In just one day, all my excitement for the Nothing Phone (1) has been dashed

An official image of the Nothing Phone (1) from the back, with a parrot perched on it
(Image credit: Nothing)

Against my better judgment, I'd been fairly optimistic about the Nothing Phone (1), the debut smartphone from a new tech brand formed by OnePlus' co-founder.

Despite the initial unveiling being all filler and no killer, a price leak made me think this could be an exciting mid-range phone, and a test sample of its version of Android was fairly impressive. It's rare for me to write multiple glowing articles about a phone that hasn't even been unveiled yet, but the Nothing Phone (1) had me doing just that.

But with less than a month to go until the phone's full unveiling on July 12, things have started to turn sour - too much has been shown too early, and I'm not sure if I'm interested in the phone anymore.

Official and unofficial design leaks

In the course of a day, we've seen two pieces of information regarding the Nothing Phone (1) design.

The first of these is an official image from Nothing, showing the rear of the phone - we'd previously heard that it'd have a transparent back, though this image shows there's not actually that much going on under the cover.

It also looks startlingly like the iPhone 12, particularly with the two lens placements and the round coil which is very reminiscent of Apple's MagSafe.

The image proved divisive, something that Nothing founder Carl Pei claimed was intentional.

Not long after, we saw a lot more about the phone thanks to lots of YouTubers getting to see the device up close at an event in Switzerland. It seems there was a 'launch' event for the device, though the phone was under a glass case.

This gave us a better glimpse at the phone, showing some LED light-up panels around the two cameras and at different points on the back. And the more I see of the Nothing Phone (1), the less I like it.

Boring or bad?

I don't like the design of the Nothing Phone (1) - I guess when Carl Pei called the phone 'divisive' he was right, though I'm yet to speak to someone who likes it.

I can't decide whether it's boring or bad though - or whether those two things are actually the same.

With a flat frame and only two rear cameras, the Nothing Phone (1) seems to recall all the things I don't like about bland or weak mid-range smartphones, and that puts me off quite a bit.

But it's where the phone tries that it fails most, with the weirdly-laid-out LED panels and the 'transparent' back that doesn't really show anything all combining to make a chaotically-weird phone.

I do like weird-looking phones, when it's pulled off well. I've enjoyed the Vivo V23 and Realme 9 Pro Plus with their color-changing backs, and the Oppo Reno 10x Zoom and Lenovo Legion Phone Duel with their odd pop-up segments. But I have an easy test - if I'd be embarrassed to be seen with a phone in public, it's probably not a good sign.

Not only would I feel reluctant to pull the Nothing Phone (1) out of my pocket in public, but I don't even like having its image on my screen in the TechRadar office, lest someone see it and ask "what in the world is that?"

Nothing Phone (1) launch event invite.

(Image credit: Nothing)

Why this ruined my excitement for the phone

In tech, and in other industries, there are two different ways to stand out: to do something better than everybody else, or to do something differently.

It's hard to be the best in the competitive smartphone world, with different buyers' needs and price compromises meaning few phones can stand ahead of the crowd.

It's a lot easier to be different, and you'll certainly turn eyes from tech journalists and enthusiasts, but there has to be method behind the madness. New features or designs need functional reasons to exist, that change how people use their phone. 

Very often, when smartphones do something different just for the sake of being unique, they have very little impact on the wider tech culture, with people forgetting them as soon as something newer and flashier comes along.

And 'different' is a far cry from 'good', and we rarely see devices that are both. Usually when phones have unique or quirky features, they end up being (maybe because of, or despite, this weird addition) poor devices.

It seems that Nothing is trying very hard to make a memorable phone, but is doing so the wrong way. Its weird design won't translate into a massively different user interface, but is reminiscent of the many mid-range Android phones that think 'looking weird' is enough of a draw.

And if Nothing has decided a quirky design is all that it needs to draw eyes, it hints that the phone itself doesn't have competitive specs - maybe it'll have a high price, weak chipset, unimpressive cameras or slow charging.

I'll wait until July 12 to make my mind up about the Nothing Phone (1), but I can really feel my initial hype for the phone dissipate.

Tom Bedford

Tom Bedford was deputy phones editor on TechRadar until late 2022, having worked his way up from staff writer. Though he specialized in phones and tablets, he also took on other tech like electric scooters, smartwatches, fitness, mobile gaming and more. He is based in London, UK and now works for the entertainment site What To Watch.

He graduated in American Literature and Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Prior to working on TechRadar, he freelanced in tech, gaming and entertainment, and also spent many years working as a mixologist.