'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
While I have enjoyed using OnePlus flagship phones over the past couple of years, the comparable flagship phone from Samsung had a few more bells and whistles that convinced me to spend the extra money and use a Samsung as my daily driver. That is no longer the case with the OnePlus 9 Pro, and as the OnePlus/Hasselblad partnership progresses to include hardware along with the software, we may see OnePlus become the favored Android brand.
OnePlus phones from the past couple of years have included the highest level of internal components and were not lacking in specifications. Its OxygenOS is arguably the best flavor of Android, especially as we see ads and duplicate apps contaminating the Samsung experience. The displays have been good, but Samsung phones were better. The camera experience was solid, but Samsung performed better. These areas have been addressed in the OnePlus 9 Pro, and it is also priced $180 to $230 less than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is quite a feat considering Samsung dropped its 2021 prices $200 from its 2020 launch.
Also: OnePlus gets serious about mobile photography with Hasselblad partnership: OnePlus 9 launch event on for March 23
I've now spent more than a week with both the OnePlus 9 Pro and OnePlus 9 (see that full review) and find the OnePlus 9 Pro a bit more compelling than the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, as I will explain in more detail below.
Looking through the specifications above, the only different functions we see in the Galaxy S21 Ultra -- that are not on the OnePlus 9 Pro -- are UWB and S Pen support. Reverse wireless charging is new for OnePlus and handy for topping off wireless headset while on the go.
Flagship smartphone makers no longer release simple black slabs, with cool new color options from OnePlus, Apple, Samsung, and others. The Morning Mist model that I am testing is unique, with the lower part of the back acting as a mirror that transitions into a foggy mirror at the top. OnePlus describes it as changing from silver to black, but I really only see the lower part as black when the phone is lying on its face at a distance. Unfortunately, it is a glossy finish so fingerprints appear on the back panel.
OnePlus also offers a Forest Green model that has the lovely matte finish we have seen on OnePlus phones in the past. The Stellar Black model also has a frosted matte finish with a sandstone look and feel.
The display on the OnePlus 9 Pro is called a Fluid Display 2.0 screen. It integrates LTPO (low-temperature polycrystalline oxide) technology that cuts power consumption by up to 50% with Smart 120 Hz. The refresh rate dynamically switches from as low as 1Hz to 120Hz. Samsung's adaptive display on the S21 Ultra can drop down to 10 Hz.
For gaming, Hyper Touch supports up to 360 Hz for extremely fast touch response. This fast response is currently supported by PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty Mobile, League of Legends, and Brawl Stars. I played COD on the OnePlus 9 Pro and enjoyed the fluid gameplay experience.
Also: OnePlus 8T hands-on: Is there a place for a T series in the OnePlus lineup?
The latest generation under-display fingerprint sensor is present, and it has worked flawlessly. I used it in combination with the face unlock feature with a speedy and consistent response.
There are minimal bezels on the top and bottom with none on the sides as the curved display transitions into the sides. With the top speaker in a narrow line above the display, I don't think we will see any smaller bezels until they are all just gone. The front-facing camera is positioned over in the far left corner of the phone.
The volume button is on the left with the power button on the right. The traditional three-way ringer switch is positioned on the right side above the power button. Microphones are positioned at the top, bottom, and on the back near the cameras. The USB-C port and SIM card tray are found on the bottom.
On the back of the OnePlus 9 Pro, we find four camera lenses, a laser sensor, flashlight, and microphones. The cameras include a 50MP ultra-wide Sony sensor that is 3.2-times larger than the one on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. A Freeform lens is integrated into the camera system with curves to correct the incoming light so lens distortion at the edges is down to about 1%. Other smartphones with ultra-wide cameras have edge lens distortion in the 10% to 20% range. Physics still dictates here so perspective distortion can not be fixed by hardware.
The ultra-wide camera also helps you capture macro photos, and the camera software will automatically switch to this camera when you approach your subject, as close as 4cm. There is a toggle in the camera software to automatically switch to macro mode and this has performed well.
The main 48MP camera is a Sony IMX789 that is custom-built for OnePlus. It supports 12-bit RAW where other phones support 10-bit RAW. The monochrome camera works with the main camera to add detail and layering to your black and white photos.
The 8MP telephoto camera supports 3.3x optical zoom and 30x digital zoom. This is a higher level of optical zoom offered by Apple, but one area where Samsung beats OnePlus.
Also: Samsung Galaxy Note's future in question amid Galaxy S21 Ultra launch
Reverse wireless charging is new for OnePlus, and its fast-charging technologies beat out Samsung. With a simple toggle on the Quick Controls, you can place another device, headphones, and more on the back of the OnePlus 9 Pro to charge them up. The phone will stop charging other devices if the phone's battery drops to 15%.
Warp Charge 65T provides a day's power in 15 minutes or 1% to 100% in just 29 minutes. Unlike Apple and Samsung, OnePlus includes this charger in the retail package. Warp Charge 50 Wireless charges from 1% to 100% in just 43 minutes. The new wireless charger, sold separately as the Wireless Charge 50 for $69.99, has two charging coils so you can charge horizontally or vertically.
The 8GB/128GB OnePlus 9 Pro is available for $969 in Morning Mist. The 12GB/256GB model is available for $1,069.99 in Morning Mist and Pine Green. Pre-orders start March 26, with devices available April 2. T-Mobile configurations and pricing information will be available soon.
The OnePlus 9 Pro in Morning Mist (12GB/256 GB) and the OnePlus 9 (8GB/128 GB) in both Winter Mist and Astral Black will be available at T-Mobile (pricing to be announced by T-Mobile).
The OnePlus 9 Pro launches with Android 11 and Oxygen OS 11.2.x. The Feb. 1, 2021 Android security update is present on our review unit, but given the release timing, we will likely see the March security update on retail units. OnePlus has a good track record of timely security updates, too.
It was a breath of fresh air to use a OnePlus phone after spending time with Samsung phones as there are no ads, useless bloatware, or other utilities distracting you from a nearly stock Android experience. There are some useful utilities in OxygenOS, such as quick launch, quick gestures, and gaming mode. The gaming mode settings are very cool and help provide an optimal experience for those who play games after work is done.
While the Hasselblad name is on the phone near the cameras, its influence on the OnePlus 9 Pro is limited to software enhancements. A key component of the Hasselblad partnership is natural color calibration. OnePlus and Hasselblad had three of the 12 Hasselblad experts use the OnePlus 9 Pro to provide subjective feedback in order to fine-tune the camera software.
In the Pro Mode (manual), users will see software that resembles the interface on Hasselblad cameras. In addition, the camera capture button is orange and the iconic shutter button sound from Hasselblad cameras is present on the phone.
While I have to spend a lot more time with the camera software, I have enjoyed testing the tilt-shift mode. OnePlus uses software, not lenses, on the OnePlus 9 Pro to provide tilt-shift effects. This mode helps simulate miniature effects and also helps to straighten vertical lines. I have never seen tilt-shift on a phone before and am enjoying the creativity provided by the software.
With the OnePlus 9 Pro, you can capture video at 8K, 30 fps, or even in 4K at 120fps. Portrait and night mode video are also supported so you can get very creative with this new phone.
Also: OnePlus 8 review: Least expensive 5G phone with flagship specs, minimal compromises
When comparing the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with the OnePlus 9 Pro, we see a couple of very comparable devices. The S21 Ultra has a slightly larger battery, but then we see OnePlus has an adaptive 120Hz display that goes all the way down to 1Hz for static use. The Bluetooth version is a bit newer on the OnePlus 9 Pro and nothing beats the Warp Charge 65 cable charging and super-fast Warp Charge 50 Wireless speeds for topping up your device. Samsung has a higher level of optical zoom, but the utility past a certain point is not that practical. IP68 is here on the OnePlus 9 Pro so that's no longer an issue either.
With the hardware gaps filled by OnePlus, we can look to the software and it is more pleasing to use OxygenOS with a near-stock Android experience. There is no bloatware on the phone, we don't find a host of duplicate apps, and we are not inundated with ads from Samsung on the OnePlus 9 Pro. Unless you need the S Pen capability, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a very compelling flagship choice for less money.
Cellular reception strength has always been an area where Samsung stood out from the iPhone and some other Android brands. OnePlus was the one contender in this area and remains one of the best when it comes to coverage and speeds. I've enjoyed great connectivity with the OnePlus 9 Pro and phone calls sounded crystal clear on both ends of the call. For some reason, I still cannot get the native visual voicemail to function on this review device, but I'm hopeful since it is part of the phone app.
The display on the OnePlus 9 Pro looks fantastic and once you try an Android phone with a high refresh rate then you can't go back to anything less. The front-facing camera is hidden away in the far left upper corner are there are virtually zero bezels on the sides and minimal bezels on the top and bottom so watching video content is a joy on the phone. Even with slightly curved edges, I have yet to experience a single inadvertent screen press on the OnePlus 9 Pro.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have taken quite a few pictures with the OnePlus 9 Pro, Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, Google Pixel 4a 5G, OnePlus 9, and others. The differences in results were minor, but I did find the OnePlus 9 Pro resulted in more accurate colors than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Google's software is still tough to beat when it comes to portrait mode. It says a lot about OnePlus when its camera performance matches the best available. Also, OnePlus offers some other creative options like tilt-shift mode, portrait video, and excellent macro performance. More testing is needed, but after using the OnePlus 9 Pro as my daily driver, it's clear that the camera is no longer a reason to move on to other phones.