The Rehashed OnePlus 9R Sets A Dangerous Precedent
With the curtains falling over OnePlus’ global 9 Series launch event, my mind was on the device that didn’t make an appearance. Sure, the new LTPO displays and the Hasselblad camera tech of the 9 Pro are neat. But the device that had me waiting was not the very best that OnePlus had to offer, it was the cheapest (of the three).
The OnePlus 9R is an interesting omission from said event. And yes, it is real. Some of you may argue that the device didn’t show up solely because it’s exclusive to the Indian market. Nonetheless, I found its absence strange. It promises to be a “flagship killer,” with everything from a powerful CPU to a silky-smooth display. What processor, you ask? Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 870, a rebadged Snapdragon 865+ from yesteryear. And that’s where the problem begins.
The chips of yesteryear are still great*
The venerable Snapdragon 865 is still a powerhouse when it comes to chewing through the very best that mobile gaming has to offer. The Samsung Galaxy S20 and the OnePlus 8T did a great job last year with an 865 at the helm. One can’t help but call out the striking similarities between the OnePlus 8T and the 9R.
But the 870’s 7 nm architecture and external 5G modem mean that it isn’t as power-efficient as the 5 nm Snapdragon 888 that beats at the heart of 2021’s flagship smartphones like the OnePlus 9. The 870 is a minor upgrade over the 865+ (wasn’t as popular as the 865) with one Kryo 585 prime core clocked at 3.2Ghz, three Kryo 585 performance cores clocked at 2.4Ghz, and four Kryo 385 efficiency cores clocked at 1.8GHz.
OnePlus isn’t the first smartphone vendor to use what are effectively remasters of last year’s chips. The Snapdragon 870 and the 860 (a rehash of 2019’s Snapdragon 855) round out the spec sheets of the Poco F3 (a rebadged Xiaomi Redmi K40)and the X3 Pro respectively. And with price tags of EUR 249 and 349, they make the OnePlus 9R’s ₹40,000 (EUR 465) asking price look like a daylight robbery. Devices like the Moto G100, the Oppo Find X3, and the iQOO Neo 5 5G are also based on the 5G-capable Snapdragon 870. Don’t let that trick you into believing that these are brand-new chips.
Value flagships on the cheap
The value proposition on offer here can’t be ignored. Flagship-grade performance at mid-tier pricing is a pretty sweet deal. But stuffing 2020 (and 2019) chips into 2021 devices and calling it a day doesn’t sound like a consumer win in my book. It’s something I’d expect from Intel’s iterative x86 Core processors. Did Qualcomm become the very thing it swore to destroy?
Did Qualcomm become the very thing it swore to destroy?
Since most games and apps out there don’t take advantage of 120 Hz displays (yet) so processors don’t have to run everything at a silky 120 frames per second. This makes last-gen processors more than plenty when it comes to intensive tasks, even gaming. And while some manufacturers are opting for tricks like MEMC (Motion Estimation, Motion Compensation) to artificially boost frame rates at the cost of minor visual oddities, the chips off the old 7nm block can play the same trick.
The real drawback of these chips is power consumption. And I’m comparing them to the 5 nm chips in today’s flagships which does make the playing field a tad uneven. Some manufacturers have tried to offset the power drain with meaty 5000 mAh batteries with mixed results. The new Snapdragon 888 lets 2021’s flagships consume less power while setting new benchmark records in the performance department.
Chips off the old block
These chips might be good news on paper for the value flagships of 2021. The absence of WiFi 6E support (present in both the 865+ and the 888) is an omission that I can live with. But why would Qualcomm do this in 2021 when they haven’t rebadged old chips before?
With nearly a decade of an unrelenting smartphone processor monopoly, Qualcomm’s move would have been just as profitable in the past. Perhaps the move is a result of the Snapdragon 865+ not garnering enough support from smartphone vendors. Perhaps it is because we are at the tipping point of a devastating silicon shortage that has already brought existing production lines to their knees.
Place the 870 and the 888 side by side and the generational leap is evident. A beefed-up Adreno 660 GPU, a new X1 prime core, and an upgraded AI engine make for a significant power boost. This bump in performance comes coupled with an increase in battery life thanks to the efficient 5 nm process and an integrated 5G modem. Newer mid-range chips could have made use of these battery savings at the very least.
Of revision and repetition
The Poco F1 embodied the spirit of OnePlus’ early efforts by offering a flagship-grade SoC in a phone at a mid-range price. Today, both these brands are attempting to capture the same magic. But instead of the Snapdragon 888, they’re using last-gen processors in brand-new devices. And some of these “flagship-grade” phones don’t look different from their predecessors on the outside either.
Performance isn’t an issue, true. The Snapdragon 870 and 860 can handle just about anything you can toss at them. They can power high refresh rate displays and the very best in camera processing tech. But I’m worried about where the industry is headed. Intel’s woes with shrinking processors are well-documented and Qualcomm’s ARM-fuelled gold rush might just be coming to an end. Perhaps last-gen revisions will drive growth in a competitive market of glass slabs that shed headphone jacks.