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This $350 Android phone nearly made me forget about the flagships

Nothing's Phone 2a costs just $349, and it's very impressive for the price. You'll just have to jump through a few hoops to get it.
Written by Max Buondonno, Contributing Writer
The back of the Nothing Phone (2a) on concrete.
Max Buondonno/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The Nothing Phone 2a is only available in the US via a GitHub developer program.
  • It's a slick-looking smartphone for the price, with a unique interface, a light-up back cover, and solid battery.
  • The camera quality might not cut it for some users, and it lacks retail presence in the US, making it hard to acquire.

Nothing, the company founded by ex-OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, has a new smartphone out called the Phone 2a. It costs $349, and it's one of the best budget phones I've ever used. So you can imagine my disappointment that it's not coming to the United States, at least not in the way you think.

Also: Nothing Phone 2 review: If 'being extra' was an Android phone

The 2a is basically a budget version of last year's Phone 2 and is the phone Nothing hopes users of the Phone 1 will upgrade to, but it will only be sold in the United States through a developer program, not a traditional sales channel. Meanwhile, those in markets like the United Kingdom and India can go and buy it right from Nothing and other retailers.

It's no secret that the US is a hard market to penetrate when it comes to shipping a new smartphone, so it doesn't surprise me that the Phone 2a won't officially go on sale here. Still, it's a killer smartphone for the price, and I can't help but think about how cool it would be to have it in the States.

View at Us.nothing

When talking about its design, it's a very complete package, something that's usually not a highlight on phones under $400. Nothing includes its signature transparent glass on the back so that you can see the components underneath, including the NFC coil in the top behind the camera sensors (giving the phone "eyes," as Nothing says). You'll also find a bunch of other design cues as ribbons of light, an interface that uses shapes such as squares and rectangles, and a tiny red accent on the right, all of which give the Phone 2a an explicitly unique character. I got the black model to review, but the white model looks especially cool, as the internal components are more visible.

Also: I tested 40 phones over the past year, and these are the very best

Speaking of cool features, Nothing includes its Glyph Interface on the back of the Phone 2a. It's not as complex as previous Nothing phones, but you can still do things like set timers, track your Uber status, play special light patterns for specific notifications, and -- most importantly of all -- sync the lights to your music through Glyph Composer. It's one of the most unique features on a smartphone I've ever used, and it makes the experience a lot more fun than a typical handset.

The rear cameras on the Nothing Phone (2a).
Max Buondonno/ZDNET

The display is one of the best I've seen on a budget phone. Nothing includes a 6.7-inch AMOLED panel with a 120Hz refresh rate and 1,300 nits of brightness. Typically, you'd find specs like this on a phone that costs at least $600, so to find them on a phone that's nearly half the price is rare. Plus, there's a fingerprint reader under the screen that works as well as any flagship phone.

The weather widget on the Nothing Phone (2a).
Max Buondonno/ZDNET

Inside the Phone 2a lives a custom Dimensity 7200 Pro processor that MediaTek engineered in partnership with Nothing. Together, the companies were able to optimize the Phone 2a's performance to the point where you get reliably fast speeds and solid battery life. I was particularly surprised by this, not because I don't trust Nothing to optimize a chipset, but because every budget MediaTek chip I've ever used has been slow and unreliable. This chip, however, is a solid performer for the price.

Paired with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, the Phone 2a delivers solid everyday performance for both rudimentary tasks and even some gaming. I've enjoyed multitasking a lot on this phone as apps tend to stay open in the background for a while, and the optimizations Nothing has made to the software make it easy to zip around and not run into any major slow-downs. I've only experienced a handful of hiccups during my testing, but that's to be expected from a phone at this price point.

Glyph Interface settings on the Nothing Phone (2a).
Max Buondonno/ZDNET

Battery life is also solid. There's a big 5,000mAh cell inside that can easily last a full day of heavy use. If you use your phone a bit less during the day, it can even float into the second day on the same charge. When it's time to recharge, there's 45W fast charging that can top it up very quickly, which might make up for the lack of wireless charging.

As for software, the Phone 2a ships with Android 14 out of the box with Nothing OS 2.5. Nothing's custom interface embraces the brand's dot matrix design philosophy, to the point where you can swap out fonts and app shortcuts with a boatload of dots and black-and-white iconography. It all plays into Nothing's mission to help you use your phone more intentionally instead of impulsively (for instance, you're less tempted to check TikTok "real quick" if the icon is black and gray). The unique UI isn't for everyone, but it feels much lighter and friendlier to use than something like Samsung's One UI or OnePlus' OxygenOS.

Also: The $400 OnePlus 12R may be the best-value Android phone this year

Nothing is promising three years of major OS upgrades and four years of security updates for the Phone 2a, which is at least a year more than what most sub-$400 phones get. This makes it a no-brainer if you plan on using the phone for two to three years, the most common lifecycle for most new smartphones nowadays.

There aren't many downsides to the Nothing Phone 2a, but there are some. For instance, it doesn't work on Verizon, it has weak IP54 waterproofing, and as I mentioned before, there's no wireless charging. But the biggest downside is the camera quality, which is to be expected from a budget smartphone.

Daylight sample from 50MP main camera on the Nothing Phone (2a).

Daylight sample from 50MP main camera on the Nothing Phone (2a).

Max Buondonno/ZDNET
Daylight sample from 50MP ultra-wide camera on the Nothing Phone (2a).

Daylight sample from 50MP ultra-wide camera on the Nothing Phone (2a).

Max Buondonno/ZDNET
Low light sample from 50MP main camera on the Nothing Phone (2a).

Low light sample from 50MP main camera on the Nothing Phone (2a).

Max Buondonno/ZDNET

The 50MP main camera on the back is decent enough in good lighting, but with the somewhat limited f/1.88 aperture and a disappointing night mode, the sensor falls apart once the lights get low. The 50MP ultra-wide is the same story; I'm a fan of the 114-degree field of view, but with a lack of detail and the inability to remain consistent at nighttime, the camera is only good at well-lit landscapes.

Also: 5 easy ways to take better videos on Android

The camera on the Phone 2a does have some tricks up its sleeve, though. It uses Ultra HDR which combines Nothing's HDR algorithms with Google's HDR chops in Android to deliver cleaner, more lifelike processing after tapping the shutter button, while Motion Capture helps to capture photos of moving subjects and Portrait Optimizer makes your portrait photos more appealing. These features don't add up to a substantially better camera experience than other $350 smartphones, but at least in well-lit environments, you can see them working.

ZDNET's buying advice

If you're shopping in the $400 range for a new phone, you'll come across devices like the Samsung Galaxy A54 5G, the OnePlus 12R, and even the Google Pixel 7a when it's on sale. Each of those phones will undoubtedly have one or two big advantages over the Phone 2a, like the Pixel's camera or Samsung's display quality.

But the Phone 2a is such a solid, unique device that I think it's worth taking a chance on. While Nothing isn't the most established player in the smartphone space, I'm wildly impressed by what the Phone 2a is capable of. Its blend of specs and unique design make it one of the best budget phones you can buy. So as long as you're in a market where it's available, it's definitely worth considering.

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