review

Nokia 8.1 Review: Where does it fit, Nokia?

Somewhere between the 7 and 8...and not quite there either

It has been almost two years since Nokia got back into the smartphone business and the company has been launching devices one after another ever since – some hits, some misses but the brand has not given up amidst cut-throat competition. But while the company has kept adding smartphones to its portfolio, we think it seems to be definitely struggling when it comes to naming them. There have numbers, numbers with a plus added to them (no pun intended), numbers with decimals, numbers with decimals with a plus added to them…

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And as if that were not enough, now we have a slight change of sequence. We are saying this after the company’s most recent smartphone, the Nokia 8.1. Now going by the name of the device, most people would think that the Nokia 8.1 would be next in line from the flagship Nokia 8, right? After all, more than 90 percent of their names are the same – they are separated by just a decimal and one. But guess what? The Nokia 8.1 has very little to do with the Nokia 8 and is more of an upgraded version of the Nokia 7 Plus. Confusing, right? Well, it is not just a matter of where the Nokia 8.1 fits in its own but also where it fits into the market in general: priced at Rs. 26,999, the smartphone finds itself between the flagship killers and the “upper-mid-segment” smartphones. But just how well it does in that space?

Screams “new Nokia” with old Nokia strength

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Like most modern-day smartphones, the Nokia 8.1 also comes with a metal frame sandwiched between glass. But though it may have followed the basics of frame and structure, the 8.1 screams new Nokia on top of its lungs. Unlike most glass devices in the market today that look too delicate to survive even a day without covers, the 8.1 beams rigidity. It does not feel as delicate as most glass back smartphones do. We love the thick, chamfered, reflective steel frame that adds to the solid build. We received the Iron version of the smartphone which majorly is covered in a very deep purple color but the steel grey contrast with it is another design highlight on the smartphone. It looks distinct but what really marks it out as special for us is its sheer solidity. It has been quite some time now since we have had the 8.1 with us and while the smartphone has picked the odd scratch here and there and does pick up fingerprint smudges easily, we never really had to think twice before throwing the phone in our bag, or putting it on the table without a cover.

The face of the 8.1 is dominated by the 6.18-inch full HD+ display with 1080 x 2280 screen resolution. Following the notch-y trend, the 8.1 carries one of its own but the device does come with a rather notable chin bezel with the company’s logo on it as well. Nokia has paired it with PureDisplay technology, which gives the phone higher contrast and HDR10 support, and well, those are not just words on paper – the display of the smartphone is bright and offers great contrast. The 8.1 sports a leveled fingerprint scanner on the back as opposed to popular recessed scanners but comes with a slightly protruding camera unit which gives the back a bump. The device measures 154.8 x 75.8 x 8 mm and weighs 180 grams. It falls on the bigger side of smartphone size spectrum and can be hardly used with a single hand but thanks to the rather flat sides of the smartphone, we always had a good grip on the phone which made our experience mostly trouble free.

Smoothly tailored, but not swift (pun…intended)!

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While the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 series is now pretty popular in the Rs. 25,000 and above segment, Nokia decided to hit us with a relatively new chipset in this segment. The Nokia 8.1 is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 processor, one of the first in the country to use the chip. It is paired with 4 GB RAM and 64 GB storage. While the SoC is not on top of the processor power chain, it comfortably sits on the upper side of the list.

When put through daily tasks, the smartphone easily managed to jump from one application to another. The transition was mostly smooth and the experience remained the same as we surfed through casual gaming waves and then moved to more hardcore gaming ones. Apart from a few occasional lags while handling high-end games, the 8.1 mostly triumphed over most of the challenges we threw at the device.

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And yet, we felt that the smartphone was not as snappy as the other devices in the segment. The device did not lag but was not particularly the “Speedy Gonzales” of smartphones either. There was a certain lull in how the device operated, and a lack of high speed which started creeping in after we used the phone for a while. It is not a deal breaker by any means but it certainly is noticeable.

In terms of security, the device has a fingerprint scanner which works as swiftly and accurately as any other in the industry today but it does not come with the much popular full-fledged face unlock feature (makes you wonder about the notch, right? We have given up trying to understand that bit). The device has something called smart lock which has a face unlock but the 8.1 itself suggests fingerprint lock or pattern lock over it as it is “not as secure”, as per the phone – we really think it is time stock Android fixed this.

Zeiss in name, not quite in game

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The 8.1 comes sprinkled with a number of special features – the display gets the PureDisplay technology, the phone comes with a new SoC and then there is the camera. The Nokia 8.1 wears the Zeiss badge of honor proudly on its camera chest. And it comes with some impressive specifications: the primary camera consists of a 12-megapixel main sensor with f/1.8 aperture, OIS, and PDAF, which is paired with a 13-megapixel secondary sensor.

Although the camera numbers looked impressive on the 8.1, the shooting experience on the device was pretty middling. The smartphone takes good landscape and long shots but we had a few problems while taking close-ups. It takes about a second or two to focus and you have to adjust your distance from the subject to get deep bokeh in the background in your close-ups.

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The camera was inconsistent when it comes to detail as it sometimes delivered images with very sharp detail while butchering it altogether in other shots. That said, it mostly delivered passable detail in well-lit environments. Things do not improve much in the color zone either. The camera was often producing colors on the warmer side as compared to the real setting and images were often coming across a tad oversaturated, irrespective of the lighting. Matters slip a little further downhill as you go from well lit to low light conditions, with images becoming noisy and grainy.

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The camera app on the Nokia 8.1 offers a range of different options which includes Pro Mode, Live Bokeh, Timelapse amongst others. While most of them work just fine, the Live Bokeh which is basically Portrait mode if you are wondering, seemed a little inconsistent and struggled with getting the edges of the subject in focus and sometimes blurred them with the background. In the front camera zone, the device comes with a with a 20-megapixel sensor with f/2.0 aperture. While detail is not the strength of the front camera on the 8.1, color results seemed better than that of the primary sensor. And no, we are not impressed by Bothies yet. Do we sound as if we complain too much? Well, that is because we associate Nokia with being a front runner in the camera department – the camera on the 8.1 is not bad by any means, but it is unlikely to challenge the ones from the Poco F1 or even the Mi A2, both of which are well below its price point.

You get Pie, and a couple of days of battery

Ever since Nokia has come back from the “dead,” the company has been sticking to what it calls Pure Android, and almost all of its phones in its comeback period have been part of Google’s Android One. For the uninitiated, Android One is stock Android which gets Android updates faster than a basic stock Android phone because updates to the devices are promised under the Android One program for at least two years. And Nokia’s track record with Android updates has been pretty good so far.

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So what does this mean for the 8.1? Well, Android lovers rejoice because you get Pie (Android 9) with the 8.1. The smartphone is powered by Google’s latest Android version and as it is stock Android, the UI is pretty clean and clutter free. If you dive deep into the settings, you will find a few areas where you can customize and give the smartphone a personal touch but what you see with this One (pun intended) is what you get.

The Nokia 8.1 is powered by a 3,500 mAh battery, which is not a bad number but for a device this size and the fact that 4,000 mAh ones are becoming pretty mainstream, this may look a tad smaller to a few people out there. That said, what it lacks in numbers, the phone delivers in performance. Nokia claims the phone can last for two days, because of the processor and Android Pie but you can take that with a pinch of salt – the 8.1 can comfortably last a day of hectic and heavy usage and can see the light of another day if not pushed as much. Plus it comes with fast charging, so, that’s another battery positive. Sound quality is decent on calls but the single speaker could have been louder in our opinion.

A Poco-sized mountain to climb

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Priced at Rs. 26,999, the Nokia 8.1 finds itself going head-on with Poco F1 (review), which is not only more affordable with its price starting at 19,999 for 6 GB/ 64 GB version but is also far more competitively specced as compared to 8.1 – after all, it comes with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, more RAM and storage, and a much larger battery, not to mention more reliable face unlock. There are also other worthy contenders in the zone such as the Asus Zenfone 5z (review), which costs a little more but again brings a Snapdragon 845 to the party. And if you are a stock Android enthusiast, well, we daresay there will be those who will be tempted by the Xiaomi Mi A2 (review), which has better cameras although the 8.1 comfortably outguns it in terms of design and battery life. In fact, truth be told, we are not too sure if the Nokia 8.1 itself is a massive step forward from the Nokia 7 Plus (review), which remains perhaps the best phone we have seen from Nokia in its new avatar. In fact, the 8.1 falls somewhere between the 8 and the 7 Plus, with some design refinements brought to the table – and its rivals number everyone from the Moto One Power to the Mi A2 to the Poco F1 to the Honor Play to…you get the idea.

It has got the looks, the specs and for the most part, the performance, but at its price point of Rs 26,800, the Nokia 8.1 faces a problem that many of us do.

It doesn’t quite know where it fits in.

Nokia 8.1

Rs 26,999
8

Build and Design

9.0/10

Performance

8.0/10

Camera

7.0/10

Software

9.0/10

Price

7.0/10

Pros

  • Design
  • Battery
  • Clean UI
  • Latest OS

Cons

  • Inconsistent camera
  • Not as snappy as the competition
  • Lacks proper face unlock