The Nokia 7.1 was first launched way back in October of last year. Unlike many other mid-range smartphones, that doesn't make it any less appealing. Not least of all, that's because the Nokia 7.1 is a participant in the Android One program. Through that, the OEM is able to keep this Nokia-branded handset fresh more readily than most competing devices.
Nokia 7.1 also takes advantage of serious forward-thinking design and solid internal hardware. That includes what was, at the time, a bleeding-edge mid-range chipset still in use by top devices today.
The decisions made for this device go well beyond hardware, however. Optimizations and intuitive user experience make this Nokia a real keeper even at its more typical $300 price tag. It's patently easy to determine how this smartphone is still relevant almost a year later.
Typically with a budget or mid-range smartphone, perfect performance isn’t expected. It’s not unusual for quite a bit of input or connection lag to appear, either and that didn’t change here.
As good as the Nokia 7.1 is, there was quite a bit of janky behavior from this phone but that occurred during the initial setup. In all likeliness, that's because Nokia used a stalwart but relatively underpowered Snapdragon 636 coupled with a respectable but not brilliant 3GB of LPPDDR4x RAM in this phone.
Now, even flagship Android devices tend to show a bit of lag associated with downloading the wave of apps, contact info, and other data associated with the process. But the issue was particularly bad with this Nokia.
In fact, my initial impression was that I must have received a defective test unit. I fully expected major issues like those described above to continue throughout my test. Happily, that just wasn’t going to be the case. The Nokia 7.1 doesn’t just imitate the aesthetics of a flagship or flagship killer. It very nearly is one, with only a minor caveat or two to that.
There was plenty of room for apps and media too, with 64GB available in my test unit. That's a step up from the more minimal 32GB expandable storage variant.
Regardless of whether I was playing games or getting work done, this Nokia mid-range looker just handled things. Multitasking with this device is a breeze, as is switching between apps back and forth.
Heavy-hitting apps like photoshop and games such as Into the Dead just worked. The issue with performance being impacted by installations and other processes all but disappeared once the initial setup was complete. Issues that did appear, only became prominent when the low-power mode was active in tandem with heavy multitasking between hardware-intensive applications.
Now, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any latency at all. But what lag did show up only seemed to appear while using the most intensive games, most often alongside several notifications arriving at once. Since even that wasn't consistent across every title or across every multitasking instance, the average smartphone user probably isn't ever going to notice it.
The Nokia 7.1 is, it bears repeating, a sub-$300 smartphone. So it isn't quite as capable as a new Galaxy S-series device or the latest offering from Huawei. Regardless, labeling the performance here impressive would be an understatement.
The issues that did arrive were so infrequent that I no longer felt the need to reach for my daily driver during testing at all. I just used this phone for all of my needs. Apps simply didn’t load noticeably faster or run a whole lot better on that other $1000 flagship. The experience on that other device was almost always only minutely better. As far as performance is concerned, this is one smartphone that leaves nothing on the table.
Android One means a smooth stock experience
That the Nokia 7.1 performs so well can be, at least partially, traced back to the fact that it is part of the Android One Program. Android has improved significantly over the past several years. This phone shows exactly how far it’s come through its ease-of-use and straightforward intuitiveness. Participation in Android One also means that the experience itself is almost dead-on stock. Optimizations associated with the program and its frequent updates almost certainly helped on the performance front.
Setting aside one or two secondary applications that I wasn’t familiar with, included by Nokia, everything in the menus was exceptionally easy to find. Apps were as I’d expect them to be and Nokia even recommends some useful apps from Google. That's going to be useful for those who may be coming over from a less stock device.
The stock experience here is delivered in the form of Android 9 Pie. Android 10 is a certainty too and other updates are guaranteed to arrive as well. Because this is an Android One device, users aren’t apt to be stuck waiting for months on end and up to more than a year for new software. Even with flagships from the big heavy-hitters like Motorola, LG, Samsung, and others, that’s a rarity in Android.
Included in that are the security updates that Google releases every month. One of those arrived during my testing period, delivering some stability optimizations and a security update. Small changes? Maybe. But also important ones for those who care about a great experience and safe device usage.
The big app that’s installed alongside Android’s usual fare is “My phone.” Put simply, that acts as a central Nokia hub. Via the app, users not only can sign up for and participate in Nokia’s official community and forums. It also provides ready access to support. That’s including a device manual, FAQ, warranty status, and even some device health monitoring and recommendations. Customer support is available there too, with a sign-in offering the most optimal experience.
For the mobile photographer
Snapping photos with the Nokia 7.1 is, summarily, a brilliant and mostly effortless experience. It isn’t quite going to live up to Google Pixel’s reputation but that’s hardly the point in the sub-$300 range. Nearly everything that needs to be said can be derived from the fact that Zeiss optics are in use here.
At the front, that's an 8-megapixel fixed-focus snapper with an f/2.0 aperture. At the back, that's a 12-megapixel f/1.8 aperture camera with a 1.28um pixel size backed by a black and white fixed-focus 5-megapixel camera for depth. Digging a bit deeper, there's quite a bit about that camera array to love.
My testing occurred at the same time as the local small-town car show and fair. That presented plenty of opportunities to thoroughly check color accuracy, camera speed, and light capture. As shown in the samples in our Flickr gallery, colors capture relatively accurately with only a bit more saturation than I might have expected from a DSLR.
That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect experience. Photos with extreme lighting variances tended to wash out, with colors under those conditions sometimes shifting annoyingly. But Pro mode worked flawlessly, easily fixing problems and the predictability of the discrepancy made it a non-issue.
I couldn't find a dedicated night mode but all of the software inclusions worked as expected. The UI itself is intuitive, with each mode having its own extras — some of those shared — and with all of the expected modes present and accounted for.
Additional modes such as an AR sticker mode, PiP modes, and beautification features were easy to use and actually seemed to work as well as in high-end flagships. In particular, the AR stickers snapped into place accurately the first time, making it a joy to use even compared to a flagship such as the Samsung Galaxy S10.
Responsiveness of all other interactive elements was nearly as snappy as the aperture and shutter, allowing adjustments to be made on the fly without interrupting the creative process. HDR helped keep detail capture and lighting above my expectations for a sub-$300 smartphone.
Impressively style-savvy and sleek
At least one notion that's commonly held about smartphones in the lower mid-range is that there just won't be much thought paid to style and build quality. There's also the fact that there is no IP rating with this phone for dust and water protection. It's extremely slippery without a case except for the edges.
None of that is immediately apparent when first unboxing the Nokia 7.1. Nokia and HMD Global have, put plainly, knocked it out of the park with the design of this smartphone.
The test unit sent to me by Nokia is the "Steel" variant, one of two color configurations this device ships in. The other is a deep blue color. Either device, based on the real-world look and feel of this smartphone, is a home run in terms of design on aesthetics alone.
The company has chosen not to coat this device in any kind of gradient. It's just a solid color. But It's still anything but flat. The tonal shifts of the solid metal casing can be somewhat dramatic. With the Steel variant, that meant a hue that shifted between a bright, almost aluminum sheen to a dark anodized steel look depending on the lighting and the angle of viewing.
The one constant in coloration seems to be the edgework, which is ringed in a copper-colored metal for accents. That remains effectively the same hue regardless of viewing angle. The copper trim is in place around both top and bottom edges when viewed from the side. It's also present on physical hardware buttons and the camera surround, as well as the fingerprint scanner.
The design itself aims to be smaller than other devices. Thanks to a high screen-to-body ratio, this phone feels comparatively light and tiny. That made reaching every portion of the screen easy and added to the premium feel provided by the exposed metal edges — counter to the glass covering both back and front panels.
Decisions with the design of the buttons here have been well made. Those are snappy and as snug-feeling as the ports that have been included, adding to the overall build quality. It bear's pointing out that the front-facing notch is going to bug some users. In spite of that, Nokia 7.1 is just an exceptionally beautiful device in any category.
Compounding on that, fingerprint smudges are almost non-existant with this smartphone. They appear but mostly blend into the background. That may only be the case with the steel variant and might be down to coloration but, it almost goes without saying, that's a good quality for any smartphone to have.
A bright crisp display to match
As could probably be surmised from my description of the software and performance on the Nokia 7.1, the screen here is very good as well. Not only is it bright enough to use outdoors, but automatic brightness changes are also almost imperceptibly smooth. After just a few short minutes of switching lighting and tweaking things to where I wanted them, the intelligently automated changes never left me feeling like I needed to manually adjust things either.
That's an uncommon feat for even a flagship to accomplish, let alone a nearly-budget-priced phone and things only bet better from there.
Holding with the aesthetic theme for a bit longer, Nokia includes an "enhanced HDR10" feature for videos, games, and photos in the display menu for its 7.1. That bumps up contrasts and detail where it really matters, making for an even better experience over the top of an already seemingly stray-pixel-free PureDisplay Full-HD+ 5.84 panel.
Following off from that, the Nokia 7.1 software allows app-scaling to match the display ratio. Using video playback as an example, the feature works via a simple pinch to zoom action that alternates between the full screen and the standard display ratio of the video being played. That's where apps don't automatically scale themselves, as is sometimes the case in YouTube videos.
Additionally, the feature works in non-media apps like Google Keep too. That means that none of the screen's real estate is wasted in apps.
The notch that Nokia chose to incorporate in its screen, conversely, isn't so deep as to cause an inconsistent experience with the near-stock Android 9 Pie software. That will likely carry over when the gadget gets its promised Android 10 too.
More succinctly, Nokia left a few pixels below the notch to make the notched area feel more like a part of the UI. It isn't. but it definitely feels more like it is since it usually keeps its place squarely planted in the notification shade.
In terms of usability, I didn't notice any latency in inputs at all, let alone misplaced or missed inputs. That, coupled with the buttery smooth feel of the screen made for a premium experience that would be hard to confuse with any other device in its price bracket.
Connectivity and Audio don't disappoint with the Nokia 7.1
The key point on the connectivity side of things with this device, since it's not altogether common, is that the Nokia 7.1 supports full 4G LTE service in the U.S. That made testing the speakerphone capabilities, general connection strength, and similar aspects much easier. All of those worked as well as any other smartphone I've had the fortune to test or use for a daily driver. Each of the latter of those has been flagships.
That is in large part down to Nokia choosing to include LTE Cat. 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 here.
Not only does the Nokia 7.1 support GSM networks such as the MVNO I was utilizing, however. It also supports Verizon, meaning that it should work with just about every carrier in the U.S. except Sprint. That's good news for buyers in the region who might be looking for a budget-friendly but not 'cheap' phone.
The quality of audio, on the other hand, follows on the same level in terms of balance and frequency response. That's in spite of the relatively tiny speakers this handset uses. The sound here is loud enough to fill a decent-sized two-bedroom apartment.
The sole exception on that front primarily comes down to the size of the speakers and how those have been optimized. Problems do appear when the external speakers are pushed to their maximum volume. Then, some distortion does appear on some frequencies with slight buzzing in the tones.
Nokia has chosen to keep the 3.5mm audio jack in place with its 7.1 and includes a fairly standard pair of headphones in the package. None of the main speaker issues carry over on that front. While they aren't the most comfortable earbuds to wear, they deliver a lot better in terms of bass response and frequency push-through.
That's all good and well but should you buy Nokia 7.1?
The Nokia 7.1 was already an exceptional value with consideration for what users get. It also currently happens to be on sale via Amazon for $100 off the typical Amazon price of $350.
Not only does this phone have one of the best mobile cameras I’ve laid hands on in its price bracket. The Nokia 7.1 one of the most powerful-feeling and well-optimized handsets I’ve had the pleasure to test out. That's setting aside that it's easily one of the most beautifully designed too.
Thanks to the Android One program, the Nokia 7.1 also still has plenty of life left. The program means that it will continue to see regular security updates and firmware updates for some time. That will keep the stock experience and optimizations going a bit longer than other handsets.
Now, it does fall short of what I had expected on battery life and it is exceptionally slippery. Nokia's decision making with the speakers only presents a minor issue or two as well. Those are nothing major, primarily stemming from distortion artifacts and only noticeable at full volume or close to it. Those minor caveats aside, this is easily one of the best smartphones overall in terms of what's currently on the market.
The Nokia 7.1, summarily, needs to be on the shortlist for anybody in the market for a new mid-range smartphone.