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OnePlus One Review

The OnePlus One has an off-contract price starting at only $299, but don’t call this smartphone cheap. Hiding behind the OnePlus One’s 5.5-inch HD screen is some high-end hardware.

Camera: Software

The camera app that comes with the One’s CyanogenMod 11s software is a significant upgrade over the bare bones camera app that comes with stock CyanogenMod (and even Google’s Camera app).

OnePlus One’s Camera app UI

The above screenshot shows the initial UI you see when using the camera with the focus/exposure point ring and buttons on the right to shoot a still, video, or panorama. Below the focus ring is the first level of additional controls—front to rear camera swap, flash control, advanced camera controls, and settings.

Advanced camera controls

Pressing the circle button reveals two layers of advanced camera controls. These layers include exposure compensation, white balance (selected above), scene selection, self-timer (from 1 - 60 minutes), and location on/off.

Scene selection options

The OnePlus One’s camera app has a huge selection of scene settings to choose from, almost too many. Some of them are true shooting modes (such as HDR) and others are just simple color filters. To change between modes you swipe down (or up) from the top of the screen. The screenshot above shows the complete scrollable list of modes for selecting which modes are to be accessible via a gesture when in the main shooting UI. The complete listing of modes is as follows: Auto (the default), HDR, Clear Image, Smart Scene, Beauty mode, Slow shutter, Action, Backlight, Beach, Candlelight, Fireworks, Flowers, Landscape, Night, Night Portrait, Party, Portrait, Snow, Sports, Steady photo, Sunset, Theatre, Mono, Sepia, Negative, Solarize, Posterize, Aqua, Emboss, Sketch, and Neon.

We weren’t able to test all of the camera modes on this exhaustive list, but do want to clarify what some of them mean. Clear Image is a new mode that takes ten images and combines them to create, in the words of OnePlus, an image with improved clarity, reduced noise, and more detail. However, from our experience the difference between a picture shot in Auto mode and Clear Image was negligible and not worth the shot-to-shot delay it adds while it processes each picture for a few seconds. Smart Scene chooses from amongst the self-explanatory descriptive scene settings in the list, and the rest of the modes speak for themselves.

One mode that was nowhere to be found, despite the fact that nearly every 2013 Android phone seems to have some variant of it, was a background defocus mode. Considering that this mode is done in software, it’s a surprising omission.

Still image settings menu

In the settings menu for still images, you can adjust the resolution and aspect ratio (from QVGA to the full 13 MP at 4:3) and the JPEG quality (55% to 100%). You can also turn on Burst mode (5, 10, 15 & 20 shots) and set the slow shutter speed (0.5 to 8 seconds), used in conjunction with the slow shutter mode.

It should be noted that Burst mode does not work when the camera mode is set to anything that requires additional post-processing like HDR or Clear Image. You also cannot use Burst mode when RAW image capture is turned on, which is the next setting in the menu.

Farther down the settings menu, you can adjust the One’s Focus mode, which includes Macro and Continuous AF. The manual ISO settings are found here too, and ISO can be set to Auto and from ISO 100 to ISO 1600. The last setting that can be adjusted here is the exposure mode: Frame average, Centre weight (default), and Spot Metering.

Despite the plethora of modes and settings, there are some issues with OnePlus' camera app. For instance, manual shutter control is conspicuously absent. The biggest issue however, is that even though the highest resolution still capture mode is 13 MP at a 4:3 aspect ratio, the viewfinder preview you see when shooting at ALL resolutions and settings is 16:9. This means that when shooting in 4:3 mode, the top and bottom of what the camera sees through the lens is cropped off to fill the viewfinder, making it very hard to correctly frame a shot. The only solution to this is to either shoot at a lower 16:9 resolution or use a third-party camera app, like FV-5 pictured below.

FV-5 camera app UI showing a 4:3 viewfinder

There are also a few other advantages to using a third-party app like FV-5. You have more direct access to manual controls and the option to manual set ISO up to 3200. You can also save your photos in a higher quality PNG format. Of course, when using an app like FV-5 you miss out on some of the useful camera modes of the stock app.

Video settings menu

The video settings menu allows video resolution to be adjusted from QCIF (176 x 144) all the way up to 4K DCI (4096 x 2160), with all resolutions supporting HDR. There’s also a toggle for time-lapse video with shot intervals adjustable between 0.5 seconds to 24 hours. Media codecs can also be set in this menu, with MPEG-4, H.263, and H.264 video options and AAC (default) and AMR-NB audio options.

Shooting RAW on a Smartphone

Advanced still image options including a toggle for RAW image support

In the most recent update to the One’s camera software, CyanogenMod added the option to save a RAW image file in addition to the standard JPEG. If you are not familiar RAW image files (also called digital negatives), these are files that contain the unprocessed information directly from the camera’s sensor. RAW image files need to be imported and converted to a ‘positive’ image file in an application like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. The One saves RAW images in Adobe’s open Digital Negative (DNG) file format.

The benefit of working with RAW images is that they contain ALL the information from the sensor before the One’s software has been able to process it into a potentially lower quality image. The RAW file is imported into a more powerful image creation and editing tool where adjustments are made to improve image quality. This is especially true when dealing with images shot in more challenging conditions, such as low light, when the cameras onboard image processing has a harder time producing good results.

The downside of shooting in RAW is that the files are larger and consume more space (16 MB of data per image in addition to the base JPEG file). Processing this extra data also negatively impacts shot-to-shot performance. We also experienced camera app crashes that could only be fixed by resetting the phone when using RAW with the Slow shutter mode.

Shooting in RAW also partially defeats the point-and-shoot nature of the smartphone, since the RAW images have to be exported and edited externally. Still, since a JPEG is saved along with the RAW image, one can always share that to social media and other outlets that require instant gratification. You can then use the RAW file to create a better quality version at a later date. Hopefully, when Lightroom Mobile finally makes its way to Android, you’ll be able to edit RAW images directly on the One.

In the slideshow below, you can see some examples of how capturing RAW images can produce better quality final images. The first version of each image is the untouched JPEG straight from the camera, the second is the same JPEG image enhanced in Lightroom by using the auto adjustment preset, and the last image is the RAW version also edited in Lightroom using auto adjustment.

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Admittedly none of these pictures are great photographs, since in order to achieve the best results from a RAW image you can’t just click an ‘auto’ button. However, we do hope they demonstrate that the potential for capturing much higher quality images using the One is there if you shoot in RAW and are willing to take the time to edit them afterwards. As can be seen, especially in the images taken at night, the processed RAW images have retained more detail and have less noise.

While we are impressed that OnePlus and CyanogenMod have been able to include this feature on a smartphone, we probably won’t find ourselves turning this feature on that often. To be honest, the kind of images most of us take with our smartphones aren’t usually the kind that warrant the extra attention in Lightroom. Those kind of images are best taken using a full-sized camera. Still, it is nice to know that the mode is there for when an amazing photographic opportunity presents itself and the One is the only camera on hand.

OnePlus One Shooting Performance

The OnePlus One’s overall shooting experience, especially with the latest update to the CyanogenMod 11s camera app, is quite positive when it comes to shooting performance. Despite the fact that the One doesn’t have any kind of special focusing features like phase detection or the laser AF of the G3, it still manages to focus quickly even in challenging conditions. No, it’s not as fast on paper as some of its competitors, but we were pleased with its focusing performance.

As for shot-to-shot performance, when shooting in auto mode there is almost no delay between shots. However, if you turn on RAW, it then takes the camera about a second to be ready for the next shot. If you turn on HDR or Clear Image mode, then there is a much more noticeable delay between shots, of around five seconds for HDR and a couple of seconds for Clear Image. The delay between HDR shots is one of the camera’s weaknesses, since on other phones, especially the Galaxy S5 and Note 4, the Snapdragon SoC’s ISP handles HDR images in almost real-time.

We do like that OnePlus has thought about the benefit to having a physical camera shutter button. We’d still much rather have a separate physical shutter button like Sony puts on their Xperia phones, but being able to use the power button as one is the next best thing.