In 2015, fledgling brand OnePlus unveiled the OnePlus X, an affordable phone with mid-range specifications. It didn’t sell well.
Its fanatical and tech-savvy customers clamored for flagship specs, or at least that’s what OnePlus cofounder Carl Pei tells me. “I think back then, the OnePlus X didn’t really appeal to them,” he says. OnePlus hasn’t offered a phone with anything but the latest and most powerful processor since—the same chip you’ll find on competing flagship handsets. Until now.
The OnePlus Nord is the company’s newest smartphone. But it’s not just a flashy new name and a cool blue color; it’s the first OnePlus phone in half a decade that comes without the best Qualcomm processor of the year. Hot on the heels of its more expensive OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro phones, the company is selling a 399-euro phone (around $462) because it finally believes you can get all the power you need with a lower-tier chip.
Oh, and also because everyone is making cheaper phones. From Samsung and Google to even Apple. Who can afford a $1,000 device these days? This new emphasis on more affordable smartphones puts the Nord in a much better position to succeed than the original OnePlus X. It also helps that it’s a fantastic phone in almost every way.
First things first—the OnePlus Nord won’t be available in the US when it goes on sale starting August 4. Pei tells me a Nord-branded phone (not necessarily the same as this) is set to land on US shores later this year, so you don’t have to feel left out for too long.
The past two weeks with the Nord has further cemented the fact that most people shouldn’t really spend more than $500 on a phone. The Nord has almost everything you need. So let’s quickly get what’s missing out of the way.
First, there’s no headphone jack. That’s the most egregious offense, but it’s somewhat easy to work around with a cheap 3.5mm-to-USB-C adapter. Great wireless earbuds are also cheaper than ever, too. There’s also no MicroSD card slot, no wireless charging, and no IP-rated water resistance, though on the last point OnePlus says the phone can withstand splashes. Some of OnePlus’s more expensive phones lack these features, too.
Acing the Fundamentals
If you can get past those omissions, there’s a lot to love with the rest of the Nord. Like, all of it. It’s fantastically slim and I can actually reach the entire 6.4-inch screen with one hand (note: I have large hands). I actually like it more than the OnePlus 8 Pro is because of the flat AMOLED display. Because of its curved-edge display, I often accidentally trigger the touchscreen with my palm on the 8 Pro, which is frustrating.
The Nord’s screen is also wonderfully rich in color, with deep blacks that allow for excellent contrast when watching movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s also bright enough to read even on sunny days; I used it as a GPS on my bike.
Better yet, it retains the 90-Hz refresh rate of the OnePlus 8 phones, making things as basic as flipping through your homescreen smooth and fluid. A lot of the credit for that should go to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G processor—I’ve barely noticed any stutters or lag on the Nord. It often feels as snappy as the Snapdragon 865-powered OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro.
You get to choose between a model with 8 GB of RAM and 128 gigabytes of storage or 12 GB of RAM and 256 gigabytes (in India, there’s also a cheaper 6 GB of RAM and 64-gigabyte storage model). The 128 gigabyte model should be enough for most people , but if you often hit the storage cap on your phones, consider the 256-gigabytes since you can’t expand storage.
The Nord feels really lightweight (184 grams), which feels exceptionally nice coming from the 240-gram Asus ROG Phone III I’ve been testing. It’s, unfortunately, still a fragile glass sandwich like most phones, so it’s wise to snag a case. The frame in between isn’t metal, though. It’s plastic, and one of the other ways OnePlus brought the cost of the phone down. It doesn’t feel any less premium than a metal frame.
Battery life has been pretty stellar for me. There’s a 4,115 mAh cell inside, and I frequently got to the end of an average workday with around 30 to 40 percent remaining. On light days, I was easily able to take this phone through most of day two. And if you forget to charge it overnight, the proprietary charger in the box juices it back up to 50 percent in about 15 minutes.
There are a total of six cameras on the OnePlus Nord, which is a little absurd. Two are on the front: a 32-megapixel main selfie shooter is paired with an 8-megapixel wide-angle lens for taking selfies with groups of people (a groupie?). The main sensor snaps some fine selfies, though the quality deteriorates quick in less-than-ideal lighting conditions.
On the back, you get a 48-megapixel main camera (same as the OnePlus 8), an 8-megapixel wide-angle lens, a 2-megapixel macro camera, and a 5-megapixel depth sensor for better quality portrait mode photos. I didn’t find much of a reason to use the macro lens, and the wide-angle camera tended to distort images and add muddiness when lighting conditions weren’t great.
Most of the photos I snapped with the main camera look wonderful. In sunny conditions, you get crisp details and colors never feel too saturated. At night, OnePlus’ Nightscape mode lets you illuminate dark scenes while retaining a good amount of color. It is really aggressive in reducing graininess in low-light shots, though. That might sound nice, but some grain is good! Removing all the grain also ends up giving you a photo that can look too soft. Sometimes the camera struggles to focus quickly, as well. And the shutter can be a little slow when using the Nightscape mode, so make sure to hold the phone a few seconds after you tap it or you’ll end up with a blurry mess.
Despite the extra 5-megapixel depth sensor, OnePlus still struggles with its portrait mode unlike competitors like Google’s Pixel 3A. It doesn’t do the best job accurately catching the edges of my dog’s fur outline, and it often makes mistakes with humans, too.
I’m nitpicking. For the price, this is one of the better camera phones out there, with the Pixel 3A still sitting a rung above.
The Flagship Killer?
If you’re planning on holding onto your next phone for several years, the Nord has one other trick in its sleeve: 5G. This faster kind of network isn’t available yet in most places, but coverage seems to slowly expand every few months. You should not buy any phone purely because it has 5G, because it’s still going to be many years before you predominantly rely on it over 4G LTE, but it’s still nice to have.
This is also one of the best Android software experiences outside of what you get on Google’s Pixel phones. It’s uncluttered and comes with tons of customization options. OnePlus does a great job of swiftly dishing out the latest Android version and monthly security updates too.
In the market for a sub-$500 phone? Get the Nord and you won’t be disappointed. Or hold out for Google’s upcoming Pixel 4A, which likely won’t be able to match the Nord on things like display and performance, but it might have a better camera. One thing is clear: It’s getting harder and harder to justify the skyrocketing prices of flagships, and that includes the $899 OnePlus 8 Pro. The Nord isn’t available here in the US right now, but we certainly wish it was.