(Pocket-lint) - "Don't call it a comeback". That's the roughly paraphrased message that OnePlus has stuck to throughout the period leading up the OnePlus Nord launch. It has been said that this phone isn't OnePlus returning to making more affordable phones - which is where it started - but instead making a whole new thing. The Nord is, after years of climbing the price ladder, OnePlus' first non-flagship.
By that we mean it doesn't sport a top-end Snapdragon 800-series processor. What that really means is that OnePlus is joining the trend of mid-range phones in 2020 that use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765 processor - there are plenty of competitors - and while there will be similarities between them all, the Nord is still trying to keep a sense of "OnePlusness" about it by being competitively priced and offering that fast and clean software experience.
So is the OnePlus really a whole new thing - or is that hyperbole for what is essentially the company returning to its roots? Here's our take: who really needs a pricey flagship anyway?
- Dimensions: 158.3 x 73.3 x 8.2mm / Weight: 184 grams
- Finishes: Blue Marble / Grey Onyx
- Water-resistant (no IP rating)
- Glass front and back
Where the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro were all about that curved finish, sumptuous frosted glass and premium build, the Nord has made some compromises to keep the costs down, but it still keeps some quality materials and has a rather more simple design language.
The back and front are still made of glass, with the rear coming with either a dark Onyx Grey finish or the Blue Marble that you see in our review photos here. It still has that metallic sheen layer underneath the glass too, to give it that extra layer of texture. It's a bright blue that reminds us very much of spearmint flavour Softmints.
OnePlus opted against its usual symmetrical and centre-mounted camera housing. Instead, the Nord has a rather more standard long pill-shaped protrusion in the top left corner. It's a design we've seen on multiple smartphones - think Huawei P30 Pro - and seems to be the common way to do things these days. It's a shame in some ways, losing part of what made OnePlus' design at least a little different to the competition.
As for the front, OnePlus has gone with a practical approach: rather than have the curved glass on the display, the panel is completely flat, virtually all the way up to the edges. It keeps costs down and ensures there's no risk of any distortion or accidental touches - as you might sometimes find with curved screens.
The bezel around it is really thin virtually all the way around, with the bottom bezel being ever so slightly thicker. There's a dual-camera system in the top, which might make for more versatile shooting, but obstructs more of that display area. The lesser the obstruction, the better in our view.
Apart from that, the choice of buttons and ports is the same as you'll find on any other OnePlus device. The alert switch remains, making it easy to switch between notification modes. So if you want to quickly silence all notifications, it's a simple slide up of that switch. There's no 3.5mm headphone input, but there is the usual Type-C port, speaker and SIM tray on the bottom edge, plus the volume rocker switch on the left.
The only other standout point we noticed is the material and thickness of the phone's external frame. While the buttons are solid, metal and immensely clickable, the frame they're built into is plastic. And it's quite thick, so the phone feels a bit chunkier than some other phones we've tested. But having the front and rear coated with glass does help it retain that premium-to-touch feel. Saying that, glossy glass is a nightmare when it comes to phones slipping off, say, the arm of a sofa - so you might just want to use a case here.
One other detail is the feeling from the vibration motor when typing on the keyboard. Unlike some other mid-range devices, OnePlus has done a great job of ensuring you don't get that cheap, buzzy motor feel. Instead, it feels much more like the subtle haptic motor 'click' you get from the 8 series or Google's Pixel 4 range.
There's no denying that the Nord is quite a big phone. It's roughly the same thickness as an iPhone 11, but it's taller and narrower. We quickly got used to OnePlus' dimensions and weight, though, including with a case snapped onto the back.
A big flat screen
- 6.44-inch Fluid AMOLED display
- 1080 x 2400 pixels (Full HD+)
- 1000-nits peak brightness
- 90Hz refresh rate
- Oxygen OS 10.5
OnePlus already said it would never go back to doing screens with refresh rates under 90Hz, so it's no surprise to see that's exactly what the Nord has built in. It's a completely flat 6.44-inch panel with a 20:9 aspect ratio - and a great surface for every day movie-binging and game-pounding use.
Spec-wise it's almost the same screen that Oppo uses on the Find X2 Neo. It's an AMOLED panel boasting a Full HD+ resolution, and that means you get deep blacks and vibrant colours.
However, we did find it a tiny bit lacking in detail. Watching shows on Netflix and YouTube, it was just lacking that little bit of sharpness and dynamic range that would elevate the panel.
How good it looks very much depends on how close it is to your eyesthough. Hold it at arm's length and Netflix shows like Our Planet look superb, with a great balance of highlights, shadows, detail and colour. It's when you bring it closer that you start to notice a little roughness around the edges.
Being slightly critical, we noticed a subtle rainbow shift when looking at a predominantly white screen. Launch the Phone or Messages app, for example, and if you're not looking at it directly head-on then there's a green and pink tint to the display. Like the OnePlus 8 there's a slight over-contrasty look too, making some colours look unnatural. In addition, when white text is on dark backgrounds, there's a slight outer glow rather than a clear cut distinction between light and dark.
When gaming the experience is good for the most part. Colours are vivid. Animations are smooth too. We didn't see any major artefacts around text or details on screen. Again there's a sense where rounded or angled elements are a bit rough when you look closely, but it doesn't struggle loading background imagery.
Although it's not instant in its loading. Loading up Forza Street, for example, and while in the build-up to race it can take a second or two for the graphics to catch up and be sharp and optimised for the display - it's not instant. This is perhaps the indication that this is a second-tier processor and GPU compared to the flagship models.
Admittedly, this is all very nit-picky criticism because - after all - this is an affordable phone. And what it can do is rather epic for the asking price.
The new Nexus?
- Oxygen OS 10.5 built on Android 10
- Google messaging and phone apps by default
- Reading mode, plus customisation options
So hear us out on this one (and apologies if you're not quite as old as we are). We know the Nord is not a direct replacement for the old, much-loved Nexus programme that Google was running before Pixel came into the picture, but over the past couple of versions of Oxygen OS, the ties between OnePlus and Google software are getting deeper.
Whereas OnePlus used to have its own phone and messaging app, those have now been replaced by the Google versions - and that means you get Google's own features like RCS support (that's Rich Communications Service, the replacement for SMS - the old speak for "text"). OnePlus Shelf - the custom screen to the left that held widgets - is now a Google feed instead. It's all for the better.
You even get two years of software updates, and an additional year of security updates, as standard. It's not the same as getting software updates immediately as soon as new versions of Android are out, as you would with a Google Pixel phone, but OnePlus is among the most responsive when it comes to updates. You usually aren't left waiting for up to a year as you might with other manufacturers.
There are of course the usual OnePlus tweaks that make it still "OnePlus-y". That Oxygen OS software - built on top of Android 10 - features the ability to tune the display to your liking, as well as having a reading mode that turns the display grayscale for easy ebook reading, plus night mode for killing blue light output in the evenings.
It also has the usual customisation options, like being able to adjust icon styles, shapes and adjust accent colours and fonts. But let's not forget - even the Pixel offers some of that experience now. The gap between what's on the Pixel and what's on a OnePlus phone is actually not all that large.
All in all, it's a lightweight and responsive feeling of this platform has only become better over the years - and one that's arguably the most pleasant to use day-to-day of any Android version. It's a lifetime away from the Cyanogen Mod that the very first OnePlus ran.
Oxygen OS isn't fussy or complicated and doesn't come with a bunch of layers you don't need: there's no bloatware, no unwanted ads in weird places, no 'top apps' folders trying to trick you into downloading rubbish games, no duplicate apps. Maybe it's called Oxygen OS because it's a breath of fresh air, eh?
Speed and stamina
- Snapdragon 765G platform, 8GB/128GB RAM
- 4,115mAh battery, Warp Charge 30T (30W)
- 12GB/256GB storage
- 5G connectivity
Look at the specs and it becomes clear OnePlus has given this thing some oomph. The Snapdragon 765G chipset might not be top-tier, but it's plenty powerful enough to keep this phone running smooth. In our experience of using the 12GB/256GB model, it's as snappy and responsive as any phone out there.
This phone is speedy and fluid in everyday interactions, plus offers enough space to store pretty much anything you could wish to download. Even on the base model with 'only' 128GB storage.
For reference, the 8GB/128GB and 12GB/256 RAM/storage variants are the same as those you'll find on the high-end 8 Pro. The only difference being these use a slightly older type - it's LPDDR4X RAM and UFS2.1 storage rather than LPDDR5 and UFS 3.0.
While that seems like a downgrade on paper, it doesn't result in a net negative experience. Sure, if you look at the frame rates and app loading times and measure them to the hundredth of a second, you'd probably notice the difference, but in real everyday use the Nord is really quick and reliable.
The battery is more than good enough too. Its 4,115mAh cell is slightly more capacious than the one found in the Oppo Find X2 Neo and slightly less than what's in the OnePlus 8. On busy days with about three hours of gaming and video watching for our tests, the battery was still around 40 per cent when we got to bed time. On really light days with little usage, it was as high as 70 per cent come bed time.
It's not quite a two-day battery, though, that's for sure. We did manage to kill it in one day with about six hours of Mario Kart Tour and Scrabble Go, but let's just chalk that up to testing for review, definitely not being addicted to casual gaming at the weekends.
Given the Warp Charge 30W flash-charging technology it's equipped with, we were never compelled to plug this phone in overnight. We just waited until the battery level was uncomfortably low and plugged it in. Within 30 minutes there was enough charge to get through a full day. Simple.
- Quad camera system:
- Main: 48-megapixel, f/1.75 aperture, optical stabilisation (OIS)
- Ultra-wide: (119 degrees): 8MP, f/2.25
- Macro: 2MP, f/2.4
- Depth: 5MP, f/2.4
- Dual 32MP and 8MP ultrawide selfie cameras
- 4K video - to 30fps
We slightly criticised the OnePlus 8 Pro for having a colour filter camera for seemingly no reason, and often other phones with a quad camera system that has additional cameras that don't really add much of use. The Nord has gone down that route too really. For a brand that preaches a 'Never Settle' attitude, we'd rather see fewer, quality cameras than have four - two of which are of questionable quality and usefulness.
Of the four cameras on the back of the Nord, it's the primary and ultra-wide cameras that prove their worth. The other two are just low-resolution macro and depth sensors that, well, you can pretty much ignore.
Still, the primary camera is exactly the same on that's in the OnePlus 8. It's a Sony sensor, and the camera features both OIS (optical image stabilisation) and EIS (electronic image stabilisation) to ensure your stills and video are shake-free and smooth. For the most part, this primary camera is good. With good light, it can take lovely sharp images with great colour.
Indoors with low levels of light we found that it had a tendency to try and boost the exposure a bit too much, and so we regularly had to use the exposure compensation slider to tone that down a notch. Similarly, there's a tendency for image noise to creep into the shadows and areas where we had darker colours - like the blue painted walls in the gallery above.
As for the ultra-wide camera, that seems decent enough when held quite far from subjects. But unlike the primary lens it just doesn't want to focus on anything that's relatively close. So those wide shots are limited to scenes where you're standing quite far from what you're shooting. It's also noticeably not as sharp or clear as the primary camera - but it's the same story with all of these cameras.
What we found during testing is that - while it lets you get really close-up - the macro lens doesn't produce images of the same quality you get from the primary camera. We expected that given its low resolution. Switching to Super Macro mode to shoot close-ups usually produced images lacking in vibrancy, with a dark overall look and an unusual subtle 'spinning' blur as a result of the lens shape.
In the end we found that just stepping back a bit, hitting the 2x zoom button and using the primary camera produced much nicer looking photos, thus rendering that macro lens virtually useless. In '2x' mode images have a nicer depth of field, better colours and a more accurate focus.
Having a dual selfie camera is useful, but again results between the primary selfie camera and the ultra-wide one are inconsistent. They tend to white balance differently, but the primary 32-megapixel one takes good, sharp selfies with plenty of detail.
In the end, on the camera front, we'd have loved to see OnePlus have a bit more courage and not follow the trend of having lots of cameras. If - for instance - the company decided to use the same sensor in both the primary and ultra-wide cameras, then just ditched the macro and depth sensors, the overall consistency and quality would be super.
As it stands, the primary camera is very good for everyday photography, but really that's the only good camera on the back. It's genuinely a pleasure to use but has its overall experience somewhat tarnished by the not-so-good ones.
Will the OnePlus Nord set pulses racing with unbeatable performance and ultra-premium design? No. But does it offer a highly competitive experience for the money? Absolutely.
It's got 5G, lots of storage, a big and fast display, fast-charging, and a software experience that's fluid and clean. Its main camera is good, too, even if the others are just a distraction.
What OnePlus has quite expertly done with the Nord is make a phone that doesn't leave you pining for a greater experience. As affordable phones go it's easily the best phone in its price range.
Xiaomi Mi 10 Lite
Xiaomi's Mi 10 Lite features the same processor and similar specs to the OnePlus. It has a dated notch and questionable software choices, but you can't argue with the price.
LG's latest phone is quite a refreshing new approach from LG and incorporates the same processor as OnePlus in a sleek, attractive phone.
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