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If the Nord CE is the future of OnePlus, the future looks bleak
There’s a new Nord out. Called the OnePlus Nord Core Edition, the phone launched to dubious claims of bringing the quintessential OnePlus experience to a whole new audience. However, the less-than-stellar spec sheet and lack of finesse mean that the phone is, simply put, forgettable.
In our OnePlus Nord CE review, we struggled to find a reason for this phone to exist within the OnePlus lineup. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible phone per se. But it lacks any unique merit, and I just don’t see how it is supposed to excite a fresh generation of OnePlus fans — and that’s a problem.
There’s no dearth of quality, affordable mid-range options on the market. From the Redmi Note 10 Pro to the Realme 8 Pro or the Google Pixel 4a for that matter, each and every phone on the list stands out for bringing something unique to the table. The OnePlus Nord CE? Nada.
In fact, it does one worse by failing at the one thing it sets out to do: democratize the OnePlus experience.
You see, the phone is dubbed the Core Edition because it’s supposed to channel the ethos and values of OnePlus. Except, it doesn’t.
The OnePlus Nord CE fails at the one thing it set out to do.
OnePlus built its reputation on the pillars of performance and value. While the value quotient started diminishing with the company’s predictable upward push with the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 9 series of hardware, it still had performance and unique features going for it. Meanwhile, the original OnePlus Nord attempted a return to form by delivering good enough specs at a reasonable price point. The phone did well enough for the company, especially in India, and spurred a 200% growth in year-on-year sales in the region.
The OnePlus Nord CE, however, fritters away that momentum. The tepid release sits a mere Rs. 3000, £29, or €40 below the original OnePlus Nord. That relatively minor price difference is clubbed with a significant reduction in the kit. Moreover, the phone comes across as thoroughly uncompetitive against established competitors from Xiaomi, and also BBK-counterparts like Realme.
Be it design, fit and finish, or the kit on offer, there’s no real redeeming factor here. We’ve seen homogenization of design across Oppo and OnePlus phones, but the Nord series is taking it to the next level with its Realme-derived design.
The derivative design and lack of key OnePlus features is puzzling.
And that’s before I get to the missing alert slider. It’s not that you can’t switch profiles without an alert slider, but the ease of use is addictive and part of the reason why I keep coming back to OnePlus phones. This isn’t the first OnePlus phone to drop the slider. The Nord N series devices all did the same — but for a phone explicitly designed to bring the best of the OnePlus experience on a budget, the lack of a marquee OnePlus feature is a slap in the face of long-term fans, especially those aiming to make these affordable options their first OnePlus phone.
Meanwhile, OnePlus continues to turn a blind eye to constant complaints about image optimization, delayed software updates, and table stakes like 5G band support in key territories like India.
In light of missing hardware essentials like a loaded spec sheet, the only redeeming factor is the software experience. Oxygen OS isn’t bad at all, in fact, it is one of the better software skins out there, but it is also a far cry from what entrenched millions of fans into the ecosystem. Year after year, the company is tacking on good and not-so-good features, while evolving the UI a step further away from stock Android — despite significant outcry from long-term fans.
Oxygen OS is suffering from an identity crisis, and there's little advancement to make it a selling point.
Amidst Oxygen OS’s identity crisis, there is the bigger problem that it isn’t taking any significant steps forward. This, despite the competition fast catching onto OnePlus’ lead. Take, for example, MIUI. Xiaomi’s take on Android has traditionally been a powerhouse of features. The only real issue? Bloatware and inconsistency. However, if the last few releases are anything to go by, the company is listening to user feedback and toning down bloatware drastically. It has also publicly acknowledged the need for better software parity across its huge portfolio. You don’t see that kind of forward movement from OnePlus, certainly not with the OnePlus Nord CE. The cookie-cutter approach towards Oxygen OS ensures that it is far from the system-seller OnePlus imagines it to be, and it can’t save the Nord CE from mediocrity.
Moreover, the company’s spotty record of timely updates for flagships doesn’t give me any confidence that it will deliver on the promises it makes for budget hardware. In fact, the entry-level Nord N10 and Nord N100 are promised just one major Android update, while the Nord CE gets two despite being introduced at the cusp of the Android 12 rollout. You can expect Android 13 on the phone, and that’s about it. Simply put, that’s unacceptable coming from a company promising a premium experience, even more so in 2021.
These long-standing issues are further exacerbated in light of Xiaomi and Realme’s long-held dominance in the segment. The Redmi Note 10-series, Samsung’s A-series hardware, and even the Pixel 4a all have redeeming qualities that make them stand out, and much easier to recommend over what OnePlus brings to the table. If OnePlus can’t meet, let alone exceed expectations for hardware, keeps stuttering on software support, and fails to bring its marquee features to the fight, how exactly does it expect to compete?
A tale of hype over substance
The constant hype-building cycle has quickly become a common theme for OnePlus, be it the OnePlus Band that launched with iffy performance and a lackluster feature set, or the long-awaited OnePlus Watch that turned out to be little more than a bog-standard fitness wearable. There’s also the much-talked-about Hasselblad partnership that moved imaging performance on OnePlus phones by an inch, rather than the mile it needed to compete with the very best. It’s easy to miff customers, even long-term loyalists when the hype is rarely backed by substance.
The lackluster budget lineup confirms OnePlus isn't afraid of settling down.
As the company sets its sights on a more mainstream showing, it isn’t afraid to let go of the goodwill built on the back of a good product. Unlike Xiaomi’s bottom-up approach, where it struggled to break free of its value-priced image due to its success with Redmi, OnePlus is much better positioned. It has brand entropy built on generations of high-quality products with a price that seems fair. However, the recent glut of budget and mid-range hardware risks squandering away the momentum and diluting the OnePlus brand identity. The Nord CE is just the latest example of a worrisome trend.
It also paints OnePlus in a very different light. This is a new era at OnePlus, one where it isn’t afraid to settle, and one where an option at every price point matters more than what the product stands for.
That new era is further reinforced by the recent announcement of deeper integration between OnePlus and Oppo. If you thought OnePlus hardware was being commodified, just look towards the increased influence from Oppo. The other BBK-owned brand has a history of flooding the mid-range and budget markets with derivative hardware across price points, and all signs point to a similar fate for OnePlus, although only time will tell. After all, both the Nord CE and the Nord N200 are pretty similar to existing Realme and Oppo devices.
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I’m not against more diverse options. However, the increasingly tight alliance with Oppo and the recent glut of underbaked hardware is at odds with everything OnePlus has stood for. It’s not that OnePlus hasn’t cribbed elements from Oppo devices before, but it has always made them their own. The Nord lineup’s consistent dilution of OnePlus table stakes and lack of competitiveness paints a grim future for the direction the company is heading in. First, it was the Nord N range that made compromises, now it’s the regular Nord series. Could its flagships be next?