From the back, the Nothing Phone 1 is unmistakably different. Even before the light strips illuminate, it is very obviously not an Apple or a Samsung or a Motorola phone. When the “glyph” flashes to signal a notification or an incoming call, then you definitely know this is something else. It’s the definition of attention-grabbing.
Otherwise, the Phone 1 is awfully familiar. And that’s not really a bad thing.
Before getting into what’s not different, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: OnePlus. Nothing is Carl Pei’s new venture after his 2020 departure from the company he co-founded. With Nothing’s style-first focus, it doesn’t appear that he’s trying to directly clone OnePlus’ flagship specs for cheap formula, but it’s not too far off. The Phone 1 has thus far existed in a cloud of Nothing-generated hype — no doubt a carryover from OnePlus. It also lacks the hallmark specs of a true flagship: there’s no Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, telephoto camera, or IP68 water resistance. But the price is right: it starts at £399 (about $475 USD). Sounds kinda familiar.
There’s also a (sort of) literal elephant in the room — Nothing’s spokesperson Melissa Medeiros said that some people see the shape of an elephant in the coils and components on the Phone 1’s back panel. The phone’s unusual back panel has been at the center of early first looks and Nothing’s promotional materials, and it features a transparent glass that reveals the guts of the phone — painted white or black depending on the model you order. The elephant isn’t the first thing I’d see in this Rorschach test, but once you know where to look, it’s there.
The light strips distributed throughout the back panel flash in combinations called glyphs, and they’re functional as well as ornamental. You can assign particular glyphs to individual contacts and app notifications. Glyphs are each paired with their own signature sound, a combination of old-school-tech-inspired pings and chirps with quirky names like “squiggle” and “isolator.”
By enabling a feature called “flip to glyph,” you can automatically turn off notification sounds by placing the phone screen down on a flat surface while keeping the glyph light notifications active. You can also just turn off the glyph lights altogether, but what’s the point of that? (The glyph lights are really bright at default, but you can tone it down in settings.)
The Phone 1’s homage to retro tech continues through to the OS, with a dot-matrix font sprinkled throughout menu screens and used in a couple of the preloaded clock and weather widgets. The preloaded voice recording app is styled with a nod to analog tape recorders, and the alarm sounds harken back to the digital bedside clocks everyone’s dad had in the ‘80s.
I have no apes
There’s also plenty that’s future-looking about Phone 1. One of its homescreen widget options — alongside the retro, dot-matrix weather widget — is a place to display your NFTs. I have no apes and personally find the inclusion a little off-putting, but the widget is not enabled by default, and it’s easy enough to pretend it doesn’t exist. The Nothing-provided wallpaper options also lean futuristic with a hint of mystery about them. There’s also system-level integration with Tesla as an experimental feature at launch that provides access to certain car controls from quick settings without downloading a separate app. You know, for all you Tesla owners out there. I won’t hold my breath for 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. Outside of these features (some might say gimmicks) and some custom widgets and alert sounds, there’s not much that separates it from any number of other current Android phones. Nothing’s take on Android 12 is a light touch, free of unnecessary pre-downloaded apps and duplicate virtual assistants. The phone’s 6.55-inch OLED is pleasant to use and offers smooth scrolling with a 120Hz screen. Its Snapdragon 778 chipset turns in good day-to-day performance with 12GB of RAM on the version I tested. It’s altogether a very good, very unremarkable midrange Android phone.
The Phone 1’s camera hardware is also respectable but not revolutionary. There’s a 50-megapixel standard rear camera with an f/1.8 lens and optical stabilization. It’s paired with a 50-megapixel ultrawide, and around front, there’s a 16-megapixel selfie camera. Nothing’s promotional materials make a big deal about not including excess depth or macro sensors to pad out the number of lenses on the back of the camera. Incidentally, OnePlus is notorious for including these kinds of sensors on its phones. As it stands, there’s nothing (ugh) on the Phone 1’s spec sheet or in the initial photos I’ve taken to indicate that its cameras are remarkably good or bad.
Aside from the very obvious design differences on the back panel, the phone’s shape and finish look a lot like 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 I’m also using at the moment. When you can’t see the blinking lights on the back, Phone 1 is a very mainstream, familiar-looking device. Without the glyph feature, this phone could have been a launcher.
We’re working on more in-depth testing with the Phone 1, but the first impression it leaves is a good one — if not exactly the one that Nothing and its hype machine are hoping to impart. What Phone 1 offers is a very good set of specs for a midrange phone with a clean interface and a novel notification system. It doesn’t strike me as the revolutionary device that the company’s marketing it as. It’s not pure retro nostalgia, and it’s not the phone of the future. That’s fine because it has a good shot at being an excellent midrange phone for right now.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge