Reinvention has become a necessary survival skill for modern tech brands as they struggle to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Even a brand like OnePlus, which was built as a disruptor, needs to churn serial spin-offs to stay relevant. So, if you thought that the Nord was a return to roots that blended affordability with some key OnePlus virtues, think again. We now have the Nord CE, and its raison d'être is in its very name. CE denotes ‘Core Experience’, and it’s yet another way OnePlus has found to disrupt the sub-₹25,000 segment. Or has it?
Stripping down to the bare essentials without diluting the key parameters that the customers expect from a OnePlus device is what the brief for the Nord CE was. So, the designers have stuck to the family look, but this member has gone on a diet. It’s the slimmest OnePlus phone since the 6T supposedly, measuring a mere 7.9mm in thickness and yet, they have managed to bring the headphone jack back! That’s right, the 3.5mm port is back to woo customers who still prefer the wired way of things.
OnePlus’ intentions are to make the Nord CE more appealing to the absolute noob of a customer. But with BT headphones or the in-ear TWS types costing less than ₹300 on Amazon, I wonder if that is even a barrier anymore. Adding a 3.5mm jack might be great for optics of an affordable device, but honestly, if anyone can afford to spend ₹23,000 on a smartphone, an additional ₹500 or so for wireless headphones wouldn’t really throw their budget off course. There are no bundled wired earbuds in the box either. Nevertheless, it’s there to establish the “core experience” that OnePlus is aiming to offer.
The core experience
Keen-eyed brand loyalists will also notice that the famous alert slider on the side is now missing. Again, this is a feature reserved for the “comprehensive experience” devices. Build quality and display wise though, there is no indication that this is a budget smartphone. Especially in our review sample’s Blue Void colourway, the Nord CE stands out with a perfectly formed body that is seamless from its fingerprint resistant back to the 6.4in Dragontrail glass screen. The Fluid AMOLED display also sports a 90Hz refresh rate for a smooth scrolling and navigation experience that only shines brighter with the OxygenOS 11.
The big change is under the hood, now using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G 5G SoC married to the Adreno 619 GPU. The boost in pure number crunching is said to be 20% over the Snapdragon 732G platform. But if you’re comparing it to the Nord, it is a step down from the 765G. OnePlus has made meaningful updates to the battery system as well by increasing the capacity to 4,500mAh (up from Nords 4,115mAh) and even boosting the charging capacity of the Warp Charge 30T fast charger to a 30T Plus category. In essence this still means the same quick charge of 70% in 30 minutes, but now you get more usable capacity in that 70%.
The user experience may well be the differentiating factor for the Nord CE, and OnePlus is betting big on this over its competitors. There is still very little branded bloatware, making the Nord CE quick and snappy no matter where you are in the OS. Playing long videos also isn’t an issue with the thermals kept in check, so whether you’re recording a 10 minute plus Slow-Mo video clip or watching an episode of Ozark on Netflix, it only gets slightly warm to the touch. Colours on HDR clips are fantastic and really prove to be immersive with plenty of detail in the shadows and bright, punchy colours that keep up with phones costing 3-4 times as much with OLED screens!
The single-ended mono speaker does let the experience down a bit. Performance wise, it never stuttered even with multiple apps open simultaneously and the Pro Gaming mode gets the same optimisations as on the higher models along with shortcuts to jump right into Telegram, WhatsApp or Instagram. Modern Ops and Asphalt 9 neither displayed any issues whatsoever regarding gameplay, and the 90Hz refresh rate just makes it all the more involving, even for a non-gamer like me.
In plain view
Moving on to the cameras, there is a new 64MP sensor this time, but not from Sony. It’s an OmniVision unit that uses EIS with an aperture of f/1.79. It is mated to an 8MP ultrawide and a 2MP monochrome at the rear and the overall result is satisfactory. Nightscape, as always, is impressive in the way it can add more light to a scene, but not necessarily accurate and definitely not noise-free. It works best when there is equal amounts of illumination from both sides of the subject. Otherwise it casts a yellowish tinge to the image with considerable amount of degradation upon zooming in.
Similarly, from the main camera, there is a decent amount of detail on offer. But zoom in a little, and you realise there is artificial sharpness applied, visible amounts of colour imbalance (with a red bias), and during low-light, it struggles with focus too. In daytime, you won’t feel any of these playing spoilsport, especially if you’re a dweller of social media. It will work as a passable camera in this price segment without setting any new benchmarks. There’s Portrait mode on offer too, which works well and is quick enough to focus, though you can’t use Portrait Mode for video.
The 16MP hole punch selfie camera stays true to character as well, removing some blemishes and making you look prettier than you actually might be! It churns out decent portrait mode selfies too, but the HDR processing can sometimes get the wrong image from the stack of pre-processed images, and keeps the blurry one as the final. I’m sure like always though, OnePlus will be quick to update the software (to fix this and perhaps other colour anomalies) of the Nord CE.
OxygenOS is really on-point and does lead the way for custom Android skins. It makes genuine improvements to the UI with features like one-handed Quick Reply keyboard in landscape mode, display optimisation for Reading Mode, attempted well-being courtesy of Zen Mode, and the Pro Gaming mode that gives you quick access to a data monitoring dashboard, screen record/rewind and accidental touch prevention.
Even the small bump in charging tech has made it even more practical for all-day heavy use, and it gives you enough customization options to extract every last percentage of battery performance. The Snapdragon 750 SoC didn’t seem to stutter through any normal tasks or games, making it perfectly suited for an entry level experience like this without compromising on the premium UX feel that OnePlus is trying to retain.
OnePlus is being cryptic about the future of the Nord, and it won’t be surprising if they pull the plug on it soon after the release of the Nord CE. It does everything almost as well as the Nord, even coming in at a price that’s quite close, much to everyone’s surprise. But OnePlus is like a chef trying to mix and match ingredients to see what works and eventually, has landed up with a buffet of devices that are all too similar and only add to the consumers confusion.
In isolation, the Nord CE is a great everyday device that performs brilliantly for its core target audience, delivering on the promise of a OnePlus experience which is smooth, clean and assured of updates. It does make the Nord seem redundant though, just the way the 8T makes the 9R seem redundant and the 9 makes the…
6.43in 2400 x 1080p
Qualcomm Snapdragon 750 5G
64+8+2MP (rear), 16MP (front)
Warp Charge 30T Plus
35mm audio, Dual Nano-SIM, USB-C
159.2 x 73.5 x 7.9mm
OnePlus Nord CE 5G reviewDoes what all OnePlus phones do - superb build quality, fast charging, seamless user experience with cameras that are average.
Display and build quality outstanding
OxygenOS 11 keeps getting better
Performance not visibly inferior to other OP phones
Camera inconsistencies, especially with colour balance
Same ol’ boring design
No bundled wired earbuds