Nothing Phone 1 Review: Good phone, better marketing
I am not sure if this is the case all around the world, but in American sports culture, fans love to argue not just which athlete is better, but also which has been properly rated. The gist is that being good isn’t enough, the athlete has to be at least as good or better as the hype bestowed on them (usually by media or apparel companies like Nike). Not living up to the hype results in the dreaded “overrated” moniker, and the athlete usually receives criticism or mockery.
That’s sort of what’s happened with the Nothing Phone 1. It’s been hyped so much that I’ve been seeing snark from tech media peers on the phone, even though it’s an absolutely fine phone that’s not overpriced. And to be honest, at its £399 ($470) starting price, there are not many complaints to be had in my opinion. Are there better value offerings? Sure, Xiaomi’s 12 Lite is arguably a better phone at an even lower price, but Nothing’s phone is available in more markets right now, and it has a cleaner Android software and a different, original design. The Indian market is more hotly contested, which is where Nothing Phone 1 sees a whole lot more competition, so depending on your needs, you can swing this way or that.
Nothing Phone 1: Price and Availability
The Nothing Phone 1 is available for purchase starting July 21 in select markets including UK, France, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Finland, Portugal, among a half dozen more countries. Prices, in British pounds, Indian rupees, and Hong Kong dollars, are as follows.
- 8+128GB: £399/₹32,999/HK$3,699
- 8+256GB: £449/₹35,999/ HK$3,999
- 12+256GB: £499/₹38,999/HK$4,399
Nothing Phone 1: Specifications
|Specification||Nothing Phone 1|
|Dimensions & Weight||
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G Plus|
|RAM & Storage||
|Battery & Charging||
|Security||In-display optical fingerprint scanner|
|Front Camera(s)||16MP selfie camera|
|Software||Nothing OS over Android 12|
|Other Features||Glyph lighting interface|
About this hands-on: Nothing sent me a Phone 1 to test. This review was written after about seven days with the device. Nothing had no input in this article.
Nothing Phone 1: Design Overview
- The overall shape and in-hand feel is very similar to iPhone 12/13 Pro Max, but slightly smaller
- Symmetrical bezels on all four sides — a rarity in Android phones
- Transparent back with light strips that seem cool or gimmick depending on opinion
The overall shape and in-hand feel of the Nothing Phone 1 is very similar to the iPhone 12 and 13 series, particularly the Pro Max phones, with very flat sides and rounded corners. When you hold this phone, your palm feels mostly the aluminum frame, as the hard angles stop the phone’s back from sitting on your palm. The Nothing Phone 1 is less wide horizontally and quite a bit lighter, which makes it slightly more comfortable to hold.
I have been vocal in saying I don’t find the iPhone 12/13 design language comfortable to hold and it’s the same story here. The flat sides give the phone a mature, powerful machine vibe, but it just doesn’t nestle in the palm as softly as curved sides do. I am not necessarily talking about curved screen phones, even the older iPhone X/11 type design had sides that were rounded. It’s worth mentioning that Xiaomi and Oppo also recently released phones with flat sides, but those brands added subtle chamfered corners to soften the sharp edges. The Nothing Phone 1 doesn’t do this, going the entire iPhone route in which the sides of the phone end at an abrupt 90-degree angle.
I suppose a big reason for my gripe is because I tend to use my phones naked, while a case will significantly soften the sharp corners of these flat-sides designs.
The most attention-grabbing feature of the Phone 1 is obviously the back design: a semi-transparent look that seemingly offers a glimpse at the phone’s internals. Most of what we see is actually a design piece covering the actual guts of the phone, but we can see the wireless charging coil and some carefully placed screws.
The bottom part of the back plate design looks like an elephant to some people, but Nothing tells me it was actually patterned after the New York City subway map, particularly Manhattan (the lower left corner part definitely resembles Manhattan). I personally really like this look, with the center-placed wireless charging coil’s spiral design adding a nice bullseye-like aesthetic that draws eyeballs.
The Glyph Interface
There are four strips of lights on the backside of the phone, including two that wrap around the camera module and the wireless charging coil respectively. This is what Nothing calls the “glyph interface” and the lights aren’t entirely for decoration. Nothing has designed the lights to flash specific patterns for various smartphone tasks, like when the phone is ringing, receiving a notification, or when Google Assistant is being summoned. The sound effects that play along with the flashing lights are, according to Nothing, inspired by the classic Nintendo Entertainment System and Casio electronic watches, meaning they have this retro electronics vibe. If you are wondering why they chose this specific “C, Forward Slash, G, Exclamation Point” design, we don’t actually know why.
I can see the so-called glyph interface being useful for some people. Being able to set a specific light pattern for a specific contact can be useful for people who get a lot of calls. There’s also the option to turn off notification sounds when you flip the phone face down yet still have the light strips flare up (Nothing calls this “flip to glyph”). The idea is you can decide if the notification is worth checking before picking up the phone.
None of these situations apply to me, however. I almost never call anyone anymore, and the only voice calls I take are from my work supervisors. All my family and friends contact me via WhatsApp text or voice messages. I also never feel the need to put my phone face down, because I rarely attend events where it’d be “rude” to check my phone.
The lights’ brightness can be adjusted in settings, and can also be used as a fill light for taking photos in low light situations, because the lights are more spread out than a typical smartphone flashlight, it does illuminate a human face slightly less harshly than a typical smartphone flashlight. Still, you should avoid using any smartphone flashlight when snapping pics of human faces in my opinion — it is never flattering unless the subject has flawless skin texture.
The Nothing Phone 1 is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G Plus, which is a tried-and-trusted mid-range SoC that’s more than capable enough for 99% of smartphone users. Nothing says they chose this chip because it offers enough performance without running too hot, which I agree with. This “plus” version of the chip is a relatively new iterative update to allow it to support wireless charging.
The 6.55-inch OLED screen is vibrant, with a typical max brightness of 500 nits and a peak max brightness of 1,200 nits. The screen looks great most of the time, with a 120Hz refresh rate providing smooth animations, colors looking punchy, and aesthetically pleasing symmetrical bezels on all four sides. Maximum brightness is a bit lower than most 2022 flagship phones, but unless I’m using it on a very harsh sunny day, this screen brightness is fine.
It’s worth noting the display is not an LTPO panel, meaning the refresh rate can be either 60Hz or 120Hz. This means the screen isn’t as battery efficient, but it’s also to be expected at this price range. There is an optical in-display fingerprint scanner located very low on the screen (similar to the location of the scanner in the OnePlus 9 or 2020-era BBK phones). The location isn’t ideal but not a big deal, instead, I am annoyed by its slow speed. The phone just takes a beat longer to unlock. Do note I’m comparing to Chinese mid-rangers like the Xiaomi 12 Lite or Oppo Reno phones, which all have excellent scanners. Some non-Chinese phones, like the Samsung Galaxy A53, or even the Google Pixel 6 series, have terrible in-display fingerprint scanners that are even slower.
Haptics, Speakers, Battery, and Memory
Good haptics aren’t always guaranteed in phones cheaper than $500 or $600, and thankfully the Nothing Phone 1 has a good haptic engine that offers strong and precise haptics. I enjoy typing on this phone with vibrations turned on.
Also good are the dual speakers and UFS 3.1 memory, again, not always guaranteed in phones at this price point. The 4,500 mAh battery, IP53 water and dust resistance rating, and just 15W wireless charging are a bit less than what you could get from other brands at a similar price point, but it’s fine.
Nothing Phone 1: Cameras
- 50MP Sony IMX766 main camera and 50MP Samsung JN1 ultra-wide
- The main camera is capable, but ultra-wide is just okay
- Videos have a weird orange tint to them right now
The Phone 1 packs very familiar cameras to phones from Carl Pei’s former company, OnePlus. The rear camera system comprises of a 50MP Sony IMX766 sensor with an f/1.9 aperture and a 50MP Samsung JN1 ultra-wide. The former was used in the OnePlus Nord 2T, and the latter was used most recently in the OnePlus 10 Pro, and a bunch of other BBK phones like the Iqoo 9 Pro too.
These are capable, proven sensors, but also firmly mid-tier components. The image sensor size of the IMX766, for example, is just a pedestrian 1/1.56-inch, far smaller than what’s in, say, the Galaxy S22 Ultra or Xiaomi 12S Ultra. But again, we must remember, this is a sub-$500 phone. And Nothing’s software image processing is quite good.
Check out these shots: not bad at all for a $470-ish phone from a first-time company.
The last two shots in the above set, in particular, are not easy shots — they’re high contrast shots with bright lights blasting through the window, for a mid-ranger, this is really good dynamic range and exposure.
As is usual with mid-range phones, it’s when we move to ultra-wide where the camera shows that it is, indeed, not a flagship. Ultra-wide shots during the day are fine in a vacuum but noticeably softer than what the main camera produces. And at night, the quality gap widens significantly. There is also a major shift in colors.
Speaking of colors, some of the videos I’ve shot with the Nothing Phone 1 has also exhibited very wonky colors, such as an extremely warm tone that makes my skin tone look orange. Stabilization is good (for its price range) with the main camera, but ultra-wide has very poor electronic image stabilization. There’s also a bit of jelly effect as I pan. You can see all the issues in the video sample below. I must mention I am reviewing a pre-release model of the phone and Nothing has already sent two software updates in the week I’ve had the device, so perhaps these issues can be fixed with more updates. But as of right now, the video performance is below par even for a mid-ranger, as something like a Xiaomi 12 Lite can shoot better videos. Video resolution also maxes out at 4K/30fps, not 60fps or 8K options, but that’s absolutely fine.
If you want to see full sized versions of all photo samples I shared here, I’ve uploaded them to the Flickr album.
Nothing Phone 1: Performance and Software
- Super clean Android skin with no third-party bloatware
- Fluid animations (except in the Twitter app)
- Good performance overall
The Nothing Phone 1 runs a very light, but stylish, Android skin named Nothing OS over Android 12. The first thing I noticed that stood out about Nothing OS is the initial phone setup interface was entirely black, including the Google sign-up screen. I have gone through this Android setup process probably like 100 times in the last few years and the Google sign-in screen is always white. I think this all-black aesthetic is specific to my black model, I think the white model will likely have a more conventional white setup screen.
Once finished with setup and you’re in Nothing OS, the next thing you’ll likely notice is the phone only ships with Google’s core apps, with no bloatware — or at least, the conventional definition of bloatware (third-party apps that are pre-installed). I actually find Google’s increasingly large suite of apps overbearing and annoying. Sure, it makes sense to have Google Play, YouTube, Chrome, Google Contacts, and Maps pre-installed on all Android phones. But I do not give a damn about Google TV, Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Google One, Google Home, Google Pay, and Google Duo, and the fact these apps are now all crammed into recent Android phones, most of them can’t be uninstalled, means these are still bloatware. This is a GMS issue and not a Nothing issue, so no complaints on Phone 1 on this end. After all, the Nothing Phone 1 ships with the fewest pre-installed apps than any phone I’ve ever tested. The only non-Google apps pre-installed are the camera, calculator, and recorder apps.
The main interface feels very similar to typical stock Android, with only two changes. The first is the ability to make an app icon look giant on the homescreen (see the second image in the below set), which could be useful for those who want one or two apps to stand out from the pack on the homescreen for easier access or accessibility reasons.
The other is that the shortcut toggle buttons in the notification shade have been simplified. In almost all Android phones, there are separate buttons for WiFi, cellular data, and mobile hotspot. Nothing combines all three of these into one larger-than-usual button (see the third pic in the above set) through which the user can cycle via horizontal swipes. This makes sense to me, as these are all related to getting an internet connection on the phone. I reckon some others may disagree here.
Dive into the settings page and it, too, looks just like a stock Android settings, with the exception of Nothing’s dot-based font being used for each settings page header. As far as I can see, there are two Nothing-exclusive settings pages that aren’t on most Android phones: “Glyph Interface” and “Experimental Features.” The first is where you customize the interface (assign contacts, change light brightness, etc); the latter will let the phone connect to Tesla cars. I don’t think this feature is ready yet, and even if it were, I don’t have a Tesla to test.
The Nothing OS has very fluid animations that zip around the phone with noticeable faster speed and more animation flare than something like Samsung’s OneUI. It reminds me a lot of OxygenOS or Oppo’s ColorOS, in that even a simple pull of the notification panel brings buttery smooth animations.
Just like Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra, however, the animations stutter occasionally when scrolling through Twitter. I’m not sure what the problem is with Twitter specifically, but it happens enough to be visually jarring. But as I said, Samsung’s $1,200 phone has the same issue. Another bug is the phone’s auto-brightness setting often leaves the phone screen too dark, particularly when I’m in the camera mode. And as I said, the fingerprint scanner is slower than most other optical scanners.
The auto-brightness issue, along with the very orange tint in videos, are major bugs that need to be addressed. Otherwise, I didn’t encounter any issues using the phone for several days out, navigating on Google Maps, streaming Spotify, and sending messages in Slack and WhatsApp.
As for benchmarks, the XDA team had concerns initially because our senior technical editor Adam Conway found a line of code in the software that hinted the software considered manipulating benchmarks — essentially, a phone deciding to throttle performance for real-world apps but not benchmark apps to achieve a higher score — but after running tests including running two versions of GeekBench (one official, one modded) and the scores were close enough that means no such benchmark cheating shenanigans are in place. Great!
Standard daily performance has been fine, I’ve been using the phone at home and out around town, and apps have been launching fine, I haven’t encountered crashes or anything out of the ordinary.
Battery life has been okay, with the 4,500 mAh cell able to finish a typical work day easily, but tapping out at around the 12-hour mark on weekends when I’m using the phone much more heavily. It’s an acceptable battery that’s not great, not bad.
Should you buy the Nothing Phone 1?
You should buy the Nothing Phone 1 if:
- You like the design and find the Glyph Interface cool or useful.
- You don’t want to pay more than the equivalent of $500 for a phone and you don’t like using (or don’t have access to) Xiaomi’s various mid-tier phones.
- You want a phone with clean software that has more character than the typical vanilla stock Android phones.
You should not buy the Nothing Phone 1 if:
- You shoot a lot of videos with your phone and don’t have time to wait for a potential software patch to fix the current orange tint issue.
- You want the absolute best value and the Xiaomi 12 Lite is available in your region. If you are in India, you have other options for value-for-money.
As I said, the Nothing Phone 1 is a perfectly fine mid-range phone with some interesting ideas. I like the transparent back design and the minimal software. And even if I get no practical benefits from the light strips on the back, I do think they look good.
But is it the revolutionary, different and unique device that Pei and Nothing’s marketing have been hinting at for months? No. Xiaomi’s 12 Lite is cheaper, with the same SoC, better fingerprint scanner, and video performance.
If you ignore the glyph interface, the Phone 1 is almost just like any other Xiaomi/Poco/Iqoo/Realme mid-ranger. There is nothing wrong with that — those brands make good phones — but it’s completely fair for the more jaded/cynical/snarky part of techies to scoff and call the phone overrated.