Nothing’s Phone (1) is all about design. Will that be enough to lure people away from Apple, Samsung and OnePlus?
Is it possible for a brand new company to produce an exciting phone that is genuinely worth your Apple or Samsung-bound cash?
If there’s one person who has a shot, it might be Carl Pei. The co-founder of OnePlus has a new outfit called ‘Nothing’. Today, it launched what is arguably the most hyped new smartphone of the year: Nothing’s Phone 1. (It’s actually branded Phone (1), but we’re going to lose the parenthesis for your reading benefit.)
The Irish Independent — me — has had one for a short time prior to launch. I’ve formed a few early impressions.
The biggest feature of note on this 6.5-inch Android device? A system of 900 micro-LED lights built in to the rear of the phone. These serve as a visual aide to alerts and ringtones and are customisable to different people and different social platforms. I’ve only had a short while to play around with them, but so far they’re a quirky novelty. Whether they become something I start to rely on or not (will a different glyph lighting routine for my mother, my wife or my boss elicit different reactions?) won’t become apparent for at least a few more days.
The other big design statement is the transparent rear casing. This reveals many of the inner-workings of the phone. They’re coloured either black or white, depending on which model you get. This is certainly different to what’s out there. And Nothing has a transparent case to make sure you don’t lose its effect.
There are some other general points worth making at this stage.
While this is an Android device, Nothing is positioning the Phone 1 as something much closer to an Apple replacement. The second you take it out of the box, you can see why. Out of the wrapping, there’s no question that it physically resembles an iPhone 12 or 13. The round camera lens shapes on the back of the phone are also very similarly-styled to Apple’s cameras. And Nothing’s custom operating system (OS) tweaks to Android show a clear ambition at frictionless integration with things like ear buds (its own or others such as AirPods) and popular brands of electric cars.
But there’s not much Apple-ish about the price. Nothing is positioning this as a premium-ish device selling very much at a mid-market price. The base model (128GB) costs €469. That’s around half of what an iPhone 13 costs, and probably less than half of what the iPhone 14 will sell for.
Budget-wise, this is in the same tier as a OnePlus Nord 2T (€399), a Pixel 6a or a Samsung A53 (€459), all decent phones if lacking much unique identify themselves.
It’s fairly apparent that the whole point of Nothing’s Phone 1 is personality and identifiability in a world of bland black slabs. Face down on a table, an incoming call or text should reveal its difference.
Does that mean it skimps on specs? Not for the money.
From what I’ve seen so far, everything is fairly high end, without being absolute best in class at anything.
It has two rear cameras. The main one uses the same 50-megapixel Sony sensor that can be found in quite a few phones already on the market, ranging from the mid-range OnePlus Nord 2T to Oppo’s flagship Find X5 Pro. It records in 4K and has stuff like optical stabilisation, a portrait mode and a night mode. It’s good. A second ultrawide rear lens, also 50 megapixels, is also more than capable, as is the 16-megapixel selfie camera (with portrait mode).
The Oled screen is also really nice, with a 60hz to 120h adaptive refresh rate, 402ppi and 1,200 nits peak brightness.
The underlying engine is a notch below the best flagships, but absolutely fine. The Snapdragon 778+ chip allows for 5G, reverse charging and wireless charging while not zapping battery life too badly. It’s also easily good enough for most games and stuff like processing videos you shoot. This is backed up by 8GB of Ram on the two standard models, or 12GB on the top model.
The storage it comes with is similarly decent: 128GB or 256GB, depending on which model you choose.
I haven’t yet been able to really test battery life, but at 4,500mAh, it’s holding up fairly well so far.
There are some nice software touches built into the Nothing OS. In particular, it includes feature controls in the settings where many other phones would require a separate app. This includes modifying the ‘glyph’ lights, or turning them off entirely. It also includes some anointed third party services, such as tweaking a Tesla car’s controls.
So can the Nothing Phone 1 capture people’s imagination? The company is bullish, pointing out that its Ear 1 buds sold almost 600,000 units from scratch as a brand new product.
My hunch with this is that the price point, and some hype, may well capture the enthusiast’s phone budget. Whether that’s at the expense of other Android phones or Apple remains to be seen.