Nokia and Motorola phones are making a comeback

by Peter Griffin / 16 December, 2017

Motorola’s Moto X4: looks and feels more expensive than it is.

It's been a long time since Nokia and Motorola ruled, but they're back with new mid-market smart phones.

In the early 2000s, Nokia’s basic and mid-range phones were standard issue worldwide, that iconic chiming start-up tone instantly recognisable.

The Razr flip phone, released in 2004, briefly made Motorola the coolest phone company in the world. These were state-of-the-art devices, matched with slick marketing campaigns.

Then came the fall, as they failed to innovate in the face of competition from the first wave of touchscreen-based phones from the likes of Ericsson.

By 2007, when Apple’s iPhone made its debut, Nokia and Motorola were on life support. Google ended up buying Motorola and Microsoft scooped up Nokia. The deals were disastrous, particularly for Nokia. Its handsets languished on Microsoft’s Windows platform before the US company pulled the plug, its dreams of dominating smartphone software in tatters.

Now, after numerous false starts, both brands are making a respectable return with Android devices, largely by avoiding going head to head with Apple and Samsung, and producing some decent mid-market smartphones.

Take the new Moto X4 from Motorola ($799), which looks and feels more expensive than it is. Sure, it doesn’t have the same edge-to-edge, high-resolution screen as flagship Apple, Samsung and Huawei devices, but it’s several hundred dollars cheaper.

With a decent dual-lens camera, waterproofing and a day’s solid use on a single battery charge, it does what you need. The downsides are a middling processor and tight storage (32GB) in the entry-level model, but as with most Android phones, a microSD card can be added if you want to load more apps and store photos and videos.

In the budget range, there’s the Moto G5S ($399) and G5S Plus ($499). Again, they have many features of premium phones – sleek metal cases, fingerprint sensors, fast-charging capability and reasonable cameras. They also support near-field communications, which is increasingly being offered to let you pay at the shop counter with your phone.

The Nokia 8: top of the range.

The compromises come in screen-quality, memory and processing power. But these are impressive, cheap phones that offer Android software with a minimum of clutter.

Nokia, meanwhile, has broader ambitions, with four phones ranging in price from $299 to $999. At the top, the Nokia 8 is probably the best-looking phone the company has ever produced – bar the luxurious Communicator from its glory days, which I still remember fondly.

The build quality is excellent, and this is a thin phone – 7.9mm at its thickest. There’s a top-notch Snapdragon processor and bright, crisp “QHD” display. That’s what the inflated price tag will buy you, otherwise it is largely on a par with the Moto X4.

The Nokia 6 ($399) probably hits the sweet spot. The trade-offs in design and hardware specifications are reasonable, although the G5S is a phone I’d rather use on a permanent basis.

Maybe it’s the legacy of the name – Nokia certainly has a lot to live up to. But it is good to see these brands in fine mettle again. We need them to thrive to give us better options in mid-market phones, and their new Asian owners are certainly innovating to do so.

Nokia has done an exclusive deal with mobile-operator Spark, so the phones are available only from its stores or online.

Mining that vein of sentimentality, Nokia has also brought back the 3310 ($99), the simple handset that it sold nearly 130 million of in the early- to mid-2000s which strips everything back to the bare essentials. If you can’t be bothered with apps, swiping over a screen and tapping out messages on a digital keyboard, you will love this. Free of draining applications, the battery life soars – up to 27 days on standby. It has a curvier screen and body than its predecessor, which gives it a quirky, playful look. This is your second phone for the boat or the answer to your social-media addiction.

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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