Can a smartphone still cool? Nothing Phone (1) do it, once upon a time, at a time when they were more luxury than ubiquity. But what happens when everyone has one and, more specifically, we all have pretty much the same? Phones are not fashionable. They are not clothes, shoes, or even cars. The chances are probably about equal that you have the same person as the richest billionaire in the world or the person packing your groceries.
I won’t go so far as to say that the choice among smartphones is an illusion, but it’s probably not as great as you think. Recent years have seen market consolidation among a handful of short-lived companies, while once-powerful brands like LG and HTC have fallen. Add in the geographical and carrier limitations, and it becomes clear how much we are finally swimming in a small pool here.
Nothing is company based, among other things, on the idea that smartphones can still be cool. That they can be exciting and interesting in an area where they are more or less all similar touchscreen electronic panels.
There has never been a good or easy time to launch a new smartphone business. But in many ways, founder Carl Pei may have chosen the worst – or at least the most difficult. The aforementioned consolidation is accompanied by an overall stagnation and decline in smartphone sales. After a decade of flying high, things have collapsed on Earth. This is a regression that is previous but has finally been accelerated by the pandemic.
Smartphone manufacturers have painted themselves in a corner in an effort to beat the competition. In the process, the devices improved to such an extent that people felt less compelled to upgrade them as often. Differentiation has become more difficult and continued attempts to add features to outperform others have pushed flagship prices up to four digits. It’s a kind of paradox – smartphones may have become too popular for their own good.
These factors foreshadowed a massive supply chain crisis. Chips and other components have been increasingly difficult to procure on a large scale for companies not named Apple or Samsung, while external financial factors, including inflation, have pushed up the price of consumer electronics. Anyone with a passing interest in the category will probably agree that the category could use a new life, but how one could go about providing it is a completely different question.
“Nothing Phone (1) has been a difficult endeavor to start,” Pei told me recently. “This industry, in general, has one of the highest barriers to entry. We have huge companies, and they are consolidating. There are a handful of active companies, and large companies tend to be quite bureaucratic, slow, and highly analytical. No wonder all products look the same these days. In a regular industry or product category, you also have fresh blood that keeps pouring in from below. In our industry, there is no fresh blood because the barrier to entry is so high.
Other barriers also exist. This is, after all, precisely why Nothing isn’t bringing its first phone to the United States. While U.S. consumers have begun to recognize the appeal of buying unlocked devices, carriers still have a stranglehold on the market. “You have to work with a big carrier,” Pei added, “they have a lot of bargaining power over you.”
The Nothing Ear headphones (1) were a good way to test the wider interest of consumers. The headphone market, while still saturated, still has room for growth. And, on top of that, $99 for a pair of headphones from a brand new manufacturer is a much easier request than a smartphone — even at $400.
In the meantime, the company has worked diligently to create a brand. Pei’s greatest strength was his ability to create a community. It was a key part of OnePlus’ early successes, and it’s doing its best to regain that magic with Nothing. For the phone, this meant things like invitation-only buying (something that fits well with these supply chain issues), crowdfunding, and, yes, NFTs. Scarcity isn’t a concept we tend to think of when talking about a mass-produced product like a phone, but there may be lessons to be learned from the cultures of crypto and hype beasts.
Aesthetic consistency is another shortcut to building a brand. When we announced that the company was working on a phone in March,
It is safe to say that the report has borne fruit. The transparent back, combined with the LED lighting layout “Glyph” is, by far, the most striking visual element of the phone, sharing a language with Nothing’s transparent headphones. Stripped of this aspect, it looks a lot like an iPhone. “I got this feedback,” Pei told me when I talked about it. “This is the most efficient use of space.”
Is the current iPhone a platonic ideal of smartphone design? I guess that’s until it’s no longer the case, and someone else finds something better. This may refer to another type of limitation: physical design and use of space. Of course, nothing could have done the impossible to produce something completely different, but
1) good luck finding a manufacturer who will work with you, and
2) you suddenly catapult into the world of function rather than form. There’s certainly some leeway to play, but a phone needs to be functional first, and then you can start worrying about other things.
Ultimately, when choosing the utility, you need to find other ways to stand out as a real alternative in the same world of handsets. This is the liminal space occupied by the Nothing Phone. It’s a kind of thought experiment on how you can differentiate yourself in an already mature and well-defined product category.
One thing that is undeniable, however, is that the form factor is solid. The combination of glass and metal, combined with the weight of the device, gives The Nothing Phone (1) a high-end feel. It’s not heavy certainly not for a phone of this size — as much as it is substantial. In terms of construction, I never felt like I was carrying anything other than a flagship.
The company determined that the state-of-the-art specs were also not the hill to die on. This is understandable. Facing Samsung and Apple in an all-out specs war is a game you’re going to lose. This is most obvious in the case of the chipset. The inclusion of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G+ chip firmly places the device in the mid-range category. Like just about every other aspect of building your first phone in 2022, there are trade-offs.
I had assumed that the decision was largely budgetary. I suspect this always played a role in the decision, but in the end, Nothing’s choice not to carpet on the latest flagship chip was a bit more confusing than that. Pei said the decision to opt for a TSMC factory rather than Samsung is what pushed him to the limit. “It was a tough choice because we knew there would be people saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing? It is not the last. But I think it’s the most responsible choice of the seven series.
In terms of performance, the phone may crash. It works well, especially for the devices in its price range. Sure, there are trade-offs in not adopting this year’s latest flagship chip, but nothing that should have a profound impact on your daily use. The chips are coupled with a solid boot of 8GB of RAM and 128GB of memory. There are three tiers, in all, ranging from £399 ($473) to £499 ($592) for 12GB/256GB – again, positioning the product in the mid-range.
It’s good value for money, especially for a first phone. The resources required to launch a device like this are enormous. Pei certainly alluded to the fact that much of the company’s increase so far is related to the phone (1), which makes the success of this phone almost decisive for the young company. For this reason, I would not have been entirely surprised if Nothing transferred some of the financial burdens to the consumer.
Just like the conversation about specs, pricing your product in the same way as Apple and Samsung is a crazy race. First, the prices of phones over $1,000 are an element that has strangled phone sales. Finding a better price makes the product more competitive and opens up additional markets like India, which tend to be more interested in mid-tier prices (a big market for Nothing, in this case). It’s probably no coincidence that pricing was also a key part of OnePlus’ strategy.
The back is, meanwhile, the most unique design element I’ve seen recently on a handset, aside from the foldable screens. Is it a gadget? Yes, 100%. It’s a good one, though, with real features. This is also the reason why the device comes with a warning for people suffering from epilepsy and light sensitivity. It’s not something you see with most handsets – and partly an indication of how bright this thing is at full power. The “Glyph” is composed of 900 LEDs, covered with a diffusing layer that makes it look like a connected light source. The design is certainly unique. “They told me it’s the kanji character for ‘love,'” Pei told me about his design team. But I call about it. I can’t see it. It can be programmed for a variety of different notifications, but it takes some time to remember which one is which one.
In the center is a 5W wireless charging coil. Choose “Power Share” from the drop-down menu, place a pair of headphones in the center and the ring will turn on to let you know it’s doing its job. The overall battery life isn’t mind-blowing, but the 4,500mAh battery will get you through a day and a half of normal use without a hassle.
The OLED screen measures 6.55 inches. It’s a superb 2400 x 1080 display, with a smooth refresh rate of 120Hz. The screen is larger, which, in turn, gives a larger phone. I’m on the larger side of the human spectrum and had no problem wearing the handset, but it could definitely be a limiting factor for many users.
The 16-megapixel front camera sits behind a perforation of the screen. It has a built-in night mode and is capable of shooting videos in 1080. A pair of rear-facing 50-megapixel cameras overlap on the rear, their respective bodies creating a small camera bump. The overall image quality is pretty crisp, and the system has a few built-in tricks, including the inclusion of a macro mode and the clever use of both cameras to serve as a depth detector. Overall, it’s a solid implementation and impressive performance for a leading phone manufacturer.
The device itself is not classified for dust or sealing. Pei told me that the decision to skip the formal process was a matter of time. Each side of the product is covered with Gorilla Glass 5, which should protect against drops, and the rubber elements inside the phone will help it – at the very least – cope with rain and splashes. However, I wouldn’t go swimming with the phone yet.
Nothing’s Phone (1) is a refreshing change of pace in a smartphone market that has lost much of its sense of fun. It’s not a revolutionary device – but marketing materials aside, that’s never really been the point. It has to be a solid and reliable Android handset at its core, and on that front, it’s a success. It’s new enough to turn heads and serve as a starting point for an interesting business.
But is that cool? It is finally in the eye of the viewer. It’s really fun, functional, and enjoyable to look at. Too bad it’s not available in the USA