HMD Global announced the re-entry of the Nokia brand in the mobile market late last year, and the Nokia 6 became the first phone to be unveiled under the new arrangement. This was followed by the launch of the Nokia 5 and the Nokia 3, with the focus very much on the entry-level segment. That changed in August when the Nokia 8 was unveiled at a special event in London. This device is the realization of a long-held dream of many enthusiasts – a Nokia-branded Android smartphone with flagship-class specifications.
The Nokia 8 packs the Snapdragon 835 SoC – a chip that nearly all current-generation Android flagships are built around – and comes with near-stock Android. That means there’s little room for differentiation in terms of specifications or software. Instead, like many other OEMs, HMD is pinning its hopes on the camera to act as the big selling proposition for its most expensive smartphone till date.
To that end, HMD has revived Nokia’s iconic partnership with Carl Zeiss AG – the brand that lent its name to many famous Nokia camera phones back in the day – for the front and rear cameras of the Nokia 8. The phone also packs some new tricks like the ability to capture ‘bothies’ and record spatial 360O audio thanks to technology borrowed from Nokia’s Ozo camera.
At first glance, there’s nothing striking about the Nokia 8, especially from the front. It has a fairly standard design, with the 5.3-inch display dominating most of the front, and thin, yet noticeable borders on the left and right. Below the display is the oval home button with a built-in fingerprint scanner, flanked by the capacitive Back and Recent buttons on either side. There’s an earpiece above the display, with a selfie camera to its left and a Nokia logo at the far right. The bottom edge of the Nokia 8 has the Type-C USB 3.1 Gen. 1 port, a mic, and the mono speaker, while the 3.5mm audio port is on top. The SIM/ microSD tray is on the left, and the volume controls and power/ wake button are on the right.
Flip the phone over and things start to get a bit more interesting. The top third has the dual camera module and dual-LED flash lined up in the centre, with ZEISS branding separating them. All this is housed in a small ‘island’ of glass surrounded by an oval-shaped metallic ring that gives the Nokia 8 a tiny camera bump at the back.
The Nokia 8’s body is made from 6000-series aluminium, and it comes in glossy Polished Copper and Blue finishes, as well as matte Tempered Blue and Steel options.
The Nokia 8 has a 5.3-inch QHD IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 1440×2560 pixels that might lack the appeal of an ‘edge to edge’ display, but holds up against the best in the business where it counts. The screen boasts of accurate colour reproduction and it can get really bright when needed, which means using the phone under direct sunlight wasn’t a problem. HMD Global has also used Gorilla Glass 5 for protection.
As mentioned earlier, the Nokia 8 is powered by the Snapdragon 835 SoC, which is now standard fare across most Android flagships of this generation. It is backed by 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a 3090mAh battery, non-removable, of course.
The mono speaker can get sufficiently loud for calls and even watching videos, and the sound doesn’t break even at maximum volume. However, the placement at the bottom right means you could easily end up covering it while watching a video or playing a game. The Nokia 8 is IP54-rated, which means it’s not waterproof, though you do get protection from water sprays.
The Nokia 8 ships with near-stock Android, with the most noticeable customisations being to the camera app, which we will get to in detail shortly. The lack of software bloat combined with the beefy hardware meant that day to day performance during our review period was a breeze. Multi-tasking wasn’t a problem either, which just goes to show that you don’t need 6GB or 8GB of RAM to make a decent phone. The phone did not get warm even with extended sessions of Breakneck and Asphalt 8, and both games ran without any noticeable issues. In terms of benchmarks, the Nokia 8 was up there with other Snapdragon 835 powered phones.
The Nokia 8 has been engineered with an elaborate heat management solution: a copper pipe runs from the upper right corner of the device to the lower left, and is filled with liquid that evaporates in the middle and condenses when it is carried to the edges, in a continuous cycle that carries heat away from the main components. There’s also a graphite layer that transfers the heat to the aluminium unibody uniformly, using a larger surface area to dissipate it to the air.
The Nokia 8 ships with Android 7.1.1 out of the box, which means you get features like App Shortcuts (the ability to initiate actions in apps by long-pressing their icons) and Jump to Camera, the ability to launch the camera app from anywhere (including the lock screen) by double-tapping the power/ lock button. HMD Global has promised updates to Android Oreo and even to next year’s Android P release for the Nokia 8 and other smartphones in its current lineup.
You also get the Glance screen feature, that we saw on Lumia phones back in the day. Your Nokia 8 can display badges for missed calls and unread emails and messages, as well as alarms and calendar appointments on the lock screen. It’s set to timeout one minute after your phone has been set down, but you can change this value to as much as 20 minutes to mimic an ‘always-on’ display. There are a couple of motion-triggered shortcuts as well, though both options are turned off by default. You can turn over your Nokia 8 to reject a call, or have it muted on pickup, if you choose to do so.
The Nokia 8 has a dual rear camera setup: a 13-megapixel colour sensor with optical image stabilisation, and a monochrome sensor of the same resolution. While the use of a wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens to offer optical zoom has been been made popular by the likes of Apple and Samsung, this arrangement is designed to maximise image quality.
How it works is pretty simple: every time you take a photo, two shots are captured – one by the colour sensor and the other by the monochrome sensor – and combined to give you a resulting colour image. The extra information available from the monochrome sensor helps improve the overall contrast and richness of each frame – at least that’s the idea in theory.
Though the camera is backed by phase detection auto-focus (PDAF) and an IR range finder, in our experience, the Nokia 8 took a bit too long to lock focus, which got annoying really quickly. The resulting pictures, however, were good, with the right objects in focus and a good amount of detail as well as accurate colour reproduction, as long as there was plenty of light around us.
In low light conditions, though, the performance of the Nokia 8 suffered, which wasn’t exactly a surprise given the f/2.0 aperture on both cameras. Pictures we shot didn’t have a lot of noise, but they lacked the details that today’s leading smartphone cameras can capture, though, admittedly, most of them are priced higher than the Nokia 8. The rear flash does a good job of lighting up scenes, though the front-facing display flash can be a bit overpowering.
Speaking of which, the Nokia 8 can record 720p, 1080p, or 4K video using both front and rear cameras, though you are limited to 30 frames per second. The quality of videos is decent, and though the microphones seem to do a great job of picking up sounds, we couldn’t discern the difference, if any, made by the Ozo surround sound. You can also record slow-motion and time-lapse videos.
You also get Beautify mode for both the front and rear cameras, complete with varying intensity levels of this ‘beautification’, which is designed to remove ‘blemishes’ from your face – embracing your natural self is clearly so 2014. Controls to toggle HDR mode, the timer, and the flash are available within the main interface for both front and rear cameras, and you can even dive into a fully manual mode with either.
The app can be a bit confusing at times – for example, you might wonder “Why am I not seeing the ‘switch cameras’ option right now?” The answer is usually the fact that you are in a mode that doesn’t support the option you’re looking for. Switching from Live Bokeh to regular Photos mode, for example, will fix the issue in that scenario. The icon at the bottom indicating the current mode could have been bigger, or having a carousel showing all available modes at any given time like the iPhone and several other phones would perhaps have made it easier to understand what is currently selected.
That brings us to the Dual Sight camera, or to use the marketing term, ‘bothie’ mode. You can take photos and record video with the Nokia 8 where scenes from both the front and the rear camera will be visible at the same time. The unfortunate marketing name aside, this could be a nice way to, say, record your own reactions when your kid is doing something cute. Resulting images are 16:9, instead of 4:3 when capturing stills using a single camera on the Nokia 8 by default (this can also be changed to 16:9 from Settings within the Camera app, if you want).
We’ve seen third-party apps and other Android phones do this before, but what HMD is really pushing here is the ability to livestream bothie (and indeed ‘regular’) videos to Facebook and YouTube right from within the camera app. The company says it worked closely with Qualcomm to be the first to push this feature out, but you can expect it to be available on other smartphones soon.
We can imagine this feature being useful when you are at, say, a concert, or if you are a reporter covering a live event, when you want to capture both sides of the story. The streaming feature worked as advertised, though we should note that you might need to verify your YouTube account and enable live streaming manually to stream to Google’s platform. Extended bothie streaming sessions can warm up the back of the phone considerably, which is a sign that the heat management solution we described earlier is doing its job.
Quality of photos and videos taken in bothie mode is decent, but not as good as you can capture when using the individual cameras normally. Note that there is no way to use the bothie mode outside of the stock Camera app at the moment.
Nokia made its name selling no-nonsense phones that were built to last, and while the ownership of the mobile brand might have changed hands, the Nokia 8 is a smartphone that would have been a worthy addition to the lineup of the Finnish company even in its heyday. It offers good build quality, a great display, excellent performance with stock Android, the promise of regular updates, first-class battery life, and good cameras with some neat tricks. On the flip-side, some might find the design boring, it isn’t fully waterproof like many competitors are, and the low-light camera performance could’ve been better.
Expectedly, the overall experience with the Nokia 8 isn’t as polished as it is with some of the more expensive Android smartphones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Note 8 flagships, but it’s safe to say that if a smartphone like this had shipped from the Nokia stable a few years ago, the Finnish company might never have had to step back from the mobile business. As for taking on the likes of Samsung and Apple at their own game, there’s the rumoured Nokia 9 to look forward to.