In recent times, most of OnePlus's phones have been objectively excellent. Most would say, OnePlus's phones have been great. Today, as I publish the review of Nord CE, which happens to be the fourth OnePlus phone of the year, I am writing about a gadget that will make many people profoundly happy, yet by the brand's lofty standards it is merely good enough. That's how good some of OnePlus's phones have been.
Nord CE isn't a successor to the highly impressive Nord, but just a new product that strives to hit a new, lower price point and that comes with its set of compromises.
The Nord CE is the most affordable OnePlus phone that we have seen in the recent past. It also is the most underpowered OnePlus phone that it sells, but yet, it remains true to what it stands for. Providing a robust core user experience.
OnePlus starts with the ergonomics on the phone which are spot-on, similar to its older phones. This one is the lightest phone that it makes with it being the slimmest one it has released in 3 years. It achieves this by shedding any semblance of metal in its frame - this one is all polycarbonate but has neat curves on the back, making it rather decent for one-handed use. It will be less susceptible to cracks as the back is now made out of plastic. Dressed in a nordic blue, it does look aquatic though it doesn't have any water-resistive superpowers apart from looking attractive.
It even throws in the 3.5 mm jack, a rather capacious 4,500 mAh battery and its warp charge 30T tech that can fully juice up the phone in less than an hour. But this also comes with a set of sacrifices: there is no water or dust resistance and wireless charging, two compromises equitable for the price point.
OnePlus for some reason has removed its haloed notification alerts toggle switch, which will be dearly missed by long-time fans of the feature. It also removed the z-axis haptic motor that defined its smartphones, something that Samsung has done cleverly to cut costs on its M-series and A-series of smartphones.
Depending on the type of user you are, this could be a big problem or a non-issue. For me, it was an issue, and the more rudimentary haptics wasn't enjoyable.
Day-to-day performance of the phone remains robust, to say the least. The Snapdragon 750G isn't as quick as the Snapdragon 765G that we first saw on the Nord, but it is close enough especially when paired with the supremely elegant Oxygen OS that's based on Android 11.
Everything feels snappy thanks to the 6.44-inch 90Hz fluid AMOLED screen that adds to the operational pizzaz of the phone. It also gets slower UFS 2.1 storage and gets only LPDDR4X RAM - my recommendation would be to go for the model that gets 8 GB RAM for painless multitasking, though the version I tested had 12 GB RAM. Overall, the Nord CE does feel more performant compared to the phones that have similar hardware, but not overly so also the way its phones get an advantage in a higher-end segment.
The screen itself is pretty decent having inky blacks an advantage it holds over some of the competition. Its AMOLED nature also allows OnePlus to pack in a rather decent in-display fingerprint scanner, though it is slower than more traditional side-mounted optical scanners. It has pin-sharp resolution but it wouldn't dazzle like some of the screens we have seen on previous OnePlus devices. It remains “good enough” for viewing Netflix or YouTube, but under direct sunlight it will feel a wee bit washed out.
The 90Hz bit helps with gaming too, but the Snapdragon 750G is at best a middling chipset. Its biggest claim to fame is the rather redundant 5G support with the singular N78 band. You will be able to enjoy games like Asphalt 8 or Call of Duty mobile with fair ease and enjoy a very high calibre of gameplay. But it isn't on the level as the Nord or even as the newer OnePlus 9R or OnePlus 8T save for the top of line phones that have the Hasselblad partnership.
Cameras are important these days and OnePlus again does good enough for the price. It has a main 64-megapixel OmniVision sensor that outputs 16-megapixel photos once oversampled with 1.4-micron subpixels. It also gets a 6-piece lens and an f/1.79 aperture, though no optical stabilisation was present in the Nord from 2020. The end result is a camera system that takes good photos in daylight - with rich, saturated colours, decent level of detail, but everything became average when the light dimmed with the autofocus becoming sluggish, blurred photos becoming more common as there was also no optical stabilisation and graininess.
The night mode delivered bright photos but many times they would be blurred because of the lack of stabilisation. OnePlus also didn't have the colour accurate processing of its flagship phones.
It was not helped by the fact that there was a pretty average 119-degree 8-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera, a rather useless monochrome lens that didn't do much even with the night mode or portrait mode. Taking videos from this phone would do social media justice but it is not a camera that's meant to be used in low-light. If you're wondering what its capabilities are then yes, 4K 30 frames per second are available, but it is best used at 1080p. It also has a super slow-motion mode that can even do 240 frames per second at HD.
It remains decidedly average for taking selfies as well. Its ageing 16-megapixel Sony IMX471 camera wouldn't dazzle but for most, it would get the job done.
The battery life on this phone is truly excellent. The phone has great battery longevity thanks to its massive 4,500 mAh battery that supported a rather compact 6.43-inch AMOLED screen that would even have a 90Hz refresh rate. It also helped that the phone was running a rather efficient 8 nm processor and less RAM than some other phones. This is a phone which can last for over a single day with a single charge. It would easily last a full workday 12-hours at a stretch with medium to heavy usage. And while doing so it charged at rapid speed within an hour.
Call quality while using the phone remained good. I tested the phone using an Airtel network in the Delhi-NCR region. The phone also supports Bluetooth 5.1, Qualcomm's aptX, and aptX HD codec and Sony’s LDAC codec for higher quality wireless audio. It gets NFC support, GLONASS, GPS and even Indian's own NAVIC.
At the end of the day, there is a reason for the CE in the OnePlus Nord CE. It means "core edition", which indicates that OnePlus focussed on the core essentials. And in focusing on the core essentials, the OnePlus has made a limited phone bereft of any extras, something that's even extreme for it. The limited nature of the phone means that it will not dazzle you by the weight of what it offers but rather the weightless humility and focus of the experience.
It truly is a no-nonsense phone for anyone unimpressed by the clutter that's found in Samsung's and Xiaomi's these days. But at the same time, it does have a decidedly inferior camera and a rather spartan feel to it.
Buy it if you're craving the OnePlus experience but can't spend more on some of its more expansive offerings. It is also a pretty decent option for anyone looking for a slightly compact experience. It is the phone to go for if you are craving that unique clean software experience.
However, if you’re just craving fast updates, in the recent past OnePlus has started to drop the ball and Samsung has surged ahead in that regard so it is more of an even battle between the brands. But if you're craving more features or even a better camera, or a bigger battery, look towards options from Samsung and Xiaomi like Galaxy M425G or the Mi 10i. If you can pay a bit more then you can even get your hands on the iQOO Z3.
All these comparisons also mean that it is a phone that OnePlus has made to gain more market share, but not particularly for its fans as it lacks those fine imprints that have made the brand the best-selling premium smartphone brand in India behind Apple.
First Published: IST