The OnePlus Nord CE 5G is an exercise in hubris

OnePlus was once known for making phones that were very competitive for the price. The company didn’t compete with $300 phones for $300, it competed with $700 phones for $300. As a brand, OnePlus offered incredible value that stood out, and while it still does offer some of that value, a lot of the value-friendly sheen has been stripped off over the past year. There is no clearer example than the OnePlus Nord CE 5G. It is ostensibly a phone that is made to capture the core essence of the 2020 OnePlus Nord, the Core Edition, so to speak. What it ends up capturing instead is the essence of OnePlus in 2021: Hubris.

In a vacuum, the OnePlus Nord CE 5G isn’t a bad phone. It has a lot of what the original OnePlus Nord has, albeit it’s a little worse. In summary, you’re getting a Snapdragon 750G chip, so it has 5G. That’s slightly weaker than the Snapdragon 765G in the Nord, but it should get the job done. You’re getting a 90Hz display, but missing out on HDR10, and it’s slightly dimmer. You still get your choice of cameras, but it’s a weaker variation. There’s nothing wrong with offering a weaker product, don’t misunderstand, but there’s something wrong with misrepresenting blatant cost-saving measures as something that is good for the consumer.

“You see midrange phones on the market with very exaggerated specifications,” Oliver Zhang, head of product for OnePlus, told TechRadar, “We actively avoided some of those features and kept the things we felt would really make a difference to the daily smartphone experience, like fast charging (Warp Charge 30T Plus), a 90Hz AMOLED display, or 5G.”

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What OnePlus is saying here is that it is cutting down on the superfluous niceties and offering more for less in comparison to all those “exaggerated” big numbers from competitors. What OnePlus is doing here is simply cutting down on specs and offering less for less. It now has three cameras, but the third is still superfluous. OnePlus did not remove a 5MP depth camera and 2MP macro camera and replace it with a meaningful 8MP telephoto shooter. They were replaced with a single 2MP monochrome one instead. It’s offering a 90Hz screen, which is outperformed by 120Hz displays you’ll find from Samsung and Xiaomi. It also dropped HDR10 and Gorilla Glass protection. Is it any sharper or brighter for that exchange? From reviews, it’s on par at best.

There is no exchange of meaningless numbers for meaningful value, no tight focus on what is important. The OnePlus Nord CE 5G is simply saving OnePlus costs. 

Who is this for?

Finally, every product needs to answer the “who is this for?” question. When it comes to the iPhone, you know what you’re getting out of the box — iOS and a strong integrated experience. The Pixel? A consistent experience and fast updates. Samsung? A mixture of the two. The OnePlus Nord CE 5G? As with other OnePlus phones, the brand would like you to believe that you’re getting a lot more value for your money, but the company is targeting this at India and Europe, not the U.S. There is no shortage of inexpensive phones with powerful specs in both regions.

The OnePlus Nord CE 5G is everything wrong with OnePlus’ recent gaggle of cheap phones.

The Xiaomi Mi 10T Lite, released in 2020, has a lot of what the Nord CE 5G does. You’ll get fast charging at 33W, a 120Hz display coated with Gorilla Glass 5, and 5G for 100 British pounds less than what the Nord costs. The Xiaomi Mi 10i offers the same in India but with an even better camera. If you’d like to go over to OnePlus’ sister brands, the 2020 Oppo Reno4 5G edges it out with little things like Gorilla Glass 6, an aluminum frame, and a stronger processor for just 30 pound more. If you simply must have a OnePlus phone, the original Nord still exists. 

The OnePlus Nord CE 5G is everything wrong with OnePlus’ recent gaggle of cheap phones. It coasts on the reputation it has built for offering more value to users at a lower cost, while no longer really doing any of those things. With a little sleight of hand, it has switched out being cheaper for simply being cheap. At the same time, it takes shots at competitors who do the opposite. The OnePlus Nord CE 5G may be an alright phone, but any claims of value are nothing more than hollow corporate speak.

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