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Featured Review: Nokia N1 Tablet

December 29, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Nokia’s long-awaited return to the world of mobile devices that don’t run Microsoft’s failed mobile Windows experience has been a long time coming, but as of 2015 we’ve finally seen some slight resurrection of the former tech giant from Finland.  Espoo was once the home of a company who’s phones permeated culture, from the indestructible bricks with black and white screens to the smartphones with cameras that the competition took years to catch up to, Nokia really used to be something special.  The Nokia N1 launched earlier this year to a very limited portion of the world, mainly China and Taiwan, but these were some seriously anticipated tablets at the time.  The biggest problem is that Nokia still hasn’t brought the tablet anywhere else in the world, and those that got the Chinese version of the tablet weren’t able to get Google Play Services working on it for months.  Getting Play Services on the Chinese version still isn’t easy, and on top of that there’s a high risk of bricking, but if you’re able to snag the Taiwanese version you won’t have to worry about any of this.  Is it still worth buying the device nearly a year later?  Let’s take a look.

Specs

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Gracing the front of this all-aluminum tablet is a Gorilla Glass 3 coated 7.9-inch 1536 by 2048 resolution IPS LCD display with 324 pixel-per-inch density.  Under the hood is a fairly rare Intel Atom Z3580 Quad-Core 2.3GHz processor with a PowerVR Rogue G6430 GPU, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage.  An 8-megapixel camera graces the back of the tablet while a 5-megapixel shooter sits on the front with up to 1080p video support for both cameras.  Dual-band WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/a/ac are available and Bluetooth 4.0 is here as well as a USB Type-C connector running at USB 2.0 speeds.  Powering the whole experience is a non-removable 5,300mAh battery and Android 5.0 Lollipop.  The whole package is pretty small for a tablet and measures in at 200.7mm high by 138.6mm wide and 6.9mm thin, with a weight of 318 grams.

In the Box

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The box is a pretty simple affair, which you might imagine if you’re getting a tablet with these specs for under $250.  Other than the tablet itself there’s a manual in here as well as a USB Type-C cable and a wall charger.

Display

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IPS LCD displays are the most common type of display on the mobile market right now, and most of the time the cheapest for everyone involved.  Given that this tablet retails for under $250 it should be no surprise to see a cheaper type of display on it, but that certainly doesn’t mean a bad experience.  This panel is bold, bright and sharp, encompassing all the best qualities of IPS LCD displays, but still suffers from the traditional negatives of them as well.  Black levels are decent but not great, and the viewing angles could certainly be better when it comes to dimming of the display, however there’s little to no color shifting and it’s overall a great visual experience.  Colors are nice and accurate and the white balance is near perfect, laying only just slightly on the cool side.

Touch responsiveness is fantastic too, quickly responding to everything I tried on it including typing and multi-touch gaming.  The aspect ratio here is 4:3 with a super high resolution of 1536 x 2048, meaning you’re looking at some seriously crisp and clear images.  This is the same aspect ratio as an iPad or the last year’s Nexus 9, which means it’s better optimized for games and apps rather than movies, as you’ll have to deal with black bars above and below the video when playing any widescreen content.

Hardware and Build

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Many criticized Nokia’s design when the tablet was first announced for being too iPad like, and there’s definitely some really obvious Apple copycat styling going on here.  Nokia seems to have only taken the really good parts of Apple’s design though, including all metal buttons and a full metal back, as well as separated volume buttons instead of a long volume rocker.  The bad or questionable things, like a physical home button, are thankfully gone, and the rounded edges of the metal body blend perfectly into the display creating a seamless experience that makes pulling out menus and other swipes from the edges of the screen a joy.  The tablet itself feels like for this type of device, and that comes with the reduction in size when compared to much larger tablets.

The 7.9-inch display is probably only around 2 inches or so larger than your average smartphone nowadays, and it feels like it too.  The bezels on the left and right side of the screen are small for a tablet, but thankfully Nokia has included big enough chin and forehead bezels to allow users to grip the tablet in a place that won’t affect actual use, i.e. you won’t have to worry about pressing pesky buttons in these areas.  On the bottom you’ll find a dual speaker setup with a USB Type-C reversible port in between the two.  On the right side near the top are separate metal volume up and down buttons, while the metal power button is on the top all the way to the right side.  Because of the size and the slim build this one feels great in the hand, and those rounded corners do wonders for how it feels after holding the tablet for a long time.

The size of the Nokia N1 really is sort of an ideal size for a tablet, as it’s just large enough to fit more information on the screen than a phone, but still small enough to be comfortable when holding and using it.  Many larger tablets might have the advantage in productivity when paired with the right keyboard or other accessory, but they end up feeling awkward when it comes to just using them by themselves.  Curiously enough there appears to be no vibration motor inside of this device, meaning notifications and other actions that would usually vibrate a device won’t be doing that here.  On a low note it seems like the low price and higher quality materials may have translated into a more cheaply made tablet.  Out unit in particular has parts of the screen that aren’t fully adhered to the body, and while this is only noticeable if you’re looking for it, it certainly brings up some concerns about the longevity of such a device.

Performance and Memory

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Intel’s chipset has held up remarkably well over the course of about a year, and I found that running even the most intensive games and apps is a near perfect experience on the Nokia N1.  Games ran nearly flawlessly with very little to no slowdown depending on which game I played.  More memory and process intensive games like Fallout Shelter and the latest Need for Speed titles were basically console quality in their performance, showing off that powerful PowerVR Rogue GPU inside the Nokia N1.  This advanced GPU supports up to OpenGL 4.x for phenomenal graphics, and tile-based rendering for excellent performance no matter how much is on the screen.  This is also a fantastic size screen for gaming, and I found myself loving the tablet more and more every time I used it.

App and multi-tasking performance was just as phenomenal too, and I never encountered a slowdown or weird hitch on even the most data and memory intensive apps out there.  Switching between apps is simple thanks to the 3D carousel in Android Lollipop, and because of the relatively smaller size of the screen compared to some tablets I didn’t find it uncomfortable or annoying to use this generally more phone-optimized interface.  Apps almost never reloaded, although with only 2GB of RAM and this high of a resolution screen you’re definitely going to run into some situations where apps have to reload simply because the memory footprint of apps is going to be bigger thanks to the number of pixels on screen.

Benchmarks

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The Nokia N1 sits just below the flagship phones from this year in most benchmark tests, although you probably wouldn’t notice it in everyday use.  Check out our full benchmark suite we ran on the tablet below.

Battery Life

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Even though this is a tablet and has more surface area than a phone, the incredibly thin nature of its build doesn’t allow for an absolutely massive battery.  Still we’re looking at a battery more than 50% larger than your average phablet-sized phone’s battery, which equates to about 50% extra battery life over most of those phones.  I had no trouble getting at least 8 hours of screen on time between any charge, and our PCMark battery test backs that up with an over 10 hours of working battery life rating, again about 50% or so longer than some of the most long-lasting phones.  My unit seemed to be completely incapable of calculating battery percentage properly, likely some sort of glitch in Nokia’s particular build of Android on this device.

Charging proved to be a bit difficult for the N1, and that’s partly because it seems like Nokia isn’t using proper USB Type-C specifications for its port.  None of the auto-sensing or QuickCharge type is chargers worked with the N1; they either wouldn’t charge at all or they would erratically charge, constantly disconnecting and only charging a few percentage points in an hour’s time.  Oddly enough the 5V 3A charger that came packaged with the Google Pixel C charges this one incredibly well, and I was able to charge it in almost 3 hours flat with this charger.  The one included in the box is only a 10W charger though, so a full charge will be closer to 5 hours instead of 3.

Software

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2015 marks the year that stock Android has finally taken off in a big way.  Android 5.0 Lollipop revolutionized stock Android in both its look and feel in late 2014, and the N1 was one of the first tablets to feature the new OS out of the box.  On top of that Nokia didn’t modify Android in any tangible way either other than adding in their own launcher and a few Intel chipset specific features.  While this is certainly a godsend for the look and feel of the interface, sometimes stock Android can be a little barren, especially when it comes to tablets.  The interface itself isn’t bad, especially for a tablet of this size, but there’s still more white unused space than there should be.  The notification shade is oddly slim and doesn’t take up enough of the screen to display the entirety of some longer notification messages, something that’s a sorely missed opportunity with such a large display.

The problems in Android tablets don’t come as much from its lack of multi-window support for quick dual-app multi-tasking, rather the lack of so many tablet optimized apps.  Sure there are some really nice tablet apps out there, ironically enough like Microsoft’s Office suite (since Nokia is moving away from Microsoft now), and some other apps too, but it’s the Google apps that so many users rely on that are probably the biggest disappointments.  So many apps look exactly like their phone counterparts, just stretched wide to fill the screen rather than changing the interface to better take advantage of the screen real estate.  The Gmail app, for instance, features a left-hand pane that always shows folders and tags, however the Hangouts app is a full-screen chat that doesn’t display any more visual information than its phone app, and there’s no way to quickly move between chats either thanks to the lack of a dedicated navigation pane.

While we could criticize Google’s apps all day and the lack of significant numbers of tablet-centric apps on the Play Store, we also want to focus on what Nokia packs into the tablet itself.  Residents of China will be using Nokia’s app store, which isn’t nearly as full-featured as the Play Store in any way but does feature some worthwhile apps.  Simply called The Store, Nokia’s replacement for the Play Store certainly isn’t bad, it just doesn’t have as many apps by any means.  What’s here isn’t bad either, but the usual problem of apps not necessarily being optimized for tablets isn’t changing much.

Nokia’s launcher is a thing of brilliance, although it’s not exclusive to this tablet.  Simply titled the Z Launcher, this is anything but a typical Android launcher and certainly makes the tablet feel like a custom piece of work all in itself.  The main screen is populated by commonly used app, and drawing letters anywhere on the screen initiates an immediate search of both apps and web-based results.  This gives an ultra-quick way to find any app simply by drawing a letter the app starts with instead of having to scroll through a list of icons.  If you prefer the list there’s a shelf-type pane just to the right of the main screen that organizes all apps by their letters in a bookshelf fashion.  Outside of this and a sound recorder app there’s nothing here you wouldn’t expect, and really no bloatware at all.  Calculator, browser and music make the shortlist of pre-installed apps, leaving you with plenty of space to fill with what you actually want on the tablet.

Something to be aware of is that this is an x86 version of Android, not the ARM version.  What does that mean in plain English?  Most Android devices use ARM processors, which is a very different type of processor that’s used in a traditional desktop or laptop PC or Mac.  The Intel chipset inside of the Nokia N1 is the same type as its desktop counterparts, an x86-based architecture, and as such features a build of Android that is able to run on this platform.  Because most apps are designed for ARM processors and ARM-based Android builds, you will definitely find apps that just aren’t compatible with the Nokia N1 on the Play Store.  Some notable incompatible apps are Google Photos, Inbox by Gmail and Google+ just to name a few straight from Google.  There are x86 versions floating around on the web, but you’ll have to not only manually install these but manually update them too, which not only creates an issue with users running outdated apps, but a barrier of entry for beginning users.

Sound

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The dual-stereo speakers on the bottom of the N1 are pretty darn good, but aren’t quite the best out there.  Their bottom-facing configuration means they aren’t going to be as good as any front-facing speaker for your ears simply because of the placement, but are considerably better than a back-facing configuration as some tablets and phones have.  Volume was nice and loud, although not insane levels or anything, and you definitely won’t have trouble hearing any music or movies playing over these speakers, especially at max volume.  Clarity was excellent although at max volume the chassis started to vibrate a bit, lowering the overall quality of the audio.  There’s enough bass here to get by and the sound mixing is quite good, leaving me satisfied but not blown away in the end.

Camera

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Tablets are awkward to take pictures and video with, there’s no getting around it, but at least this one is less awkward thanks to its smaller stature compared with many tablets out there.  Overall quality of the images are good but not great, and the 8-megapixel resolution picks up a good amount of detail but nothing mind blowing.  Part of the problem here is that Nokia doesn’t opt for anything more than the generic Google Camera app, and there’s no specific optimizations for the hardware like a Nexus unit might have (HDR+ for example).  As such just about any camera app will do and should produce equally acceptable pictures and video, so if you’re looking for more than just the basic Google Camera interface and want to use this as your camera that might be a better option.  Check out the gallery below for all our sample pictures and video.

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The Good

Great design

Light yet sturdy

Excellent size for comfortable use

High-resolution screen

Phenomenal performance

Good sound quality and volume

Price

The Bad

Chinese version is incredibly difficult to get Google Play Services on, updates may remove this ability

Some lifting on the screen brings build quality in question

No vibration motor inside

Final Thoughts

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Once you get past the annoying way of having to install Google Play Services (or if you can snag one with it pre-installed), this tablet has to be one of my favorite in recent memory.  It’s got a mostly great build, although its longevity might come into question given the issues with the corner of the screen being not quite flush with the body, and its thin, light, all-metal design is really super comfortable in the hands.  This isn’t necessarily a great sized device for lots of productivity but it’s wonderful for everything else, meeting comfort and utility somewhere in between for a truly excellent device.  The more I used this one the more I loved it, and for under $250 it’s nearly impossible not to recommend it even nearly a year after it came out.