The OnePlus Nord 2 just proved that we don't need flagships anymore

OnePlus Nord 2 vs Galaxy S21 Ultra
OnePlus Nord 2 vs Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

I've spent the past week bouncing between the new OnePlus Nord 2 and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, two of the best Android phones occupying very different segments of the market. In the UK, the Nord sells for £400, and the S21 Ultra starts at triple that figure. Yet despite the gulf in price, I've been struck by how little I've actually missed from the £1200 handset during my time with the Nord.

OnePlus has plenty of experience in making the right compromises for its "flagship killer" phones. And although the company is itself producing very traditional flagship phones these days, the Nord 2 proves it hasn't lost sight of the magic that made fan-favorites like the OnePlus 3 and 3T so popular.

The Nord 2's Dimensity 1200-AI processor isn't as fast on paper as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 found in Samsung's flagship. However, it is pretty close, benchmarking around the level of a Snapdragon 865 or 870. (Chipmaker MediaTek would also argue the Dimenisty processor's quicker neural processing unit gives it an edge over rivals.) When paired with UFS 3.1 storage and at least 8GB of RAM, that's more than fast enough for 99% of the things you're going to be doing on a smartphone.

Have traditional flagships jumped the shark?

Even with mid-tier chips like the Snapdragon 765G used in last year's Nord, software optimization has a much greater effect on day-to-day performance than sheer hardware grunt. Android is mature enough that any modern mobile chipset should be capable of producing a smooth user experience. If it doesn't, lazy coding is the most likely culprit.

So if a $400 phone feels just as quick as a $1,200 phone, why bother with the more expensive handset? So what do you get with a flagship that you might actually care about? There are a few very specific reasons, and they definitely won't apply to every smartphone buyer.

OnePlus Nord 2

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

The most obvious, especially with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, is the cameras. The Nord 2 has a good primary camera plus a run-of-the-mill ultrawide and a monochrome shooter that might as well be a sticker for all the utility it provides. And while you'll mostly be relying on the main shooter, whichever phone you're using, there's no denying the extra versatility offered by the S21 Ultra's 3X and 10X lenses. It's unquestionably the best camera system on any smartphone, letting Samsung's flagship effectively replace a high-end point-and-shoot camera.

I've been amazed by some of the photos and videos I've been able to capture with phones like the Galaxy S21 Ultra. And for me personally, I love being able to pull a single device out of my pocket and know that, however challenging the shot is, I'll be able to get it. But I'm definitely not in the majority. And for many people, an £800 premium to have this in your pocket all the time will be hard to justify, especially when a very good point-and-shoot camera can be had for less than half this amount.

Besides Google, most manufacturers cut corners when it comes to supporting cheaper handsets.

Next is software support. While the Nord 2 and many other mid-rangers will receive two years of Android platform and three years of security patch updates from launch, Samsung's flagship boasts three years of OS updates and four years of security patches. Typically, more expensive Android phones are supported for longer, while cheaper models quickly fall by the wayside. The pace at which those updates arrive is also worth considering — phones like the Nord may indeed get two years of OS updates, but these are likely to be slower to arrive than updates for flagship phones.

Pixel 5 security update

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Of course, the exception to this rule is Google, whose cheaper Pixels enjoy the same three years of OS updates as the company's more expensive flagships. Google also looks set to differentiate itself in this area further, if reports of five years of support for upcoming Pixel 6 phones are to be believed.

Nevertheless, the Nord's software support means that it'll still receive the arguably more important Android security patches up to the three-year mark. Given the standard two-year smartphone contract life, that's at least a reasonable level of coverage for the typical owner.

'Real' flagships can boast extra nice-to-have conveniences.

The next thing you'll miss out on in a more affordable phone like the Nord is all the nice-to-have extras — conveniences like wireless charging and an IP rating for water and dust resistance. These are mostly non-essential things — it's an open secret that most smartphones will be just fine if they end up on the wrong end of a spilled drink or rain shower. And the Nord, like most, includes a rubber gasket around its SIM tray for insulation. The lack of an IP rating doesn't mean a water-related mishap will necessarily kill the phone, just that the requisite tests haven't been done to secure an IP rating.

OnePlus Nord 2 review

Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

And wireless charging is great if, like me, you've already invested in a bunch of charging pads. But when even relatively cheap phones can boast 65W wired charging speeds, why bother? The Nord 2, for instance, is capable of charging from dead to full in as little as 30 minutes with the bundled brick and cable — far quicker, in fact, than the current Samsung flagship.

The enthusiast in me loves all the extra things that my Galaxy S21 Ultra can do. But the pragmatist in me knows that most of the time, it's just technological overkill. And as the technology in phones like the OnePlus Nord 2 becomes more advanced, it's possible more consumers may find traditional flagships a less tempting proposition.

Alex Dobie
Executive Editor

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

  • This is an interesting article about an interesting phone. It would do nicely indeed for me. With the demise of LG as a phone maker and my distaste for Samsung and Apple I suspect a OnePlus of some description is in my future. Not this one of course as it won't be coming to the US. Hopefully it also won't be a Pixel as I doubt I could put up with all those updates.
  • If I was going to buy a $400 phone it would be a Pixel, and only a Pixel.
  • My oneplus 8 pro suppose to be a flagship killer as well. SOT 2.5 hours max, when outside over 23 degrees phone overheating all the time turning brightness to low- unusable. Nice review but no more oneplus.
  • For wireless charging, water resistance and especially gaming, you still need a flagship. But to be fair I only care about clean bloatware free and uncluttered software, updates without no unnecessary duplicate apps along with the stupid shelf that OnePlus shipped with their phones and camera in that order, although the camera has to be point and shoot as I don't care about any annoying and complicated manual modes as I've always been a point and shoot person and my phone has to reflect that along with software support and only 2 OEMs or rather 1 OEM that I can rely on when it comes to software updates and support and they are the most consistent and that really matters to me.
  • Exactly my experience with an 8 Pro, I'd never buy another OnePlus
  • If you care about cameras you'll always need a flagship and generally avoid OnePlus, the Nord 2 has reviewed badly in the camera department.
  • In the midrange space there's nothing that can beat the Pixel A series in cameras even Samsung failed and OnePlus certainly fails in cameras.
  • We do as long as OP keeps refusing to sell these in North America. We either get crippled Nords or the high end phones. Nothing in the upper midrange. As long as half the world is left out, you can't declare a "universal" winner like this.
  • The world doesn't revolve around the US consumer who don't care about competition and are content with a Apple and Samsung duopoly so the US gets what they deserve in having crippled versions of phones like the Noord LMAO 🤣. I can declare a winner because Pixel A series phones are the best midrange phones for their price not for their hardware but for the Pixel software and camera as well as far superior software support with only Samsung beating them in security updates which are now 4 years.
  • I never said it did. Nice strawman though. Why is it so hard to sell a phone they're selling in other countries in North America? It's not like it would take much effort. And it's certainly not "revolving around the US" to sell the game phones here. That was a completely asinine statement.
  • Because it's a China based product.... there is a lack of trust. And China's backing of hackers and espionage don't help.
  • "The OnePlus Nord 2 just proved that we don't need flagships anymore"
    Except when a two year old flagship is better 😄