Can you believe it’s been nearly 10 years since the original OnePlus One launched? That device showed me what it meant to be a flagship killer with the upstart phone maker's mantra of “never settle.” But despite all of the hype around the OnePlus One and subsequent OnePlus flagships, the series has continually underperformed in one critical area — the camera.
That could finally change with the OnePlus 12, the company’s upcoming release. Even though details of the flagship have been known since its launch in China last month, we could still be in for a surprise with the global release later this month at the OnePlus Smooth Beyond Belief Launch Event on January 23.
I’ve been reviewing OnePlus’ phones since the very first one, but the stigma that the series has continually carried over with each successive device is that the camera underperforms — especially when pitted against the competition. I cannot tell you how many times I thought a OnePlus handset would eclipse rival flagships from Apple, Samsung, and Google, but there has yet to be one to follow through.
Here’s how the OnePlus 12 could finally succeed in being one of the best camera phones around.
OnePlus Open shows promising results
I’m confident that the OnePlus 12 will make a strong argument in being the best camera phone around. Why’s that? Well, I only need to look back at the most recent release from OnePlus.
In my OnePlus Open review, I was surprised by how the first foldable phone from OnePlus closed the gap against its chief rivals — namely the Google Pixel Fold and Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5. The 48MP main camera on the OnePlus Open did extraordinarily well in nearly every lighting condition in which I tested the phone, holding its ground against the Pixel Fold’s equally formidable 48MP camera, which you can see in the image above.
Even more utility from the triple rear cameras
After the OnePlus 11, OnePlus is giving its latest flagship a deserving upgrade to better compete against the likes of the iPhone 15 Pro Max, Pixel 8 Pro, and Galaxy S23 Ultra. The updated triple camera system on the OnePlus 12 consists of a 50MP main camera, 48MP ultrawide shooter and — most importantly — a 64MP telephoto camera with a 3x optical zoom. The latter lens propels the OnePlus 12 into the upper echelon of the camera phone food chain, improving upon the OnePlus 11’s 32MP 2x telephoto camera.
The main camera is still expected to do most of the heavy lifting for the OnePlus 12, but I suspect new image processing techniques, pixel binning, and a larger camera sensor will allow the OnePlus 12 to retain details better than ever before when digital zoom is applied.
I’ve seen this first hand in my OnePlus Open vs. Pixel Fold vs. Galaxy Z Fold 5 telephoto camera shootout. Knowing that, OnePlus could finally improve low light performance enough to ditch the series’ stigma of failing against the challenging conditions of insufficient lighting.
Improved image processing
Another area where I’ve seen an improvement is OnePlus’ image processing. The average person may not understand the complexities behind snapping a photo and seeing the end result, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
With the OnePlus Open, I was impressed by the realistic delivery of the phone’s image processing technique. Phones like the Galaxy Z Fold 5 have a tendency to apply too much HDR effect, resulting in an image that I would describe as "over-Photoshopped." You can see in the above photo comparison how shadows are boosted and highlights toned down in the Samsung photo.
I surmise that OnePlus will carry over its image processing techniques from the Open to the forthcoming OnePlus 12. And since the new phone will feature a 4th-Gen Hasselblad Camera for Mobile, I can envision portrait photos receiving better image processing to make them look like they were captured by pros.
Video features that enthusiasts crave
Even though details about the OnePlus 12 emerged during the phone's release in China, there’s very little information around video recording. At the very least, I’m looking forward to getting the same rich video features I found with the OnePlus Open.
That means video recording at up to 8K resolution, full manual controls, a flat video color profile, and a multi-camera view. Interestingly enough, the OnePlus 11 already offers all of those features already — including 8K recording, which is still a rare thing to find on phones. I’d love to get an updated multi-view feature that not only allows for capturing with two cameras at the same time, but also has the ability to save those clips individually in full resolution. It would take a lot of processing power to do that, so the Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 will need to step up to make it happen.
Gaining an edge with the help of AI
Speaking of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip, it’s been designed with artificial intelligence in mind and an improved image signal processor (ISP). I’ve fallen in love with some of the AI-assisted photo and video features of the Pixel 8 Pro, so I’m hopeful that OnePlus will be offer much of the same with its upcoming flagship.
It’s one thing to capture content with the cameras, but the content captured by the OnePlus 12 can still get an extra boost with the help of AI. I’m not saying that OnePlus should simply rip what Google has already done with its new Pixel 8 phones, but rather, tailor them in such a way to make them unique. Perhaps OnePlus could leverage some generative AI model to add extra frames to video recordings, so they could be upscaled to a faster frame rate or resolution? Or maybe transform an ordinary video into a slow motion one?
Given how AI’s expected to have deeper integrations in phones this year — see the forthcoming Galaxy S24 Ultra’s rumored AI capabilities for reference — it’s imperative that the OnePlus 12 does the same right from the onset. AI-assisted features with the camera mean that phones should be less reliant on hardware upgrades.
Thankfully it won’t be long before we get all the juicy tidbits about the OnePlus 12. Really, this could be the year when a OnePlus phone receives that top award of best camera phone.
More from Tom's Guide
Get the BEST of Tom’s Guide daily right in your inbox: Sign up now!
Upgrade your life with the Tom’s Guide newsletter. Subscribe now for a daily dose of the biggest tech news, lifestyle hacks and hottest deals. Elevate your everyday with our curated analysis and be the first to know about cutting-edge gadgets.
John’s a senior editor covering phones for Tom’s Guide. He’s no stranger in this area having covered mobile phones and gadgets since 2008 when he started his career. On top of his editor duties, he’s a seasoned videographer being in front and behind the camera producing YouTube videos. Previously, he held editor roles with PhoneArena, Android Authority, Digital Trends, and SPY. Outside of tech, he enjoys producing mini documentaries and fun social clips for small businesses, enjoying the beach life at the Jersey Shore, and recently becoming a first time homeowner.