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OnePlus Nord Review: Good To Great, Depending On Where You Are

OnePlus Nord. Photo: Ben Sin

TL;DR Version

  • What’s good? Great value; the best software; good main camera
  • What’s not good? Plastic body; there are similarly valued devices if you live in Asia

Sometimes I look at all the hype OnePlus phones get and I wonder if other brands under the BBK umbrella like Oppo or Vivo get jealous. After all, there are a lot — A LOT — of similarities in hardware between devices from the three brands. But yet while OnePlus has been fully embraced by the US-centric tech community, the other brands still get the same alien “China phone” treatment.

Half the credit goes to the fact that OnePlus’ Android skin, OxygenOS, has been in line with how westerners like their Android phone since day one, whereas Vivo’s and Oppo’s software skins were heavy and very “Chinese Android”-feeling. The other half is just damn good, marketing, man. Led by a young face in Carl Pei who speaks fluent English, OnePlus just knows how to generate buzz in that trendy American slangy way.

Anyway, I’m saying all that because I’ve been testing the OnePlus Nord for over a week and while it has a lot to offer, I see clear similarities between it and a far less-hyped, lesser known device: the Oppo Reno 3 Pro. No, not the China version of the 3 Pro, but the India version of the 3 Pro. (Yes, Oppo has a bad habit of releasing different phones — with different processors and design — under the exact same name to different regions … it is confusing as hell indeed).

The outer shells of the Nord and the Reno 3 Pro India version are very, very identical, with the same flat OLED panel with a pill-shaped hole-punch cut-out housing two selfie cameras, and a quad camera module on the back that sits vertically along the upper left corner of the phone.

The Nord has a better processor — Snapdragon 765G — and a higher refresh rate at 90Hz; but then the Reno 3 Pro India version has a dedicated telephoto zoom lens when the Nord has none.

This isn’t surprising to anyone who’s covered both Oppo and OnePlus phones before — their hardware share many similarities regularly. The “official marketing explanation” from OnePlus is that they “share the same production line and some components,” but the reality is they are sister brands under the same parent company.

It doesn’t really matter much that the Nord’s outer shell may be recycled, because OnePlus’ software experience is still the best in class, and the Nord is still a really great value for money regardless if there is another phone somewhere with a similar outer shell.

What you get for 400 bucks (ish)

The Nord retails for around US$420-ish in most parts of the world — ironically it doesn’t sell in the US for now — and for this price you’re getting quite a lot. High refresh 90Hz OLED screen with an in-display fingerprint reader, an almost all-screen design with slim bezels, and a really good main camera. Just looking at the phone, it looks like most $1,000 flagships on the market.

Even the Snapdragon 765G chip, which is not Qualcomm’s highest tier processor, is more than powerful enough for almost all daily smartphone tasks. Unless you’re editing 4K videos or playing graphically intensive games at the highest setting, you’re not going to feel the difference between 765G and 865.

The phone is comfortable to hold and zips around with speed and fluidity you’d expect from a previous OnePlus. At this price, it’s hard to complain too much.

The compromises that had to be made to meet the 400 bucks (ish) price

But of course, OnePlus had to cut some corners (compared to the earlier flagship 8 Pro) to meet this price point. Although the front and back of the phone are glass, the chassis is plastic. There is no telephoto zoom lens at all, as mentioned, so any zooming is digital. The ultrawide-angle camera is a pedestrian 8-megapixel sensor that can still get the job done during the day, but at night it really struggles. There is no wireless charging or official water resistant rating. That’s about it. I think these are fair compromises to make to save 500 bucks.

What you don’t get

Here’s what you don’t get with the Nord that are standard in more pricier phones: there Nord has no telephoto zoom lens at all, so all zooming is digital; there’s no wireless charging or official water resistant rating; the chassis of the phone is also plastic instead of aluminum. None of these are dealbreakers in my opinion, and if you’re paying under $500 for a phone, you can’t complain much about these omissions anyway.

Software: best in the game

OnePlus’ widely acknowledged best, fastest, smoothest software (OxygenOS) is here, of course. Every time I jump back to a OnePlus phone after having used another phone for a stretch, there’s always a moment in the first hour when I mutter to myself “this software is so good.”

I can’t stress this enough: OxygenOS is in my opinion the best version of Android around. Even better than Google’s own stock Android. OxygenOS’ animations are faster; there are more customization options; more tricks to get the most out of a phone; more shortcut gestures.

The larger-than-usual hole punch cut-out houses a dual selfie camera.

Mid-range optics

The main camera on the back is a 48-megapixel Sony IMX f/1.8 lens with very similar hardware to the flagship OnePlus 8 Pro. It’s fast to focus, and produces pleasing colors with good sharpness. Even at night, if there’s enough city lights (like the first image below), photos exhibit excellent dynamic range and little noise. The 32-megapixel selfie camera is excellent, too, although I’m no selfie expert.

A main image captured with the Nord's 48-megapixel camera.
A main image captured with the Nord’s 48-megapixel camera. BEN SIN
Two pictures taken with the front-facing camera of the Nord.
Two pictures taken with the front-facing camera of the Nord. BEN SIN

But then there are the other lenses. The 8-megapixel ultrawide angle camera is solid during well-lit conditions, but in a lower light situation it falls apart due to smaller sensor and lack of pixels to stretch across the ultrawide canvas. The third and fourth cameras of the main system are macro and depth sensors, but other brands have proven you do not need a dedicated camera just for macro images or bokeh portrait shots. These two lenses are almost decoration more than real functional lenses.

A standard image taken with the Nord's 48-megapixel camera.
A standard image taken with the Nord’s 48-megapixel camera. BEN SIN
An ultrawide-angle image taken at night. Notice the details are soft.
An ultrawide-angle image taken at night. Notice the details are soft. BEN SIN

The other selfie camera, meanwhile, is an ultrawide angle camera for group selfies. It works as advertised, so those who take selfies with several people would welcome its inclusion, but for me, I’d rather have a smaller hole-punch cut-out.

The degree to which you’re impressed by the Nord likely depends on where you are

Sometimes I wonder if the marketing team of Oppo and Vivo are jealous of OnePlus, because despite all three sharing the same parent company and have very similar hardware, OnePlus has this level of brand recognition, acceptance, and following in the west—particularly the U.S., that the other two haven’t yet achieved.

The OnePlus Nord.
The OnePlus Nord. BEN SIN

This is mostly due to clever marketing on OnePlus’ team—it has always aimed for the western market first, with launch events and pop-up events held in the U.S., and a young, native English speaking Pei as the face of the company. Oppo and Vivo, by and large, still feel like a Chinese brand first and foremost. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way; and both Oppo and Vivo sell way more phones in China than OnePlus).

But this explains why the Nord was released to so much hype, and so much coverage from U.S. media, while the similarly priced Reno 4 Pro from Oppo launched in the same week and went mostly under the radar.

And because the U.S. phone scene is so limited and lacking compared to the scene in Asia, this gives the Nord very little competition in its $400 price range. There’s the iPhone SE 2, and Google Pixel 4a, that’s about it. So by default, the Nord is a top three best value phone.

But for me here in Asia, there are great $400 phones that hit the market every few weeks. And the competition is a lot stiffer. The Nord is still a very good value, but so too is the Poco F2 Pro, Oppo Reno 4 ProRealme X50 Pro and Meizu 17 Pro.

To be honest, the mid-range phone isn’t for me, because I’m a power user, a tech geek, a phone enthusiast. I always use the most powerful phone. But if I have to choose between these wonderful mid-range options, the Nord wins by a hair, because OnePlus’ software is that good.