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OnePlus is back with another new Nord handset. Last year, the Nord marked the first time OnePlus had branched out with a handset range specifically aimed at the budget sector, as a foil to its flagship phones -- currently headed up by the OnePlus 9 Pro. At the end of 2020 a second model, the Nord N10 5G, arrived, followed early this year by the entry-level (non-5G) Nord N100. Now we have the Nord CE 5G (Core Edition).
Starting at £299, this phone really does have the budget buyer in mind -- although the £129/$179.99 Nord N100 is the OnePlus starter phone. The Nord CE 5G is not available in the US, although another budget model, the Nord N200 5G, is slated for release there towards the end of June.
The OnePlus Nord CE offers plenty of features to those who want to spend less money on their phone without sacrificing some premium elements. Key among these is 5G support, a 90Hz AMOLED screen, excellent battery life and fast charging.
Design-wise, the Nord CE shares a lot with the original Nord. There's a triple camera array at the back, arranged as with the earlier handset in a vertical lozenge. I do highlight the positioning of these camera lozenges, because when they're near the edge of a phone they can make it move around on a desk as you tap the screen. Here the lozenge is at the top left of the screen as you look at the backplate, top right as the handset sits on a desk. The movement-on-desk problem is most pronounced when the bottom right part of the screen is tapped. It's the least troublesome place to have this issue, as this sector of the screen is tapped relatively rarely.
There are three colour variants of the Nord CE, and some subtleties of RAM and storage across these. My review handset was Blue Void -- a rather nice pale blue with a matte sheen finish, whose colour tends to a deep purple right at the handset's edges. It looks good, and doesn't shout 'budget phone'. It's also quite tactile, and easy to grip. The Nord CE did well on my 'sofa test': it did slip off on occasions, but was much less likely to fall to the floor than many handsets I've reviewed.
The tactile screen and lack of slipperiness are welcome, because this phone might suffer when dropped. The Nord CE's frame is made from polycarbonate and the screen is not protected by Gorilla Glass, as it was in the original Nord. OnePlus provides a clear bumper, and even though this makes the handset thicker and obscures its colour slightly, it might be wise to use it.
The Blue Void Nord CE comes with either 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage or 12GB and 256GB, as in my review unit. The same configuration options are available for the Charcoal Ink variant, but if you go for Silver Ray, then only the higher specification is available. The price difference is quite substantial: £299 versus £369.
Given its overall size (159.2mm x 73.5mm x 7.9mm), the 6.43-inch Nord CE is fairly lightweight at 170g, thanks to the use of polycarbonate rather than metal in the chassis.
OnePlus has found room for a 3.5mm headset jack on the bottom edge, and, as well as supporting 5G, the phone can accommodate two SIMs. Neither SIM slot can be used to augment the internal storage via MicroSD, though. Another notable absentee is OnePlus's (hitherto) trademark Alert Slider. This is a button that lets you switch between ring, vibrate and silent modes, and is a real point of difference for OnePlus handsets; it was present on the original Nord, although not the later Nord N10. Dropping it here is a great shame, not only from a usability point of view, but also because it would have been a good differentiator for the Nord CE among similarly priced 5G phones.
The screen is a significant plus point. The 6.43-inch AMOLED display has sizeable top and side bezels (screen-to-body ratio 85.4%), but the resolution (2,400 x 1,080, 410ppi) is good, and image quality bright, sharp and vibrant. The front camera sits in a cut-out in the top left corner of the screen and is noticeable, but no more irritating than the average. The screen has a 90Hz refresh rate, which has almost become the standard now, and is good to see. There's also an in-display fingerprint reader, which some prefer to an embedded sensor in a side button, now that rear-mounted sensors seem to be a thing of the past.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 750G 5G SoC is designed for mid-range phones, and the Nord CE scored 634 (single core) and 1816 (multi core) under Geekbench 5. Here's how it compares on CPU performance to the original Nord and the Nord 10, and to the flagship OnePlus 9 Pro:
OnePlus Nord CE 5G (from £299)
Snapdragon 750G 5G (12GB)
OnePlus Nord N10 5G (from £249)
Snapdragon 690 5G (6GB)
OnePlus Nord (from £379)
Snapdragon 765G 5G (12GB)
OnePlus 9 Pro (from £829)
With 256GB of internal storage, the out-of-box experience shows 19GB taken up by Android 11 and OxygenOS 11, a super overlay that's both unobtrusive and useful. OnePlus doesn't bloat its handsets with software from third parties, although it does include Netflix.
Gamers will like the OnePlus GameSpace app, which provides gaming stats to see how much time you have frittered away, but also allows you to set some parameters like disabling auto brightness, allowing call answering via loudspeaker, and more. The tools are available by sweeping down from an upper corner when you're in a game, so they can be easily set or adjusted. This is not a new OnePlus feature, but it's good to see it on an affordable phone.
Also making the transition thanks to OxygenOS is the reading mode, which will set the screen to mono or a chromatic colour scheme when you open any app you add to a list. As a long-term user of OnePlus phones, I find this feature wonderfully useful.
SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
The front camera is a 16MP f/2.45 unit, while the three rear-facing cameras are: 64MP f/1.79 wide-angle; 8MP f/2.25 ultra-wide-angle (119°); and a 2MP f/2.4 mono camera. Both the main and front cameras deliver perfectly serviceable point-and-shoot images, although the quality diminishes in low light. If you want good macro-mode shooting then look elsewhere as there's nothing dedicated to that here.
The Nord CE has a 4500mAh battery which kept the handset going for 14 hours 59 minutes under the PCMark for Android Work 3.0 battery life test. When I asked the fully charged phone to stream YouTube for three hours in full screen mode it lost just 15% over the period, suggesting a very impressive 20h. The screen refresh rate was at 90Hz with dynamic switching atomically set.
Warp Charge 30T Plus promises fast charging if the provided cable and mains plug are used. OnePlus claims 0 to 70% in half an hour, but for this you have to start at 0%, and most of us won't completely drain our batteries in practice. On one occasion when I knew I'd be heading somewhere with limited access to mains power I started charging with the battery at 66% and it got to 98% in 21 minutes.
Last year's OnePlus Nord delivered some great features at a compelling price. The Nord CE doesn't quite manage to go one better. A 90Hz AMOLED screen, great battery life and fast charging are good features, but dropping the Alert Slider and Gorilla Glass feel like missteps that might give this handset a hard time standing out in the crowded affordable-5G sector.
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