Matrix Reloaded of Phones

The original OnePlus Nord launched with great fanfare, promising a return to the flagship death days the company had long since left behind. That first phone offered excellent value for money, but later Nord series devices have mostly left us scratching our heads (with the possible exception of the N200). Nord 2 5G is a true successor that comes to us from a slightly different perspective. It’s the first OnePlus phone with a MediaTek processor, and on paper at least, it doesn’t seem to instill the same excitement as its predecessor.

The Nord 2 is better than anything else in OnePlus’s budget range, but the real question is whether it’s still that compelling in the face of its many rivals. Competition in the mid-range market shows no signs of abating, with Xiaomi, Realme and Samsung among the manufacturers producing competent but affordable phones in large numbers. Is OnePlus well positioned to take a decent slice of that pie with the North 2 or is it better to take your money elsewhere?

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

Nord 2 on OnePlus 9 Pro.

First impressions matter a lot with smartphones – they’re all slight variations on the same theme, so they need to do something to get your attention. Some recent OnePlus models were dazzled right away, most notably the glorious green OnePlus 8 and the bright blue 8 Pro. Since then, the company’s main devices have opted for more muted hues, while the Nord series has been committed to the brand’s turquoise color. This consistent trend, coupled with rear designs merging all into one, means the Nord 2 looks like any other OnePlus phone. There is simply no wow factor when you first get your hands on it. And that’s not to say it’s not nice, apart from the plastic frame (sorry, I mean “glass fiber infused polymer”). It has Gorilla Glass 5 front and back, and the build quality is solid. It’s all a bit bland – the lighter coloring isn’t as eye-catching as the glittering Nord CE, even though it’s made from plastic instead of glass. If you live in India, you will have the opportunity to purchase the exclusive Green Woods leather model, which looks much more eye-catching.

Once you get over those superficial judgments, the rest of the Nord 2’s hardware is competent, albeit uninspiring. There’s no headphone jack (new OnePlus Buds Pro, anyone?), But the ringer switch makes a welcome return and this time there are decently loud stereo speakers (bottom firing and earphone). It’s pretty much the same size as its predecessor, which is as big as I’d like a phone to be – comfortable to hold but with a spacious screen. At one time, a 6.4-inch FHD OLED with a 90Hz refresh rate would have been extremely exciting on a phone in this price range, but you can get 120Hz for less right now on a Poco F3. The Nord 2’s screen is still excellent, but it’s a shame to see the bottom bezel actually boost this generation.

Below the display, there is a fast and accurate fingerprint scanner that I really like to use in tandem with face unlock – the latter for quickly getting past the lock screen and the safest method for approving banking apps and convenient unlocking by wearing a mask. The tactile sensation is nothing special, but I actually really like the subtle hum they emit. OnePlus has never been one to shell out for official IP ratings, and Nord 2 is no different. Apparently it’s at least splash-proof, so you don’t have to worry about getting caught in the rain.

In the box, the Nord 2 comes with a clear TPU case (with an unfortunate pattern that takes away some of the plug), a 65W adapter, and a USB-A to C cable. If the included case doesn’t float your boat, OnePlus once again offers an excellent range of alternatives.

Software, performance and battery

Many observers will have scoffed at the thought of a MediaTek-based OnePlus phone, but they would soon change music if they used it. Performance flies, as good as the original Nord and probably better. For what it’s worth, the Dimensity 1200-AI chip is said to be roughly equivalent to Snapdragon 865 or 870 and you will no longer crave Qualcomm silicon after using it. The other elephant in what must be a really big room is choking – yes, it’s still happening here, but it’s not noticeable on the North 2 and OnePlus assures us that there will be a switch to turn it off in OxygenOS 12. This phone definitely doesn’t have the best graphics in the price segment and only has a 90Hz display, so if gaming is really important to you, you could go for the Poco F3 or the Realme GT. Beyond that, the Nord 2 carries on the OnePlus tradition with a fast and smooth user experience.

Much has been made of the potential switch to using Oppo’s ColorOS on OnePlus phones as part of the ongoing integration between the two BBK brands, and the Nord 2 is the first phone to make the switch. It’s actually pretty hard to tell, however, as it still has an OxygenOS tier on top. The settings have been rearranged and there are subtle differences here and there, but don’t worry – it looks like a OnePlus phone. Personally I’m not a fan of the big redesign that came with OxygenOS 11; I preferred it when it was closer to Google’s Pixel UI. But even so, with Always-on Display and tons of customization options, the Nord 2 doesn’t want software features.

In theory, supporting a single code base should mean faster updates, and this is absolutely necessary because OnePlus has fallen behind rivals like Samsung. The Nord 2 promises two years of OS updates and three years of security patches, but we hope that OnePlus will increase the frequency and quality of those updates with the help of Oppo. For what it’s worth, I haven’t encountered any major problems or bugs on the Nord 2 so far. This is encouraging as early firmware releases on OnePlus phones aren’t always that skilled.

Battery life is clearly a priority for OnePlus (hence throttling and other optimizations) and is confirmed in real use. The 4500mAh battery is good for over a full day of use – I usually end the day with around 30-40% remaining after 4-5 hours of screen on. There are every chance I could earn two days if I really needed it. Thanks to the 65W charging, it takes only 30 minutes even for a full charge. Of course, to get such good battery life, OnePlus still dabbles with app optimizations that can cause some missed notifications, so I recommend turning it off for the apps you care about. I’ve found that Gmail suffers from it quite often even though it doesn’t show up in the optimization settings, which was pretty frustrating.

Cameras

The original Nord tried to really sell us on the camera system – it had four rear lenses and a dual selfie camera – but its successor is more modestly equipped. There is a single 32MP front camera along with three on the rear. The main sensor is the 50MP Sony IMX766 with OIS and by default it takes 12.5MP binned images. The quality is perfectly acceptable, with a lot of detail, but it can be a bit heavy with HDR processing. One of the key features brought to the device by the Dimensity 1200-AI chip is supposedly automatic scene selection, and while it mostly does a good job of understanding any shooting environment, if you’re photographing something vaguely resembling an animal of any kind, it’s a “Kitty” every time. Not a big deal, but I found it funny.

Low-light performance is often underwhelming, with aggressive processing ruining the finer details and not preserving the mood of the scene. The Ultra Night Mode is impressive, somehow it makes the extra light appear out of nowhere. The images it produces aren’t sharp, however, understandably. Ultrawide, as is often the case on cheaper phones, is rather disappointing. It produces muddy images that are rarely usable for anything other than jogging in memory – you won’t even want to share them on social media. There is no dedicated zoom lens, and the digital alternative doesn’t quite measure up. At 2x, the results are acceptable as this is achieved with sensor clipping. At 5x, with good lighting conditions, you can sometimes get good results too, but anything past turns into an oil painting.

The selfie camera is one of the brightest notes here – it appears to be at least as good as on the more expensive OnePlus phones, and the portrait mode is good enough for sharing on Insta if you like. On the video side, you’re watching up to 4K / 30fps with AI video enhancement, although stabilization could be better. It also has a Dual View video mode so you can shoot front and back footage at the same time, which is pretty fun to play around with for a while.

There’s also a monochrome sensor, which is … well, there is. I’d rather it wasn’t.

Should you buy it?

One for the fans. While the OG North seemed like some kind of top killer, this one isn’t as competitive a year later. Flagships in 2021 are required by law to have 120Hz screens, fast wireless charging, zoom cameras and IP ratings. A phone without all of that can’t realistically hope to tiptoe with much more expensive models, and that’s okay. Despite what OnePlus marketing would have you believe, this phone isn’t really trying to compete with premium phones.

The Nord 2 poses no threat to proper flagship phones.

Still, it’s a very good and affordable mid-range phone, albeit less convincing than its predecessor. If you’re a OnePlus fan coming from an older phone, you probably won’t be disappointed with the North 2. But if you’re willing to look at other manufacturers, you may be able to find a better value. The Poco F3 costs less and has a Snapdragon 870, a 120Hz display and an IP53. The Realme GT packs a Snapdragon 888, although it costs a little more. Nord CE also offers arguably better value: it costs £ 100 less but is not drastically less capable in any area. If you care about quick updates, the Samsung Galaxy A52 is calling you. If that were me, I’d pick the Pixel 4a over the North 2 every time – the camera is just miles better.

The Nord 2 is emblematic of the larger problem OnePlus is facing right now. It makes great phones with decent software, but struggles to stand out and isn’t even remotely competitive on price anymore. Apparently the Nord series is selling very well, so there’s no reason to believe this one will go bad. But after reviewing the original OnePlus Nord last year, I have continued to use it for some time. With the North 2, I am already eager to move forward, and this is very significant.

Buy if …

  • You’re a OnePlus fan with a budget of £ 400 to spend on a new phone.

Don’t buy if …

  • You want the best value for money possible: get a Poco or a Realme instead.

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