OnePlus Nord Review: A Weird Mix of Improvement and Compromise

By Tom Pritchard on at

It's here. Nearly anyway. OnePlus has announced the Nord, promising us the OnePlus experience without having to pay what is now a OnePlus price point. Or the price point of the bigger companies like Apple and Samsung. The phone was announced last Monday, and is set go to on sale on 4th August. I've had my hands on the phone for a few weeks now, and am here to tell you what it's like. Let's take a look.

OnePlus Nord Specs

  • 6.44-inch FHD+ AMOLED Display with 90Hz refresh rate
  • Gorilla Glass 5 body (front and rear)
  • Snapdragon 765 chipset
  • Adreno 620 GPU
  • Quad lens rear camera with 48MP main lens (f/1.75), 8MP Ultra Wide Angle lens (f/2.25), 2MP macro lens (f/2.4), and 5MP depth sensor (f/2.4)
  • Dual front camera array with 32MP main lens (f/2.45), and 8MP ultra wide angle lens (f/2.45)
  • 4,115 mAh battery with Warp Charge 30T
  • In-display fingerprint scanner and face unlock
  • 5G
  • Available with 8GB of Ram and 128GB of storage or 12GB of RAM and 256GB storage.
  • Usual hardware choices like alert slider, no headphone jack, and dual nano SIM slots also return
  • Runs Oxygen OS 10.5, based on Android 10, out of the box

Last year I got incredibly annoyed by the OnePlus 7T Pro over its distinct lack of updates. Aside from minor hardware boosts and a redesigned camera array it was exactly the same phone as the OnePlus 7 Pro that was only a few months older. I'm getting some flashbacks to those times with the OnePlus Nord, but this time I'm not so annoyed. Sure the phone really isn't that much different the likes of the OnePlus 8 or 7T, but crucially it's also nowhere near as expensive.

The Nord is in a weird situation though. While it's not intended to be the flagship device, it still comes with a lot of features you'd expect from a flagship OnePlus device. The same main camera as the OnePlus 8 series, a glass back, 90hz display, fast charging, 5G, and so on. But it's also taken some liberties that a lot of people wouldn't stand for on a flagship, like only having a single speaker, not including wireless charging, and not having the latest and best chipset. Though that last one might only be for the nerdiest of users who want to be able to squeeze as many GHz out of their phone as they can - not settle for the lesser speeds, graphics, and memory the Snapdragon 765 has to offer.

Really the chipset is the key difference between the Nord and older OnePlus devices, and likely where a lot of the cost savings have come in. Benchmarking sites clock the 765 in at noticeably lower speed and performance than the regular 845, which OnePlus debuted back in 2018 with the OnePlus 6. So that gives you an idea of how far back we're looking in terms of the guts. But again all this comes back to the fac t that this phone is still cheaper than anything OnePlus has provide for the past few years, and even with the lesser chipset I didn't notice a great deal of difference between it and the 855+-toting OnePlus 7T during typical use.

In other words, unless you're used to using your phone for resource-heavy processes (like serious mobile gaming), you should be fine with a 765.

The other major compromises aren't really compromises at all. The lack of a second speaker is the most annoying, since it's a very trivial detail that OnePlus ignored up until the release of the OnePlus 7, but things like wireless charging and IP-rated water resistance have only been included once on the OnePlus 8 Pro. So not having them here is really nothing particularly surprising. But that's why it's such a weird feeling to have in a phone: logic tells us a mid-range priced phone should be filled with compromises, but the OnePlus Nord doesn't come across that way.

Display

The display of the Nord is exactly what you'd expect at this point. 90hz was a surprise for a phone that's designed to be cheap, but it's not exactly a surprise for a company like OnePlus which has included the faster screen on every phone it's made for the past 12 months. The same is true for AMOLED, and while it could easily have been ditched in favour of the cheaper LCD displays it's clear all the display features are not something OnePlus is willing to compromise on. Never settling, if you will.

Naturally, though, QHD resolution is not one of the things that the company felt was truly 'essential'. So we're stuck with full HD, or technically Full HD+ because this display is wider than the 16:9 aspect ratio 1080p applies to. But Full HD is fine for the time being. One day we'll get to the point where it really should be QHD or nothing, but for now this is plenty adequate for your phone-toting needs.

The curved screens of the OnePlus 8 and the Pro series phones has been ditched this time round too. While I assume this was primarily done to shave some pounds off the final price, it's a change I more than welcome. Curved screens are completely fucking pointless, after all, and offer nothing of note. They don't even look good, and they get in the way when you need to reach for the side of the screen. So in this case the Nord is definitely an improvement on the 8 series, which featured that ridiculous fucking feature as standard on both models.

That said the screen has shrunk ever so slightly, and now you have a 6.44-inch display instead of the 6.55-inch on the OnePlus 8 and 7T. Not that it's noticeable unless you stick the two phones together to compare. There's also the dual holepunch camera, which is a first for OnePlus, but not all that different from the notched or holepunched displays of phones past.

Camera

The camera situation is little bit weird this time round, because while it's one of the key areas OnePlus has been focussing on, it's another example of the weird mix of features and compromises compared to older devices. The best example are the new camera lenses, since this comes with an additional Ultra Wide front camera, something that is brand new to any OnePlus device.

Comparing it to older devices is tricky, because there's been so much variation in the actual camera modules included in OnePlus devices over the past year. Needless to say it's similar to the OnePlus 8 in that it includes a 2MP macro lens and lacks the telephoto lens included in other devices, though does include a 5MP depth sensor that should make it a good option for close-up photography.

The ultrawide angle lens also takes a hit this time, since we only get an 8MP sensor on the back - down from a respective 16 and 48MP resolution on the 8 and and 8 Pro.

But camera specs are no good on paper, and you actually have to start snapping shots to see what they have. For this comparison I'll be using the OnePlus 7T - mainly because it's the phone I was using before the Nord arrived and because it's the most recent OnePlus device I have to hand.

The first of note, as would be expected with a camera that doesn't have a telephoto lens, is that the zoom really fucking sucks. It's almost like looking at a very fuzzy Van Gogh painting when you go all the way in:

Granted the OnePlus 7T isn't great either, but if you're not looking at a blown-up version of the image it doesn't look half bad. You can see the difference in hardware has made a massive difference on the final result. The colouring is really off on the Nord as well, not sure what that's about.

Here's that same view without any zoom:

Top: OnePlus Nord, Bottom: OnePlus 7T

Quality-wise, they're not that much different, which makes sense given I didn't take this at the Nord's full resolution. Both were taken at a stripped down resolution (12MP on the Nord and seemingly the same on the 7T where the stock camera app doesn't let you change it), so the only major difference comes from the colouring. The Nord comes in with a more realistic palette, while the 7T seems to exaggerate them somewhat - why that is isn't clear.

For the record these plants look like wheat, and they're not supposed to be that green this far into growing season.

Selfie-wise we're looking at similar quality zoomed all the way out, though naturally the 32MP lens on the Nord does produce larger images you can blow up a little bit more. Background details seem noticeably sharper on the Nord, which you can see on the power lines going off into the distance, but in the foreground? It doesn't seem to make much difference at 0% zoom.

Top: Nord (scaled down), Bottom: 7T

Unfortunately the resolution on the Nord is too large for our system, so I had to scale it down. You can see the full resolution image here, though.

The Ultra-wide angle front camera looks much the same as the regular one, albeit with more in frame. Looks like those algorithms meant to fix the distortion at the edges is doing its job too

Like the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro there isn't that much difference between the 12MP photos and the 48MP. The camera says that 12MP is for better HDR (plus access to different lenses and aspect ratios) while 48MP is obviously for better resolution. But as they say resolution isn't everything, and clearly that's not the case here.

The 48MP shots are bigger, and let you zoom in further, but from all levels of zoom the quality looks comparable. In fact, if anything the 48MP shots put you at a disadvantage because they're so restricted and take up roughly three times more space on the phone's storage

Left: 48MP, Right: 12MP

You can see the original dezoomed versions, in their uncompressed glory, right here. And here's the 7T's fully zoomed image, just for comparison's sake:

Bizarrely, dare I say it, I think it looks slightly better.

The Macro lens does make a huge amount of difference when you're doing close-up photography, as shown here when I took a picture of the same Lego minifgure with and without macro mode:

Top: macro, Bottom: regular camera

Macro mode made it a lot easier to focus on objects up-close, and the final result was a shot that looks a hell of a lot better (and less blurry) than the photo taken with the regular camera mode. And the results are significantly better than the 7T, which has a macro mode but not a dedicated macro lens:

Top: macro mode, Bottom: regular camera

The regular camera mode pictures look pretty similar, though I'd say the Nord has the edge on clarity.

So really as it turns out the OnePlus Nord camera is ok. It's certainly not revolutionary, but it will do fine for anyone who wants a simple and easily-accessible camera to snap photos and videos with. Zoom aside, obviously, which is the only thing that really does not match up to that idea of 'Never Settle'. Yeah a depth sensor is cool, but personally I think having proper zoom is a better way to go.

Battery

Now the OnePlus Nord has a 4,115 mAh battery, which means it sits somewhere in the middle of the 7T and the 8. So you'd assume the battery life would land somewhere in the middle, right? Sadly not, as I found out with my battery test that put the NMord against the 7T while streaming Avenger's Endgame - the three hour-plus Marvel epic that's currently on Disney Plus. Brightness was at max, and for fairness I made sure the phone was set to look for 2G/3G/4G networks and specifically not look for 5G. Because we've all heard about 5G being a battery hog, and I wanted to be sure it wasn't secretly draining battery in the background looking for a 5G network that didn't exist.

By the end the OnePlus 7T came out with 76% of its battery left by the start of the credits, and 75% by the time that 15-minute monstrosity had finished. Which is reasonable, given the length of the film. effectively that means you could watch it four times (12 hours) before your battery died. The Nord, on the other-hand, had 66% of its battery left at the start of the credits, and 64% left at the end. So the film had drained roughly a third of the battery, rather than the quarter it took off the OnePlus 7T. Bearing in mind the 7T only has a 3,800 mAh battery, which itself doesn't really stand up to larger and more expensive devices, something is very wrong with the Nord. Specifically there must be something draining more of the battery in the background.

Taking the Nord out for an evening walking with Pokémon Go, also showed off some of that difference. Pokémon Go is a notorious battery hog, and taking it for a couple of hours with an 80-90% battery (around 6pm) meant I'd start hitting the 15% battery saver mode around around 10 or 11pm while I'm still sitting in the living room watching TV. The 7T doesn't fair much better, but that doesn't get to that level until around midnight when I can take it upstairs to plug it in.

Something isn't quite right here, though it does show that a larger battery, while impressive sounding, isn't always better if the phone it's plugged into is a power-hog.

Audio

Sadly one of the compromises that OnePlus decided to include in the Nord is stripping out the secondary speaker at the top of the phone. While there's still a speaker grill up there for taking phone calls, it doesn't do much else. Just like every device up to and including the OnePlus 6T you have a single speaker at the bottom of the phone.

As a result you wind up with sound that's noticeably quieter than the dual speaker setups of other OnePlus devices, and frankly not as nice to listen to. Sure you can easily use a pair of headphones, but there are times when you need to listen to something without cutting off the rest of the world - ideally not in a public place though.

Even if you are a big headphone fan, there's no headphone jack to enjoy - unlike a lot of other mid-range and budget devices. So you better invest in Bluetooth headphones or just resign yourself to the fact you're going to struggle to use wired headphones will recharging.

Software

The best news here is that there are no compromises on the software, with the Nord coming packed with OxygenOS 10.5 - the latest version that's already available on the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro. There's no big features announced this time around, as is often the case with flagship launches, but there's still a few hundred tweaks and optimisations in there that you don't get with stock Android.

If you've used a OnePlus phone recently, there's absolutely no difference in what the Nord has to offer. Which is good, and in typical OnePlus style they've promised two years of Android updates and an additional year of security updates on top of that. Which is all pretty standard among Android phonemakers - even Google itself.

Overall

The Nord is a strange phone. It's a very weird feature mix for a mid-range device, as mentioned before, with that strange mix of features from a flagship-tier device, mixed in with the normal relative compromises you would get on your standard mid-tier phone. It's like OnePlus is trying to offer something for everyone, whether they're used to the flashy features of a flagship or the lower prices of some other mid-range device.

And they've done a good job of it. Considering the Nord costs £379, you're still getting a hell of a lot of fancy features for what is now quite a small amount of money. Most phones with 5G and high refresh rates are closer to £1,000 these days, and the Nord packs all that in for less than what some lesser flagship devices would have cost five plus years ago.

If you're used to the best of the best of the best, the Nord may well take some getting used to, but the truth of it is it helps showcase that you don't necessarily need the latest chips to have a good time with your phone. Considering how much it costs, the OnePlus Nord packs in an awful lot of really good stuff - as well as some stuff that really should have been prioritised (like the battery) over frivolous features like the glass back. But you can probably manage, because as i keep saying, this is not an expensive phone. There's an awful lot you can get used to if you're not being shafted on price.

Still wish they hadn't cut out the second speaker, though. And a better battery wouldn't have gone amiss.

TL;DR

  • A weird mix of ultimately minor improvements plus a bunch of compromises that make this phone as cheap as it is
  • A lot of flagship-tier specs like a 90Hz AMOLED display, a glass, back, and hi-resolution cameras are bound to be appealing to a lot of people. Especially at this pricepoint.
  • The camera sounds good on paper, but the reality is it's no better than older OnePlus devices.
  • The lack of optical zoom is very noticeable, especially when you go in all the way. Why it wasn't included is rather confusing.
  • Some compromises, like the single speaker, do not do the Nord any favours
  • The battery is bigger than the OnePlus 7T, but performs worse, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Something is draining the battery in the background
  • The software is no different to the latest OnePlus devices, which is a bonus
  • The main thing to remember is that it's cheap. Despite all the frivolous features that people could have done without, there are still compromises that have been made - but at this price point you can probably handle that better than you would with a £1,000 phone.

Availability

The OnePlus Nord goes on sale at 9am on 4th August, and is available in blue or grey - regardless of which variant you get. The starting price is £379, which gets you a model with 18GB  of storage and 8GB of RAM. Up that price to £469 and you get 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Beyond those two things, both phones are the same. You can pick yours now, and get ready for 4th August to order it from the OnePlus website.