Nokia 8.1 review: The more things change, the more they stay the same
Since taking control of a nascent Nokia brand, HMD Global have been quick to flood the market with new handsets but slow to meaningfully iterate on them.
The first wave of new Nokia handsets put their polished design, decent performance and streamlined software front-and-center. So did the second wave. And the impending third wave looks to be no different. The first new Nokia device of 2019, the Nokia 8.1 feels like a natural next logical step forward but it’s easy to wish for a world where it was more of a leap.
Further complicating things is the fact that the branding and reality of the Nokia 8.1 feel like they’re a little in conflict with one another.
Despite the nomenclature, the Nokia 8.1 isn’t really a successor to either HMD’s 2017 flagship Nokia 8 nor last year’s Sirocco. More mid-tier than flagship, it’s far from bad value but it rarely offers more than you expect. The usual pros, cons, terms and conditions apply and there’s not much here that you won’t find across the rest of the 2019 Nokia lineup.
Specs - Nokia 8.1
Display size: 6.18-inch
Display type: Full HD+ PureDisplay
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 710
Operating System: Android 9 Pie
Fingerprint Sensor: Yes, rear-mounted
RAM: 4GB RAM
MicroSD slot: Yes
Ports: USB Type-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
Battery: 500 mAh battery
Connectivity: Cat 6 LTE, Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 5
Rear Camera: 12-megapixel + 13-megapixel
Front-Facing Camera: 20-megapixel
Dimensions: 154.8 x 75.76 x 7.97 mm
Availability: JB Hi-Fi, Officeworks
Design - Nokia 8.1 Look, Feel & Features
Again, from the outset, the Nokia 8.1 doesn’t look super different to what’s come before. The shortest way to pitch it is that it’s a Nokia 7.1 with a slightly wider form-factor and a better-disguised notch. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the Nokia 8.1 opts for the familiarity of the glass sandwich here - with a strip of stainless steel running around the edge for flair.
As with the Nokia 7.1, the USP here comes in the form of the Nokia 8.1’s PureDisplay. This augmented smartphone display configuration allows the device to not only offer HDR playback but also automatically upscale content from SDR to HDR. Video content on the Nokia 8.1 looks a bit better than it would otherwise. It’s not quite as flashy or slick as the fully-fledged OLED screens found in more-expensive fare but it does work to set the Nokia 8.1 aside from a lot of the competition playing in the same price-range.
To feel and to use, the Nokia 8.1 feels more than worthy of its price-tag. It’s lighter than I expected but still a tad heavier than I’d like. If anything, I wish HMD would make a more-compact “small-phone” version of this device. There’s no IP-rating or listed water and dust-resistance but it does feature a headphone jack, which is becoming increasingly rare these days.
If you’re a notch-hater, the Nokia 8.1 won’t turn you around on them but it might help you forget they exist. The software here does everything it can to mitigate the damage. If you’re holding the phone vertically, the Nokia 8.1 will use that extra smidge of space to house your notification icons. When used horizontally, the Nokia 8.1 will just pretend that extra screen space isn’t there at all.
Of course, if all notches are inherently compromises, then the Nokia 8.1 doesn’t do a particularly great job of justifying its own imposition. There’s no 3D facial recognition nestled here. Just the usual speaker and front-facing camera.
Camera - How Does The Nokia 8.1 Compare To The Competition?
As is usually, the camera on the Nokia 8.1 proves to be the one area where HMD’s Nokia brand proposition lags behind the other options. It’s not bad, but it does have caveats. And the fact that last year’s Huawei P20 Pro has depreciated so quickly doesn’t help.
In HMD’s defense, the shots I managed to get out of the Nokia 8.1 looked surprisingly good. They just aren’t jaw-dropping in the same way.
Still, the Nokia 8.1 does tick most of the boxes. It supports portrait-style bokeh shots. It’s got an AI-powered scene optimizer, HDR, a Pro mode and (of course) Bothie support.
During the daytime, wide shots and close ups have a crispness that helps details stand out and a saturated edge that helps things like plant life really pop.
However, low light proved to be a struggle for the Nokia 8.1. It took a lot of work to get shots I was even a little satisfied with.
In addition, the actual experience of using the device was undercut by shutter lag and a camera app that feels too crowded for comfort. It feels like an aspect of the experience overdue for an overhaul.
The Nokia 8.1 is $200 more expensive than the Nokia 7.1 but, when it comes to the camera , it rarely feels that much of an improvement - which is a bit disappointing. Hopefully, their freshly-inked partnership with Light yields more significant improvement next time around.
Performance - Nokia 8.1 Software, Benchmarks and Battery Life
In the past, one of the the new Nokia’s biggest strengths has been the streamlined software experience. Where other companies opt for bloatware and skins, Nokia are doing their best to keep things as close to pure Android as possible.
However, with the rise of Google’s own hardware within the smartphone space, that pitch has lost some of its luster. The version of Android 9 that arrives on the Nokia 8.1 tries to respond to this trend by updating the software experience in a few key ways, most of which follow the Google Pixel’s lead. The new adaptive battery life settings, digital wellbeing and nub-based gesture controls work really well and the reworked multitasking interface here is made better by the smooth performance of the thing.
Our issues with the camera being the exception, we encountered none of the stalling we found with the Nokia 7.1 It’s not quite as smooth as something like the Google Pixel but it’s a strong step in the right direction (and one that comes without the price-tag of Google’s premium hardware).
Meanwhile, when it came to benchmarks, the Nokia 8.1 fared surprisingly well despite the lack of a Snapdragon 800-series processor. It’s about $200 more expensive than the Nokia 7.1 was - and it's got the performance to match. Run through usual gauntlet, it managed to top out the Moto Z3 Play, Moto G6, Nokia 7 Plus and others.
We found the Nokia 8.1 didn’t quite live up to the advertised two-day battery life but the thirteen or more hours of usage we did get out of the thing is pretty impressive nonetheless. In terms of everyday battery-life, we’d make it through the usual 9-5 work day pretty consistently - plus a fair chunk of the next day as well. As always, your mileage may vary (especially if you watch or film a lot of video content).
The Nokia 8.1 doesn’t support wireless charging but it does support fast charging via USB Type-C.
The Bottom Line
Although I wish it was about a hundred or so dollars cheaper and the camera was just a snippet better to actually use, there’s still plenty to like about the Nokia 8.1. It might not be a true successor to its namesake, but it’s still another modern HMD handset that offers the usual winning combination of slick design, solid specs and delightfully clean software.
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