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nokia 8 showing Zeiss lensA decade ago Nokia accounted for almost half the mobile phones in use. Within a handful of years it was irrelevant.

Today Nokia is back. Sort of. A little-known Finnish company called HMD Global has the name rights. HMD sells four Nokia models; the Nokia 3, 5, 6 and 8. Not much imagination went into those names.

The 3, 5 and 6 models are low-end Android phones. The Nokia 8 is the flagship, although at NZ$1000 it is up against other phone makers’ mid-range handsets.

Cameras, bothies

Nokia’s marketing makes much of the 8’s camera. The phone has one differentiating hardware feature that makes it stand out from the pack.

It can take pictures with the front and rear cameras at the same time. Nokia calls this ability the ‘bothie’. Yuck, more awful try-hard-to-be-cute-but-fail jargon.

No doubt the bothies feature will entrance some users. Others will see it as a gimmick.

Camera’s were always a big deal with the Nokia Lumia phones that used Microsoft Windows. Nokia’s problem is that every other phone maker also thinks flagship handset cameras are a big deal.

Zeiss inside

HMD worked with Carl Zeiss to develop the Nokia 8 cameras. Nokia worked with the same company for the Lumia phones.

There are two 13 megapixel camera sensors on the back of the phone. One shoots colour, the other monochrome. We’ve seen this before on the Huawei P10. There’s a two-colour flash and the aperture is f/2.0.

If you’re feeling arty, you can take monochrome shots. There’s also a bokeh mode, which is run of the mill on today’s phones.

The same 13MP colour sensor is on the front of the phone. Unlike most front facing cameras this one includes auto-focus. If you think this sounds familiar, we’ve seen it before on the Samsung S8. The Nokia 8 version is a little more polished, but we’re talking nuances here, not a great leap forward.

This is what delivers the ‘bothie’. Nokia’s marketing says the both allows you to tell the whole story. That is you can take photos and videos of yourself while also shooting whatever is on front of you.

Side by side

When using bothie mode, the two images appear side-by-side on the phone’s screen. In practice it’s isn’t easy to use. Using bothies is more work than most people like.

That’s not to say you can’t use this feature. Most buyers will try it once or twice then park it for later, which could mean never. The camera software doesn’t help. There are few settings for more advanced users. That’s strange because advanced users are the ones who will want to get to grips with the hardware.

On the plus side, the Nokia 8 has good quality sound recording. The marketing material refers to Nokia Ozo spatial 360 audio. Whatever that is. There are three built-in microphones. In theory you can add external ones, although I never found out how this works.

In practice you can record reasonable video of yourself with the front camera and microphones. I can see how that might work for me as a journalist if I wanted to do an on-the-spot report direct to-camera. It would work for someone making a video journal.

Nokia difference?

If HMD thinks the ‘bothie’ and the camera are different enough from what you find on rival premium smartphones, then good luck with that. In practice you can’t do much that you couldn’t do almost as well, even easier on a Samsung S series phone. Or on an iPhone. No doubt some people will master the Nokia technology and do wondrous things. Nine out of ten buyers won’t get close.

Nokia 8HMD has a much sounder and practical point of difference with the Nokia 8 software. This may sound contradictory when I tell you that HMD has, more or less, left Android alone. Most of the time you get a pure Android experience. There are no annoying overlays.

That in itself is a positive. There is an even more important reason for liking HMD’s hands-off approach to Android. It means you’ll get regular software updates.

This is a nightmare with most Android phones. Usually important software updates are late or never come at all. Apart from anything else, it means phones can become insecure. Not updating bugs and other flaws is dreadful, disrespectful customer service.

For this reason alone, the Nokia 8 is a good idea for anyone who wants a phone that is a serious work tool.

Nokia 8 is pure Android

But, as they say in advertisements, there’s more. The pure Android experience is better than you might think. If you’ve spent the last few years with TouchWiz, Emui or another overlay, it is a treat. There is no bloatware.

I was going to say there’s no rubbish software. But that’s not true. During the review pop-up messages asked me to rate the phone out of so many stars. There’s enough of that passive-aggressive nonsense from second-rate apps.

This undermines, but doesn’t invalidate, the pure Android claims. It is enough to put me off the new Nokia. You may feel otherwise.

Look, feel, hardware

The Nokia 8 looks and feels nice enough. It’s faintly retro, we’re talking two or three years here, not a throwback to Nokia’s glory days. Although if you are nostalgic for that, you can use the famous Nokia ring tone.

HMD hasn’t gone for the curved screen used by Samsung. Nor will you find the near zero bezels popular elsewhere. The camera lens does have a bump, but it’s not asymmetric like on the iPhones.

Ring tone aside, you won’t turn heads with the Nokia 8. It looks like a generic phone. The phone feels fine. It is light and thin in the hand. The review model is in a polished dark blue case. It isn’t water proof. The fingerprint sensor sits below the screen, which suits most people.

Nokia 8 verdict

HMD position the Nokia 8 as a premium Android phone. Yet it is well behind the best from rivals like Samsung, Huawei and Sony. It’s not a patch on this year’s or last year’s iPhones either.

It looks and feels more like a premium phone than most mid-range models. That is until you start using it. It’s a good phone, not a great one.

Which means it is another mid-range phone although prettier than most. Even so, at NZ$1000, it is one of the most expensive mid-range phones around. At NZ$800 it would be a sure-fire winner, without a price cut it is going to stay an also-ran. Nokia’s comeback looks unlikely to set the market on fire.

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Nokia 8There’s a Nokia 8 phone vibrating on the desk in front of me. Soon I’ll write a potted review of my experience with the phone. For now, let’s tease you with this: My first impressions are favourable.

Nokia’s new phones use Android. It makes sense. The phone operating system is popular. Android runs on about four out of five phones.

Android’s popularity brings two things to Nokia. First, it means familiarity, at least for most customers. There’s still a little learning to do, but not much. It’s not like, say, the jarring switch from iOS or Android to the Blackberry 10 operating system.

Or the less jarring but still non-trivial move from Android to iOS or vice versa.

It’s about the apps

More important, Android means Nokia phone buyers get access to a huge phone app library. Almost every important phone app is available on Android.

So from day one you can Facebook, Tweet or Instagram to your heart’s content. You can also do important or useful things.

Nokia last phone series used Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. The first rebooted Microsoft phone operating system was Windows Phone 7.

As phone operating systems go, Windows Phone 7 was brilliant. We can argue whether it was better or worse than Android and iOS. At the time it was at least on a par with the two more popular OSs for operating a handheld device.

Windows Phone 8 wasn’t quite as good. But then nor was desktop Windows 8 as good as Windows 7. By that time Microsoft lost the plot and added unnecessary complexity and flexibility. This may have appealed to geeks. For the rest of us it made an otherwise simple, elegant user interface harder to understand and use.

Momentum

The fatal flaw with Windows Phone wasn’t technical. It was that it never gathered enough momentum for take off. There were reasons for this. Not least Microsoft charging phone makers for the software. Google’s Android was free.

This lack of market momentum meant fewer app developers got behind Windows Phone. And when they did, they didn’t prioritise updating, refreshing or even fixing apps.

The lack of apps lead to a vicious cycle. It was a reason not to choose a Windows Phone, which made the pool of app customers smaller again. And so on.

Nokia’s parent company sold the phone business to Microsoft. That did little to change things.

Microsoft failed to capitalise on the excellent integration between Windows Phone and desktop Windows. This integration is something that continues to sustain the iPhone even though Macs are far less popular than Windows PCs.

Microsoft failed Windows Phone in many other ways. It failed to invest in development and seed third-party developers — something it did to great effect with desktop Windows.

The rest is history.

At the time Microsoft was still selling phones in reasonable numbers some argued a switch to Android could save the phone business.

That was never going to happen at Microsoft. For a variety of reasons, some good, some bad.

Putting aside politics and pride, there’s one overwhelming reason why Android was a bad idea.

Money

No-one at the time was making money from selling Android phones. Every Android maker other than Samsung was losing vast sums. Samsung was making a tiny margin and didn’t manage that every year.

That’s changed. Samsung now makes better margins on Android phones, although they are still small compared to Apple iPhone margins. Sony trimmed its Android business to the point where it is profitable again. At least two other Android phone makers, Huawei and Oppo appear to be making money selling phone hardware.

How about Nokia’s new owner, can it make a profit selling Android handsets?

It’s too soon to say for certain. As suggested at the top of this post, the phones are more than good enough. They cost somewhere between the middle and premium part of the Android phone market. They should sell.

Nokia passes the product quality test, but that’s not enough. Its Lumia phones were great quality yet didn’t sell in big enough numbers.

Whether they sell in profitable volumes is another question. The Android phone market is beyond saturated. They are still too many brands chasing customers. Samsung, Sony, Huawei, Oppo and a handful of Chinese brands and non-brands fight for every dollar.

Almost every 2017 midrange or premium phone is good. I can’t think of a single bad one. So Nokia’s prospects come down to things like its brand cachet, its distribution channels and its marketing. All these have to hum for the comeback to work.

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This year’s premium phones are better equipped and more powerful than most PCs. They also tend to be more expensive.

Phones have been pocketable personal computers for four or five years now. For most of that time their productive capacity has been on a par with desktops and laptops.

While there was no dramatic gear shift in 2017, the performance gap widened. It’s now at the point where there is no longer any doubt about the epicentre of personal computer power.

For most people, in most walks of life, the phone is by far the dominant device.

Smart than your average

Some still call them smartphones. Yet smart seems redundant when few people in rich countries carry non-smart phones.

Even the low-cost not-so-smart phones on sale in supermarkets, dairies and petrol stations meet everyday needs.

You still need a personal computer for heavy lifting. It’s one thing to provide a quick email answer on a phone. Creating a marketing report or writing a thesis needs a bigger screen and a keyboard.

That’s where desktop and laptop computers still rule. Although devices like Apple’s iPad Pro nip at the margins of those applications.

More personal

People often overlook something else about phones. Phones are far more personal than personal computers. You can share a PC with others — tools like desktop virtualisation mean some computers are less personal than others.

Most of us are far less inclined to share our phones and other people are less likely to ask or expect it.

Gung-ho technology enthusiasts get starry-eyed about the idea of wearable computers. They may yet be a serious alternative. But for now, phones perform the same role. They are close to us most of the time. Attaching them to our wrists wouldn’t change things much.

And they are intimate devices. Few of us are far from our phones for long. They go with us everywhere. Chances are, that you’re reading this on a phone and not a PC screen.

This means buying a phone is an important decision; the most important personal technology decision you make.

I’ll leave it to you whether you choose an Android or an iPhone. In general I’ve no sage advice recommending one over the other. If you use Apple computers or an iPod, then an iPhone makes sense. If you’ve invested in iTunes music or apps, then an iPhone makes more sense than an Android.

Likewise if you’ve invested in Android software or in Google, you might do better with Android. Windows fans can go either way.

Which to buy?

People often ask me which specific phones they should buy. Here I can help with more direct, practical advice, even if I don’t name names.

Buy a phone that you can afford. Don’t stress your budget to have the latest or greatest model. Don’t feel you need to update every year or even every two years. Many three or four-year old phones are often good enough for most purposes.

Look after your device; it should go on doing whatever it did when you first bought it for its entire physical life. You may have to forego software or operating system updates towards the end of its lifespan.

If you are upgrading, get the most powerful processor and the most storage you can afford. If money is tight, compromise elsewhere before skimping on these features. Android users can often buy phones with a nominal amount storage and add a memory card.

While Apple and Samsung phones are, in general, a cut about their rivals, all the well-known brands are good. Sony is often overlooked, but the phones are great. The new Nokia models seem fine, although it’s too soon to say for certain. Huawei is solid. Oppo phones are cheaper, but are not second-rate.

Most technology writers assume readers have unlimited budgets. I’ve always been aware than paying the thick end of $2000 for a phone is beyond many people. You can find many bargains for half that amount.

Even phones costing a third of that price tend to be worthwhile. Apple fans can pick up an iPhone SE for NZ$600. There are many solid Android options at around this price.

There are no bad premium phones at the moment. And life in the second rung isn’t too shabby.

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Oppo R11Earlier today Oppo showed New Zealand media the R11 phone. We could talk about the 20 megapixel camera and features. Instead, let’s save time and get straight to the point: this is a NZ$770 premium Android phone.

That’s right. It costs a whisker over half the NZ$1500 price of a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus. Or, less than two-thirds the price of Huawei’s $1200 P10 Plus.

What does $750 buy (or not buy)?

The Samsung Galaxy S8 looks a little nicer than the R11. It feels better; although not NZ$750 better. While Samsung has more desirable software, the software on Nexus Android phones is far better than either.

NFC missing in action

Oppo didn’t include a NFC chip in the R11. This means it won’t work with the NFC payment services. This is not a technology New Zealand has been quick to embrace, so a lack of NFC may not bother you.

Also, Oppo uses a microUSB jack instead of USB-C. MicroUSB is starting to look dated, although this is unlikely to worry most users.

While Oppo makes a big deal out of the 20 megapixel camera on the R11, experience says the number of pixels is often less important than other camera features. It would be surprising if the R11 takes consistently better pictures than the Galaxy S8 . And anyway, it takes skill to the most from a camera, even on a phone.

Even so, on paper, the cheaper phone has more camera.

No doubt Samsung fans will be able to list more feature differences.

Does another $750 buy anything useful?

Some of these features will matter to some people. Yet, in practice, most phone buyers won’t get more everyday value from buying a more expensive alternative. Sure there will be geeks who think $750 is a small price for some esoteric extra feature.

We can’t ignore snob value, the Samsung brand carries a little more weight in certain circles. If you judge phones that way, you’re reading the wrong website.

Oppo is a Chinese brand. Most of its sales are in its home country. According to IDC it now has a 7.5 percent share of worldwide phone sales. That’s up from a year earlier. It still ranks number four in international sales behind Samsung, Apple and Huawei.

Another analyst company, Strategy Analytics, says the earlier Oppo R9s model was the world’s best-selling Android phone in the first quarter of 2017.

Oppo only started selling phones in New Zealand at the start of this year. It sells through the big electronics retailers and 2degrees. It’s hard to say how much of a dent it has made so far, but the company certainly seems bullish. It has relocated a number of senior managers to New Zealand and regards this market as a huge opportunity.

In any discussion of the phone market, we can leave Apple to one side. Whatever you think about the iPhone, it obeys a different set of market dynamics to Android phones.

Which leaves Samsung and Huawei. Maybe, at a pinch, Sony.

Oppo, credible alternative

By offering something which is arguably functionally equivalent to the better known brands at a fraction of the price, Oppo does two things. First, it offers buyers an affordable, credible alternative.

Second, it imposes price pressure on the established brands. A Galaxy may not look expensive alongside the iPhone. Next to the Oppo it borders on opulence or indulgence. These are two words that marketing people love to tinker with. They work in the because you are worth it school of branding.

Oppo’s big opportunity is with younger people, students and those at the start of their careers who can’t afford to splash out on pricy phone hardware. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

How Oppo shakes New Zealand’s phone market was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Phone buyers tend to stick with their choices for the long-haul.
More than nine-out-of-ten iPhone owners pick another Apple phone.

Android owners move between brands. Even so, they are more likely to buy another Android than switch to Apple.

Staying put makes sense. We have a lot of money, time and energy tied-up in our apps, music, other media and services. Moving from one phone to another can be a wrench.

It can also mean more expense than the cost of buying new phone hardware.

Apple users tend to spend more on everything phone-related than Android owners. They buy more apps, services and music. That is a form of lock-in.

apple iphone 7 plus

Learning

Even if you didn’t spend much money on extras, you spent time learning to use your phone. Switch brands and the learning starts all over again. Some people enjoy that. Many do not. Yet this learning amounts to another investment. It is also a different kind of lock-in.

Don’t discount lock-in. It can be significant. Lock-in is a form of inertia which adds friction to moving between phones.

It means you need to be unhappy or desperate to consider a switch. Moving phones is not something you should do lightly.

One reason Apple owners move to Android is money. On the surface it looks like you can save money by switching.

Take care with that line of thinking. The money you save buying a cheaper Android phone may be less than your investment in everything iOS. Don’t discount the time cost it takes to adjust to a new phone, or the cost of lower productivity.

In the real world, we should talk about perceived savings when switching phones.

Let’s assume you’ve decided you can’t live with Apple any longer. You’ve thought through the financial and productivity implications.

You’ve decided to move to Android. What should you look for? Which brands will give you the best Android experience and what traps can you avoid?

Bewildering choice

The first big difference between Apple and Android is choice. Most Android phone models come in a bewildering array of variations. Phones often have cheaper lite version. Some are small versions of large screen premium models. Others have less processing power or built-in storage.

Another difference is that the main Android phone brands have more than one range. Vodafone New Zealand lists 10 distinct Samsung phone models from the Galaxy S8 to the Galaxy J1. 2degrees has 12 Samsung choices. There are five Huawei models and three Sony phones at Vodafone. 2degrees has five Huawei and one Sony phone.

In New Zealand, iPhone 7 prices run from NZ$1200 to $1829 for the 7 Plus. That top iPhone costs 20 percent more than the most expensive Android phone on sale here at the moment. That’s Samsung’s $1500 Galaxy S8 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Midnight Black

As a rule iPhone users will be more interested in the premium Android phones. Prices are not that far behind Apple. If you need to save money, head further downmarket.

That doesn’t mean rock bottom. You can save a lot more than 20 percent on the price and still get a decent Android phone. At $700 the Oppo R9s is less than 40 percent of the price of an iPhone 7 Plus.

Direct comparisons with Apple’s phone are not fair. They don’t compared on features or functionality. Yet, if you choose an R9s you’ll get a lot of change from the price of a basic iPhone 7. That’s a lot of money to spend on apps, music or elsewhere.

Oppo is an Android phone brand where Apple users will feel more at home than, say, Samsung.

While the R9s is not an iPhone knock-off, its design borrows much from Apple. In low light you might mistake it for an iPhone. Make that in low light and after a few drinks.

Skin deep

Many Android phone brands load a software skin on top of the Android operating system. Oppo’s software skin has a distinct iOS look. It seems familiar. That’s about where the comparisons end. You won’t mistake the R9s for an iPhone in use.

There are compromises moving to a low-cost Android. Cheaper phones don’t do as much. For many people the most noticeable difference is in the camera. Although the Oppo R9s has a great camera for a $700 phone, it doesn’t hold a candle to iPhone. Nor is Oppo’s camera software as easy to use as Apple’s.

If you don’t care for photography, this won’t matter. If you do, then you could save a decent amount of money towards paying for your next digital SLR.

You will find the R9s doesn’t feel as nice in the hand and it takes longer to perform some tasks than the iPhone. The screen isn’t as good either. While this is often harder to notice on a conscious level, it will register with your brain at some level.

If you use phones for social media more than anything else, these deficiencies may not matter. If your phone is where you get most of your work done, you may want to invest in a more powerful alternative to Apple.

Samsung, the obvious choice

For years pundits have written about Samsung’s iPhone killers. That’s a ridiculous cliche. And a crass, clickbait-driven line of thinking. Samsung is the one Android phone maker you could describe as Apple’s rival1.

Like Apple, Samsung makes beautiful hardware. Like Apple, the company innovates. While Samsung fans argue the brand innovates more than Apple, comparisons are meaningless. The two brands exist in parallel universes.

Still, the Galaxy S8 has to be at the top of any iPhone alternative list.

Huawei, Sony

Huawei is number three in market share. The company plays leap-frog with Samsung when it comes to who has the best premium Android phone. For a while earlier this year, the Huawei Mate 9 Pro was top dog.

Sony also makes great Android phones. The company doesn’t have the market share or the presence it deserves in New Zealand. That makes it a less obvious choice.

Departing from iPhone expectations

Once a year Apple announces new iPhone models and updates the iOS operating system. As a rule of thumb you can upgrade every Apple phone from the last couple of years to the new software without a hitch. It gets trickier with older iPhones. One more than four years old might not make the transition.

In practice, almost every iPhone owner will make the update soon the software release. The only exceptions are where key apps don’t work with the new iOS. Users may decide they’d rather have that app than new operating system features.

Google updates Android software on a similar schedule. Android phone users often don’t get to upgrade their software. Some phone makers are slack about Android updates. Huawei is notorious for this, but others can be as guilty. Even the ones who make update can be slow and they may not update all models at the same time.

The upshot is that many Android phone owners are on older versions of the phone operating system. This can be confusing.

Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version
Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version

Take a look at this graph from Statista. It shows the distribution of operating system versions in use in May 2017. Only seven percent are on the latest, Nougat, version of Android.

Around a third are on the previous version. About a third are on the last-but-one version. That’s a more than two-year old operating system. The remaining users are on even earlier versions.

Fragmented Android

Apart from anything else, this fragmentation spills over in to the app world. It can be a source of friction with long-time Android users although some swear it doesn’t bother them. It’s something that will confuse many people moving from Apple.

If this bothers you, but you’re committed to Android, consider buying a Google Pixel phone. Google manages the Pixel brand itself. It means you’re guaranteed to get the purest Android experience. You’ll also get timely software updates soon after Google releases the new code.

Pixel phones can be hard to find in New Zealand, although some stores stock them. They’re not cheap, expect to pay around NZ$1300.

Like it says at the top of this post, you need a good reason to move from one phone operating system to another. The transition can be painless, it may even be trouble free. Only you can decide if the cost and effort makes the move worthwhile.

Similar issues confront an Android user switching to Apple. Some people make the move without a single glance back. Others pine for a feature that Apple doesn’t offer or doesn’t do as well as on the Android phone. It’s something of a lottery.


  1. Samsung may sell more phones that Apple. But Apple makes the real money. This is not a volume game. ↩︎
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