Could the new Nokia 6.1, powered by Android One, be the best budget smartphone this year?
The budget smartphone is the new battleground, with many saying the premium smartphone race is done and dusted. The budget smartphone is no longer the stinking pile that it once was, with genuine, high-quality options on offer from Motorola, Huawei, Oppo and more. However, Nokia made waves last year with its newly minted Android smartphones, and in 2018, they’re better still.
In fact, the Nokia 6.1 could be the best budget smartphone on offer at the moment. At $399, it’s at the top of the “budget” market, and bordering on that mid-range, but with clear mid-range pricing the lines are getting a lot less clear than they once were.
In the Nokia 6.1 (also called and marketed as the Nokia 6 (2018) in some places), there’s a great combination of build quality, good looks, solid performance and a decent camera, for under $400.
Forget glass that breaks, here’s metal that shines
The design race is definitely on, and while premium smartphones are going for glossy looks, wonderful colours and more, Nokia has bucked the trend, keeping the Nokia 6.1 as an all-metal arrangement, and it’s very welcome. Cool to the touch, just the right amount of grip, not a magnet for fingerprints, and (in our review unit) framed by a lovely copper edge, the metal back is a delight on the Nokia 6.1. Broken only by the camera and flash assembly and a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, there’s a clear design language here, and it’s a strong one.
Glass might look nice, but ultimately, it’s fragile. Budget phones shouldn’t be.
The rest of the physical impression is – to an extent, at least – unremarkable. Yes there’s a volume rocker and power button on the right, a headphone jack at the top, and a USB-C charging port at the bottom (yes, a budget phone with USB-C! About time!) The power button can be a little hard to push, but beyond that, everything is fine here.
On the front is a beautiful 5.5-inch FHD LCD (that’s 1,920 x 1,080 resolution). It’s perfectly serviceable for most use, though in bright sunlight, you might find it a touch harder to read. It’s elegantly done, with no physical keys or sensors on the front to break it up. Design wonks will be pleased that Nokia has avoided “The Notch”, but might be more disappointed by the reasonably significant (by 2018 standards) bezel sizes.
One comment – having used last year’s Nokias – is that this year’s phones don’t have the sharper edged feel; Nokia has rounded the edge of the glass ever so slightly so it neatly meets the chassis; this makes for a great in-hand feel. Being made mostly of metal, too, helps with that premium feel. Glass might look nice, but ultimately, it’s fragile. Budget phones shouldn’t be.
It’s no slouch, either
Last year’s Nokia 6 was a bit .. well .. slow. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400 series processors are definitely budget options, and while they’re okay, they’re certainly not known for high-end performance especially with demanding apps. Granted, in a sub-$400 phone, you shouldn’t reasonably expect the top-end 800 series processors, so Nokia has met us in the middle with a Snapdragon 630. HMD spoke of a 60% performance improvement, and that accords with our testing too – this is much quicker than last year’s phone, and quite enjoyable to use.
In fact, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 630 is about the best mid-range processor you can get, before stepping into older-model 800 series chips. This is a major factor in calling Nokia’s 6.1 one of the best affordable phones around; it’s suitably fast.
The included 3GB RAM is a touch on the small side, but again: budget. The 32GB on-board storage is the same, but you can expand that by an extra 128GB with the use of a MicroSD card if you wish.
I’m not much of a gamer so I can’t really comment here, but if you’re a casual game player you’ll find reasonable performance with the Nokia 6.1. No, it probably won’t run PUBG: Mobile super quick if that’s your thing, but if you’re more of an Angry Birds or a puzzle-type gamer, you’ll be fine here.
Android One is what really makes Nokia’s 6.1 unbeatable at this price
Nokia isn’t new to stock Android, but joining the Android One program brings some great promise with it. Unlike some other manufacturers which jam all manner of junk into their cheaper phones, Nokia 6.1 runs stock Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box, and it can be upgraded to Android 9 Pie.
Android One also means that the Nokia 6.1 will receive a guaranteed two major Android updates direct from Google. It’s already received the update to Android 9 Pie (which users can download after setting up their phone), and another upgrade to Android Q next year is likely. Besides major updates, there’s three years of security updates promised. So, while the Nokia 6.1 will not likely see Android S, it will still benefit from security updates at that time.
That’s a promise that few manufacturers of premium smartphones can deliver, and Nokia (with Google) has done it for $399. Samsung won’t make that commitment with their $1500 smartphones, and nor will anyone else.
What’s Android One like on the Nokia 6.1? Stock Android, nothing more or less. In fact, the only sign that it’s a Nokia and not (say) a Pixel is the inclusion of Nokia’s Mobile Support app, which puts customers in touch with HMD customer service.
There’s few bells and whistles (in fact, none) but that’s not what the Nokia 6.1 is about anyway. This is a simple phone, with software sure to be updated for two to three years, in a beautiful package.
The camera is reasonable, but pretty basic
This is where most budget smartphones fall down; people expect a DSLR camera, and for $399, a smartphone just can’t deliver that kind of quality. Last year’s Nokia 6 disappointed entirely in line with expectations, delivering blurry photos and a slow user interface. In fact, it did everything a smartphone camera shouldn’t.
Fortunately, come 2018, Nokia has improved things quite a lot. The partnership with Zeiss for lenses continues, but Nokia has done their bit improving the camera interface and experience, too. This year, it’s faster and takes a decent photo, even though it lacks the OIS or low-light performance seen in more expensive gear.
Nokia 6.1’s camera is a single-lens 16MP shooter with f/2.0 aperture; not class leading, but not terrible. In daylight and reasonably lit other scenes, the Nokia 6.1 performs well, but jump to low-light or night, and it can do a little less well. The other thing I noticed is that it can be a bit hit and miss with focus, too – the good news is that with a steady hand and allowing the phone a moment to do it’s thing, a good shot is easily taken.
The front facing camera is much the same; selfies (if you must) look fine in reasonable light, but as soon as the light fades, you can forget quality.
Unlike some other budget offerings, the Nokia 6.1 camera is pretty basic. There’s a pro-mode, yes, but no portrait mode, no beauty filters or other stuff which has found its way into most budget cameras these days. Probably the only concession to camera features is the “bothie”, which lets you take a photo using the front and rear cameras together. It sounds like a gimmick, and it is, but it can capture both sides of a scene making for some interesting memories.
Battery power for a full day, and maybe a touch more
Featuring a giant 3,000 mAh battery, a power-efficient Snapdragon 630 processor and stock Android without the bloat, it should come as little surprise that the Nokia 6.1 can easily last a day’s decent usage, and in some cases, a bit more too.
Trying it out, I managed to squeeze a full day out of the Nokia 6.1 with a mixture of streaming music and YouTube videos, using the web, social media etc, taking photos, making and receiving calls and the usual “phone like” activities.
If you’re careful, and in a pinch, you can easily squeeze two days out of this phone – turn off background sync in social media apps, use your phone when you need to rather than constantly, and if you forget to charge your phone one night, it’ll probably be fine the next day.
In a surprising move, Nokia 6.1 includes the newest Bluetooth 5 standard, as well as the usual complement of WiFi, GPS and so on. NFC is also included, so you don’t have to give up on payment services like Google Pay or your bank’s own solutions just because you’ve opted for an affordable smartphone.
Pricing, availability, etc
Nokia 6.1 is available for $399 in Black/Copper (reviewed here) and White/Iron. You can pick one up at JB HiFi or Harvey Norman, but as yet, no carriers are on board (and they’re probably not likely to be – this isn’t part of HMD’s plans in Australia just for now).
There’s everything to be happy about with the Nokia 6.1, and only a few things to be a little cautious about; if photography is your thing, you’ll either want a separate camera, or a different phone. Nokia 6.1 is great in daylight (but really, it should be – daylight photos are fairly easy) but less so in low-light or darker situations.
With the promise of two major OS updates, a durable build, minimal software and great performance, Nokia’s 6.1 is an easy sell, made all the easier by the cheap price. Yes, Motorola makes a cheaper budget phone in the Moto G6, but the performance isn’t quite so good. The Moto G6 Plus uses the same chipset, but it’s rumoured to be $499 or so, and there’s no confirmed availability for Australia yet either.
Nokia 6.1 is built like a brick outhouse, so you don’t need a case. It’s not water resistant, so don’t let it go for a swim, but otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to find much better for the sub $400 mark. Nokia is making a real pitch for the hearts and minds, and with the Nokia 6.1 it’s doing a damned good job of it too.
Editor’s note: This article updated in November 2018 to reflect availability of Android 9 Pie for Nokia 6.1 (2018).
HMD Global has allowed Ausdroid to retain the Nokia 6 (2018) to monitor software updates and for ongoing use.