Nokia 9 PureView review: A flawed, ambitious, endearing flagship
After last year’s Mobile World Congress, I felt really good about the Nokia 8 Sirocco. And, ahead of the device’s official Australian launch, it genuinely felt like the resurgent Nokia brand was moving finally moving forward from the strong foundation they’d built up in the mid-tier, and into the fiercely competitive world of flagship phones.
Unfortunately, the final product fell short.
In my review of the Sirocco at the time, I concluded that for all its charms and unique design choices, the Nokia 8 Sirocco struggled to feel worthy of the $1199 asking price.
Coming out of this year’s Mobile World Congress, I felt almost exactly the same about the new Nokia 9 PureView. It felt like the missing piece of the puzzle - the photography-focused device that could finally propel the best of the nu-Nokia brand into competition with Samsung, Huawei and all the rest.
I should have known that was a bad sign.
Display size: 6-inches
Display type: Quad HD+
Processor: Snapdragon 845
Operating System: Android 9.0 Pie with Android One
Fingerprint Sensor: Yes, in-display
MicroSD slot: No
Ports: USB Type-C
Connectivity: CAT 16 LTE, Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth 4
Rear Camera: 12-megapixel RGB (f/1.8) + 12-megapixel B/W (f/1.8) + 12-megapixel RGB (f/1.8) + 12-megapixel B/W (f/1.8) + 12-megapixel RGB (f/1.8)
Front-Facing Camera: 20-megapixel
Colors: Midnight Blue
Dimensions: 155 x 75 x 8 mm
Weight: 172 g
Price: Starts at AU$1099
Where other Nokia phones play it safe, emphasising legacy conveniences like the headphone jack, the Nokia 9 PureView plays with fire.
Much like last year’s Sirocco, the new Nokia 9 PureView comes across as a mutation. It stands out among the rest of Nokia’s 2019 lineup to begin with, foregoing a notch in lieu of a more-traditional display. It feels as much like a breakaway from what’s come before as it is an evolution.
It also stands out from the rest of 2019’s flagship smartphones by featuring a whopping five-lens camera array on the back. It’s almost busy enough to give you trypophobia. Still, the lack of curved glass aside, it doesn’t look that far off from where Samsung was a few years back.
And like many 2019 flagships, the term ‘glass-sandwich’ is apt here. The Nokia 9 PureView is lighter than you'd expect, but also a little wider as well. There’s a USB Type-C port, and there’s no headphone jack. The diamond-cut sides found in more-affordable models (like the Nokia 8.1) return, and leave the Nokia 9 feeling great when it’s cradled in the palm of your hand.
Ahead of its release, HMD bragged heavily about the design of the Nokia 9 PureView. It’s incredibly smooth - and incredibly close to seamless. It feels really nice to run your fingers down the back of the device’s liquid glass form-factor.
However, their claim that there’s no camera bump feels more like a technicality than a technical feat. Sure, the five-camera array on the back of the PureView doesn’t jut out in the same way that the P30 Pro’s triple-lens does, but you can feel a noticeable difference when it comes to the flash on the back of the device.
Similar accusations can be levied at the PureView’s in-display fingerprint sensor. Though I’m a fan of where it sits relative to the bottom of the screen, I found it frequently unreliable. Of all the in-display fingerprint sensor smartphones I’ve encountered to date, the Nokia 9 PureView was the worst by a noticeable margin.
[Related: How in-display fingerprint sensors work]
Of course, the camera's sleek European design and in-screen fingerprint sensor are just background details. The latter's just a small inconvenience you put up with in order to get to the good stuff: the camera.
Because of the results you can get out of Nokia 9 PureView’s camera, in daylight at least, those infringements feel even smaller.
The colour, contrast and dynamic range of photos taken with the Nokia 9 PureView are incredibly impressive to behold - even if they are much larger than the typical file size.
However, those strengths noted, the Nokia 9 PureView is at a significant disadvantage when it comes to low-light. It simply can’t compete with the low-light performance on the S10, nor the SuperSpectrum sensor inside the P30 Pro, nor the Google Pixel’s Night Sight mode. In this sense, it’s very much a case of ''one step forward, two steps back".
Then there’s the processing time. Since every photo you take using the PureView uses all five cameras at once, there’s a significant amount of post-processing involved, and a significant delay between taking an image and being able to see the results. In my experience, I’d usually have to wait about ten seconds per image before I could see if the shot in question had come out the way I wanted it to.
For this reason, the PureView’s camera isn’t great for short-notice shots. By the time the image has finished processing, it’s probably going to be too late for a do-over.
The thing is, I really like what the PureView’s camera is doing in spite of its clear problems and drawbacks. When it all works, the images you can get out of the PureView are genuinely jaw-dropping - and it’s not hard to imagine how HMD could improve on it in future efforts.
If you’re a patient, practiced photographer, you’ll probably be able to get a lot out of this. Everyone else is probably going to be better served waiting for the second or third iteration. There’s an incredible smartphone photography experience here just waiting to be unlocked - but the future isn’t here yet.
As with every other Nokia device, the Nokia 9 PureView runs on a skim-light Android One version of Android Pie. Camera app aside, you’re getting pretty much the same functionality and software experience you’ll get with Google’s own Pixel hardware - even down to the new swipe-based pill navigation system.
As for benchmarks, the Nokia 9 PureView performed about as well as you’d expect it to.
It’s running the same Snapdragon 845 found in most of the competition. It scored higher than Samsung’s Galaxy S10 and S10+, but fell short of the Razer Phone 2 and Google Pixel 3 XL.
Unfortunately, when it came to battery life, the Nokia 9 PureView was a little outgunned. Honestly, I came away severely disappointed. Competing against the crowd of 4000mAh battery smartphones, it stands out like a sore thumb.
Whether or not the mediocre battery life was due to the extra demands of having to post-process every single photo, or the smaller size of the Nokia 9 PureView’s 3300mAh battery, it’s difficult to tell. Regardless, in terms of everyday battery life, I’d barely make it through the usual 9-5 work day most of the time.
I’m talking closer to eight or nine hours away from the charger. As always, your mileage may vary (especially if you watch or film a lot of video content) but, in my experience, the day-to-day battery life I got out of the Nokia 9 PureView was a significant drawback.
The Nokia 9 PureView also supports wireless charging, but not at the higher wattage found in fare like the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.
The Bottom Line
Again, the Nokia 9 Pureview reminds me a lot of the Nokia 8 Sirocco.
But, unlike that device, I think that the Nokia 9 PureView succeeds more than it fails. Rather than just pay lip service to the idea, HMD Global reach into the premium space with something ambitious and unlike anything they (or anyone else) have done to date. It’s just a shame that the actual experience you get out of the technology and hardware isn’t as good as it should be.
Over time, I found myself really liking the Nokia 9 PureView in spite of its flaws - but in the face of fierce competition from Samsung and Huawei, those same flaws leave it wanting more oft than not.
The Nokia 9 delivers great performance, a clean design and a camera that’s utterly like no other. However, it falls short when it comes to battery life, and is ultimately as hindered as it is empowered by its powerful photography hardware.
The Nokia 9 PureView feels like a great foundation for the next generation of Nokia devices, but it doesn’t feel like a foundation I’m rushing to lean on and embrace just yet.
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