Long-term gadgets fans may have noticed OnePlus phones aren’t as cheap as they used to be.
You take your eye off them for five minutes — well, seven years — and suddenly we leap from the £279 OnePlus One to the £799 OnePlus 8 Pro. Sheesh, how did that happen?
The OnePlus Nord’s job is to redress the balance a bit.
It is a £379 phone with a lot of the most important chops of a top-end one. You get 5G, a glass and metal design, a good OLED screen and a main camera that just about matches the OnePlus 8’s.
The OnePlus Nord’s processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon, just not the Premier League kind OnePlus has used in every phone to date. However, there’s little real-world difference until you put the Nord side-by-side with a OnePlus 8 and try a nerdy app load drag race.
A lot of phones try to get you the flagship experience for less. Some are cheaper too, like the Realme X50 Pro and Xiaomi Note 9 Pro. However, almost none do the job quite as well as the OnePlus Nord.
Design: The cost of curves
There are many reasons to like OnePlus phones. The price is always up there, but so is tastefulness. OnePlus phones almost always have a little more classy reserve than the alternatives from brands like Honor and Xiaomi.
OnePlus has even tried to inject a bit of this flavour into the name this time. Nord: sounds like something you might buy from IKEA rather than a Chinese phone, right?
All the OnePlus Nord design basics are on the money, with a sturdy Gorilla Glass back and plastic frame bound to metal.
Many argue this does not matter when a) plastic won’t shatter when you drop the phone and b) you should probably be using a case anyway.
So it's mostly glass and metal, with a sprinking of plastic, but how is the OnePlus Nord any “lower end” than the OnePlus 8? Here’s what we’ve noticed most.
The OnePlus Nord has a flat glass front, not a curved one. There are 2.5D rounded-off edges, but every phone has those these days. Its back glass has a slight curve, but it’s less pronounced than the OnePlus 8’s. The result? The Nord looks a less dynamic, and feels slightly thicker. Curvy bits hide a phone’s thickness and its screen borders.
Front-on the Nord looks less fancy than the OnePlus 8. It also has only one speaker. The top OnePlus phones have a driver in the bottom and one up by the call speaker. These offer good stereo sound, particularly handy when you play games.
The Nord only has a bottom speaker. It’s just about as good as a OnePlus 8’s for playing podcasts while you cook, because there’s plenty of volume on tap and enough mid-range meat to project voices. However, fire up PUBG Mobile and you miss out on stereo sound. It’s also pretty easy to partially block the speaker with your hands.
There are also no satin glass finishes for the Nord. You get these in the higher capacity 8-series phones, but here you have a choice of glossy blue or grey. They still look fantastic, mind.
We kinda wish OnePlus had embraced the Nord’s mid-range status more fully and added a headphone jack. But there isn’t one, so you’ll have to use Bluetooth headphones or a USB-C adapter.
Other OnePlus features are here too. There’s a quick in-screen fingerprint scanner, which is at most a fraction slower than the OnePlus 8’s, the signature OnePlus silent mode slider and basic water resistance. You don’t get the OnePlus 8 Pro’s IP68 water resistance rating, ready for a dunk in a pint (of water), but it is designed to handle rain.
Display: 100% contrast, 70% brightness
We’ve already covered one way OnePlus cuts costs in the Nord screen, by making it flat, but what about the rest?
This is a 6.44-inch 2400 x 1080 pixel AMOLED screen with support for plenty of modern goodies. It can handle HDR video and lets you tweak the colour vibrancy to suit your tastes. This is a 90Hz screen too, which makes the display look smoother when you scroll through your app drawer.
But is this really the same as the OnePlus 8 screen, but flat? There are a few clear differences. At the highest colour vibrancy settings, the OnePlus Nord does not look as punchy as the OnePlus 8. The panel style is not quite the same either.
The whites of most OLED screens turn slightly blue when you tilt the screen at an angle. This happens in the OnePlus 8. You don’t see this so much in the Nord, but there’s a very mild rainbow effect that may actually be a little more distracting.
This is nitpicky stuff, but brightness is only major difference between the Nord and the higher-end OnePlus phones. The Nord struggles outdoors on a sunny day, because it just doesn’t have the extra brightness headroom to boost the display when more power is needed.
It’s one of the few parts of the Nord we wish was a bit better.
Software and performance: Less power, similar results
The OnePlus Nord’s software is just like that of the OnePlus 8 phones. It’s OnePlus’s OxygenOS with Android 10 underneath.
There’s nothing to moan about here. It runs fast, there are no tacked-on parts to the interface you’ll wish weren’t there. And while OnePlus tweaks the look of Android a bit, there’s no overbearing sense of the company trying to stamp a OnePlus signature right on your eyeballs.
We were particularly interested, yet again, in whether the OnePlus Nord feels different to the OnePlus 8. Before we put the two head-to-head, it honestly didn’t.
This phone has the Snapdragon 765G CPU with either 8GB or 12GB RAM. That’s a lot of RAM and, as we’ve seen in other 765G phones, day-to-day performance is very similar to that of a phone with an 8-series flagship processor.
Not everyone with £400 in their pocket wondering whether to spend it is going to be convinced by us saying the Nord is smooth sailing, though, so we got out the stop watch.
It’s time for a OnePlus face-off. A cold boot-up took three seconds longer on the Nord, 18 seconds to 15. PUBG took around two seconds longer to get to the menu screen. Asphalt 9? Pretty much zero difference.
Load time variance of between nothing and around 10% is pretty good when you dig deeper into the gap in raw power. The OnePlus 8’s Snapdragon 865 processor scores 3300 points in Geekbench 5, far above the 1953 of the OnePlus Nord.
All the games we tried ran well too. Asphalt 9, Call of Duty: Mobile, and Fortnite feel great. Max-out Fortnite’s visuals and rendering resolution and you will see drops to around a slightly choppy 15fps, but it runs at 30fps most of the time. The Snapdragon 765G sits in a great sweet spot that minimises the real-world drop in performance while lowering the cost significantly. And it means the OnePlus Nord has 5G too.
Recent news about Huawei, that the UK government wants it out of network infrastructure, may well have a big impact on the roll-out in areas that don’t yet have it — aka most places. But with a OnePlus Nord it, finally, doesn’t feel like you pay through the nose just to get 5G.
Camera: Some killer, some filler
The OnePlus Nord does a great job of getting you the good stuff for less cash in most areas. But the camera? There are some signs this is a lower-end phone here.
However, it’s more about the tendency to cram affordable phones full of cameras that don’t add all that much. There are five cameras here in total, two more than the OnePlus 8. Bit weird, right?
Two of the rear OnePlus 8 cameras feel like filler. There’s a 2MP macro, which takes very poor ultra-close-up shots, and a 5MP depth assist for the background blur Portrait mode. But if the OnePlus 8 doesn’t need a dedicated camera for background blur, why does Nord? It is still very picky about what scenes it will blur, and regularly messes up subject isolation.
There’s good news, though. The OnePlus Nord’s primary camera is a 48MP Sony IMX586, the same as the OnePlus 8. And it has optical image stabilisation, which would typically be snipped out of a phone like this to save cash.
In daylight its images are very similar to its more expensive sister. Image processing looks just a hint softer, trading away a tiny bit of texture detail while also removing a little fine grain image noise.
We see the same kind of changes in the OnePlus Nord’s Nightscape. This is OnePlus’s low-light mode, which takes up to a few seconds to capture an image, for much better results than you usually see in a sub-£400 phone. It works wonders, but the OnePlus 8 is a little better at, for example, picking out the fur detail in a soft toy in a dark cupboard*. (*No furries were harmed in the making of this review.)
And where the OnePlus 8 can pick out the texture in a carpet in a dim room, the Nord tends to simplify it into a mush. Given they have the same basic hardware this suggests the Nord’s processing algorithms are either a bit “quicker," scaled down to suit the lower-end processor. Or that OnePlus has simply switched to a cleaner style that isn’t afraid of smushing some detail. Still, the OnePlus 8 approach is better.
The OnePlus Nord primary camera is a little worse than the OnePlus 8’s, but there’s really not much in it. The OnePlus’s Nord’s ultra-wide camera takes a more obvious step down, with the kind of basic 8-megapixel sensor we see a lot in mid-range phones. Images are a lot softer, with much less room to crop without them appearing compromised.
But you know what? Viewed at standard 0.6x they look perfectly solid. And as the ultra-wide can also use Nightscape mode, the OnePlus Nord can even shoot passable night images with a wide field of view. As usual, though, OnePlus has not put much focus on zooming in. There’s no zoom camera. When you use the 2x preset the Nord crops into the main camera’s view. However, optical zoom is one of the features no-one has managed to do particularly well in an affordable phone.
OnePlus reaches a bit further with the front cameras, putting two selfie lenses in rather than one. There’s a standard view and a wide, for when you need to fit a bunch of friends into the frame. Once again, fine detail doesn’t match the OnePlus 8 with either of these views. The Nord can’t quite make you feel bad about your chunky skin pores in the same way.
Selfie quality is perfectly good, though. The ultra-high resolution 32MP selfie cam also likely uses pixel binning to keep your low light images looking clear, if soft. That’s where multiple sensor pixels are lasso’d together for better sensitivity.
There’s a surprise or two for the Nord’s video as well. Its standard stabilisation is very good for an “affordable” phone, perhaps helped by the optical image stabilisation, and there’s a separate super stable mode. This uses the ultra-wide camera, harnessing the masses of unused sensor space to smooth motion. There’s a big drop in image quality as a result, but this is the kind of feature we don’t expect to see in a cheaper phone, yet.
The bad bits: the rear camera can’t shoot 4K video at 60fps, just 30fps. This is a bit of a bummer when the front camera can shoot 4K/60. However, stabilisation at 4K/30 is good - an important win at the price.
Battery: All good on good days
The OnePlus Nord has a 4115mAh battery, just a little smaller than the OnePlus 8’s.
Charging speed is the highlight here. OnePlus’s excellent 30W charger gets you from dead flat to around 70% in just a half-hour. Actual stamina is the OnePlus norm. It’s good, as long as you don’t hammer the phone.
On lighter days, the Nord has ended the day with 30-40% charge left, which is great. However, take it outdoors on a sunny day for a few hours, which will make the phone max out the screen, and it’s much easier to get close to draining the battery by evening.
This isn’t a phone with a huge battery you can rely on to hold on ’til bed time even if you give it some abuse. Xiaomis like the Redmi Note 9 Pro and Mi Note 10 are better for that kind of behaviour. Still, the Nord holds up well against the other OnePlus 8-series mobiles.
As you might guess, wireless charging has been dropped in order to keep the price sensible. For that, you’ll need to get the OnePlus 8 Pro instead.
OnePlus wanted to get back to its bargain roots with the Nord. Has it pulled this move off? Mostly, yes.
You may not get a top-end CPU, but the rest is here. Good general performance, a solid primary camera, a strong OLED screen and plenty of storage make it clear: this phone is a good buy.
The OnePlus Nord is not alone in this category now. Phones like the Moto G Plus 5G and Realme X50 5G also beg for your cash. The Nord is a classier pick than the Moto, with a finger-charming glass back.
And the Realme? It seems uncomfortably similar to the Nord and costs £80 less. However, the Nord has an OLED screen (not an LCD), better selfie cameras, an in-screen fingerprint scanner, better 4K video stabilisation and a brand name your friends are less likely to draw a blank on.