Nothing Phone (1) is off to a good start — but it’s got to fix this
Nothing hit the stage as a new startup founded by Carl Pei, one of two men who kicked off the OnePlus train. Pei’s departure from OnePlus came as a surprise to some, but anyone who paid attention to the company up until that point may not have been as shocked.
So Pei started Nothing, an oddly-named brand that just begs for jokes — and perhaps that’s the intention. The first product we saw from the firm was the Ear (1), a unique-looking set of wireless earbuds that we quite liked. In fact, in his review of him, former Tom’s Guide audio editor James Archer said, “The Ear (1) sounds better than the average entry-level buds, while having an awful lot more features, and is drastically more affordable than its noise.” -cancelling peers.”
Those familiar with Carl Pei knew a Nothing phone had to come sooner or later. Rumors started to swirl late last year, with more picking up around CES 2022. Then, in March, Nothing held the most anticlimactic teaser ever, revealing that it would actually launch a smartphone. Dubbed the Phone (1), it promised to bring excitement to a market jaded by sameness.
If you remember OnePlus’ early days, then Nothing’s strategy leading up to the launch of the Phone (1) shouldn’t have surprised you. The company teased the phone, talked about specs like the Snapdragon 778G+ chipset, and elaborated on the design process.
I got to see the phone hands-on a few weeks ago, where Pei showed me some of the highlights like the glyph interface. But I resisted the hype, refusing to give into Nothing’s tactics — a much younger and more gullible version of me had failed for OnePlus’ nonsense more than once. Nonetheless, I found myself excited to check out the Phone (1), even though Nothing said it would not launch the handset in the US
You can read my Nothing Phone (1) review for my full thoughts, but overall, I mostly like it. Despite the fact that it looks almost exactly like an iPhone 12 (even with the transparent back), I thought the device got most of the basics right. The display is really nice, the performance is enough for most people and their tasks, and the battery life rocks. And for £399 (sorry, it’s not available in the US) it’s a killer deal.
Yet, I have qualms about wholly recommending it. I want to vote for the underdog, but the Phone (1) falls flat for me in the camera department. While I shrug when something like a gaming phone has bad cameras, I could not ignore the Phone (1)’s failings in this regard. Nothing has aimed it at a general consumer, broadening its appeal with a very attractive price.
In my testing against the Pixel 5a — a year-old phone with an older Snapdragon 765G chipset — the Phone (1) struggled with overexposure, color balance, aggressive face smoothing in portraits and selfies, and a night mode that barely passed as decent. In the eight scenes I did with it versus the 5a, the Phone (1) was noticeably inferior. With washed or blown out colors, lack of depth, weak focus, and flat shadows, Nothing’s cameras left a lot to be desired.
For example, in this image of the pond behind my house, the Phone (1)’s shot is brighter, but it loses a lot of detail in the color accuracy and depth. The shadows are almost completely gone.
The same story applies here with the ultrawide lens. The colors look really washed out, much paler than the Pixel 5a’s photo. The Phone (1) struggles with color accuracy and exposure control, often going too far with the latter.
In the time since I finished the review, and the more I look at the comparisons, I have become less enthused about the Phone (1). It certainly caught my attention with its design (both positively and negatively) and I decidedly liked its mid-range performance, but the cameras truly sour the experience for me.
Perhaps stacking the Phone (1) up against the Pixel 5a wasn’t exactly fair given Google’s undeniable prowess with computational photography, but I’d argue that giving the phone a break would have been a disservice to both Nothing and you readers.
If Nothing wants the Phone (1) and any future handsets to make a splash, it needs to offer devices that compel customers away from the likes of the Pixel A, Galaxy A, and iPhone SE series. Cameras are a major use case for the modern smartphone, and the Phone (1) lags behind its peers in this way.
Look, I get it. Nailing camera software is a massive undertaking, especially for a small startup like Nothing. Even some big companies like Motorola still can’t seem to get it right. Samsung, to a degree, has only recently gotten good enough to face off against Apple and Google. I’m not going to sit here and say I expected Nothing to get this right on the first try because that would be both asinine and unfair.
The fortunate thing is that the Phone (1) has solid camera hardware. The main sensor is a Sony IMX766 while the ultrawide uses a Samsung JN1. Both are 50MP. The front is a 16MP Sony IMX471. All are great sensors, meaning that Nothing could theoretically improve the Phone (1)’s photography performance with updates as the software engineers themselves get better.
I don’t want to leave here on a negative note. I still like the Phone (1) — the novelty of the transparent back and glyphs hasn’t worn off yet — and I think its camera failings could be addressed in the coming weeks and months. As someone who is tired of the Samsung and Apple duopoly (and who often roots for Google despite the myriad Pixel issues), I want to see Nothing succeed, just like I wanted the Essential Phone to succeed back in the day.
Hopefully we get a Phone (2) next year, where Nothing bumps up the horsepower a bit and gets the cameras up to snuff. Nothing OS itself needs some work on power management, since it puts the phone into a deep sleep which can interfere with notifications and background downloads. Again, this can be fixed.
The Phone (1) may not have lived up to the hype, but I like it overall. It’s not easy to break into the smartphone market, but Carl Pei is trying to do it a second time. I hope it works out.