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Review

Nokia 6.1 Plus Review: Great design but lacklustre camera

Nokia 6.1 Plus brings premium design to compete with Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro and Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 but is that enough? We review.

Nokia 6.1 Plus main

Nokia 6.1 Plus 3.5 5
BGR Rating :
3.5/5

Highlights

  • Nokia 6.1 Plus brings notched display and glass back to mid-range segment.

  • It runs near stock Android with promised update to Android 9 Pie.

  • The camera leaves you wanting for some more performance.

“Bhai, ek sasta notch wala phone suggest kardo (Brother, please suggest a budget smartphone with a notch)”.

It might seem like irony but I was recently asked this question by a friend, who was looking for a new smartphone. The emphasis was neither on the word budget nor on the smartphone, but on the word “notch”. I was very critical of this concept of the notch when Apple launched its iPhone X in September last year. However, what followed has been an overwhelming embrace of the notch and I was forced to admit that the notch is here to stay.

Now, add the notch to the dynamics of India’s smartphone market, which is basically cheap and accessible smartphones, and what you have could be a winner. According to IDC, the top three best-selling smartphones during the second quarter of 2018 were the Redmi 5A, Redmi Note 5 Pro and Redmi Note 5. The market share clearly shows that customers are buying smartphones mostly in the sub-Rs 20,000 price segment. The success of Xiaomi in this segment can be owed to three things – 1. Immense brand following, 2. Budget Pricing, and 3. Unbeatable features.

Now, if a smartphone maker aims to challenge Xiaomi and its Redmi Note 5 Pro in particular then they need to get all the three things right and add two more things to the mix: a notched display and premium glass design. Finnish smartphone maker HMD Global is trying to do just that with its Nokia 6.1 Plus. It’s got a notched display, a premium glass back, and hardware features that match the Redmi Note 5 Pro. So, does the Rs 15,999 Nokia 6.1 Plus succeed or fall short? Here is our review.

Design

My first phone was a Nokia 1100 and I still remember that feeling of touching the polycarbonate back for the first time. With the Nokia 6.1 Plus, I got that same feeling once again. Yes, it might sound a bit fanboy-ish but we all have used a Nokia phone at some point and recognizing it does not hurt.

With the Nokia 6.1 Plus, HMD Global is trying to marry the premium look and feel of a flagship smartphone with hardware that fits in the mid-range price segment. The Finnish company is using glass at the front as well as rear and aluminum casing, which makes it a unique offering in this price segment. At the front, there is a 5.8-inch LCD display with a notch at the top and a tiny chin at the bottom. Like Motorola and Honor, Nokia is also using that space to put it’s branding.

The notch design is similar to what we have seen on smartphones from brands like Huawei, Honor and OnePlus. It is not as wide as the one seen on iPhone X but it is not as small as the circular cutout for the front camera on the Essential Phone either. The Nokia 6.1 Plus’s notch seems to be a middle ground for the smartphone industry. It helps extend the footprint of the screen and puts the front camera, microphone and other sensors into an enclosure. Whether you like it or not, the notch is something you cannot ignore.

At the back, there is glass slapped onto metal and it feels really smooth to touch. The glass, is of course, a fingerprint magnet and it is advisable to slap on a case as soon as you buy the smartphone. The back glass panel has a cut out for the vertically stacked dual rear camera, which protrudes a bit, making the device sit uneven on a flat surface. The fingerprint sensor is placed below the camera module and it sits exactly where your fingers will reach when holding the device. Both the camera module and the fingerprint sensor are surrounded by a silver metallic ring, which gives a unique touch.

The back is also home to more Nokia branding, the Android One logo, and regulatory filings, which confirm that the smartphone is designed in Finland and made in India. Despite the thin bezel design and glass back, HMD Global has retained the 3.5mm headphone jack, which is placed on the top. The volume rocker and power button are on the right side and these buttons are easy to click. On the left side is the hybrid SIM tray and the bottom part is home to USB Type-C port and speaker. At the top and bottom, there are plastic antenna bands, which enable 4G connectivity.

All the four corners of the device are rounded, which makes it ergonomic for a one-handed use. I definitely think that HMD Global has done better with this design especially when compared to the design of Nokia 7 plus.

Display

The Nokia 6.1 Plus, also called as Nokia X6 in China, features a 5.8-inch LCD display with a resolution of 2280 x 1080 pixels. While the standard aspect ratio for smartphones is 18:9, the addition of the notch has helped HMD Global make the display even taller with 19:9 aspect ratio. There are no visible benefits of such a design but the taller display means you get to see more content than on a standard 16:9 display. The best use case of this display can be seen on Amazon Kindle app, where you get to see more of a page than a standard display.

The display is an LCD panel and it is on par, if not better, than the display seen on smartphones in this price segment. The display supports the RGBA format accurately shows bright colors like Red, Blue and Green. However, it does suffer from the standard LCD problem, where the white color seems closer to light grey. This issue is not immediately visible in standard mode but can be observed in ambient display mode.

I also did not like the adaptive brightness option, which often struggled to set the brightness to the right amount of light. Within a day, I disabled adaptive brightness and switched to manual brightness between 5-20 percent. While there is an ambient display setting, it shows information only when you raise the device and does not support the always-on function as seen on the Samsung Galaxy series, Google’s Pixel series or the Huawei P20 Pro.

The LCD display on Nokia 6.1 Plus is not the best but it does justice to the price. An average user will not find any issues with this display but when you look close, there is huge potential for improvement.

Watch: Nokia 7 plus First Look Video

Software

I’ve been using Google Pixel 2 as my primary smartphone since November last year. I like that phone for two reasons: 1. Incredible Camera and 2. Pure Software. The Nokia 6.1 Plus’s software seems to be equivalent to the version that Google ships on its premium smartphone.

HMD Global has built its foundation on the promise that it’s smartphones will get timely software updates and will run the stock Android experience. That stays true for the Nokia 6.1 Plus as well. The smartphone runs Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box and is patched with the security update till July 2018. The smartphone does not come with any duplicate apps and it also does not have any e-commerce app installed on it. The only app installed as part of the package that not everyone will use is Google Tez app, which facilitates UPI-based payments. If you don’t like it then you can uninstall it anytime.

Considering the track record of HMD Global, the Nokia 6.1 Plus is expected to get Android 9 Pie update later this year. The Finnish company has already promised that all smartphones will get major Android updates for two years and security updates for three years. It seems clear that Nokia 6.1 Plus will be updated to Android 9 Pie this year and Android Q next year. In terms of the update cycle, Essential seems the leader followed by HMD Global and OnePlus. Xiaomi also does promise timely software updates with its Android One-based Mi A1 and Mi A2 smartphones but it did not really deliver with the Mi A1 last year.

As someone who has been on Android ecosystem for a few years now, I must say that Google is closely matching Apple when it comes to consistency with user interface and fluidity of operation. With the update to Android 9 Pie, the Nokia 6.1 Plus will be able to take better advantage of its notched display. It also supports gestures like swiping on the fingerprint sensor to see notifications and double-tapping on the power button to open the camera. During my nearly 10 days with the smartphone, I had zero issues in terms of software, which won’t always hold true on a forked user experience.

Performance and Battery Life

The Nokia 6.1 Plus is powered by the octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 SoC coupled with the Adreno 509 GPU. The chipset powering the smartphone is same as the one also found under the hood of Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 and the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro. The processor is unique since it uses the Qualcomm-designed Kryo 260 cores with a maximum clock frequency of 1.8GHz.

On the Nokia 6.1 Plus, HMD Global has paired the chipset with 4GB of RAM and 64GB internal storage. The performance is relatively smooth with apps launching really fast and multitasking having no effect on the processor. One can even play games like the Asphalt 9: Legends without any issue.

The benchmark results that Nokia 6.1 Plus delivered are identical to that of other smartphones in this price segment. The Nokia 6.1 Plus is aimed at consumers who would be using their smartphone for social media, reading, browsing the web and casual gaming, and it performs exceedingly well in all those scenarios. Thanks to stock Android and the need to drive otherwise frugal resources, the Nokia 6.1 Plus performs as well as smartphones with 6GB of RAM.

Battery life is a very tricky part to evaluate and no two users have same amount of usage. In my test, the Nokia 6.1 Plus pleasantly surprised me in terms of battery life. My usage, which involved 45 minutes of reading on the Amazon Kindle app, 45 minutes of gaming with Asphalt 9: Legends, messaging with colleagues and friends on Slack and WhatsApp respectively, music streaming in the background via Saavn and occasional processing of images. With this set of diverse usage, the Nokia 6.1 Plus gave me a screen on time of around 4 hours and 32 minutes.

This was with brightness manually set to anywhere between 5 and 20 percent, I could have pulled more juice out of this battery by activating adaptive brightness. This is mainly achieved by stock Android’s less-demanding kernel and Android Oreo‘s excellent battery management system called ‘Doze on the Go’. Despite a smaller 3,060,mAh battery, the Nokia 6.1 Plus offers very good endurance.

Camera

In developing markets, smartphones were initially purchased as the first computing device. In the past few years, it has become the first camera for most users. When people upgrade to a new smartphone, they make sure that it has a decent camera, if not the best. After using the Nokia 6.1 Plus, I think the camera is the weakest link of this smartphone.

Don’t get me wrong, the Nokia 6.1 Plus is not bad as a camera phone. In fact, it is good but definitely not anywhere close to the best in this price segment. The Nokia 6.1 Plus uses a dual rear camera system with a 16-megapixel main sensor and a 5-megapixel secondary sensor. The secondary sensor is a monochrome sensor that aids with depth sensing. You don’t get the option to individually control these image sensors.

Nokia 6.1 Plus manages to retain a lot of detail even after cropping the image

In terms of results, the pictures have a lot of detail in the foreground area but there is visible noise and clipping in the background. I was definitely surprised by the details you could see even in the shadow area despite the fact that the main 16-megapixel sensor has f/2.0 aperture and not something as wide as f/1.7 or f/1.8. However, the camera fails to understand dynamic range and I shot some pictures where sky and cloud were completely blown out or overexposed.

The live bokeh mode on Nokia 6.1 Plus lets you change the depth of field

While one would try to fix this issue by using manual control, the options are limited to metering mode, focus, white balance and exposure. Like most other smartphones in this price segment, the Nokia 6.1 Plus also struggles to capture enough details in low-light. It also includes Live Bokeh, which allows you to capture images with shallow depth of understand. It is not perfect but you get the ability to control depth of field and can produce pictures with right balance between natural bokeh and artificial bokeh.

When I started viewing images shot on the Nokia 6.1 Plus on my desktop, I realized that our expectations from the smartphone camera has gone up significantly. The Nokia 6.1 Plus offers a good camera but it is probably not good enough at this point. We (or I) expect a lot better and Nokia 6.1 Plus does not do that especially when the competition is Mi A2, which probably has the best camera experience in the sub-Rs 20,000 price segment.

Since I have been running a software not optimized for the final product, I would like give benefit of doubt to HMD Global. The company seems to have chosen the right sensor and all it needs to do is optimize the software to better understand dynamic range and make sure that subjects are not blown out of proportion.

Verdict

We have reached the peak smartphone level,  and most options today are at a stage where all devices seem to look similar. With the Nokia 6.1 Plus, HMD Global has managed to break that jinx and is bringing unique design to the mid-range segment. It succeeds in selling the message that premium design with a glass back is not limited to flagship devices.

The things that work in favor of the Nokia 6.1 Plus are its stock Android experience, decent battery life and compact form factor. However, it is not perfect and its camera is not anywhere close to matching the Xiaomi Mi A2. In an interview with BGR India, HMD Global India’s Ajey Mehta said that Nokia phones will not be the cheapest in the market. With Nokia 6.1 Plus, the company is offering a product that is not only well-priced but also competitive against its key competition. If only the company could improve the camera a bit then this would be the smartphone to beat in the sub-Rs 20,000 price segment. The phone goes on sale in India on August 30.

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Asus Zenfone Max Pro (M1)

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Nokia 6.1 Plus

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  • Published Date: August 21, 2018 2:14 PM IST
  • Updated Date: August 30, 2018 8:39 AM IST