OnePlus Nord N20 5G hands on review: OnePlus settled

The OnePlus Nord is a confusing line of phones. There are different variants for different parts of the world at different price points. Now, add in a little carrier exclusivity to the mix, and the whole Nord series just feels a little aimless. Fortunately, here in the U.S., the picture is a bit clearer. There’s only one variant here going forward and it’s the subject of this review: The OnePlus Nord N20 5G.

Despite having used OnePlus phones off and on from the beginning, until now, I’d never had the opportunity to use a OnePlus Nord device, and I admit I’ve been curious. I wanted to see what it was all about so I’ve been using the OnePlus Nord for about a week as my personal phone on T-Mobile’s 5G network, and I’m ready to share some thoughts.

Design and hardware

hand holding the oneplus nord n20 5g.
Adam Doud/Digital Trends

Right off the bat, the real attention grabbers are the two large camera modules that protrude from an otherwise flat black panel. One of those camera modules earns its large protrusion; the other, I’m not so sure, but we’ll cover that in the camera section. For now, suffice it to say, it’s a distinctive look. While we’re on the back panel, it’s made of polycarbonate material with a nice matte finish that does not show fingerprints — a refreshing change if I’m being honest — along with the OnePlus logo and the IMEI number emblazoned across the bottom of the panel. On the left and right sides of the phone, you’ll find the volume rocker and power button respectively. There’s no mute switch like you’ll find on the OnePlus 10 Pro, but there is a headphone jack on the bottom of the phone. Headphone jacks are still important to some, but I’m personally over them. To each their own.

The phone itself is extremely thin. At just 7.5mm, it’s one of the thinnest phones I’ve used in a long time. The build is a very squared-off design reminiscent of the iPhone 13. My overall impression is that from a design standpoint this is a phone that is punching above its weight class. It doesn’t look or feel like a cheap phone.

As for the rest of the specifications, the phone has a 6.43-inch AMOLED screen which looks beautiful with great viewing angles, though it doesn’t get as bright as I would like. It’s an FHD+ panel with an aspect ratio of 20:9. On the inside, there’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 processor, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of UFS2.2 storage, expandable up to 512GB via microSD card.

One other hardware note which I found to be amusing is the placement of the fingerprint sensor. For the OnePlus 10 Pro, OnePlus made a big to-do about having moved the fingerprint sensor higher on the device making it easier to scan while balancing the phone. On the OnePlus Nord, it’s right back down at the bottom of the screen. It was fun while it lasted, I guess.

Software

oneplus nord n20 leader06
Adam Doud/Digital Trends

The OnePlus Nord N20 5G ships with Android 11 which is not awesome right out of the gate. It’s not terrible, nor is it a deal-breaker, but we’re on the cusp of Android 13, and one of the pillars of the OnePlus experience has generally been the software. OnePlus promises one year of OS upgrades and three years of security updates, so this phone will get Android 12. Again, that’s nice, but not awesome.

If there’s a plus side, it’s that I don’t have to deal with ColorOS-posing-as-OxygenOS that you get on the OnePlus 10 Pro. For the record, I’ve never been an OxygenOS acolyte. It’s fine. Oxygen OS 12 is fine. OxygenOS 11 which ships on this phone is fine. I like the clean look of the OS overall. The settings menu in particular is spartan which appeals to me.

One issue I have, which is not confined to OxygenOS, is the inability to quickly make folders with installed apps. Many operating systems lack this and it’s maddening. In order to put all the apps I want into a folder, I have to locate them in the app drawer, drag them up to the home screen, then drag them over to the folder. I have to do this one app at a time, and it’s pretty terrible. I opted instead to just skip the app launcher and sorted my apps using the apps on the home screen. Now, when I swipe up, I get an option to search for an app along with a list of other apps I’ve recently searched for which is convenient. Overall, the software is fine, but the software support is not.

Camera

photo of the oneplus nord n20 5g taking a photo.
Adam Doud/Digital Trends

The camera setup here is pretty basic. The main camera is a 64-megapixel shooter with an f/1.79 aperture, flanked by a 2MP macro lens, and a 2MP monochrome lens. Video capture tops out at 1080p at 30fps. On the front, you get a single 16MP, f/2.4 lens. Unfortunately, the cameras here are not that good. They are what I typically call “social media good.” They’ll be fine for posting photos to Instagram or Facebook, but they’re not useful beyond that.

Even during the day with great daylight, the camera struggles at full resolution, causing blocky edges around straight lines, like text. Text is the easiest thing to capture and correct, but the Nord N20 can’t get it quite right. Color reproduction is quite solid. When I visited my local theme park and snapped photos of flags waving and stuffed animals, the colors were exactly as I saw them.

The selfie camera is the same. It captures good, accurate colors, but the portrait mode is a bit of a mess. First of all, in one example, not only did the photo keep me sharp, but it also kept half the guy behind me in focus as well. He was a good three feet away, yet I could still see him clear as day. Plus, for some reason, the blur is over-aggressive and over-saturated. My portrait selfies look like a dense fog rolled in. It’s quite odd.

At night, the camera is borderline unusable. Nightscapes have a decent chance of turning in a good product, but close portraits are a mess with grainy darks and lost detail. It would be best to just keep your phone in your pocket after sundown.

The macro lens can take some decent shots if you can get the focus right. It’s a 2MP sensor so images won’t be all that big at full resolution, but you can definitely get up close and personal and capture some fine detail. I don’t like that macro mode is a separate mode for the camera (and not an automatic switch) because a few of my sample photos were accidentally taken in macro mode, so they turned out to be unusable.

Burst mode is capable of taking some nice shots, but the burst itself is limited to 20 photos at a time, so it can be easy to miss the shot you’re going for. Once you get your timing down, you should be able to grab some decent shots of moving subjects, but it’ll probably take a bit of practice.

As for video, during the day video is just fine. As I mentioned, it maxes out at 1080p which is not awesome, but the front-facing camera has electronic image stabilization that works pretty well smoothing out footage while walking. The front-facing camera does not so videos tend to be pretty jumpy. That’s potentially unfortunate for the TikTok crowd.

All told, this phone had two things going against it when it comes to camera performance. First, it’s a budget phone, and the camera is usually one of the hardest features hit. Second, it’s a OnePlus phone, and OnePlus only just recently got its photographic ducks in a row on the flagship level. If parallels can be drawn, we’re looking at about five years before the Nord has a good camera. In short, there are no surprises here.

Performance

the oneplus nord n20 5g on a brick wall.
Adam Doud/Digital Trends

I’m no stranger to midrange phones, and the last few phones I’ve carried have been flagships, but I struggle to remember using a midrange phone as laggy as the OnePlus Nord N20 5G. It’s not debilitating, nor impossible to use, but the experience is plagued with a constant stream of intermittent stutters and hiccups. It happens across multiple apps, and even in simple apps like Outlook or Teams.

On the flip side, you can play a decent game of Call of Duty: Mobile, though I would not make this my primary phone for gaming sessions. CODM is pretty well optimized for hardware that isn’t the latest and greatest; it’s not really a great test for flagship-level specs because the game isn’t that demanding. So it’s no surprise that I could play the game, even if there were occasional stutters and lag.

But when I’m just navigating the interface, I shouldn’t have to wait an extra “one Mississippi” for the home screen to load back up. It’s a bit of a shame because midrange Snapdragon processors have historically been very decent. This is my first experience with a Snapdragon 695 and 6GB of RAM is no slouch, but overall I would have expected a smoother experience.

Battery and charging

the oneplus nord n20 5g rests on a table
Adam Doud/Digital Trends

Battery life is quite good for my home-bound lifestyle. I often ended days with 40% or more left in the tank after about three to four hours of screen-on time. One trip to my local theme park saw me taking sample photos, navigating the park, and reading on the Kindle app while standing in line (dark theme enabled). At the end of the day (including time at home) I had 46% left in the tank. Personally, I think if you used this phone very lightly, you could just about squeeze two days of battery life out of it. I won’t go so far as to say the battery life is outstanding but it’s quite good.

As for charging, the OnePlus Nord ships with a 33W charger in the box, which we still appreciate, environmental concerns notwithstanding. The OnePlus Nord N20 5G’s charger is almost as large a brick as the charger included with the OnePlus 10 Pro, which is fine given its power, but it also comes with a USB-A to USB-C cable, rather than the more common USB-C to USB-C. It’s an odd choice.

As for charging speeds, it’s no OnePlus 10 Pro, but 33W of charging power is no slouch. At the start, I saw about 2% per minute up until about 75%. From there, things slowed by quite a bit with the last 20% taking 25 minutes, and the last 10% taking 17 of those. So if you need a quick boost, this charging brick will get you there. If you want to be topped off completely, plan to wait a lot longer.

Price and availability

The OnePlus Nord goes on sale in stores and online at T-Mobile exclusively starting today. New and existing T-Mobile customers can get the OnePlus Nord N20 5G for free via 24 monthly bill credits when adding a line on any plan or get it for $11.75/month; $0 down for 24 months on T-Mobile’s no-interest Equipment Installment Plan.

The OnePlus Nord N20 5G will also be for sale at OnePlus.com, Best Buy, and Amazon at a later date.

Final thoughts

The OnePlus Nord is a fine midrange phone, but I think it lacks the OnePlus-ness that previous midrange phones have had. At the beginning of OnePlus’s days, the flagship killer had some top-tier specs while it cut corners in other areas. This time around, everything is middling across the board. Make no mistake, that’s to be expected for a midrange phone, but OnePlus set the original bar pretty high, and now it fails to clear it with a phone around the same price point as the OG OnePlus One. That’s weird for a company that likes to talk about being “fast and smooth” because this phone is neither.

On the software side, shipping with Android 11 is also not very cool and also not unexpected. But again, for a company that prides itself on software, that’s a miss. The camera performs about as well as a midrange camera should perform.

OnePlus scores wins for design, battery life, and powerful charging. Those are all important, especially in a budget smartphone. What is important to remember here is that this phone costs less than $300. That’s very not bad. I’d like to see OnePlus polish some rough edges here or there and deliver more of a “fast and smooth” experience, but other than that, considering the price, it’s hard to complain.

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