Hands on: Nokia 8.1 review

It's not the flagship you're looking for

What is a hands on review?
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Early Verdict

The Nokia 8 is no longer a flagship product and if you can digest that, you will be pleasantly surprised by how good this mid-ranged phone is. It has a good screen and camera, performs quite well and lasts you more than a day on a full charge. And it doesn't break the bank doing so.

For

  • Good camera
  • Decent performance
  • Excellent battery life

Against

  • The 8 no longer stands for flagship
  • The notch seems unnecessarily wide

The Nokia 8 has historically been HMD Global's flagship product. The first model launched with the highest specs at its time of release, while its follow up Nokia 8 Sirocco featured high-end specs in a gorgeous design and an OLED screen. The latest Nokia 8.1 sadly loses its status as a flagship device, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The new Nokia 8.1 is a spiritual successor to the Nokia 7 Plus and it serves two purposes for HMD Global. First, it removes the confusing "Plus" model from the line-up and second, it paves the way for a future flagship model (Nokia 9?).

Acting as a replacement for the Nokia 7 Plus the Nokia 8.1 has some big shoes to fill. It needs to have a good design, a large screen, a decent camera, an exceptional battery life and a killer price. 

Thankfully, the Nokia 8.1 delivers on every single one of those points. It doesn't go out of its way to offer gimmicky features, and yes, there are some features such as wireless charging that are missing, but for its price it's hard to find another phone on the market.

Nokia 8.1 release date and price

The Nokia 8.1 release date is set for January 14, 2019 in the UK, while in the UAE and Saudi Arabia will you'll be able to get hold of it before the end of 2018.

The Nokia 8.1 price is £379.99, AED 1,499, SAR 1,459 which appears to be great value for what you’re getting. 

This is for the version that comes with 4GB or RAM and 64GB of storage. An alternate configuration of 6GB/128GB is also planned, but only for some markets.

Design and display

Nokia 8.1 specs

Dimensions: 154 x 75.8 x 8mm
OS: Android 9
Screen size: 6.18 inches
Resolution: 2280 x 1080
CPU: Snapdragon 710
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 64GB
Battery: 3,500mAh
Rear camera: 12MP + 13MP
Front camera: 20MP 

The Nokia 8.1 looks very similar to the Nokia 7.1 released the month previous - it's just a larger version of that phone and we're not surprised why Nokia sees it as a spiritual successor of the Nokia 7 Plus. In an alternate universe, this phone would have been called the Nokia 7.1 Plus.

Like most modern phones, it's a glass sandwich surrounded by a metal frame - in this case, an extruded 6000-series aluminium frame with a die-cast center and diamond-cut edges. 

This makes the Nokia 8.1 a lot more premium than other phones in it's price range. It will be available in three colors: Blue/Silver, Steel/Copper and the new Iron/Steel which has a maroon-colored finish to it.

The SIM tray sits on the left with the power button and the volume rocker on the right, both of which offer a good amount of click without any wiggle. 

There's a 3.5mm jack on top with a USB Type C connector at the bottom along with the speaker. The back of the phone sports a dual camera module with the fingerprint sensor sitting below it.

The front of the Nokia 8.1 houses a rather large 6.18-inch display. There's a sizeable notch on the top housing the front camera and the earpeice along with a bunch of sensors. 

The lip below the screen is also smaller than the one found on the Nokia 7.1 but not as small as the likes of OnePlus 6T or the Huawei Mate 20.

Coming to the display itself, you get a 6.18-inch LCD screen with the same PureDisplay technology that was introduced with the Nokia 7.1. 

While the screen has gotten bigger, the resolution stays the same at 1080 x 2280 which, while lower than what flagship phones offer, manages to provide good sharpness with HDR 10 for vivid colors.

Peak brightness levels aren't as high as OLED-based screen though, and even at maximum brightness, there were times when it got hard to read what was on the Nokia 8.1’s screen during a bright Dubai day.

On the flip side, the backlight manages to darken up enough to not make you go blind when using the phone in darkness. This also helps with the ambient display mode that doesn't always stay on but comes up when you pick up the phone.

Camera

One of the nicer improvements that HMD Global has made over the Nokia 7.1 is the camera on the Nokia 8.1. Though it's still 12 MP with f/1.8 aperture, the pixel sizes have increased to 1.4 micron pixels, which helps let more light in and take better shots in low-lit conditions. 

HMD Global also confirmed that it's using Sony-made sensors which have the reputation of being amongst the best in the industry. 

The second camera on the back is a 13MP depth sensor that helps take good portrait mode shots with a background blur.

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On the video side, the phone is capable of taking 4K video at 30fps and uses both the IOS and EIS for jitter free capture. This technology was first used by the original Google Pixel and created super smooth videos.

'Bothies' also make a comeback (why?) allowing you to capture video from the front and back cameras simultaneously. Speaking of the front camera, it is a 20MP variant.

Performance and interface

The Noka 8.1 is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 platform which is a 10nm chipset and features eight cores. Coupled with 4GB RAM and the clean Android One experience, the Nokia 8.1 is quite a zippy device.

Based on early benchmarks, the Snapdragon 710 performs surprisingly well and is on par with the Snapdragon 835 - the chipset that powered the original Nokia 8 as well as the Nokia 8 Sirocco. 

In that regards, you won't notice any downgrade in speed if moving to the Nokia 8.1 from the last Nokia 8.

We saw no issues or slowdowns launching the standard set of apps or switching between them. You will see a bit of a slowdown with graphic-heavy games, but social apps or messaging apps fly on the Nokia 8.1

The device we have with us isn’t running the final version of the software but it is near-final. We expect Nokia to optimize the device as well as have the digital wellbeing feature of Android Pie enabled on shipping units.

Early verdict

Anyone looking at the Nokia 8.1 as a new flagship product is going to be disappointed. HMD Global made it quite clear that the new Nokia 8.1 is a replacement for the mid-range Nokia 7 Plus and on that level, it succeeds.

It has the right amount of features to make it a great phone that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. 

It’s not aiming to be a flagship and costs half as much as other flagships (a third if you factor the iPhone XS) and yet provides good speed, camera and battery life wrapped up in a chassis that feels premium.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.