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  3. Nokia 8.1 review: the best mid-range phone you can buy

Nokia 8.1 review: the best example of a mid-range phone you can find

Pros

  • Premium materials
  • Powerful processor can handle any task
  • Sharp, super-bright display

Cons

  • Battery life affected by heavy screen usage
  • Camera focus could be faster

First impressions and design

  • Great looking aluminium body with chrome trim
  • Reversible USB-C and headphone jack

The elegant chrome trim is the design feature you first notice and it gives the Nokia 8.1 a sophisticated look.

Sandwiched between the curved edges of the front and back glass, the aluminium frame gives the phone a pleasingly solid feel, as well as a very comfortable grip.

Nokia 8.1 black back

The Nokia 8.1 retails the solidity we have come to expect from the Nokia brand but adds a premium feel with its choice of materials.

With a large screen exceeding 6 inches, this is undoubtedly a larger than average phone. But it handles well and the weight is well distributed, a testament to the care Nokia has taken with its design.

The power button and volume rocker are located on the right, consistent with the rest of the Nokia models. And they feel very sturdy too.

The fingerprint locking sensor, located at the back, is filled with the same glass as the rest of the body but it is highlighted by a thin chromed circle that makes it easy to locate it when picking up the phone.

Nokia 8.1 fingerprint scanner in use

Nokia seems to have settled with the fingerprint on the back. It may take a few days to get used to it if your current phone has it at the front. But it’s well positioned and easy to find.

Nokia 8.1 back camera lens fingerprint closeup hero size

The body is well designed. Even without a case, the grip is good and the shiny chrome trim looks fantastic.

Nokia 8.1 charging port hero size

A reversible USB-C that supports fast charging. The headphone jack is on the top left of the device.

Build Front/back glass, aluminum frame
Weight 180g
Dimensions 154.8 x 75.8 x 8 mm

Screen and sound

  • Very bright IPS LCD screen
  • Single speaker doesn’t deliver deep sound but it’s still reasonably loud

While the LCD screen doesn’t quite match the level of saturation seen on the AMOLED screens of some more expensive competitors, the high contrast and vibrant colours make this one of the best we’ve seen from Nokia.

Nokia 8.1 homescreen in hand

Plenty of brightness available when needed.

PureDisplay, accessible from the display settings allows you to set the screen to automatically adjust brightness to the environment and usage as well as a Vivid and Cinema mode.

We’ve found that the default Dynamic setting delivers the best experience in a variety of conditions and the Adaptive Brightness, that adjusts to the environment light levels is fast and effective.

Both the resolution and pixel density are comparable to the ones found in its closest competitors namely the OnePlus 6T and Honor View 20.

But the Nokia 8.1 is slightly different when it comes to screen ratio. It has a less narrow 19:9 that makes it perfectly proportioned for web browsing and gaming.

The sound from the single speaker, located the bottom of the device, is perfect for YouTube videos. But if you want to really bring the house down, use a good quality Bluetooth speaker.

Nokia 8.1 homescreen

The Nokia 8.1 has a great quality screen with good viewing angle, excellent contrast and plenty of brightness when the situation demands it.

Size 6.8 inches (95.3cm2)
Resolution 1080 x 2280 pixels, 19:9 ratio (~408 ppi density)
Technology IPS LCD

Camera

  • Good all-rounder, especially for the price
  • The only phone we’ve found at this price point with Optical Image Stabilisation
  • Does a great job in low light

The camera is a double-lensed 12-megapixel main paired with a 13-megapixel depth sensor. It has Optical Image Stabilisation and our test showed some of the best results at this price point. And it’s by far the best camera we have seen on any HMD Global made Nokia phones.

Nokia 8.1 camera interface hero size

The camera can be activated with a double-tap on the power button. The interface is responsive and easy to navigate.

Results have a good balance of detail and colour saturation, particularly in good light conditions.

Nokia-8.1 camera sample low light

Compared to competitors in a similar price point, the Nokia 8.1 performs well in low light.

Nokia-8.1 camera sample Tower Bridge

Clouds are beautifully detailed and the sky has a deep blue.

Nokia-8.1 camera sample Shard

*Another tricky shot. But the result is good. *

Nokia-8.1 camera sample Hop Kingdom

An evenly lit with realistic colours.

Nokia-8.1 camera sample tunnel

The sharp detail in the brickwork in this low-light shot is impressive.

Nokia-8.1 camera sample tables

This pleasant evening scene needed only a little tweak in exposure levels to bring up the dark corners.

Nokia-8.1 camera sample plants

In good lighting, the shallow depth of field effect works brilliantly with any subject.

Low-light performance is worth mentioning as one of the strongest points of the Nokia 8.1 camera.

We are used to seeing mid-range cameras showing promise when tested in good light only to fail miserably with too much image noise in a dimly lit room. This is not the case for the main camera of the Nokia 8.1 which delivers plenty of details in conditions where we’d expect grainy or blurred results.

Nokia branded phones have punched above their weight when it comes to Portrait mode and the Nokia 8.1 is no exception. The subject’s edges are well defined and rarely look artificial.

The selfie camera has a 20-megapixel sensor with pixel binning technology. Rather than be thrown away as the name suggests, four pixels are combined into one. The aim of this process is to discard the noise while keeping the detail.

The result is images that have lower resolution, i.e. they lose detail when enlarged, but are brighter than even your eyes can detect. Selfies are the perfect application for this technology as they are often shot in dim conditions and overall brightness is more important than detail.

The camera is also capable of recording video of 4K resolution at 30 frames-per-second. This is where the Optical Image stabilisation really comes into its own by getting rid of the camera shake high-resolution videos often suffer from.

Camera Main camera: 12MP +13MP. Selfie camera: 20MP
Optical image stabilisation Yes
Unique features Pixel binning for brighter pictures in low light

Performance and battery life

  • Screen brightness greatly affect battery life
  • Highest specced Nokia is more than capable to run games
  • Good amount of storage can also be upgraded

All the latest releases from Nokia have prioritised energy efficiency and value for money over processing power. But not so for Nokia 8.1, which is fitted with the very capable Snapdragon 710. This gives even the very powerful Honor View 20 a run for its money, especially when you consider the Nokia’s lower price point.

We tried one of the heaviest games out there, Asphalt 9: Legends and found it could be played at the default quality setting with no noticeable lag.

Of course, a great deal of credit for its good performance goes to the fantastic Android One operating system.

As seen with other Nokia models, the device runs on a Google-made platform that offers all the essential functionality in a lightweight package.

There are no superfluous apps pre-installed so, no fancy weather widget or proprietary news feed reader that you don’t want. Instead, you can download the apps you want without being stuck with any you don’t.

In return, you get a refreshingly clean, easy to navigate interface and more space for the things you like.

All the essential Google apps are pre-installed. And Google Photos is a life-saver, as it gives you free high-res storage for your pictures, so you don’t need to worry about deleting old snaps and videos. Even better, it integrates seamlessly with the Nokia 8.1 camera app, so you can flip between the two apps with ease.

Google Assistant, an AI-powered personal assistant is also installed and it activates when you first set up your Nokia. It recognises voice controls and can give you quick and surprisingly accurate answers to questions like “Is it going to snow tomorrow?” or “What’s Keanu Reeves’ latest film?”

The advantages of the barebones software approach are not just limited in the efficient use of resources. Most importantly, Android One guarantees prompt security updates and OS upgrades as they become available.

Nokia 8.1 gaming hero size

We found the Nokia 8.1 an excellent device for gamers.

Memory is another area where the Nokia 8.1 didn’t skimp on. 4GB of RAM is more than adequate to run anything you throw at it. And the 64GB is just about right for a modern phone, luckily. And it can be expanded with an additional 400GB. Still, the pre-installed Google Photos should help saving storage space by keeping your photos and videos in the cloud.

Fingerprint unlocking is fast and we’ve found no lag or failed attempts to unlock.

Smart Lock is an Android One feature that is worth exploring when first setting up your Nokia 8.1. It keeps the device unlocked when it’s safe to do so like when it’s in your pocket or at home. It’s a great feature that works well and removes the inconvenience of unlocking the phone when you’re in a safe setting.

It also includes facial recognition technology. It’s called “Trusted Face” so you can unlock the device by looking at it.

Nokia 8.1 gaming in hand hero size

Fast processor and sharp screen make this the best Nokia for gaming so far.

It comes with a 3500mAh battery. I know that doesn’t sound huge. But it manages to deliver over a day of usage thanks to the excellent energy efficiency of the processor and Android One operating system.

Adaptive Battery, found in the “Battery” section of the system settings, is a remarkably effective way of making the most of your charge. It’s a clever tool that learns your usage patterns and limits the background battery drain for apps that you use less often.

The screen is by far the highest battery drain. But you can make your battery last longer if you leave the display brightness to Auto and avoid increasing it unless you need to.

RAM 4GB
Battery capacity 3,500 mAh
OS and version Android 9 (Pie)

Value and verdict

HMD Global has been consistent in its approach with the Nokia brand of devices.

They avoid gimmicks and headline-grabbing features and instead focus on getting the important things right with good build quality and a clean Android experience.

The 8.1, which retails at around £400 SIM-Free, is Nokia’s best device so far. And while it may miss out some premium features like water-resistance and wireless charging, it absolutely nails the fundamentals and is the best example of a mid-range phone we’ve tried.

Category: Reviews
Tagged: nokia
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