iQoo 9 Pro Smartphone Review: Not Quite Able to Stand Out
You’ve probably never heard of iQoo before, but as a subsidiary of Vivo, camera performance is what should really stand out beyond the flashy co-branding going on with this device. The BMW M Motorsport emblazoned on the back — including a case in the box that also matches the back — is what gives this Legend Edition variant its unique look.
The Vivo connection is what stands out more, for the simple fact that it continues to push itself as a serious contender in the mobile photography space. Chances are, at least some of that prowess would trickle down to its own iQoo sub-brand, wouldn’t it?
Design and Build
Like a lot of phone cameras these days, the rear array of the iQuoo 9 Pro stands out for its very size: it takes up almost the top-third of the phone’s back, and it sticks out even more on this variant because of the contrast with the white finish. I like that Chinese brands are at least generous enough to include a case in the box, and in this instance, it matches the back.
The front also comes with some visual cues in the form of the vibrant 6.78-inch OLED display, which is basically the same as that of the Vivo X70 Pro+. It can get pretty bright at a high of 1,500 nits and has an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate for smoother navigation throughout. I’ve just never been crazy about curved edges on a screen, and one of the downsides in going with that is how it complicates holding a phone to take photos. The included case helps with that in a big way.
iQoo doesn’t give the 9 Pro an IP rating, so it’s hard to tell just how durable it truly is. Splashes of water should be fine, but I wouldn’t take chances
While not positioned as a flagship phone, you might think it is one by looking at the specs. The screen, as mentioned, is excellent. Under the hood, it runs on the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor and comes with either 8GB or 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It doesn’t have a memory card slot though, so keep that in mind if you plan to take a lot of photos and video, especially at higher resolutions.
I should mention that Vivo also brought in its RAM extension feature into the iQoo 9 Pro — the tech that sees the system take idle storage and convert it into memory — so you get an extra 4GB of RAM on top of what you already have. While nice, this only really happens when the system needs the boost, like multitasking with a number of intensive apps, or playing games, for example.
It is a 5G-enabled phone, as is standard now, though band support is more limited in North America. A couple will work with the Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile networks, though coverage may be a little spotty depending on where you are. For 4G LTE access, you shouldn’t run into any problems.
No such luck in getting the exact same camera modules from Vivo’s own flagship, but the layout looks good on paper. iQoo used a 50-megapixel (23mm equivalent) 1/1.57-inch Samsung ISOCELL GN5 sensor with an f/1.8 aperture. You get that full resolution when shooting in the High Resolution mode, otherwise, the main camera shoots at a pixel binned 12.5-megapixels.
The gimbal stabilization does the reverse of what the X70 Pro+ did, where Vivo put the gimbal with the ultra-wide lens on that phone. In this case, the 50-megapixel ultra-wide (15mm equivalent) doesn’t have the same luxury the main camera has, but it does do something else: it uses Samsung’s JN1 sensor, which supports a 150-degree field of view, the same thing in the OnePlus 10 Pro, only it’s not positioned as a standalone mode on this phone.
The 16-megapixel telephoto lens (60mm equivalent) is limited to a 2.5x optical zoom, but its focal range is pretty close to a prime lens, and that could end up serving you well for people and animal shots. The f/2.2 aperture is standard, and OIS does help keep things steady when shooting handheld, even if you start to zoom in a bit further with digital zoom, though the hybrid effect here isn’t all that great.
Like the X70 Pro+, the iQoo 9 Pro also runs on Vivo’s Funtouch 12 as the overlay, making this phone feel even more familiar if you’ve used a Vivo device before. I am still not a huge Funtouch fan, but at least it’s slowly inching in the right direction in both looks and functionality.
Unsurprisingly, the familiarity extends to the camera app, where a lot of the same modes carry over as well. Vivo threw in its own AI Scene Optimization, something I generally avoided using because I felt I didn’t need it. This camera has plenty of tools available to go without it anyway, and it’s worth exploring the whole interface to know what’s there.
For instance, the settings menu has fewer options because iQoo sprinkled more of them into the interface itself. Tap the main menu on the top right to turn on the stabilization feature, as well as the grid lines and level meter if you want them. Super Macro is on auto by default, and it has its own setting, along with HDR, filters, and RAW shooting in Pro mode. Granted, overall options aren’t as abundant with this phone, but there is a lot to like.
Captured in Macro mode.
The main camera is something of a debut because of the GN5 sensor since the iQoo 9 Pro is the first to use it. It’s hard to tell if this is a sign of things to come for Samsung’s newest image sensor because the software computation is clearly not the same as Vivo’s flagship, but the results aren’t bad at all. Much of it depends on the kind of lighting you have to work with, regardless of whether it’s day or night, bright or dark.
HDR helps keep composition steady in brighter conditions, and I didn’t find too many reasons not to use it, but as was often the case when shooting with this phone, the results weren’t easy to predict. One thing that was obvious was how much sharper and resonant the main lens was compared to the others. High Resolution mode was what I expected in that it worked best in optimal conditions, and not as much at night or low light.
Night mode does a decent job, so long as you have some lighting to work with. It’s why more widely-lit city scenes are a lot easier to capture than dimly-lit environments. I like that iQoo included the Style sub-section that applies the same cool color balance filters Vivo uses in its phones because they’re fun to play around with, and I like the dynamism they can sometimes add to a shot.
Captured in Night Mode
My sense is that the GN5 sensor is going to be a solid part of upcoming phone cameras, but the software doing the legwork will truly show what it’s capable of. The iQoo 9 Pro isn’t going to be the showpiece for it, partly because many on this side of the pond won’t be exposed to this device, and also because the software here is already restrained. If you count yourself among those who will take it on, then hopefully iQoo keeps updating the camera app to get more out of it.
Shooting with the ultra-wide is fine, though to get full 50-megapixel shots, as mentioned you have to use High Resolution mode. Otherwise, it captures at 12.5-megapixels by default and does so with mixed results. You would think a wider 150-degree field of view would be great, but it can feel too wide when there’s no way to avoid the distortion that goes with it, particularly from a lens this small.
Thankfully, it’s not the only option. iQoo assigned the wider field of view to the fisheye menu beside the 0.6x setting, which goes with a more usable frame, albeit one with a crop factor. The fisheye effects are a little on the gimmicky side, but at the same time, I don’t mind some of the creativity that can come from the crystal ball, asteroid, and rabbit hole modes.
“Crystal Ball” shot.
Telephoto and Portrait
iQoo calls this third lens both a telephoto and portrait optic, and I can see why. It doesn’t get close enough to truly bring in a subject from farther away, and the hybrid zoom is nothing to get excited about. Instead, I found myself using it more as a means to capture a subject with some flair, especially since I didn’t necessarily need the Portrait mode to get a bokeh effect.
Captured in Portrait Mode
Don’t get me wrong, Portrait is fine for those, and the results are pretty good in varying conditions, it’s just that the key difference is this mode gives you more control over how creamy the bokeh is. No surprise, you get the beautification features that are popular in other parts of the world, but I think the Style and Filters offer better choices when it comes to maintaining transparency for the subjects themselves.
A good portion here carries over from Vivo’s phones and that begins with the explainer that tells users what the features do, and ends with the various features that are available. You can shoot with all three lenses, including in RAW, and even get a histogram through the settings.
Captured in RAW
Several features aren’t here from the Vivo X70 Pro+, which is to be expected, though you can bring in gimbal stabilization when you shoot with the main lens. It makes a difference trying to shoot without a tripod, or to keep a shot steady while contorting to stay focused.
Captured in Pro Photo Mode
Results will vary, but at least RAW images give you some flexibility to make something good come out of it, and I tended to do that more than use the 50-megapixel High Resolution mode. The larger pixels here help a lot in low-light shots, so as usual, Pro turns out to be an indispensable part of the whole array.
iQoo clearly had video in mind when developing the 9 Pro, and I would argue the gimbal stabilization has more to do with moving images than still ones. It does an excellent job keeping footage steady in handheld situations. Plus, you get options, including Vivo’s own superb Horizontal Line stabilization that holds steady, even if the phone flips from landscape to portrait.
On top of that, the settings give you a film mode for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 24fps that looks nice, and you can shoot in it all the way up to 8K. You can do it with all three lenses, though your best results will come from the main lens. There are four other shooting modes made for video that you might want to play with as well.
Pushing Mid-Range Photography
The headline features come from flagships, but the bigger leaps are coming in the mid-range. The iQoo 9 Pro is just the latest that takes from premium handsets and applies them to a less expensive upper mid-range alternative. This is good news for the industry and people buying new phones, even if they will get better shots from those same high-end models.
This phone is capable of taking very good shots — even some that would impress you. It’s just that you need to learn the camera and its options to get the best results. This isn’t a phone you pick up just to keep on shooting in auto on the main Photo mode. That would be wasteful. That mixed with its placement in a crowded segment results in a phone that doesn’t quite stand out.
iQoo didn’t make a bad phone here, it’s actually a solid performer and shooter. I just can’t point out enough that makes it different from what Vivo already has from a camera perspective. This phone costs about $850, which is a very competitive price range with a lot of options. Until it drops further, keep an eye out for what else you can get for the same money. For example, you can get the Vivo X70 Pro for similar money and that brings much of what the iQoo 9 Pro offers.
Are There Alternatives?
It won’t have the same bevy of options and features, and video won’t be quite as good, but the Google Pixel 6 is worth a look as one of the best upper mid-range phone cameras available. The same could be said for the Samsung Galaxy S22, as long as you’re cool with a smaller screen. Even the iPhone 13 has a solid camera that can take comparable shots despite missing a lot of ancillary features.
Should You Buy It?
No. It’s a competent shooter but doesn’t do enough to stand out from a crowded segment.
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