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Is the OnePlus Nord 4’s all-metal design just a gimmick?

The most striking part of the new OnePlus Nord 4 is the unibody metal build – but is there more to it than just a marketing USP?

Chinese brand OnePlus has today twitched the curtain back ever so slightly on its latest smartphone, the OnePlus Nord 4. I say “slightly” because this reveal is focused solely on the phone’s design – that means I’m not at liberty to discuss the performance, software, camera quality, or anything that doesn’t pertain to the physical build.

Normally, that would make this quite a short article but the OnePlus Nord 4 has an interesting angle that gives me a little more to talk about: its “all-metal” design, with the rear plate and edges all comprised of one solid aluminium piece. This isn’t the first time that a phone used this approach but OnePlus is quick to claim the distinction of being the first brand to offer a unibody metal build in the 5G era.

As it turns out, I have a fair few thoughts regarding the unibody metal design so if you’re already familiar with the pros and cons thereof, feel free to use the link below to see what’s going on with the rest of the build.

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OnePlus Nord 4: Unibody metal build

It used to be the case that unibody metal phones weren’t all that rare – some of our older staffers remember the likes of the HTC One A9 or Apple’s iPhone 6 – but the style became less tenable as wireless communication demands grew. This is because metal doesn’t allow signal passthrough as well as plastic, or even glass, which was far from ideal as the world began moving towards 5G.

That’s why you’ll see small plastic lines running perpendicular around the metal edges of phones like the Google Pixel 8 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra – these “antenna lines” are essentially plastic breaks in the metal, strategically placed to allow the signal to easily pass to and from the phone’s antennae.

The OnePlus Nord 4 still has a few of these lines – two on each edge – as well as a thin plastic rim running around the display, between the panel and the metal edges. They’re all subtle enough that they don’t throw off the elegance of the metal design but the cynic in me does wonder how revolutionary this design is if it still relies so heavily on plastic passthroughs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not begrudging OnePlus for making smart design choices to achieve the level of connectivity that users want, but with the marketing revolving so heavily around the unibody metal design, finding the same tricks present here makes it feel less momentous.

Signal passthrough aside, the other obvious benefit of the phone wearing a full metal jacket is the durability. While the glass of the display and the cameras still leaves the door open for cracks and scratches, housing the core components in a single slab of aluminium does sound more robust than crackable plastic or smashable glass.

Other brands have played around with different materials, of course: Oppo’s Find X5 Pro used a unibody ceramic build last year, Honor used vegan leather on the Magic 6 Lite and Motorola has even been experimenting with a Nordic Wood finish on the Edge 50 Ultra. Compared to some of the more out-there options (looking at you, Motorola) OnePlus bringing back the unibody metal design feels positively quaint.

The last thing I want to mention is less about the OnePlus Nord 4 and more a criticism of unibody designs in general. Segmented builds may not look as slick when you stare at the edges but they have one major benefit that, in my opinion, too few companies are taking full advantage of – repairability. This is mostly Nokia’s territory, with last year’s Nokia G42 5G and Nokia G22 both designed to allow users to easily perform simple repairs like battery, charging port and screen replacements themselves.

Once again, this is far from just a OnePlus problem – most of the industry’s major players don’t bother to make their phones easier to repair – but I can’t help but think that maybe unibody designs are better off left in the past, leaving the path free for repairable, more sustainable phones to become the norm.

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OnePlus Nord 4: Design and key features

Ok, that’s enough talk of unibody designs to last us for a while, so let’s see what else the OnePlus Nord 4 has to offer. First of all, although I can’t be specific about the weight, I will say that the Nord 4 feels about as solid in the hand as you’d expect from a chunk of aluminium. It’s not a lightweight phone in the vein of the 168g Honor 200 Lite or the 175g Motorola Edge 50 Fusion, but I won’t go so far as to call it heavy, either. It’s a solid phone that’s still comfortable enough to use.

The brushed aluminium edges aren’t completely flat, rounding off to the display and the rear panel, which helps the phone nestle in your hand. Similarly to the weight, this isn’t exactly a thin phone but it’s not overly chunky either. I’ve recently criticised phones like the Samsung Galaxy A35 5G for feeling bulky – that’s not a problem here.

The colour in these pictures is called Mercurial Silver – there’s also an Obsidian Midnight black variant out in the wild, as well as a secret third colour that once again, I’m not allowed to discuss at this point. Where the Obsidian Midnight has a fairly neutral frosted style on most of its rear, the Mercurial Silver has an interesting ridged look, with diagonal lines that create a 3D appearance. You can’t feel the ridges, so it’s purely an aesthetic choice, but it’s still quite striking, especially compared to the more traditional style on the black variant.

Whichever style you choose, the top third of the phone’s rear breaks up the design with a simple glass panel. Here, we’ve got two horizontally arranged camera lenses as well as a pair of LED flashes. The horizontal camera layout is a fairly big departure from last year’s Nord phones, and while it isn’t quite as unique as the previous twin-circle style, I prefer the cleaner look.

The display again falls under the hush-hush umbrella, so all I’ll say is that there’s a single selfie camera situated centrally near the top bezel. Follow that corner around to the top edge and there’s a small circular cut-out that looks suspiciously like an IR blaster. The right edge is home to the power and volume buttons, while the bottom has the USB-C port, a speaker grille and the SIM tray.

That just leaves the left edge, which is bare except for OnePlus’ signature three-position alert slider. This is a handy shortcut for switching your phone between loud, vibrate and silent – useful when going in and out of meetings, to the cinema or settling down for the night. There’s no labelling to indicate which position corresponds to which setting, so expect a bit of trial and error in the early days but once you’ve got the hang of it, this is a useful inclusion that very few other brands currently offer.

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OnePlus Nord 4: Final thoughts

As someone whose working life revolves around the never-ending carousel of similar-looking smartphone launches, I truly appreciate a brand making efforts to stand out from the sea of plastic and glass. The OnePlus Nord 4’s metal unibody is certainly stylish, feels nice in the hand and manages to avoid being overly bulky or heavy. In that regard, I think it’s a success.

To answer the question raised in my headline, no, I don’t think the metal build is just a gimmick. It’s certainly a clever marketing ploy but there’s more to it than that. The durability benefits of metal need no introduction and the fact that they’re offered here without kicking the overall weight into unacceptable territory is worth applauding. 

My biggest concern is the aforementioned issue of unibody designs getting in the way of repairability becoming more commonplace. Better sustainability in the smartphone industry is a hill I’ll happily die on, so that side of me is disappointed to see a brand choosing to dust off an old design style instead of opting for something forward-thinking that could pressure the big players into making more environmentally friendly choices. As I said before, however, this is not an issue I lay solely at OnePlus’ door.

Soapbox digressions aside, this first look at the OnePlus Nord 4’s design has left me with more positive feelings than negative ones. I particularly like the ridged look on my Mercurial Silver review sample and I’m pleased to see the undervalued alert slider making a return. I’ll have a lot more to say about the Nord 4 after its official launch, so watch this space to see what else the metal mid-range smartphone has to offer.

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