The OnePlus 8 series of phones is set to launch shortly. And as the moment of the launch nears, so does the hype. Judging by the promotional videos and tweets we have seen so far, the new OnePlus is looking to highlight its design (that shade of green), super multitasking (hyper tasking, never mind the fact that hyper is actually a bit of a negative term), incredibly smooth scrolling and of course, that OnePlus staple quality: speed (Lead with Speed is the tagline of the device).
It is not just about them chips, RAM and displays
But we think that the real challenge – in product terms – that OnePlus faces is not in any of these fields. After all, OnePlus has been showing its design ability for a while now, be it the Sandstone finished back of the first two OnePlus devices, the special black edition of the OnePlus 3T or the premium finish of the Pro series in 2019 (and even the OnePlus 7T). Similarly, multitasking has not really been a problem with OnePlus phones, as they have always been laden with lots of memory (these are the folks who made PCs feel under specced in the RAM department). Smooth scrolling on the high refresh rate displays has never been disputed either. And well, as for speed, OnePlus has seldom come with anything less than a flagship level, benchmark busting processor.
OnePlus is clearly playing to its strengths here. And they are well-established strengths. Anyone who purchases a OnePlus knows that they are going to get a phone that looks very smart and comes with lots of RAM, a top-notch processor and now, a very good display.
So, what is this challenge that we are talking about? It is right on the back of the phone, and to an extent, at the front too.
We are referring to cameras.
Good cameras? Yes! Great Cameras? Well…
Don’t get us wrong – we are not saying that OnePlus devices have bad cameras. Far from it. It is just that in an era where cameras are gaining increasing importance, OnePlus has often been perceived as being just a little off the pace. If that sounds unfair, just think of the top Android devices with the best cameras – and please do not bring benchmarks into it. The chances are that you will be looking at the Pixel, the Galaxy S series, and the Huawei P series. Again, this is not to say that OnePlus devices have bad cameras. It is just that they are not considered to be right up there with the best.
And actually, for quite a while, this was not a big deal. For, right until the launch of its Pro series last year, OnePlus was really about speed and being a flagship killer – although it did promote the OnePlus 5 for its dual cameras (“Dual Cameras. Clearer Photos.”). So if the cameras did not always come up to the level of say a Galaxy S or a Pixel, one could shrug one’s shoulders and say “so what, we are getting very good hardware and clean software for a much lower price.” It is pertinent to point out, though, that OnePlus never had bad cameras. The hardware, if anything, was often on par with the best with sensors from Sony. And OnePlus, to its immense credit, made it a point to keep tweaking the software and settings so that sooner or later, one’s device ended up with a very good pair of cameras. But yes, OnePlus phones were generally not famous for their camera prowess. And their customer base did not really mind it.
Need to be up there with them Pixels and S20s
That, however, changed with the arrival of the Pro series in 2019. Suddenly, OnePlus devices were coming with prices that were within striking distance of the Android elite. And that drove up user expectations in all departments. Of course, given its design and hardware pedigree, OnePlus had no problems meeting most of those expectations, but the camera department was a bit of a stumbling block. OnePlus did seem to be aware of needing to up its camera game, which is perhaps why the brand shared some very impressive DxOMark scores of the OnePlus 7 Pro cameras well before their release.
But while the Pro series did represent perhaps the best photography we had seen on a OnePlus device, it still lagged behind the best from Pixel, Samsung and Huawei (read our review of the OnePlus 7 Pro camera here). As always, a number of software updates have improved camera quality substantially since then. But at the time of writing, it is still not quite up there with the best. And we can safely include selfie cameras in this evaluation – OnePlus has been good in that department (especially since the OnePlus 3T) but is not alongside the likes of Oppo and Vivo. It is not a deal-breaker, but one cannot go out and claim that one has bought a OnePlus device for its camera.
It would not have mattered as much a year or so ago, but with the more premium pricing, we think it might just become a factor this time around. If that sounds too harsh, then consider the fact that the lower-priced OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 7T did not attract the same level of criticism for their cameras, even though they were markedly inferior to those on their Pro cousins. What’s more, with good cameras being available at much lower price points as well in recent times (the only smartphone in the Indian market with a Sony IMX 686 sensor is priced at Rs 15,999), a premium device is increasingly expected to have cameras that are not just good, but almost great.
And that is where the product challenge for the OnePlus 8 lies. All indications are that the latest OnePlus series will feature some formidable camera hardware. And we are sure that the sample images will be awesome as well. But just how close will they come to rattling the cages of the Pixels and Galaxy S20 series could play a crucial part in how well the OnePlus 8 series, and in particular the OnePlus 8 Pro does.