OnePlus Nord: The iPhone SE of Android World

The OnePlus Nord sports a 6.44-inch FHD+ display with 90Hz refresh rate.
It is powered by a Snapdragon 765G SoC with up to 12GB RAM, 256GB storage.
To keep things ticking is a 4,115mAh battery with 30W Warp Charging.

Chinese smartphone company OnePlus makes some of the most value-for-money smartphones with a self-proclaimed tagline “Flagship Killer”. The smartphones offer the right balance between performance and features, and cost significantly less than the Apple iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and Huawei smartphones. In fact, over the years, OnePlus smartphones have matured from “flagship killers to flagships”. In India, OnePlus leads the premium segment, followed by Samsung and Apple. But, in this whole process, a gap got left behind, that too in the segment where OnePlus started its journey. The latest OnePlus Nord is the company’s attempt at “going back to its roots” and competing in the hotly contested mid-premium segment.

With prices starting at around $400, the OnePlus Nord does bring a set of tradeoffs. There is no wireless charging, no IPXX rating, no stereo speakers, and no flagship chipset. But the OnePlus Nord does come with 5G connectivity. It also brings all the OnePlus goodness such as clean and customizable OxygenOS UI and Warp Charging technology. From the 90Hz screen refresh rate to 48MP quad rear cameras with OIS and dual front cameras, there is a lot to like about the Nord. OnePlus is also promising two years of Android OS upgrades and three years of security updates.

But what makes the OnePlus Nord special in its segment? Well, after using the smartphone for over two weeks, I can say that a lot is working in its favor. But before I get to the design and performance part, let me first talk about why OnePlus “Nord” exists.

What does Nord mean?

When

I first heard the product name, I had two thoughts in my mind. It either had to do something with the Nordic countries or something with the Nord VPN. Maybe a phone with a built-in VPN for better privacy. But ahead of the launch, OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei revealed the reason behind the product naming.

“Nord name comes from the concept of true north. We each have this inner compass that guides us. This product line reminds us to always search for our true north, and we hope it will keep reminding you of yours,” Carl Pei tweeted. So, can the Nord guide OnePlus to success? Let’s find out.

Design: Realme X50 Pro Lite in the Making

It is no secret that OnePlus and Realme share parts of the supply chain, design, and the manufacturing line with Oppo. Despite the various prototypes that OnePlus experimented with the Nord, it finally went with a design that closely resembles the Realme X50 Pro and Realme X3 SuperZoom. I do not have much to complain, except that nothing is refreshing considering the new product line and the company’s ambitions.

The Nord features a front and back glass design protected with Corning Gorilla Glass 5. But unlike other OnePlus smartphones that feature a metal frame, the Nord comes with a hard plastic frame with a shiny metal finish. It does not bother much to me as it makes the phone a little lighter to hold compared to other 5G phones, like the Realme X50 Pro. The front is dominated by a 6.44-inch screen, but more on that later. It also comes with a dual hole-punch selfie camera cutout on the top left. There are rounded corners on all four sides, with very thin bezels. Despite having a taller screen, the Nord feels compact and comfortable to hold.

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The placement of buttons is also good enough for easy accessibility, and they offer good tactile feedback too. The volume rocker is on the left, whereas the power/sleep button is on the right. Just above the power button is the alert slider to quickly switch between volume profiles (ring, vibrate and silence).

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Along the back is a vertical, pill-shaped quad-camera module and LED flash on the top left. The rest of the back is clean with the OnePlus logo in the center and branding at the bottom. OnePlus sent me the Blue Marble color unit for review, and it looks refreshing. There is also a Grey Onyx color.

The Blue Marble color gives the OnePlus Nord a distinct look and feel.

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Display: 90Hz Screen Refresh Rate and More

The display runs at Full HD+ resolution, 1080×2400 pixels, and a tall 20:9 aspect ratio. The screen has a refresh rate of 90Hz, and it supports HDR10+ as well. It offers good viewing angles, vibrant color reproduction, and legibility is no issue either. The high refresh rate makes animations, web scrolling and UI navigation quite smooth.

OnePlus lets you choose between Vivid, Natural and Advanced screen profiles depending on your needs. There is also a “Reading Mode” which turns the screen into a greyscale mode. If you are reading e-books or a long article on some site, activating the reading mode will ensure less strain on your eyes.

Software: OxygenOS with Promised Software Updates and Upgrades

The Android OS is used by hundreds of OEMs, but only a handful of them offer timely software updates. Besides Nokia HMD, OnePlus is also known to offer timely OS upgrades and monthly security patches to its smartphones. The Nord runs on Android 10 with a July security patch. And despite offering a lot of customization options, the OxygenOS 10.5 also offers close to stock Android experience with just a couple of pre-installed apps.

The UI feels super smooth, thanks to the hardware and software optimization. A lot of credit also goes to the 90Hz screen refresh rate which makes the whole experience better. The interface is smooth, and scrolling through web pages is fluid too. Another thing I like about OxygenOS is how easy it is to customize different aspects, right from accent color to the tone, system icons and fonts among others.

Then there are some interesting additions in the form of Game Space, which optimizes the CPU, GPU and RAM for a lag-free performance. There is also a Fnatic mode that supercharges the smartphone with network enhancements while activating the DND mode for a distraction-free gaming experience.

Another thing I like is the Zen Mode. In the current COVID-19 times, we spend more time on our phones, and it is important to get some digital detox. The Zen Mode does exactly that – it locks you out of your smartphone for 20-60 minutes, depending on what you choose. Once activated, you will only be able to make and receive emergency calls, and all apps except the camera will be temporarily locked.

The OxygenOS skin offers the best of near-stock Android experience with a dash of customization.

Performance: So Much More For Less

The Nord is the first OnePlus smartphone that does not sport a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800-series chipset. It draws its power from a 7nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G SoC, which is paired with up to 12GB of LPDDR4X RAM and up to 256GB UFS 2.1 storage. Coming to performance, the OnePlus Nord may not be the fastest, but it does show what the 765G SoC is capable of. It can be comparable to the Snapdragon 845 SoC, but with a 7nm process node, the 765G is a bit more efficient too. We have already seen how smoothly the chipset performs in our Vivo X50 Pro review, and the experience is the same on the Nord too.

Right from daily tasks like surfing the internet to social media or multitasking, the Nord handles things well. The gaming experience on the smartphone is also smooth. I had no issues running games such as PUBG Mobile, Alto’s Odessey and Hill Climb 2 among others. One of the things I like here is how well optimized the battery management and thermals are on the smartphone.

The Snapdragon 765G SoC offers a good mix of performance and efficiency, along with 5G connectivity.

I played PUBG Mobile at a stretch for two hours with graphics at HD and frame rate at high. Even with this usage, the phone barely got warm, and the battery drain was just 36%. This was with the standard gaming mode. However, occasional frame lags were noticeable. OnePlus has also included the Fnatic mode, which supercharges the phone in terms of allocating more resources for gaming. It also blocks unwanted calls and other notifications for a distraction-free gaming experience. The Fnatic mode did make things smoother.

Cameras: Surprisingly Good, Especially Low-Light

Though the Nord is not a flagship smartphone, OnePlus is offering a flagship camera experience. It comes with a quad-camera set-up at the back and dual cameras on the front. The Nord is also one of the first smartphones in its segment to come with optical image stabilization (OIS) to let you capture blur-free photos and smooth videos. The primary camera is a Sony IMX586 sensor (f/1.8), which is also present on OnePlus 8. It is a 48MP sensor that captures 4×1 binned shots in 12MP resolution by default. But there is also an option to capture full-res photos that take three times more space than standard 12MP shots.

In terms of quality, photos captured from the primary camera offer good details. As it is monsoon, I did not get to test the camera to see how it performs in harsh sunlight. But with the cloudy weather and all, the camera was able to capture the greenery pretty well. Though there is no telephoto lens, the Nord does let you capture 2X digital zoom shots, and they look good. It uses the 48MP sensor to capture full-res images and the crop. Below are some camera samples.

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The primary camera performs well in low-light conditions. But to get better shots, you will need to use the nightscape mode. From the photos I captured, the nightscape mode photos are sharper, brighter and look vibrant too. Though the photos look a little oversaturated, I like how OnePlus has fine-tuned the algorithms. The overall quality looks sharp and better.

“The primary camera offers good overall performance in daylight and low light.”

The other three cameras include an 8MP sensor, an ultra-wide lens, a 5MP depth sensor and a 2MP macro lens. Photos shot from the ultra-wide lens are decent in daylight, but they suffer in dim lighting conditions. The depth sensor works well in adding background defocus to your photos. Edge detection is good too, and there are no complaints there.

Ultra-wide-angle shots

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Portrait Shots

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Portrait mode photos offer a shallow depth of field, though having an option to adjust the blur intensity would have been better.

Lastly, while most OEMs use the ultra-wide camera for capturing macro photos, OnePlus has added a dedicated 2MP macro lens. But as it is a low-resolution sensor, the photos are not that sharp and vibrant. The photo quality is just passable.

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Smooth Videos, But Not The Best

Now, having OIS makes recording smooth videos easier, even with 4K 60fps. Though it does not match the smoothness offered by a gimbal, the video quality is decent for handheld videos. But for better footage, 1080p at 30fps works well.

OnePlus has also included a super stable mode that uses a combination of OIS and EIS (electronic image stabilization). Though videos are slightly smoother, they are not sharp and a lot of graininess is visible too.

Good Selfies and Videos From Front Cameras

Upfront, the Nord comes with two cameras in a hole-punch set-up. The primary camera is a 32MP sensor, and it is paired with an 8MP ultra-wide sensor. Selfies look good, but the AI is a little aggressive in making the skin tone a little brighter. But it does work well in hiding the dark spots and blemishes to an extent.

The ultra-wide-angle camera is also good in retaining quality even with the drop in resolution. Below are some sample shots.

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One of the interesting things about the front camera is that you can also record 4K 60fps videos. One small caveat is that you can only use the main camera for video recording, not the ultra-wide one. But that is not a problem as such, and the video recording and audio quality is surprisingly good.

4K 60fps videos from the front camera are good enough for vlogging newbies.

Battery: One Full Day, and Some More

Talking about the battery life, the OnePlus Nord is equipped with a 4,115mAh unit. It also supports 30W fast charging tech which the company claims goes from 0 to 70% in just 30 minutes. In my test, the battery rose from 2% to 64% in just about 32 minutes. Full charging took about one hour and eight minutes, which is not bad at all.

The battery life on OnePlus Nord is pretty solid.

With a mixed usage that includes heavy gaming for two hours, social media, and web surfing, the Nord easily lasts a day with about 28% battery to spare at night. Without gaming, the Nord with me lasted for a day and a half over the weekend. In terms of screen time, I constantly got around six-and-a-half hours of usage, and sometimes some more.

Conclusion: Good Things Come in Small, Affordable Package

Apple reworked its iPhone strategy to capture the lower-tier market with a value-for-money proposition with the iPhone SE. OnePlus is trying to create the same magic in the Android world. The OnePlus Nord has all the required ammunition in its arsenal to succeed. Available in the emerging markets like India, and other markets such as Spain, France and the UK, it will largely miss the North American market. But given the markets OnePlus is targeting, the Nord has better chances to emerge as a winner.

That said, the Nord is not perfect. The cameras could have been a bit better. Instead of going for a quad-rear camera set-up, OnePlus should have gone with a triple camera set-up like the OnePlus 8, while using the ultra-wide sensor as a macro lens. Having an IPXX rating for splash resistance could have been welcome. OnePlus should also work towards fine-tuning the video camera algorithms, especially with the super stable mode. A stereo speaker set-up would have been a better addition as well for a better multimedia experience. But beyond these, there is nothing much to complain at this price point.

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