Setting up a new smartphone brand is perhaps the most audacious gambit that anyone could play, in the cutthroat field of consumer technology. Many have tried and failed: Essential went under, Nextbit got acquired, even stalwarts like HTC and LG have come a cropper.
The transparent back gives it a distinctive look.
So, when Carl Pei, formerly of OnePlus, announced the launch of the Nothing Phone (1), anticipation was at a fever pitch. Could this finally be that incredibly unlikely thing – a new smartphone brand that actually manages to win hearts and move units?
It’s been over two months since the Nothing Phone (1) launched and I finally have one in my hands for review. I’ve been using it for about a week now and it is a more mature device than when it launched, having received a whopping four updates so far. It’s been an interesting week and the time spent with this infant phone has been eye-opening.
Now, with the sales on, the prices have also come down. So, is it worth buying? Read on.
If you squint your eyes, this large slab of a phone could pass for a max model iPhone. The dimensions and curves are very similar, not to mention the flat sides and the glass front and back. There is a clear attempt to make a device that gives off the premium aura of the iPhone, and the Nothing Phone (1) mostly succeeds.
If you squint your eyes, it looks a bit like a max iPhone.
When you peer closer at the Nothing Phone (1), you do see that it’s a pretty distinctive looking smartphone, thanks to the transparent back and the array of LED lights embedded within, called the Glyph Interface (more on that later).
The phone’s other design headline is that it uses a foldable OLED display, which means that the bottom of the display can actually be folded in, enabling the screen to have uniform bezels all around, just like the iPhone. Now, I can’t say the marginally asymmetric bezels in other Android phones have ever bothered me, but I guess this is another attempt by Nothing to evoke the iPhone aura.
The design shows a lot of attention to detail.
The hardware specs on the Nothing Phone (1) are otherwise an interesting mix of flagship and mid-range bits. The processor is a decidedly mid-range Snapdragon 778G, but the display is a 120Hz AMOLED that gets plenty bright, and there’s wireless charging.
The cameras are the other department where the specs are mid-range – there is a Sony IMX 766 main sensor and an ultrawide – but I’m glad they didn’t faff around with superfluous macro-cameras and the like. The base model, costing Rs 33,999 (currently at Rs 29,999) comes with 8 GB RAM and 128 GB storage, and you can spec it up to 12 GB RAM and 256 GB storage.
The battery is a 4500 mAh unit, which can be charged at up to 33 watts, although there is no charger supplied in the box. And yes, there is yet again no headphone jack. This is, and always will be, a bad thing.
Thankfully, they did not add any useless cameras.
I have to say I mostly enjoyed using the Nothing Phone (1). It may not run a flagship grade processor but with a 120Hz AMOLED display and near stock Android, using this phone felt slick. I experienced a rare stutter here and there, but not often enough for it to be a real bother.
By and large, everything was fast, smooth and responsive. The in-display fingerprint sensor is quick, and the overall touch response feels very fluid, even if not quite as luxurious as a (very few phones are).
The Nothing Phone (1) feels big in the hand, with the slab sides adding to that sensation. This is definitely not a phone for one-handed use other than on rare occasions. But on the plus side, it is great to use two-handed with plenty of room to type comfortably.
It’s a big phone and one-handed use is not easy.
The screen gets bright with accurate colours and deep contrast. Throw in the stereo speakers which are loud and clear (even if not quite as full as the best-in-class) and the Nothing Phone (1) is a very good device for content consumption.
The Nothing Phone (1) runs near stock Android 12. With the latest update it allows you to switch the position of the back button, solving one major irritant with stock Android. Otherwise the elegant Material You aesthetics and smooth animations make you feel like you’re using a more expensive device most of the time.
The USB-C port.
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I must dwell a bit on the Glyph interface, which is a series of LEDs on the back of the phone that can be set to flash in sync with notifications and alarms. It’s a very cool and fun thing to fiddle around with, but in practice for me it was somewhat useless. For this interface to be useful, you need to be the sort of person that places their phone face down most of the time.
Now, as much as I like seeing the lights flash in customisable ways, that still conveys less information than the good old Always on Display (which I keep on) and is therefore simply less useful. However, if you’re not into AOD, then this may be something you could explore and enjoy.
The Glyph Interface is useful if you tend to keep the phone face down.
The battery life on this phone has been excellent. I got over seven hours of screen-on time every day (even over eight hours once!). The battery optimisations that Nothing has done on this device work extremely well. Wired charging with a 33W charger I had lying around was quick enough. This should be the bare minimum on smartphones these days. And, of course, wireless charging is present, which is a nice subtle quality-of-life improvement and rare at this price point.
This was always going to be the hardest task for a new brand. You can spend a great deal of time on design and construction of the device, picking features and specifications to hit a fine balance for the price, but in this era of computational photography, experience counts.
This is why the best cameras are found in iPhones, Pixels, Samsungs, and of late Vivo and Xiaomi. These companies have been spending a vast amount of money over many years to finetune their computational photography chops and now have the results to show for it.
For a new brand, matching up to this would have been a herculean task. And I have to say, there are no big surprises here.
The main camera takes good photos most of the time
The main camera on the Nothing Phone (1) is a competent midrange snapper. The somewhat large sensor takes pleasing photos with accurate colours and good dynamic range, delivering good low light performance as well, with accurate colours even in such conditions.
But when it comes to pictures of people the results look just average. In an attempt to achieve a “natural” look, pictures of people somehow look a bit flat, lacking in contrast and texture, although colours are accurate. You won’t look at a picture taken on this phone and feel like it’s a bad photo, but you’re also unlikely to be wowed by it.
The ultrawide performs well.
Because this is not a failing and more of a conscious choice, I am hopeful that Nothing will improve on this in future updates by adding a little contrast and texture to skin tones. But as things stand, if you like taking pictures of people, this may not be the phone to go for. The interesting irony is that in pictures of inanimate objects, the contrast in the pictures is punched up ever so slightly in a rather pleasing way.
The ultrawide camera is capable with broadly accurate colours and sharp, dynamic photos. Unusually at this price point, the ultrawide has autofocus, which means that the images are sharper than most of its competition, and you also get a usable macro mode. If you only use the ultra wide camera, this is one of the better options in this price range. There is some inconsistency in the colours between the ultrawide and the primary, but this is not a deal breaker.
Pictures of people could do with more contrast and texture.
The selfie camera is reasonably good, once again showing accurate colours but I’d again like to see more contrast in skintones. Overall, there’s little to complain about the selfie camera, even if it’s not outright excellent.
Video performance is good, with a high bitrate output and consequently rich looking video, particularly when there’s enough light. The electronic stabilisation works well and even low light video is eminently serviceable. Overall, the camera performance is perhaps a B+, which is an impressive achievement from a new brand.
Should I buy it?
The Nothing Phone (1) has chosen a unique set of tradeoffs, at its price range. Other brands will give you a spec-laden device with very fast charging, decent cameras and anonymous design. Nothing has instead chosen to deliver a phone with striking, premium design, a great 120hz screen, and wireless charging. The only real downside on this phone is the camera. While in most circumstances the camera performs well, when it comes to pictures of people the results are flat and lifeless.
If pictures of people are not a priority for you, then the Nothing Phone (1) is an excellent choice. It’s fast, the screen is great, the speakers are solidly good, the battery life is excellent, it’s a handsome premium device, and there’s very little else to complain about it.
But it does face competition from the likes of the (currently selling for about Rs 5,000 more than the Nothing) which features a faster processor, better sound and a much better camera, but with a dimmer 60Hz screen and no wireless charging. There is also the which lacks the stock Android of the Nothing Phone 1 but otherwise goes toe-to-toe on specs, and has better ergonomics and a camera that performs a touch better, even though it only has a 90 Hz screen and no wireless charging or stereo speakers.
The Nothing Phone 1 offers an excellent feature set and very good performance in every department but the camera, and if you like the design and are comfortable with the size, you’ll likely be very happy with it.
I personally won’t miss this phone because of its camera foibles, but I am still impressed and enthused by how much Nothing has got right in their first attempt, and I am excited to see what they are going to come up with in the future.
The Nothing Phone (1) was sent to the reviewer as a loaner unit for review purposes. The unit will be returned on completion of the review. Nothing has been given no advance information about the content of this review and exercises no copy approval.
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