Yo, OnePlus: secretly throttling is never okay

Last Tuesday, AnandTech caught OnePlus doing the previously unthinkable — throttling the performance of its new flagship smartphone, the OnePlus 9 Pro. Seeing “inexplicable” slowdown, the publication discovered the phone was diverting a laundry list of popular apps away from its Snapdragon 888’s high-performance cores. The company’s excuse? It was all an attempt to save battery life.

Today, OnePlus is doubling down on that earlier statement with a longer forum post, where the company’s argument sounds downright reasonable. “In recent years, the performance of smartphone SoCs has reached a point where their power is often overkill in certain scenarios,” writes OnePlus, blaming Qualcomm for essentially being too good at its job.

“With this in mind, our team has shifted its attention from simply providing sheer performance to providing the performance you expect from our devices while reducing power consumption and heat dissipation,” adds OnePlus.

That sounds good! Now, here are three problems with that seemingly cogent argument:

First, OnePlus has sold devices based on raw speed for years now, and despite the OnePlus 9 Pro’s focus on Hasselblad-branded cameras, it’s no exception. The company’s entire tagline is “Never Settle,” and the company promised a “flawlessly ‘Fast and Smooth’ experience” from the OnePlus 9 Pro. “You’ll be one step ahead of the curve,” the company assured users during its launch presentation, calling the phone’s Snapdragon 888 “the best there is of all the dragons in the kingdom.”

The OnePlus 9 Pro promises “ultimate performance” from its new Snapdragon chip.

Second, if AnandTech is right, you do appear to be settling here. The publication found the phone less responsive than a Galaxy S21 Ultra in side by side tests, despite having worse battery life, even though both use the same chips and same screen technology. The slowdown “applies to pretty much everything that has any level of popularity in the Play Store,” too.

Third and most importantly, OnePlus didn’t tell anyone. And now, the company’s trying to make it sound like the practice of secretly throttling a device could somehow ever be okay.

This is a dangerous idea. If we establish that a phonemaker can quietly throttle on a user’s behalf, what’s to keep them from doing that whenever they like? For years, conspiracy theories have swirled about how gadget makers slow down or otherwise cripple devices to force their users to upgrade, and many of them were dismissed as just that — conspiracy theories — until it was revealed that Apple actually did something of the sort in 2017.

Back then, Apple also had a good excuse about how its throttling was saving your phone’s battery, but it didn’t change the fact that the company hid it from users, causing an unknown number of them to upgrade their phones earlier than they might have needed to. The company settled twice (once for $500 million, and once for $113 million) and added the ability to turn off throttling, but Apple still largely normalized the idea that its actions were okay, and brought the controversial processor throttling feature to later phones as well.

When OnePlus realized that it wanted to shift its focus away from “simply providing sheer performance,” the time to tell us would have been on stage, before people purchased the phone, and it should have been packaged as a feature that you can turn on and off.

That’s the kind of relationship the company’s power-user fans expect to have with OnePlus. That’s the brand OnePlus built. Now, it’s at risk of erosion.

Let’s not pretend this is normal or acceptable for OnePlus, or any other manufacturer.

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