Mar 10, 2023
OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite review: Amazing specs, uneven experience
While it doesn’t cost much, the OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite still provides premium
While it doesn't cost much, the OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite still provides premium features such as a 108MP camera and a 6.7-inch 120Hz display. But the unevenness of the rest of the experience means it won't be a cheap phone champion like the Google Pixel 7a.
Cheap starting price
Huge 120Hz screen
108MP main camera
Uneven photo quality
Short battery life
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It's interesting to see what the OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite considers essential to the OnePlus experience. In OnePlus-ese, CE stands for "Core Edition", and this £300 phone aims to offer that OnePlus experience on a budget. OnePlus mostly succeeds in this, but a phone of this cost can't succeed everywhere.
While you get 67W charging, an unexpectedly hi-res 108MP main camera and a large 120Hz display with the OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite, the overall experience is tarnished by an aging chipset, lackluster battery life and unimpressive photography beyond that 108MP main camera.
If you and OnePlus agree on what the core features of a smartphone are and there's no wiggle room in your budget, then maybe the Nord CE 3 Lite could prove an excellent companion. But it's not one of the best cheap phones around, as those devices provide a lot more value for just a little more cash.
U.K. phone buyers can currently buy the OnePlus Nord CE Lite 3 from OnePlus' web store or from Amazon UK for £299. That's remarkably cheap for a new phone, even for those we count among our best cheap phones, which tend to cost around £400 or more.
This phone's not sold in the U.S. right now, but there are rumblings that it'll eventually show up in the U.S. as the Nord N30 later this year. Watch this space to see if that turns out to be true.
The flat sides of the Nord CE 3 Lite help the phone look more luxurious than it is, although holding the phone reveals its cheaper materials, such as the plastic of its side rails or the glass/plastic laminate back panel.
Flat-sided phones can sometimes be a bit tricky to handle since they don't fit in your hand as neatly as devices with curved edges. But with the OnePlus' curved back and beveled sides, along with its relatively late 6.8-ounce weight, the Nord CE 3 Lite still nestles in your palm nicely.
Remarkably, the headphone jack has survived for another year, so anyone who is doing their best to resist giving up their wired headphones will rejoice. You'll find that jack next to the USB-C charging port, and around the corner from the volume buttons and the power button/fingerprint scanner.
In typical OnePlus fashion, there are green and black versions of the Nord CE 3 Lite. The Pastel Lime (shown here) is very green indeed, with a glossy finish that picks up fingerprints all too easily. Your other choice is Chromatic Grey, which I imagine will be the more popular choice for its subtler look; it should be better at resisting smudges with its matte finish.
The OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite's price tag is small, but its display sure isn't. The front of the phone is taken up by a 6.72-inch screen, which is just as large as the one on the flagship OnePlus 11, while also offering the same maximum 120Hz refresh rate. However, the Nord CE 3 Lite's panel is obviously a cheaper relation when you drill down into the other specs.
For one, the Nord CE 3 Lite uses an FHD resolution, not QHD, although this is still in line with much more expensive flagship phones. It's also an LCD panel, which means lower power efficiency and worse color accuracy than an OLED panel like the 11 uses.
This Nord model does have an adaptive refresh rate, but rather than the fully variable LTPO type that flagship phones use, the Nord is instead stepped, offering 90Hz, 60Hz, 48Hz and 30Hz modes alongside the maximum 120Hz. This has an impact on power efficiency, as we’ll discuss later on in this Nord CE 3 Lite review.
You can also see more prominent bezels on the Nord, particularly on the bottom of the display. It's not attractive to look at, but seems a worthwhile sacrifice for a display of this size on a phone that's less than £300.
OnePlus rates this phone as having a 680-nit peak HDR brightness, which is rather low. I found myself having to crank the brightness slider up in order to see what I was doing, even when indoors.
OnePlus seemingly saved a lot of the Nord CE 3 Lite's hardware budget to give the phone a 108MP camera, one of the highest resolution sensors available on smartphones today, and the first time OnePlus has used a sensor with that megapixel rating. As well as capturing full 108MP shots and more compact 12MP everyday photos, OnePlus claims that using this resolution allows the phone to have a 3x lossless digital zoom. We'll show you what that looks like shortly.
The other two rear cameras don't inspire quite as much awe. The pair of 2MP sensors cover depth and macro duties, both types of cameras that phone makers tend to reach for when they're trying to bump up their sensor count. The lack of ultrawide camera is also noticeable, as that's a near-enough mandatory rear camera lens on modern smartphones. Perhaps OnePlus would have been better off using a more typical 50MP or even 12MP main camera instead of denying users an ultrawide lens.
To test out how the cameras perform, our first comparison shows a cropped-in image of some building-sized graffiti art, and demonstrates the difference between the Nord CE 3 Lite's standard 12MP capture mode and its 108MP mode.
As expected, there's more detail to be found in the 108MP version, but there's a slight color difference, too. The blue sky and blue wall both look more muted in the higher-resolution image than they do in the 12MP version, likely due to the improved light intake that larger virtual pixels offer.
Next, we have some comparisons against the iPhone SE (2022), a more expensive phone but one that Nord buyers will likely also be looking at. In this main camera shot of the Paddington Bear bench in Paddington station, the colors on the Nord are warmer, and the reflection in the bench's shiny surface is less intrusive. I do like the iPhone's crisper details though.
Some of this is reversed in a selfie comparison. I look positively tanned in the iPhone version of this portrait, and my clothes and the leafy background particularly vivid, while the Nord captures a more accurate version of the colors. You could argue that either version is more attractively colored, but the iPhone does a much better job at cutting me out from the background, and in the details. The Nord shot is much fuzzier, both at the boundary between me and the background and in areas like my jacket, due to noise in the image.
I compared more shots against the iPhone 14 Pro Max, the Apple phone acting as a general measure of quality rather than a price rival. This main camera image of a pot of pink flowers shows how the OnePlus struggles to capture color in comparison to the best camera phones around. The level of detail is OK, and you could say that the iPhone's cranked up the colors to an unpleasantly saturated level. But the OnePlus photo lacks much depth in the color of the leaves or petals.
Sure, the iPhone costs more than three times as much as the OnePlus, so you'd hope it would perform a lot better in camera tests. But other phones with top-class photography, like the Pixel 7a, are only a couple of hundred pounds/dollars more than the Nord, and the quality gap between the Google phone and the iPhone is surprisingly small.
I tried out the Nord CE 3 Lite's 3x digital zoom against the iPhone's 3x optical camera, and while it's a definite win for the iPhone in this shot of a bird statue atop a pub sign, the OnePlus does a decent job of showing it off. I wouldn't want to zoom in much more than this though, not only for detail but for color reasons. The OnePlus image is once again quite washed out in comparison to the iPhone.
Although the OnePlus has a dedicated macro camera for super close-up shots, the iPhone's ultrawide-powered macro mode has done a better job of shooting this wooden die. The lower-resolution camera of the OnePlus has produced a less-detailed and much darker image than the iPhone. It also failed to give a closer and in-focus shot than the iPhone during my testing.
This shot of me was to test the Nord CE 3 Lite's portrait mode, aided by the OnePlus' depth sensor. It can't fix the flattened colors we've seen already, but it does a nice job of cutting me out from the background anyway.
Driving the Nord CE 3 Lite is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 695, the same chip as the outgoing Nord CE 2 Lite. A mid-tier chip that's already over a year old doesn't inspire confidence in this phone's performance, although a small bonus over last year's model is that you now get 8GB RAM by default, with the single 128GB storage spec, rather than 6GB. There's also up to 8GB of virtual RAM available, taken from the phone's storage, and a microSD expansion slot to add up to another 1TB of storage if you wish.
Sure enough, benchmarks reveal the Nord CE 3 Lite phone lacks power, even compared to other devices in a similar price range like the Google Pixel 7a and the Galaxy A54. A special mention has to go to the Adobe Premiere Rush test, which I had to complete blind since the phone was apparently incapable of rendering the video in the timeline, and even after that failed to actually transcode the clip. This is definitely not a phone to buy if your regularly-used apps need a lot of processing power
The OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite doesn't offer a super high-fidelity experience when playing games such as Grid Autosport, as you'd expect. However, I was pleased with how smooth gameplay was, meaning that if you do want to use this phone for a spot of gaming, your favorite mobile titles will still be playable even if they don't look their best.
As you'd hope from a phone of its size, the Nord CE 3 Lite carries a 5,000 mAh battery. But even with this large cell, it's not the most efficient phone. In my 1080p YouTube rundown test, it took 2 hours and 56 minutes for the Nord's battery to drop 30%. This isn't superb for a phone with such a large battery, as phones like the 4,800 mAh Honor 70 manage over an hour longer on the same percentage of battery. It's perhaps the fault of the OnePlus' static 120Hz refresh rate being unable to scale down like a more advanced display would be able to.
In brighter news, you get rapid refueling in the form of OnePlus' 67W charging, a touch faster than the 65W of its predecessor. In our testing, charging the empty Nord CE 3 Lite with the included block got us to a 46% charge in 15 minutes, 79% in 30 minutes and 100% in 42 minutes.
That beats a large number of phones, including premium devices like the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra (57% in 30 minutes) or iPhone 14 Pro Max (42% in 30 minutes). The Nord CE 3 Lite doesn't quite defeat its big brother though, as the OnePlus 11 can do the 0 - 100% sprint in 24 minutes with its 100W charging.
The latest Android 13 software, in the form of OxygenOS 13.1, ships by default with the Nord CE 3 Lite. It's the same system you get on the OnePlus 11, and I like the way it looks along with features like the Widget Shelf, large app folders and the HyperBoost game hub. You can still tell it's more closely tied to Oppo's ColorOS than ever before though, something we did not enjoy in our OnePlus 11 review.
One of the most unique abilities of the Nord CE 3 Lite is its "200% volume mode." Increasing the volume one notch above the normal maximum enables this super-loud feature, which isn't double the volume of the previous notch, but is still certainly very loud. It's not the greatest quality, even for a phone speaker, but it's certainly punchy enough if you're trying to listen to something in a noisy environment, or want to use the Nord as a replacement for a small Bluetooth speaker.
OnePlus keeps its essential characteristics intact with the Nord CE 3 Lite, by offering speedy charging and a surprisingly good display for a low price. Sadly, that only makes the main weaknesses of often sub-par photography, a weak chipset and unfortunately short battery life all the more painful.
With as much to like as there is to dislike about the OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite, this phone won't suit the average buyer's priorities. You will have to be firmly focused on getting the most screen, charging watts or camera megapixels for your money, and on not spending a little more to get yourself a better rounded experience with a Pixel 7a, iPhone SE or Galaxy A54, for the Nord CE 3 Lite to be a viable shortlist option.
Richard is a Tom's Guide senior writer based in London, covering news, reviews and how-tos for phones, tablets, gaming, and whatever else people need advice on. Following on from his MA in Magazine Journalism at the University of Sheffield, he's also written for WIRED U.K., The Register and Creative Bloq. When not at work, he's likely thinking about how to brew the perfect cup of specialty coffee.
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By Matthew MurrayMay 25, 2023Starting price Outer display Rear cameras Front camera Chipset RAM Storage Battery Charging Software Size Weight Colors OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite Google Pixel 7a Samsung Galaxy A54 Chipset Geekbench 5 (single core/multicore) 3DMark Wild Life Unlimited (score/fps) Adobe Premiere Rush (Mins:Secs)