From the back, the Nothing Phone 1 is unmistakably different. Even before the light strips turn on, this is obviously not an Apple, Samsung or Motorola phone. When the “glyph” flashes to indicate a notification or an incoming call, then you absolutely know that it is something else. This is the definition of attracting attention.
Otherwise, the Phone 1 is awfully familiar. And that’s not really a bad thing.
Before going into what is not different, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: OnePlus. Nothing is Carl Pei’s new venture following his 2020 departure from the company he co-founded. With Nothing’s emphasis on style, it doesn’t look like it’s trying to directly clone OnePlus’ flagship specs for a cheap formula, but it’s not too far off. Phone 1 has so far existed in a cloud of hype generated by Nothing – no doubt a carryover from OnePlus. It also lacks the hallmark features of a true flagship: there’s no Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, telephoto lens or IP68 water resistance. But the price is right: it starts at £399 (about $475). Sounds a bit familiar.
There’s also a (sort of) literal elephant in the room – Nothing spokesperson Melissa Medeiros said some people were seeing the shape of an elephant in the Phone 1’s rear panel coils and components. The phone’s unusual rear panel has been the focus of Nothing’s first looks and promotional material, and it features clear glass that reveals the phone’s innards – painted white or black depending on which model you order. The elephant isn’t the first thing I would see in this Rorschach test, but once you know where to look, it’s there.
The light strips spread across the rear panel flash in combinations called glyphs, and they’re both functional and ornamental. You can assign particular glyphs to individual contacts and app notifications. The glyphs are each associated with their own signature sound, a combination of old-school inspired pings and chirps with quirky names like “squiggle” and “isolator”.
By enabling a feature called “return to glyph”, you can automatically turn off notification sounds by placing the phone screen on a flat surface while keeping the glyph’s light notifications active. You can also completely turn off the glyph lights, but what’s the point? (Glyph lights are really bright by default, but you can dim them in the settings.)
The Phone 1’s homage to retro technology continues through to the operating system, with a dot-matrix font dotted across menu screens and used in a few pre-loaded clock and weather widgets. The preloaded voice recording app is designed with a nod to analog tape recorders, and the alarm sounds are reminiscent of the digital bedside clocks everyone had in the 80s.
There’s a lot of future about the Phone 1 too. One of its home screen widget options – alongside the retro dot-matrix weather widget – is a place to display your NFTs. I don’t have monkeys and personally find the inclusion a little off-putting, but the widget isn’t enabled by default, and it’s easy enough to pretend it doesn’t exist. The wallpaper options provided by Rien are also futuristic with a hint of mystery about them. There’s also system-level integration with Tesla as an experimental feature at launch that allows access to certain car controls from quick settings without downloading a separate app. You know, for all Tesla owners. I won’t hold my breath for the integration with my Honda Fit.
But, with one foot in the past and the other in the future, Phone 1 lands squarely in the present. Apart from these features (some might say gadgets) and some custom widgets and alert sounds, there’s not much to separate it from a number of other current Android phones. Nothing takes Android 12 is a light touch, with no unnecessary pre-loaded apps and duplicate virtual assistants. The phone’s 6.55-inch OLED is pleasant to use and offers smooth scrolling with a 120Hz display. Its Snapdragon 778 chipset runs in good day-to-day performance with 12 GB of RAM on the version I tested. It’s quite a very good mid-range Android phone, very ordinary.
The Phone 1’s camera hardware is also respectable but not revolutionary. There’s a standard 50-megapixel rear camera with an f/1.8 lens and optical stabilization. It’s paired with a 50-megapixel ultrawide, and on the front there’s a 16-megapixel selfie camera. Nothing makes much of promotional material not including excessive depth or macro sensors to fill the number of lenses on the back of the camera. Incidentally, OnePlus is known for including this type of sensors on its phones. As it stands, there’s nothing (ugh) on Phone 1’s spec sheet or in the first photos I took to indicate that its cameras are remarkably good or bad.
Aside from the very obvious design differences on the rear panel, the shape and finish of the phone is very similar to recent iPhones. The edges of the aluminum frame are straight and the screen is rounded at the corners. I reached for it more than once thinking it was the iPhone 13 Pro Max that I’m also using right now. When you can’t see the flashing lights on the back, Phone 1 is a very common and familiar-looking device. Without the glyph feature, this phone could have been a launcher.
We’re working on further testing with the Phone 1, but the first impression it leaves is good – if not exactly what Nothing and its hype machine hope to give. What Phone 1 offers is a very good set of specs for a mid-range phone with a clean interface and a new notification system. This doesn’t strike me as the groundbreaking device the company is marketing. It’s not pure retro nostalgia, and it’s not the phone of the future. That’s good because it’s got a good chance of being a great mid-range phone for the time being.
Photography by Allison Johnson/The Verge