Nokia 8.1 review: oozing with class, style, and substance

Rating: 8.5/10

Yay:

  • Carries forward the excellent design IP of Nokia
  • Best HDR-enabled display in its price range
  • Surprisingly good low light camera performance
  • Snapdragon 710 is a great upper mid-range chipset
  • Stock Android Pie
  • Good Pricing

 Nay

  • Big Chin
  • Average audio quality through headphone jack

Introduction

The Nokia 8.1 is here in India pretty soon after its global announcement just a week ago. And it is priced at Rs 26,999. Although, the original — which is called the Nokia X7 — was first showcased in China. Just FYI, the Nokia 8.1/Nokia X7 is supposed to be a spiritual successor to the Nokia 7 Plus. All this sounds confusing to you? Well, it actually is. Nokia’s whole naming scheme has been completely bonkers this year.

But that’s probably the only thing amiss about Nokia in 2018 because the company has created some downright compelling Android phones across price ranges this year. Continuing that tradition, and probably ending 2018 on a high, is the Nokia 8.1.

I’ve been using the phone as my primary daily driver for a while now and the Nokia 8.1 has convinced me once again that the Nokia brand identity was tailor-made for Android all along. Let’s get on with it.

Nokia 8.1 design: pure class and elegance

Chamfered edges. Check. Premium glass body. Check. Great ergonomics. Check. Edge-to-edge screen with a notch. Check. Sturdy Series 6000 aluminum frame. Check.

Not only is the Nokia 8.1 the perfect embodiment of a modern-day smartphone, but it is also a classic Nokia design that has won the hearts of many critics this year. Very few mid-range phones look as good as the Nokia 8.1 the moment you take it out of the box. Couple that with the beautiful wine color, you have a phone that is truly a class apart. The problem with such an understated design language is that it won’t grab attention like a few other phones that have launched this year with flashy gradient colors. Having said that, this kind of understated elegance is the mark of a true beauty.

My adulation aside, the Nokia 8.1 feels sturdy and looks like it can take a couple of drops too. But one of my grouses with the design is that the rear is a fingerprint magnet and it can possibly attract scratches if you aren’t too careful with it. This is a problem with most glass-bodied smartphones, mind you. The other issue is that the Nokia 8.1 has a massive camera bump that completely shifts the gravity of the phone when placed on a table.

Below this module lies the fingerprint scanner that is fast and super accurate. You can also set a Trusted Face to unlock the phone but it is buried deep inside the Smart Lock feature in Settings. It is the most cumbersome way to unlock a phone. First, you have to wake up the screen, then check to see if the camera has recognized your face or not, and then you have to swipe up the screen to get into the home screen. It is a hit and a miss affair most of the times. I suggest you stick to the reliable fingerprint scanner.

The rest of the design is standard with a USB Type-C port at the bottom, and a speaker to its right. There are two mics on the phone to capture OZO audio. And, there is a headphone jack on the top. The Hybrid-SIM card tray accepts two Nano SIM cards or you have to sacrifice the secondary SIM slot for a memory card, in case you want more storage. The metal buttons on the right edge are also adequately tactile and great to click.

All in all, the Nokia 8.1 is yet another stunningly designed smartphone from HMD’s stables.

Nokia 8.1 display: slots in the upper echelon of LCD screens

The Nokia 8.1’s 6.18-inch LCD panel on the front has been heavily marketed as “PureDisplay” by the company. Essentially, the company wants to highlight the HDR capabilities of the panel and the 500nits of brightness it can achieve. So yeah, the 6.18-inch “PureDisplay” LCD panel has an aspect ratio of 18.7:9 and a screen resolution of 2280×1080 pixels. And, it also has a wide notch and a fairly decent-sized chin at the bottom. The front actually reminds me a lot of the Poco F1. The only difference is that Nokia utilizes the chin for branding. Also, the notch is so wide that it cuts through a lot of the network information and such.

But unlike the Poco F1, the Nokia 8.1 has Widevine L1 support for HD-streaming and quite literally no screen bleeding issue. But the Nokia 8.1’s display is not quite perfect, in the sense that it doesn’t offer 100% of the color gamut. And, the auto-brightness powered by Google’s Adaptive Brightness technology is very stringent and keeps the brightness levels low at all times. Even under bright sunlight.

That said, the display is still very crisp and plenty colorful for daily usage. The viewing angles are great and thanks to the great brightness levels, the sunlight legibility is great too. Just make sure you switch off the Adaptive brightness, though.

Nokia 8.1 software: as good as stock Android can get

The Nokia 8.1’s software experience is the same experience you get on a more expensive flagship like the Pixel 3XL. It runs the latest version of Android – Android Pie – in its pure stock form under the Android One program. In fact, there is literally no bloatware either. The software experience is clean and minimal.

Furthermore, the software sings on this hardware and despite using a slightly underpowered chipset — compared to the SD845 inside a phone like the OnePlus 6T — it feels equally fast with its fluid animations. But what still annoys me is the gesture-based navigation system in Stock Android. Even after using the Pixel 3 XL, and now the Nokia 8.1, for a long period of time, I cannot get myself to navigate quickly through the OS using these new gestures. For example, swiping the pill at the bottom to switch between apps feels cumbersome and not as intuitive as the iPhone XS.

Regardless, stock Android is possibly the best version of Android still. But that’s just my perspective as a fan of minimal experiences. Your mileage may, and should, vary.

Nokia 8.1 camera: good but you will need to do some color correction

The Nokia 8.1 is kitted with dual cameras on the rear. The primary camera is a 12MP shooter with a 1/2.55-inch, 1.4-micron pixel size sensor. This sensor is attached to Zeiss optics f/1.8 lens with optical image stabilization (OIS). The secondary 13MP camera is present solely for depth sensing and creating good-looking bokeh shots. On the front, you get a 20MP camera for selfies with a 0.9-micron pixel size. Nokia does pixel binning to merge four pixels together and create an overall 2-micron pixel size equivalent.

Let’s start by talking about the camera app. It is the same one that we saw on the Nokia 6.1 Plus with the addition of a Pro mode. Honestly, I am not really a fan of the interface as it feels slightly outdated with stuff like the HDR mode shafted inside the Settings menu. By the way, Google Lens has been integrated in the camera app as well. And, so are a threadbare set of AR-based stickers and animated emojis. At last count, I saw a total of four options on offer. Man, that’s way too many stickers and animated emojis for me to play around with! (hint: sarcasm)

Moving on to the image quality, the Nokia 8.1 can take some good looking shots in daylight. The color science tends to accentuate the Reds to an extent that it starts looking like Pink. And, facial tones are also color corrected to look warm and pink. But apart from botching up the reds and facial tones, the Nokia 8.1 does a good job with the other colors. They look close to natural. Especially, the Yellows, the Greens, and the Blues. My complaint with the Nokia 7 Plus was that it shot very warm images by default but the Nokia 8.1 seems to have improved the color temperature. It is slightly on the cooler side now but looks damn good.

As for the details, there are plenty on offer with very little over-sharpening which is great. But my concern is that the dynamic range on Nokia shots is slight off just like the color science. Indoors, Nokia does a great job and beats the Poco in most scenarios. I liked Nokia 8.1’s pictures in low light scenarios. The 8.1 struggled with focus but it managed to do a much better job with the colors and the overall exposure. I really didn’t expect that.

I also shot a couple of video footages in 1080p and 4K and I noticed that the Nokia 8.1, like many other phones out there, tends to boost colors in the 4K footage. Also, the 4K footage is not stabilized compared to the superb stabilization effect in the 1080p footage, thanks to the gyro-based EIS. Also, audio recording in videos, powered by Nokia’s OZO audio mics, are excellent. If you frequently go to a lot of concerts, the Nokia 8.1 could come in handy. Just shoot in 1080p and you are sorted.

Coming to the 20MP selfie camera on the front, it takes good selfies. Crisp and detailed and colorful. In low light, the quality takes a hit. Don’t worry, you can use the inbuilt screen flash to spruce ‘em up.

Nokia 8.1 Selfie Camera Sample

Nokia 8.1 Selfie Camera with Portrait Depth Effect

Overall, the Nokia 8.1’s cameras are pretty good for most scenarios. And, all those who end up buying the phone won’t have much to complain about the experience of shooting with the phone. Although, I must say this, don’t go expecting a OnePlus 6T or LG G7+ ThinQ level near flagship-grade cameras.

Nokia 8.1 performance: Snapdragon 710 is an excellent chipset

Thanks to the Nokia 8.1, I’ve finally had a chance to test out the Snapdragon 710 chipset. The SoC has eight Kryo 360 cores, custom-made by Qualcomm. The big.LITTLE architecture has 6 efficiency cores clocked at 1.4GHz and two high-performance cores clocked at 2.2GHz, each. This is coupled with 4GB of RAM on our unit. There’s also 64GB of eMMC 5.1 storage on offer. This storage offers a Read speed of around 290MB/s and a Write speed of around 190MB/s.

Coming back to the SD710, I achieved an AnTuTu score of 1,69,835. This is a comfortable lead around 30,000 points over the SD660. The phone also scored a Geekbench score of 1739 in single-core performance and 5787 in multi-core performance. But the Adreno 616 is where the SD710 beats the SD660 by a good margin. Firstly, PUBG chooses High setting as default when you start the game. I played the game on Smooth graphics setting in Ultra FPS mode. I got a median frame rate of 34fps, with the phone heating up to 43-degrees after a 20-minute session. This is slightly on the hotter side and the top portion, near the camera, is where the phone is affected by heat the most.

One of the things that Nokia brings to the 8.1 with its stupendous networking capabilities is great radio performance. I got a Wi-Fi speed of 6.7 Mbps down, 14Mbps using the same Wi-Fi network that I regularly do to test all my phones. This is definitely on the higher side of the numbers. Similarly, I also got 4G speeds of 8.4Mbps down, 3.2Mbps up on the same Airtel network. This is more than what the OnePlus 6T achieved. Couple this with no 4G network drops and excellent call quality through the earpiece, the Nokia 8.1 definitely gets the “phone” bit of the work done properly.

Nokia 8.1 multimedia: HDR-infused goodness

The Nokia 8.1’s display is its strong point. The HDR-capable display supports both Netflix and YouTube videos in HDR, the ones that are actually uploaded in HDR that is. This makes the Blacks incredibly deep for an LCD panel and the dynamic range improves too. I quite enjoyed watching videos on this panel. I can tell you with confidence that this is the best display you can find on a phone in this price range.

The audio experience was a bit of a letdown though. The single downward-firing mono speaker at the bottom can definitely get pretty loud but it can be muffled easily when held in landscape orientation. Also, the audio quality through the 3.5mm headphone jack was surprisingly average. This is not what I actually expected from a Nokia smartphone.

I am not saying it has to be audiophile-grade good, but it is of strictly average quality. Well, if you love your audio, I’d suggest investing in a good portable DAC+AMP setup to improve the sound quality.

Nokia 8.1 battery: reliable performer

Providing the juice for all this tech is a 3500mAh Li-ion battery. This battery also supports 18W fast charging on QC 4.0 standard, which I am presuming since SD710 supports the latest standard out-of-the-box. And inside the box, you get a bundled fast charger as well.

With this charger, I managed to charge the phone from 0 to 100 in 2 hours and 8 mins, which is fast enough for most folks. As for the battery usage, I got close to 5 hours and 19 mins of screen on time and a full-day battery life on a single charge despite heavy usage.

This time, I even watched an entire 1 hour 30 min movie. Not bad at all. To set a context though, the Poco F1 definitely offers a better battery life.

Should you buy the Nokia 8.1?

The Nokia 8.1 is a perfect choice for folks who want a polished Nokia product. None of the features inside the Nokia 8.1 stand out as such but it doesn’t need to either. The phone is such a well-rounded package that you will have no complaints after using it.

Allow me to compare the phone with a few contemporaries.

Vivo V11 Pro

One of the surprise packages of 2018 has to be the Vivo V11 Pro. For its asking price, the V11 Pro gives you a stunning AMOLED display, a great in-display fingerprint scanner, and a decent performance all in all. But the Nokia 8.1 has a slightly more powerful SoC and stock Android that completely wins my heart if nothing else.

Buy Vivo V11 Pro

Poco F1

Poco F1 15

The Poco F1 is probably the phone everyone wants the 8.1 compared with. Well, they are almost neck-to-neck in every aspect. Except for the display where the Nokia takes the lead and the processor where the Poco wins. I think the Nokia 8.1’s premium-ness (for the lack of a better word) is definitely going to sway a lot of buyers too. It is just a matter of finding out where your interest lies. If you are a geek who cares about pure specs, the Poco F1 is for you. For everyone else, the Nokia 8.1 fits the bill perfectly. It is still plenty powerful mind you.

Buy Poco F1

ASUS ZenFone 5Z

ZenFone 5Z 10

Another phone that is a part of many recommendations is the ZenFone 5Z. The ZenFone 5Z is yet another value flagship that breaks price barriers. But, here’s the thing, except for the lack of an SD845 chip and flagship-grade cameras, the Nokia 8.1 is more of a flagship than any phone in its price range.

Buy ASUS ZenFone 5Z

Summing it up, the Nokia 8.1 is the kind of smartphone that feels familiar and comfortable. And, the Nokia 8.1 will certainly make you feel warm and fuzzy inside after using it.

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Ershad Kaleebullah
ershad.kaleebullah@u2opiamobile.com

When Ershad isn't writing, he spends time killing virtual zombies on his PS4. Having worked with a slew of renowned publications like PCWorld, Channelworld, CIO, NDTV Gadgets (now Gadgets360), MySmartPrice, The Inquistr, and 91Mobiles, Ershad brings a whole world of experience to Mr. Phone. He is trying hard to convert all the team members into Apple fans but is facing a lot of resistance. Is anyone willing to help?