Nothing Phone (1) Preview – PCMag

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Long live the design phone
I’m that 5G guy. I’ve actually been here for every “G.” I’ve reviewed well over a thousand products during 18 years working full-time at PCMag.com, including every generation of the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S. I also write a weekly newsletter, Fully Mobilized, where I obsess about phones and networks.
Nothing's first smartphone has simple, elegant software and a completely unique illuminated back, but it's not a performance leader.
The Nothing Phone (1), the first smartphone from OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei’s new startup, is remarkable because of its design, not its performance. This £399 (about $474 USD at time of publication) handset’s LED-lit, transparent back is a real thriller in a world of boring black slabs but, under the surface, it’s just another midrange Android phone. Compared with the upcoming and similarly priced Google Pixel 6a ($449), your decision really comes down to form versus function. And because our readers are all about function—and you can’t reliably use (let alone buy) the device in the US—Google’s midrange handset is the obvious recommendation for most people. But, if you want to make a statement with your phone, live outside the US, and don’t care much about low-light photography, the Nothing Phone (1) might still win you over.
Editors’ Note: We’re not assigning a star rating to the Nothing Phone (1) because we can’t test the phone’s connectivity, which is a key part of our testing process.
The Phone (1) is available now for a little less than the equivalent of $500 in the UK, but it’s illegal to sell in the US and doesn’t work on any US network (as we discuss later). Even if it does eventually go through all the necessary approvals, it’s difficult to guess what the price of a future Nothing phone would be in the US. It joins an extensive list of midrange phones available abroad that retail for between $300 and $500 and never arrived stateside.
But Pei has a lot of buzz and a grand vision. And he says he hasn’t given up on eventually bringing a phone to the US. We’ve had a few more days to test the device since we published our first impressions. These are our more informed thoughts on the phone.
The Nothing Phone (1) measures approximately 6.3 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.8 ounces; these are fairly typical dimensions. Its black front, in-display camera, and stainless-steel edges also echo the design of many other phones.
The handset’s bright, 6.55-inch, 2,400-by-1,080-pixel OLED screen boasts a brightness of 500 nits, HDR10+ certification, a 120Hz refresh rate, and a 240Hz touch sampling rate. It’s a strong offering for a sub-$500 phone. The in-display fingerprint sensor is limited to a relatively small recognition area and thus requires a precise touch but, if you’re on target, it works fine.
Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back offers some protection against breakage. The phone also features an IP53 rating, which means it can withstand splashes of water but not submersion.
The phone has dual SIM slots and stereo speakers, but a single USB-C port for charging and connectivity. The speakers sound surprisingly good; they produce a lot of midrange detail and striking stereo separation. But if you don’t want to play your music out loud, USB-C headphones should work just fine; we used a wired pair of Samsung in-ears without issue. (There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack.)
You get either 8GB or 12GB of RAM depending on the model, and either 128GB or 256GB of (non-expandable) storage. Other specs include Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, NFC, and 5G connectivity (in countries where its bands work).
The phone relies on a 4,500mAh battery and charges at rates of 33W (wired) or 15W (wireless). It also supports 5W reverse charging. The box includes a USB-C cable but no charger. In testing, we got to 30% in 30 minutes via a 45W Samsung charger. Our rundown test is dependent on cellular connectivity and we couldn’t get a good connection, so we can’t directly compare its battery life to that of other phones.
The Phone (1)’s striking transparent back design is the main reason to consider it. A few other transparent-back phones have launched in the past, but none took off in the US.
Rather than going for an “exposing tech innards” approach, this transparent back is all about design. Whorls and swirls of black or white metal under the back don’t necessarily have a function, but they look really good.
The real surprise is how the back lights up. You can assign 10 patterns of white, neon-like “glyphs” (with accompanying techy, electronic chimes) to specific callers or notifications. One of the glyphs also lights up when you plug in the phone to show the amount of charge. Unfortunately, you can’t program custom glyph patterns beyond the built-in 10, which feels like a real missed opportunity.
This means the Phone (1) is the only smartphone I know whose natural position on your desk is face-down. That’s really cool, actually: Face-down, it doesn’t beckon to you with a big screen and more so resembles a piece of art. Ideally, you can just glance over at the light pattern to see whether a message is something you need to answer. You just have to make sure to set the correct ringtones and text tones for priority contacts to differentiate between them.
The appeal of these glyphs, of course, restricts which cases you can use with the Phone (1), however. My test unit shipped with a simple clear TPU case with a lip around the front for a little bit of impact protection.
The UI also contributes to the unique aesthetic. It uses a pixelated 80s-style font in various places, including during the setup process as well as for the custom weather and time widgets. You can download a version of Nothing’s UI(Opens in a new window) from the Google Play store if you want to try it on your existing Android phone.
The Phone (1) uses a Qualcomm 778G+ processor, which we haven’t seen before in the US. Qualcomm’s 7 series is popular on midrange phones in other countries but, here, manufacturers usually opt for the lower-cost 6 series or the flagship 8 series (the Snapdragon 765G-toting Google Pixel 5 being the most notable exception). It’s worth noting that the 778G+, a variant of the 778G Qualcomm announced in May 2021, isn’t the most recent 7-series model; that would be the 7 Gen 1, which Qualcomm announced in May of this year.
Benchmark performance is fine, but decidedly not flagship-level. The phone’s PCMark Work score of 10,770 was similar to that of the Pixel 6 (10,602) but far short of the Samsung Galaxy S22 (13,962). The Geekbench multicore score of 2,921 was similar to that of the Pixel 6 (2,813) and Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (2,990) but far short of an Apple iPhone 13 (4,629).
The phone reached 32 fps in the GFXBench Aztec Ruins onscreen benchmark; that’s better than a Samsung Galaxy A53 5G (15 fps) but doesn’t measure up to a OnePlus 10 Pro, Galaxy S22+, or Apple iPhone 13, all of which max out the benchmark at 60 fps. Similarly, real-world and graphics-intensive games caused a bit of an issue. For example, when I tried to play Genshin Impact, the flight controls felt considerably more laggy than on the Samsung Galaxy S22.
That said, in daily use, Nothing’s very basic, bloatware-free Android skin makes the experience feel simple, clean, and (dare I say) burdenless. Nothing loads an all-Google software suite—you won’t find duplicate gallery, browser, or messaging apps—and the experience never felt slow or weighty in my few days of testing. Nothing promises three years’ worth of Android feature upgrades and four years’ worth of security upgrades. This is competitive with similarly priced phones
Nothing founder Carl Pei said he wants to create an ecosystem of devices that work seamlessly together, much like those in Apple’s ecosystem. For now, the only integrations are with Nothing’s ear (1) earbuds and with Tesla cars. Samsung offers much better integrations with Windows PCs, but I guess the target Nothing user likely has a Mac anyway.
The phone has two rear cameras and one front-facing camera. The main camera is a 50MP, f/1.8 sensor that defaults to 12MP images thanks to quad-pixel pinning and can simulate 2x zoom through sensor-cropping. You also get a 50MP, f/2.2 ultra-wide camera with a 114-degree field of view. The front sports a 16MP, f/2.4 selfie camera and is the only one of the trio with optical image stabilization. All the cameras record 4K video at 30 fps and offer a portrait bokeh option. Some competing devices might support 4K video at a smoother 60 fps.
Like older OnePlus phones, the cameras perform fine, but not exceptionally. Image quality in low-light environments and at the edges of wide-angle frames is far inferior to that of a flagship Samsung phone, a Pixel, or a recent iPhone.
Most modern phones can capture decent photos with their main camera in good light. During the day, I got gorgeous depth of field and vibrant colors on a close-up flower shot in the 50MP mode, for instance. The portrait mode worked fine, too; the lens gradually blurred the back half of a carton of eggs that I positioned relatively edge-on.
In low-light environments, photos look soft when you zoom in. The ultra-wide lens also occasionally gave me photos so mushy that they had an impressionistic quality.
We can likely attribute some performance issues to the software. The camera app is simple, but I sometimes had trouble switching between lens views—I needed to stab the button a few times for it to switch. The phone’s Night Mode doesn’t kick in automatically; when it does, it distinctly improves images.
OnePlus was notorious for pushing major camera software updates after launch and that may happen here. too. But, if the standard is the iPhone 13 or Pixel 6 Pro—the two real camera-snob phones for the creative class—the Phone (1) just can’t compete yet.
Because the FCC has not certified the device, the Phone (1) is illegal to sell in the United States. Certification is expensive—Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart says it costs up to $1 million per phone(Opens in a new window), per carrier—and Nothing didn’t want to bet the money without a carrier sales partner.
I tried the phone with Verizon and T-Mobile SIMs but it didn’t work well on either network. Verizon cut off access because it’s an uncertified device. On T-Mobile, I saw a quarter of the 5G speeds I do on my personal Galaxy S21 Ultra. The phone lacks band 71, a major component of T-Mobile coverage, so, even if the carrier doesn’t kick it off the network, I would still have trouble with coverage.
The phone also appeared to just be stressing out about the networks. Looking at the battery usage metrics, I found that a lot of battery loss was because of “mobile network” usage; I attributed this to the phone struggling to find a reliable connection.
With that in mind, I can’t say much about connectivity or call quality. I’m disappointed in this lack of network support, but I understand that a small startup doesn’t want to pay for expensive certifications without a good sales channel in place. That’s more an indictment of our choked-down, carrier-controlled phone sales system than it is of Nothing.
At the moment, the Nothing Phone (1) is a decent, but not outstanding midrange phone in a striking, unusual case. The Phone (1) mostly delivers on Pei’s vision of making phones fun and exciting again, though it doesn’t get very far with his goal to create a seamless, creator-centric Android experience that competes with Apple. The main lingering question about this handset is whether a weird, niche phone can survive in a market dominated by giants. So far, Pei’s answer for the US was “no” but, in Europe and India, it still has a chance. I’ll leave that last part to folks who are familiar with the more competitive phone worlds outside of our Apple-and-Samsung-dominated market.
Nothing's first smartphone has simple, elegant software and a completely unique illuminated back, but it's not a performance leader.
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I’m that 5G guy. I’ve actually been here for every “G.” I’ve reviewed well over a thousand products during 18 years working full-time at PCMag.com, including every generation of the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S. I also write a weekly newsletter, Fully Mobilized, where I obsess about phones and networks.
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