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OnePlus Nord CE 5G review: Might from the midfield

We were impressed with OnePlus’ return to the budget smartphone arena last year and the Nord brand is back in 2021 with the OnePlus Nord CE. This new “Core Edition” model comes in at an even cheaper price than last year’s Nord, with prices starting at a mere £299, and it doesn’t skimp on the features, either.

Technically speaking, the Nord CE isn’t quite the cheapest phone OnePlus makes – that honour falls to the £129 Nord N100 – but £299 is still a pretty keen price, especially for a smartphone as good as the OnePlus Nord CE 5G.

READ NEXT: Our guide to the best budget smartphones you can buy

OnePlus Nord CE review: What you need to know

In truth, aside from a larger 4,500mAh battery – and that lower price – there isn’t much to choose between this year’s shiny new OnePlus Nord CE and the plain old OnePlus Nord from last year. Both phones have 5G courtesy of mid-range Qualcomm chipsets, and although the CE uses the more recent Snapdragon 750G, performance is very similar to the Nord’s 765G.

The Nord CE has one fewer camera at the rear, lacking the macro camera of the original, but it hits back with a higher resolution of 64MP versus the first Nord’s 48MP. It’s also thinner and lighter – it’s the thinnest phone OnePlus has produced since the OnePlus 6T, in fact – and in a world where smartphones seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller, that’s a very welcome development.

With a 6.43in, 90Hz AMOLED display, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage (or 12GB and 256GB for a bit extra), the OnePlus Nord CE is well specified for the money, and it even comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack as a tempter for those who refuse to let go of their favourite wired headphones.

OnePlus Nord CE review: Price and competition

The OnePlus Nord CE starts at £299 for the model with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and rises to £369 for the 12GB, 256GB variant. At that price, it undercuts the original Nord’s launch price by a decent £80.

It’s not the only capable smartphone at around this price. Among our favourites are the Google Pixel 4a, which is £50 more expensive (£349) and comes with a brilliant camera and Google’s superb Pixel launcher software, but lacks the 5G of the OnePlus.

The Motorola Moto G G5 Plus is £50 cheaper, comes with 5G (obviously) and the same Snapdragon 765G chip of the original Nord, but its display is a regular IPS unit that can’t compete with the Nord CE’s AMOLED screen.

Finally we have the Nokia X20, the Finnish manufacturer’s cheapest 5G phone at £299. It comes with a slower Snapdragon 480 and less RAM at 6GB, although storage is comparable, as is its 64MP main camera. Again, though, its 6.67in, 60Hz FHD+ display can’t match the OnePlus’ 6.43in 90Hz AMOLED screen.

OnePlus Nord CE review: Design and key features

If the OnePlus Nord CE has plenty to offer from a specifications standpoint, it looks pretty good, too. You have a choice of “void blue” or “charcoal ink” (black) for the base model, with the 12GB variant coming in “silver ray”.

I was sent the blue model for review and it’s surprisingly attractive for a phone built entirely from plastic. The rear of the phone is subtly curved at the edges, and the blue colouring fades off to a metallic purple as the rear panel meets the chrome-effect frame. With a matte finish that successfully keeps fingerprints at bay, the Nord CE is a very nice-looking thing.

It’s slim and light, too, measuring 74 x 159 x 7.9mm, and it weighs a mere 170g; that’s 0.3mm thinner and 15g lighter than the first Nord. There’s dual-SIM compatibility, too, although there’s no microSD expansion. The under-screen fingerprint reader works well and it also comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack – a feature the first Nord phone ditched.

Aside from the lack of storage expansion, there are other missing features. There’s no form of dust or water ingress protection, no Gorilla Glass protecting up front and that the classic OnePlus three-position do-not-disturb switch is absent. You have to move up to one of OnePlus’ premium handsets if you’re desperate for that convenience.

OnePlus Nord CE review: Display

The screen on the Nord CE is probably it’s best feature. Measuring 6.43in across the diagonal, it uses AMOLED technology to deliver vibrant, largely colour-accurate images that are a match for any phone in its price bracket.

Brightness peaks at around 400cd/m², which is solid if unexceptional. The contrast ratio is perfect, as you’d expect of an AMOLED display, with inky black levels and superbly vivid highlights.

The colour accuracy in the phone’s Natural (sRGB) mode is excellent, too, but less so if you select one of the other more vivid modes. In the most lurid mode – AMOLED Wide Gamut – the panel is capable of reproducing 114% of the DCI-P3 colour space.

Either way, it’s an excellent display that’s capable of displaying photos, web pages, and HDR movies and TV at their very best.

READ NEXT: Our guide to the best budget smartphones you can buy

OnePlus Nord CE review: Performance

With a Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G processor inside, there isn’t an awful lot of difference between the Nord CE and the original Nord when it comes to performance. On paper, it’s clocked slower than the Snapdragon 765G in the original Nord (2.2GHz vs 2.4GHz) but, in practice, the two are neck and neck, as you can see in the Geekbench 5 results below:

When it comes to graphics performance, however, the Nord CE takes a performance hit. That’s because the Snapdragon 750G has an Adreno 619 under the hood where the 765G has an Adreno 620. That leads to a significant – and disappointing – 10fps deficit compared with last year’s model:

On the plus side, it would appear that the Nord CE is a more efficient handset and it put in a highly impressive performance in our video rundown battery test.

Lasting an outstanding 24hrs 43mins, it outlasted the Original Nord by more than four hours, and achieves the 12th best result we’ve ever seen from any smartphone in this test.

OnePlus Nord CE review: Cameras      

Another area where it would appear that OnePlus has cut back is the camera lineup. Instead of four cameras on the rear, we have three here: a 64MP (f/1.8) main camera, an 8MP (f/2.3) ultrawide camera with a 119-degree field of view, and a 2MP mono camera to help out with black and white images. It lacks the macro camera of the original Nord, doesn’t have OIS and the front camera is half the resolution, too, although I’d argue that the 16MP on offer here is plenty. 

So, how does it perform? It’s perfectly decent, in fact, and in side-by-side tests against the superb Google Pixel 4a, it mostly holds its own, especially in good lighting conditions. The main camera captures detailed and colour-packed images that look great, and having the ultrawide camera to hand is useful for taking photographs of large groups of people at close range or dramatic landscapes.

It lags behind the Pixel 4a for portrait shots, however, blurring the background but not by much and defaulting to a fairly useless wide-angle view that makes it tricky to fill the frame with your subject:

Oddly, even without the assistance of the depth camera, the 16MP front camera makes a far better fist of portraits, competing manfully here with the Pixel 4a’s selfie camera. The Google phone is still better, but only by a little, and OnePlus’ low-light Nightscape mode remains a poor relation to the Pixel’s excellent NightSight mode, producing images that look overprocessed and oversaturated.

At least the OnePlus Nord CE’s video recording mode is decent, using EIS (electronic image stabilisation) to capture stable 4K footage at 30fps. Overall, the cameras are what you’d expect at this price: not exceptional, but perfectly acceptable.

READ NEXT: Our guide to the best budget smartphones you can buy

OnePlus Nord CE review: Verdict

And that will be the theme of my verdict on the OnePlus Nord CE. For the money, it’s perfectly good. Performance is solid, the display is excellent, build and design are on point and the camera delivers crisp, well-exposed photos in most circumstances.

Combine that with the superb battery life and you have a phone that ticks all the right boxes. The OnePlus Nord CE may not have the star quality of its premium sibling, the OnePlus 9 Pro, and it might not be a huge upgrade on its predecessor, but it’s a mighty fine handset in its own right.

OnePlus Nord CE

OnePlus Nord

Google Pixel 4a

Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G (2 x 2.2GHz, 6×1.8GHz) Octa-core Qualcom Snapdragon 765G (1 x 2.4GHz, 1 x 2.2GHz, 6 x 1.8GHz) Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 (2×2.2Ghz, 6×1.8GHz)
RAM 8GB /12GB 8GB 6GB
Screen size 6.43in 6.44in 5.81in
Screen resolution 1,080 x 2,400 1,080 x 2,400 2,340 x 1,080
Pixel density 410ppi 408ppi 443ppi
Screen type IPS AMOLED OLED
Screen refresh rate 90Hz
Front camera 16MP (f/2.5) 32MP, 8-megapixel (f/2.0)
Rear camera 64MP (f/1.8), 8MP (f/2.3) ultrawide, 2MP (f/2.4) depth 8MP, xx, ultrawide 12.2-megapixel (f/2.2)
Flash LED Dual LED LED
Dust and water resistance No N/A No
3.5mm headphone jack Yes No Yes
Wireless charging No No No
USB connection type USB-C USB-C USB-C
Storage options 128GB / 256GB 64GB; 128GB; 256GB 128GB
Memory card slot (supplied) No No No
Wi-Fi 802.11ac 802.11ac 802.11ac
Bluetooth 5.1 5.1 5.1
NFC Yes Yes Yes
Cellular data 5G, 4G 5G 4G
Dual SIM Yes Yes No
Dimensions (WDH) 159 x 74 x 7.9mm 73 x 8.2 x 158mm 144 x 69 x 8.2 mm
Weight 170g 184g 143g
Operating system Android 11 (OxygenOS 11) Android 10 Android 10
Battery size 4,500mAh 4115mAh 3,140mAh

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