Nothing Phone (1) review: There’s a lot that’s unique, yet comfortingly familiar

Updated on Jul 15, 2022 05:02 PM IST

‘Nothing’ is trying to tweak a few things around, and for the most part, has succeeded in making a phone that stands out

The all new Nothing Phone (1). (HT Photo)
The all new Nothing Phone (1). (HT Photo)

We all have the habit of comparing phones with their competitors before investing in one. Sometimes, all it does is oversimplify things that impact our choices. That’s truer than ever in the case of the new Nothing Phone (1). In many ways, it’s attempting (successfully, too) to fit together a number of exceptional elements into an Android phone, while retaining a lot of familiar pieces as well. Yet, at some points in your interaction while hovering around the software, you may feel this is still ‘work in progress’.

The Nothing Phone (1) makes no attempt to hide the effort to refresh the Android phone experience that has become staggeringly too familiar. You can point the finger at those seemingly off-a-conveyer-belt phones that emerge far too regularly, mostly from Chinese smartphone makers (though they’ll play the ‘Made in India’ card). That similarity isn’t just restricted to the design and physical elements; it’s equally disappointing on the software side. All those preloaded apps. The intrusive ads. That clutter.

More of the same? The answer is resounding

Even for someone who has seen the ins and outs of the smartphone world very closely, for Carl Pei’s London based startup, things couldn’t have been any tougher, in terms of choosing a direction for the first phone they’d be making. Would it have been safer to simply follow the template, take the path well-traversed and make just another phone? Save some money too perhaps, in the process? ‘Nothing’ chose the exact opposite from the outset, with the transparent back panel. Remember we spoke about the unique elements of the Nothing Phone (1) earlier? This is just one of them.

Looks set it apart

The unusual back panel is surely going to be an attraction. It’s a transparent glass which somewhat reveals what usually consists of the beating heart of a phone. Mind you, ‘Nothing’ has tastefully shielded all those unsightly cables and connectors, but you do see the magnetic charging coil, for instance. You can have this in white or black. If you are hoping to get a peek into the processor, in this case the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G+ chip, that’s not going to happen.

It’s Corning Gorilla Glass, which means you’re well protected from scratches and dings – for once on a phone, the oleophobic coating works well too, and fingerprints don’t show easily. The usual caveats about falls and glass cracks can still apply.

The rest of the design is simply geared towards ergonomics. The screen size is definitely a factor, but the flat aluminum spine and evenness of the bezel all around the screen (most Android phones have thicker chins) allow this to sit well in the hand. There is a definite sense of a polished build, with no cost cuts.

Also Read:‘Nothing’ to launch new Android phone this summer – What to expect

It just cannot read your face

What absolutely doesn’t work as well is the ‘face unlock’ option. No matter what we tried, including registering the face in different lighting conditions, the Nothing Phone (1) just cannot be trusted to unlock with your face alone. The good thing is that the fingerprint sensor is responsive, and doesn’t exhibit eccentricities.

Can software updates alone make face recognition more accurate? We aren’t entirely sure. Phones that have previously gone down this tough path never fully recovered.

Glyph is special, but it has to keep improving

Beneath the transparent back are light strips, evenly spread out across the device, called Glyph. They almost wrap the camera module, encircle the wireless charging coils, and even indicate battery charge (this feature was added with the latest ‘Nothing OS’ update). The idea is for these to light up when you have a new notification on the phone (you can adjust the brightness in the settings).

It’ll work with any ringtone you choose for calls. Good thing, because the default platter of notification tones in particular is quite underwhelming. It’s subjective, but none of the tones for messages really catches your attention successfully without sounding harsh (yes, we know the retro inspiration). Incidentally, what we are using at this time is called ‘none’. The Glyph is just one colour – a cool shade of white.

It may be easy to point to Glyph and say, “now what?”, and you’d be absolutely right. It could just descend into a feature that you’d be excited about for a few days and then is forgotten. ‘Nothing’ needs to open these for third party apps, too, for unique notification patterns. We also hope for an option to add repeat reminders for notification illuminations we may have missed in the first go.

Is the Nothing Phone (1) powerful enough?

There is the misconception that you must only have the most powerful smartphone processor to get good performance. Untrue. The Nothing Phone (1) is powered by the Snapdragon 778G+ chip and you’ll have the option of choosing between 8GB and 12GB RAM. While we usually always recommend more RAM as the safer bet, considering the minimalism of Nothing OS that’s based on Android 12, we are absolutely certain even 8GB will be good enough, even for a step up from casual gaming. Attesting to that fact is our experience with F1 Mobile Racing, which now has the 2022 season update.

The battery life is robust – Nothing Phone (1) does 100% to 55% after 5 hours of screen time. Not the fastest charging speeds though (that’s a thing with Android phones these days), but still fast enough at 33Watt for wired charging and 15Watt for wireless (with Qi chargers). If you have earbuds with a wireless charging case, simply placing them on the back can top them up at 5Watts. ‘Nothing’ isn’t bundling a charger with the phone, and that 45Watt adapter will be a separate accessory (this is priced around 2,499).

‘Nothing OS’ adds retro overlay, but firmly roots for modern minimalism

More than anything else, the retro dot-matrix font (such as on the weather and clock widgets) sets the Nothing OS apart visually. You can even place an NFT on your home screen in a widget.

There is a sense of calmness while using the Nothing OS, a feeling that’s gradually disappeared from Android phones (quicker in most cases, a bit slowly with OnePlus phones). You’ll appreciate the clean interface; absolutely no pre-loaded apps bothering you with unwelcome notifications. And of course, no unpleasant ads on the lock screen. There is often the argument that consumers don’t mind buying such phones anyway, but the other side of the coin is perhaps that they didn’t really have a choice.

Some rough edges need ironing out. For instance, option recalibration. Let us take a very simple step – of choosing the grid size for the icons (4X5 is too large for us). This is hidden deep inside the ‘long press’ button on the home screen > wallpaper and style > scroll down to ‘app grid’.

Are all the cameras equal? The 50-megapixel bets need refinement

Instead of lots of megapixels in the primary sensor and a mediocre second camera (usually an ultrawide), Nothing’s take has been simple – 50-megapixels each for primary and ultrawide cameras. While the former is a Sony IMX766 sensor, the latter is a Samsung JN1. From our experience with the Nothing Phone (1), the camera performance has been acceptable, but nothing remarkable. Either way.

Colours come through well, and there’s good dynamic range even in photos that have inconsistent lighting. We are quite impressed with how well similar colours are distinguished, greens and blues in particular. There is definitely a lot of improvement with the latest ‘Nothing OS’ version, but there is still some softness around the frame in most photos, which compromises detailing. And often, we found ourselves manually tapping to select focus. Both issues can be ironed out through software updation.

Can the Nothing Phone (1) be your choice in a sea of similarities?

It is difficult to make revolutionary changes to a smartphone, that’s how far along we are on the evolution cycle. Yet, it doesn’t have to be a depressing sea of similarity either, cut from the same piece of cloth as all Android phones have become. ‘Nothing’ is trying to tweak a few things around, and for the most part, has succeeded in making a phone that stands out. And that’s built around performance which one can have no complaints about. That combination in itself may just add that extra bang for the buck.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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