Google’s Android phone operating system is often a mess when compared with Apple’s iOS. Android One aims to fix that. You can’t get it on phones from Android market leaders like Samsung or Huawei. At least, not yet. Nokia, with nothing to lose, has gone in boots and all. The company hopes Android One can revive the brand’s fortunes.
Earlier this year Spark launched two Nokia Android One models into New Zealand. While they could put Nokia back on the map, many Android phone buyers won’t care enough to take notice. This could change if there is another big, well publicised Android security scare. The reality is a regular slew of small security worries gets little attention.
Android can be frustrating on many counts. First, most phone makers can’t leave it alone. They feel the need to overlay the raw Android operating system with their own software. In almost every case, these overlays detract value. None are great. They can make for a lesser user experience than you might get on a pure Android phone. It can also make for a fractured market.
Fractured software market
This fracturing is invisible to everyday Android phone users. If you pick, say, a Samsung phone with TouchWiz, you may not know which software is Android and which is TouchWiz. I see many phones every year. In that context switching between different Android overlays is jarring.
Yet, if, say, when you come to upgrade your Samsung phone and like the look of a rival model, changing can be troublesome. Controls are sometimes not where you’ve come to expect them. Some used features are missing. Things work in different ways. I can find switching between two Android brands is as much of a jump as moving from Android to iOS.
To be fair to phone makers, there are fewer deal-breaker differences between today’s overlays than in the past. It was once common for popular apps to run on one model, but not on another. I haven’t seen that in recent times with the big apps. But there are still many inconsistencies.
You need to take care reading through feature lists to know if a different Android phone has a feature you loved on your last one.
Geeks versus the rest
Some geeks see this through a different lens. Many phone enthusiasts love to customise their Android phones and play with options. What’s fun to them can be a nightmare for less technically minded phone users. Geeks often deride Apple iPhones for reducing user choice. Yet that lack of confusion is major plus point for those who don’t get off on tinkering with software.
Two other things stand between Android as we’ve known it until now and the best phone experience. Many Android phone makers are, to say the least, slack when it comes to keeping software up-to-date. This applies to both their own software and their versions of Android. Many Android phones have never seen a software update. Apart from anything else, this makes those Android phone insecure. It’s no accident that more malware targets Android than iOS.
Sure some Android phone makers are better than others. Yet how are mere mortals to know which is a wiser buy?
Android One attempts to fix all these niggles. It didn’t start out that way. Four years ago Google introduced Android One to help move people in emerging economies from dumb phones to smart phones. It was a barebones, lowest-common denominator version of Android. People elsewhere soon realised a lowest-common denominator Android might be popular with users in richer countries.
Android One quality mark
Today Android One acts like a quality mark. Google says all phones with the badge come with certain guarantees. You get:
- An approved design. Google signs off on the phone hardware.
- The core Android interface along with Google services.
- Regular security updates for three years.
- Android OS updates for two years. In practice this means the next two official versions of Android.
Android One phones also come without added, unwanted third-party software. In other words: no bloatware.
The other thing no-one mentions, at least not in the marketing material, is that the Android One phone you buy today should be good for three or more years. This is something Apple users take for granted. Phone makers in the Android world tend to take the attitude that you need to upgrade every year, or, at a pinch, every second year. Getting three years use from a phone is better for the planet and better for your pocket.
Spark sells the Nokia 6.1 for NZ$500. In price terms that puts it at the low-end of mid-range phones. Yet it looks and feels more like something higher up the market, say the top-end of the mid-range. For the money you get a solid aluminium case. It is about the same size as an iPhone 7 or 8 Plus model, although 10mm shorter. The two weigh about the same.
The screen is a 5.5 inches with FHD resolution, that’s 1920 by 1080 pixels. Nokia has stuck with the older 16:9 screen ratio which is still standard on all but the most expensive phones. It’s not the best screen, but is more than you might expect given the phone’s price. In practice it is more than bright enough. You may need to adjust the brightness at times where it is automatic on other phones.
Nokia uses the, now standard, USB-C connector for charging. The phone still has an audio jack, in this case it is along the top edge of the case. On the left hand edge is a pull out drawer for the Sim card, it will also take a MicroSD card. If you want to carry a lot of music or photos you’re going to need that memory card slot. The phone only comes with 32GB of storage as standard, around 19.7GB that is available for you to use.
Nokia 6.1 drawback
This is the major drawback to the Nokia 6.1. Its standard 19.7GB is not enough for many people. It’s better to pay extra for more built-in storage than deal with SD cards. This may not bother you, if, say, you get all your music from Spotify and stream all your video. There is a Nokia 6.1 model with more storage, but it isn’t sold in New Zealand.
There is a fingerprint reader on the back of the phone.
Nokia 6.1 performance is a fraction ahead of what you’d expect from a $500 phone. If you want to push hard with the latest games you might run up against limits. Yet for most people the processor and 4GB Ram are more than enough for everyday use. It’s an octa-core Snapdragon 630 if you care about this kind of detail, most people buying the Nokia 6.1 will not.
You get a 3000mAh battery, that’s normal for mid-range phones. It should last a full day without too much trouble unless you spend a lot of time running games or watching video. If you do either of these, then you might be better off spending more on a phone anyway.
Nokia’s camera is capable enough, it can even shoot 4K video. Again, it’s behind what you’d find in $1000-plus phones, but more than you’d find in another $500 phone. In summary, the Nokia 6.1 manages to pack all the phone punch everyday users need at a reasonable price.
Nokia 7 Plus
At $700, the New Zealand asking price for the Nokia 7 Plus is $200 more than for the 6.1. The extra money buys better cameras, a bigger screen, extra storage and more battery. On the 7 Plus there are two rear cameras. One has a 12MP sensor with an f/1.4 lens, the other is a 13MP sensor with an f/2.6 lens. Both lenses are from Zeiss.
While you’ll get better shots than you might see on the Nokia 6.1 with its single 16MP sensor and f/2 Zeiss lens, neither is a patch on the cameras you’ll find on phones costing twice the price. That said, the 7 Plus camera is more than enough for everyday snaps. The only time it lets you down is in low light conditions. It can handle time-lapse, 4k and slow-motion video.
The 7 Plus’ 16MP front camera is a big step up from the 8MP front camera on the Nokia 6.1. Both phones can take photos using the front and rear camera at the same time. It’s a gimmick, but then gimmicks sell phones. This one is not going to set the market alight.
The 6-inch screen brings the Nokia 7 Plus up to the size of the Apple iPhone 8 Plus. There are few more pixels than on the Nokia 6.1, in this case 2160 by 1080. This brings it to the 18:9 aspect ratio that you’ll find on today’s more expensive phones. The 3800mAh battery is enough to power the extra screen size and then some. In practice you get an extra hour or two use compared to the Nokia 6.1.
Nokia 6.1, 7 Plus Verdict
Nokia won’t thank me for saying this, but the two Android One phones are excellent choices for buyers who don’t care to show off a prestige brand. They are all about bang for buck. They are affordable, capable handsets that can do all the important things you buy a phone for. If you want more camera, you need to spend more. Otherwise, there’s not that last bit of fairy dust sprinkled on phones to add $1000 to the price.
Android One is a better experience than anything from the more expensive Android phone brands. Even so you still may prefer to stay with what you know if you’re wedded to on Samsung, Huawei, Sony or whatever. If you are thinking of switching brand, Nokia is a good choice and you’ll save money into the bargain.