Thursday, September 29, 2022

OnePlus Nord N20 5G Review: A $300 Value Pick That’s Missing a Spark

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The OnePlus Nord N20 5G’s $300 price matches up with the original OnePlus One from 2014, but beyond that, much has changed from what OnePlus now offers at this lower price. The 2014 $299 “flagship killer” phone was built as rival to the best devices from Samsung, Apple and HTC, complete with a “Never Settle” mantra. 

The N20 5G instead brings in a few nice conveniences from the high-end — like an in-screen fingerprint sensor and faster 33W charging — but mixes them in with a less powerful processor and so-so cameras.

Some of this is to be expected when making a phone for a fraction of the $900 or $1,000 price top-of-the-line devices charge. And the N20 5G does offer some surprisingly solid value for the money, but don’t expect it to punch high above its price class like the OnePlus phones of years past. 

I’ve been using the phone over the past few weeks, and found that while the phone lacks excitement, it could include enough features to run much of what you need within the $300 price range.

Read more: Best Phones Under $500

Decent specs, fine performanceThe OnePlus N20 can handle games like Call of Duty Mobile just fine, but it did have struggles with YouTube TV. 

Eli Blumenthal/CNET
Whereas the original $300 OnePlus One ran on a then top-of-the-line Qualcomm processor, the N20 5G uses Qualcomm’s cheaper Snapdragon 695 chipset with 6GB of RAM. While it takes a minute to get going after turning it on, once it loads up it seems to be fine albeit with occasional hiccups when the battery was under 10%. 

Even then, I was able to multitask watching The Departed on Netflix while texting and browsing the web with no major issues, though scrolling did improve when I only had one app open at a time. Playing games like Call of Duty Mobile also worked fine. 

The display, a 6.43-inch AMOLED screen looks good, too, though AMOLED panels on budget phones are nothing new, as Samsung has had it on some of its affordable Galaxy A series devices. 

The N20 5G’s 60Hz refresh rate makes me miss the 90Hz panels OnePlus has used on most of its phones in recent years, particularly when scrolling through text-filled websites or even opening the app tray. Even cheaper phones, like the $200 TCL XE 30 5G, offer 90Hz displays at lower price points. Flicking through TikTok or YouTube, however, was fine on the OnePlus even when browsing with a low battery. 

Read more: Best Phones Under $200

Oddly, the phone struggled to play live content from YouTube TV, with constant frame drops and lagging that made watching live content almost impossible. Watching with DirecTV Stream was a bit better, but it still had some stutters and frame drops when viewing live TV. 

The mono speaker isn’t great and lacks fullness, but it can get loud and is fine for playing music on Spotify or streaming a movie or TV show, particularly when in a quiet room. 

On the plus side, there is a fingerprint scanner built into the display and it works well, recognizing my thumb and unlocking the phone quickly and reliably. There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microSD card slot for adding an additional 512GB of storage. You also get NFC for tap-to-pay mobile payments, a feature that even some $400 phones like the Moto G 5G lack. 

Beyond the display’s lower refresh rate and processor, there are a few other areas where OnePlus has scaled back compared to its flagship devices. The phone is IP52-rated, so it should survive dust and raindrops, but don’t take this to a pool or into the shower. It also lacks wireless charging, which is a common omission for most sub-$300 phones. 

OnePlus says it will get one major Android software upgrade (from Android 11 to Android 12) and three years of security updates. Most higher-end Android phones promise at least three years of major software upgrades, and Samsung even pledges two to three years of software updates with four years of security updates on its cheaper Galaxy A phones. Seeing OnePlus settle here on just one major upgrade is a bit disappointing — especially when the phone still is running on Android 11. 

I also wish the vibration motor was a bit stronger in this 173g phone, as the haptic feedback when texting felt inconsistent and the buzzing for notifications like calls and texts was weak. 

Three rear cameras have macro aspirations, marginal resultsThe 16-megapixel front camera on the N20 5G. 

Eli Blumenthal/CNET
The cameras on the N20 are as follows: a 64-megapixel main shooter along with 2-megapixel macro and 2-megapixel monochrome lenses. The main shooter does a respectable job with environments with ample lighting. Daylight shots at a Mets game or a bar looked fine with a fair amount of detail and color. 

Daylight shots are passable for sharing with friends on social media. 

Eli Blumenthal/CNET
As one might expect with a budget phone, night photography is not a selling point for the N20. It has a “Night Mode,” but those photos still looked quite dark. In this example, the New York Mets apple seems to blend in with the darkness of the sky.

Night shots are unimpressive. 

Eli Blumenthal/CNET
The macro lens, meanwhile, is useful for fulfilling a specs count of “three rear cameras” but not great for much else. The macro camera was inconsistent with focusing and the result lacked sharpness and detail. I wish more companies would stop including these cameras and use that money to upgrade more worthwhile features like the display, processor or speakers. 

There also is a monochrome lens, but no dedicated setting to shoot with it and it instead seems designed to help the main shooter like on other OnePlus phones.

A macro shot from the OnePlus N20 lacks details and clarity. 

Eli Blumenthal/CNET
A 16-megapixel camera rests in the upper left corner. Like the main rear shooter, selfies look fine when given ample light. 

The included gallery app is frustrating even when using basic features like pinch-to-zoom. I found that when I gestured to zoom out that the N20 lagged. Zooming in, however, often worked fine. 

Solid battery life, with a fast charger includedOnePlus does stand out a little bit by including a 33W fast charger with the phone, which is notable as manufacturers continue to leave that out of the box.

After 15 minutes of charging, the N20 5G’s 4,500-mAh battery went from 0% to 22%. Around 30 minutes of charging took the battery up to 49%, with a full charge taking around an hour and 20 minutes.

While I haven’t run any rigorous tests, I didn’t have any issues with battery life in my mixed use of the phone. 

Settling down
Eli Blumenthal/CNET
With the OnePlus Nord N20 5G it’s easy to see where the company is skimping on features to keep costs down. It still handles many of the basics well, which could be enough for those on T-Mobile or Mint Mobile looking for a solid, but affordable option at the carrier. 

OnePlus recently has expanded the N20 5G to now be available unlocked as well, though its 5G support is limited to only providers that use T-Mobile’s 5G network (such as Mint, Google Fi and Metro by T-Mobile). 

It is a shame that OnePlus has deviated so far from what brought it all the original success, as the US market greatly needs more strong, lower-priced alternatives to Samsung and Apple. The N20 comes close, but too many compromises keep it from ever being great. 

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