Nokia 8 Review

By | 2018/02/10

I’m a two-phone sort of person. I’m regularly amused by the number of people with only one mobile phone who semi-derisively tell me that the only people who carry two mobile phones are drug dealers. Now, the closest I do to dealing drugs is to remind people with a headache that there’s a pharmacy nearby, but the reason I carry two phones is simple: work/life separation. If I’ve had a particularly frustrating day, or I’m feeling tired, or I just simply want weekend headspace, having two phones gives me the ultimate luxury of being able to leave my work phone downstairs, or at home when I go out, and not worry about getting a work call – or checking work email.

For a few years now, the two-phone approach has allowed me to dabble in non-iOS devices for my work phone. My personal phone has been an iPhone since the iPhone 3G was released in Australia, and I don’t see that changing at any point in the future. I’m too invested in the iOS ecosystem, and like MacOS, iOS and I get along well. Are there things I’d change? You bet. I’ve used so many operating systems over the years I’ve lost count, and there’s not a single one I’d say I was ever 100% satisfied with.

My last Nokia was actually the Lumia 920, running Microsoft’s Windows smartphone OS. That was when the Nokia brand was still subsumed under Microsoft. There were so many things about the Lumia 920 I wanted to love, but the Windows Mobile OS and launcher in the end completely did my head in. (I’m still convinced the tile approach was a shambolic failure of tempting interface design – you see it, you think it’s crisp and clean and gorgeous, but after you use it for a while, you want to stab yourself in frustration.)

After the Lumia 920, I tried out a few Android devices, including the Nexus 5. I’ve had a few Oppos (which are cheap, fast, insanely thin, well built, extremely powerful, and ultimately too frustrating to use), and a couple of LGs (the last being the V20 – beautiful screen and … well, beautiful screen).

The most recent Android phone I’ve dived into was the Nokia 8 – in fact, I’ve had it now for pretty much two months, and after that long a time using it, I think it deserves a bit of attention.

Nokia 8

Nokia 8

After my three most recent Android phones – the Oppo R9 Plus, the LG V20, and the Oppo R11, I was keenly feeling the impact of skinned Android phones running less-than-recent releases of the OS under the hood with little or no chance of update. So when I heard about, then read some reviews about the Nokia 8, a few things immediately jumped to mind:

  • This is a new ‘flagship’ phone from new HMD Global, what you might think of as the ‘real’ Nokia, not Microsoft
  • Consistent reports of a good, responsive unit
  • Excellent design to keep the unit cool while it’s being used (a common complaint I’ve had with Android generally), and, most importantly
  • As close to the standard Android experience as possible, with a commitment from Nokia to get OS updates out quickly

The final point was reinforced by reports that the Nokia 8s already released were getting upgrades to Android 8 within a very short time of it being released. This, it seemed, meant that the Nokia 8 was the phone for me. Well, the non-iOS phone for me.

My current personal phone is the iPhone X – a truly beautiful piece of engineering – and along the way, I’ll be comparing the Nokia 8 to it where it makes sense to.

First impressions with the Nokia 8 were good: it’s got the sort of heft you would expect of a well built, flagship phone, without being excessively heavy. It genuinely feels like you’re holding a serious piece of hardware in your hand, but without any sarcastic thoughts there might be a little extra lead in the enclosure to increase the weight. The Nokia 8 I went with is a deep sapphire, metallic blue – if I’d been able to get it at the time, I’d have definitely bought the copper coloured one instead, but I have no regrets about the blue – it truly is beautiful.

And importantly, the promise of quick updates to the OS seems to be true: the first thing the Nokia 8 did when I bought it and set it up was to upgrade itself to Android 8. Score one over most other Android phone manufacturers, for sure. (Though it has to be said, it’s a sad reflection of the Android market as a whole that a simple statement like “it gets OS updates quickly” is deemed different enough to be praiseworthy.)

Like most polished phones, this beauty is also a smudge-magnet. If I touch it without a phone case, I’m suddenly finding myself with a Gollum-like intensity brushing my precious to try to get rid of all the smudges and fingerprints. It’s nice that I care that much about it, but I think there’s something to be said for smudge-resistent surfaces, too.

Nokia 8 Back - Compared to Pencil

Nokia 8 Back – Compared to Pencil

In addition to attracting smudges, the phone case itself attracts dust and other particles – it’s practically impossible to take a photo of it without realising there were specks of dust on it after. That being said, when it’s got a case on it, you’re not noticing the specks of dust or smudges on the back. The phone is relatively thin, but by no means the thinnest I’ve used of late (that award has to go to the Oppo R11).

There’s something about the actual glass screen I can’t quite work out. I’ve tried both a plastic and glass screen cover, and neither one sticks. They’re lifting off within seconds of being applied, so for the first time in a long time, I’m being forced to run a phone without a screen cover. I don’t like that – it renders me perpetually paranoid. (I may be paranoid about my iPhone X screen getting damaged, but with a glass screen cover on, I’m somewhat more relaxed about it.) Yet, whatever Nokia did with the 8 to make it resistant to screen covers didn’t in any way come with with the benefit of also making it smudge resistant.

The default Google launcher is simple – too simple, really. I managed to stick with it for about 2 weeks before I switched over to Nova. There’s a bunch of things I don’t like about the Nova launcher, but by and large, it gives the stability, flexibility and tweakibility (yes, I’m making that word up) I tend to find myself wanting in Android.

While we’re on the subject of tweaking: Roboto is really an ugly-ass screen font. I wish Google would acknowledge that and make it possible to change the system font as part of the core OS. (I don’t need to wish for that with iOS, because it uses an appropriately designed system font.)

The screen on the Nokia 8 is suitably beautiful, as you’d expect in a phone that has 1440 x 2560 resolution (~554 PPI), and the display itself is snappy and responsive – and bright. Now here’s a comparison: the LG V20 had the same resolution, but it always felt the resolution was half of the reason why the LG V20 ran like it was wading through waist-deep treacle. (Also by comparison: as beautiful as they are in construction, Oppo’s rigid adherence to a standard FHD screen resolution, perhaps explained by their price point, gets disappointing after a while.)

Photo display on Nokia 8

Photo display on Nokia 8

That crisp, fast display makes for a an experience that borders closely to iOS – you don’t feel like you’re waiting for the display to update, and the scrolling is smooth and responsive. Photos and text render well on the screen – it’s easy to read what you want to read (even if, like me, you need to use glasses to do so).

Reading text on the Nokia 8

Reading text on the Nokia 8

One of the areas in which the Nokia 8 is promoted is its audio fidelity. For me, this is an interesting one to test: I’m not a baby-boomer, so I don’t feel the need to obnoxiously listen to music in public. For the most part, the sounds I’m likely to hear out of a mobile phone are the alert notifications; if I am listening to music I’ll do it through headphones (AirPods or Bose QuietComfort 35s). Therefore my comparison on that front is brief: using about 1/3 volume, I listened to Aurora’s acoustic Murder Song on both the iPhone X and the Nokia 8. It’s a beautiful piece of music and deserves the justice of a good reproduction. The Nokia 8 certainly does it with a nice volume, but despite the apparent focus on its speakers, I found Aurora’s voice to be rendered raspy from the Nokia 8, compared to the iPhone X. There was good depth from both phones, but the iPhone X definitely produced a smoother and more attentive bass compared to the Nokia 8.

The other area that Nokia promote the 8 is in its camera. Nokia promote its Zeiss lenses, and they do indeed produce some excellent results. (A note here: the ‘bothie’ mode, where the phone can take a picture with both the front and rear camera simultaneously is wasted on me. Maybe some might find it fun, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it was a solution looking for a problem.) There’s dual 13MP lenses on the rear of the phone, and the front-facing camera is also 13MP.

Unlike say, the iPhone X, the purpose of the dual lenses on the Nokia isn’t to support portrait mode, but to allow greater depth by doing things like taking a black and white photo with one lens, and a colour photo with the other, and combining all the light information from both for a better result.

Like all smartphone cameras, the Nokia 8 takes its best photos in well lit daylight conditions. That’s not to say smartphones are incapable of working in other conditions, but their ideal conditions remain well-lit days, or well-lit rooms. Here’s a few examples from this specific sort of scenario – outside, and in a well lit gallery. (All photos have been uploaded at full size – you can click through to get to the original image.)

Nokia 8 - NGV Fountain

Nokia 8 – NGV Fountain

Nokia 8 - NGV Triennial

Nokia 8 – NGV Triennial

Nokia 8 - NGV Triennial (Skulls)

Nokia 8 – NGV Triennial (Skulls)

At the time I wanted to write a review, my partner’s Foldio3 arrived, so it seemed like a good excuse to take some comparison photos between the Nokia 8 and the iPhone X. After all, it gave guaranteed consistency in lighting for each photo, and the opportunity to take each photo in as close to as possible as the same position as one another.

For these photos, I left both phones on auto-HDR: it’s not just the optics, but also how the OS uses the optics that count in my mind.

Nokia 8 - Christmas Bauble

Nokia 8 – Christmas Bauble

iPhone X - Christmas Bauble

iPhone X – Christmas Bauble

In this comparison shot between christmas baubles, I thought the iPhone X just pipped the Nokia 8. The Nokia’s photo felt just a little softer on detail. That being said, you’d not really complain about either photo.

Nokia 8 - Glass of Prosecco

Nokia 8 – Glass of Prosecco

iPhone X - Glass of Prosecco

iPhone X – Glass of Prosecco

In this comparison, the iPhone X is practically an order of magnitude better. The Nokia 8’s image was washed out, with colours leeched away, robbing the image of detail.

Nokia 8 - Music Man

Nokia 8 – Music Man

iPhone X - Music Man

iPhone X – Music Man

This is a more challenging one – on the face of it, the iPhone X photo looks better. It looks brighter, after all. However, I think I’m inclined to say this one is won by the Nokia 8 – the colour is richer, and truer to the real statue than the iPhone, and if you grab both images and zoom in to full size on the hair, the iPhone’s capturing is definitely a little fuzzier.

Nokia 8 - Samsung SSD

Nokia 8 – Samsung SSD

iPhone X - Samsung SSD

iPhone X – Samsung SSD

In this, again, the iPhone X is the clear winner – both phones jumped into HDR mode for the SSD, and the iPhone did a great job of pulling out detail on the drive enclosure. On the other hand, the HDR mode on the Nokia gave the enclosure a ghostly glow, and equally struggled with the broader lighting of the shot.

It might seem I’m mostly dissing the optics in the Nokia 8 – but in reality, this is a phone that’s pretty much half the price of my iPhone X, so I’m actually cutting it a fair bit of slack. (Yet, it deserves to be compared to the iPhone X simply because Nokia themselves are most definitely comparing themselves to the iPhone. Just take a look at their Form and Function video. It’s basically the result of someone analysing an Apple phone-design video, deconstructing it, and building it around an Android phone.) The phone mostly captures good photos, with just the occasional glitch. If I had one major complaint on the camera on the Nokia 8, it’s that just occasionally, the camera app itself becomes really slow. It may only happen one in twenty times I try to take a photo, but I can be practically guaranteed it’s going to happen when I want to take a photo with a degree of alacrity.

Stepping away from the camera now, performance wise I’m really happy with the Nokia 8. I’m not a big gamer, so I can’t attest to frame rates on popular games, but what I can say is that in every day use, such as web browsing, reading, accessing email, pulling up banking, webcams, etc. – and the basic games I do play – the phone is zippy pretty much all the time.

This is a phone I really like. One way I know for sure I like this phone is that despite being a work phone, I’m just as likely as not to continue to carry it with me over the weekend. The LG V20, the Oppo R11 – they both sat on my desk all weekend unattended, their batteries slowly draining. The Nokia 8 is with me almost as much as the iPhone X is.

Nokia’s had a rocky history over the past five years or so, but as a flagship phone from HMD Global, it’s mostly risen from the ashes of the Microsoft burnout and delivered an excellent return to the Nokia engineering so many of us became so very used to in the early days of mobile telephony. Just updated for a modern age.

Over the past 2 years, I’ve probably gone through a new Android phone every 6 months, on average. This one though is a keeper. If this is what Nokia produces as their flagship phone, at the price-range it’s in, I think they’ve got a good chance of making a real splash in the Android market.

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