OnePlus Nord review: Tried and true

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Over the past few years, OnePlus has strayed farther and farther away from its original motto: “Flagship Killer.” In the company’s early years, they would focus on building a smartphone that had top-shelf specs but cost hundreds of dollars less than competitors. It was the OEM’s edge. It’s what gave OnePlus a reputation in the highly competitive smartphone market.

But things have changed. Just this year, the company started selling its flagship phone, the OnePlus 8 Pro, at a flagship price: $999. That’s a direct departure from OnePlus’ original intentions. Granted, it’s not necessarily a bad thing since the 8 Pro manages to justify its high price tag with incredible performance and flagship-level cameras. But there’s no doubt that the OnePlus of today isn’t the same OnePlus we all knew just a handful of years ago.

That is, until the Nord arrived. OnePlus wanted to take things back to a time when it could deliver a phone that punched above its weight class. Rumors have swirled about the mysterious device for quite some time. We all knew the company would eventually return to the mid-range market, it was just a question of when.

This summer, we finally got the fruits of their labor. The OnePlus Nord, priced at £469 (around $626), is extremely reminiscent of past OnePlus flagships. It offers an incredible spec sheet, a modern design, and a great overall experience for way less than the Samsung Galaxies and Apple iPhones of the world. It’s a return to OnePlus’ roots in its truest form, for better or worse.

I’ve been using the Nord for a bit under two weeks, and I’ve got a pretty good feel for the phone. It’s by no means perfect, but it gets a lot right. In other words, it’s a tried and true OnePlus smartphone.

Let’s talk about that.

Design

Design wise, the OnePlus Nord fits right in with many other 2020 smartphones. Its display stretches from edge to edge while retaining a flat panel to avoid false touches. On the back glass, there’s a long camera housing in the top left corner, while the 1+ logo lives near the middle. A glossy rail around the phone’s body adds a shimmer to the aesthetic, and the array of volume and power buttons remains good and clicky (although not as clicky as I was hoping).

On the right side, you also get an alert slider, potentially one of the most underrated hardware features of modern smartphone times. No other phone besides the iPhone has a feature like this, allowing you to switch between having your ringer on or off. During my testing period, I fell instantly in love with it once again. It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a OnePlus phone, and I definitely didn’t realize just how much I missed it.

Around the rest of the phone, you get a pretty standard set of smartphone features. A few mics, a loudspeaker, a USB-C port, no headphone jack, and dual SIM slots are all on board.

Picking the phone up, I was impressed with the feel in the hand. Despite there not being any curves on the front, there are curves on the back which form to your grip and create much more security when handling the device without a case. During my testing period, I used OnePlus’ included TPU case which includes this really strange design. It’s a fine case for being a freebie in the box, but if you want actual protection I’d shop around OnePlus’ accessory line.

The phone also isn’t terribly big. People have been complaining about OnePlus not offering smaller-sized phones for years as they continued to get bigger and bigger, but the Nord strikes a good balance by offering a large screen and a relatively small footprint. For my slightly-larger-than-average-sized hands, I was able to handle the Nord in one hand with no problem. It’s an easy phone to get used to having in your hands, so I wouldn’t stress about its size if one-handed use is a priority of yours.

One thing I was disappointed about when it comes to the Nord’s design was that glossy rail. It’s made of plastic but designed to look metallic. This isn’t that big a deal, but when I would pick the phone up I would anticipated a cool feeling against my fingers from the cold metal. That simply doesn’t happen with the Nord’s plastic siding. Again, it’s not a big deal since it keeps the phone’s weight and price down, but I still think it would’ve been nice to see.

I was also kind of disappointed to not see an IP rating associated with the Nord. OnePlus says they’ve run the phone through multiple endurance tests so you likely don’t have to worry about the device bugging out if you drop it in the pool, but it’d be nice for the peace of mind aspect to just have some proof that the handset can survive the rain.

Overall, I really did the Nord’s looks. It’s modern, it’s clean, it’s simple, and it’s easy to handle. It isn’t terribly big by any means and it’s still large enough to please those who like a bigger device. It strikes a good balance for being the only size the Nord ships in, and at the end of the day, I’m a fan.

Display

On the front of the OnePlus Nord lives a 6.44-inch Fluid AMOLED display with a resolution of 2400×1080. The device comes with a 90Hz refresh rate and HDR10+ on board, while the entire panel is covered in Gorilla Glass 5. It’s surrounded by very minimal bezels with nothing but a small pill-shaped camera cutout in the top left corner obstructing content.

All in all, I think this screen is great, especially for the price. OnePlus included a really solid panel on the Nord, complete with good color reproduction, clarity, and brightness. The 90Hz refresh rate is the whipped cream on top of this sundae, and it just adds another layer of smoothness and responsiveness to the overall experience.

At this point, I’m gonna nit-pick a bit. Off-axis viewing could definitely be better. Whenever you tilt the screen a bit to the left or right, you’ll notice the panel tends to start rainbowing out. It’s not that big a deal (again, especially for this price), but it’s worth pointing out anyway.

In the end, I really like the Nord’s screen. It’s a great panel, and the fact it comes with 90Hz makes it even better.

Security

While in the vein of the display on the Nord, it’s worth pointing out that the device ships with an in-screen fingerprint reader. It’s speedy, accurate, and I love it (especially since masks break facial recognition).

Audio & Vibrations

I wasn’t sure how to categorize this section of the review without making the review too long, so I’m just gonna combine the two points I want to make.

Unfortunately, they’re two points of despair. The first one is audio. Not only does the Nord not have a headphone jack (disappointing for some but not all), it also doesn’t come with stereo speakers. Only the downward-firing grille on the right side of the USB-C port will play your content. Now, granted, the speaker does get pretty loud, but it’s incredibly easy to block. I don’t understand why OnePlus didn’t just make the earpiece a secondary speaker.

Then there’s the vibrations on the device. I tend to keep my phone on vibrate while I’m a work so as not to disturb my co-workers, but I have to keep the Nord’s ringer on at all times if I don’t wanna miss a phone call. I’ve missed at least a handful of phone calls because of just how weak the vibration motor is in this phone. Typing doesn’t feel janky or anything (it actually feels pretty solid, to be honest), but any vibration stronger than that and you’ll think you were using a cheap Motorola phone from 2016.

Camera

One of the more disappointing areas of the Nord is the camera setup. Nothing’s necessarily bad here, but it could be better.

On the back, OnePlus includes a main 48MP camera with an f/1.8 aperture, phase detection autofocus, and optical image stabilization. This is a sensor that’s extremely similar to the one on the OnePlus 8. However, whether it’s a mechanical difference or the fact the software processing isn’t the same, users have noticed that photos taken with the Nord are a step down from the 8.

Personally, I haven’t used a OnePlus 8 so I’ve only compared it to other mid-range phones, namely the LG Velvet and Pixel 4a. Overall, this camera is pretty good. I was able to get some nice shots in well-lit environments such as on the sunny Ocean City boardwalk. It captures plenty of detail and color, and even dynamic range isn’t half bad. By no means is this camera up to snuff with an iPhone 11 Pro or Pixel 4 (which means it falls behind the excellent $349 Pixel 4a), but it manages to capture some nice images.

Low-light photograph is a bit of a different subject. I don’t mind it (especially given the Nord’s price) but when you consider the 4a’s existence, it paints an ugly picture for OnePlus. The company’s Nightscape mode doesn’t add much clarity to the situation.

Unfortunately, beyond this point, the Nord’s cameras falls apart. The 5MP f/2.4 depth sensor doesn’t add a lot of value when taking portrait shots, and it’s not a telephoto lens so you don’t get lossless zoom either. Then there’s the 2MP macro camera which… why does it exist? Look at these two photos. I took one with the standard camera and one with the macro. It has terrible color reproduction and zero sharpness/clarity. Even after a couple of software updates I received that claimed to improve the sensor, it’s still awful.

The 8MP ultra-wide lens is the best out of the three poor-performing sensors on the back of the Nord. It has an f/2.3 aperture and does well in good lighting. Low-light images are pretty dreadful, but it’s fine for those breath-taking wide-perspective photographs people like taking nowadays. Just don’t zoom in.

How about selfies? The main 32MP f/2.5 lens is good enough for Instagram or Snapchat, but not much else. Color, white balance, and dynamic range are all respectable, but nothing fancy. Then there’s the secondary 8MP f/2.5 105-degree ultra-wide selfie shooter. It managed to get some decent-enough group shots of my siblings, but I don’t really care for how it gets processed.

When it comes to video, the Nord can shoot 4K at 30 frames per second using both the main camera and ultra-wide lens (notably, you can’t switch between the sensors while recording). Video looks absolutely fine. It’s choppy and not all the smooth, but what phone besides the iPhone can actually master video?

Oddly, the selfie camera can capture 4K video at 60 frames per second. I’m not sure why, but I guess if you’re a vlogger you might want to consider the Nord, especially since the phone works with external microphones.

Overall, while I liked the primary camera on the Nord, the rest of the five lenses on the device could use work, especially the macro camera. Right now, I see no reason to consider buying a Nord if you want the best camera system.

Performance

On the flip side, a reason you should absolutely consider buying the Nord is performance. For the price you pay, you’re definitely getting some bang for your buck.

The OnePlus Nord ships with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G processor which is a step down from the 865 in the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro. The chipset tries to promise flagship-like levels of performance, but that’s hard to do when you can only push the hardware so far. Luckily, my review unit backs the chip up with 12GB of RAM, making for an exceptionally speedy experience.

I kid you not, I have yet to throw something at the Nord it can’t handle. It’s just a fantastic performer day to day. The phone is available with six or eight gigabytes of RAM and I think you’d be okay with either trim. OnePlus’ software optimizations play a big role in just how fast and fluid the Nord feels.

I’ve used the Snapdragon 865 and last year’s 855 a ton, and I will admit you can feel where the 765G peaks at sometimes. Things aren’t generally as fast as they would be on a proper flagship processor. However, that doesn’t mean the 765G is a slouch. Like I said, this phone screams, so you shouldn’t have any problems. The Nord just won’t be for those who have to have the best of the best.

I also ran some benchmarks through Geekbench. These are more than decent numbers for a phone of this caliber. Check ‘em out for yourself.

My review unit also came with 256GB of storage which is a nice bonus. However, the Nord uses the older UFS 2.1 storage standard which isn’t as speedy as UFS 3.0 found in higher-end OnePlus phones.  Personally, I don’t think it’s that big a deal, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

While on the topic of performance, let’s talk wireless. The Nord ships with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.1, and 5G connectivity. Speeds, despite me being in the U.S. on Google Fi, were exceptional when I had a strong signal. Moving into weaker zones where the Nord might not have proper band support and you’ll find the device going back to LTE or even H+ at times. This didn’t necessarily bother me since it only happened three or four times during my testing. All in all, I was pleased with the wireless performance of the handset.

Software

Like I said, the software OnePlus includes on the Nord plays a big role in optimizing the experience so it’s fast and fluid. The Nord ships running OxygenOS 10 based on Android 10. The device will be upgraded to Android 11 by the end of the year.

OxygenOS, at least in this version, remains extremely reminiscent of stock Android. OnePlus is always light on how it skins its software and the Nord’s OS is no exception. Everything looks aesthetically pleasing throughout the system, whether it’s the iconography or the animations. It doesn’t ship with almost any bloatware, with the only exceptions being some stock OnePlus apps. The company even made the switch to Google’s phone dialer and messaging apps.

You get all the normal OnePlus goodness here. Nitty-gritty customization options, Zen Mode, parallel apps, Quick launch with the fingerprint reader, app locker, Fnatic mode for gaming, and more are all onboard. On top of that, the usual Android 10 perks like full-screen gestures, improved notifications, and better battery management are also here. Together, this feature set creates a simple, clean, and versatile experience that, to me, is one of the best available on the market.

On the other side of the coin, updates tend to be rather questionable nowadays. OnePlus used to be one of the leading manufacturers when it comes to delivering timely updates, and they still are when talking about major system upgrades. But security patch updates have been a lot more scattered in their releases over the past couple of years. Things haven’t improved either, so it’s hard to say if OnePlus will ever return to monthly patches or simply get worse. Time will tell.

Battery

Time to talk about endurance.

The OnePlus Nord ships with a 4,115mAh battery. Day to day, I can go from morning to night without the phone dying somewhere in the middle. I say this a lot, but I don’t use screen-on time as a metric for stamina since my daily usage consists of a lot of Spotify streaming over Bluetooth. Regardless, I’ve seen people achieve upwards of six hours of screen-on time with the Nord, so if you tend to be on your phone for that long each day, you shouldn’t have to worry about the battery life.

When it comes time to recharge, OnePlus includes Warp Charge 30T compatibility with the Nord. If you start from zero percent, you can get to 70 percent in just a half hour. I tested this myself and got to that point in about 32 minutes, so that stat’s accurate. You won’t find wireless charging on the Nord, but this super-speedy wired alternative almost makes up for that.

Conclusion

As an overall package, the OnePlus Nord is compelling. For what would be about $570 in the States, you get a killer device with a great list of specs, decent cameras, good battery life, a nice screen, and excellent software. That’s been the story with OnePlus phones for years, hence making the Nord a purely OnePlus smartphone.

The biggest shame in regards to the device is the fact it isn’t coming to the United States. Because of that, if you live in the U.S., you shouldn’t try buying a Nord. Just grab a Pixel 4a. But for those of you where the Nord is sold, this is a solid offering from the Never Settle company. While you will settle for a camera that could be better, no IP rating, no wireless charging, and a slower chipset, you’ll still get a great smartphone for the money.

After all, that’s OnePlus’ specialty.

OnePlus Nord

£469
7

Design

7.0/10

Display

7.5/10

Performance

7.5/10

Camera

6.0/10

Battery

7.0/10

Pros

  • Great performance for the price
  • Good main and ultra-wide cameras
  • Flagship-like design
  • Good battery life and great recharging speed
  • 90Hz display

Cons

  • Poor-quality macro and depth cameras
  • No IP rating
  • No wireless charging
  • Vibration motor is extremely weak



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