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Nothing Phone (1) review: You ain't seen Nothing yet

The company's first smartphone shines in a sea of "boring" handsets. For £399, the Phone (1) has its compromises, but you probably won't notice them.
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Written by June Wan, Technology Editor on
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor
Pros
  • Transparent design is edgy but practical
  • Well-rounded smartphone with tactical compromises
  • Competitively priced at 399 GBP
  • Up to four years of software updates
Cons
  • Battery life is underwhelming
  • Ultra-wide camera is not the most reliable
  • Not available in the US

If you're reading this review, chances are you're either 1) heavily invested in the smartphone industry, 2) wondering why a company would name itself "Nothing," or 3) engaged in all of the above.

The Nothing Phone (1), as the name implies, is the first smartphone from the UK-based startup, Nothing. Through cheeky marketing strategies and a pledge to make technology fun again (was technology ever not fun?), the company has built a cult following since its debut nearly one year ago, securing more than $70 million in Series B funding, and has clearly turned Nothing into something. 

I've reviewed numerous smartphones at ZDNET, and I have purchased far too many to count in previous years, but there's an excitement to the Nothing Phone (1) that I haven't felt in a while. Having used the handset for the past three weeks, here's an account of my overall experience.

Specifications

Display

6.55-inch OLED with 120Hz refresh rate

Dimensions

6.27x2.98x0.33 in (159.2x75.8x8.3 mm)

Weight

193.5g

Processor

Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G Plus

Camera

50MP wide, 50MP ultra-wide, and 16MP front camera

Storage

8GB/12GB RAM with 128/256GB storage

Battery

4,500mAh with 33W wired charging and 15W wireless

Color

White and Black


Pricing and availability

I should first mention that the Nothing Phone (1) starts at 399 GBP and is not available in the US. While currency conversions are not the most reliable metric for predicting domestic costs, that puts the Phone (1) at around 479 USD, which would have made it a very appealing handset in a market that's primarily dominated by the Apple iPhone SE and Samsung Galaxy A Series. Still, I would not recommend folks in the US to import the phone given the lack of LTE and 5G band support.  

Note: Nothing has hinted that a US-supported smartphone is on the product roadmap, as reported by PCMag.   

Design

There's a lot to unravel with the Nothing Phone (1), but it's the design that consumers -- enthusiasts or not -- will care the most about, so let's break it down. 

Without a doubt, the Phone (1) looks, feels, and functions like a lighter, flashier iPhone 13 Pro Max. I've lost count of the number of times a family member, friend, or coworker asked if the Phone (1) was just an iPhone in an edgy, glow-up case. From the symmetrical bezel rounding out the corners to the button placements, the similarities are uncanny -- and I'm not complaining. 

nothing-phone-1-design

The Phone (1) in White has a calming sophistication to it. 

June Wan/ZDNET

Nothing's industrial design team did a commendable job of polishing the phone with aluminum and glass to make it feel more expensive than it is. Teenage Engineering, who Nothing has partnered with to spearhead the design of its products, has embedded a series of quirky, playful touches to the body of the phone, from the subdued "Nothing" branding to the various components and coils that are exposed in the back. The Phone (1) is very much a device that you wouldn't want to put a case on immediately. 

More: Nothing Phone (1)'s transparent design is more than just flashy

My only callout with the design is the conservative IP53 rating that makes the Phone (1) splash resistant but nothing more. That means you won't be insured for any water-soaked damages and should keep the device far away from bathrooms, pools, etc.

Display

At the front is a 6.55-inch OLED display that's flat and accented with a hole-punch camera on the top-left corner. Had I not seen the backside of the phone, I would've associated the device with every other modern-day, large-screen Android. Take a closer look at the way colors and visuals are reproduced on the Nothing display and you'll realize that this is a different beast.

For £399, it's clear to me that display performance was one of the key focus areas for the company. While it's only a 1080p panel, pictures, videos, and text pop out with a level of sharpness and saturation that's reminiscent of $1,000 Samsung phones. Viewing angles are great, too, with little to no color distortion. The Phone (1) also supports a 120Hz refresh rate, which makes animations and scrolling buttery smooth, and I've found the peak brightness of 700 nits to be just enough to view in direct sunlight. 

nothing-phone-1-launcher

OLED panels do a stellar job of keeping pixels as dark or bright as possible.

June Wan/ZDNET

About those LEDs

By now you may be wondering if the transparent back cover is just for show. The answer to that depends on whether you will find use in the Glyph Interface. The Glyph Interface, as Nothing calls it, is an arrangement of 900 LEDs that blink, flash, and shine through the transparent glass back as a means of communication. From incoming phone calls to app-specific notifications, the individual lights will buzz in rhythmic sequences to keep you in the know. Obviously, if you're the type of user who leaves your phone face up on the table, then this feature is meaningless. 

That's why Nothing is giving you a reason or two more to do the opposite. Besides notifications, Glyph Interface can serve as a soft fill light when taking pictures in the dark, the bottom strip of LED doubles as a battery status indicator when charging, and the lights surrounding the wireless charging coil make it easier for you to tell when power-sharing is activated. 

Nothing offers 20 different glyph patterns for you to set across ringtones and notifications, but I've found the simpler sequences the easiest to memorize and most practical. I'd almost compare the assimilation process to learning Morse code, with your undivided attention needed to understand what the phone is telling you. And while there are more intricate and flaunt-worthy options, they're often too complex to process and you're better off just flipping over to the phone display to see what the buzz is about.

More: Best phones to buy in 2022

Software

Beyond the transparent aesthetics, Nothing's software experience is what stands out the most to me. Users who prefer the bloat-free, stock Android experience will be happy to find just that with the Nothing OS launcher. There are little to no third-party apps pre-installed, and the enlarged Quick Settings toggles and bubbly user interface are akin to the Google Pixel's version of Android 12.

That's not to say that Nothing OS lacks personality, though. From the boot-up animation to the boxy widgets to the choice of font, you'll quickly notice the dot-matrix theming that gives the Phone (1) a retro-tech feel. And as someone who's constantly using a voice recorder for meetings and interviews, I was delighted by the vintage vibe and comically serious start message to "Please be mindful of other people's privacy when recording."

nothing-phone-1-nothingos-software

Stock Android with a touch of funk.

June Wan/ZDNET

Still, don't expect to resonate with every Nothing OS software feature, like the Quick Settings toggle to unlock your imaginary Tesla's door or the NFT Gallery widget to display those prized, digital art pieces. 

Nothing is committing up to three years of OS updates and four years of security patches for the Phone (1), which is phenomenal for a midranger. Should the update cycle be as consistent as what I've experienced the past three weeks, then there's a lot to look forward to in terms of the Phone (1)'s longevity and relevance. 

More: How Samsung's software upgrade policy fares with Apple, Google, and more

Performance

The Phone (1) is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G Plus processor, and while I could tell you how much lower its benchmark scores are compared to Snapdragon 8 Gen 1-equipped handsets, instead, I'd like to focus on how the Nothing phone has performed on a more regular basis. Because if you're shopping in this price range, you're probably spending more time scrolling through social media and messaging friends and family than video-editing 4K footage or gaming at ultra graphics settings. 

From daily driving the Phone (1), I can attest to the Snapdragon 778G's ability to run the standard affair of apps and services. Sure, loading Twitter or Slack can take an extra second or two to process all the assets, but the overall experience has mostly been free of crashes and stutters. If you're like me and use your smartphone for emailing, messaging, streaming shows, and taking pictures, then the Nothing Phone (1) is more than capable -- much like every other $400 handset. 

nothing-phone-1-launcher

I'm always game for a large, bright, and flat display.

June Wan/ZDNET

Where you will start to see faults is when you multitask with split-screen apps or record video for too long. On some occasions, the adaptive refresh rate will kick into high gear and frames begin to skip and jump every second or two. You can, of course, force 120Hz via Developer Options, but that simply adds to the strain, with battery life taking a greater hit. More on endurance later. 

More: Best Android phones to buy right now

And lastly, the dual-speaker system on the Phone (1) is decent at best. Don't get me wrong, it gets plenty loud. But set the volume level to anything more than the 60% mark and you'll hear an unpleasant, metallic tininess. The audio output also feels flat with more emphasis on the highs than anything else. 

Camera

With smartphone cameras, more doesn't always mean better. As manufacturers continue to stick triple- and quad-camera setups on the backs of midrange phones, Nothing is doing the opposite. By putting more focus on two 50MP lenses, and less on extra macro or monochrome sensors, the company believes it has a camera system that is worth your time and special moments.

nothing-phone-1-camera

The back houses a 50MP wide lens and 50MP ultra-wide lens. 

June Wan/ZDNET

In practice, I found both cameras to do a quality job of capturing stills and portraying colors in a close-to-natural way. There's a hint of oversaturation that, for some, should make photos more appealing and less needy of any filters or post-editing. I could use more sharpening with center-focused subjects though, and there are times when the Phone (1) just doesn't know what to dial in on. But overall, you can snap great-looking photos with not much effort required.

Nothing Phone 1 Photo 1 - Flowers
June Wan/ZDNET

If there's anything that you should avoid with the Phone (1)'s camera system, it's capturing ultra-wide images in low light. In the image below, which is the best one that I pulled from a series of quick shots, you can see that the 50MP sensor struggles with focusing and overexposes brighter areas. I had similar issues even when taking pictures outdoors and in the daytime, with parts of the sky appearing whiter than they should.  

Nothing Phone (1) Ultra-wide camera
June Wan/ZDNET

Battery

The Nothing Phone (1) has a 4,500mAh battery, but it feels more like 4,000mAh. On a typical day, the phone would last until 5 p.m. before needing to charge, which I rate fair for battery life. This was with adaptive refresh rate turned on, the occasional location tracking for navigation, and a constant switch from Wi-Fi to LTE as I walked in and out of my workplace. 

Nothing says that the Glyph Interface shouldn't affect battery performance in a noticeable manner, and I believe it. There were moments when notifications kept buzzing in, but the battery percentage barely dipped. 

nothing-phone-1-back-cover-dim

You can adjust the brightness of the Glyph Interface through the settings.

June Wan/ZDNET

When it comes to chargers, you get what you pay for here: Nothing. While the Phone (1) supports 33W fast-charging and 15W wireless, there is no adapter included in the box, so you'll have to resort to a third-party accessory or the $35 one from the Nothing store. Pair the phone with a compatible charger, and you can expect a good 80% charge within the hour. 

Bottom line

There's a lot to like about Nothing's first-ever smartphone. By prioritizing commonly used facets such as the display, software, and design, the device gives off an aura that's well above its pay grade. For £399, you'll have to settle on some aspects like battery life and camera performance. But the overall package, with the flashing lights included, makes the Phone (1) one of the most interesting pieces of tech that I've used in a while.

Alternatives to consider

Whether you live in the US or are scoping out alternatives, these are the best secondary options to the Nothing Phone (1):

Priced similarly, the Google Pixel 6a is a newcomer that's looking to make a splash in the midrange Android market. In a way, the phone is the antithesis of the Nothing Phone (1), prioritizing camera performance and accessibility more than looks and appearances. Naturally, the Pixel 6a is one of the best sub-$450 phones that you can buy today. 

Another budget offering from a big tech company, Apple's iPhone SE (2022) gives you the best of iPhones, including the competent A15 Bionic chip, in a small and affordable package. It starts at $429 but is equipped with 5G support, a reliable camera system, and years of iOS software support.

Samsung's Galaxy A Series smartphones have progressively dominated the low and midrange markets -- and with good reason; they're packed with large displays and batteries, plenty of customization features, and up to five years of software updates. The A53 5G is the best in the product line and costs just $439.

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