An Android Contender To Replace My iPhone
(Note: This story originally appeared in my Release Notes newsletter. Get all the good stuff first by signing up. Release Notes drops each Tuesday morning.)
readers know I’m all-in on the Apple ecosystem, but if you’ve been following me for a long time, you know that I am also Android-curious. I’m always open to considering using an Android device, if I could find one that was alluring enough to override the benefits of how the iPhone integrates well with all other Apple devices and services.
And every now and then, I find an Android phone that piques my interest, and this time around it’s the OnePlus 9 Pro. I’ve been testing one loaned to me by T-Mobile, the only carrier currently selling the device in the United States (though OnePlus sells an unlocked version on its website). I’ll say this up front: If I was considering a switch to Android, it would be via this sleek, fast, capable smartphone. Here’s why:
As its name suggests, the 9 Pro is the slightly bigger, beefier version of this year’s line from OnePlus. It’s got more RAM and is available with more storage than the OnePlus 9, and it’s got a larger screen: 6.7 inches vs. 6.5 inches. It’s very thin, at .34 inches, and feels great in your hand. Like Samsung’s Galaxy S20 phones, the screen curves to the edge to a metal frame, with glass curving back again on the back.
The Pro comes in two colors, Forest Pine and Morning Mist, though only the latter is being sold right now in the U.S. by T-Mobile. It really should be called Mirror Mist, because it’s reflective and silvery. As you’d expect, it’s a fingerprint magnet.
The OnePlus 9 Pro’s back is silvery and reflective. ONEPLUS
On the left edge are volume buttons, and on the right are a block button and a mute switch. That switch has three positions – silent, vibrate and ring. This has been a feature on OnePlus phones for a while, which is surprising because most Android phones don’t have a mute switch, much less one with multiple choices. (iPhones have mute switches; I’d love to see Apple “borrow” this approach from OnePlus.)
As is the case with most flagship Android phones, there’s no headphone jack.
The Display & Internals
I’ve had eyes on many smartphone displays in my time, but this is easily the nicest I’ve seen. The OnePlus 9 Pro uses a type of OLED technology called LPTO, which is supposed to allow for better control of the display. It runs at 120 Hz, and the result is a remarkably smooth and zippy interface. There are no hitches, no hesitation, no stuttering. It feels much more responsive than my iPhone 12 Pro Max, which only had a 60-Hz display.
The display is also very bright, at 1,300 nits, and I had no trouble seeing the screen in the bright Texas sun.
The One Plus 9 Pro is built around a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor. While it doesn’t match in benchmarks the speed of the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s A14 Bionic, I didn’t find myself wishing the phone had more power.
That’s partly because the model I used has 12 gigabytes of RAM. It came with 256GB of storage, and unfortunately there’s no microSD expansion slot.
Charging is via a USB-C port or wireless charging, and super-fast charging is supported. Unlike Apple and Samsung, OnePlus still includes a charger that packs 65 watts and charges the 9 Pro very fast. I went from 20% to full in about 30 minutes. It can wireless charge at 50 watts, but requires a separate wireless charging device from OnePlus.
Battery life is decent, lasting about a day and half before needing a plug-in with average use.
Here’s where the OnePlus 9 Pro stumbles badly. There’s a pretty good reason why T-Mobile is its lead carrier in the U.S., because it’s the only carrier on which 5G is currently available. While it works on LTE on all three main carriers, it only covers the full 5G gamut – millimeter wave, mid-band and lower bands – on T-Mobile.
It only recently was certified to work on Verizon’s network, but isn’t yet for sale by Verizon. And it doesn’t work at all on AT&T’s 5G network. (No word whether it lights up AT&T’s 5E icon, which is that carrier’s misleading, enhanced LTE.)
But wait, there’s more bad news. The phone isn’t compatible with WiFi 6, supporting only up to WiFi 5, or 802.11ac. The latest flagship iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S phones can handle WiFi 6 (the S21 works with 6E, which uses the 6-GHz Wi-Fi band).
OnePlus has worked with Hasselblad on color calibration for its camera system, and gets to slap the vaunted camera maker’s name on its lens bump as a result. Not having tried OnePlus’ previous camera systems, I can’t speak to its impact. But I can say that the OnePlus 9 Pro’s cameras are not bad – but those on the iPhone 12 Pro Max are better, for the most part.
The phone has a four-camera system. The main camera has a 48-megapixel sensor made by Sony, and it’s assisted for monochrome shots by a separate, 2-MP camera. There’s a 50-MP ultrawide camera and an 8-MP, 3.3x telephoto camera. The selfie camera is 16 MP, and the rear camera system is capable of shooting in 4K or 8K resolution.
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On the main camera, daylight images were sharp and accurate, and colors lifelike, similar to those on iPhones. But what’s annoying is that, when you switch lenses, colors change. I shot an image of a tree-lined street with a beautiful blue sky, but the main, ultrawide and telephoto images, the blue was slightly different for each, with the main camera being closest to what I actually saw. Looks like Hasselblad’s got more work to do.
The three primary cameras on the OnePlus 9 Pro show different hues of blue for the same sky. The top image is with the ultrawide camera; the middle from the wide camera; and the bottom from the telephoto. DWIGHT SILVERMAN
Night mode was weak compared to the excellent version of it on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Colors were washed out and there was a lack of detail.
When using an Android phone, I prefer one that offers as pure an Android experience as possible. I particularly like Google’s Pixel phones for that reason – there’s no annoying “skin” to get in the way.
The OnePlus 9 Pro comes with a version of Android 11 that’s branded as OxygenOS. It brings some useful tweaks to Android while mostly staying out of the way, with very little bloatware. For example, the default icons are round, but you can switch them to square with rounded corners, which looks a lot like icons found on iOS.
OnePlus has had a reputation in the past of offering flagship-alternative phones at lower prices, but this year’s OnePlus 9 Pro is more aligned with top-of-the-line phones. The model I tested lists for $1,068. While that’s slightly less than the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s $1,200 list, it still crosses that $1,000 line.
For now, the OnePlus 9 Pro gets only my admiration, not my ownership. But I’m going to be paying close attention to what the company does with its future devices. There’s promise here, though so far unrealized.
Interested in the OnePlus 9 Pro? Tell me about it.