Nothing Phone (1) review: Quite something else!

Is this the phone that’s going to shake up the smartphone market from its lethargy of turning out increasingly samey and barely differentiated glass slabs?
 Nothing Phone (1)
 Nothing Phone (1)

Is this the phone that’s going to shake up the smartphone market from its lethargy of turning out increasingly samey and barely differentiated glass slabs? That’s what the hype train surrounding the launch of the first phone from OnePlus co-founder’s startup called Nothing would have you believe. Having moved on past my first impressions of the device to spending more than a couple of weeks daily driving the Nothing Phone (1), which included two software updates, I’ve got some thoughts on the device. It’s a new phone from a new-ish brand that’s gotten a lot of your interested, so here’s my full, one-month review of the Nothing Phone (1).

But first, here’s the lowdown on pricing and availability. The Nothing Phone (1) sells on Flipkart in two variants – an 8GB memory with 256GB of storage for Rs. 32,999 and another with 12GB of memory for Rs. 38,999, in an edgier white and this very fetching Black variant. If you haven’t read my first impressions of the device when it first launched, head on over here to read that first, where I’ve covered the basics about the Glyph LED light strips and a quick look at the design. Side note: unboxing the phone from its slim tear-away packaging was an exercise in minimalism, just the bare essentials in the box, nothing else (not even a charger). For folks who like to keep their phone boxes as pristine keepsakes, you’re out of luck with the Nothing phone.

Let’s tackle the big question – a couple of weeks down, how does the ‘naked’, lit-up design hold up? Not too bad, honestly…though the novelty of the sound and light show has given way to an appreciation of how well built this device is on the daily, not to mention how impressive it continues to remain that Nothing actually pulled off making the insides of a phone look aesthetic (it’s pretty ugly with most phones, trust me). Yet, I can’t manage to shake off feeling every now and then that I’m holding a much pricier iPhone 13, particularly when it’s in this transparent case…and I maintain that that’s a good thing for Nothing to pull off. It’s still rare enough to see one in the wild, so the party trick with the lights (and the Phone (1)’s flaunt value) will continue for some time. And if you’re the sort who prefers their phone face down instead of using the rather useful always-on display, the Glyph interface can be worked into your workflow by lighting up to notify you when specific contacts are calling, what the charging status of the device is, or… in a pinch… work as a portable ring light. 

The 6.55-inch full HD+ OLED display is fluid and fun to use (120Hz refresh rate and 240Hz touch sampling rate), and the attention to detail in having uniform bezels on all sides just furthers the iPhone inspiration. It’s a tad oversaturated as a panel in its default color profile, but what troubles me more often is its less-than-ideal brightness levels (500 nits), which is fine for the dreary Bangalore weather but not when the sun comes out. Watching HDR10+ content on the Phone (1) is good, with loud stereo speakers that offer a somewhat disbalanced output. The haptics are leagues above its price class, and the sound, light and vibration show that goes off if you use the Glyphs to the hilt are the biggest motivator to keep the phone face down to see a call or a notification come in.

While the build and design are decidedly premium, the internals aim for a more modest goal – hardware that’s capable enough that you have a phone that’s usable enough to satisfy most everyday users, but not something that would appeal to gamers or performance enthusiasts. Setup is one of the quickest around, with Nothing packing in none of those third-party apps and bloatware that’s so easily found in this price segment. With two updates down, the initial software hiccups one saw at launch were addressed, and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G+ chip proved to be adequate enough for most tasks, including gaming on higher graphics settings in games like Call of Duty Mobile (on the 12GB/256GB storage variant I tested). Of course, you should go in reasonable expectations – this is not a gaming phone, and the Phone (1) is lacking that outright raw performance that you may have come to expect from some of the competition in the price segment. It’s particularly noticeable when you’re multitasking between heavy apps or when the phone processes the photo immediately after a shot. Love the lack of bloatware, but I think there’s some way for the Nothing Phone (1) to further optimize the software experience…and if the pace of software updates after launch is any indicator, one shouldn’t have to wait too long. Oh, and another thing – some may find the Nothing OS 1.1.2 running on top of Android 12 a bit too restrained and basic, particularly if you’re coming from another competing brand’s phones. Nothing promises three years of Android updates and four years of bi-monthly security updates, so that’s a plus.

Battery life is reasonably impressive, although I did see better battery figures from the 4500mAh battery at launch than I’ve been seeing off late with the 1.1.2 update which, quite honestly, has hit battery life...hard! Even so, it does manage to last out the day with about 15% left in the tank, but you may be reaching for a charger sooner if you subject it to a heavy cocktail of taking photos, toying around with the Glyph lights and map navigation on 4G as I did on many days. Fast charging is present, but at 33W, it’s not all that fast (particularly if you look around at the 150W speed demons around) and takes over an hour to charge. There isn’t a charger in the box, but there’s some sort of redemption by way of wireless charging – not only is the Nothing Phone (1) rare in its segment for offering wireless charging, it also supports charging your Qi-enabled wireless charging accessories (such as the Ear (1) earbuds) off the rear panel, lighting up the Glyphs to indicate charge is in progress.

If the story so far has been characterised by restraint, the camera is more of the same. In a market filled with garbage macro and monochrome cameras just to pad up the marketing datasheet, the Phone (1) has a refreshingly restrained take on the camera setup – two 50-megapixel cameras - a Sony IMX766 for the primary and a Samsung JN1 for the ultrawide, plus a 16MP Sony IMX471 for the selfie camera up front. The camera had me surprised, turning out good photos in daylight, with accurate colors and good amounts of details in the shots. Even the high-resolution ultrawide delights with its detail levels, and doubles as a decent macro camera as well. And in a good sign – the color science inconsistencies I noticed between the primary and the ultrawide shooters at launch have gone away with the recent software updates. Photos shot in low light are pleasant and very Instagram-usable, as they retain the feeling of a night shot without artificially brightening up the shot. Some Nothing touches to the experience – a blinking red recording indicator on the rear, and the ability to use the Glyph LED lights as a soft fill light for closeups of objects. The only letdown is the selfie camera, which consistently blows away the highlights if you have a bright light source behind you. 

If you’re an ex- or current-OnePlus fan who wanted the Nothing Phone (1) to be all that your favorite brand isn’t any longer…it’s not. It’s not the performance beast that every brand tries to push out, but it packs in oodles of refinement and restraint in design and software that allows it to stand out in an insanely competitive segment. And it’s this extra spit-and-polish that allows it to justify its price, but only to those who care about these elements over pure performance. 

Nothing Phone (1) 

Pros: Eye-catching design, good cameras, lack of bloatware and swift software updates, good battery life, wireless charging

Cons: Lacks a charger in the box, slow ‘fast’ charging, mid-tier performance compared to peers, poor selfie camera, low screen brightness

Rating: 8/10

Price: 8GB/128GB (Rs. 32,999), 8GB/256GB (Rs. 35,999), and the 12GB/256GB (Rs. 38,999)

 Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar

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