It’s been a few days since OnePlus officially launched the Nord, and it’s time to take a closer look at how it fits into today’s mid-tier smartphone segment. The OnePlus Nord starts at Rs. 24,999 for the 64GB Amazon-exclusive variant, but this is only going on sale in September. If you don’t want to wait, you have the option of the higher-priced variants which will be available starting from August 4. The good news is that even the top-end variant doesn’t breach Rs. 30,000, and this is the one we’ll be testing today.
The OnePlus Nord comes in at a very opportune time. Given the current global economic slowdown due to the pandemic, I get the sense that consumers are more wary about splurging on a new phone. Budget or mid-range phones that offer some flagship-level features are really the need of the hour. Secondly, at the time of this review, the OnePlus Nord is the only 5G-ready smartphone priced below Rs. 30,000. I think these factors together put the OnePlus Nord in a very advantageous position.
So is the Nord worth the hype that OnePlus has been generating for it? Can it actually deliver the same usage experience as its more expensive siblings? Let’s find out.
OnePlus Nord design and display: A lot to like
I’ve talked at length about the OnePlus Nord’s design in my first impressions, and after using it for a longer period, not a lot has changed. OnePlus has intentionally used a different design on the Nord, to differentiate it from the OnePlus 8 (Review) and OnePlus 8 Pro (Review). I’m guessing that repurposing an older design the way Apple did with the iPhone SE (Review) wouldn’t have gone down well with the Android crowd.
Certain aspects of the OnePlus Nord’s design have some similarities with phones from Oppo and Realme, and I’m not surprised, considering they are all part of the same family. It’s still recognisable as a modern OnePlus phone, since it has the alert slider, a similar layout for the buttons and ports, and no headphone jack.
The build quality is very good for a phone with a polycarbonate body. There’s Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back, which is reassuring. I quite like the Blue Marble colour on the Nord unit that I’ve been using, as it looks refreshingly new. There’s also a more subdued Grey Onyx colour.
There’s no option to expand the internal storage on the OnePlus Nord, as the SIM tray only supports two nano-SIM cards. This shouldn’t be an issue on the 128GB and 256GB variants, but those buying the 64GB variant might fall short of storage after a year or so, depending on usage. OnePlus offers 50GB of free cloud storage for a year if you sign up for its Red Cable Club.
OnePlus smartphones are known for their AMOLED displays and I’m happy to see that this hasn’t been compromised on the lower priced OnePlus Nord. The sides of the display aren’t curved like they are on the OnePlus 8, but there is a cutout for two selfie cameras, instead of one. The screen measures 6.44 inches, and has a full-HD+ resolution (1080×2400) along with a 90Hz refresh rate. You also get the usual options to tweak the colours and mask the camera hole with a black strip, if needed.
Unlike the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, the OnePlus Nord’s display doesn’t have any colour accuracy certifications, but it does support HDR10+. It’s a good-looking panel overall, with deep blacks and punchy colours. There’s a mild shift in colour tone on white backgrounds, which I noticed initially and it didn’t go away even after a few updates. Still, you’d have to be a real astute observer to notice it.
The OnePlus Nord ships with the usual set of accessories that we’ve come to expect from a OnePlus phone. There’s a silicone bumper case, a Type-C cable, a fast charger, and of course, stickers.
OnePlus Nord specifications: Not flagship-grade, but close enough
The OnePlus Nord is one of the first few phones to launch in India with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G SoC. This new chip was announced last year along with the flagship Snapdragon 865 SoC, but has only just started to make its way into phones. This SoC has an integrated Qualcomm X52 5G modem and is built on the 7nm process. It promises better processing capabilities and up to 30 percent faster graphics rendering than to the Snapdragon 730G.
There’s a slight difference to the OnePlus Nord models sold in India, versus other countries, with respect to 5G. The Indian version of the OnePlus Nord supports only the N78 5G band, compared to the European version, which supports more bands. This means you could have some compatibility issues with service providers abroad that don’t operate on the N78 band.
In India, OnePlus is offering three variants of the Nord. There’s an Amazon-exclusive variant with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage for Rs. 24,999; the one with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage is priced at Rs. 27,999, and 12GB of RAM with 256GB of storage will cost you Rs. 29,999.
The OnePlus Nord measures 8.2mm in thickness and weighs 184g. You get NFC, Wi-Fi ac, Bluetooth 5.1, and support for satellite navigation systems including NavIC. The phone has a single super-linear speaker at the bottom, an in-display fingerprint sensor, and face unlock authentication. The Nord doesn’t have any official IP certification, so I’d be a little careful with it around water. You also get a sizable 4,115mAh battery, with Warp Charge 30T fast charging.
The OnePlus experience wouldn’t be complete without OxygenOS. I was using version 10.5.2 at the time of this review, which has the July security patch. The Nord did receive a couple of updates in the week I spent reviewing it. The interface and features are very similar to what you get on flagships OnePlus phones. There’s Zen mode, a built-in screen recorder and options to customise the ambeint display, fingerprint animations, etc. OnePlus has also promised two years of software updates and three years of security updates for the Nord.
There are some software changes in the OnePlus Nord, compared to other OnePlus phones. The biggest one is the use of Google’s stock dialler and messages apps instead of OxygenOS’s own. OnePlus wasn’t very clear on the exact reason for the change when asked about it, but simply stated that based on its research, it felt that the typical mid-tier smartphone buyer would be more comfortable with Google’s solution. I have no problem with Google’s stock apps, but it’s a shame that Nord users won’t get to experience the India-specific features that OnePlus has added to its dialler and messages apps over the years.
Another small addition has been made in the camera app. You can now quickly share the last photo you took by simply long-pressing the preview and choosing the app to share it with.
OnePlus Nord performance: Packs a punch
According to OnePlus, the Nord is supposed to deliver the same fluid and snappy response as its flagship phones, and I have to say, it does a very good job. With regular usage, I found it hard to actually tell any difference between the OnePlus Nord and a OnePlus 8. The interface felt very snappy, apps loaded and closed quickly, and jumping between apps was quite effortless. The touch sampling rate is said to have increased to 180Hz from 120Hz on the OnePlus 7 Pro. However, it’s still lower than the 240Hz touch sampling rate of the 8 series.
The Snapdragon 765G is a pretty solid performer, and the Nord posted strong numbers in some of the benchmarks I ran. It scored 3,29,345 points in AnTuTu, Geekbench returned 611 and 1,919 points in the single-core and multi-core tests respectively, and 3DMark Slingshot managed 4,608 points. While these numbers were generally better than what a Snapdragon 730G can deliver, they’re still lower than what you’d get from a phone powered by last year’s Snapdragon 855+ SoC, as proven by the Realme X3 SuperZoom (Review) which is also available in this price segment.
The OnePlus Nord did a great job handling today’s graphically demanding titles such as Asphalt 9: Legends and PUBG Mobile, using the highest visual settings in each title. Gameplay was smooth and I didn’t notice any unusual heating either. Fortnite ran well at the ‘Epic’ quality preset, but for some reason, the frame rate was capped at 45fps. There’s no 90fps support for now, like you get with the OnePlus 8 series.
The in-display fingerprint sensor worked very well, and all it needed was a quick tap to unlock the phone. I found face recognition to be equally fast and seamless too.
Videos looked great on the OnePlus Nord’s display, especially HDR videos streamed using YouTube and Netflix. The single speaker on the Nord gets very loud, thanks to Dirac’s software enhancements.
I used the OnePlus Nord for a week, and its battery life was pretty solid throughout. I was easily able to go about a day and half on one charge. Playing lots of games and using the camera heavily did drain it quicker, but I was still able to get a full day’s worth of use. In our video loop test, the OnePlus Nord ran for about 14.5 hours, which is a good enough time.
On average, I think most people would be happy with the mileage they get out of a single charge. When you are running low, the bundled charger is able to take the battery to around 93 percent in an hour, which is fairly quick.
OnePlus Nord cameras: A better selfie camera, at last
Cameras are another area where OnePlus could have skimped, but didn’t. The OnePlus Nord has a total of six cameras — four at the back and two in the front. The main rear camera is the exact same one that you’d get with the OnePlus 8. The company has even kept the optical stabilisation, which is good to see. The other three are an 8-megapixel wide-angle camera, a 2-megapixel macro camera, and a 5-megapixel depth sensor. A higher resolution for macros would have been more useful, in my opinion. For selfies, you get a primary 32-megapixel Sony IMX616 camera and a secondary 8-megapixel wide-angle camera.
The camera app looks and functions very similarly to the one in the OnePlus 8-series phones. All the shooting modes are at the bottom, along with buttons for the flash, timer, resolution, macro mode, and filters at the top. OnePlus has teamed up with German photographer Hannes Becker to create some special filters for the OnePlus Nord. The buttons to switch between the primary and wide-angle cameras are easily reachable in the viewfinder.
In daylight, the main rear camera on the OnePlus Nord captures good photos. I found that details were generally good in landscape shots, colours were nicely saturated, and HDR worked well. Dynamic range felt a bit lacking, compared to the OnePlus 8, and in many instances, darker regions of photos didn’t have good enough details. The main camera saves 12-megapixel oversampled photos by default but you can opt to shoot at the full resolution too.
The wide-angle camera captured comparatively weaker details, but it still did a good job with colours and HDR. There’s no optical zoom on the Nord. Instead, you can digitally zoom in using the main camera, up to 10x, but quality degrades very quickly. Close-ups looked good in daylight, with decent details, but colours looked oversaturated at times. I found the autofocus system to be fairly quick too.
For portrait shots, the OnePlus Nord can simulate a shallow depth of field using the primary camera, although the level of blur cannot be adjusted. You can choose from two perspectives in this mode. The macro camera worked decently well but it’s not great, and was only useful when there was a good amount of ambient light around our subject.
Low-light photos turned out decent, given strong enough light sources around. In much darker scenes, I had to use Nightscape. The problem with OnePlus’s night mode on the Nord is that although it can be quite effective in brightening up a photo, it also tends to flatten textures and lighten shadows, which is not a trade-off I’d want. The wide-angle camera also really struggles to capture usable shots in low light unless you use Nightscape.
I think the selfie cameras on the OnePlus Nord are a much bigger deal than the ones on the back. It’s funny that the OnePlus Nord can shoot 4K 60fps video from the selfie camera, while the flagship 8 and 8 Pro smartphones are stuck at 1080p. In daylight, the primary camera captured very good details, skin tones looked good, and HDR was handled well. The Nord tends to sharpen selfies a bit too much, but you can take the edge off by setting the beauty filter to level one. In low light, details suffered and overall quality was quite average.
Selfies are captured at the full 32-megapixel resolution by default, however if you switch to portrait mode, the phone saves 8-megapixel shots. The wide-angle front camera is a thoughtful addition, but I wish that OnePlus had tweaked its colour profile a bit better. Besides lower levels of detail, images usually had a slight reddish tone to them. In low-light shots, colours generally look muted, but at least this camera still managed to capture decently bright images.
Coming to video, we start with the rear cameras. The OnePlus Nord can shoot at up to 4K 30fps with the main and wide-angle cameras, but you’ll need to switch to the one you want before recording as you can’t do this once you begin shooting. There’s no 4K 60fps option, since according to OnePlus, the Nord had some heating issues at the testing stage, which is why this capability was dropped.
When shooting at 4K 30fps, videos had a neutral colour tone during the daytime, colours were vivid, and stabilisation was smooth. Footage from the wide-angle camera was comparatively grainy and I noticed a slight shimmer as a result of it trying to stabilise video. The Super Stable mode is supposed to improve the stabilisation even further, but the quality is not great.
In low light, the OnePlus Nord managed fairly decent quality video at 4K. Details were good and noise wasn’t much of an issue. However, the moment I started moving around, there was a nasty shimmer with every footstep. Video recorded with the wide-angle camera looked worse in low light.
Moving to the selfie cameras, I found 4K 60fps videos looked very good during the day. Details were excellent and colours looked good. You don’t get electronic stabilisation at this frame rate, but you do at 30fps. The wide-angle camera is also decent for video, but isn’t as good as the main one. You can’t switch between the two cameras while shooting at 4K or 1080p, which I found a bit limiting. Low-light quality is not great with either camera, with weak colours and visible grain.
Overall, the rear camera experience isn’t too different from what you’d get with the OnePlus 8, but the selfie cameras are actually an improvement.
Verdict: Should you buy the OnePlus Nord
It feels like OnePlus is going back to its roots with the Nord. This is not a ‘flagship killer’ like the original OnePlus One (Review), but it doesn’t need to be since OnePlus itself has its own line of premium flagships. The Nord could have simply been called the OnePlus Lite or OnePlus 8 Lite, but that probably wouldn’t have had the same impact as creating buzz around a new product line. The OnePlus Nord feels like just the beginning, and if we’re lucky, we could see more in this series, possibly targeting even lower tiers of the smartphone market. If you currently own an older OnePlus smartphone such as the OnePlus 6 (Review), then the Nord should be a good upgrade.
I don’t think many people are going to care either that the OnePlus Nord does not have an 800-series Qualcomm SoC, because with day-to-day usage, it’s really impossible to tell the difference. I think OnePlus has taken the right leaf from Apple’s playbook here, by offering a largely consistent Android experience across price tiers, so that the hardware it runs on isn’t the main talking point anymore. The shift from focusing purely on specifications in its products in the early days of the company, to the focus on experience now, can be seen not only in the OnePlus Nord, but also in its recent budget TVs and audio products, such as the Bullets Wireless Z headphones.
The OnePlus Nord is currently the most affordable 5G smartphone in the Indian market, which gives it a unique advantage. The competition is fierce, though. Phones such as the Redmi K20 Pro (Review) and the Realme X3 series offer more powerful processors, albeit 4G-only, and are equally feature-packed if not better in some respects. The OnePlus Nord might not always match up to the competition on specifications alone, but when you take into account the software and promise of timely updates, it does make a very compelling case for itself.
Is OnePlus 8 Pro the perfect premium phone for India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.