OnePlus was plunged into the center of controversy again these past few days after something that would have flown under most people’s radars. Very few owners of the new OnePlus 9 Pro had complaints about the phone’s performance, at least not until some decided to compare it with its peers. The revelation and OnePlus’ own admission that it was indeed throttling some apps for the sake of battery life and thermal management have become almost similar to the benchmarking cheating it got accused of a few years back. The company has now made a more official and detailed defense of that practice that makes a somewhat ironic point about the smartphone market’s obsession with specs and figures.
To be clear, most OnePlus 9 Pro owners probably didn’t even notice the performance throttling on some popular apps. Games and resource-intensive apps still use the powerful 3GHz Cortex X1 core of the Snapdragon 888, so that’s not exactly an issue. Some users do report some latency in scrolling through web pages, for example, but it isn’t consistent across the board and for all users.
OnePlus’ latest statement, however, provokes a bit of deep thinking and head-scratching. In a nutshell, it pretty much says that the performance of SoCs, the Snapdragon 888 in this context, is “often overkill” in certain scenarios. Those scenarios, it turns out, include the most popular things people do on their phones, like browsing the Web or using social media apps.
The company says that opening apps or playing games makes the Snapdragon 888 kick into full gear but then OnePlus throttles the performance for less critical actions. Isn’t that, however, how these processors already or should operate, with the more powerful cores only spinning up as needed while delegating other tasks to the more power-efficient cores? In other words, OnePlus is implementing optimizations that should already be there on the silicon level. If it isn’t, then it’s addressing the problem on the wrong level of abstraction.
Gauging CPU performance and efficiency isn’t a trivial matter, which is what makes benchmarks an imprecise science. There’s also the question of whether it’s more efficient to finish a CPU task quickly using high-powered cores in very short bursts or to use lower cores that take more time to finish the same task. OnePlus seems to have put its foot down on the latter, but, even then, its solution leaves a few issues unaddressed.
It also says that it just wants to match each app with the most appropriate performance it needs. But who is in the position to judge what performance is appropriate for the app? Is it the developer who made the app with a certain performance threshold in mind? Is it the user who expects an app to perform its best without going overboard? Or is it the vendor, in this case, OnePlus, whose name and reputation are on the line when apps do go astray?
OnePlus says that it has shifted its attention away from simply providing sheer performance, a somewhat subtle way of saying it doesn’t want to play that CPU numbers game anymore. Its own marketing, however, seems to disprove that position, calling attention to the sheer performance of the Snapdragon 888. If that chipset were overkill for the majority of the things people do on their phones with the majority of the popular apps on Google Play Store, why did it choose to use the processor anyway when it could have opted for something that may even make the OnePlus 9 Pro more affordable? Perhaps it knows that it won’t look good with anything other than the Snapdragon 888, even if it didn’t want to utilize all its power most of the time.
OnePlus is, unfortunately, walking a tightrope that it could have avoided if it were more upfront with what it was doing behind the scenes. For better or worse, this scrutiny it is receiving could also lead to a closer examination of other phone makers who might actually be doing the same thing. It’s a slippery slope when these OEMs decide what’s appropriate performance and what isn’t, especially when they believe they can get away without having to tell anyone about it.