/>
X
Why you can trust ZDNet ZDNet independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Our process

'ZDNet Recommends': What exactly does it mean?

ZDNet's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.

When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNet nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.

ZDNet's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.

Close

OnePlus Nord N20 5G review: A surprisingly satisfying sub-$300 phone

There's a lot that the OnePlus Nord N20 5G gets right, including the compromises that keep it at under $300.
1549928918804.jpg
Written by June Wan, Tech Editor on
Pros
  • 6.43-inch AMOLED display
  • Clean and snappy software experience
  • 4,500mAh battery with 33W fast-charging
  • Sleek build quality
Cons
  • Only one year of OS upgrades (up to Android 12)
  • No ultra-wide camera
  • T-Mobile exclusive, for now
  • Single-firing speaker

As a reviewer, it's easy to get lost in the alluring wave of flagship products. From $300 keyboards to $2,000 chairs, there's a thrill to riding the bleeding edge of tech, testing gadgets that are designed with no limitations in mind. That's why when OnePlus approached me to review its latest budget smartphone, the Nord N20 5G, I was taken aback.

Assembling a budget phone is not a difficult task. Assembling a good budget phone is where the challenge lies. Manufacturers must mix and match affordable parts until they're presented with a winning combination; one that strikes a feasible balance of performance, quality, and cost. 

What OnePlus has done with the Nord N20 5G is, what I believe to be, one of the better examples of the budget phone formula. Its 6.43-inch AMOLED display, 33W fast charging, and distinctive design give the device a competitive advantage in a rather bustling market. At $282, those specs alone make the phone a thrifty deal. But after testing my review unit for the past week, here's why I think the compromises matter just as much in making the Nord N20 5G a top, budget contender.

Specifications

Processor

Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 5G

Display

6.43-inch AMOLED, 2,400x1,080 pixels, 60Hz refresh rate

Storage

6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage (MicroSD card support up to 512GB)

Cameras

64MP main camera, 2MP macro, 2MP monochrome, and 16MP front camera  

Battery

4,500mAh with 33W fast-charging

Connectivity

3.5mm headphone jack, USB-C, Bluetooth 5.1, Wi-Fi 802.11ac

Operating system

OxygenOS 11 based on Android 11

Colors

Blue Smoke


Like last year's OnePlus Nord N10 5G, the N20 offers a well-rounded mobile experience that seems to prioritize display and battery life. The phone runs on a dated OxygenOS 11 operating system (based on Android 11), and OnePlus says that the Nord N20 will only receive one major OS upgrade. That means that while the phone won't be able to reap the benefits of Android 13, it will eventually transition to Android 12

For enthusiasts, a one-year commitment is disappointing. But if you're like my parents, who are in the sub-$300 customer segment and avoid smartphone updates because of "purposeful slow-downs," then it can be shrugged off.

Design

Good hardware sells. It's easy to forget how cheap a phone is if it just feels good in the hand. In the case of the Nord N20, OnePlus is banking on a sleek, matte-coated, design language, with flattened edges that give off an iPhone 12-esque look. 

Holding the phone, I was pleasantly surprised by how sturdy and polished the plastic material felt. Not only is it less slippery than glossy-backed handhelds, but the coating does an effective job at hiding fingerprints and smudges. It also helps that the device measures just 7.5 mm thick, making it one of the slimmest phones on the market. 

oneplus-nord-n20-back2.jpg

The OnePlus Nord N20 5G is the latest smartphone to sport a matte-textured backing. 

June Wan/ZDNet

Surrounding the edges of the Nord N20 are most of the ports and housings that you'd expect from a budget OnePlus. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack, MicroSD card slot, USB-C port, and some addictively-clicky side buttons. But like last year's Nord N10 5G, the infamous OnePlus alert slider is absent on this device. While the omission likely contributed to the $282 price point, the janky vibration motor in the Nord N20 was a frequent reminder of how much I missed being able to physically toggle between sound, vibrate, and mute. 

More: OnePlus Nord N10 5G review

OnePlus took a gamble (albeit, a favorable one) with the Nord N20's display, choosing a 6.43-inch, FHD+, 60Hz AMOLED panel over last year's 90Hz LCD. Instead of a smoother visual experience, the AMOLED panel provides more contrast and a wider color gamut, while reducing power consumption. 

I was especially impressed by how well the display handled viewing angles, a color-shifting issue that often plagues cheaper devices, including last year's Nord N10 5G. And by going AMOLED, OnePlus was also able to cram in an in-display fingerprint sensor in the Nord N20, upgrading from the side-mounted one of its predecessors. 

oneplus-nord-n20-watch.jpg

The 6.43-inch AMOLED display provides a color-accurate viewing experience. 

June Wan/ZDNet

At first glance, you'd think that there were only two cameras on the system. The 64MP main shooter and 2MP macro lens are treated with gold-colored rings, while a much smaller 2MP monochrome lens is left in the dust, sitting adjacent to the dual-tone flash. All the protrusions are embedded into the satin back cover, giving off an aesthetic that's refined and polarizing. While I'd love to see a white or silver color for this device, the only option available is a rather understated Blue Smoke finish. 

oneplus-nord-n20-cameras.jpg

Two of the three cameras are housed in large, gold-trimmed rings.

June Wan/ZDNet

Performance

The Nord N20 is a formidable budget phone that can handle most tasks you throw at it. It's powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 695, which is no flagship processor, but good enough for browsing through the web, light multitasking, streaming 1080p videos, and posting the pictures you capture with it on social media. The Nord N20 only began to show its budget roots when I loaded up games like Asphalt 9 and NBA 2K, with both taking about three to four minutes on the initial boot. Some graphics and effects would occasionally skip frames as well, dialing between 30 and 45 fps. 

The Snapdragon 695 also brings 5G connectivity, a feature that isn't mandatory but is highly sought after among customers in any price category. Given that the Nord N20 is only available on T-Mobile, band support is limited to Magenta customers only. That means that AT&T and Verizon users will have to look to other affordable 5G options on the market. OnePlus did confirm to me that the Nord N20 will be sold unlocked in the near future. Whether it will receive 5G certification for other carriers is unknown. 

Also: Best cheap 5G phones

oneplus-nord-n20-hand.jpg

OxygenOS 11, with system-wide dark mode, is easy on the eyes.

June Wan/ZDNet

As I mentioned before, the Nord N20 runs on OxygenOS 11, so users who prefer the pre-ColorOS software are in for a treat. Google's news feed is a right swipe away from the home screen, the settings menu and general UI are minimal and easy to navigate, and animations feel smooth -- even on a 60Hz panel. Unless you aggressively swipe around with the navigation gestures, the phone's 6GB of RAM just works. And for $282, that's more than you can ask for. 

It's not the specs that bother me about the Nord N20, though. I'd say I'm most underwhelmed by its single-firing speaker at the bottom. Maybe it's the reviewer in me that's so used to phones with stereo, front-facing speakers, but having just one creates a few problems. First, when held in landscape mode, it's easy to cover the speaker grill with your finger(s). With there being just one speaker, OnePlus remedies the audio output by making it louder at lower volumes. This is a bit of a double-edged sword because, at higher levels, the speaker ends up sounding tinny and exceedingly blaring. On the bright side, the Nord N20 does have a 3.5mm headphone jack. 

Lastly, I have to give props to OnePlus for embedding an in-display fingerprint sensor into the phone. Even though it's positioned a little too close to the bottom chin of the device, the optical sensor does a reliable job at reading my fingers and feels more premium to use than the side-mounted variants that I've tested with other sub-$300 phones. 

Also: Motorola G Stylus (2022) full review: A $299 phone with a stylus

Camera

If you're like me, a big portion of the Nord N20's 128 GB of storage will be dedicated to pictures and videos. While the phone has three cameras in tow, the main 64MP shooter is the only one that you need.

img20220507133734.jpg
June Wan/ZDNet

Here's a shot I took at the local supermarket. Naturally, there are a lot of objects to focus on, with various colors to capture. I think the Nord N20 does a great job at keeping all the cans and jars in focus, but the sharpening is a little too aggressive for my taste. Instead, I wish the camera would dial the saturation a little higher, as the image looks washed out.

20220502-201255.jpg
June Wan/ZDNet

Fans of black-and-white photography can utilize the 2MP monochrome lens to achieve a muted, monotone image. While I didn't find much use in the extra camera -- and you can achieve a similar output via software filters -- the lens is as advertised and manages to retain most of the details in shots.

To my surprise, the Nord N20 does not have an ultra-wide lens. Besides being present in its predecessor, the landscape-centric camera lens has become such a commodity in smartphones that the lack of one is very unfortunate. I wouldn't be surprised if it was just another way for OnePlus to save on costs. 

More: Best camera phones

With video, the Nord N20 can record up to 1080p in a way that is astonishingly well-stabilized. I'd say that most footage in broad daylight is passable on this camera system. Once the sun sets, though, I'd keep the Nord N20 in my pocket. Night videography tends to produce grainy footage, with traffic lights and lamp posts being overblown. It's a downside that often plagues cheaper phone cameras. 

Battery and charging

Besides the AMOLED display, the battery is the best thing the Nord N20 has going for it. Not only is there an aptly-sized 4,500mAh cell under the hood, but the OnePlus bundles a 33W SuperVOOC charger in the box. (I repeat, the charger is in the box.) From my two weeks of testing, the phone lasted an average of five and a half hours of screen-on time (SOT), enduring what I consider to be heavy use. On most days, the Nord N20 would have about 10-15% battery left at 10 pm. 

Even then, a quick 33W charge was able to top it up to the 75-80% range within 45 minutes. It's not 65W charging like the flagship OnePlus, but compared to other budget smartphones that can take up to two hours per cycle, the Nord N20 is a $282 champion.  

oneplus-nord-n20-charging.jpg

With the included charger, the Nord N20 can take advantage of 33W fast charging.

June Wan/ZDNet

Bottom line

It's easy to be spoiled by the glitz and glamour of flagship smartphones, but I'm genuinely surprised by how well the OnePlus Nord N20 5G holds its ground in the sub-$300 level. At $282, it's one of the cheapest phones to have a quality AMOLED panel, the performance is admirable, and the battery and charging lead the budget pack. By shopping for the right parts, OnePlus has created a 5G handheld that's very satisfying. Just make sure you're on the T-Mobile network.

Alternatives to consider

Along with our running list of the best cheap 5G phones, here are some worthy alternatives to the OnePlus Nord N20 5G:

Related

TCL Stylus 5G review: A solid sub-$300 stylus phone
tcl-stylus-5g-4

TCL Stylus 5G review: A solid sub-$300 stylus phone

Smartphones
Ulefone's Power Armor 14 Pro is a super tough, no frills, sub-$300 phone
Ulefone Power Armor 14 Pro

Ulefone's Power Armor 14 Pro is a super tough, no frills, sub-$300 phone

Smartphones
The company that's covering for AT&T's failures (Verizon's and T-Mobile's too)
Woman on cellphone.

The company that's covering for AT&T's failures (Verizon's and T-Mobile's too)

Mobile Carriers