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Nokia 8 review: Hype is the least of its problems

It could have been so much better

Going into this review, I wanted the Nokia 8 to be good — great, even. Words like “stock Android”, “software updates”, and descriptions of impeccable build quality played like music to my ears. Then came the price tag, which turned out to be the most incredible thing about this smartphone. I was pumped. If Nokia nailed the fundamentals, its combination of a killer price and stock Android would be enough to rival even the Xiaomi Mi 6 when it comes to value.

But alas, when a good thing is hyped up to be something great, all you’re often left with is disappointment. And with the Nokia 8, some might wonder if it can even live up to being “good”.

In my books, being good — barring a few exceptional cases — often shares a lot of characteristics with being reliable. After all, what’s there to hate about something reliable? Reliability in performance, for example, ensures that your phone is always doing what you need it to do when you need it to.

For the most part, the Nokia 8 meets this criterion easily. It’s packing a Snapdragon 835 processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage — kind of like the type of specs you’d find on a Samsung Galaxy S8. When used to power the stock Android UI that lives in Nokia’s flagship, things are very buttery.

And with Nokia’s Android UI, it’s about as plain as it gets. This is great because it makes software updates easy, and HMD Global (the company that owns Nokia’s brand) is committed to Android updates on the Nokia 8, most recently Android P. However, this pureness may take some getting used to if you’re someone who’s coming from a heavily skinned version of Android like Xiaomi’s MIUI or Samsung’s TouchWiz.

Besides being a steady performer, a good phone should also have a good screen and the Nokia 8’s display is pretty decent. Its 5.3-inch Quad HD IPS display is sharp, has some nice viewing angles and can get pretty bright so it’s visible even outdoors. However, one thing that often irked me about it was the way the display would automatically adjust brightness. Rather than the smooth brightening or darkening of the screen you’d find on most flagship phones, this one does so with a jerkiness that’s hard to put into words.

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It’s sort of like instead of rolling up and down a smooth slope, you take the stairs. But maybe it’s something you won’t notice so I won’t give the Nokia 8 a hard time for it.

During Nokia’s big global launch in Barcelona this year, HMD said that one of the core strengths of their new phones would be impeccable build quality. They want to build phones that last and I think the Nokia 8 really embodies that.

It’s not immediately apparent because the handset is so light. But after using it for a few days (with a few accidental drops) it held up pretty well. Just gripping the all-metal body also gives you a sense of how sturdy the shell is because the back panel doesn’t flex the way a poorly built metal handset does.

Of course, I didn’t intentionally throw the smartphone around to find out how shock resistant it was, though, I very nearly tossed it out the window once (OK, more than once). Why? I’m glad you asked. The reason is simple: The Nokia 8’s camera.

More specifically, its camera application.

Nokia’s flagship features three 13MP f/2.0 cameras — two at the back and one in front. The 8’s dual-camera primary camera system uses a combination of an RGB (with OIS) and a monochrome sensor the same way Huawei does with their recent P-series smartphones. Theoretically the monochrome sensor is there to absorb more light information when used to capture colour photos.

Despite the Zeiss-branded optics, the resulting photos are rather iffy. They’re nowhere near as good as the kind of images you get from phones that sit at the top of the camera food chain like Samsung’s Galaxy Note8, Apple’s iPhone 8 or the HTC U11.

It’s capable of taking decent photos in good light though sometimes even in well-lit scenes the highlights can get pretty blown out.

However, when things get a little dark or a little challenging, things quickly fall apart. Just look at the difference between these two shots:

Nokia 8

Samsung Galaxy Note8

But, I will point out that the Note8 is almost double the Nokia 8’s price, so if I was judging the camera as a whole, the Nokia 8 isn’t awful. It’s OK and I would be fine with that if the Nokia 8’s camera app wasn’t absolute garbage.

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It is the worst thing about this smartphone. It’s unintuitive, ugly and it even freezes when you switch between camera modes. Focusing is also sluggish and inaccurate, and if you want solid manual controls, tough luck because despite the fact that there is a manual mode, you can’t change shutter speed, ISO, or even select manual focus.

How did Nokia go from the Lumias — which had one of the best camera applications — to this rubbish?

The good news is, I didn’t hate everything about the camera app. There was actually one thing I quite enjoyed playing with during my review period and that, surprisingly, was Nokia’s Bothie feature. It’s fun.

It’s not something you see every day so giving people a fresh perspective to tell a story is something I can appreciate. I used it primarily for my Instagram Stories where, although it doesn’t have the function built directly into the app, you can record sub-10 second clips in the Nokia 8’s camera app then manually upload it to your stories.

But it’s fun in the way the Galaxy Note8’s Live Message feature is fun. It’s a cool party trick that can help you stand out from the crowd, but the novelty quickly wears off over time. After using it pretty extensively, my judgement remains the same: Bothie is not something you should be basing your purchase decision on.

Beyond the camera, Nokia is also very proud of the OZO Audio recording capabilities built into the Nokia 8. This is that 3D spatial binaural audio recording thing you heard me talk about awhile back.
Does it work? Well, when it does, it sounds alright. Though, I don’t think it’s miles better than what you can achieve on something like the Samsung Galaxy Note8, for example. Here’s a quick comparison video between video footage shot on the Note8 and Nokia 8. Hear the difference for yourself:

However, I must say that the Nokia 8’s audio recording sometimes overcompensates and in its effort to drown out background noise, it sometimes completely drowns out your own voice. This was super frustrating and I hope Nokia can fix this with a future software update.

Since we’re on the topic of things that disappoint, let’s talk about the Nokia 8’s battery life. With a 3,090 mAh cell, I really wasn’t expecting much and in this respect, the Nokia 8 matched my expectations. On average, I got about 4 hours of screen on time, which is borderline OK, but my time on battery rarely exceeded 12 hours with moderate to heavy use which means this phone didn’t last me a full day. I’d say it is just slightly worse than the Note8 so it’s not a phone I’d recommend to power users.

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A small silver lining, though, is that the handset charges pretty quickly, topping up from a 5% charge in just under 2 hours. 30 minutes on the plug gives you about a 47% charge.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there. There are also less major annoyances like a lack of a notification LED (there’s a glance screen but I couldn’t find any way to enable stuff like WhatsApp notifications), the absence of stereo speakers and a lack of IP67/IP68 water resistance.

I was rather disappointed that so many of those features were left out of the Nokia 8, but when you consider its price of RM2,299, those things become more forgivable. In fact, I won’t even give it crap for its dated design.

However, what I simply can’t forgive is the camera experience. For the kind of money you have to fork out to get your hands on the Nokia 8, there are a lot of competing devices that offer far better shooting experiences. Off the top of my head, the OnePlus 5 (RM2,388) comes to mind. I’d even say the Xiaomi Mi 6 (RM1,899) has a more pleasant photography experience. In fact, I can’t think of a single 2017 flagship that has a worse camera experience than this.

I want to say that even though the Nokia 8 doesn’t live up to the hype (realistically, what phone can), it is still at least a solid smartphone that you can rely on. But with the below average battery life and frustrating camera, I’m not sure I can even say it’s reliable.

I’d like to say that it was the hype that killed this phone for me, but the truth is Nokia did it to themselves.