Nothing’s Phone 2a Is the Most Compelling Budget Phone I’ve Ever Used

A combination of thoughtful design and savvy compromises helps the Phone 2a punch way above its weight.

Nothing's $349 Phone 2a in Inverse Senior Editor James Pero's hand.
Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Raymond Wong
Gear Reviews

Nothing has a lot of lofty goals. The tech startup founded by Carl Pei wants to make tech fun. To that end, it’s (at times painstakingly) developed a standout design language that incorporates elements like transparency and “technological warmth.” The Ear 1 and Ear 2 wireless earbuds were supposed to be — at least design-wise — a foil to the iconic but tired look of AirPods, and the Phone 1 and Phone 2, naturally, an alternative to the now rinse-and-repeat silhouette of an iPhone.

The company wants to challenge the status quo. For that purpose, Nothing has software — Nothing OS (we’re now on version 2.5) is filled with customizations that are designed specifically to challenge the way we use our smartphones. Monochrome app icons that deter us from being sucked into social media and the like, or the Glyph Interface (LED lights on the transparent back of its phones) to help stave off the temptation of staring at your screen.

These are big, bold goals, to be sure, but Nothing also wants to do another thing that I think is less overtly stylish or iconoclastic: It wants to sell phones. And to do that, it has to play the game. Enter the Phone 2a. It’s not a flagship phone with top-of-the-line specs, but even with a mid-range chipset, the Phone 2a’s eye-catching and literally flashy design, and shockingly well-optimized software tear down the notion of a mid-range or budget phone. As a whole experience, the Phone 2a is a rarity in this price range ($349) that’s more than the sum of its parts.

A Mid-Range Phone That Feels Flagship

Like Google’s A-series Pixel phones, Nothing’s Phone 2a is exactly what it sounds like: an incremental and price-conscious addition to its current phone lineup. While in chronological order and in naming conventions it proceeds the Phone 2, from a spec perspective, it slots in behind Nothing’s latest flagship, acting as a tech step up from the Phone 1. Unlike the Phone 1 and 2, however, the Phone 2a is only available in the U.S. via the company’s developer program — more on that later.

The most obvious marker of that place in the Nothing phone hierarchy is the use of a non-Qualcomm chipset. The Phone 2a comes with a Mediatek Dimensity 7200 Pro, which is notably less powerful than the last-gen (but still very capable!) Qualcomm Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 chip inside the Phone 2, but more powerful than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G+ inside the Phone 1.

For a month, I put the Phone 2a through lots of routine tests... and didn’t ever feel like it was lacking much.

I had a hunch before ever using the Phone 2a that, despite not having the top-of-the-line chip, I would notice very little difference between Nothing’s mid-range phone and a flagship like Google’s Pixel 8 Pro. Spoiler alert: I was (mostly) right.

For a month, I put the Phone 2a through lots of routine tests — watching videos, browsing the web, multitasking — and didn’t ever feel like it was lacking much. I even decided to do something I don’t normally do — play graphics-intensive 3D mobile games — and fired up Genshin Impact to see how the Phone 2a’s Mediatek chip kept up. While playing on the game’s lowest settings (graphics set to “low” at 30 frames per second) the Phone 2a didn’t hiccup.

Nothing’s Phone 2a marries thoughtful design with affordability in a way that makes mid-range feel premium.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

As I mentioned in my first impressions, there are some areas where you might notice the lesser chip. In photo post-processing, for example, you may have to wait an extra second or two after you snap an image to view that picture in your gallery. Also, on low battery, some sluggishness starts to become more pronounced — swiping through your screen becomes a little less snappy and apps take a little bit longer to load. That’s the case with any phone, but compared to an iPhone, for example, the effect feels more apparent to me.

These compromises are subtle enough to mostly disregard, but if you’re the type of person who needs the best and needs it now, then the Phone 2a isn’t your pick. And in its defense, no mid-range or budget phone is your choice if that’s what you want or need. But if the cost-to-value ratio is your biggest concern, the Phone 2a is a great option.

But if the cost-to-value ratio is your biggest concern, the Phone 2a is a great option.

For $349, you get a nice big display with a 120Hz adaptable refresh rate. A combination of the size of the phone’s screen (6.7 inches) and the use of AMOLED makes the Phone 2a luxurious for a mid-range device. Colors are bright and crisp, scrolling — when the phone is functioning at its best — is smooth, and playing games (especially if you have a mobile controller like the GameSir X2s that I’ve been testing) is about as nice on the eyes as it can get in this price range.

Plus, you get the same Nothing flares like the Glyph Interface — LED lights on the transparent back of the phone that light up for notifications even if the Phone 2a’s is slightly smaller. While there was some question before launch if the Phone 2a’s Glyph Interface would have the same functionality as the Phone 1 and 2, I’m happy to report that you get all the Glyph goodness, including the Glyph Composer which lets you customize light and sound notifications with Nothing’s native app.

Photograph by Raymond Wong
Photograph by Raymond Wong
Photograph by Raymond Wong
1 / 3

If looking at the phone tricks you into thinking you’re holding a flagship device, the physical feel of the device does just as good of a job, even if the materials aren’t as premium as the Phone 2 or other flagship devices. For the record, the Phone 2a has a plastic back and sides, and the mid-frame is made partially of recycled aluminum. That’s obviously not the titanium and glass construction of an iPhone 15 Pro or Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra, but despite those cheaper materials, the Phone 2a still feels nice in the hand.

As for durability, it’s tough to say. Is there a chance that you might accrue more scratches than a phone with a scratch-resistant glass back? Maybe, but again, these are the types of mid-range compromises one needs to weigh before buying a non-flagship device.

And despite being a mid-range device, there are some areas in which the Phone 2a really excels. One of those areas is battery life. The Phone 2a actually features the biggest battery on any Nothing smartphone — 5,000mAh — and utilizes that battery quite well. Nothing says that the Phone 2a can get up to two days of use on a full charge and after using it for a couple weeks, I’m inclined to agree.

A (Mostly) Quality Camera

The Phone 2a’s central camera array may be the device’s most divisive design choice.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

One of the biggest things you’ll notice about the Phone 2a from a design perspective is the big robot-like pair of eyes on the back side — a side-by-side camera array that makes a statement. I can’t speak for everyone, but I assume the arrangement of the Phone 2a’s sensors will be one of the most divisive design choices among potential buyers. I personally kind of like it, especially coupled with the bespoke transparent back that’s inspired by a New York City subway map from the 1970s.

However you feel about the looks of the Phone 2a’s camera array, the quality of photos and videos is solid. On the back, there are two sensors — a 50-megapixel main and a 50-megapixel ultra-wide lens — and those can record video in 4K at 30 frames per second or 1080p at 60 frames per second. The front of the Phone 2a has a 32-megapixel selfie camera, which is fairly serviceable. I’m a fan of Nothing’s picture processing — I think it looks very natural and less yellow than the default processing on my main device, an iPhone 13.

1 / 6

Overall, while I was pleased with the quality of photos and videos, there were times that I found the Phone 2a struggled to auto-expose shots in an adept way, particularly when shooting video. Some videos that I recently captured of Rivian’s R2 at the New York Auto Show struggled to deal with lighting as it came through the front of the company’s storefront. I can’t say for sure if that’s a drawback of Nothing OS 2.5, the sensors, or a mixture of both, but those were the only times when I felt the camera was lacking. Well, sort of...

As much as I like the unique placement of the Phone 2a’s rear-facing camera sensors, their position in the near-center of the phone makes it far more likely that you’ll wrap your fingers around the lenses while holding the device. Naturally, that makes the likelihood of smudging your camera up higher than it would on other phones with a camera array in the top corner.

Again, nothing about that hitch is a dealbreaker, but there may be a bit of a learning curve with teaching yourself to hold the phone in a more smudge-free way.

Vision and Value

A part of me wants to be bored by the Phone 2a. When Nothing came onto the scene, the vision was a bold one: take on Apple, make tech fun, move fast, break things.

That spirit is still there, of course, but the mission of the Phone 2a is one of expansion. To that end, the device has been a success so far. According to Nothing’s CEO, Carl Pei, the Phone 2a sold 100,000 units in just 24 hours.

That’s partially due to business savvy and Nothing knowing its audience for a mid-range phone. I don’t have any specifics on where Nothing has sold the most Phone 2as, but I’d bet 1,000 Atomic Purple Game Boys that it’s in India (where Pei gave his first-ever live keynote upon the Phone 2a’s debut and a country where Nothing has developed an avid fanbase).

In the U.S.,where the phone is only available through Nothing’s developer program, the phone may be a tougher sell. If you’re intent on using a Phone 2a you should know that Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T are all supported, but only T-Mobile offers 5G service.

The Phone 2a looks cool, it works well, it comes at a great price...

The other part of the Phone 2a’s impressive sales comes down to just solid value. The Phone 2a looks cool, it works well, it comes at a great price, and can even trick you at times into feeling like you’re using a flagship phone. There’s power in value, especially when it comes with all the extras of the Phone 2a. Maybe that isn’t as trendy as sparking a phone revolution, but it’s precisely what you want when you buy a new device.

Related Tags