transformed to another level. You still have to navigate your way via Settings (or perhaps a shortcut Widget I set up on the Homescreen) to get to Dolby Atmos. Once there, you only get the addition of an 'Off' altogether option (so with speakers it is always-on) and another sub-menu called Style Preferences within which you get Balanced, Warm or Nuanced - none of which do much to the sound really. There's still no manual control with any sort of equaliser. You can, of course, switch to another Music App which gives control, but it's then hardly system-wide. There's the same setup for bluetooth as well, which sounds excellent, incidentally, as we'd expect. Shame really that the speakers and controls let the show down a bit on the sound front, but maybe OnePlus figure people don't use them beyond ringtones.

Connectivity seems sound enough with a good cellular reception for voice and data on testing. I can only test 4G here, I'm afraid. Wifi 6 is present and I experienced strong locks and good range, likewise the bluetooth (5.2) and GPS. No complaints at all and the NFC seems to do a good job connecting to other gear, though I was unable to test Google Pay at this time.

I was hoping Steve Litchfield of The Phones Show would take a look at this after me to appraise the camera, but I fear that he might fall asleep doing so! We have chatted about it on our weekly podcast Phones Show Chat, so that'll have to do apart from my basic summary following.

The main camera is a 
48MP f/1.8 unit with a 50MP f/2.2 (wide-angle) supported by an 'assisting' 2MP f/2.4 (monochrome) for the benefit of the main sensor. There's also a 16MP f2.4 Selfie. It seems that they were afraid to only put two cameras on this so bunged in a third! The headline here is the deal with Hasselblad who bring their Colour Calibration standards, apparently, to emulate what they do with their stand-alone cameras. Note that there's no optical zoom here, nor OIS in any of the lenses. The interface and software is a bit dull, with few unique features. I'm going to send you off to GSMArena's Appraisal of the Camera Performance at this point and if Steve does look at the phone, I'll update and add his thoughts later. Their highlights seem to suggest that the 50MP wide-angle camera is a great addition but overall the image quality is nothing special and there's little evidence of the Hasselblad influence. I wanted the close-focus to somewhere approach Macro at least, but it doesn't. Nowhere near, even with that big-pixel wide-angle lens. Listen - the photos grabbed from this phone are absolutely fine and dandy for 95% of people using the device. Pixel-peepers and nit-pickers will, of course, do just that, but it really does produce great shots for a phone.

Power and charging
is really quite impressive based on my tests here. There are actually two batteries in the phone which work together for a capacity of 4,500mAh. Why two batteries? Well, OnePlus reckon that if you use this powerful 65W charging (see below) with a single battery it'll get too hot, catch fire or explode! Seems a reasonable workaround, then.

My 10% Reading Test returns figures that I had to collect in multiple sessions (turning the phone off between) as it was so impressive and I couldn't sit there for long enough! It does have the highest ranking now of all tested phones here over the years, returning a staggering 3 hours and 30 minutes. As usual now, I tested this a number of times and took the data from the built-in meter, and tested at the top (100%-90%) and middle (50%-40%). I realise that these meters are not 100% trustworthy, but the playing-field is level here and it's not just one test, so I'm satisfied that this is not far off being a true return. As for all-day testing, similar praise to be lavished, really. No chance of killing it by bedtime, even with a long day and hammering the phone. In fact, with my average use, it'll do two days. So not quite the winner on the longevity test which belongs to the Moto G8 Power with a genuine 3 days, but still very, very good. No need to employ the optimisation tools supplied at all, except in dire emergencies!

The other headline here is the Warp Charging as mentioned above with the included 65W brick for those who want to ignore the included 15W Qi Wireless functionality for a quick charge. They reckon 0-100% in 29 minutes - and that's about right! Amazing. Not this performance from less powerful chargers of course, but most of us won't need to do this routinely - and some of us will be happy to plonk the phone on a bedstand Qi Charger at night and let it top up for the morning. All works nicely, as does the 5W Reverse Wireless. This means that you can throw a switch, place another Wireless device on the back and let the phone's power trickle across to it. Either way.

The phone is nice enough, but in a Pixel-type way I guess, just feels a bit boring and dull. For £629 for this model, there's significant competition and this one doesn't seem to do much to make it stand out. I guess the USP would be the 65W charging, which really is impressive, but you do have to have the right charger with you to make use of this, rending the Universality of USB-C a bit lame. It would have felt much more worth the money if it had OIS in the main sensor and a 3x optical zoom. Would have transformed my view, I think, even if I'm no cameras-in-phones fan. And why not a 3.5mm audio-out? Why not the microSD Card slot that the firm are now even putting into their low-end devices?

I could absolutely use this phone as my main, let's be clear. So could many, many people. But for this price, there are too many other options - not least from Google and Samsung, some of the latter's phones for less money than this coming with more boxes ticked on all the above. It's a hard sell for OnePlus. Maybe those who can't afford a Pro or don't want such a big phone would be alright with this, or maybe just people who don't know any better and wouldn't even know about what's missing, let alone miss any features. It's pretty enough for them! Anyway, those are my thoughts. Probably not for me, but I'm sure many folk would be happy.

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