Never has there been a phone that has kept me up at night as much as the recently released OnePlus 5T.
As I wrote in my review, it’s a mighty fine Android phone. Correction: It’s mostly mighty fine, except for the cameras. They’re pretty weak and take average-looking photos. Though, an upcoming software update might improve things.
The 5T’s mediocre camera got me thinking really hard over the Thanksgiving weekend: “Would you rather have a phone with cheaper build-quality and midrange performance with a great camera or a premium phone with a camera that takes just average pictures?”
I think I’d pick the latter. The camera is now the most important feature to consider when buying a new phone and is something nobody should compromise on.
The 6-inch screen, while not the sharpest, is still very immersive for reading, watching videos, and playing games.
I’d go as far to say the 5T’s the smoothest and most responsive Android phone I’ve ever used (it crashes far less than the Pixel 2). Its thinness and lightness is everything a Galaxy Note 8 isn’t. The battery seems to last forever (up to two days) and Android runs the smoothest I’ve ever seen on a phone. I’m delighted that it has a headphone jack so that I can use my favorite headphones without a dongle.
It’s the full package, except for the cameras. They’re a real deal-breaker.
The camera is one of the most visible phone features that relies heavily on both the hardware and software in order to be great.
The physical camera hardware and its sensor — how big its micron pixel size is, how large its aperture is, etc., important as they are — isn’t the problem.
Companies like OnePlus boast all the time about how their phones use the best mobile camera sensors available. Any phone maker could contract Sony and ask to buy some camera sensors for their phones.
No, the problem is how the photographic data (the light that’s captured) that’s captured by the camera sensor is processed by the phone.
Each phone processes this photo data differently and that’s why image quality is all over the place on Android.
Companies like Apple and Samsung are huge and can dedicate massive amounts of resources — Apple’s reportedly got over 1,000+ people — to work on the cameras, but smaller guys like OnePlus just don’t have the manpower.
And that needs to change.
Now that virtually any company can go and buy off-the-shelf parts and build a metal phone with a big edge-to-edge screen, and the latest processor, and a huge battery, it’s more important than ever to invest in the camera software.
A camera that can’t quickly take sharp photos with accurate colors and wide dynamic range might as well not exist on a phone.
I’m singling out OnePlus because it hurts so much every time I use the 5T (and I’ve been using it non-stop for weeks) to take photos, but almost every Android phone maker is guilty of this.
Essential, Motorola, LG, Sony, Xiaomi, Huawei, etc. The list goes on and and on. All of these players make incredibly well-made premium phones, and yet their cameras are all pretty average. (Pay no attention to the super technical and often misleading about DxOMark scores.)
The Razer Phone, another new Android phone with arguably the best mobile display for entertainment and the best and loudest speakers, somehow didn’t prioritize the cameras at all.
Its camera is stripped down to the bare essentials (you can take a pic and record a video basically) and all of the regular features you’d expect in a phone with dual cameras (portrait mode, etc.) will be coming in a later software update in a few months according to company CEO Min-Liang Tan.
This lack of focus for the cameras is a disturbing trend that seems to be the reverse of what happened a few years ago when Android phone cameras were getting really good. And I blame it on the advent of dual cameras. Everyone’s got their own weird solution (wide lens + 2x telephoto, color lens + monochrome lens, wide lens + ultra-wide, etc.) that it’s basically reset the phone camera wars.
When every company under the sun can build a premium smartphone, what’s left? The software experience, for one thing. But the camera becomes a very key differentiator.
The camera is why when someone asks me what’s the best phone, I keep recommending an iPhone or a Galaxy phone, even though a phone like the 5T costs hundreds less.
I don’t need a more premium phone design. The majority of phones are all metal now (even the cheap ones).
I don’t need a bigger or better screen. They’ve been incredible for years. I don’t need a faster processor. iOS and Android, and all my apps are already smooth and fast enough.
I don’t need a bigger battery anymore, either. Many phones can last a full day easy, and some like my iPhone X and the 5T have enough juice to get me through the morning of the next.
But I need a better camera. It’s too versatile now that it’s mostly replaced my dedicated camera. And it’s too important once features like Google Lens rolls out to more devices and augmented reality explodes.
Your phone’s camera should be great out of the box, not as an afterthought that’ll get fixed later. Give me a cheaper phone even with slightly less premium build quality with a killer camera and I’d be happier than a premium phone with a camera that takes potato photos.
After all, selfies make the world go round.