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Nothing Phone review (1)

Smartphone can Still cool? They were, once upon a time, in those days when they were more luxuriant than all around. But what happens when everyone has one — and more importantly, we all have pretty much the same? Phones are not fashionable. They are not clothes, shoes, or even cars. Chances are roughly equal that you will be the same as the richest billionaire in the world or the person who earns your groceries.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that choosing between smartphones is an illusion, but it also probably isn’t as great as you think. The past several years have seen a market consolidation among a fleetingly small group of companies, while powerhouse brands like LG and HTC have slipped away. Add in geographic and carrier restrictions, and it becomes clear just how small of a pool we’re swimming in here.

No company was founded, among other things, on the idea that smartphones can still be great. It can be exciting and interesting in an area where all touch screen electronic panels are more or less the same.

There has never been a good or easy time for a new smartphone company to launch. But in many ways, founder Carl Pei may have picked the worst — or at least the most difficult. Along with the aforementioned consolidation comes the general stagnation and decline in smartphone sales. After a decade of flying high, things have been blown to the ground. It is a prehistoric decline but was eventually accelerated by an epidemic.

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Image credits: Brian Heater

Smartphone manufacturers have put themselves into a corner in an effort to outpace the competition. In the process, the hardware has improved to the point where people feel like they have to upgrade less often. Differentiation became more difficult and continued attempts to add features to beat others drove flagship prices into four figures. It’s an irony of sorts — perhaps smartphones have become too popular for their own good.

These factors presaged a huge crisis in the supply chain. It has been increasingly difficult to buy chips and other components on a large scale from companies that do not bear the Apple or Samsung names, while external financial factors, including inflation, have pushed up the prices of consumer electronics. Anyone with a passing interest in the category would probably agree that the category could use some new life, but how one might give it a different question entirely.

“It wasn’t hard to launch a company,” Pai told me recently. “This industry, in general, has one of the highest barriers to entry. We have huge companies and they are consolidated. There are few active companies, and huge companies tend to be fairly bureaucratic, slow-moving and very analytical. No wonder why all the products are so similar Days. In the normal industry or product category, you also have fresh blood coming from below. In our industry, there is no fresh blood because the barrier to entry is too high.”

There are other barriers as well. This, after all, is exactly why Nothing brought its first phone to the States. While American consumers are beginning to realize the allure of buying unlocked devices, carriers still dominate the market. Pai added, “You have to work with a big airline, they have a lot of negotiating power over you.”

The earbuds without anything was a good way to test consumer interest on a larger scale. While the earphone market is still saturated, it still has room to grow. And besides, $99 for a brand-new factory pair of headphones is a much easier ask than for a smartphone — even $400.

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Image credits: Brian Heater

Meanwhile, the company has been working hard to build a brand. Pei’s greatest strength was his ability to build community. They were a key part of OnePlus’ early successes, and he’s doing his best to recapture that magic with nothing. For the phone, that meant things like buying by invitation-only (something that happens that aligns nicely with these supply chain issues), investing in crowd stocks, and yes, NFTs. Scarcity isn’t a concept one tends to think of when discussing a mass-produced product like a phone, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned from crypto cultures and hype monsters.

Aesthetic consistency is another shortcut to building a brand. When we broke the news that the company was working on a phone in March, we noticed:

Details about the upcoming device are thin, though the source notes that the product will share similar design language and “elements of transparency” seen in the first Nothing product.

It’s safe to say that the report is finished. The clear back, along with the “Glyph” LED lighting arrangement, is by far the phone’s most striking visual element, sharing language with Nothing’s translucent headphones. Stripped down on that side, it looks just as good as an iPhone. “I’ve had these comments,” Pai told me when I brought this up. “It’s the most efficient use of space.”

Is the current iPhone a platonic model of smartphone design? I think it will continue until that doesn’t happen and someone else figures out something better. Perhaps this speaks to another kind of constraint: physical design and space use. Sure, nothing could have gone out of its way to produce something so different, but 1) good luck finding a manufacturer that will work for you and 2) you’re suddenly catapulting yourself into the world of function over form. There’s certainly some wiggle room to play with, but the phone has to work first, and then you can start worrying about other things.

In the end, when you choose the utility, you have to find other ways to stand out as a real alternative in the same world of phones. This is the limited space Nothing Phone takes up. It’s kind of a thought experiment on how one can differentiate oneself in a very mature and well-defined product category.

Nothing smart phone

Image credits: Brian Heater

However, one thing that is undeniable is that the form factor is solid. The combination of glass and metal, along with the heft of the device, gives the phone (1) a premium feel. It’s not heavy – certainly not for a phone this size – as big as it is. Construction-wise, there was no point that I felt like I was carrying anything but a flagship.

The company decided that high-end specs weren’t the hill to die on either. This is understandable. Going head-to-head against Samsung and Apple in an all-out spec war is a game you’ll lose. This is most evident in the case of slides. The inclusion of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G+ chip places the device firmly in the mid-range category. Like any other aspect of building your first phone in 2022, there are trade-offs.

I assumed the decision was very much about budget. I suspect that still plays a role in the decision-making, but in the end choosing nothing to opt out of the latest flagship couldn’t have been more difficult than that. Pei said the decision to go with the TSMC fab — instead of Samsung — is what pushed it over the edge. “It was a tough choice, because we knew there were going to be people saying, ‘Hey what are you doing?'” It’s not the latest. But I think it’s the most responsible choice of the seven series.”

Performance-wise, the phone can crash. It works well, especially for devices in its price range. Sure, there are trade-offs that come with not adopting this year’s latest flagship chip, but nothing that should have a profound effect on your day-to-day usage. The chipset is paired with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. There are three tiers, in all, ranging from £399 ($473) to £499 ($592) for 12GB / 256GB – again, which puts the product in the middle tier.

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Image credits: Brian Heater

It’s a good value — especially for a first-time phone. The resources required to run a device like this are enormous. Pei certainly alluded to the fact that much of the company’s increase to date has been related to the phone (1), which makes this phone’s success almost a make-or-break for the young company. For this reason, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if nothing passed some of the financial burden onto the consumer.

Much like the specs conversation, pricing your product similarly to Apple and Samsung is a fool’s errand. First, the $1,000+ price of phones is one of the items that has been dragging down phone sales. Finding a better price point makes the product more competitive, opening up additional markets like India, which tends to be more interested in mid-tier pricing (a big market for nothing, as it happens). It’s no coincidence that pricing has also been a key part of OnePlus’ strategy, too.

The back, meanwhile, is the most unique design element I’ve seen on a phone lately, with the exception of the foldable screens. Is it a gimmick? Yes 100%. It is fine, however, with some real functionality. It’s also why the device was sent with a warning for people with epilepsy and light sensitivity. That’s not something you see with most phones — and partly an indication of just how bright this thing can be at full capacity. The “Glyph” is made up of 900 LEDs, covered in a diffuse layer that makes it look like a single connected light source. The design is definitely unique. “They told me it’s a kanji character that means ‘love,’” Bey told me of his design team. “But I call bullshit on it. I can’t see it.” It can be programmed for a variety of different notifications, but it takes a while to remember which ones.

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Image credits: Brian Heater

In the center is a 5W wireless charging coil. Choose “Power Share” from the dropdown menu, put a pair of earphones in the middle and the ring lights up to let you know it’s doing its thing. The battery life in general is not impressive, but the 4,500mAh battery will get you through a day and a half of normal use without any issue.

6.55 inch OLED screen. It’s a great looking screen with a resolution of 2400 x 1080, with a smooth 120Hz refresh rate. The screen is on the larger side, which in turn makes the phone even bigger. I’m on the taller side of the human spectrum and have never had a problem with the phone porting, but this can definitely be a limiting factor for many users.

The 16-megapixel front camera is located behind a hole in the screen. It has a built-in night mode and is capable of shooting video in 1080p. A pair of 50MP rear cameras sit atop each other on the back, each creating a small camera bump. The overall image quality is very sharp, and the system has a few tricks built in, including the inclusion of a macro mode and the clever use of two cameras to double as a depth detector. Overall, it’s a solid app and an impressive offering for a first-time phone maker.

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Image credits: Brian Heater

The device itself is not rated for dust or waterproofing. Pai told me the decision to skip the formal process was timely. Each side of the product is covered with Gorilla Glass 5, which should protect against falls, and the rubber elements inside the phone will help – at the very least – to deal with rain and splashes. However, I’m not going swimming with the phone just yet.

Nothing’s Phone (1) is a refreshing change of pace in a smartphone market that has lost much of its sense of fun. It’s not a revolutionary device — but marketing materials aside, that wasn’t really the point. An Android phone has to be rugged and reliable at its core, and it’s successful on that front. It’s fresh enough to catch the eye and serve as a starting point for an interesting company.

But is it cool? This is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. It is definitely fun, functional and beautiful to look at. Too bad it’s not available in the US