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OnePlus 9 Pro’s throttling controversy shows why benchmarks don’t always matter

All smartphones are pretty fast nowadays. A long as you get a phone that costs over $300, you should expect to have little to no issue with speed. The very best smartphones, from iPhones to Android, offer fast and powerful chips that do far more than we need in our day-to-day lives. No more is this more apparent than a recent scandal around OnePlus and the OnePlus 9 series.

OnePlus recently came under fire for appearing to slow down performance when a user used some of the most popular Android apps on their newest flagship phones. When using an app like Chrome, Microsoft Office, or WhatsApp, performance would drop relative to performance for benchmarking apps. This behavior was spotted in a performance review of the OnePlus 9 Pro and substantiated by Geekbench who opted to remove the phone from their Android Benchmark charts.

It's disappointing to see OnePlus handsets making performance decisions based on application identifiers rather than application behavior. We view this as a form of benchmark manipulation. We've delisted the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro from our Android Benchmark chart.

— Geekbench (@geekbench) July 6, 2021

With the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro having a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip, this appears to be incongruous on the face of it. Why bother shipping a powerful chip in your phone, if you’re going to artificially throttle it. Well, turns out there’s a good reason.

OnePlus defended itself in a statement, saying that the change was made to preserve the battery life of OnePlus devices by optimizing the most popular apps in the Play Store against the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor.

“Our top priority is always delivering a great user experience with our products, based in part on acting quickly on important user feedback. Following the launch of the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro in March, some users told us about some areas where we could improve the devices’ battery life and heat management,” a OnePlus spokesperson told XDA Developers. “As a result of this feedback, our R&D team has been working over the past few months to optimize the devices’ performance when using many of the most popular apps, including Chrome, by matching the app’s processor requirements with the most appropriate power. This has helped to provide a smooth experience while reducing power consumption. While this may impact the devices’ performance in some benchmarking apps, our focus as always is to do what we can to improve the performance of the device for our users.”

A OnePlus 9 Pro showing the "about phone" information.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Throttling the smartphone based on what apps are being used is a tactic typically used by Android manufacturers to optimize their phones towards benchmarks. This means that certain phones will appear faster once you use a certain benchmark as Geekbench or 3DMark, but will slow down (relatively) in regular use. Apple has also been found guilty of this in the past, albeit applying this throttling to older iPhones that had reached a low battery capacity (and the company later issued an update to change it). Google was found to be doing the same on some Pixel 5s, slowing down the processor beyond what other phones running the similar SoC would experience — until an update was released to fix this as well.

The issue here is that most users don’t notice when their phones are being “slowed down.” In actual use of the OnePlus 9 Pro, as seen in our reviews of both OnePlus 9 models, we found it to be a quick and speedy performer both times. “The Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor provides all the power you could want — there were absolutely no performance issues for me,” we noted. Similarly with the Pixel 5. We found it was a phone which handled all common tasks “without interruption — and without feeling like it’s underpowered” and noting that “there are times when the Pixel 5 runs more smoothly than some more powerful phones.” As a Pixel 5 owner for the past few months, I cannot help but concur with this characterization.

It’s about the experience, not the numbers.

The best thing in a smartphone is the overall experience, not the abstract numbers in benchmarks and spec sheets. This is not to say that benchmarks and benchmarking don’t matter, they have their place. If the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro feel fast enough in day-to-day use AND the battery life lasts longer, who truly cares whether it’s has a lower number in this benchmarking app or that? Granted, OnePlus could (and still should) have communicated this better or made this an optional feature — after all, it offers considerable customization in so many parts of its software.

There are times when I’ve criticized OnePlus for focusing on the wrong things, as with the Nord CE 5G, but this experience with the OnePlus 9 Pro is an example of the company correctly prioritizing the overall experience.

Now, OnePlus has recently announced the OnePlus Nord 2, an affordable device that is built on the Dimensity 1200 chip. With OnePlus having customized that chip for optimal performance as well, it’ll take a review to see whether a similar throttling situation recurs on the Nord 2. If it’s anything like our experience with the 9 Pro, it is likely to be fine no matter what.

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