About a decade ago, good design was something that was broadly the preserve of the upper mid-segment and premium gadgets. As you went down the price ladder, the design became more functional than fantastic. It was not as if lower-priced devices looked bad; it was just that they did not quite look well crafted. The ones that did grab attention often did so with designs that tended to be loud and a little on the ‘cheap’ side. A few years ago, that started changing, and good design began to make its way not just to the mid-segment but even to the lower mid-segment. Today, you can get some very striking smartphones for under Rs 20,000, some smart-looking TWS, and well-crafted smartwatches for under Rs 10,000 – something that was rather unthinkable a mere five years ago.

cmf products

Many brands played a key role in this percolation of good design to lower price echelons, but one that is given a great deal of credit is OnePlus, which popularised the concept of a ‘premium mid-segment with its Nord range of devices in 2020. The OnePlus Nord range is known for its elegant and often understated design, something that is the hallmark of more expensive devices, which it offers to consumers at prices that are much lower than its premium offerings. The Nord range has been a massive commercial success, and actually sells more than OnePlus’ flagship devices in many markets.

The person credited for being behind the Nord is Carl Pei, who now heads a new initiative called Nothing. And with the launch of the first row of products for Nothing’s new sub-brand, CMF (for ‘Color,’ ‘Material,’ and ‘Finish’), Pei seems to be attempting to do something Nord-like. But at a lower price point. Let us take a look at the prices of the two main devices from CMF: (the brand has also launched a 65W GAN charger, but that is more of an accessory.)

CMF Buds Pro: Rs 3,499
CMF Watch Pro: Rs 4499 and Rs 4999 (Steel)

It is notable these devices in the list are in what is known as the ‘budget zone’ in tech circles, waters in which consumers with relatively tight budgets swim. It is an extremely competitive zone as well because it is inevitably where huge sales numbers are. It is also a zone where innovation in design terms tends to be limited, with most brands tending to highlight specs and features rather than design and appearance, which are expected to be basic ‘at this price.’

This is what we suspect Pei is out to disrupt with the CMF TWS and smartwatch. Both do come with very good hardware and features on paper, but these can be matched by many of their competitors. You can get a number of TWS with ANC and similar battery life at below Rs 4,000, and there are watches with similar-sized displays and features as the CMF Watch Pro available at lower prices. So, what is CMF bringing to the table that is different?

The answer seems to be design. Nothing’s co-founder Akis Evangelidis said as much, stating that the brand was aiming “to democratize great design in a market segment that has often been overlooked.” For once, a co-founder’s statement about a new product range does not sound like a spiel. Nothing has walked a fair bit of its design talk with CMF.

cmf products

In a segment where uniformity tends to rule, Nothing has brought in products that look different. And different in a manner that seems classy and understated rather than loud. It begins with the packaging. None of the CMF devices come in the routine boxes that are the rule in the segment but instead are embedded in cardboard boards with another layer of cardboard covering them and placed inside paper bags.

It might give nightmares to inventory managers trying to stock them up, but they look very distinct. The products themselves come with a very elegant finish and an interesting orange color option (even the GAN charger comes in orange). They do not go too far from generic design in terms of shape, but are little design distinctions and flourishes all over the products – the hinge on the TWS has a metallic touch, and their case is shaped like a cosmetic compact, while the watch has a metallic frame and also comes with a very distinct interface that is similar to that seen on Nothing’s phones, with slightly retro fonts.

In short, both products have distinct design elements not seen in their price segment and are generally found at higher price points. Nothing has also promised to regularly update their software, adding features and removing bugs, again something that is not often associated with devices at these price points. In short, with CMF, Nothing seems to be trying to create a ‘premium budget segment,’ one that brings devices with features and designs that are generally seen at higher price points.

cmf accessories

Just as OnePlus created the ‘premium mid segment’ with the Nord lineup. Basically, in a segment where price generally rules, Nothing has tried to make design a key parameter as well, and that too without compromising on the spec or feature front. The CMF Buds Pro and Watch Pro might come with slightly higher price tags than some of their competitors, but offer a better design and the promise of good software for that minor premium. It is pretty much the Nord form book, which incidentally was drafted by Carl Pei.

The coming days will reveal whether this approach will work or not. After all, CMF is operating in a space where price plays a major role, and it remains to be seen whether extremely cost-conscious consumers will shell out a few more bucks for subtly better design and software. CMF has given them that option. Whether they take it or not could well define the brand’s future.

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