(Pocket-lint) - There's very little price difference between the OnePlus Nord and the Pixel 4a, but there's a hefty gap in spec. It's hard not to see the OnePlus Nord as offering better value for money given the bigger screen, increased RAM and newer, more powerful, Snapdragon hardware.
But OnePlus also packs in more cameras - there's four on the back and two on the front. Is this all overkill, or does the OnePlus Nord offer a better experience than the mid-range offering from Google?
The Pixel 4a is a simpler approach with a single camera on the rear and a single camera on the front. So which of these two phones is the best? We put them head-to-head to find out.
OnePlus Nord vs Pixel 4a cameras: The specs
- OnePlus Nord:
- Main: 48MP, f/1.75, OIS, 0.8µm pixels
- Ultra-wide (119 degrees): 8MP, f/2.25
- Macro: 2MP, f/2.4
- Depth: 5MP, f/2.4
- Selfie: Dual 32MP, f/2.45; 8MP f/2.45 ultra-wide
- Pixel 4a:
- Main: 12.2MP, f/1.7, OIS, 1.4µm pixels
- Selfie: 8MP, f/2.0
The main camera: Is 48-megapixels a big advantage?
On the OnePlus Nord you can access the 48-megapixel mode with a tap of the button, with on-screen guidance telling you that the 48MP mode is better for capturing detail in bright conditions, the 12MP better for dynamic range.
In reality, there's not a huge difference in the visual appearance of these photo modes when viewed on a phone or a larger display, both have similar colouration when used in normal daylight conditions. The 48-megapixel photo obviously allows closer cropping with some preserved detail, if that's something you find yourself wanting to do.
Turning to the Pixel 4a, this is a familiar main camera because Google has been working on this camera and the software behind it for a number of years.
Head-to-head, the Pixel 4a produces more natural colours when shooting in good light than the 48-megapixel camera of the OnePlus Nord. In some cases it appears that OnePlus' colour correction is boosting greens, which can reduce some of the yellows in that scene.
In some cases, this can lead to a reduction of yellow tones in an image - for example, yellowing plants are reproduced as green. That can make the scene look slightly lusher, but it's also less accurate in places. In the gallery below, the trees in the centre have a yellow tinge to them that's completely gone in the OnePlus photo. You'll also notice the white of the rose is lost, the detail in the detailed lavendar flowers is lost because of the way that the Nord boosts the images.
The result is that in many photos taken in good light, the Pixel 4a is the more natural with a better colour balance. But it's only a very slight thing - and some may feel that the cooler images of the OnePlus look better than those of the slightly warmer Pixel images. Both produce really strong images from the main camera, but there's no real advantage offered from OnePlus' 48-megapixel camera.
Neither of these phones offers a dedicated telephoto lens, so all zooming is done digitally.
Returning to the question of what you can do with that 48-megapxiel sensor, we wanted to get more detail from it. Compared to an equivalent digital zoom image from the Pixel's 12-megapixel camera - which we judged to be about 4x zoom - we can see (aside from the colour balance) that the Pixel has actually preserves a lot of detail anyway.
You even get detail through the windows from the Pixel which the OnePlus Nord loses. That sort of negates the argument for a higher resolution sensor for zoom cropping. We've long said that megapixels alone don't make for better photos and in this example, just using digital zoom gives you an equivalent, if not better, result.
In reality, people are going to pinch from the main camera to access zoom. The Pixel 4a offers 7x digital zoom (a very random figure) while the OnePlus Nord will offer up to 10x digital zoom. Setting both to 7x zoom you can do something of a comparison - note all are handheld, so we're relying on the phone's own stabilisation tech to keep these images sharp - and both offer optical and "electronic" stabilisation on the main camera.
The results vary. At closer ranges, the Pixel 4a does a better job. The photo of the crab apples shows the Nord looking like a painting, likely because of the over sharpening, while the Pixel manages to look natural, because it's smoother.
However, zooming in on the roof - a tricky shot because of the high contrast, the Pixel has lightened the image and smoothed, leaving the OnePlus with the better result because the sharpening suits the hard lines.
Through a range of test shots we've found some cases where the Pixel is better, some where OnePlus is better. In reality, it's really level pegging on digital zoom overall, but neither can compete with higher quality optical zoom on more expensive phones, because over longer ranges, the detail gets a lot more mushy.
Moving into lower light
Low light used to be a real challenge for smartphones. Google was one of the first to push Night Sight as a solution, leading to mainstream adoption of such technologies. But it's not always about shooting in the dark, sometimes it's just shooting indoors.
The Pixel 4a has a real strength here, out-performing the OnePlus Nord in pretty much all areas. Most of this comes down to how the cameras respond, with OnePlus quick to bump the ISO. In the first set of images below, OnePlus has pushed the ISO to 400 while the Pixel 4a remains at ISO 60.
The result is a loss of detail for the Nord. This follows through in other areas, where the use of high ISO means less detail, loss of colour and a lack of contrast. This is common in a range of situations. In almost all scenarios, the Pixel is the better low light camera.
Both phones will give you longer exposures in low light, with Google suggesting Night Sight when it detects a dark scene, asking you to manually engage it. OnePlus offers Nightscape that's a similar system, but also offers long exposures (up to 30 seconds) through its Pro mode. In the samples below we've handheld a low light shot towards the moon in respective night modes. Again, OnePlus lifts the ISO a lot higher, but you can see a little more.
The Google Pixel also offers Astrophotography mode. It's a bit of a gimmick, but will automatically turn itself on from the Night Sight mode when the camera is totally steady - it needs to be supported, you can't use it handheld and it takes about 4 minutes to take photos of the stars. There's a sample above, although the clouds obsure things a litte. The best the OnePlus can do is that 30 second exposure which doesn't really compete in this test - both these photos were taken using a tripod.
Background blur - for bokeh or portrait shooting - is now commonplace on smartphones. The Pixel 4a aims to use its "dual pixels" on the sensor to detect depth, while the OnePlus Nord throws in an extra sensor on the back of the phone.
In truth, both phones are great at producing this background blurring effect and both will let you apply it to the front and back cameras and use it for people or objects. Some phones struggle to apply the effect when they don't find a face, but that's not a problem for the Nord or Pixel.
The Pixel crops in when you switch to portrait mode, so you get a view that's designed for a single person portrait. When you switch to portrait mode on the Nord, you have a wider view, although you get the option of a wide portrait (for groups) or single person portrait which crops in to the same overall view as the Pixel. A slightly different approach, but if you want a group portrait on the Pixel, you'll have to take a few steps back.
The Pixel uses a stronger background blurring effect, but this can be edited in Google Photos to turn it up or down. Indeed, you can actually apply the effect to any photo in your collection, whether you shot it as a portrait or not, because it's using Google's algorithms to separate foreground and background - but this feature is only available on the Pixel's version of Google Photos.
The Nord only gives you one level of blur which is slightly lighter - but it's a good overall result. Both offer great edge detection although this isn't an exact science - when it goes wrong it's obvious and because the Pixel uses a stronger blurring effect it stands out more. We suspect that's why the OnePlus uses a lighter touch.
Of course, when it goes wrong on the Pixel you have the original image (with no blur) and the option to edit the blur level anyway, so it's slightly more flexible.
Moving to the ultra-wide angle
Ultra-wide is one of our favourite options because it's so easy to get expansive drama in landscapes with that characteristic stretched look that wide angles offer.
It's an easy win here for OnePlus, because it's a tap away to get into the ultra-wide goodness. It's a decent lens too, with some blurring towards the edges, but certainly not the worst example of an ultra-wide camera that we've seen.
But it's not quite that simple. Pixel owners will know that Google has long been offering an ultra-wide option through Photo Spheres - as well as offering panoramas that can be as big as you want, which we attempted to do above.
In terms of ease of use, OnePlus certainly has the better approach, but if we're talking about creativity, Photo Spheres provides opportunities beyond what an ultra-wide lens offers - because you can make that image as big as you want - expanding into 360 degrees if you want, the full sphere.
What Photo Spheres can't do is close detail. Put a close subject in the centre of the Photo Sphere and it has no idea how to stitch that scene together, whereas an ultra-wide camera has no problem
Going close with macro
The OnePlus Nord has a macro camera. Macro has suddenly leapt onto the back of phones without anyone really asking for it. Typically - as is the case here - it's a cheap 2-megapixel camera that's fixed focus with a small aperture so it's as good as useless in anything other than bright conditions.
In reality, we can't help feeling it's here just so that OnePlus can claim a quad camera. Sure, it lets you get the camera closer to something, but the resulting photo is rarely any good. You'll get better results from digital zoom.
Strike it from your mind, it's not worth the space it takes up on the back of the phone.
Smile for a selfie
There are two selfie camera on the front of the OnePlus Nord, again with OnePlus chasing the pixels. It's a 32-megapixel sensor, but the images you get from it are … actually 32-megapixels. There's no pixel combining here - it's just a massive 6MB file, where the Pixel 4a's 8-megapixel camera gives you a 1.6MB file.
The Nord's selfie camera attempts to balance out images, often lightening a face in shadow, but it can give a pleasant result that's better focused on the person
Pixel phones for some time have often given slightly more gravelly selfies, often higher in contrast which can make them look at little more moody - and that's true of the Pixel 4a, where the results from the selfie camera are a little darker - almost too dark.
In good light, it's essentially a question of taste and it's hard to complain about either - except we don't see any advantage to OnePlus' high resolution. It's not like you want to crop in your face, do you?
But once the light drops or things get complicated, then the OnePlus Nord stumbles. That lightening of the face once you get indoors tends to lead to a washed-out look.
It's here that the Pixel really works well, because the software processing is much better - and it's really noticeable in the Pixel's HDR Live feature. This shows you in the camera app what your photo is going to look like, rather than showing a blown-out mess. In low light, the Pixel gives you images far above the quality of the Nord.
Then you come to the ultra-wide selfie camera. Sure, the Pixel 3 was one of the first to do this and it was ok (but that notch was huge). Since 2018 we've complained about dual cameras in the display before - the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G for example - and again we don't see that it's worth including in this punch hole slug on the Nord.
But you can't get wider selfies on the Pixel. Sure, they are low quality on the Nord and really don't look very good, but if that's what you want, that's what you get. What we don't really understand is why OnePlus didn't use that high resolution camera with an ultra-wide lens and then crop to get the normal view?
Smartphone cameras in 2020 are loaded with potential and we're long past the days of having a bad camera on a phone. Whichever phone you opt for, you'll get some amazing results from it. What's important is that we're not talking about a £1000 flagship, we're talking about mid-range devices that are almost as good as those expensive phones.
Both main cameras can give great results. They are quick and easy to use, but it's hard not to call out OnePlus for spec loading - the higher resolutions don't add anything useful and we'd argue that you can achieve results without depth sensors too. Whether you're going to use that low quality macro sensor will come down to personal taste.
There's no denying, however, that the ultra-wide angle camera is a useful addition. Google could really do with getting into that market, because it's an instant solution. Yes, Photo Sphere is clever, but now many people will actually use that feature?
Overall we feel that the Pixel 4a is the better performer from the main camera and that reinforces the argument for simplicity. The low light performance is better on both the front and back cameras and we think the colour balance and HDR processing is better too.
But equally, in a competitive market, we can see why OnePlus has loaded its phone with cameras. What the Pixel 4a could be accused of is failing to sell itself in this competitive space. We believe that Google's camera approach is better, but convincing customers to buy less camera, is a separate issue.
More about this story
In this comparison, both phones were running on the latest software available at the time in August 2020. Both phones were retail units supplied respectively by OnePlus and Google.
In all cases, the phones were used in the default shooting mode and all photos were taken handheld unless otherwise stated, to reproduce natural shooting experiences encountered by a typical user.
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In post processing, images were resized for hosting online, but received no other corrections to change the colour or exposure levels, to maintain the image as it came from the phone.
The photos were taken in a variety of situations across a number of days, but taken at the same time on both devices. The test shots included tests not published to protect the privacy of people in those photos, but those images were used in the evaluation of the photos to reach the conclusions discussed in the article.