When I reviewed the OnePlus 8 Pro, I critiqued it for being expensive — for the OnePlus brand, that is. While it’s an excellent device, I also couldn’t help but wonder if its US$890 starting price was the beginning of the “new normal” for all of the company’s phones to come.
OnePlus has typically been the brand we could rely on to deliver phones with top-tier specs while keeping the price down. Even when competitors (yes, we mean Apple and Samsung) were pumping out US$1,000 flagship phones, OnePlus didn’t cave. Instead, it delivered the OnePlus 7 Pro with impressive specs and a reasonable US$699 price.
So, when the OnePlus 8 Pro price tag almost crossed the one thousand dollar line, it made me question if the days of high-end but affordable phones from OnePlus were officially a thing of the past.
And then along comes the OnePlus Nord: A mid-range phone with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G chipset (with 5G support), a 48-megapixel rear camera, a 90Hz refresh rate… and a budget price.
It’s not available in the U.S. or anywhere in North America at the moment — and it’s unclear as to when it could drop here. For now, it’ll only be released in Europe and India. But based on European pricing, which starts at 399 Euros, the Nord would technically set you back about US$470 USD.
But the Nord wasn’t strictly created for OnePlus loyalists who have been holding out for an affordable phone.
Take one look at the OnePlus Nord Instagram account and you’ll see custom memes, punny videos, and ads featuring models who look like they’ve been cherry-picked straight from viral TikToks (neon blue eyeliner and all).
Even the Nord’s official launch, which was held virtually due to the pandemic, wasn’t limited to a live-stream. Viewers had the option to tune in via augmented reality, ultimately placing the OnePlus presentation stage within their living rooms.
Based on this social strategy, it’s clear OnePlus decided to ditch tried-and-true marketing tactics in an attempt to attract a younger, less-moneyed crowd. And, by younger, I mean Gen-Z.
I’ll give it to OnePlus — pushing a mid-range phone like the Nord is a smart move, particularly if it’s looking to increase brand loyalty. The phone features some impressive specs (including an ultra-wide-angle selfie lens for group shots), and is essentially future-proofed with built-in 5G support.
The Nord’s affordable price also makes it easier for parents to stomach, and for their kids or even college students to justify, especially if they’re saving up for it on their own. Its sleek, high-end design doesn’t hurt either, helping to set it apart from typical, cheap-looking budget phones.
Whether or not OnePlus manages to successfully capture the attention of Gen-Z with its viral marketing blitz is another matter entirely; it shouldn’t define the Nord, because it’s an excellent device. Those who can’t afford to drop almost $1,000 on an Android device (or simply don’t want to) can rest assured that the Nord is very capable of delivering smooth performance and all-day battery life. But, as you’ll find out, it’s not an all-around win. There’s still room for improvement.
A very sleek, but unfortunately safe design
When I first previewed the Nord, I noted that the phone maintains OnePlus’ signature design: a pill-shaped camera module and company logo on back. But after spending a lot more time with it, I realized the Nord feels out of touch with the company’s Gen Z marketing approach.
Don’t get me wrong, that traditional design isn’t bad by any means. But I do wish OnePlus had a little fun with this one by presenting an entirely new aesthetic. You know, the same fun it clearly had with its creative social media content and copy editing in the lead-up to the Nord’s launch.
A quick glance at the Nord’s Quick Start Guide confirms this disconnect between design and marketing. Open it up and you’re greeted with the following message: “If you’re like us, you probably dove directly into the phone and now hours later are picking up this guide, wondering — do I need a Quick Start Guide in my life?” This is the type of quirky, off-brand experimentation I would’ve liked to see implemented within the device itself.
It could’ve included anything from a different form factors (maybe a foldable? That’s a tall order, I know), bringing the pop-up camera back, quirky colors, or even simply switching up the pill-shaped camera module. The Nord would’ve been a perfect opportunity for OnePlus to try a design that’s completely unique from anything it’s ever released before.
I know I praised Apple’s budget offering, the comparable iPhone SE (2020), for its design, even though it looked identical to the iPhone 8. But that’s because it’s a second-generation model. The Nord, on the other hand, is the first of its kind for the OnePlus brand, so there weren’t really any rules for this one to follow.
Regardless, the Nord still looks very sleek and feels a lot more expensive in-hand than its price would indicate. For starters, it comes in two different color options: Gray Onyx and Blue Marble. With both colors, you can choose between 8GB/128GB or 12GB/256GB storage configurations. Those in India also have the option of a smaller, 6GB/64GB configuration for the Gray Onyx color.
My review unit was of the Blue Marble variety and it’s a really stunning color that sort of shifts in tone depending on the way the light hits it. Sometimes it resembles a baby blue, while other times it looks more teal. The glass exterior also makes it feel a lot more premium and is a refreshing change from the typical plastic-covered budget phones.
Flip the Nord over to its back, and in the left-hand corner you’ll find that quad-camera setup which, as I said before, takes on a pill-shaped form factor. There’s also the OnePlus logo stamped in the middle of the phone’s back with OnePlus written on the bottom. It’s worth noting that the camera bump is a bit noticeable without a case on. So when you place it camera-side down on a flat surface, the phone tilts towards the left and rests its weight on the module.
On its front, the Nord packs a large AMOLED display (more on that, later) and dual hole-punch selfie cameras. The right edge is home to that OnePlus alert slider we all know and love, which allows you to switch between vibrate, silent, or ring. Below that is the power button which can also trigger Google Assistant with a long press. Meanwhile, on the left side is the volume rocker.
At its base, the Nord houses a USB-C port, a single speaker, and a dual nano-SIM card slot. Unfortunately, there’s no headphone jack anywhere on the Nord. But the decision to leave it out is clearly strategic, considering the company launched its wireless (and worthy) OnePlus Buds in conjunction with the phone.
In terms of its size, the Nord is only slightly wider and shorter than the OnePlus 8, which I preferred to the 8 Pro because it was more comfortable to hold in my small hands. The Nord is no different in this regard: It’s super easy to scroll through social media and type one-handed without being paranoid you’re going to drop it.
And, speaking of accidental drops, the Nord did fall to the ground while I was attempting to secure it to a teleprompter. Thankfully, I can report that it’s very durable — it survived the fall without any visible cracks or scratches. In fact, the only evidence of this fumble were the air bubbles that formed underneath the included screen protector.
The Nord doesn’t have an IP rating for dust or water resistance, so you’ll want to be careful with it around liquids. This omission isn’t entirely shocking given that the OnePlus 8 lineup was the first of any of the company’s phones to receive an official IP68 rating.
A super-smooth display for scrolling through those TikToks
The Nord features a 6.44-inch Fluid AMOLED display with 2,400 x 1,080 pixel resolution (408ppi). The colors look bright and vibrant, and it’s easy to see content even in bright light.
I should mention that I always keep all of my devices set to maximum brightness, but that wasn’t the case with the Nord. Throughout my entire time with it, I was fully content to keep brightness set at about the 50-percent mark.
The Nord’s display also comes with a 90Hz refresh rate turned on by default, which I was surprised to see given its price. Comparable phones like the iPhone SE and Pixel 3a both only reach 60Hz for their respective displays. Of course, you can decrease the Nord’s refresh rate to that lower number via settings, but you should only do so if you’re trying to save battery life.
I stuck with 90Hz, which felt buttery smooth when scrolling through social media apps like Twitter and Instagram. While 60Hz is still an adequate experience, it’s tough to accept that downgrade once you’ve experienced the higher refresh rate.
For added security, the Nord also comes with an in-display fingerprint sensor. This is in addition to setting a PIN or using Face Unlock. If you opt for this particular security layer, a fingerprint outline will appear on screen, prompting you to place your finger on top of it to unlock.
I never had any trouble with the feature whenever I needed to unlock my phone, especially in comparison with other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra which always struggled to recognize my print. By contrast, the Nord would typically register my fingerprint within seconds of placing it on the display and without any hiccups, too.
But what I love most about the Nord’s screen is that it’s flat and not one of those dreaded edge-to-edge displays. While the idea of those “waterfall” screen designs sound great in theory — who doesn’t love an almost bezel-less display? — it can be frustrating in practice.
With the OnePlus 8 Pro, I would accidentally trigger apps or buttons with my palms, whether holding it with one hand or when stretching my fingers across the display. While OnePlus eventually released an update to remedy this exact issue, the anxiety you feel when holding that curved-edged phone remains.
So, yes, I breathed a sigh of relief when I unboxed the Nord and realized I wouldn’t have to deal with those pesky edges. I could hold the phone in my hand comfortably without worrying about the fatty tissue in my palms accidentally triggering anything on the display.
And while I’m sure it was left out because it’s more expensive to manufacture, I’d rather OnePlus leave that screen type out of its future flagships forever.
Great performance and battery life
Unlike the iPhone SE, the Nord doesn’t come with a flagship processor under the hood. Instead, it packs Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G with support for 5G. It’s the same chip powering Samsung’s mid-range Galaxy A51 5G and the LG Velvet — both of which are a little more expensive than the Nord at $599.
Circling back to the idea that this phone is targeted towards the younger demographic, the Snapdragon 765G will perfectly suffice for things like texting, social media apps, and light web browsing. During my time with the Nord, I never had any trouble with its performance. Apps always opened quickly and felt snappy, and I really never felt any type of lag.
Moving on to the operating system, the Nord runs Android 10 with OnePlus’ OxygenOS 10.5 skin on top. With that skin, you can take advantage of features like Dark Theme 2.0 for apps like PayPal, Reddit, Google Pay, and more. There’s also Zen Mode for those of you who compulsively pick up your phones every five seconds. When enabled, the feature locks you out of your device for 20 minute intervals throughout the day, forcing you to take a break.
There’s also Night Mode, which filters out blue light for less strain on your eyes, and Vibrant color effect that you can turn on to enhance colors on the display.
OnePlus also pre-installed some Google Apps, including Duo, Messages, and Phone. Typically, the company sticks with its proprietary apps, but according to a Nord Instagram post, these Google apps allow for a “smoother experience.”
And I can confirm it was indeed a smooth experience, especially because I already rely on Duo to connect with friends. So it was nice to not have to download it myself. But it wasn’t a revolutionary experience that felt different from using OnePlus’ own apps. It’s more of a nice perk for those who prefer Google’s ecosystem.
As for its battery life, the OnePlus Nord has a 4,115mAh battery which I had a lot of trouble draining. I can confidently say I’m not on my phone as much ever since I’ve been in quarantine. I mainly used it to check notifications for text messages, Telegram, Messenger, Slack, and to scroll through social media. Occasionally, when I would be away from my laptop, I’d also use it to check email.
After using the phone for about 12 hours every day, I’d still have at least 30-percent battery life left going into the morning. Of course, if you use the phone to stream video or play video games, then you’ll probably have less than that. But if you’re mainly using it for communication, then you’ll easily get a full day’s worth of battery out of it, if not more.
The Nord also comes with OnePlus’ Warp Charge 30T power adapter and Warp Type C-cable. But since the phone isn’t available in the U.S., I was sent a European adapter to use with it. Thankfully, having reviewed the OnePlus 8 Pro in April, I already had the correct 30T adapter on hand.
OnePlus says this can charge your device’s battery up to 70 percent in only 30 minutes, which I can confirm is very accurate. So, if you’re purchasing the phone unlocked from OnePlus with plans to ship to the U.S., I’d highly recommend also throwing in the adapter for an additional $30.
The Nord doesn’t come with wireless charging, even though it does have a glass back. But since the OnePlus 8 Pro is the first of any of OnePlus’ phones to come equipped with wireless charging, I have a feeling the company is reserving that feature for its flagships for now.
5G is nice to have… if you can find it
Thanks to that Qualcomm chip, the Nord boasts support for 5G connectivity. But it’s of the “slower” variety. There are currently two different versions of 5G: mmWave and sub-6 GHz. The Nord, however, only supports the latter. It’s not as mind-blowingly fast as mmWave, but it is more widely accessible since it doesn’t require the use of new transmitters.
This doesn’t mean a lot right now, since 5G speeds are a bit tough to find all across the U.S., but it does at least increase the phone’s longevity.
I say this about all 5G phones, but it bears repeating: If you don’t plan on upgrading your phone for a while, invest in a 5G-capable one now. It’s going to take a few years for 5G to become easily accessible, so you likely won’t be using the feature for a while. But when coverage catches up, you’ll be ready.
It’s also important to note the Nord will receive two years’ worth of software updates and three years’ worth of security updates. So, hopefully 5G will hit your area in between then, but it’s not guaranteed.
An unpredictable camera
On the whole, shots taken with the Nord don’t quite match the saturated look I experienced on the OnePlus 8 Pro. But, for the most part, the Nord produces some fairly impressive shots for a phone that’s priced under US$500.
Subjects within photos appear vibrant and sharp, but upon closer inspection, I did sometimes notice there’d be a bit of blur in some spots.
On the back, the Nord’s quad-camera setup contains a:
48-megapixel sensor (f/1.75 aperture)
119-degree 8-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens (f/2.25),
2-megapixel macro lens (f/2.4)
5-megapixel depth sensor (f/2.4)
As was the case with both the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, you can switch from the Nord’s rear 48-megapixel sensor to the 12-megapixel sensor in order to capture better shadow and highlight detail. Whereas the 48-megapixel sensor is best for capturing a higher-resolution photo with more detail.
While taking photos with the Nord, I stuck to the 12-megapixel sensor and took the iPhone SE (which has a 12-megapixel single lens) along with me to compare shots. Below are some samples from both phones.
One thing to note is these photos were taken prior to the update OnePlus released, which I’ll discuss further down.
Between these two images, it’s clear there’s more saturation evident in the iPhone SE’s shot, as you can see from the color of the pink hearts and rose petals, as well as the green bottle. The wood table and the brick also look a bit darker.
As I mentioned before, the blurriness on the Nord’s shots can be seen in the background. On the photo taken with the iPhone SE, the bricks look a lot more defined and so does the lettering on the sign hanging from the window. On the Nord, it’s a little fuzzier and the lettering is a slightly lighter yellow.
But, even with that blurriness, I’d say the Nord delivers a far more realistic photo when it comes to color. With the iPhone SE, it looks as though the Pellegrino bottle has been fully sharpened, particularly the label.
Here, you can see a bit of an opposite effect. The stop sign on the photo taken using the OnePlus Nord looks a lot brighter than the photo from the iPhone SE. You can also see that blur again in the image above, mainly on the trees to the right.
As usual, the iPhone SE adds a yellowish tint to the photo, which leaves the colors looking a lot more neutral. The trees in the back are darker and the colors are less defined than on the OnePlus Nord.
The blur is a lot more noticeable in wide-angle shots:
The playground itself looks sharp, for the most part, but you can see the top of the playset looks fuzzy. Meanwhile, the trees and the pool in the background are super blurry.
The photo above isn’t as bad, but the branches and leaves are indeed blurry. The grass and sidewalk also look a bit weird and out of focus. These wide-angle shots were the only times I felt like I was taking photos on one of those US$200 Alcatel phones.
The blurriness evident in all of the photos above could very well be attributed to the Nord’s requirement to be very still when taking shots. If it finds that you’re too shaky as it’s trying to focus, a pop-up message will appear to let you know to stand still.
I can confirm that while taking these photos, my hands weren’t shaking. And after receiving that first pop-up, I was especially still when snapping shots.
Shortly after these photos were taken, OnePlus issued an update for the Nord in which the company noted that it had “improved the shooting experience with the camera and improved stability.” So, I decided to take a few more sample shots to test it out:
The colors look more vibrant, but parts of the turtle (like its shell on top) and also the top of the bear’s head still look blurry.
For an even closer comparison, consider this same shot taken pre- and post-update:
You can see there’s a slight color difference between the two images above. The one on the left looks a bit brighter and more saturated.
But the blurriness doesn’t seem to really have gotten any better with the wide-angle shots. The trees, while vibrant in color, still look fuzzy.
Thankfully, the pop-up warning message didn’t appear as often after the update, but I did notice the camera shutter would tend to lag at times.
Then, there’s Nightscape mode which allows you to take photos in low-light environments. It’s not terrible, but I did run into the same issue as with photos taken in broad daylight.
It also takes a little while to snap the photo, since it’s processing the image, and it too requires being super still. The photo on the right is a lot better than what’s on the left given that it had some more light to work with.
Lastly, let’s move on to selfies. The Nord’s front camera features a a 32-megapixel main sensor (f/2.45) and a 105-degree 8-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens (f/2.45). It’s meant for group selfies, allowing you to comfortably jam all your friends into one photo. If ever there were a worse time to release such a feature, it’d be during a pandemic.
So, enjoy these socially distant selfies of me all by myself.
Unlike the performance of its rear camera, I was thoroughly impressed with the Nord’s selfie cameras. I mean, these are photos I’d upload straight to Instagram without any additional edits. Unlike the OnePlus 8 Pro, which had a tendency to make me look pale, the OnePlus Nord is selfie-approved.
This only further proves my point that the Nord is really trying to rope in Gen-Z. I mean, content creation is really all captured via the selfie camera nowadays anyway — whether that’s for Instagram photos, YouTube vlogs, or even TikToks.
But let’s hope that for the rest of us who enjoy taking photos with the rear camera, OnePlus continues to push out some more camera improvements via software updates.
Of course, the OnePlus Nord isn’t the only impressive budget phone out there.
The iPhone SE (2020) starts at US$399 and, as mentioned before, packs the same A13 Bionic Chip that’s used in Apple’s flagship iPhone 11 models. So, you can rely on it to deliver a lot of power and speed when using it on a daily basis. While it only comes equipped with a single 12-megapixel camera in comparison to the quad setup on the Nord, it still delivers really impressive shots.
Then, there’s the Samsung Galaxy A51 which is a lot more similar to the Nord as far as specs go. It packs a 48-megapixel main lens, a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens, and a 5-megapixel macro sensor. While its battery is slightly smaller at 4,000mAh, its display is larger at 6.5-inches. And, at US$400, it’s a bit cheaper than the Nord.
While I’d love to recommend Google’s Pixel 4a, it has yet to be announced. So, instead, we’re going to go with the Pixel 3a which has dual 12.2-megapixel cameras and a 5.6-inch display. Keep in mind it does have an older, Snapdragon 670 processor and a smaller 3,000mAh battery. But based on our review, we know it’s capable of taking fantastic photos.
Also, unlike the OnePlus Nord, all of these phones are currently available in the U.S.
It’s still a fantastic budget option
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to the OnePlus Nord. Let’s start with the good: It has a comfortable, high-end design, smooth performance, and long-lasting battery life you don’t have to worry about.
While its selfie camera is pretty impressive, it’s not enough to deter from the fact that the rear camera still needs work. For a budget phone with a 48-megapixel camera (i.e., the same one featured on the US$700 OnePlus 8 to be exact), I was expecting super crisp and vibrant photos. Instead, the quality of every shot feels somewhat unpredictable.
That’s not to say I don’t recommend the Nord, because I do. I really enjoyed my time with it as my daily driver. But much like the iPhone SE, it’s best for those who want an affordable Android phone without skimping on design or processing power — not solely for Instagram-worthy photos.
So, is the Nord OnePlus’ ticket to grabbing the attention of Gen Zers, influencers, and content creators?
Not quite. Even though Gen-Z mainly relies on the selfie camera, they still need a rear camera that’s up to par for moody, aesthetically pleasing content creation. Plus, with no official U.S. price tag or availability, it’s not worth the hassle of navigating international shipping and costs. But, hey, at least the marketing was entertaining.