Nokia 6.1 Review—The best answer to “What Android phone should I buy?”
By Ron Amadeo
10 - 13 minutes
As someone who spends a lot of time with smartphones, I often get asked, "Hey Ron, what Android phone should I buy?" The high-end answer is usually easy: buy a Pixel phone. But not everyone is willing to shell out $650+ for a smartphone, especially the types of casual users that ask for advice. Beyond the flagship smartphones, things get more difficult within the Android ecosystem. Motorola under Google used to be great at building a non-flagship phone, but since the company was sold to Lenovo (which gutted the update program), it has been tough to find a decent phone that isn't super expensive.
Enter HMD's Nokia phones, an entire lineup of cheap smartphones ranging from $100 to $400. HMD recently launched the second generation of its lineup, with phones like the Nokia 2.1, 3.1, and 5.1. We recently spent time with the highest end phone in this series that happens to be one of the few HMD devices for sale in the US: the Nokia 6.1. And for $269, you get a pretty spectacular-sounding package of a Snapdragon 630, a 5.5-inch 1080p screen, stock Android 8.1, fast updates, and a metal body.
The fall of Nokia and the rise of HMD
Since this is the first HMD-made Nokia phone we've reviewed, it's probably good to dive into the history of HMD first. Believe it or not, this company was specifically created to be "The home of Nokia phones."
Once upon a time in a post-iPhone world, Nokia hired a Microsoft executive to be the new CEO of the company. Nokia became an exclusive Windows Phone manufacturer. Many poor Microsoft-centric business decisions were made by Nokia's Microsoft executive. Eventually Nokia's value fell low enough that Microsoft ended up buying Nokia's phone division.
Thus, Nokia became a telecommunications company that didn't make telephones, Microsoft got a phone manufacturer and a 10-year license to use the Nokia brand, and the Microsoft executive got to go back home to Microsoft.
In-house Microsoft phones weren't ultimately enough to save Windows Phone, and when the platform died, the end of Nokia phones seemed imminent. With Nokia phones in trouble, a mysterious company called "HMD Global" appeared. Along with Foxconn subsidiary FIH Mobile, HMD soon started buying up what was left of the old Nokia assets. Eventually, branding, software, patents, licenses, and 4,500 employees were divvied up between the two companies. HMD became the global licensee of the Nokia brand for phones, and it had an agreement to do manufacturing at FIH Mobile's newly fortified facilities.
But where did this mysterious "HMD" company come from? If you're like me (and you've followed this kind of insider industry news for awhile), any time an old brand gets snatched up by another company, you assume it's some Chinese firm looking to break into wider markets. Motorola, Blackberry, and Palm all roughly fit into this narrative. But evidently this fate hasn't befallen Nokia—HMD isn't looking to wear the Nokia brand like a desiccated husk. HMD is different.
The similarities between HMD and Nokia are so numerous, it is almost suspicious. HMD, like Nokia, is a Finnish company. Nearly all of HMD's executives are former Nokia employees. HMD's headquarters is actually across the street from Nokia HQ. HMD is not Nokia, and Nokia doesn't hold any investment in HMD, but it seems unlikely that two companies could be any closer while still being legally and financially distinct.
So far, HMD has stood out as a smartphone company by saying all the right things when it comes to the software. Most OEMs try to rebrand Android with a heavy skin that provides little value to consumers, but HMD has been pushing a "Pure Android" angle for its software. It's also putting an emphasis on fast updates, promising devices that are "pure, secure, and up to date." Today, HMD is also one of the rare companies that is putting effort into low- and mid-range smartphones.
HMD sells feature phones, too, an initiative that still moves significant units in the developing world. With its plethora of Nokia DNA, HMD has even managed to make feature phones interesting by resurrecting legendary Nokia phones of the past. So far we've seen remakes of the Nokia 3310 "brick" phone and the "banana phone," the Nokia 8110.
In its latest round of funding, HMD was valued at more than a billion dollars. In 2017—HMD's first year of operation—the company shipped 70 million Nokia-branded phones (that's smartphones and feature phones) with sales operations in more than 80 countries. Between smartphones, feature phones, and a round of second-generation devices, there are already about 20 HMD-made Nokia phones. It's not pointless model spam either; Nokia's seven current smartphones each occupy a unique price point, ranging from about $100 to $700. This is an absolutely outrageous amount of progress for a company that is only a year-and-a-half old—again, it's all kind of curious. This doesn't seem like a startup company at all. It feels more like someone walked into a dusty old Nokia factory, switched on the lights, and started churning out phones again.
Despite all its progress, HMD's impressive scale hasn't yet translated to profitability: the company posted a $77 million loss in 2017. It has only been a year, though, and it certainly seems like HMD's off a good start. The company undoubtedly appears a lot more stable than the last billion-dollar smartphone startup, Andy Rubin's Essential. Compare the first year for each: HMD diversified and launched, like, 12 phone models at a range of price points. Essential bet the farm on a single high-end smartphone, it didn't sell well, and now the company seems to be circling the drain.
For now, the only bad thing I can say about HMD is that it has been tough to get these Finnish phones in the United States. The Nokia 6.1 is one of the few HMD phones that has made the jump to America so far, but there's good news on that front. We're scheduled to get more HMD devices in the US this year than we did last year.
SPECS AT A GLANCE: Nokia 6.1
1920×1080 5.5-inch LCD
(403ppi, 16:9 aspect ratio)
Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 (eight 2.2GHz ARM Cortex A53 cores, 14nm)
32GB, MicroSD slot
802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, NFC
USB 2.0 Type-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
16MP rear camera, 8MP front camera
148.8 x 75.8 x 8.2 mm (5.86 x 2.98 x 0.32 in)
172 g (6.07 oz)
NFC, quick charging, fingerprint sensor, FM radio
With its newly available Nokia 6.1, HMD really nails the basics. Despite the $270 price tag, you never really feel like you're missing out due to the lower price.
The big highlight here is the rock-solid aluminum unibody, which would feel right at home on a flagship device. The back is a mostly flat slab of anodized aluminum that curves ever so slightly when it reaches the perimeter of the back. There's a slight camera bump on the back that houses the 16MP sensor and an LED flash that is oddly far away from the camera lens, but it gives the back design some character.
Speaking of character, while you might expect a cheap phone to look rather generic, Nokia has given every edge of the phone a chamfered edge with an eye-popping color. My black version has a shiny copper accent, while the white version has more of a rose gold color. This accent color surrounds the front glass, the back of the device, the camera bump, the fingerprint reader, and the power and volume buttons. I think my black version looks great, and it definitely stands out among the anonymous black rectangles on my desk.
Besides the aluminum unibody, there's also a rigid aluminum mid-frame inside the phone held down with about a thousand screws. Nokia phones in the past have had legendary durability, and it's nice to see HMD keep up the tradition with a phone that feels like it could double as a hammer. The whole thing feels way overbuilt, but that's a great change of pace from the ultra-fragile all-glass smartphones most companies are building today.
Also on the back is the Nokia logo, which has been carved into the back and given a nice reflective coloring. Look closely at the back and you'll spot a few black antenna lines at the top and bottom of the phone, which occasionally wrap around the sides and interrupt the orange chamfer. If I'm going to find any faults with this phone, it's with the rear fingerprint reader, which feels a tad on the small size. I feel like a bigger sensor would require less precision and reduce reading errors, but you can always mitigate this by training the same finger twice for more data.
The front has a pretty basic design that goes with an old-school 16:9 LCD panel and medium-size bezels. The 1080p LCD won't hit the retina-searing color saturation of flagship OLED panels, but it's certainly good enough that it doesn't feel like a compromise. Everything is about where you would expect it to be. The top bezel has a normal earpiece speaker with an 8MP front-facing camera, while the bottom bezel is blank thanks to the on-screen navigation buttons.
The sides of the phone are all perfectly flat and vertical, which helps give off even more of an "industrial" vibe as if the whole phone was milled from a brick of aluminum. Around the sides you'll find a top-mounted headphone jack (woo), metal power and volume buttons on the side, and a bottom-mounted USB-C port, speaker, and microphone. The only real bit of plastic on this phone is the SIM tray, which also houses a MicroSD slot.
I really can't rave enough about how great the Nokia 6.1 body is. It's probably the most durable rigid phone on the market, and it even manages to pull off a distinctive, handsome look. This would be perfect for a flagship device—just add higher specs and a slim bezel design, and you'd have a winner.
HMD does just about everything right when it comes to the software, too. Rather than piling on tons of half-baked software gimmicks, HMD just promises its phones are "Pure, secure, and up-to-date." As a result, the Nokia 6.1 runs Android 8.1 and not much else. (We've talked about Android 8.x at great length here, so we'll spare you a full recap.)
This is one of the best software packages out there. It's fast, everything works, and the OS design more or less matches Google's app design and most of the third-party apps. There's also basically no crapware—out of the box, the app drawer is so svelte that it fits on a single screen. The only non-standard apps on the Nokia 6.1 are the FM Radio app, a "Support" app, and an icon for the wallpaper picker. And if you don't like those, they can easily be disabled.
The one thing I will ding the Nokia 6.1 for is a lack of always-on hotword support. On many flagship Android smartphones today, you can shout "OK Google" at any time—even when the screen is off—but "OK Google" only works on the Nokia 6.1 when the screen is on. This is probably a price compromise. The higher-end SoCs have special considerations for doing always-on listening in a battery-efficient manner, but that feature would probably chew through battery on lower-end devices.
HMD's Android update outlook
Promising a "Pure, secure, and up-to-date" build of Android puts a lot of emphasis on HMD's ability to deliver a speedy OS update. As far as how that translates to reality, we don't have a lot of evidence to go on—HMD has only been around a year. Honestly, just paying lip service to having an up-to-date Android phone is progress at this point. Many Android OEMs just pretend updates don't exist.
HMD is promising two years of major OS updates and two years of monthly security updates for the Nokia 6.1, and maintains a security bulletin page here. HMD's policy is excellent for this price range. Motorola has said the competing Moto G6 will only be updated to Android P, which works out to something like six months of major OS support. Motorola is only providing security rollups every 60 to 90 days, too.
As far as update speed, we can talk about the predecessor to the Nokia 6.1, the Nokia 6. This phone got Android 8.0 Oreo in late January, which was about five months after the general availability. That wouldn't be great for a flagship device, but, remember, this is a mid-range phone line. Even today, any kind of update at this price range remains a rarity. Once again, Motorola is the best competitive comparison for this price range: the Moto G5 Oreo rollout started in June, which is 10 months after Oreo's general availability.
The Nokia 6's update speed might not be all that relevant to the Nokia 6.1, though, since the Nokia 6.1 launched with Android 8.1 Oreo and therefore has Project Treble support (the Nokia 6 launched with Android 7 and does not have Treble). Project Treble modularizes the Android OS away from the hardware support, which greatly reduces the work needed to update a device to a new version of Android. Updating is especially easy for phones like the Nokia 6.1 that run stock Android—Essential recently mentioned that it took three days to implement the Android P Preview on the Essential Phone. The Nokia 6 was also HMD's first round of Android updates, so hopefully they will get better with experience.
The one downside to the update situation is that HMD doesn't provide an official way for users to unlock the bootloader and update the device themselves.
The Nokia 6.1 packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630—an eight core Cortex A53-based chip build on a 14nm process. Thanks to the ubiquity of Qualcomm chips, there's not a huge speed delta between devices at this price range, but HMD was generous enough to give the Nokia 6.1 a better SoC than the Moto G6's Snapdragon 450.
The performance of these cheaper devices is always a concern, and it's one of the few areas of the Nokia 6.1 where you do feel the lower price tag. It's just never going to feel as smooth and fast as a flagship phone. Performance can be decent as long as nothing is happening in the background. If the phone is downloading something or installing an app or update, it will slow to a crawl. Multitasking is just not its strong suit.
In normal, one-thing-at-a-time usage, the Nokia 6.1 is fast enough. It's not a chore to use or anything, it's just not "flagship fast."
For the rear camera, HMD is shipping a basic, single 16MP setup with an LED flash. The camera in a cheaper phone is never going to be great, but the real question is, is it better than other phones in its price category? For that, we can put the Nokia 6.1 up against the Moto G6 and see which one comes out on top. We'll also throw the Pixel 2 XL into the mix to provide a reminder of what a flagship camera can do.
Doing side-by-side comparisons like this always results in nit-picking that may or may not matter to you. After all, if you're just going to run a picture through an Instagram filter or only view it at 25 percent on a 5-inch screen, it probably doesn't matter much. But in this side-by-side comparison, it's hard to place the Nokia 6.1 camera anywhere other than "last." The Moto G6 camera is better just about everywhere: it does a better job of picking up detail than the Nokia 6.1, and it turns in brighter images in low-light conditions.
A great phone for your friends and family
"So Ron, what phone should I buy?" You should buy this one. If you don't think you need to spend $700+ dollars on a flagship smartphone and are just looking for an inexpensive, no-frills device that gets the basics right, the Nokia 6.1 is the phone to buy. You get a metal body, stock Android, a good update policy, USB-C, and a headphone jack. The screen is good enough that you don't feel like you're missing out, and HMD is offering decent performance for this spot in the market. Nokia's two-year update plan is absolutely unheard of at this price point and is something they should be commended for.
The main competition for the $270 Nokia 6.1 is going to be the $249 Moto G6, and I think the Nokia is the better choice. The Nokia 6.1's aluminum body bests the glass-backed G6, and I like the flagship-style rear fingerprint placement better than the front-mounted G6 sensor. You get a faster processor with the Nokia 6.1 (Snapdragon 630 versus Snapdragon 450), and the added bonus of NFC for mobile payments (NFC is totally missing from the Moto G and E phones). On top of all that, HMD's software updates are way better, with Motorola only promising a single update to Android P and the occasional security update. The one spot Motorola has HMD beat, though, is the camera: the Moto G6 turns in better shots than the Nokia 6.1, and that phone boasts the added bonus of a second rear camera.
The only other thing I want to complain about is the locked bootloader. Since Google shut down the Nexus line and started building more expensive Pixel phones, there has been a void in the enthusiast market for a device that is quickly updated and easily hackable or usable for development purposes. Nokia phones have everything needed to be the heir to the Nexus throne in this regard... if HMD would only allow the same easy bootloader unlocking that Google offers. Everything else about the Nokia 6.1 makes it feel like a mini-Google device. I just wish they got the flexibility aspects down, too.
As the first HMD device we've really reviewed, the Nokia 6.1 is extremely impressive. If you're the resident tech geek in your social circles, it's hard to go wrong recommending this device to the "What phone should I buy" crowd. Calling the device "the perfect phone for your friends and family" is kind of a backhanded compliment, though. The Nokia 6.1 is a great phone, but it's not that high-end, so the smartphone enthusiast that presumably is reading Ars would probably want something more special than what's being offered here.
Still, the Nokia 6.1 is beautifully built to a price—it's just that this price point means you miss out on the latest-and-greatest SoC, a modern slim bezel design, a top-tier camera, and a better display panel. Personally, I want something more high-end than the Nokia 6.1. But the people who casually ask for a phone recommendation probably aren't as big of a smartphone snob as I am. After testing this device, I suspect many users would likely be fine if not happy with this. The Nokia 6.1 stands as a functional, secure smartphone that does all of the basics right—it's hard to go wrong with that for $270.
An ultra-rigid metal body makes the Nokia 6.1 feel indestructible.
On-screen buttons and a rear fingerprint reader mean everything is where it would be on a flagship device.
HMD did everything right when it comes to the software: stock Android, no crapware, and a best-in-class two-year update policy with monthly security updates.
A decent screen, NFC, and USB-C mean you don't feel like you're missing out on flagship features.
No always-on "OK Google" support.
No unlockable bootloader.
The camera is the one area where the Nokia 6.1 falls behind the competition. Do better.