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Nothing Phone 1 review: Lights out for competition?

Nothing like anything or much ado about nothing?

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Nothing Phone 1 review: Lights out for competition?
Phone 1 is Nothing's first smartphone. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

There are certain expectations from every product. Brands build up hype. Consumers are wowed. The launch happens. Sometimes, things work out. Sometimes, they don’t. It’s a circle.

There are generally two ways to market a product. You either speak of innovation(s) you’re doing in your own product, or the lack thereof around you and then put forward a solution. When you’re Carl Pei, the latter— it seems now— is inevitable. The man’s reputation precedes him.

Pei was instrumental in building smartphone brand OnePlus and the term “flagship killer” that gets tossed around a lot these days. He’s bringing the same energy to Nothing, a consumer tech venture he started late last year— and the same marketing mojo, too.

Phone 1, Nothing’s first phone feels so familiar in pitch, it’s like Pei never really left the building after hanging up his boots at OnePlus.

The premise is that all phones look the same today. There is nothing new. But Phone 1 is different.

DESIGN & DISPLAY

The back of the phone is see-through so you can probe around the inside with your eyes. (Not all the way, just a bit.) Transparent phones aren’t anything new but there’s a nuance to Nothing’s design choices. There’s conviction. It’s quite something. Very original. And then there are the lights, over 900 of them, that together make up the phone’s marquee “glyph” pattern.

These lights are fully customisable through settings. You can choose to not light them up at all but what’s the fun in that?

Nothing Phone 1 review
Nothing Phone 1 glyph lights in action. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

When turned on, they serve as an elaborate notification delivery system letting you assign specific lighting and tunes –there are 10 of those available by default and Nothing plans to add more in future— to contacts and apps you use the most. There are a couple of more use cases. The bottom LEDs, for instance, can fire up to indicate the battery status when charging while “flip to glyph” lets you use DND without missing out on important calls and messages. They can sync up with the camera to turn into a fill light, too.

(It goes without saying that this phone is not meant for those who think all this is novelty.)

Nothing Phone 1 review
Phone 1 has even bezels on all sides. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The attention to detail doesn’t stop there. Underneath those lights is a phone that’s built with utmost care and a great deal of originality even though the fine blueprint may give you strong iPhone vibes. The front and back are made of Corning Gorilla Glass 5. The outer frame uses 100 percent recycled aluminium with a matte—anodised—finish. The phone feels very dense and solid. It’s a bit wide so handling may take some time getting used to.

The 6.55-inch OLED display, here, has a 1080p resolution and fast 120Hz refresh rate. There is HDR10+ playback support and an optical in-screen fingerprint reader for biometrics. The panel doesn’t get very bright, though.

PERFORMANCE & CAMERAS

The Phone 1 is your typical midranger, not the flagship killer, that many were expecting and hoping for Carl Pei’s Nothing to make. It is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G Plus, a chip we saw most recently inside Motorola’s Edge 30. That may be okay.

Nothing Phone 1 review
Phone 1 glyph interface. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

This phone is not so much about the hardware as it is about the underlying software or Nothing OS. This is based on Android 12 at the time of writing. Nothing’s chosen to go with unadulterated near stock Android with its debut smartphone. The phone, though it has a skin on top with custom font, is clean without excess bloat or unwanted apps. The only first-party apps the phone is shipping with are recorder and camera. Rest, it’s all Google apps and services. We did not encounter any odd bugs during our testing.

Nothing Phone 1 review
The only first-party apps the phone is shipping with are recorder and camera. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Phone 1 is eligible to get three years of major OS and up to four years of security updates. That said, Android 13 update for Phone 1 will be rolled out only in the first half of 2023, Nothing has confirmed, as it would need time to fine tune the software with its hardware. That’s not surprising since Nothing is a new brand, after all, and the Phone 1 is its first smartphone. Software is not easy and Nothing has promised nothing short of the moon with its take on Android, even going on to say, it was only competing with Apple with its product ecosystem. Of course, this also means all eyes would be on Nothing to deliver an experience at par, if not better.

Cameras and battery life are dependable, if not best in class.

Phone 1 has two cameras on the back— 50MP Sony IMX766 main sensor behind an f/1.88 lens with OIS and EIS and another 50MP sensor with ultrawide lens with a field of view of 114-degrees. Photos shot with the primary camera have good amount of detail with good exposure and ample contrast especially when lots of light is available. Under trick and low light, too, it captures enough details and exposure remains mostly on point. All the makings of a good camera phone are there. The ultrawide takes a wider perspective with pleasing colours, more or less in line with the main camera.

Nothing Phone 1 review
Phone 1 has dual cameras. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The 16MP front camera takes high-quality selfies under good lighting but photos under low and artificial light could be better.

Phone 1 with its respectable 4,500mAh battery is easily a one-day phone. It may last a bit longer under moderate use. There is support for 33W fast charging but there is no charging brick in the box. Phone 1 can also pull 15W Qi wireless, and 5W reverse wireless charging.

SHOULD YOU BUY NOTHING PHONE 1?

The Phone 1 is different, no doubt, but it’s not the radical reimagining of what a smartphone should and ought to be in 2022, as Nothing would have you believe. With or without the lights and underneath all the hype is a nice and dependable phone that does everything well with surprisingly good amount of polish and panache.

Nothing Phone 1 review
Nothing has bumped the price of Phone 1 in India recently. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

But it’s easy to tell that this is Nothing’s first phone. The Phone 1 has had a rocky start with quality control issues being talked about and shared across the internet. The brand has been fairly quick to respond, which is what matters more. Here’s hoping the second-generation would fix some of these shortcomings and fare even better. For what it’s worth, Nothing’s basics are in place.

Heads-up: Nothing has bumped the price of Phone 1 in India recently by Rs 1,000. The phone now starts at Rs 33,999 for a version with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The phone also comes in 8GB/256GB and 12GB/256GB configurations for Rs 36,999 and Rs 39,999, respectively. The Phone 1 is not a clear winner in its class but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing special. It is in fact the start of something spectacular. All eyes now on where Nothing would go from here.

ProsCons
Premium build and designDisplay doesn’t get very bright
Dependable performanceNo charger in the box
Clean software
Competitive cameras
Good battery life, wireless charging
Excellent haptics

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