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Nokia's new 6.1 and 7 Plus phones set a high bar

The new Nokia 6.1 (pictured) and Nokia 7 Plus have both adopted the Android One operating system.

Nokia continues its comeback in mobile phones this month with two new mid-priced models that are the first in New Zealand to run Android One - an uncluttered version of Google’s phone operating system.

It was a case of ‘better late than never’ when Nokia finally ditched Windows in favour of Android last year and made the wise decision not to try and tackle Samsung’s Galaxy and the Apple iPhone head-on at the top of the market.

Instead, it went for entry-level and mid-market phones starting with the $99 3310, a throw-back to the pre touch-screen classic and progressing through to the flagship Nokia 8, which at $750 is around half the price of Samsung’s Galaxy S9+.

As I discovered late last year, Nokia’s Android debut was a respectable effort. There was none of the glamour associated with its Finnish heritage when it came up with cutting-edge devices like the N93 and the 9300 Communicator in the early 2000s.

Instead, we got some understated, if well-designed handsets, that delivered good value for money against rivals from Motorola and Samsung’s lower-end offerings, such as the J5 Pro ($399) and the A8 ($799).

One big advantage

The new Nokia 6.1 and Nokia 7 Plus (or more sensibly, the 2018 Nokias), refine the formula further with one major difference - the adoption of the Android One operating system. This is Android without the bundles apps, services and interface skins that manufacturers like to layer over Android and which more often than not lead to reduced performance and annoying clutter.

Android One serves up all of Google’s apps from the moment you boot it up - you just need to log into your account and everything from Gmail and Youtube to Google Play Music and Google’s video calling app Duo, are ready to go. As someone sick of wrestling with phone apps and accounts I want nothing to do with, the idea of having stock Android running my phone is refreshing.

There are more practical advantages as well - software updates roll out instantly to Android One devices - these Nokias will be first to get the new Android P operating system I had a look at last week and Android Q as well. Two years of operating system updates are guaranteed.

Hardware trade-offs

The new Nokias sport a matt black metallic finish with copper trim, which I like. But the edging is sharp and angular which I don’t - give me the curves of the Samsungs or Huawei P20 for comfort holding the phone.

The copper trim is nice, but is comfortable to hold? Our reviewer says no.

The Nokia 7 Plus is larger with a 6-inch screen compared to the 5.5-inch display in the Nokia 6.1, is a little more streamlined feels better in the hand too. Both sport a fingerprint scanner for unlocking your phone beneath the rear camera, which I find isn’t ideal, but I tend to use facial recognition to unlock my phone, which isn’t available on these Nokias.

Where the two models separate is in the processors that run them - the Snapdragon 660 chip and 4GB of RAM in the 7 Plus delivers better performance, though for most standard tasks like web surfing, watching videos and using the camera, the 6.1 is up to the job.

The 7 Plus has a noticeably better LCD screen than the Nokia 6.1 which has a blue hue to it and tends to not replicate colours as well as its more expensive sibling. The other big difference is the camera set-up - the Nokia 6.1 has a single 16-megapixel rear-facing camera that does an alright job in well-lit conditions and impressively, can shoot 4K (ultra high definition) video at 30 frames per second - a feature of much more expensive smartphones.

The 7 plus does all of that but boasts two cameras on the rear - a 12-megapixel sensor for regular shooting and another 13-megapixel sensor with a narrow aperture for zoomed in shots. The front camera on both is adequate for selfie shots.

Both are fairly minimalist on the camera software front, though the basic photo, panorama and pro shot options are there, with the 7 Plus adding a great “Live Bokeh” or portrait mode feature.

Why have one back camera when you can have two?

Battery and storage

It is essential to have a phone that gets you through the day on a single charge and both Nokia phones deliver on this front, though the larger battery in the 7 Plus will take you further even with its faster processor.

Both phones support fast charging, which will now see you fully recharged in less than two hours. The 32GB of onboard storage on the Nokia 6.1 is tight for those running numerous apps and taking a lot of photos - the 7 Plus has 64GB. But both support addition of a microSD card for boosting storage.

The two have your now-standard USB-C connection for charging, but also conveniently continue to include a 3.5mm audio jack, so your old headphones will continue to work without an adapter which Samsung and Huawei now make you use with the USB-C port doubling as a headphone jack.

Bottom line

Nokia acquits itself well here with its second generation smartphones and its move to Android One is inspired. That feature alone will appeal to many who just want the basics and who live in the Google app ecosystem.

Elsewhere, basic hardware firepower separates these two models, with the power user needing good performance for games and video and a long-lasting battery better to go for the 7 Plus. Likewise, if taking good quality photos is a priority, the sensors of the 7 Plus and greater flexibility in the software will make a big difference.

The 6.1, on the other hand, sets the bar high for a $499 phone and will appeal to those who want solid delivery of the basics and aren’t interested in shelling out $1,000 or more on a phone.

Sweetening the deal at the moment is the fact that Spark is offering both phones with a set of Jaybird Run in-ear headphones, worth $329.

Pros - Nokia 6.1
Clean Android experience
Good processor performance
Fast charging
Reasonable value for money
Slight blue tinge to display
Chunky, angular build
Average camera set-up
Price: $499
Rating: 7/10

Pros - Nokia 7 Plus
Clean Android experience
Great battery life
Large, bright display
Reasonable camera performance
Price: $699
Rating: 8/10