Exclusive: OnePlus Nord chipset, 5G and 3 key focuses revealed

OnePlus Nord
(Image credit: OnePlus)

In early 2014 a package landed on my desk. Inside was a phone from a company I admittedly knew little about at the time, which came with the company's bold claim to 'Never Settle', and a self-conferred 'Flagship Killer' tag. The OnePlus One had arrived.

I was skeptical, but using the phone changed my mind. In our review, we said "the OnePlus One's performance-to-price ratio is one of the most impressive we've ever seen in a smartphone […] we can't see a better – or cheaper – alternative."

What followed was a procession of affordable flagships, improving with each generation as OnePlus moved from 2 to 3 to 5 (there was no OnePlus 4); however, not all changes were well received by the company's growing fanbase.

OnePlus began to introduce 'T' models, starting with the OnePlus 3T, which arrived six months after a new flagship generation with minimal upgrades, and each new handset tended to come with a higher price tag than the last. 

In a rush? Watch our OnePlus Nord spec reveal video below

As the prices of OnePlus' handsets continued to climb, the 'flagship killer' was becoming just another flagship manufacturer. Its latest generation of phones, the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, are excellent high-end devices, but they're also the firm's most expensive to date. 

The vocal OnePlus community began voicing their frustrations at the ever-increasing price tags. OnePlus had started out as an underdog, taking on an industry that was continuously pushing prices up, and fans feared that OnePlus had lost its way. 

Now, OnePlus wants to set the record straight. It's launching a new line of affordable phones, the first of which is the OnePlus Nord

We sat down with Carl Pei, the Assistant Head of OnePlus Nord, for an exclusive chat about the new handset, and what it means for consumers and fans of the brand.

Why now?

This isn't the first time that OnePlus has launched a more affordable device on the heels of a flagship phone. Back in 2015, three months after the arrival of the OnePlus 2, it launched the cheaper OnePlus X

That handset failed to gain traction however, and was discontinued just seven months later. As Pei admits, "[the OnePlus X] was great in its own right, but not a great product for that target audience of core techies."

OnePlus X

The affordable OnePlus X was short-lived (Image credit: TechRadar)

Five years later, and OnePlus is venturing back into mid-range territory. It's seen a growth in its audience (and prices) in that time, and is confident that it's now in the right place, technology-wise, to make its new offering a success.

"We've been looking at the mid-range smartphone market for a while," Pei tells us. 

"It's just that we felt like the technology wasn't really there to be able to create a mid-range product that also lives up to our 'Never Settle' philosophy. But we're pretty confident that this time around the OnePlus Nord will do just that."

Comparisons will be drawn between the Nord and the X, and understandably so, but OnePlus is adamant that this is a new chapter for the company, rather than a nostalgia trip.

In a message to the media on June 23, 2020, OnePlus Founder and CEO Pete Lau, said: "To be clear, this is not a reactionary attempt to 'go back to our roots', as some people have speculated.

"And since our 'roots' are actually in creating the best flagship smartphones, I see this part of our strategy as an important extension of the OnePlus value proposition."

Whether or not you agree with Lau's comments, OnePlus is clear that it's looking to continue its flagship offering alongside a more affordable range of new products – starting with the OnePlus Nord.

How much?

With a growing audience, OnePlus now has more people to please, and its current high-end offerings have priced out some fans – something which they haven't been shy about communicating to OnePlus.

"There's a need from other consumers for a more accessibly priced OnePlus product," Pei continues. "I'm sure you've seen the comments online, people have been asking [for a more affordable phone] for the past couple of years."

Lau confirmed separately to TechRadar that the OnePlus Nord price will be €500 in Europe, and OnePlus later confirmed the Nord price would come in "below $500" (about £410 / AU$730), which sees it go head to head with the new iPhone SE as well as devices from Chinese rivals, including the Honor 20 Pro, Oppo Reno 2 and Xiaomi Mi Note 10.

Lau also revealed, in a post on the OnePlus Forum, that the OnePlus Nord would arrive in Europe and India first, while "a select number of users in North America will also get a chance to experience the new device through a highly limited beta program after launch". 

What's on offer?

Now that we know the OnePlus Nord name, how much it'll set you back, and where it will be available first, what does this affordable handset actually offer?

The OnePlus Nord boils down to three things; camera, user experience and the OnePlus quality

"For us, this product really boils down to three things," Pei explains. "The first being the camera […] the second thing is our user experience [...] and I think the third part is the OnePlus quality."

One of the main reasons Pei believes the OnePlus Nord will be able to compete in a crowded mid-range market is its flagship camera proposition.

"We've seen that [the] camera is probably the most used feature of a smartphone," he says. "It's the number one use case, so if we wanted to create a great product, the camera had to be great. 

"With the OnePlus Nord we're bringing a flagship-level camera to the mid-range price range, which I think consumers are going to be really excited by."

For now, we don't know what the camera hardware will be, but it's not the company's only focus. OnePlus has found that consumers are fans of its Oxygen OS interface, and the range of optimization and customization it allows. 

Speaking to the user experience aspect of the OnePlus Nord, Pei notes that "it's not only the hardware, but also how we optimize the software, the animations, to make sure that every part of it flows really seamlessly."

The third point is design, and what Pei describes as 'the OnePlus quality.' OnePlus is banking on its brand power to lure consumers to its affordable handset, with the promise of the same high standards as its flagship line.

"We wanted to bring out a mid-range smartphone that really lives up to the OnePlus quality," he explains. "All the testing is done exactly to the flagship standard, so when consumers buy a OnePlus product at a more reasonable price point, they can expect the exact same rigorous quality testing that all our flagship phones undergo."

A separate, dedicated team within OnePlus has been created to solely focus on the new mid-range product line, which Pei says will allow the company to get "every little detail right, as we did on the flagship [phones].

"This attention to detail is going to be something that really sets us apart," he continues, "and there's countless small little stories about the things we've done, the tweaks that we've done. 

"I don't think any of them are really worth mentioning or talking about at length, but the hope is when the consumer gets the phone, [while] they might not know every little thing we've done to build this product, they're surely gonna feel it."

The driving force

Pei isn't revealing the specifics of the cameras, software or design just yet, but he did reveal what will be powering the user experience on the OnePlus Nord.

The OnePlus Nord uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765G chipset

The phone will come with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765G chipset, and it's this piece of tech that has unlocked the potential for an affordable OnePlus device without the company making too many compromises – don't forget that 'Never Settle' mantra. 

While it's not Qualcomm's flagship-tier chip, the 765G sits between the flagship 8 and mid-range 6 series, and packs many of the features of the higher-end chipset. We found the 765G performed well in our LG Velvet review, which should bode well for the OnePlus Nord.

The OnePlus Nord is a 5G phone

The inclusion of the 765G chipset means the Nord will also be 5G-enabled, allowing users to take advantage of the next-generation network if they live in a coverage area.

Pei believes that the inclusion of 5G on the mid-range Nord "is more about ease of mind, it's more about future-proofing," rather than offering bleeding-edge technology to the early adopters who are usually drawn to flagship devices.

It's for consumers who know that 5G is coming, and know it's not fully rolled out yet, but want the security of knowing that if they buy the Nord they'll be ready for when 5G is widely available.

So what's next? 

Does OnePlus have the right ingredients for mid-range success? Unsurprisingly, Pei believes so, saying "based on our understanding of what makes a great phone, I think this is it.

"A great camera, a really fast, smooth and fluid experience, and a device made by somebody you trust to make a good phone. That's the entire concept behind the first product, the OnePlus Nord."

OnePlus is talking a good game, and the OnePlus Nord price pitches it at an exciting point in the market; and it also makes it comfortably cheaper than the OnePlus 8 series, providing a clear distinction between the ranges.

Whether or not the Nord takes off remains to be seen. We've seen great interest in our reporting on the OnePlus 8 Lite and OnePlus Z rumors, which suggests that there is consumer interest in an affordable OnePlus smartphone – but that doesn't guarantee sales.

We'll have to wait for more details of the OnePlus Nord to drop, and until we get the handset in for review, before we can properly comment on this new direction for the brand.

OnePlus isn't stopping there though. As we've already mentioned, Lau has hinted at affordable devices destined for North America further down the line, and back in May of this year, during an interview with Fast Company, he also revealed that OnePlus is looking to diversify its product ranges to create its own ecosystem along the lines of Apple's.

The firm already produces its own Bullets earbuds range, it's launched the OnePlus TV in India, and it sounds like there's even more to come from the firm in the near future. The affordable OnePlus Nord is just the start.

John McCann
Global Managing Editor

John joined TechRadar over a decade ago as Staff Writer for Phones, and over the years has built up a vast knowledge of the tech industry. He's interviewed CEOs from some of the world's biggest tech firms, visited their HQs and has appeared on live TV and radio, including Sky News, BBC News, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, LBC and BBC Radio 4. Originally specializing in phones, tablets and wearables, John is now TechRadar's resident automotive expert, reviewing the latest and greatest EVs and PHEVs on the market. John also looks after the day-to-day running of the site.