Nokia 6.1 review

The best budget phone of 2018 comes from ... Nokia? Yep, this is it

The Nokia 6.1 is tough to beat, thanks to its tank-like build, solid performance, and a promise of software updates.
The Nokia 6.1 is tough to beat, thanks to its tank-like build, solid performance, and a promise of software updates.
The Nokia 6.1 is tough to beat, thanks to its tank-like build, solid performance, and a promise of software updates.

Highs

  • Excellent build quality
  • Frequent updates thanks to Android One
  • Good battery life with Type-C port
  • Simple, clean software with no bloatware
  • Performance outpaces other budget phones

Lows

  • Camera performance is poor in low-light
  • Chunky bezels for 2018
  • Easy to block bottom-firing speaker

It’s becoming increasingly harder to figure out what makes a budget phone cheap. Smartphone manufacturers are quick to introduce high-end flagship features in affordable phones that not only perform well, but look great too. Motorola and Honor are two that have impressed us with the Moto G6 and the Honor 7X lately, but HMD Global has blown us away with the new Nokia 6.1.

It has excellent build quality, good looks, solid performance, and a capable camera, all for under $300. The Nokia 6.1 is light on extra features, but it nails the fundamentals, and that’s what you want in a budget phone.

An attractive, all-metal build

With flagship smartphone manufacturers placing a high emphasis on design, budget phone-makers are taking note. This year, it’s all about glass — budget phones from Motorola and OnePlus now sport glass for no other reason than aesthetics. HMD Global — the company that licenses the Nokia brand name — is bucking the trend by sticking with metal.

The metal back is cool to the touch. At the top center is a single camera utilizing glass from Zeiss. It sits in an elongated oval module, with a flash at the bottom. Right below it is a circular, recessed fingerprint scanner that’s easy to access. The camera module sticks out ever so slightly, but it’s hardly noticeable, and it doesn’t impact using the phone when it’s laying flat on a table.

On the right side of the phone, you’ll find the volume rocker and power button. Both are easy to access, and they offer a satisfying click when tapped. There’s a USB Type-C charging port on the bottom, next to a single, bottom-firing speaker. There’s still a headphone jack at the top of the phone, if you haven’t gone wireless yet.

The front of the Nokia 6.1 is dominated by its 5.5-inch LCD display, with a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution. The screen is just bright enough to mostly see outdoors, but colors don’t pop or feel vibrant. We didn’t have any major qualms about it, and we think most people will be satisfied with the screen — especially considering its price. We did experience a bug during our testing where an accessibility feature automatically turned on, causing the screen’s colors to look muted. It was an easy fix, but it’s worth noting.

It looks elegant, and attractive, especially with the copper accents.

Constructed from Gorilla Glass 3, the display slopes ever so slightly around the edges to meet the chassis. It’s a well-thought out addition, as it doesn’t make the phone’s edges sharp. If you’re hoping for bezel-free smartphone, however, you will be disappointed. While the Nokia 6.1 does shave down some of the bezels from last year’s Nokia 6, it still packs chunky top and bottom bezels, and has a more traditional 16:9 aspect ratio. Does it impact everyday use? Not at all. The front just doesn’t look as contemporary as we would have liked.

Our biggest qualm about the design is the placement of the mono speaker. It’s on the bottom edge, so it’s easy to block when holding the phone in landscape mode. It does get loud, but the sound quality isn’t going to blow anyone away. We’d have much preferred using that chunky bottom bezel for a front-facing speaker.

There are two color options available in the U.S.: Black and white. There’s also an attractive two-tone design with anodized copper and iron accent lines around the display, buttons, camera lens, and fingerprint sensor. It looks elegant, and attractive, especially with the accents. Better yet, the all-metal unibody makes the Nokia 6.1 far more durable than its glass-laden competition. The added heft helps too, by making the phone feel like its worth way more than $270.

Solid performance

Looks are only a small part of the equation. You want a budget phone to still run all your favorite apps and games at a smooth pace. We had lots of performance issues with last year’s Nokia 6, but thankfully Nokia took note and upped the processor from the Snapdragon 430 to the Snapdragon 630.

HMD said to expect a 60 percent performance bump over last year’s model, and it shows. Moving throughout the Android operating system is relatively quick, though not entirely fluid. Apps don’t open as quickly as they do on flagship phones, but we didn’t run into any major problems with performance on this phone. We’re happily satisfied. The Snapdragon 630 is a better processor than the one powering the $250 Moto G6, which is why we believe the Nokia 6.1 is the best performing phone under $300.

Nokia 6.1 smartphone
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There’s also a little more RAM than last year’s Nokia 6 — 3GB to be exact — which should help with juggling multiple tasks. We would have liked to see 4GB here, considering it’s what the $200 Honor 7X packs. There’s also only 32GB of onboard storage — a 64GB option in the U.S. would have been nice — but at least you’ll find a MicroSD card slot that lets you add up to 128GB of space.

Here’s a look at a few benchmark scores:

  • AnTuTu: 88,595
  • Geekbench 4 CPU: Single-core 880; multi-core 4,184
  • 3DMark Sling Shot Exteme: 795

The Nokia 6.1 is well ahead of competitors like the Moto G6 and Honor 7X. Its AnTuTu score, for example, bested the 63,311 score from the Honor 7X, and the 70,827 score from the Moto G6. Benchmarks don’t provide a holistic look at how the phone will perform in real life, but it easily reinforces our experience using the phone over the past week.

We were able to play games like The Sims: Mobile, and PubG: Mobile on low graphics settings quite well — with just the occasional hiccup interrupting gameplay. If you’re an intense mobile gamer, you may want to go for a more powerful device like the OnePlus 6.

Android One adds long-term value

Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of using a smartphone with a wonky Android skin or theme knows how much it can ruin the overall experience. You won’t have that problem with the Nokia 6.1. It’s a part of the Android One program, which means that smartphone manufacturers get to ship the phones with stock Android. It’s the purest version of Android with no bloatware, and no sluggish skin overlaid on top.

The additional promise of long-term software updates make the Nokia 6.1 the budget phone to beat.

Android One is also a guarantee that the phone will receive timely Android version updates from Google for two years, and security updates for three years from the date the phone is launched. That means you can expect the Nokia 6.1 to get Android P and Android Q.

So what’s the software like? It’s relatively quick, and dead simple to use. Swipe right to go to the Google Feed, swipe up to go to your apps, and swipe down to access your notifications drawer. There are only Google apps installed, and a Nokia Mobile Support app, which lets you contact HMD customer service via chat.

The software is uncluttered, simple, and it looks great. The additional promise of long-term software updates make the Nokia 6.1 the budget phone to beat, especially considering how some manufacturers tend to ignore updates for lower-priced phones.

A basic but capable camera

Last year’s Nokia 6 had a poor camera. It was slow, and largely took blurry photos. We’re happy to say the Nokia 6.1 has a significantly-improved camera that’s actually usable. Like all budget phones, it falls in low-light scenarios, and the lack of any kind of optical image stabilization means you should always try to be as still as possible in lighting that isn’t broad daylight.

There’s no dual-camera setup here, but we don’t mind as we haven’t found dual cameras on budget phones to offer all that much more. The Nokia 6.1 has a 16-megapixel lens with an f/2.0 aperture and Zeiss optics. In bright light, we were able to capture great photos with excellent color and detail. In less optimal settings, we still managed to take some decent photos, though graininess quickly creeps in. Photos also tend to start looking a little more washed out, the poorer the lighting.

Photos taken at night are subpar. Unless you stay perfectly still, chances are your photos will be blurry. Detail starts to get lost in the grain. Surprisingly, the shutter remains quick to react in almost all lighting conditions.

The front-facing camera performs as expected. It’s a wide-angle, 8-megapixel lens with a f/2.0 aperture.  Selfies look good in bright lighting, but the quality degrades by leaps and bounds in low-light situations.

Compared to the similarly-priced Moto G6, the camera software may seem lacking on the Nokia 6.1. The Nokia 6.1 does have a Pro mode, but there’s no portrait mode, no beauty filters, and other filters that have become more common on budget phones. These omissions don’t bother us though, since we haven’t found a budget phone that executes any of these features very well.

The one special feature that is offered on the Nokia 6.1 camera — and almost all other HMD Nokia phones — is Dual-Sight. With Dual-Sight, you can simultaneously use the front and rear cameras to capture “bothies”. While it may seem a little gimmicky, it actually works very well. We’ve found it to be more useful than some other features on budget phone cameras.

The Nokia 6.1’s camera is capable. It’s not going to blow you away like photos from the Huawei P20 Pro, but it will perform admirably, particularly in daylight. We hope HMD can focus on improving low-light photography on the next version of this budget phone.

Battery life, and other features

There’s a 3,000mAh battery powering the Nokia 6.1, and we had no problem getting a full day of use out of the phone. That includes messaging, watching YouTube videos, browsing the web, taking photos, and using social media. We even forgot to charge the phone one night, and still managed to get by until the following evening with conservative usage. Expect a full day of use, if not a little more, on this phone.

HMD also made some more subtle updates that impressed us as well. You’ll find Bluetooth 5 on board, as well as NFC for contactless payment services like Google Pay.

Pricing, availability, and warranty information

The Nokia 6.1 costs $270 in the U.S., and it’s available now from Best Buy, Amazon, and B&H. The phone only works on GSM networks, so it’s only compatible with carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile. It does not work on Sprint or Verizon.

It comes with a limited one-year warranty. The warranty only covers defects in workmanship for the handset; it does not cover any normal wear and tear or damage caused by drops or dings. If you need warranty service you’ll need to ship your HMD or take your phone to an authorized service center.

Our Take

The Nokia 6.1 blows us away with a beautiful and durable build, solid performance, and a capable camera in good lighting. Android One makes it even better, with a promise of version and security updates.

Is there a better alternative?

Maybe. It depends on your budget. If you’re looking for a phone under $300, we recommend the Nokia 6.1. You should also check out the Motorola Moto G6, which costs $250, and the Honor 7X, which will set you back $200. Both of these alternatives are good phones for the price, but the Nokia 6.1 does have superior performance.

If your budget stretches a little more, we recommend going for the OnePlus 6. It has flagship-grade performance, a strong camera, and a beautiful, modern design. It costs $530, which still makes it great value.

How long will it last?

You don’t need a case for the Nokia 6.1, because it truly is built like a tank. It’s doesn’t have any strong water-resistance, though, so you want to be careful with it around water. With continued software updates, we don’t think you’ll need to replace the for two to three years.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Nokia 6.1 is not perfect, but it’s the best budget phone under $300 we’ve seen to date.

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