I don’t think it’s controversial to say that OnePlus is in a bit of a strange place right now. The brand rose to fame as the plucky underdog but is struggling to hold on to its identity as a more well-known name. Contentious design decisions, such as those underlying its approach to Oxygen OS 11, a failure to address some long-running issues, and a few too many so-so handset releases have culminated in some rather warranted backlash this year.
OnePlus is undoubtedly in the midst of a transition. We’re just waiting to see if it’s a more mature or regressive version of the company that emerges from the cocoon. With that in mind, the OnePlus 9 Pro looks set to be the watershed launch.
In the meantime, there’s growing discontent among even the most die-hard OnePlus fans, and a more general feeling that something’s missing from this once seemingly unstoppable brand. The manufacturer badly needs a smash hit with the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro, both to placate fans and set itself back on track. But is such a handset on the cards based on what we’ve seen so far?
Shake things up with a splash of innovation
Of course, we’d have loved to see something radically new and different. Innovative ideas are the most exciting after all. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the OnePlus 9 Pro is set to offer anything interesting, at least in terms of design if early renders are to be believed. Saying it’s inspired by Samsung’s Galaxy series would be an understatement. Imitation is a definitely backward step for a brand that once pushed back against industry trends and produced the exquisite McLaren line-up. The latter includes the immaculate OnePlus Concept One (pictured below) which promised genuine innovation with its use of electrochromic glass. At this stage, the OnePlus brand should really be looking for an aesthetic to call its own, but that’s not been the case with its premium smartphones.
Similarly, we are yet to hear reports of any groundbreaking new features. The camera setup sounds depressingly familiar, although we are expecting next-gen processing capabilities. To be fair to OnePlus though, innovation is hard. Most smartphone brands fall back on simple iteration from generation to generation, rather than taking major risks. Although OnePlus is more guilty than most, with marginal tweaks and changes between the 7, 7T, 8, and 8T ranges. Frankly, OnePlus’ portfolio hasn’t done anything to warrant a biannual release schedule for generations. Another iterative upgrade will be a hard pill for fans to swallow.
At the same time, 2020 has showcased that it is possible to produce experimental phones to break the monotony. The LG Wing is a decent first try at something more off the wall. But those after something more traditional can find excellent, innovative handsets not far from the OnePlus nest. The Find X2 Pro from sibling brand Oppo provides a stellar design, excellent screen, fast charging, slick OS, and an excellent camera system. The handset is definitely more ambitious than OnePlus’ recent phones. It’s just a shame about the eye-watering price tag, although the cheaper Find X2 is similarly exciting. It’s some small irony that Oppo is the more innovative of the two BBK-affiliated brands at the moment.
Of course, it’s still early days and the OnePlus 9 Pro may have a few unknown tricks up its sleeve. But perhaps the OnePlus 9 doesn’t even need to be a revelation to get the brand back on track…
A great phone is within grasping distance
Even with all said above, OnePlus remains a potent brand in the smartphone space. The OnePlus Nord is a sublime budget option. Despite the odd issue, the OnePlus 8 Pro also remains one of our top picks for 2020, offering plenty of features and punch for its price tag. The company offers some of the best display and fastest charging tech around. Even without reinventing the formula, OnePlus knows how to make a compelling flagship smartphone.
The first port of call should be to fix issues with the OnePlus 8 and 8T models. Patching up the bugs and irritants in Oxygen OS 11 is arguably more important than any new hardware the company has to offer. Google’s much more mid-tier Pixel 5 gets by on excellent software and OnePlus should strive for similar simplicity and elegance. The foundations are there with Oxygen OS but it needs ironing out. Likewise, ensuring that features work well out of the box would be another solid step forward. Waiting months for patches to bring the camera up to scratch isn’t acceptable at the increasingly high price point OnePlus commands. The OnePlus 9 series must get it right the first time, and that seems simple enough to do.
Ditching the camera gimmicks — like the underwhelming color filter on the OnePlus 8 Pro — for a competent solid sensor or two would also help. Rumors point to a 48MP main camera and an ultra-wide lens, with possibly a third sensor in tow. That’s not particularly exciting on paper, but the 8 Pro already used the Sony IMX689 sensor that impressed in the Oppo Find X2. If OnePlus can sort out its camera processing, perhaps even outright borrowing from Oppo, the brand could propel itself nearer the top of the photography standings.
All of that shouldn’t be a particularly tall order. It’s really just a matter of paying attention to the finer details and learning from a few past blemishes. Although that’s not necessarily so easy when you’re releasing more smartphones than ever before.
Time to hit a home run
I’m simultaneously excited and apprehensive about the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro. It could be the launch that makes or breaks the brand. OnePlus knows how to produce some very good phones. However, the ever-expanding portfolio has produced more misses than hits as 2020 has rolled on. Neither the OnePlus Nord N10 nor the ultra-affordable Nord N100 are bad phones, but they are uninspired budget phones. The OnePlus 8T wasn’t up to par either. Paired with the recent leaks, the OnePlus 9 Pro could end up as another generic-looking revision. Hopefully, these initial reports don’t paint the full picture.
If OnePlus wants to win back some goodwill it should offer up a “classic flagship killer” that plays to its strengths with the OnePlus 9 and a more premium OnePlus 9 Pro that touches up on the brand’s rough edges over the past couple of years. Phones that are ready and at their best out of the box wouldn’t hurt either. No more “fix it later” patches, please.
We’ll have to wait until around March, 2021 to see exactly what OnePlus has in store. Fingers crossed, as OnePlus needs a big win pretty badly.