OnePlus is coming back to the budget smartphone market in a big way with the “OnePlus Nord,” a device with an odd name but a pretty spectacular feature set for the ~$450 price tag. We’ve had the phone for almost two weeks now and can say it’s easily one of the best Android phones on the market.
Let’s talk about what OnePlus is offering. With Snapdragon 865 phones often topping $1,000, this is the first phone we’ve tried with the cheaper Snapdragon 765G; at just one step down in Qualcomm’s lineup, this is what most manufacturers seem to be going with to bring smartphone prices back down to Earth. The phone still has a minimum of 8GB of RAM, and while it’s only using UFS 2.1 storage, the phone still feels plenty fast. The headline feature is probably the 90Hz display, which is sneaking out of the flagship realm and into less-expensive phones.
The biggest downside to this phone is the distribution; for now, it is not for sale in the US. OnePlus is sending a lot of mixed messages as to future US availability of the Nord. First, the official quote from CEO Pete Lau doesn’t totally close the door on the idea, saying, “We are going to start relatively small with this new product line by first introducing it in Europe and India. But don’t worry, we’re also looking to bring more affordable smartphones to North America in the near future as well.”
OnePlus both sent the Nord to US media and has the phone listed on its US website, which it usually doesn’t do for phones that aren’t launching here. The company is also running a “Beta Program” for the US and Canada that will see 50 people get the phone. People on OnePlus’ mailing list have been receiving a provocative email that screams “OnePlus Nord is coming to North America” (meaning all 50 units of the beta test).
You know, on second thought, maybe OnePlus isn’t sending mixed signals. Please just officially announce that the phone will be for sale here. It’s good!
Design—indistinguishable from a flagship
You wouldn’t know the Nord is a cheaper phone from the design or construction, since it’s basically identical to any high-end smartphone on the market. You get a standard all-glass smartphone with Gorilla Glass on the front and back. There’s a slim-bezel display with a hole-punch camera on the front and a ton of cameras on the back. Other than the option for a hyper-vibrant light blue color, it’s a positively generic design. In the case of a mid-range phone, that’s a good thing—there really haven’t been any corners cut here.
|SPECS AT A GLANCE: ONEPLUS NORD|
|SCREEN||6.44-inch, 2400×1080, 90Hz AMOLED
(408ppi, 20:9 aspect ratio)
|OS||Android 10 with Oxygen OS skin|
|CPU||Eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
Two Cortex A76 cores and six Cortex A55 cores, up to 2.4GHz, 7nm
|RAM||8GB, or 12GB|
|STORAGE||128GB or 256GB, UFS 2.1|
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.1, GPS, NFC|
|PORTS||USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C|
|CAMERA||Rear: 48MP main camera, 8MP wide-angle, 2MP Macro, 5MP depth sensor
Front: 32MP main, 8MP wide-angle
|OTHER PERKS||30w quick charging, optical in-display fingerprint sensor|
The OnePlus Nord’s primary sales pitch is that you’re getting the best display ever fitted to a mid-range smartphone. The 90Hz display means this phone looks and feels like a flagship from the past year or so, and it’s something no other company offers at this price right now. A faster display is one of the biggest improvements in smartphones in the past few years and makes everything about the phone feel faster and smoother. Scrolling, swiping, and animations all look and feel better, provided your phone has the horsepower to draw everything at 90fps, and we’re happy to say the OnePlus Nord is definitely fast enough. Once you’ve used a higher refresh rate display, it’s hard to go back to anything else.
Another major point for the OnePlus Nord display is that it’s completely flat, a stark contrast to the last few phones from OnePlus (and Samsung, and LG, and most Chinese OEMs) that have put a curve on the left and right side of the display. Curves have few upsides and come with a host of problems. A curved display can make the text hard to read and will distort the top and bottom of landscape videos. In some lighting, the curve gets a ton of glare, making it hard to see the sides of the display. Manufacturers have convinced each other that a curved display “looks cool,” but looking at a distorted screen doesn’t seem cool to me at all.
The Nord has a flat screen designed to display flat apps, webpages, and videos just like the creators intended, and it’s glorious. OnePlus says they did this because a curved display is more expensive, but curved displays are a gimmick. More expensive phones should use flat screens, too.
There’s a sizable cutout in the top-left corner of the display for the dual front-facing camera, making the phone look like a mirrored version of the Galaxy S10+. Beside the main 32MP front camera is the 8MP wide-angle camera, letting selfie shutterbugs get that wide shot without the need for a selfie stick. This is something manufacturers like Samsung and Google did a generation ago and then quickly discarded for the current generation, and no one really complained. I’m not sure why OnePlus is trying to bring back front wide-angle cams.
The oval-shaped camera cutout is the strangest part of the design. Being on the left side means it pushes the clock to the right, which now isn’t on the left side of the screen, or the right side, it’s just kind of floating around at the one-quarter mark of the display. It’s odd-looking.
Of course, there’s also the non-Android competition to consider, and any mid-range phone has a big problem in the form of the new iPhone SE, which at just $400 in the US is a killer deal. Apple’s SoC prowess and Qualcomm’s Android monopoly mean this mid-range iPhone is faster than even the most expensive Android phones this year and might out-benchmark Qualcomm’s chips from next year, too. There is more to a phone than benchmarks, though, and the OnePlus Nord actually has a decent argument against the iPhone SE, thanks to the bigger, faster display and more modern design. Right now, OnePlus also isn’t going up against the $400 iPhone SE, which is the price in the US. In Europe and India, Apple’s mid-ranger is a lot more expensive, at about $570, so OnePlus is actually undercutting Apple by quite a bit.
The light-blue version I was sent is one of the most vibrantly colored products I have ever seen, and photos really don’t do it justice. The light blue back is nearly luminescent, and while it’s not the dramatic color-changing effect that we’ve seen on other phones, it feels like it’s part of the same branch of materials science. Light likes to bounce around and scatter inside the glass panel, and the whole thing kind of lights up. It’s pretty, but it’s also fragile glass, so most people are just going to put a case on it.
The mid-frame (which, correction: is plastic, not metal) is exposed around the sides, and this, too, gets a hyper-vibrant color treatment: a metallic light blue with a mirror finish. On the bottom you’ll find the SIM slot, USB-C port, and the phone’s only media speaker. There’s no headphone jack or MicroSD slot. On the left side, you have OnePlus’ trademark three-position mute switch, which changes between sound, silence, and vibrate, followed by the power button.
There are four cameras on the back, and together with the front, that makes six cameras. I have to ask, is it really necessary to have a budget phone with six cameras? If you asked me to cut down a phone’s bill of materials, the first thing I would do is start hacking and slashing at the superfluous camera lenses, but this $450 phone has more cameras than even a $1,200 Galaxy S20 Ultra. Google’s budget approach of “one good camera” on the Pixel 3a seems like the more reasonable approach, and maybe if OnePlus did that, it could bring the price down even more!
For a mid-range phone, there really isn’t much missing here. You still get NFC, the same in-screen optical fingerprint reader as every other phone, and OnePlus’ fantastic 30W quick charging. Compared to a flagship phone, the big list of missing features would be the aforementioned single speaker instead of stereo, no wireless charging, and no official water-resistance rating. OnePlus says the phone still has gaskets to provide some water resistance, but with no official rating it’s hard to say how much, like “is this submersible?” Even with an official rating, no smartphone company stands behind its water-resistance ratings with an official policy to replace a water damaged phone under warranty (see policies from Apple, Samsung, Google, Verizon), so I can’t ding OnePlus too much.
A surprisingly strong argument against the iPhone SE
Android’s competition is stronger than it has ever been this generation, thanks to Apple’s launch of the iPhone SE. The SE has really upended the mid-range market by offering the same Apple A13 Bionic SoC that comes in the bigger iPhone, but in a $400 device. Android phones couldn’t compete with Apple’s SoC at the high end (certainly not at single-threaded performance), but to now have a $400 device that is still faster than the most expensive Android devices is downright embarrassing. Qualcomm, which is Android’s biggest SoC vendor, really has no answers at all for a mid-range device like this.
There’s more to a phone than just benchmarks, though, and I think the OnePlus Nord actually has a surprisingly solid argument against the SE. The 90Hz display is something the iPhone SE doesn’t offer, and it makes a major difference in how fast the phone feels. If you didn’t show them a benchmark first, I bet most people would say the 90Hz Nord feels faster than the 60Hz iPhone SE. The Nord also has a much more modern design with a huge display and thin bezels, while the iPhone SE design looks like it’s several years old. The SE design basically is several years old—Apple copy-and-pasted the iPhone 7 design from 2016. Some people might call the iPhone’s tiny 4.7-inch display a good thing, but, according to every smartphone manufacturer’s market research department and lots of sales data, those people are a vocal minority. Smaller phones also have worse battery life, a common complaint with the new SE.
There’s also the matter that the SE’s headline $400 price tag is a sweetheart deal for the US, and in the rest of the world, the SE is much more expensive. In Europe and India, where the Nord will actually be for sale, the SE is $570, so OnePlus is actually significantly undercutting Apple. The $450 price in Europe is already enough of a difference, but India gets a special, lower-tier SKU with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage for ₹24,999, or $335.