OnePlus has an unusual problem. It’s making very good flagship smartphones these days — the OnePlus 9 Pro is an incredibly good phone — but at the same time, it’s still chasing its status as flagship phone killer.
The company’s Nord series was aimed at undercutting the expensive devices offered by the likes of Samsung, its Chinese rivals — or even Apple. Last year’s Nord was the beginning of a new family of devices that attempted to still claim ‘flagship killer’ status, but at increasingly cheaper prices, including the debut Nord and the $240 N200, which wasn’t all that great. It was $240, though.
The Nord 2 5G costs more than that and is pretty similar to the original Nord in a lot of ways — including the fact that it’s not destined for the US. I’ve been testing the Nord 2 for a couple of days, and if you liked the proposition of the original Nord, you’ll probably like its sequel. The £399 (roughly $458 before tax) Nord 2 has a slightly more premium style that’s more similar to expensive relatives like the $729 OnePlus 9. While it might look the part, is it as good?
I loved the vivid eye-catching sky blue of last year’s Nord, but its successor has a more restrained palette. OnePlus sent me the metallic blue option, which looks a lot like a OnePlus 9, augmented by the giant camera unit — even if it’s missing the Hasselblad label.
If you don’t like the restrained tones (there’s also a green and a gray option available depending on your region), OnePlus is also selling an aggressively wacky faux transparent case covered in white graffiti or a season-appropriate neon sunset case that’s already become my favorite.
When it comes to the cameras, there aren’t many upgrades. The rear module is now three cameras, not four, with a primary 50-megapixel (up from 48MP) sensor with optical image stabilization (OIS) responsible for the heavy lifting. While a two-megapixel difference might not seem like, well, anything worth noting, the new primary sensor has a bigger pixel size (1μm), up from the 0.8μm pixels on the original Nord, but still falling short of the 1.12μm pixels of the OP9 Pro.
There’s also an 8-megapixel 119.7-degree wide-angle lens and a mono sensor for focus assistance. When it comes to zoom, the Nord 2 5G offers up to 2x optical zoom, but thanks to the size of the main sensor, it’s pretty serviceable up to 5x. According to the spec sheet, you can crank it up to 10x digital zoom, but you know you probably shouldn’t.
From my brief shooting experience — and without the original Nord to hand — there doesn’t seem to be any major performance improvements. Perhaps predictably, the low-light shooting is what benefits most from the new sensor, given those bigger pixels. Otherwise, like the Nord, the Nord 2 5G can take some very pretty photos, capturing lots of detail. The AI mode, again, is a little heavy-handed at times, so I turned it off most of the time. Occasionally the phone would struggle with wide dynamic ranges, but this was while comparing the phone to the OnePlus 9 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro — thousand-dollar smartphones.
Video-wise, the Nord 2 can handle up to 4K at 30 fps, up to 60 fps at 1080p. It uses electronic image stabilization to amp up how much wobble it can handle, and video was pleasantly smooth — if the lighting was good enough. Video in low light suffered from a weird pulsing effect, that might be due to electronic image stabilization. Sadly, the footage was barely usable.
The biggest change when it comes to imaging might be the front-facing camera. While it’s OnePlus’ highest specification front sensor, capable of taking 32-megapixel pictures, it’s just a single camera sensor, compared to the dual-array on the original Nord. OnePlus has, however, added a built-in Group Shots 2.0 feature that can detect up to five faces, imagining a world of hanging out beyond COVID-19.
OnePlus also added a dual view video mode to shoot from both the rear and front-facing cameras at once, and there’s a NightScape Ultra mode for low-light shooting too, but nothing too thrilling.
The Nord 2’s 6.47-inch AMOLED screen has a 90Hz refresh rate which feels appropriately slick, while there are color and resolution boosting AI features that can be enabled during video playback in certain apps, including YouTube, VLC, Instagram (resolution boost only) and more.
The Nord 2 5G also marks a shift from Snapdragon processors from Qualcomm to Mediatek, with a chip apparently made especially for OnePlus. It’s called the MediaTek Dimensity 1200-AI, which, unsurprisingly, offers a degree of AI-centric muscle to processes like photo manipulation and the aforementioned video playback boosts. Compared to the original Nord, OnePlus claims this processor is 65% faster, while the GPU offers a 125% improvement on the original.
With limited time to test out the phone, so far, the processor feels, well, fine. I swiped and tapped through a handful of games including Alto’s Odyssey and Genshin Impact, the latter of which is a gorgeous game that can test even the most expensive flagships. It’s not the silkiest gaming experience, but Genshin Impact is an incredibly resource-intensive game that makes most phones sweat.
Performance-wise, does it beat a flagship phone, double (or triple) the price? God, no. But can it handle resource-intensive apps and tasks? Yes. I experienced some stutters on a few games that the Nord 2 shouldn’t really have struggled with, but no apps suddenly shut down. I’ve had a checkered past with phones powered by Mediatek chips, but I didn’t come across any performance issues here.
US readers might be frustrated that the Nord 2 5G won’t be coming to the US. Especially when OnePlus’ even cheaper phones — which have hit US shores — have been too mediocre to recommend But there could be hope for future devices that land somewhere between basic smartphones eventually making it to the US
The Nord 2 is the first phone to be revealed since OnePlus announced it would be folding under Oppo in the future. For now, at least, this hasn’t resulted in any major changes for OnePlus phones. In fact, a OnePlus spokesperson told Engadget that the company was “keen to keep expanding in the US, and [the Oppo deal] gives us more resources to do it.”
The Nord 2 is a strong, if not quite perfect, mid-range phone. If OnePlus decides to make a Nord 3, perhaps it’ll nail the formula — or at least give it a chance to break America.