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The OnePlus Nord is working overtime to flex; it’s a splashy, flashy £379 phone that would be a steal with half the cameras or half the RAM. Instead of building out a sensible Android all-rounder that cuts a bit of everything to scrimp, OnePlus has been seriously clever, almost playful in its approach to finding compromises for its new mid-ranger, the first in a Nord series.

Who’s it for?

The beauty of it for OnePlus is that this is a smartphone with an extremely broad appeal. The Nord could slurp up a hell of a lot of c.£400 sales that would automatically go to Samsung and cannibalise OnePlus’s flagships. With good performance, a good main camera, good(ish) battery life plus a big 90Hz OLED screen, 5G and the promise of all those cameras to tip potential buyers over the edge, this is the new go-to recommendation for WIRED reviewers who get the answer “no” when we ask if the people bothering us care about top, top specs.

Design

We said OnePlus has been playful with its approach here. Case in point: the Nord has Gorilla Glass front and back, a metallic plastic frame and real metal buttons. We salute the sneakiness. Even from our first impressions, we didn’t get that super-premium feel from it (no eye-boggling screen-to-body ratio here), and that’s why. But at less than £400, who cares? Some fans are crying into their YouTube comments over the mere presence of plastic, but, to be honest, the odd combination of materials elicited more of a ‘fair play’ smirk from us. It works just fine.

Living with it

Because the Nord looks and acts so much like a flagship OnePlus, it’s actually surprising to come across differences. The lovely, streamlined OxygenOS 10.5 has all the latest Android features and there’s tons of storage: 128 or 256GB depending which model you go for with no microSD. The in-display fingerprint sensor is fast enough and we quite like the dedicated alert slider for quick switching between silent, ring and vibrate, much more practical than a Google Assistant button.

There are small signs this is a mid-range phone, though. It’s only water repellent for a splash not an IP-rated soak, there’s just a mono speaker and despite the fancy camera array – another flex – there’s actually no telephoto lens in the mix.

One of the main splits in hardware, though, is the Snapdragon 765G – G for gaming – rather than a top-of-the-line Qualcomm chip. The Nord has performance limits then, sure, and you’ll reach them if you decide to push it, but you can indeed game (and multi-task) quite happily on this phone. There’s a minimum of 8GB of RAM and up to 12GB RAM available, perhaps overkill with this processor.

Killer feature

Technically Realme – which is owned by Oppo, which is owned by the same parent company as OnePlus – and its X50 5G ‘beats’ the OnePlus Nord with its 120Hz refresh rate. But in real life use that shouldn’t concern OnePlus too much because this 6.44-inch AMOLED display is superb; big, bright, with good contrast and colours and smooth 90Hz scrolling and HDR 10+ playback for movie streaming. Even 90Hz is a nice-to-have; now we’ve tested the Nord it’s unlikely to be a dealbreaker that the Realme is slightly ahead. The Nord’s screen is the one real advantage over most of the other phones in this price bracket.

Why oh why…

We could have done with more battery. True, it’s not exactly disappointing, and you do get reliable fast charging and optimised battery for better performance over time. But in the here and now, something like a Moto G 5G Plus will get you 1.5/2 days rather than the one day you get from the Nord’s 4,115mAh unit. It’s in keeping with OnePlus’s focus on swanky features, rather than super practical specs, though. Refresh fast, die young.

The ultra-wide front-facing camera is a neat addition, for getting everyone into lockdown video calls, but we’d have preferred OnePlus putting more resources into getting the (also 8MP) ultra-wide rear lens up to par with the main camera than persisting with the macro camera. The main 48MP Sony camera is a great performer in all scenarios at this price, but switch to wide angle and colours aren’t as lifelike and some detail gets lost. Our best guess? OnePlus (and everyone else) has research showing people want more lenses on their phones.

Carl Pei on why OnePlus is coming back to fix its biggest mistake

So, should I buy it?

Yes. You can’t argue with this value. Unless you fancy an iPhone SE and Apple’s iOS instead, that is. Or there’s something specific you want from a mid-range phone like a two-day battery (Moto) or a 120Hz screen (Realme). Still, like we said, we have a feeling we’re going to be recommending the OnePlus Nord to a lot of people over the next 12 months, including some we may have once steered towards a OnePlus 8.

Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara

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