July 16, 2024


Life is art

Hands-On With The Nothing Phone (1): Design Above All

Buzzy startup Nothing finally launched its long-awaited smartphone today, the Phone (1), and I’ve been poking and prodding at the device ever since my unit arrived. If you aren’t familiar with it, this handset’s claim to fame is its radically transparent back and neon-like lines of light. The Nothing Phone (1) retails for a reasonable £399 ($474) in the UK but, alas, the phone won’t work properly in the US and is actually illegal to sell here. More on that further down. First, though, let’s celebrate something about Nothing.

Front of Nothing Phone (1)

Nothing’s launcher uses a unique font and a minimalist style.
(Credit: Molly Flores)

Return of the Design Phone

The Phone (1) is, to some extent, designed by hipsters, for hipsters. OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei (and a bunch of other ex-OnePlus execs) teamed up with Swedish design firm Teenage Engineering to create something with a bit of the fast-and-smooth philosophy of early OnePlus phones, but with a far edgier visual aesthetic.

Box for Nothing Phone (1)

The Phone (1) experience starts with its unusual flat box

(Credit: Sascha Segan)

I’ve chatted with Pei a few times over the past few months about his smartphone philosophy. He says he is trying to appeal to a creative class of people—that explains why he initially framed the Phone (1) as a competitor to Apple’s iPhone. This positioning as a creative device makes it even more of a tragedy that it won’t be available in the US, where so many online creators reside.

Box Side for Nothing Phone (1)

The phone slots into the box like this. I haven’t seen a phone box like this before
(Credit: Sascha Segan)

To some extent, the Phone (1) reminds me of a time long ago, when phones were fun(Opens in a new window). Back in the mid-2000s, before black slabs ruled the world, phones came in all sorts of wild shapes and sizes; sliders, folders, and spinners were rampant. The Phone (1) is, to some extent, business-as-usual on the front, but the transparent back reveals a whorl of circles and squiggles, like those mechanical watches that showcase their inner workings.

The phone’s 6.55-inch, 2,400-by-1,080-pixel OLED screen boasts a brightness of 500 nits, HDR10+ certification, a 120Hz refresh rate, and a 240Hz touch sampling rate; it’s a strong offering for a sub-$500 phone. But, on the front, the fresh design is the software: Nothing’s Android 12 skin, called Nothing OS, balances strong, bold design aspects with a bloatware-free Google experience. Most notably, it uses a unique pixelated font and some custom widgets to stand out. If you want to preview this skin on another Android phone, you can download Nothing’s launcher(Opens in a new window) from the Google Play store. Nothing promises three years’ worth of Android feature updates and four years’ worth of security patches for the phone, too.

Nothing Phone (1) side edge and button

The phone uses a flexible OLED, so it can run right up to the squared-off metal edge.
(Credit: Molly Flores)

Meanwhile, the see-through back has embedded lights, or glyphs, which pulse when notifications arrive or alongside one of the 12 built-in ringtones. But, make no mistake, it’s not just about being able to see who’s calling by the different patterns of lights on your desk; it’s about making a visual statement. The glyphs and beep-boop electronic sounds, especially with the white-on-white rear design, have a real contemporary art-gallery aesthetic. It isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine; we need more weird phones on the market.

The Phone (1)’s design has one drawback: You need to stick with a clear case. The frame is made from aluminum and both sides of the phone are made of Gorilla Glass 5, but there’s still a decent chance the material will scratch or shatter if you drop it on the wrong surface. On the other hand, if you encase the Phone (1) in something truly protective, it just becomes another black slab. Perhaps the best idea is to simply treat this work of art more gently than any other smartphone.

With an IP53 rating, the phone is merely splash-proof; you can’t submerge it in water for any amount of time. It measures approximately 6.3 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.8 ounces. These are fairly typical dimensions for a phone these days.

Font and ringtones available for Nothing Phone (1)

The font has a pixelated look, and the ringtones have light patterns associated with them.
(Credit: PCMag)

Is Nothing Different?

I’m early in the review process here: We haven’t run benchmarks or examined photos from the handset’s rear cameras. Furthermore, I haven’t been able to run down the battery or play a graphic-intensive game.

The specs indicate that you should get decent performance relative to the sub-$500 price, however. The Nothing Phone (1) uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 778+ processor, which should be sufficient for running the bloat-free version of Android 12 on board. You can choose between 8GB and 12GB of RAM, as well as either 128GB or 258GB of (non-expandable) storage. The 4,500mAh battery charges at 33W (Quick Charge 3.0), supports 15W wireless charging, and can even handle 5W reverse charging. You get a charging cable in the box, but not a power brick.

There are two rear cameras, a Sony IMX766 50MP main sensor that takes 12.5MP images by default and accomplishes 2x zoom by cropping the sensor, as well as a Samsung JN1 50MP, ultra-wide sensor that provides a 114-degree field of view. A 16MP selfie camera sits on the front. Video capture is available with resolutions up to 4K at 60 frames per second and it allows people to record live HDR video.

USB-C port on Nothing Phone (1)

There’s no headphone jack, but the speakers are excellent.
(Credit: Molly Flores)

The device doesn’t include a headphone jack, but that’s not surprising because Nothing also sells the true wireless ear (1) earbuds. A pair of Samsung USB-C in-ears worked just fine in testing, however.

The speakers are a standout. With electronic pop tracks like The Knife’s “Silent Shout” or those from Metric’s new album “Formentera,” the dual speakers (top and bottom) produce an unusual sense of space and lots of midrange detail. It’s still a phone and you still don’t get a ton of bass extension, but the speakers provide sufficient volume and texture without ever sounding tinny.

Pei told me a while ago about how he wants the phone to integrate seamlessly with accessories in the same way the iPhone does. The Phone (1)’s first stab at that sort of integration is a special widget for controlling your Tesla, which I can’t test because I don’t have a Tesla. But the idea, to me, is that Nothing’s cultural cachet will attract integrations with other culturally adjacent brands.

Nothing for Americans

Nothing’s phone is not FCC-certified, so it’s illegal to sell to the public in the US. It also hasn’t been certified by any US carriers, nor does it work very well on any of them.

I tried the phone with Verizon and T-Mobile SIMs. On Verizon, it registered on 4G and worked for about two hours, after which the network cut off service for the device. Note that Verizon didn’t cut off the subscription—the SIM worked fine in a Verizon-certified phone; it just wouldn’t work in the Nothing phone (1) any longer.

On T-Mobile, I got a 5G icon and service, but speeds were a fraction of what they should be—between 70Mbps and 100Mbps in environments where they should be closer to 400Mbps.

On AT&T, Nothing says the phone won’t be able to make calls over the 4G or 5G networks because it’s uncertified.

The phone isn’t banded for great reception in the US, either. It lacks 4G band 13, Verizon’s long-range coverage band, and T-Mobile’s long-range coverage band 71. It has T-Mobile’s mid-band n41 frequency, but I wasn’t seeing n41 performance in an area I know had it.

Pei explained to me that for a startup like his, it’s not worth sinking the money into US certification unless he has a carrier partner willing to sell significant quantities of his phones—and that hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart estimated that certification costs(Opens in a new window) for a smartphone in the US are “often over a million dollars. Per phone. Per carrier,” and Nothing doesn’t want to risk that money without a good chance it can make it back.

Back detail of Nothing Phone (1)

The patterns on the back light up
(Credit: Molly Flores)

What’s Next for Nothing?

The phone world outside the US is richer and more complex than what we get here. I’ve looked at phones from Oppo, Realme, and Iqoo with features and designs that would be a breath of fresh air, but we won’t ever see them in our market.

The Phone (1) traces a similar line; it’s a little wild and feels a little peaceful. Yes, it’s a bit niche, but there should be room for niche devices when nearly every adult American owns a phone. A few days down the road, we plan to have a full preview of the Phone (1), so make sure to check back for our in-depth impressions. I’d tell you where to buy the handset if you are interested in it but, of course, you can’t.

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