Familiar Thing About the Nothing Phone 1

With an unusual back panel, Nothing Phone 1 is unmistakably distinct. Even before the light strips glow, it is not an Apple, a Samsung, or a Motorola phone.

When the “glyph” flashes to signal a message or an incoming call, you know this is something else. It’s the definition of attention-grabbing.

Before getting into what’s not further, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: OnePlus. Nothing is Carl Pei’s new experience after his 2020 departure from the company he co-founded. With Nothing’s style-first focus, it doesn’t appear he’s trying to clone OnePlus’ flagship specs for cheap formula directly, but it’s not too far off.

The Phone 1 has thus far lived in a cloud of Nothing-generated hype — no doubt a carryover from OnePlus. Unfortunately, it also lacks the hallmark specs of a true flagship: there’s no telephoto camera, Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, or IP68 water resistance. But the cost is correct: it starts at £399 (about USD 475). Sounds quite familiar.

There’s also a literal elephant in the room. Nothing’s representative Melissa Medeiros said that some people notice the shape of an elephant in the coils and elements on the Phone 1’s back panel. The phone’s unusual rear panel has been at the center of early first looks and Nothing’s promotional materials.

It features a translucent glass that reveals the phone’s guts — painted white or black hanging on the model you order. The elephant isn’t the first forte you’d see in this Rorschach test, but once you know where to look, it’s there.

The light strips circulated throughout the back panel flash in combinations called glyphs, which are functional and ornamental. You can assign particular glyphs to respective contacts and app notifications. Glyphs are each paired with their signature sound, a combination of old-school-tech-inspired pings and chirps with quirky names like “squiggle” and “isolator.”

By enabling a “flip to glyph” feature, you can automatically turn off notification sounds by placing the phone screen on a flat surface while keeping the glyph light notifications active. Of course, you can also turn off the glyph lights altogether.

The Phone 1’s homage to retro tech restarts to the OS, with a dot-matrix font scattered throughout menu screens and used in a pair of the preloaded clock and weather widgets. In addition, the preloaded voice recording app is styled with a nod to analog tape transcribers. Finally, the forewarning sounds harken back to the digital bedside clocks everyone’s father had in the ’80s.

There’s also the quantity that’s future-looking about Phone 1. For example, one of its home screen widget options — alongside the dot-matrix retro weather widget — is a spot to display your NFTs. Of course, you will have no apes and find the inclusion a little off-putting, but the device is not enabled by default, and it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist.

The Nothing-provided wallpaper choices also lean futuristic with a secret about them. System-level integration with Tesla is an empirical feature at launch that delivers access to precise car controls from fast settings without downloading a separate app. You know, for all you Tesla proprietors out there.

But, with one foot in history and the other in the future, Phone 1 lands squarely in the present. Outside of these features and some custom widgets and alert sounds, there’s not much that separates it from any other current Android phone.

Nothing’s variation on Android 12 is a light touch, free of excessive pre-downloaded apps and duplicate virtual assistants. The phone’s 6.55-inch OLED is pleasant and offers smooth scrolling with a 120Hz screen. Its Snapdragon 778 chipset has good day-to-day performance with 12GB of RAM on the version I tested. It’s altogether a perfect, very unremarkable midrange Android phone.

The Phone 1’s camera hardware is also exemplary but not revolutionary. There’s a 50-megapixel definitive rear camera with optical stabilization and an f/1.8 lens. It’s paired with a 50-megapixel ultrawide, and around the front, there’s a 16-megapixel selfie camera.

Nothing’s promotional stuff makes 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 infamous for having these sensors on its phones. As it stands, there’s Nothing (ugh) on the Phone 1’s spec sheet or in the initial photos to indicate that its cameras are remarkably good or bad.

Aside from the pronounced design differences on the back panel, the phone’s shape and finish look much like recent iPhones. The edges of the aluminum frame are straight, and the screen is rounded at the corners. 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 precisely the one that Nothing and its hype machine are hoping to impart. What Phone 1 offers is a perfect set of specs for a mid-range phone with a clean interface and a novel notification system.

However, 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 future phone. That’s fine because it has a good shot at being an excellent midrange phone for right now.