With the launch of the OnePlus 9 series, OnePlus continues to work on becoming a fully rounded smartphone OEM, covering multiple price segments.
With the launch of the OnePlus 9 series, OnePlus continues to work on becoming a fully rounded smartphone OEM, covering multiple price segments. By partnering with Hasselblad, OnePlus hopes to raise the bar of its camera technology while maintaining its performance-centric core brand.
Reaching for the premium segment
In 2020, OnePlus undertook a significant shift to its smartphone portfolio. Up until then, the focus had been on devices that aspired to be flagship devices, while undercutting the competition in price and overdelivering on performance. This focus significantly broadened with the introduction of the Nord series and the N10 and N100 devices. These new device families aim at the mid-range and low-end segments of the smartphone market, expanding OnePlus’s position downward in terms of pricing.
With the OnePlus 9 series, and in particular the OnePlus 9 Pro, the company is trying to compete with Samsung, Xiaomi, Apple, and other flagship devices on all aspects of the smartphone experience—including price. The OnePlus 9 Pro starts at $969, $70 more than its predecessor the OnePlus 8 Pro, with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The upgraded version, with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, costs $1,069. The OnePlus 9, on the other hand, starts at $729 (8+128GB) and costs $829 for the 12GB RAM plus 256GB ROM version.
OnePlus now plays in the same price range as Samsung with the Galaxy S21 series, at least in the US. OnePlus feels confident that it now has enough broad brand appeal to be viewed as an alternative to Apple, in some cases, but especially to Samsung for existing Android users.
The company does well to generate hype surrounding its handset launches, but that attention vastly outperforms the company’s actual position in the market. Aiming for the premium price segment is a natural evolution of the brand, but it is not without issues. OnePlus must choose a balance between speaking directly to a loyal fan base, while creating mass appeal. Friction exists in this space and must be managed effectively; if not, the company is in danger of losing the narrative over its device strategy.
Developing an imaging identity
OnePlus has been on the bleeding edge of many smartphone flagship features like high-refresh-rate displays and fast charging but had to watch other OEMs take the lead in another key smartphone use case—cameras.
In the biggest sign of OnePlus’s renewed attention to the cameras on its flagship, the company has now entered a multi-year partnership with camera company Hasselblad. For the OnePlus 9 series, the partnership means color-tuning based on Hasselblad color science. In the future, the two companies plan to work on hardware together. OnePlus has promised to work on its cameras in the past, with mixed results.
The Hasselblad partnership allows OnePlus to start to develop its own imaging identity. Huawei’s partnership with Leica has led to images on flagship Huawei to develop a certain esthetic. Similarly, Google’s Pixel phones have a certain look—just like Samsung’s Galaxy and Apple’s iPhone. Nokia and vivo have partnered with Zeiss for imaging capabilities.
Users have a variety of choices to match their personal imaging preferences to a smartphone brand. For OnePlus, it is essential to improve its imaging capabilities if it wants to overcome the existing bias and complete its flagship devices.
The camera on the 9 Pro is a quad-lens setup—48-megapixel main lens, 50-megapixel ultra-wide lens, 8-megapixel telephoto lens with 3.3x optical zoom, and 2-megapixel dedicated monochrome lens.
OnePlus continues to play catch-up in the camera department and it will need to lean on Hasselblad to close the gap with the competition. On many competing flagships, OEMs include more megapixels to win the race to the biggest number of megapixels. At the same time, zoom has been a key trend for many OEMs and OnePlus is not able to compete with multi-lens optical zoom setups.
The partnership with Hasselblad is an important first step, but any sustained benefit from it will only develop if the collaboration reaches hardware and expands further in the camera software. Color tuning is not enough to drive OnePlus cameras forward far enough and would be another mediocre foray into smartphone photography for Hasselblad, after a short-lived partnership with Motorola. Ideally, the next OnePlus launch for a high-end device features tighter Hasselblad hardware integration. This would show users that OnePlus is serious about this aspect of the smartphone experience and the partnership is more than a one-off marketing stunt.
Performance remains at the core of the OnePlus flagship experience
Until then, OnePlus is wise to focus on performance as its key differentiator. This is what the brand was built on and what attracted its most loyal user base. The latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 powers the new 9 series and 5G connectivity is available on both versions. On the 9 Pro, the display features LTPO technology, which allows the refresh rate to vary between 120Hz and 1Hz, depending on the content on-screen. Touch response has also improved for gaming. The display on the OnePlus 9 is the same display as found on the OnePlus 8T from 2020. It also supports a 120Hz refresh rate but lacks LTPO technology.
Charging, as part of device performance, continues to be a key differentiator for OnePlus. Especially in the US market, OnePlus can take a leadership position in charging speeds. The new 9 series supports 65W wired charging, charging the 4,500 mAh batteries from 1% to 100% in under 30 minutes, according to OnePlus. On the 9 Pro, 50W wireless charging recharges the battery to 100% in 43 minutes with OnePlus’s proprietary charger, according to the company. In other markets, where Chinese OEMs like Xiaomi, OPPO, and vivo are also present, OnePlus’s charging capabilities are not as much of a differentiator.
In a global market where Huawei is forced to relinquish shelf space, especially in the high-end market segments, OnePlus is positioning itself as a premium alternative to Samsung, Apple, and flagships from OEMs like OPPO and Xiaomi.
To be considered as a complete package, the company must embrace its “Never Settle” motto to mean that no aspects of the smartphone experience are less important than others. The partnership with Hasselblad is a good first step to improve on one of the last parts of a premium flagship smartphone where the competition has been ahead of OnePlus. It will be critical for OnePlus to follow up on its promise and deliver deeply integrated camera hardware and software based on Hasselblad capabilities. If OnePlus does not do that, other OEMs will be at the ready with competing products that do address the latest trends in smartphone photography.
Gerrit Schneemann, Principal Analyst, Smartphone