OnePlus Nord leaked cameras show promise — but we have questions

(Image credit: OnePlus)

The release of the OnePlus Nord is imminent, and despite OnePlus' best efforts to draw things out as long as possible with a drip feed of documentary episodes, new details continue to emerge about the company's upcoming entry-level device that have piqued our interest.

Chief among them is a report from Android Central earlier this week purportedly confirming the OnePlus Nord's camera setup. According to the site, which attributes its insight to a "OnePlus insider," the Nord's rear camera will be headlined by a 48-megapixel lens, accompanied by 8-MP ultrawide, 5-MP macro and 2-MP "portrait" optics. On the front, there will be a 32-MP primary sensor and an 8-MP ultrawide one.

This new comes around the same time as OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei told TechRadar that the company is looking to bring "a flagship-level camera to the mid-range price range" with this device. It's a bold claim that's been made by many smartphone manufacturers over the years, that we've only seen come to fruition in the past year with the Google Pixel 3a and second-generation iPhone SE.

One look at the Nord's camera specs, and you might think OnePlus has settled on the proper concoction of hardware to deliver on its promise. Although it's unconfirmed, it's possible the 48-MP primary sensor in the Nord is the very same one that's in the OnePlus 8 Pro. The difference, of course, is that the OnePlus 8 Pro starts at $899, while the OnePlus Nord will cost less than $500.

However, it takes much more than lots of megapixels to deliver a great mobile camera these days — and that's actually been OnePlus' problem over the years. The company's imaging tech has certainly made strides since its humble beginnings back in 2014, but there's more work to be done, particularly with regard to computational photography, before it can rival the likes of Apple and Google.

The OnePlus 8 Pro's camera is good, but not great. In our testing, we found that while it had a propensity to deliver truer-to-life images than Samsung's Galaxy S20, it occasionally churned out washed-out colors, struggled with shallow depth-of-field bokeh shots, and displayed trouble focusing on especially close subjects.

The OnePlus 8 Pro packs a wealth of hardware dedicated to imaging, but a great mobile camera is about more than the sum of its parts.

The OnePlus 8 Pro packs a wealth of hardware dedicated to imaging, but a great mobile camera is about more than the sum of its parts. (Image credit: OnePlus)

Additionally, the 8 Pro's questionable color filter-dedicated lens didn't appreciably improve our experience. To add insult to injury, OnePlus was forced to deactivate that particular camera after users discovered it could actually "see" through some surfaces.

OnePlus' cameras aren't bad — far from it. They're just a step behind the flagship competition. And that has us somewhat concerned for the Nord's photographic prospects. If the camera in OnePlus' actual flagship is simply serviceable, it's reasonable to expect that the tech in its mid-range offering will pale in comparison. After all, the standard OnePlus 8's camera quality already takes a bit of a hit compared to the more premium Pro model, largely thanks to the use of different, lower-quality sensors.

Then there's the quantity of the Nord's lenses to consider. While we can't pass judgment on the Nord's cameras from specs alone, the inclusion of dedicated macro and portrait shooters seems a bit gimmicky at first blush. Macro lenses in phones fail to justify their existence more often than not, and we'd have to presume that with a measly 2-MP resolution, the "portrait" camera exists only to salvage some depth data for bokeh effects. It might help those shallow depth-of-field shots, but it won't be as useful as a telephoto would.

If the OnePlus Nord was debuting in 2018, it might have an easier time claiming the mid-range camera phone crown. But these days, with best camera phones like the Pixel 3a and iPhone SE offering machine-learning tricks and truly flagship-caliber photography at cut-rate prices, OnePlus will need to execute above and beyond anything it's delivered in the past to join that conversation.

Adam Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and previously worked on Tom's Guide covering smartphones, car tech and gaming. His love for all things mobile began with the original Motorola Droid; since then he’s owned a variety of Android and iOS-powered handsets, refusing to stay loyal to one platform. His work has also appeared on Digital Trends and GTPlanet. When he’s not fiddling with the latest devices, he’s at an indie pop show, recording a podcast or playing Sega Dreamcast.