Nothing Phone 1 Puts Its Defining Feature on the Back, but Is It Useful?

The Phone 1 is business on the front, light show on the back.

Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram Senior Editor
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia's financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
Expertise Huawei, Oppo, smartphones, smartwatches Credentials
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Sareena Dayaram
3 min read
Nothing Phone 1 with LEDs turned on
Andrew Lanxon/CNET

For years, phone manufacturers have focused on their devices' screens -- boosting resolutions while amping up refresh rates and screen brightness. But Nothing, the consumer tech startup helmed by OnePlus founder Carl Pei, is playing up the other side.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the Phone 1, launched to much anticipation this month, has its defining feature on the back. That defining feature is the glyph interface, which consists of flashing light strips displayed on the device's transparent backside. There are more than 900 LEDs powering the light strips, that flash rhythmically to the beat of a ringtone when you receive a call, for instance.

This it isn't just a cool light show. The glyph interface is also designed with the aim of minimizing screen time, according to Nothing. Since you can pair individual contacts to a specific ringtone, and therefore a corresponding light pattern, you wouldn't have to glance at your screen to learn who's calling. This still means you'd have to memorize the light pattern, and in my experience it led to a a negligible reduction in screen time. The Phone 1 has a "Flip to Glyph" mode, which activates only when the Phone 1 is flipped over, with the screen side down. This mode silences the device, but still pulses the lights to indicate an incoming call or notifications. There's also a notification light on the rear. 

Read More: Nothing's Phone 1 Is Missing This Important Feature: Waterproofing

The Nothing Phone 1's back, featuring an LED "glyph"

You are looking at Phone 1's glyph interface. It has various light patterns that can be selected from the settings panel.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

How useful is the glyph interface?

There's an undoubted novelty to the glyph interface, which Nothing surely deserves credit for, but I didn't find it very useful. It was more like a flashy extra. That's because in order for something to be useful to me, I'd need to be inclined to actually use it. Because I receive far more messages than calls, I didn't end up using the glyph interface frequently. That's besides the fact that I often didn't use it at all since I have a habit of laying my phone down with the front side up. As such, I had to consciously make the effort to put it down with the back side up. That said, I believe that habit would be easy enough to pick up. 

Read more: Why the Nothing Phone 1 May Not Be as Durable as Its Peers

Watch this: What You Should Know About the Nothing Phone 1

So while the feature is cool, I can't vouch for the Phone 1 reducing my screen time in a meaningful way, which is one of the supposed aims of the glyph feature. Nearly every time the notification light flashed, I'd immediately flip the phone over to check if the source was my Nanit, the camera app I use to monitor my 4-month-old child. It would be great if Nothing let you customize the light patterns to apps, the way you can with calls from personal contacts. (It would be even better if I could customize glyph patterns to prioritize notifications over calls.) That way, I'd know just by looking at the back when I receive important notifications, like the ones from my Nanit. However, Nothing has said to expect software updates to bring added functionality to the Phone 1, so the glyph interface may evolve to a more useful and less gimmicky feature.

In addition to Phone 1's funky back, Phone 1 has a solid set of specs to back it up. It's also available for a reasonable price at just £399 (roughly $480 or AU$700). For more details on what the phone has to offer beyond the glyph interface, make sure to read our in-depth Nothing Phone 1 review.