The 399 Euro ($456) OnePlus Nord is what the OnePlus 8 should have been. I handled the phone and spoke with OnePlus founder Carl Pei ahead of the Nord’s launch on Tuesday. It’s a pity it isn’t made for the US, but it reminds me of what limited choices we get here for smartphones.
“We wanted to build an overall really balanced experience,” Pei told us. The Nord is built on three pillars, he said: a solid camera, a smooth software experience, and support.
OnePlus sells flagship-priced phones in the US now, but originally made its name by undercutting Apple and Samsung. The OnePlus One cost $299 when it launched in 2015, far less than the competing iPhone 6 ($750). By comparison, the recent OnePlus 8 costs $699, the same as the iPhone 11.
“We’re finally about to dip our toes in the midrange market once again,” laughed Pei.
Pei’s wry amusement is a reference to 2015’s $249 OnePlus X, the company’s earlier attempt to build a phone from lower-end components. That phone failed. But now OnePlus is a bigger company than it used to be; it can support a broader range of phones and it has a larger customer base than it did years ago, he said.
“Back in the day…our customers were very tech-savvy, and for them, a midrange product wasn’t as enticing. With the Snapdragon 765G processor, we finally feel like both the performance and the efficiency of the chipset are where we want them to be to deliver a smooth and fluid experience.”
The OnePlus Nord feels like a flagship
The original concept for the Nord had an L-shaped camera and didn’t have curved edges, making it look like a very different phone, Pei said. When he got involved in January, he pushed to make the design look more like OnePlus and less of “an experiment.”
“We initially started with a more daring design language that didn’t look distinctively OnePlus,” he said. “Then we realized that this opportunity was much bigger than we thought.”
Pei said the Nord was originally supposed to launch at Mobile World Congress in February, which was canceled due to COVID-19. OnePlus then shot a documentary about the new phone (below) and looked into booking theaters to show it to fans, but then theaters closed. The company’s history of online launch events and online community helped it pivot quickly, he said.
The Performance You Expect From OnePlus
The Nord is just about the same size as the OnePlus 8, but it’s a little thicker, with edges that are rounded rather than coming to more of a point. The glass back has a shimmering, ceramic-looking color under it. Our test unit is a robin egg blue, which OnePlus calls Blue Marble, with matching OnePlus Buds headphones. It’s striking, and reminds me of the Nextbit Robin, a beautiful but failed phone from a few years ago. There’s also a gray color, which OnePlus calls Gray Onyx.
Pei said the blue model is inspired by Miami blue, which is used on Porsche cars, and was designed to stand out and show that this isn’t a OnePlus 8, as the logo and phone shape are very similar.
The Nord has the same screen at the OnePlus 8, a 6.4-inch, 2,400-by-1,080 OLED panel with a 90Hz refresh rate. It looks every bit as good as its pricier sibling.
Left to right: OnePlus Nord, OnePlus 8, OnePlus 8 Pro
Left to right: OnePlus Nord, OnePlus 8, OnePlus 8 Pro
The phone also has the exact same rear camera setup as the OnePlus 8, for better or worse. Mostly, it’s for better. There’s a main 48MP Sony IMX586 sensor with an f/1.75 aperture and an 8-megapixel, 119-degree wide-angle camera. Both are good, albeit not as good as the main cameras on the OnePlus 8 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S20+ in low light. (This phone also costs a lot less, remember.) Like on the OnePlus 8, the Nord simulates 2x zoom by taking a 12MP crop from the main 48MP sensor.
“It’s the same main sensor as the OnePlus 8, and it also has the added benefit of being pre-tuned,” Pei said. “It gets to enjoy all the tuning benefits we’ve had on the OnePlus 8 camera.”
There’s also a 2-megapixel macro camera and a dedicated depth sensor on the back, both of which feel like a bit of a waste to me. Macro photos are rare enough that they don’t really need a dedicated sensor, and 2-megapixel shots are kind of useless. But Pei said the macro camera doesn’t really add to the cost, so it’s harmless.
The dual front-facing cameras are far more interesting. The main one is 32MP, which can also take 8MP images, and there’s a dedicated 8MP, 105-degree wide-angle sensor. The latter is the big deal—it really widens the field so you can fit more people into selfies. The higher-end OnePlus phones don’t have anything like this, and the wide-angle option is much wider than the one on the Galaxy S20+.
Also like the OnePlus 8, the Nord has Warp Charge 30T charging, but not wireless charging. It also isn’t waterproof, although Pei said it’s been dunked in foot-deep water for 30 seconds without damage.
So what does the Nord go short on? Most notably, the processor. The Nord uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G rather than a full-fledged 865. After playing with the phone a bit, I saw no immediate difference between this and the 865, but I’ll look into this more for the full review.
“We’ve gotten to the place where the day-to-day experience, unless you’re doing something computationally heavy like a 3D game, should feel practically indistinguishable from the flagship series,” Pei said.
If the 765 is the primary change here, that says a lot about the cost of Qualcomm’s flagship 865 chipset. Qualcomm has been claiming for a while now, based on some low Chinese flagship phone prices, that the 865 isn’t that expensive to use. But the delta between the OnePlus Nord and the OnePlus 8, with the two phones offering similar cameras, screens, and premium builds, suggests that the processor is the key cost driver.
Support-wise, Pei guaranteed two years of Android version updates and three years of security updates.
The phone’s edges shimmer
There are two Nord units, one for India and one for the rest of the world. Neither model has any of the 5G bands used in the US or Canada, and they even lack critical 4G bands: band 13 (Verizon/Bell/Telus) and 71 (T-Mobile) for coverage, as well as a bunch of US supplementary bands used for speed. The Nord will work decently as a 4G phone on Rogers in Canada or on AT&T in the US, but I wouldn’t recommend it for any other carrier.
Pei shied away from saying that Americans don’t buy midrange phones, spinning the rollout as, “We don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin; we want to focus on a select few markets first where we can show success.”
OnePlus fans in the US will get to join a limited beta program on the OnePlus community forums to buy the Nord after launch, Pei said. To get one of the fifty units allotted for North America, sign up here.
It’s All About Context
Here in the US, no 5G phone costs less than the $599 OnePlus 8 and the Samsung Galaxy A71. The Nord looks like an amazing value at $456 for an 8GB/128GB model, and 499 euros ($570) for the 12GB/256GB model. The paucity of midrange phones in the US is a well-known problem, and it mostly comes down to the fact that phones here are usually sold by carriers with monthly payment plans, hiding their overall cost.
The OnePlus Nord might be less impressive in countries with a competitive selection of midrange 5G phones. For instance, in Finland, carrier Elisa sells the Xiaomi Mi 10 Lite for $453 and the Samsung Galaxy A51 for $544. And in Spain, the Huawei P40 Lite costs $306 and the Oppo Find X2 Lite costs $429. Americans just have to settle for getting less for more.
The Nord goes on sale August 4, just not in the US. From my early glance, the phone appears to have smoothness, elegance, and panache. I’ll be taking a closer look at it soon, so check back to see whether it reestablishes the company’s place as the “flagship killer” for discerning buyers.