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Nokia 3.1 Review: Making the Bargain Great Again

by Justin Herrick | September 16, 2018September 16, 2018 7:30 am PST

The Nokia 3.1 is far from a powerhouse, but $159 for a new phone attracts more consumers than anyone cares to acknowledge. HMD Global is back again, and this time it’s targeting the entry-level segment in an effort to push boundaries.

If you skim through the company’s lineup, you won’t discover an overwhelming lean toward industry-leading design and specifications. HMD Global cares about hardware and software that leave positive experiences rather than a victory on paper. That mindset pushed the Nokia 3.1 from concept to product.

Let’s see how the Nokia 3.1 goes about life. It could turn out to be a piece of junk, or HMD Global is on a path to reshaping the entry-level segment. As consumers, we desperately want the Nokia 3.1 to fall in the latter’s territory.

HMD Global might be thinking about affordability so much, but that doesn’t affect the look and feel of its phones. It’s shocking how premium the Nokia 3.1 comes across. Of course, it doesn’t have a metal- or glass-made back panel; however, it’s plastic seems cleaner than what most entry-level devices are covered in. The Nokia 3.1 also has diamond-cut aluminum sides that adds a touch of luxury.

Your color options are Black/Chrome, White/Iron, Blue/Copper — familiar shades for Nokia Mobile.

It’s a thin and light phone that feels pleasant to hold. Honestly, you’ve probably never held a ‘cheap’ phone that looked and felt this good. Usually a sub-$200 product in the mobile industry is, frankly, gross in every way. Not this Little Phone That Could, though.

Up front, the Nokia 3.1 keeps up with the times a modern-like screen. The display measures just 5.2 inches, but its aspect ratio is 18:9 to be more immersive. HMD Global was able to increase the resolution to HD+ (1440×720) because of the taller-than-usual shaping.

The sculpted glass gives a raise for its design, too. It’s not a dramatic curve, but there’s a slight bend in the front panel’s glass from the sides to the screen. That’s the type of style these entry-level devices have been missing.

None of this means the Nokia 3.1 perfect. For all that we like, HMD Global couldn’t reduce the size of the bezels. The forehead and chin are undeniably large. Also, the Nokia 3.1 has a micro-USB port when it should be USB-C. That’s a cost-related decision, and the juicy bezels aren’t that big of a concern. So we can cut HMD Global some slack here.

As was just mentioned, the Nokia 3.1 lets you stare at and tap away on a 5.2-inch display. The measurement and resolution are completely fine. Surprisingly, the LCD technology at work wasn’t too cold for my personal tastes.

However, its brightness was disappointing and quite frustrating. The Nokia 3.1 seems to be really sensitive to changes in ambient light, and often that leads to a far too dim screen. If you crank up the brightness manually, you’re bound to see it jump back down minutes later.

While the screen lacks popping colors or even defined sharpness, the Nokia 3.1 offers up a no-compromise viewing experience.

It’s refreshing to see an entry-level device do better than expected in such a dicey area. HMD Global picked a good LCD supplier. Yet again, HMD Global sets the example for its competitors to learn from.

Now, there’s no denying the Nokia 3.1 ships with a not-so-beastly chip. HMD Global tapped MediaTek for its MT6750. The chip lines up against Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400 series, and that should indicate what type of performance we’re looking at. It leads to a completely average speed and reliability.

The Nokia 3.1, which gets 2GB to manage its workflow, won’t frequently stall or kill apps, but you’re not flying between tasks at your own convenience. Rather than sprinting, the Nokia 3.1 behaves like it’s taking a stroll through the park and enjoying the scenery.

Considering this phone costs so little, the performance doesn’t deserve an abundance of criticism. You pay for what you get, after all. But HMD Global would still be wise to add some more memory. The Nokia 3.1 could reach another level with 3GB or 4GB. Maybe we’ll see that happen for the Nokia 3.2 in 2019.

The 2990mAh battery is small-ish on paper, but it does wonders for low-end hardware like this.

Between the power-efficient components and slimmed-down software, the Nokia 3.1 can stay alive for an entire day. During our testing, it often finished a regular workday with an ample amount of battery life left to spare. That’s the type of reward you get in return for so-so speed.

Anyone who’s using the Nokia 3.1 for basic tasks should get more than a day of use on a single charge. Even under demanding times, the phone still doesn’t burn out fast.

Lately, we’ve seen high-end and mid-range devices trot out into the spotlight with dual-camera setups. The industry believes two cameras are better than one, an appropriate line of thinking in most instances. Meanwhile, HMD Global can’t take advantage of the trend because, well, $159 doesn’t allow for that.

The Nokia 3.1 rocks a 13MP rear camera and an 8MP rear camera. HDR Mode, Beauty Mode, Panoramaroma Mode are included for the primary lens. HMD Global tossed in a Manual Mode, too.

As long as there’s enough natural light, the Nokia 3.1 will collect share-worthy photos. Then it goes downhill. Without decent lighting, your shots become grainy. None of that should be surprising, anyway.

Want a Pixel phone? You’re not alone, but the price of admission leaves a huge chunk of consumers out of the running. Android One, however, makes it possible to get stock Android on a budget. So what you see on the Nokia 3.1 closely resembles what you see on a Pixel phone.

Because of this initiative, the Nokia 3.1 boasts one of the very best software experiences for a third-party phone. It’s not weighed down by an overdone skin or useless pre-installed apps. This is Android at its best.

In using the Nokia 3.1, you understand how Google and HMD Global let you roam free. When Android operates at its purest, you see a wholesome mobile operating system. Google Assistant and Google Lens are easy to cue, and Google Photos unlocks unlimited cloud storage for high-quality photos and videos.

The Nokia 3.1 puts you and Android together, interruption-free. Some flagships can’t even do that because they’re filled with unnecessary, storage-consuming fluff.

Before we get too carried away, it’s important to remind you that none of the existing Android One devices are on current software. Google needs to issue an upgrade that contains Android 9.0 Pie. Since Android One is controlled by the Mountain View-based company, there’s nothing HMD Global can do to help Nokia 3.1 owners get a taste of Pie any sooner.

On the plus side, the Nokia 3.1 receives security patches in the early days of the month. Google’s been on top of that. So let’s hope that Google hustles and gets Pie on the Nokia 3.1 as well as other Android One devices by the end of the year. All parties can only benefit from that.

HMD Global’s style is fresh, fun, and easygoing. Why? It’s in no rush to achieve dominance around the world. Instead of flooding the market, HMD Global carefully chooses where (and when) its phones are released. So the Nokia 3.1 arrives in the U.S. during a period when entry-level devices are extremely subpar.

The Nokia 3.1 gives a vibe that I’ve only felt from the Moto G in 2015. Over three years ago, Motorola was rebooted and it focused on areas that mattered most. The Moto G didn’t win the spec sheet, but it performed well above expectations. In 2018, the Nokia 3.1 does just that.

As for Motorola today, the Lenovo-owned company can’t figure out a successful strategy. The Nokia 3.1 beats the Moto G6 and the Moto G6 Play at a less price. You’re also bound to keep up with Android on HMD Global’s $159 darling while phones from everyone else sluggishly join the party.

Heading into 2019, there’s minimal doubt that HMD Global can change our perception of a bargain. The Nokia 3.1 costs little, but it provides a whole lot.

The Nokia 3.1 was provided by HMD Global, and TechnoBuffalo used it for approximately 2 weeks before returning the unit.


Justin Herrick

Justin is easily attracted to power buttons. His interest in technology started as a child in the 1990s with the original PlayStation, and two...

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