Nokia 7.1: Raises the standard among budget phonesby Peter Griffin
Nokia has had an impressive year as it has sought to reclaim its position as a leading smartphone brand.
It didn’t deliver a cutting-edge design as Apple did with the iPhone XS or a brilliant camera like the one in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. But after years in the wilderness, it signalled it is back with a series of affordable phones that really deliver value at each price point.
Nokia rounds out the year with the debut of the 7.1, which retailing at $599 comes in cheaper than the Nokia 7 Plus and Nokia 8 and puts it firmly in the mid-price range, where it faces strong competition from the likes of the Moto G6 and the Nova 3e.
Design-wise, the unimaginatively named 7.1 doesn’t break any real new ground. But there’s a finesse in the angular case with its distinctive copper trim and diamond-cut edges that offer a reminder of Nokia’s premium phones of yesteryear.
A fingerprint scanner, disappearing from more expensive phones to sit beneath the screen, remains on the rear of the phone and is a good reminder that for all of the advances with facial recognition and hidden fingerprint scanners, the rear pad is often quicker for unlocking the phone, particularly on the move.
The 7.1’s best feature is probably its display, which compares well at this price point. The LCD screen (1,080 x 2,280 resolution) is bright and displays crisp text and images. But it also accommodates HDR10, a high dynamic range format that TV shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming video services are increasingly coming in. That means higher contrast and more vivid colours for videos encoded with the standard, though I’d be unlikely to watch much TV on a 5.8-inch screen.
If the content isn’t in HDR, Nokia claims to have a useful answer: “Nokia also includes a handy video feature that upconverts standard-definition content so that it looks a bit more vibrant”. It is hard to tell how effective that is, but I didn’t have any complaints on video playback in general.
There’s a notch on the screen to accommodate the camera and no way yet to obscure it with a thick black line, though this is expected to come with a software update. There’s a thick trim at the phone’s bottom bearing the Nokia logo which I could do without in favour of a bit more screen real estate, as is the current trend.
Hardware-wise, the specifications are respectable if not impressive, with Qualcomm’s reliable Snapdragon 636 processor driving the 7.1, which comes with 3GB (gigabytes of memory) and 32GB of storage. Both of those are on the light side, but the memory should handle minimal multitasking okay and there’s a microSD slot for adding storage if you want to keep your videos and photos on the phone.
The 7.1 has a dual camera on its rear, 12MP (f/1.8) and 5MP (f/2.4), with Carl Zeiss camera optics. The camera performed well for me, particularly in well-lit scenes. Its low-light performance is less impressive, it is worth paying a few hundred dollars more for something like the Oppo R17 Pro, if capturing those group photos taken over cocktails in dimly-lit bars is a priority (which it is for me).
But on the software side, the 7.1 has a good range of settings, from like bokeh to control the background blur in your shot, to timelapse and various ‘pro’ settings.
The phone is snappy - moving between apps and settings is quick and the camera has good shutter response times. Battery life is very much middle of the road, with 3,060mAh capacity. It got me through a day’s use no problem, but was flat the next morning if I neglected to plug it in before bedtime.
With a USB-C connector and a dedicated headphone jack, it covers the bases on connectivity
Why Android One is better
A key thing I like about the Nokia 7.1 is that it is one of the few handsets on the market in New Zealand to feature a pure version of Android, the way Google created it. Most other phone makers adapt Android, building a software interface on top of it. That’s so they can give their phone its own identity, but also so they can seize any opportunity to get you using their services.
I haven’t come across a compelling reason to use Samsung or Hauwei’s apps or services. They make great phones, that’s what they are good at and is what they should focus on. Nokia has cleverly decided not to join the throng of phone makers tinkering with Android and just offered up Android One.
It is a more uniform, uncluttered experience. It also means that you get operating system updates and security patches quicker - the other phone makers have to test each update first which can see a delay of weeks or months before a big upgrade arrives. The three years of guaranteed updates for the 7.1 will see it supported as Android 9 Pie arrives in its final form and many of its subsequent iterations.
Without many other Android One-based Google phones officially on sale in New Zealand, Nokia has a window to stamp its mark on mid-priced phones that offer up a pure Google experience with services like the Google Assistant and Google Photos front and centre.
The Nokia 7.1 delivers that experience in a neat package that represents great value for money. It is selling exclusively through Spark, so look out for discounts and special offers on it from the mobile operator.
Pros: Great screen, fetching design, Android One
Cons: Average battery life, tight on storage
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