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OnePlus needs to get camera software right BEFORE the phone ships

The same old problem again.

Published onAugust 2, 2020

OnePlus Nord dutch angle camera module
Ryan-Thomas Shaw / Android Authority

Quality hardware with a focus on performance and clean software, yet lacking in one key area — the camera. It seems to be a recurring theme with OnePlus.

Time and time again, OnePlus phones have come under scrutiny for the less-than-stellar photography, despite having good hardware on paper. Even with the steadily upward trajectory in pricing, the company has simply not delivered an equivalent improvement in camera quality, a key aspect of premium hardware.

Now, I’m not saying that the camera hardware on all OnePlus phones is bad. Far from it! OnePlus has been using tried-and-tested sensors across its portfolio. And yet, somehow, out-of-the-box results leave a lot to be desired. This needs to change.

The latest victim of OnePlus’ seemingly lackadaisical attitude towards cameras is the OnePlus Nord. I’ve been using the phone for the last two weeks, and as much as I like the phone, the camera simply doesn’t deliver on the “flagship-like” experience OnePlus promised. Instead, it looks like OnePlus has thrown more hardware at a problem that actually needs a software solution.

The OnePlus Nord’s primary camera lacks dynamic range, exhibiting crushed highlights and washed-out colors. Meanwhile, the ultra-wide camera falls short on detail and sharpness, and displays inconsistent noise reduction. In our review, Ryan didn’t find the portrait mode particularly convincing either. And don’t get me started on the poor 2MP macro lens.

OnePlus Camera Lab - robot arm used to simulate multiple scenarios
OnePlus' Camera Lab: A robot arm used to simulate multiple shooting scenarios

Building a phone is hard. Delivering top-notch image quality is harder still. Between the camera lab in Taiwan and the OnePlus R&D center in India, the company has devoted significant resources to building a team that should be able to deliver on the promise of consistently high image quality. However, as we’ve seen with OnePlus Nord, the software just doesn’t matches the capabilities of its main 48MP camera sensor.

Read more: OnePlus 8 Pro buyer’s guide: Everything you need to know

This isn’t an ongoing trend with OnePlus. All the way back to the OnePlus 6T, the company’s phones have been known to reduce noise aggressively, resulting in a paint-like effect and smeared low-level detail. OnePlus partially improved on this with the OnePlus 7 and got a few things right. In our camera review of the OnePlus 7, we noted the exposure and colors were spot on for the most part. That said, the dynamic range was still poor, and there was haze in several images. The low-light performance wasn’t too good either.

OnePlus phones have rarely delivered on their full imaging potential at launch.

It wasn’t until a month after the launch of the OnePlus 7 that the company fixed issues with contrast, low-light, and autofocusing.

This trend continued with the OnePlus 7T and 7T Pro, and even the OnePlus 8 only offers middling performance. Sure, it can capture some quality shots, but the inconsistency, poor contrast levels, and the mediocre HDR hold the OnePlus 8 back.

What’s even more aggravating is that it’s the same issues over and over. There’s too much contrast that crushes details in darker areas, aggressive noise reduction, and inconsistent results. These issues plague the front-facing camera as well. HDR performance is all over the place, noise levels are through the roof, and there’s noticeable skin retouching even with the beauty mode switched off.

At a time when even budget phones are pushing out incredible images, it’s sad to see OnePlus can’t deliver a high-quality imaging experience that matches the competition, as well as the hype that the company has generated. After all, competing phones like the realme X2 Pro and even the Redmi K20 Pro delivers significantly better results with similar hardware.

The OnePlus Nord is a successful return to roots, but the cameras continue to be lackluster.

Here’s the thing with the OnePlus Nord. The company has managed a successful return to the roots. The Nord offers excellent performance, a polished software experience, and even a rather good — albeit derivative — design. The main thing holding back the OnePlus Nord is the camera, and the recurring theme of poor image processing is aggravating. Sure, that might change in the future with a software update, but that’s exactly the point.

Six years in, OnePlus no longer has the luxury of calling itself a startup. With considerable resources on hand, it’s high time the company aligned its software teams with timelines to ensure that it gives users the best possible experience at launch.

Read more: OnePlus Nord review: Get it for OxygenOS and value for money, not the hardware

To OnePlus’ credit, the company has usually patched things up through software updates. However, OnePlus could do well to follow its own “Never Settle” mantra. A flagship experience is the sum of its parts, and the camera is one of the most important aspects of it.

Buyers deserve a fantastic imaging experience at launch, not a month or more down the line. A phone needs to be sold on the merits of what it can deliver out of the box, instead of on the promise of an update.

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