OnePlus Nord CE 5G Review: Nordcore



The OnePlus Nord CE 5G – the CE stands for Core Edition, fact fans – is an understandably brazen attempt by OnePlus to recreate the success of what it says is one of its best-selling phones ever, last year’s OnePlus Nord.

The essentials of last year’s Nord return in broad strokes – the design, the display, the mid-range specs – but with a few concessions made across the board to help the phone hit a lower price point.

Sadly, there are too many of those cutbacks, for too slight a price drop, to make the Nord CE the absolute slam-dunk of the original Nord. But by any measure this is a competitive mid-range phone that delivers solid features, an attractive design, and the OnePlus killer app: OxygenOS.

Design & build

At a glance the Nord CE looks very much like its predecessor. It’s about the same size – a millimetre taller and fractionally wider, but also a touch slimmer – and adopts the same rounded, vertical camera module on the back.

The primary colour is a similar shade of blue – dubbed Blue Void, thanks to the subtle halo of darker shades around the phone’s edge – though you can also grab the phone in Silver Ray (silver) or Charcoal Ink (black).

The similarities are just as striking on the front, where the Nord CE uses an almost identically sized display, but there is one big change here: a single selfie camera only. That’s a downside when it comes to taking photos, but is undoubtedly an improvement in aesthetics, with no more clunky pill-shaped cut-out.

There have been larger changes though. The biggest is in build quality and durability. Last year OnePlus was bullish about its commitment to using glass to build the original Nord, but that was one of the corners cut here: not only are the Nord CE’s frame and rear both made of plastic, but the glass on the display is no longer the strong Gorilla Glass.

That means the CE is both less durable and feels less premium. In fairness to OnePlus, just about every phone around this price uses plastic, but the glass body was part of the Nord’s USP, and the CE will therefore find it that much harder to stand out from the pack.

There is an upside to using plastic though. I’ve already mentioned that the CE is slimmer than the Nord at 7.9mm, but it’s also lighter – just 170g. That is impressive when compared to rivals, and makes the Nord CE a good choice for anyone who wants a smaller, lighter phone without compromising on display size.

Despite the slimmer build you do get a 3.5mm headphone jack too – omitted on the original – but OnePlus has in turn dropped its usual ‘Alert Slider’, the physical toggle to switch between notification sounds, vibrate only, and do not disturb. A favourite feature of many an iPhone owner, OnePlus is unique in the Android space in including the slider, and dropping it here is another way the Nord CE feels a little less special, a little less OnePlus, and a little more run of the mill.

Display

The display here is, essentially, the same as last year’s. That’s no bad thing.

You’re getting a 6.43in AMOLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate. It’s flat, rather than curved, which looks a bit less flashy but does help usability. There’s also that single punch-hole camera in the corner, which isn’t too obnoxious.

The 90Hz refresh rate ensures smoothness across the operating system, and is still a great upgrade if you’re used to 60Hz screens. You might be disappointed not to get 120Hz, which is available on some even cheaper phones such as the Poco X3 Pro – but bear in mind that those use LCD rather than AMOLED.

By sticking to AMOLED, OnePlus can offer superior image quality together with the high refresh rate, and can also include an under-display fingerprint sensor. Most people will probably find this a smart trade-off – and to be honest, there are diminishing returns to refresh rate past 90Hz anyway.

All in all, this is a great looking screen and remains one of the best you’ll find for the price – I’m very glad that this is one area OnePlus didn’t make any concessions with the CE.

Specs & performance

That’s not quite so true when it comes to the internals. The Nord CE is primarily powered by the lower mid-range Snapdragon 750G chipset, which comes with either 6, 8, or 12GB of RAM, and either 128 or 256GB of storage – though note that there’s no memory card slot to expand this, so what you get is what you get.

I’ve tested a model with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage, and in benchmarks it does lag behind last year’s Nord, though not by all that much. In our CPU-focused test it even fell behind the budget Nord N10, though did surpass that phone on the more graphically intensive GFXBench tests.

Benchmarks are only part of the story though and, unfortunately, the Nord CE didn’t impress me as much day-to-day. In my week with the phone I’ve experienced several stutters and freezes, with apps hanging or becoming entirely unresponsive.

I suspect most of these issues come down to software, rather than hardware, and so with luck things will improve with software updates. Performance most of the time is still impressive for the price, and outside of these occasional glitches the phone runs fast, and the 12GB RAM model handles multitasking well too.

The Snapdragon 750G delivers 5G support too, though you don’t get the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard, and Bluetooth is on version 5.1 – good, but not the absolute cutting edge. Still, for a £299/€299 phone, what you get is impressive. There’s also NFC, and that headphone jack.

Camera

OnePlus has chopped and changed the Nord CE’s camera module in a way that looks like an upgrade on paper, but in practice it’s not quite so simple.

The main camera has jumped up to 64Mp at f/1.8, and it’s joined by an 8Mp, f/2.3 ultrawide and a 2Mp, f/2.4 mono lens – which doesn’t take photos in its own right, but is used to provide extra colour information when you take black-and-white shots.

The 64Mp sensor here may sound impressive compared to the Nord’s 48Mp. But in that phone OnePlus was proud to tout its use of Sony’s capable IMX586 sensor, whereas here the company is playing coy about the specific component – which doesn’t bode well. It’s also ditched the Nord’s optical stabilisation, instead relying only on electronic support.

In bright light the main lens actually does a pretty good job despite that. Shots are bright and well exposed, with decent dynamic range even in challenging conditions involving both bright, direct light and shadowed areas.

There’s a bit of noise, and some evidence of artificial sharpening, but in good conditions the main camera definitely holds its own for the price. The lack of OIS hurts a little – camera shake is evident in a few of my shots, especially with faster moving subjects, but few other phones at the price deliver OIS anyway.

It’s in low light that the reduced stabilisation and presumably smaller sensor begin to cause problems. In dim evening light performance is acceptable, dropping off to unusable as it gets dark. There is a night mode, but the EIS doesn’t provide enough stability to make it worthwhile. Shots end up brighter, but so noisy and blurry that the trade-off rarely makes sense.

The ultrawide is also good in bright light, so long as you don’t look too close – there’s a bit less detail than the main camera, especially in shadows, but nothing too unpalatable. In low light the wide-angle struggles much more, and even night mode can’t improve things – avoid this camera when it gets dark.

Finally, the 16Mp selfie shooter tells a similar story. There’s sufficient detail, and colours look bright and attractive, but in dimmer light a lot of noise creeps into photos.

The front-facing camera caps out at 1080p for video, though the rear camera can handle 4K – though only at 30fps – and of course, without optical stabilisation.

If I sound a bit down on the camera module, it’s only by comparison to the original Nord, which really excelled here. By contrast, the Nord CE’s camera is much more typical for a cheaper phone. It’s not bad by any means, but you will find better in the likes of the Redmi Note 10 Pro if photography is really your focus.

Battery & charging

Battery at least is a strong suit. OnePlus has squeezed a 4500mAh battery into the CE’s slim frame, and the result is a phone that will last a full day with ease, and will stretch to two days with light usage. As I write this it’s about midday and I last charged the phone yesterday morning – but I still have 29% battery remaining, and the phone predicts it’ll last another 12 hours.

Charging is fairly nippy too, with what the company calls ‘Warp Charge 30T Plus’. That’s fancy branding for 30W wired USB-C charging, but this is supposedly a slightly faster, refined version of the tech.

OnePlus says it can top up 70% of the phone’s battery in half an hour – the same as the original Nord, despite the larger battery here. However, it only managed 61% in that time frame in my testing, with 35% in 15 minutes. That’s still pretty good, and should be plenty fast enough for most, but does fall slightly short of the company’s promises.

Software

If OnePlus has a killer feature, then really it’s the software. OxygenOS is still the best Android skin around – even rivalling Google’s own Pixel software – and the Nord CE ships with the latest version, supporting Android 11.

That means a simple, fast UI that’s very customisable but is still easy and straightforward to navigate – no easy feat.

This latest version includes niceties such as an always-on display, options such as a gaming mode to prioritise performance or Zen Mode when you want to avoid distractions, and new touches such as WellPaper – a wallpaper app that reflects your phone usage to help you manage your screen time.

I did mention above that I’ve had some stutters and freezes using the phone, and I do suspect that software issues are to blame, so time will tell if OnePlus can patch these problems out.

Fortunately the company has a good track record on fast fixes, and makes a solid update promise here: two years of Android version updates (so this year’s Android 12, and next year’s 13) with a third year of security patches.

Price & availability

The Nord CE 5G is launching worldwide, with the exception of North America. Sorry yanks.

Pricing is impressively affordable, with a few versions available:

6GB RAM + 128GB storage – €299/₹22,999 (not available in UK)
8GB RAM + 128GB storage – £299/€329/₹24,999
12GB RAM + 256GB storage – £369/€399/₹27,999

Unless you need the extra storage the 8GB/128GB model is probably the sweet spot, but do remember that there’s no microSD slot – so if you’re worried that 128GB isn’t enough, it might be safer to splash out for the top spec.

You can pre-order the phone directly from OnePlus anywhere that it’s sold, which is the best way to get the phone early – ahead of an official launch on 16 June in India, and 21 June in the UK. You can also buy it from Amazon, and in the UK it will be available from Three and John Lewis too.

Check out our full guide on where to buy the Nord CE 5G for wider availability and the latest deals we’ve found.

The pricing makes the Nord CE comfortably cheaper than the original Nord was at launch – it started from £379/€399/₹24,999 – but a year on from launch the Nord is now cheaper than it used to be. At a similar price, the older phone still makes more sense – you’ll get one less year of software support now, but the better camera and improved build quality make up for that. There’s also an argument for holding out for the rumoured Nord 2, expected soon.

For other options, take out a look at our picks of the best budget phones for a few devices that are a little cheaper than the Nord CE, best mid-range phones for handsets around the same price and up, and best cheap 5G phones if you know you want the fastest connectivity.

Verdict

The original Nord was a category defining device, making every other mid-range phone for the last year look bad.

The Nord CE doesn’t quite pull off the same trick. Compromises on the camera and build quality – as well as odd choices like ditching the Alert Slider – make the Nord CE stand out less. This feels typical of the price range, and much closer to the competition.

Still, a solid mid-range chipset, a slim build, and excellent battery life and charging chops are enough to ensure that the Nord CE is still a strong option for budget buyers. It’s also one the cheaper phones around with 5G support included, and OxygenOS alone is enough to give it an edge over the competition.

While the Nord excelled, the Nord CE is instead a capable all-rounder. Other phones out there will trump it on specific specs, but few at this price can deliver such a strong overall package.

Specs
OnePlus Nord CE 5G: Specs

Android 11 with Oxygen OS 11

6.43in Full HD+ (1080×2400) Fluid AMOLED, 20:9, 90Hz, HDR10+

Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G octa-core processor

6/8/12GB RAM (DDR4)

128/256GB internal storage (UFS 2.1)

64Mp, f/1.8 main, PDAF
8Mp, f/2.3 ultrawide
2Mp, f/2.4 mono

16Mp, f/2.5 selfie camera

Fingerprint scanner (in-screen)

11ac dual-band Wi-Fi

Bluetooth 5.1

GPS

NFC

5G
Dual-nano SIM

USB-C

4500mAh non-removable battery

Warp Charge 30T Plus (30W)

159 x 74 x 7.9mm

170g



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