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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.

Also on:

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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Galaxy Note 8Last year’s Galaxy Note 7 looked like a winner. My review described it as the best Android phone. Then we learnt about battery explosions and burning phones.

Yesterday Samsung unveiled this year’s model. The company’s Auckland launch was a tired affair set in a grim industrial bunker.

After drinks the crowd was made to stand in the cold watching a dreary and blurry demonstration of, well, it’s not clear what Samsung intended to show us. Earlier in the week Oppo did a better launch job on a smaller budget.

A lot of people, including me, left at this point.

Solid, not remarkable

The event highlights the problem with the Note 8: it’s not that special, exciting or different. It doesn’t do anything significant that the Note 7 didn’t. You won’t be more productive or have more fun.

On the other hand, you won’t get burnt and you can travel on a plane without being a pariah.

Sure, Note 8 has a bigger screen than last year’s model. The front camera has more megapixels. There are dual lenses. Samsung uses a newer processor. Without hands-on testing it’s hard to tell if that means faster in practice.

Incremental

The key here is these are all incremental updates. It’s the Note 7 with a safer battery, nicer case and a few specification bumps.

That’s not to say the Note 8 is not a decent phone. It is. Battery issues aside the Note 7 was so far ahead of the curve, that an incremental update is all anyone could realistically expect.

And there are a lot of incremental updates. Together they add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Galaxy Note 8 comeback?

Samsung has a lot riding on the Galaxy Note 8. Almost every technology headline writer on the planet has referred to it as a comeback phone or used words to that effect.

In truth Samsung doesn’t need a comeback phone. The market has been generous to Samsung. If another Samsung phone has a melt-down the company will be in trouble, but its lead in the Android market remains strong. Huawei and Oppo are snapping at Samsung’s heels, but they were there last year too.

The Galaxy Note 8 poses two questions. First, is the latest Note sufficiently different from the Galaxy S8 Plus? As a casual observer at the launch function it felt like the two phones are converging, although I can’t put my finger on why that seems to be the case.

Samsung gave the Note a stylus. The Galaxy S8 doesn’t have one. Otherwise, there’s not much in it.

Stylus

There’s a sense that Samsung’s Galaxy Note stylus may have run its course. I notice many existing Note users don’t do much with their stylus. There aren’t lots of apps to make use of it, unlike the Apple Pencil.

Samsung’s stylus is like a technological security blanket. This may be different in Asia where people need to use more complex characters to write.

The second question posed by the Note 8 is about the competition from other Android brands. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 will go on sale in New Zealand next month at $1600. That’s the same price as last year’s model. While it is cheaper than the Apple iPhone 7Plus, you can choose from a dozen or so cheaper Android alternatives including Samsung phones.

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.

Spark press release:

Spark announced today that Cambridge and Turangi have become the latest towns capable of getting the fastest mobile data speeds in the country, as 4.5G is switched on in the two Waikato locations.

The launch of 4.5G in Cambridge and Turangi follows other single-tower deployments covering limited areas in the Christchurch CBD, along with the activation of a cluster of five towers in Queenstown, making a total of 10 sites, with more on the horizon.

Source: Spark lights up 4.5G in Cambridge and Turangi

The most remarkable aspect of this story is how quickly Spark is moving to 4.5G.

New Zealand is already up to ten towers. The press release says another ten will be active over the next year.

It’s noticeable that, to data, neither Vodafone or 2degrees have made any public moves or announcements in this direction.

4.5G is preparing for 5G

Of course, the real story here is that Spark is paving the way for a transition to 5G. Industry insiders expect the new standard to appear in its finished form some time early next decade. Spark marked out its turf. It wants to lead on 5G.

One aspect not widely discussed is that many telcos, presumably Spark is one, will make adjustments and upgrades to 4G before moving to 5G. Industry insiders talk of 4.9G.

Further down the press release Spark mentions the new towers will also be used for fixed wireless broadband. It will be interesting to see how it performs in these places given the reports of problems in some other spots.

Spark admits today’s handsets and wireless modems don’t allow users to get all the benefits of 4.5G. Yet, owners of modern phones will get most of the performance boost. You can expect to download data three to five times faster than on today’s cellular networks.

Spark adds Cambridge, Turangi to 4.5G network was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.