More than likely if you're shopping for a smartphone with top-end specs, you're concerned about the quality of the camera on board. Cameras have become increasingly better with every year, and 2014 is no exception to that rule. Sony sensors are among the elite in the world of cameras, and those sensors are what power most of the smartphones you're going to buy today. So since most of these phones out there share the same or very similar hardware, the vast majority of your photo taking experience is going to come from the software. It's even more fun to compare these phones when the sensor is in fact the exact same, and in that case we've got the OnePlus One and the Xiaomi Mi4, which both feature Sony's latest Exmor IMX214 sensor at 13 megapixels. This sensor offers a number of features that make it better than the last generation 13 megapixel Sony sensor, the IMX135, which is featured in popular phones such as the LG G2/g3, Samsung Galaxy S4 and the 2014 Moto X. It's also the same sensor packed inside the upcoming Nexus 6, which gives us a preview of how good that shooter is going to be.
But which phone's software brings it to the top of the charts when it comes to imaging? Let's take a look at a couple of different scenarios and see who's the winner, with the OnePlus One on the left and the Xiaomi Mi4 on the right.
First scenario is bright daylight, specifically taking wide and landscape style shots. Looking at the color balance you can see the Xiaomi Mi4 tends to over saturate a bit, creating colorful photos that look good and pop but ultimately come out a bit unrealistic, but not nearly as bad as some other cameras on the market do. We can see how the OnePlus One's more raw image delivers more noise, but much higher detail than the one produced from the Mi4. In some areas the OnePlus One's photo comes out considerably more noisy than the Mi4, as in the shot with the flag, but in other shots like the 4th one you can make out individual leaves on the trees in the distance on the OnePlus One, whereas the anti-noise filter on the Mi4 went a little haywire here and erases too much detail.
Let's look at another situation where lots of people are going to be taking pictures: indoors at night with only one or two light sources. This sort of environment usually causes lots of problems for cameras, particularly smartphone ones because of their small sensor size and inability to absorb more light as a larger camera would be able to. 3 months ago the OnePlus One would have lost this category hands down, as its low light ability was horribly hampered by high amounts of noise and zero noise cancellation. Several software updates later we're looking at easily one of the best low-light phones on the market, and it shows in nearly every single shot here. Overall the OnePlus One captures a clearer image in low light, and while it still features considerably more noise than the Mi4's shots the amount of detail helps balance out the difference. The difference in the first two shots aren't nearly as dramatic as the second two, but overall the OnePlus One wins again.
One area where Xiaomi has really innovated is the use of flash on the camera. Most cameras just take the picture with the flash and never think twice about it. The Mi4, however, takes two pictures, one with flash and one without, and then fuses them together. This creates an image that's well lit but not nearly as harsh as flash usually comes out, and it shows. While there are a few weird lighting artifacts here and there, the Mi4 absolutely takes the cake in this area, and we're confident it's a better flash shooter than the vast majority of devices out there.
In the examples above we use a number of harsh lighting situations. In the in-truck shot we can see the advantages of CM pushing for higher ISO and faster shutter, as it produces a little more noise but helps with the usual blurring we find often times in lighting situations like this. The second shot shows the advantages of white balance levels in Xiaomi's app, as the grate on the wall has more detail than the OnePlus One. In severely low light situations the OnePlus One takes the crown, offering a much brighter scene with improved detail. Areas of high contrast where very bright lights are behind dark foreground objects are where the OnePlus One struggles the most, giving an overall picture with less detail and a strange purple hue to the light behind the dark objects. The Mi4 doesn't suffer from this at all and even offers improved clarity overall in the shot.
Overall the OnePlus One comes out on top in non-HDR modes, as we've seen in other tests with the phone, but you're not going to be getting a bad camera with either phone. In fact the Mi4's software experience is superior, and functions like HDR actually work extremely well on the Mi4, whereas HDR is completely broken on the OnePlus One's stock camera and remains to be seen if Cyanogen is ever going to fix it. Cyanogen has updated the camera recently with a number of image enhancements, including anti-noise filters in many situations, better white balance and RAW shooting modes, but overall this doesn't really affect the image quality that much. Xiaomi's software is still more intuitive and offers a much simpler interface with more options, and even features an amazing exposure circle that lets you adjust the exposure of the shot on the fly, helping with shots that tend to be over or under exposed on auto mode.
If you're loving the way the Xiaomi Mi4's photos look and want to get one for yourself but aren't in China, we've got a trusted reseller that'll ship to practically anywhere. You can get the 16GB Xiaomi Mi4 here, and the 64GB Xiaomi Mi4 here. As for the OnePlus One you'll have to either win an invite or buy one off Ebay until OnePlus gets its distribution model better set. Either way both of these phones are going to cost you around $400, and both of them are killer devices.