- Stylish design with transparent back and LED lighting
- Superior workmanship
- Good display
- Wireless charging
- Weak battery
The Nothing Phone 1 by Oneplus co-founder Carl Pei is supposed to be better than all other smartphones, but what is better is mainly the marketing. But that does not make the smartphone a bad device.
Why the excursion into history and the naming of Carl Pei, who, as co-founder, should play second fiddle? It’s simple: Pei, together with well-known backers, started his own new company Nothing at the beginning of 2021 and the first smartphone, named Nothing Phone 1, is now available in stores. Nothing as in “nothing”? More like “like nothing else”. At least when it comes to marketing, that’s true. Because here, too, the typical Pei information bomb was used so that the entire mobile phone industry felt it had only one topic: the Nothing Phone. Of course, marketing can also promise too much and turn the buyer’s favour into the opposite, i.e., sensory overload or even disappointment with the real product – and what about the Nothing Phone 1?
One plus point of the Nothing Phone 1 is its design. Not because of the similarity to the iPhone 13 – a few years ago, that would have been judged as an impudent iPhone copy, but today it’s more relaxed. Of course: the angular metal frame around the device with the straight front and back cannot hide similarities to the Apple product in the pure form factor. This makes for a high degree of value since the workmanship of the Nothing Phone 1 is also surprisingly good, but also for the accusation of brazen copying. However, this is quickly silenced by a look at the back and, when switched on, also by a view of the front.
Let’s start with the obvious: The back is semi-transparent and has several LED strips. You can’t see much through the transparent Gorilla Glass 5 on the back; if you’re expecting chips or circuit paths, you’ll be disappointed. But you can see the individual, encapsulated components, such as the centrally located Qi coil for wireless charging and some screws – that is quite exciting and simply interesting. In addition, there are several bands of micro-LEDs; the manufacturer promises a total of 900 of the tiny light emitters. Seen in portrait format, they are divided into several symbols: An exclamation mark at the bottom, a kind of slash at the top right and the dual camera at the top left is enclosed by the letter C. In the centre and as the most significant light installation, the loading coil is encircled by a format-filling C (or G?). All the light bands are white; they cannot display colours. The sense of the whole thing is debatable because it has few uses. These include the display of incoming messages and calls, the assignment of specific contacts to different combinations of light signals, and the use as lighting for night shots. But that’s already something, and besides, it’s one thing above all: different. And depending on your taste, it can even be quite chic. Only those who have epilepsy should do without the partly stroboscopic flickering light strips. Of course, they can also be switched off, but the device loses an essential unique selling point.
There are also differences to the more expensive iPhones at the front. This is because there is a surprisingly wide display border – at least with a bright screen background – but it is the same width everywhere. The font design of Nothing, which appears to be composed of individual pixels, is not at all disturbing, although there have long been smartphones with more refined edges, even in the price range of around 450. Instead, it creates a coherent retro feeling and sets the Nothing Phone 1 further apart from the iPhone. The rest is as usual. The (only) two camera lenses protrude individually from the glass surface of the back, and the keys – power on the right and volume rocker on the left – are embedded in the frame without any wobbling, in keeping with the excellent quality and shine with optimal key travel and pressure point. As a bit of icing on the cake, there is also an IP53 certification that certifies the device’s water- and dust-repellent capabilities.
The display’s specifications are good: 2400 x 1080 pixels on 6.55 inches, it displays 1.07 billion instead of a measly 16 million colours and OLED technology with up to 120 Hz is used. These are good primary data that would also suit a somewhat more expensive model. At least as necessary, of course, is how it all works in everyday use – and here we can give the all-clear. Because even though Nothing is still very young as a manufacturer and not overly large, it does its job correctly. Contrasts are well pronounced, the image sharpness is high thanks to 469 PPI and colours are displayed intensively or naturally depending on the setting. The user can also influence the white balance – but only in the form of an imprecise slider, and a reset option to the factory setting is unfortunately missing.
The brightness does not exceed 450 cd/m² in manual mode and 620 candelas in automatic mode. This is neither particularly dark nor excessively bright, but rather mediocre and more or less in line with the device’s price. Some of the smartphone elite manage double the brightness and do not even have problems reading in bright sunlight – this is only possible to a limited extent on the Nothing Phone 1, so a shady hand should help. In addition to the light effects on the back, an always-on display can also be set.
The camera also sounds good at first. Nothing does without superfluous lenses for depth of field and macro shots on the Phone 1, which we find good. The two built-in lenses also have quite convincing values: The main camera takes pictures with 50 megapixels, f/1.88 and optical image stabiliser (OIS); the wide-angle camera also has 50 megapixels but does without the OIS and comes with a less light-sensitive aperture of f/2.2. A front camera with 16 megapixels is used for selfies.
The main sensor from Sony (IMX766) is sometimes found in much cheaper models, such as the Oneplus Nord 2T, but can also be found in more expensive models – so the hardware basis is decent. Unfortunately, the fear that we had already hinted at with the display, namely that such a new and small manufacturer cannot keep up with competitors, at least in terms of software, is partially confirmed with the camera. Although the pictures taken with the main camera are anything but bad, they do not quite come close to the surprisingly high quality with the price of the Oneplus device. The difference is not significant, but it is there. Even though photos offer sufficient image dynamics, sharpness and colour fidelity, especially during the day and in good light, a difference is noticeable here when looking at details. In diminishing light, the difference becomes even more remarkable, and despite the OIS, the difference to the Nord 2T becomes even more apparent, especially in the sharpness of the image. This is sufficient and far from “bad”, and there is also hope that firmware updates can catch up with the competition. However, this was still the case at the time of the test.
A nice gimmick in low light is the darker and thus softer light of the LED strips on the back of the smartphone, which are called glyphs. The light does not reach far but can be conducive at close range.
The main camera is okay, but the wide angle is not up to par. The built-in Samsung JN1 is clearly at a disadvantage in terms of image sharpness and richness of detail, image dynamics and noise. This is especially true for night shots – due to the slower aperture and the lack of OIS, this was to be expected. There is still a distance to the main lens in daylight, but at least it is smaller. Nothing has to hide with its two lenses, even if – as mentioned – there is still room for improvement.
Videos don’t look bad in terms of pure image quality, and the sound and stabilisation are also decent, but they are limited to 4K/30. Especially when panning, this always results in an unsightly blur – which is a pity. Videos with the front camera are limited to 1080p/30, which is sufficient for video calls. Overall, the image quality of the photos is also appealing, even if the colours are sometimes a little overemphasised.
Nothing has chosen a Snapdragon 778G Plus chipset for the Phone 1, whose prime core clocks up to 2.5 GHz. This is not a top processor, which is probably one of the reasons why the device does not pass for a flagship killer (and is not advertised as such). In fact, according to Carl Pei, it is a good compromise between performance and cost, and we agree. The Nothing Phone 1 runs smoothly in everyday use, thanks to the 120 Hz display. Games are no problem, but you might have to reduce the graphics slightly for demanding titles. Anyone who thought the Phone 1 was a full-fledged gaming smartphone because of the light fireworks on the back is mistaken.
Instead, a few words about the fingerprint sensor and the stereo speakers: the sensor is positioned a little far away from the lower edge of the display. Overall, it is not one of the fastest, but it works satisfactorily. The stereo speakers (hybrid on top, dedicated on the bottom) reach a high level and even manage a hint of bass – not bad.
The software has fewer highlights because the simple NothingOS is a launcher like the competition and not a complete overhaul. Underneath is Android 12 with a cutting-edge security patch from July 2022; there will be significant updates for another three years and security patches for another four. That’s not great, but it’s above average. There are a few adjustments to the interface, and the rest is clearly based on vanilla Android. Among the adjustments is a separate control panel for the glyphs on the back, which are essential for signalling calls and messages or as a “ring light” for taking low-quality pictures. A charging indicator during the filling process can also provide an additional overview. The Google Assistant can use a visual indicator to tell how much its microphones are currently picking up. This is a unique selling point, but its practical use is limited – it just looks interesting. Other customisations include a connection option with a Tesla vehicle, which we would have liked to test. Unfortunately, neither the carmaker nor the smartphone manufacturer wanted to provide us with a car for this. There is also the option of displaying your NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) in a targeted gallery.
The battery with its 4500 mAh was the biggest disappointment in our test. It lasted just 7.5 hours in 120 Hz mode in PCMark’s battery test, and the smartphone refused further runs. That is very little. In the test, the smartphone was a one-day model that should be charged at least every night, but even that can be short during intensive use. Some competitors, such as the Google Pixel 6a (review) at the same price, do much better, and even cheaper models like the Oneplus Nord 2T (review) with 90 Hz are ahead despite similar hardware. Around 1 to 2 hours should be added when using the 60 Hz frequency, but even then, the battery is not much better. Maybe Nothing can get more out of this with software. By the way, the glyphs on the back are not responsible for the poor battery life of the smartphone. According to the manufacturer, they would consume around 3 per cent of the battery per hour at maximum brightness. In reality, however, they are used for seconds rather than minutes throughout the day.
Nothing Phone is good overall and, above all, different. Let’s start at the beginning: The display fits well in the mid-range, with a decent display and only slight deductions in brightness. The technical equipment is sufficient for everyday use; you can’t expect a flagship killer just because the head of the new company has done it before in a different position.
The camera still has potential, which is average at the testing time. Unfortunately, this does not apply to the battery, which is too weak. This is probably not due to the hardware, so there is still hope for improvement. At the moment, however, the battery life of the Phone 1 is still below average. What is excellent, however, is the possibility of wireless charging.
Let’s move on to the obvious highlight: although the model looks like an iPhone at first glance, it reveals more unique selling points than most other devices on the market, especially with the transparent back and the installed LED strips. It is also excellently manufactured. You must like the extroverted design; if you don’t like flashing lights on your smartphone, you should look for alternatives.
In summary, the Nothing Phone 1 is a solid mid-range smartphone that primarily has an expectation problem. Due to Nothing’s extroverted marketing, the device was simply overhyped. At some point, “good” is no longer enough.
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