OnePlus Nord 2 review: Mid-range royalty

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(Pocket-lint) - The OnePlus Nord was the sign of a new era for OnePlus. The once "flagship only" company was now making mid-range phones. But the original Nord was there to show us the manufacturer could deliver great performance in a device that cost less than half the amount of its top-tier devices. 

For 2021 the Nord is back, and this time it's seemingly designed to cannibalise sales of OnePlus' more expensive phones. It's got a near-as-makes-no-difference flagship processor, top specs, and a comfortable price tag to boot.

Design 

  • Dimensions: 158.9 x 73.2 x 8.25mm / Weight: 189g
  • Finishes: Gray Sierra, Blue Haze, Green Wood
  • Splash-resistant - but no IP rating

With the Nord 2, OnePlus has designed a mid-range phone that looks like it's part of the same family as the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro. It's the camera housing that does it. 

The two main cameras have metallic rings around them, and they're sat in a metal protrusion that's colour-matched to the glass on the back of the phone. It even features shiny chamfered edges. The Nord 2 has a much neater and more purposeful design than the first Nord managed to pull off.

There's nothing really to shout home about in terms of the overall look though. It's very much your standard 2021 mid-ranger in that it has a hole-punch camera stamped through the top left corner of the display, thin bezels around three of the sides, and that slightly chunky "chin" to the bottom edge.

Unlike the Nord CE which came before it, OnePlus opted to include an alert slider switch on the right side of the Nord 2. This allows easy switching between ring, silent and vibrate modes. In fact, in a lot of ways, it's very similar to the flagship OnePlus 9. 

The second-gen Nord uses the same combination of materials as the first too: a plastic frame sandwiched by glass on front and back. The differences are minimal. For instance, the alert slider is slightly higher up the frame and the phone's overall size is slightly smaller. 

It's still quite a chunky device, but it doesn't feel overly uncomfortable to hold or use day-in day-out. Although, our unit was the 'Blue Haze' colour, which is glossy and slippery. It seemed to slip off any soft surface - like the arm of a sofa - without any encouragement. 

It doesn't attract fingerprints that badly though, which is a huge bonus for a glossy phone. We didn't find ourselves having to wipe it with a microfibre cloth all that often. Plus, while it's not IP-rated against water and dust ingress, the phone is splash-resistant and should survive if it gets rained on. Just don't go submerging it in water.

Display and software

  • 6.43-inch AMOLED display
  • 2400 x 1080 resolution
  • 90Hz refresh rate

As far as basic specs goes, there's not a huge amount of difference between the display of the second-gen Nord and the first. It's got the same 2400 x 1080 Full HD+ resolution, 90Hz refresh rate, and HDR10+ high dynamic range compatibility. 

What that means in reality is that it's bright, features high contrast levels and vivid colours. It's an AMOLED panel, as is usual for OnePlus, and that means deep black levels too. 

If we're being critical, we found in its default 'Vivid' mode that it over-egged the colours; blues, reds and oranges all become very oversaturated and unrealistic. This became less of an issue when we switched the screen calibration to its 'Gentle' mode, making it appear a lot more clean and natural.

Unlike previous versions of the Oxygen OS software, The Nord 2 doesn't let you get down into the nitty-gritty of calibration. Instead, you get those two mode choices and a slider to adjust colour temperature. 

When looking at mostly white screens - like settings menu or Google Play's update list - from an angle, there's some colour shift. It skews a bit towards green, depending on the angle. 

The 90Hz refresh rate means that animations are fluid and responsive on screen. That's not the most impressive thing about its refresh though, it also features adaptive refresh tech. That means it'll only kick into those higher frames-per-second numbers when it needs, so doesn't waste power when you're watching 25/30fps videos, or reading a static page. 

On the whole, for gaming and movie watching, the panel is great (well, once it's out of its vivid mode). It doesn't quite get up to the peak brightness levels of the 9 and 9 Pro, but it's more than good enough for daily use and media consumption. Plus, it's flanked by stereo front-firing speakers to add a bit more depth to sound.  

On the software side, there are hints within the latest version of Oxygen OS that show the influence of Oppo. This is to be expected, now that the two companies have joined their software and R&D teams. The settings menu looks much more similar to Oppo's ColorOS, and OnePlus Switch has been dropped in favour of a Oppo's Clone Phone app (albeit with OnePlus' red and black colours). Similarly, the camera app appears to be Oppo's too. Every now and then you'll see a flash of Oppo, maybe in a pop-up window on the screen, but on the surface it still feels very much like OnePlus. If this shows signs of things to come, we suspect future versions of Oxygen OS will be even more like ColorOS.

Hardware and performance

  • MediaTek Dimensity 1200-AI
  • 6GB/8GB/12GB RAM
  • 128GB/256GB ROM
  • 4500mAh battery
  • Warp Charge 65

For anyone who's followed OnePlus since its inception there will be one thing that stands out on the Nord 2's spec list: the processor. It's not a Qualcomm-made Snapdragon chipset, instead OnePlus opted to go with MediaTek. Specifically, this is a version of the Dimensity 1200. Technically speaking, it's actually the Dimensity 1200-AI, which OnePlus says is exclusive to the Nord 2 and was co-developed between the two companies.

In Snapdragon equivalent terms, it promises similar performance to the Snapdragon 870, which we know is quick and powerful. In all of our testing the Nord 2 has been very zippy and responsive. Interface layers glide effortlessly under our fingers and all our favourite games and apps load without any delay. 

Benchmark it against a top tier Snapdragon 888-powered phone and you'll definitely see a difference in scores, but in daily use it feels imperceptibly different to using a high-end phone. It's that fast and responsive, which is great news for MediaTek, who we're sure would love to shake off the impression it's had that it only makes cheaper, lesser processors for budget smartphones - that's just not the case any more.

As for other hardware details, in the UK there will be two RAM variants: 8GB or 12GB. Battery specs are the same as most recent OnePlus flagships: 4500mAh. And what's exiting is that it uses the split/dual battery design to enable really quick charging. 

It ups the ante from 2020's Nord by making use of the 65W Warp Charge technology. In real life that means you'll completely fill an empty battery in little over 30 minutes. That means that when the battery dies, you don't need to worry at all if you have your Warp Charge adapter with you. Even plugging it in for 10-15 minutes is enough to get a good chunk of the battery refilled. 

Not that battery life ever gave us cause for concern. A full battery would last us about a day-and-a-half most of the time, with a few hours of screen time each day. We managed to drain it in one day a couple of times, but this was on days where we had long three-plus hour video calls on Google Meet, as well as our usual time spent gaming and social media browsing. 

If there's a downside to the 65W Warp Charge adapter, it's that it's not the same as the 65W adapter that comes with the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro. It has a USB-A port, not USB-C, so you can't use it with your existing cables for your laptops and tablets. 

Camera

  • Triple rear camera:
    • Main: 50-megapixel, f/1.88 aperture, optical image stabilisation (OIS)
    • Ultra-wide (119.7-degrees): 8MP, f/2.25
    • Mono: 2MP
  • Selfie camera: 32MP

For its camera system, OnePlus went with a flagship quality sensor for the Nord 2's primary camera. That 50-megapixel sensor in the main one is the same as the sensor in the Oppo Find X3 Pro and in the ultra-wide camera of the OnePlus 9 Pro. 

In good daylight outdoors it can take lovely-looking colourful shots with this primary camera. Colours pop, plus details and depth look great too. It switches HDR mode on when appropriate, and retains the colour and detail when you use the digital zoom function. That makes it quite a versatile lens. 

The primary camera is also equipped with optical stabilisation for better low-light performance, while part of the Dimensity 1200-AI's performance boost means night mode is better this time as well - your night shots will come out clear and relatively bright as a result.

OnePlus claimed in its launch that night mode was so good you could use it in a room with one candle for light, but in handheld mode that simply isn't true. However, outside where there are stars, street lights and lighting from houses, it's effective. It can take clean, bright and sharp shots in the night given the right kind of conditions.

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There's a lower resolution 8-megapixel ultra-wide alongside it, and it's when we switched to this we started to detect this might not quite be the flagship phone it's trying to be. Colours and detail are noticeably rougher when you switch to this ultra-wide. Images look flatter and noisier, lacking depth too. Almost to the point where the images don't look like they're taken on the same phone. 

This is something we've seen on OnePlus phones before: it's that lack of consistency between multiple lenses that somewhat tarnishes the camera experience.

Verdict

Using the Nord 2 as a daily device for a couple of weeks has left us with the feeling that very little else is required for a great phone experience.

From a speed, performance and design standpoint, it feels virtually no different to using a proper flagship phone. The only thing that lets it down slightly is the cameras. It's another instance of having one good primary camera, and the additional one not quite being up to scratch. 

Still, if ultra-wide photography rarely makes it into your repertoire, you'll be more than happy with the OnePlus Nord 2. It's going to give a mostly flagship like experience, at the fraction of the cost.

There is now competition from the likes of Poco and Redmi though, so OnePlus is certainly not the only competitive mid-ranger in the pond. 

Also consider

Pocket-lint

Alternative photo 1

Poco F3

It's rare to find a phone that stands out these days, but this handset definitely does. It's speedy, has a great display, lasts all day, and won't cost you much money at all. Can't say better than that.

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Writing by Cam Bunton. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 22 July 2021.

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