We dive in with the Nokia 8; the newest Android phone to be launched from the Finnish marque under HMD Global.
I normally like to begin a review by casting out some metaphors for how I feel a smart device might sit in the market space and – ultimately – perform. However, I feel with that with the Nokia 8 it’s time to skip poetic license and skip to some hard truths.
Put simply, I like the Nokia 8. This is a simple handset with quite a unique footprint in the market, despite the fact its special sauce is arguably its bizarre ‘bothie’ camera system (which I’ll naturally get to in a brief moment). Read: The Nokia 5 goes official in South Africa
However, I find the lens through which both marketing and some media outlets have viewed the device to be unable to give the device its fair due. That’s chiefly because the Nokia 8 has been marketed loudly as ‘the Nokia flagship’ – and while it might be a flagship of Nokia’s smartphone economy (sitting premium above the likes of the 3,5, and 6) I don’t believe we should consider this a flagship smartphone.
While some leaks have indicated we’ll see a premium Nokia 9 in the future – and that, to my mind, is a likely eventuality – calling the Nokia 8 a flagship robs the device of its natural competing ground and – in my opinion – squares the device off against hard-hitters with the loose promise of retailing for below the R10k mark.
Insofar as marketing goes, I find the Nokia 8 an unfortunate affair – the victim of pressure on HMD Global (and Nokia) to bring a flagship smartphone to market. The Nokia 8, in my opinion, sits precisely where it should for now – in the upper band of the market – and leaves the flagship throne for a device that’s more in line with some of the premium trends we’ve seen in the market.
However, I do believe the Nokia 8 has merits that place it well in the South African market and gives the device breathing room in an otherwise crowded market.
If you’re ready, let’s unpack!
The Nokia 8 arrives on the market as HMD Global’s top-tier Nokia Android device. The handset carries a 5.3″ 1440p LCD display with heavy top and bottom bezels, and underneath lies Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 SoC.
Present is 4GB of RAM along with 64GB of storage (or 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in certain markets) with MicroSD support. There’s also a large 3,090mAh battery, front-facing fingerprint sensor, and USB Type-C support.
The device accommodates a dual 13-megapixel camera array and a 13-megapixel front-facing camera, and lastly accommodates Nokia’s OZO recording technology for video and audio capture.
Perhaps where the Nokia 8 suffers the most in comparison to flagships present in the market – chiefly the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6, which are priced far above it – is the fact that the handset bears a utilitarian design without much room for sex appeal.
Granted, there are those of us out there (myself included in this number) who have increasing want for a smartphone that can suffer a knock. This, the Nokia 8 can do – with heavy top-and-bottom bezels and a rear panel reminiscent of Nokia’s Windows Phone days, this is an incredibly sturdy phone that one needn’t worry too much about dropping or scratching.
However, that comes with the concurrent threat of a design that doesn’t do much to inspire love nor anything special – and most consumers, I fear, might fly past the Nokia 8 for a device that looks far more 2017.
That’s not to say I don’t see much merit in the Nokia 8’s design – in fact, I’d reckon this is one of the most meaningful refinements of the design language most flagship smartphones employed during 2016, and it’s one that does have its own subtle identity.
The Nokia 8 sits in the hand akin to a flat pebble – a wider back panel lies in one’s palm while a gentle arc in its rear body reminds me greatly of the LG G4. Though there’s a camera protruding camera module, its vertical alignment ensures that the device sits as close to flush on a flat surface as possible.
On the front, there’s a front-facing fingerprint scanner with Android’s classic soft-touch buttons, and uniform sides ensure that the effort of the Nokia 8 highlights its display.
The Nokia 8’s screen is perhaps one of the best LCD efforts I’ve ever used – and that comes from months of using Samsung’s OLED-equipped Galaxy S8 as my daily driver. Present is Nokia’s Glance screen, which leverages an always-on display to show pertinent notification counts.
Overall, the Nokia 8 could be seen to be a great example of subtlety and refinement in an age of sex appeal and bombast – and that’s meritable for consumers seeking a smartphone capable of surviving a trip through the mud. However, to mentally equate this smartphone with premium efforts such as the Galaxy S8 or even the LG G6 place it at a disadvantage.
The pain point here, perhaps, is that this very much a first stab at a ‘flagship’ phone from HMD – and while by no means offensive, the Nokia 8 tends to lack a certain je ne sais quois that I fear consumers of late have become quickly accustomed to.
However, competing more closely in price bracket with the likes of the older Galaxy S7 or even the similarly-priced BlackBerry KEYone give the Nokia 8 a better grounding; one that perhaps may even surpass both these options in quality and durability, with the benefit of possessing a close-to-stock Android experience.
To return to my ‘flagship’ concern, the one element where the Nokia 8 does compete closely with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8, Note 8, and LG V30 is in its use of the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor – and this is something that will delight performance fiends seeking power without having to sacrifice a good portion of their savings to get on board with any of the South Korean champions released this year.
The Nokia 8 – running close to stock Android – is a brilliant demonstration of the weight that a software skin adds to the performance of its closest rivals. Flying through menus and the rest of the handset’s interface, one may well be astounded by the speed and depth of response without landing head-first in the gumf that Samsung and LG continue to promulgate in their devices.
Running a launcher that comes in close comparison to Google’s own, giving a left-swipe can quickly teleport users to Google Now – something I loved, considering its default presence and the fact that I’ve been shoehorned into activating Bixby Home on my Galaxy S8.
A simple app drawer is present, and generally the handset rockets through games and apps – though one downfall is its decidedly ugly camera launcher, which is both puzzlingly slow and unintuitive.
Perhaps what should really be the Nokia 8’s primary selling point is neither its looks, near-stock Android interface, or its Zeiss lenses – perhaps what should be renowned is the fact that this is a great competitor that achieves a brilliant balance of power and stamina thanks to the combination of the Snapdragon 835 and its 3,090mAh battery.
BlackBerry’s KEYone surprised us earlier this year for its longevity, though BlackBerry itself had to downscale its processor to the power-sipping Snapdragon 625 – the Nokia 8, however, rewards its purchases with both raw power and the lifespan to get some serious things done.
During our use, the Nokia 8 usually lasted well past the 16-hour period and sporadically into a second day, while standby battery time saw the phone survive for nearly a week when left to its own devices. Considering the powerhouse chip at play and the device’s positon in the market, this is an exponentially powerful success for the Nokia brand and one that should give any consumer pause.
Put simply, I’d probably (and prematurely) rank the Nokia 8 as one of the best smartphones I’ve used this year for longer battery life – and considering that I’ve been fortunate enough to use some of the creme-de-la-creme of the Android world this year, that’s high praise indeed.
Where one part of the Nokia 8 excels, one happens to tear it down – and perhaps the most bitterly depressing aspects of the smartphone is the fact that despite the presence of Carl Zeiss lenses on its primary cameras, resulting images are usually consistent in the fact that they’re disappointing.
The Nokia 8’s primary cameras use the same colour and monochrome split as employed by Huawei’s Leica setups, though the results are somewhat baffling in reality. Despite the presence of a monochrome lens with which to capture highlights and shadows, the Nokia 8 continually overexposes images to give the result of a brighter hue than intended.
Highlights struggle to resolve themselves and can all-too-easily rip through the simplest image, while shadows can appear washed out – robbing the device of sufficient contrast.
The handset’s 13-megapixel selfie camera brings relief that’s ironically better than what the primary array offers – giving punchier colours and greater fine detail.
The Nokia 8, of course, is the first smartphone to debut with a ‘Bothie’ feature – marketing jargon aside, this allows users to take images and live streams while using the primary and secondary cameras concurrently – though this is perhaps best limited to selfies and is a difficult experiment to use with anything other than a tripod or selfie stick for photographic purposes.
Though the Nokia 8’s cameras aren’t a complete disappointment, they are a very bitter introduction considering the prowess the Nokia brand previously had for imaging – especially when one revisits the Windows Phone days of yore.
Perhaps one of the best – and least acknowledged, in my opinion – features of the Nokia 8 is the presence of Nokia Ozo recording technology, which adds significant bass and crisper tone to audio recordings while allowing for a fuller, stockier sound.
In principle, HMD Global has developed a cunning hardware proposition here – and the Nokia 8 has every pedigree necessary to succeed and potentially overpower its close rivals – though it is my perception that the handset falls far short of that potential thanks to a very first-generation interface and image handling capabilities.
The Nokia 8 is generally a good jack of all trades. While its camera system disappoints, that’s not to imply it is unuseful – things may well improve from the time of this review thanks to software and firmware patches.
However, to return to my earliest point, I struggle to get to grips with the Nokia 8 as a flagship phone – because to use that analogy places the device in a bracket where it is all-too-easily overwhelmed by snarkier, more aggressive competitors that have been established in the market for the better part of the year.
Viewing the Nokia 8 in this light, I don’t feel there’s too much to wow consumers – there’s a sub-par camera setup compared to the standard we’ve come to expect, a design straight out of 2016, and the lack of pizzaz around its interface might well put-off the average consumer.
However, to answer a simple question – would I buy the Nokia 8 as my next smartphone?
Though I believe the Nokia 8 might well be supplanted with a richer sibling in the months ahead, I believe that this device has most of key ingredients necessary to succeed in the South African market. Not only does it have the pedigree of a great brand name, but is also brings with it a beautifully clean installation of Android and battery power set to delight pretty much anyone.
Sure, its design may not be as sexy as we’d hoped – but it does uproot some of the more staid Huawei designs that we’ve seen below the sub-R10K mark, and does so with a design that’s just unique enough to pique everyone’s interest in that territory. Frankly, I believe if HMD can continue to crank out efforts such as this (with better camera performance) underneath the R10K ceiling, South Africa may well have a new market champion in its hands given the fact that Huawei now intends to channel its energies to its top-tier handsets.
The only thing Nokia needs to do, in my opinion, is to create a real flagship and not force an otherwise decent phone into a position that it can’t necessarily compete from.
The Nokia 8 may disappoint with a sub-par camera, but consumers seeking a durable smartphone with brilliant battery smarts and a pure version of Android might quickly fall in love with this device.
If you’re seeking a Nokia champion, you may wish to hold on to your wallet – but if you’re ready to compromise or purchase a phone that’s otherwise a jack of all trades and master of its battery, you need look no further.
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Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA