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OnePlus needs to rebuild trust after shady app throttling tactics betrayed its community

OnePlus 9 Pro Never Settle
OnePlus 9 Pro Never Settle (Image credit: Andrew Myrick / Android Central)

OnePlus has been under fire lately over its decision to quietly implement app optimization in its latest flagship smartphones. However, while the act itself has been seen as problematic by some, experts are saying that throttling apps wasn't the biggest problem. The main issue is that the company was not upfront about its decision to throttle app performance on the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro.

After an initial investigation by Andrei Frumusanu at Anandtech, it was discovered through benchmarking is that the OnePlus 9 Pro seems to perform worse than some of the best Android phones on the market when it comes to running many apps. This would include devices like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, both of which use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor.

Frumusanu points out that in regular usage, it's not very apparent that this is happening. "In isolation, you'd probably not notice it...I hadn't immediately noticed it myself," he said in an interview. "However, if I know what I'm looking for, or compare it to other devices, then yes, I absolutely notice it."

Some of the most popular apps aren't taking full advantage of your phone's power.

On July 7, OnePlus admitted the throttling, explaining that its engineers have been working "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." In other words, it's slowing down certain apps by limiting how much of the CPU they can use.

OnePlus was also accused of manipulating benchmarks since the slower app performance only affected some apps and not all, particularly since the throttling was based on the popularity of the apps and not the actual performance.

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Why is OnePlus slowing down apps?

OnePlus' initial explanation was that is it was optimizing app performance to "improve the devices' battery life and heat management." This apparently followed early reports of OnePlus 9 devices overheating.

The company further clarified on Monday how it is attempting to match CPU frequency with the performance requirements of individual apps. OnePlus says heavy games will run at full clock speed, "but with actions that do not require the maximum power, reading a webpage or scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, it's not necessary for the CPU to run at almost 3GHz to do that smoothly."

Throttling performance is not completely unheard of in the smartphone industry, especially if it increases battery life to better match an OEM's claims. However, it could impact user experience, and some consumers may value performance over battery life, particularly for a phone that costs $1,000. And while benchmarks aren't the tell-all of a device's performance, Frumusanu compares it to buying a car. "You're paying for a 500HP engine but you somehow got a 400HP engine. Are you going to notice it in everyday driving? Probably not. Is it still going to be plenty fast? Sure."

"The question on whether most people notice it or not....is the core philosophical question at [the] heart of device reviews and evaluation of performance," said Frumusanu.

He points out how OnePlus makes bold claims about the "ultra powerful Snapdragon 888", only to throttle its performance. "Much like a fancy car that costs a lot of money, we're talking about expensive $1,000 smartphones here - if you didn't care about a core aspect of what actually makes the device have that price point, then why are you even buying it?"

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The battery life over performance argument is often a subjective one and depends on what the user values. However, other smartphones like the Galaxy S21 series appear to have better battery life than the OnePlus phones, something Frumusanu says could be due to a combination of factors, such as high baseline power in OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro, a less efficient display, and the inclusion of a dual-cell battery.

Many experts, including Frumusanu, say that the biggest problem isn't with OnePlus sacrificing performance to squeeze more battery life into its phones, especially if those performance losses aren't very noticeable among users. The foremost problem is that OnePlus did so under the radar, causing the situation to turn into a much bigger problem than it could have been.

This isn't the first time

Samsung Galaxy S4

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

OnePlus isn't the only company that has been caught manipulating the performance of its devices. As far back as 2013, Samsung was one of the worst offenders of this, inflating its benchmark numbers to embellish the performance of its Galaxy smartphones. Years later, Huawei was found to do more or less the same thing while reducing actual performance.

MediaTek was the most recent offender of this, and a prime reason why Android Central's Jerry Hildenbrand pointed out the faults in benchmarking phones. Companies cheat, whether it's by overinflating their performance or underperforming to hit other metrics. OnePlus just so happens to be in the latter camp.

Even Apple was caught throttling older iPhones in an attempt to save them from battery issues that caused devices to shut off, and faced a large financial penalty because of it. While the reasoning behind it was more or less justified, the biggest problem that arose from the situation was around the secrecy of Apple's implementation. Eventually, the company admitted what it was doing and even gave users the option to toggle this performance optimization on or off, but so far, OnePlus has not indicated it would do such a thing and many fans seem to be asking for it.

OnePlus needs to "give this power and choice back to users."

OnePlus is a company that's known for having a good relationship with its community. The company regularly posts updates on its forums from its software developers and even the CEO, teasing upcoming device launches and even gathering community input on potential features for future updates. That's why it's so surprising that the company wasn't upfront about its decision to throttle app performance.

"...if OnePlus isn't working with its community....the brand is doing itself a disservice."

Anshel Sag, a senior analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, notes that while throttling is a fairly common practice in the smartphone industry, companies like OnePlus need to be more upfront about moves like this or risk having to do damage control when things blow out of proportion. "OnePlus fans are very performance-oriented and if OnePlus isn't working with its community that it spent so much time and money to cultivate, the brand is doing itself a disservice."

Neil Shah from Counterpoint Research agrees that throttling up or down is okay to a certain extent, "as long as OEMs and chipset brands are not throttling just to game the benchmarks but with UX as a primary focus." Even so, he says it's important that OEMs "give this power and choice back to users on what apps or services need to be boosted or dumbed down or do it dynamically based on the app performance, efficient codebase and user behavior."

OnePlus has already been criticized lately by fans for deviating from its "Never Settle" mantra by releasing underwhelming wearable devices and more expensive smartphones akin to its competitors. OnePlus phones were once known as "flagship killers" that ended up turning into just plain flagships, with the price tag to match. The problem is that now, users are being cheated out of performance despite paying a premium, without any say in the matter.

OnePlus has made itself the arbiter on how its fans get to experience running apps on its smartphones. Even when asked whether the company plans to provide users with some way to opt-out of throttling these blacklisted apps, OnePlus gave us the same pre-written response it provided to everyone else without actually addressing the questions we had posed.

How will this affect OnePlus?

Now that the cat's out of the bag, the question is whether or not this will detrimentally affect not only OnePlus as a business, but also how it will affect its relationship with its community. Given its long-time focus on building its relationship with its fans, keeping something like this under wraps represents a significant breach of trust.

Source: Andrew Myrick / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Myrick / Android Central)

Digging into OnePlus' recent explanation over the app throttling, many responses appear to praise the company for coming out to admit what it's doing and why. That said, others are less than pleased with what the company is doing.

One user complains that OnePlus didn't actually admit to doing anything wrong. "If OnePlus thought they should've been transparent, they could've said that. He said nothing of the sort. They said, 'We did this and now you need to deal with it.'" He goes on to say that OnePlus could easily decide to start throttling other aspects of the phone without giving users the option to toggle these "optimizations" on or off.

Bryan Ma from the International Data Corporation (IDC) says that while the situation puts a strain on its relationship with consumers, OnePlus has a chance to save face. "It can restore some trust by being more transparent with the list of apps and giving users more flexibility on the throttling. After all, many of these fans are power users who want control of their systems." He says that the challenge for OnePlus is the delicate dance between retaining its fanbase and transitioning to a more mainstream OEM.

Derrek is a long-time Nokia and LG fanboy who loves astronomy, videography, and sci-fi movies. When he's not working, he's most likely working out or smoldering at the camera.

13 Comments
  • The only way OnePlus will earn my trust back is to change to a monthly updates schedule and to actually listen to their user base in regards to their software UI which is no longer what attracted me to OnePlus in the first place but I know neither of those things will happen so I'll never buy another OnePlus phone again.
  • People loved OnePlus for pure Android experience because it was alternative to overpriced Pixel Now they are done and going down
  • You should see the OnePlus 7T thread in the OnePlus community forums regarding the latest update. Aside from the throttling issue the bigger issue here lies in unstable official software releases. Lots of comments regarding users giving up on OnePlus. It's such a shame because hardware wise I really like their devices but no point in having a Ferrari with a poor engine!
  • I had a 7T and you're right the hardware was great and the camera wasn't to shabby either it's just a shame they've lost their identity now with them becoming a "me too" OEM.
  • I had a OnePlus 3T. One of the best phones I have ever owned. The bigger the company got the worse they got. Sort of like Google, Facebook, Amazon and most other companies that grow over time and start to only care about shareholders. I will never own another of their devices.
  • I think Google and Samsung are the only OEMs that care about their user base although I'd say Google more than Samsung these days as Samsung is more interested in emulating the Apple business model with their continued removal of important features on their phones like expandable storage with the current S21 series.
  • Stick a fork in them, their done!
    I don't think there is any way to come back for them at this point. They've already proven they don't care about there users. Horrible software updates for years, holding back basic features on the non pro models just to make the pro look better.
    Lackluster hardware improvements for years. And now OnePlus which used to be about performance is intentionally slowing down apps, lol I sold my 7T a month ago, since I bought that phone OnePlus has been just getting worse and worse, I'm glad to be rid of them
  • There is NO forgiveness on Android market - too big competition
  • Samsung was forgiven for exploding batteries with the Galaxy Note 7 so that isn't true.
  • I have had no problems with the 6, 7-Pro, and now the 8T. Not sure if I will ever get another OnePlus phone but what bothers me even more is that here in the USA we're running out of options! I will most surely never own an iPhone unless by some miracle they start to allow customization like Android does. In fact if they did I think they would dominate the market even more than they already do!
    So what do we have...Samsung? Pixel? Sony? The days when we had real choices are long gone. Moto sucks, LG is gone, HTC is extinct, BlackBerry has decayed into dust, Asus Zenfone 8 has more complaints than anyone. What's left?
    I really was interested in the Xperia 5 iii but they have a dedicated Google Assistant button that cannot be remapped? WHY FOR GODS SAKE??? Even Google doesn't put that on their own phones! I am disgusted with the whole bunch of them. For right now I'm waiting to see what the Pixel 5A has to offer. Until then my 8T cannot be beat! SMH
  • I'm getting a Pixel 4a 5G and if my lottery numbers come up before the Pixel 6 series launches, I'm getting the 6 Pro too, I won't get a OnePlus phone again and will be sticking with a Pixel.
  • I'm a little outdated with things, could you explain to me what's wrong with moto now? Got a 6 years updating to do here...
  • I had this same thought. When I retire my 5t, where would I go if not with another OnePlus? Sony? I was planning on jumping to the 8t and for now I think I'll stick with that decision. I don't see what the big deal is. As I mentioned elsewhere people are getting upset that OnePlus taught their Ferrari to lower the RPM's while tootling through the parking lot to save fuel. Apps that need full power like playing games, full power is available. I highly doubt anyone could actually discern the difference in real world usage. It took a benchmark to discover the issue. Not user complaints.