Anton D. Nagy contributed to this Samsung Galaxy S21 + vs OnePlus 9 Pro comparison.
View the Samsung Galaxy S21 + on Amazon
View the OnePlus 9 Pro on Amazon
I think no company has won more of my comparisons than OnePlus. It really isn’t that difficult for a phone that defies the establishment so aggressively. It would be almost ridiculous to sit here and tell you to buy a Galaxy S9 +, for example, for almost twice the price of a OnePlus 6. And sure, we knew that every Galaxy had additional perks that every OnePlus didn’t, but these were never worth double the price.
For most of a decade, recommending OnePlus to my friends and family has always been a breeze. They weren’t the best phones, but they were too good for the price. So you can safely imagine why this comparison is so contradicting to me. What happens at the crossroads of this premise when price can no longer save you? It either means that your product grew up to really compete with the big kids or that you have lost touch with what the market wants.
On one corner we have the OnePlus 9 Pro, which the company calls their best shot as part of a very bold marketing campaign. On the flip side, we have the Galaxy S21 +, which Samsung calls the Every Day Epic, and evidence of part of that conflict. See, before I would have made this comparison to the Ultra or a Note, but given that these two phones are almost the same now, let’s just say I did my best to make this debate as fair as possible.
I think if you’re already bouncing off the regular OnePlus 9 or Galaxy S21, you don’t necessarily have a budget where compromises are common. Once you hit the thousand dollar mark, other elements like quality, performance, and even social status play a role. That last premise alone is a tough pill for OnePlus, as its reputation for value doesn’t match Samsung’s fame for extravagance.
That said, once you measure them side by side, you’d be shocked at who wins what. Visually, both phones couldn’t be more similar. With its Gorilla Glass Victus vs Gorilla Glass 5, I would give Samsung an edge in terms of high-quality materials, even if both frames are made of shiny aluminum. The 9 Pro is a bit taller and thicker, but then strangely narrower and lighter than the S21 +. Can’t even say I think Samsung’s design is more cohesive given the contour shapes, as OnePlus has looked at how they made this camera hump more of a classic. If anything, I would choose the S21 + because its weight distribution is a bit finer in the hand and you have less trouble keeping the matte finish clean, while on the 9 Pro that depends on which variant you can find or your carrier sells.
Where I never thought OnePlus would win is on the display front. Samsung has always been the king of this department, but this year you have to go ultra if you want to have all the fun. Both are 6.7-inch LTPO AMOLED panels with a brightness of 1300 nits. Both offer a variable refresh rate at 120Hz, and yes, I mean the S21 + is a flat panel display for better ergonomics, but its benefits end there. The 9 Pro has a higher resolution in Quad HD + than in Full HD +, the 9 Pro has a slightly larger screen-to-body ratio and can have a lower refresh rate than the Galaxy if necessary. Really the only place you won’t notice a huge difference is in the dual fire speakers, which are both loud and crisp (Audio Test) (Audio Test). Even if both have a fingerprint scanner in the display, the 9 Pro is faster, but the Galaxy is more secure.
If we now switch to internals, the similarities come back. They’re both powered by the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, start with the same RAM and storage, have the same IP rating, both offer flavors of 5G, the latest in WiFi, although Bluetooth is newer on the 9 Pro. Then the mix varies, where the Galaxy has a larger battery, but the 9 Pro is charged much faster both wired and wirelessly.
So yes, hardware is some Galaxy territory, the 9 Pro wins the display, Specs is a tie and well, the software is kind of a matter of taste. Both devices run on the latest version of Android 11, but with dramatically different approaches to the graphics. Any aesthetic purist will switch to Oxygen OS more on the 9 Pro. This continues to be one of my favorite approaches to Android as it’s fast, performance-adjusted Android graphics and a decent list of perks that make this phone even better than a Pixel. OneUI, on the other hand, is Samsung’s version of Android, where the aesthetics are different and the animations are a bit overbearing for anyone who comes out of the warehouse. Maybe that’s why I prefer it because it even outperforms OnePlus in terms of benefits like the side menu for multitasking shortcuts, or support for features like DeX, or the benefit of having a completely separate environment with Secure Folder. I tend to prefer OnePlus for stupid little things like face recognition for notifications or the three-way mute slider, but again, your favorite is yours.
In fact, I would say that you will struggle to find differences in daily user experience. It has come to the point that companies have realized that gimmicks cannot compensate for a user’s need for stamina, and I’ve had no problem with any phone, with the S21 + maybe a little longer. Calls are great on both, and I can’t even say I notice any differences in the 5G experience on T-Mobile’s network, even though you and I know this is still a work in progress.
The final crucial point is the camera, and we have two dramatically different philosophies here. OnePlus is poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a brand most consumers don’t remember, along with insane specs, but then Samsung has slayed competitors with photography since the Galaxy S6. OnePlus wins the Spec race easily, but the results are what matters.
During the day, photos are comparable to both phones with three focal lengths, even if the zoom range varies. I tend towards the warmer results and dynamic range of the S21 +, but if contrast is your jam, the Hasselblad tuning of the 9 Pro should be your choice. In addition, macros are thanks to the game with the ultra-wide territory of OnePlus.
The problem is when the light gets dim. The over-tuning of the 9 Pro only destroys the dynamic range, which then affects the details, and the darker it gets, the less reliable OnePlus can be.
Selfies and portraits are part of the galaxy. Unfortunately, OnePlus opted for a fixed focus, so the results are washed out and stale, with far better color and dynamic range from Samsung.
And when we go to video, both phones are doing 8K, both are doing 4K at 60, and even if OnePlus is doing 4K at 120, I find the Galaxy’s results to be more balanced and consistent, even if the stabilization is a good match.
Where the Galaxy OnePlus just annihilates is in its 4K at 60 selfie video capabilities, now with 3 generations of experience, where OnePlus still seems to think 1080p is good and not even me with that terrible dynamic range from the 9 Pro.
Conclusion Galaxy S21 + vs. OnePlus 9 Pro Pro
In closing, I have to admit that I never thought I’d see the day a OnePlus lost to a Galaxy. It really doesn’t make any logical sense for a value-driven company to lose to a premium brand unless the value-driven company is naturally trying to compete and fumble with the big kids.
That’s not new. We’ve seen Huawei go from a cheap phone maker to a competitor annihilator in a few generations, but if you ask me what made them successful, I would call it walking the talk. They didn’t team up with Leica just to put a name on their cameras. Devices like the P20 Pro still take better photos than phones that hit the market 3 years later. If you want to go all out with a marketing campaign, you better deliver the merchandise to own the title.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is a nice phone that I can easily recommend to a fan of the brand, but if you really want the best bang for your buck in this price range, the Galaxy S21 + is simply a better phone. If camera isn’t everything for most users, why spend almost the same money on less performance? If I had to choose between the two, I’d go for the Galaxy. I continue to have a sweet spot in my heart for OnePlus and how they defied the establishment, but again, if price unfortunately can’t save you, that’s what it is.