For the past couple of weeks, I have been using a Nokia 7.1 phone as my main phone while my main Sony phone has been off for repairs. My habit for quite a few years has been to use Sony “flagship” phones as my work phones (and way back, even Sony-Ericsson). The question this poses – how was it to use a theoretically far weaker “mid-range” phone instead of a flagship?
Why Nokia 7.1?
How did I end up with a Nokia 7.1? The choice in the Android mid-range market is actually surprisingly thin once you add a few basic reasonable requirements.
Software: The Primary Requirement
By far the most important criterion is that the phone should get Android updates reliably and regularly for at least a few years. I also want to have pretty standard Android experience without an unnecessary heavy custom UI job. I want the latest version of Android as quickly as possible, there should be regular security patches, and I want it to work like any other Android phone without having to learn a new UI – or switch around the buttons in Samsung-style.
These requirements basically bring the selection down to Nokia and Motorola. Sony has a so-so history in my experience with updates for everything that is not a flagship. Google does not sell a cheap Pixel (yet), which would otherwise be the best vendor from a software perspective. Thus, the Android One program is perfect for my requirements.
Samsung and all the Chinese vendors insist on a differentiating UI, which I just find annoying and hard when I switch between phones. There is zero value to me as a user to have a phone with a unique UI that I will only find on that one phone brand – it makes it harder to figure out how things work, and harder to translate learnings between my phone and the kid’s phones (which are also bought based on the same idea, currently a Motorola and another Nokia). Just like when I move between Windows PCs, I want the same UI regardless of the hardware brand. Adding extra features and changing how the OS works just to be different sounds good the vendor, but is awful for users. Adding features on top of the basics, that is OK. But trying to achieve user lock-in with a custom UI job is not acceptable.
I once had to use a Samsung for a year, and while I did appreciate some of the user interface ideas there, it was still annoying that nothing looked like or worked like standard Android.
Hardware-wise, the Nokia covers all the requirements I had. The Nokia 7.1 has a MicroSD slot, and it uses a USB-C port for charging and connecting to a PC (which means I can use all the cables I carry around for my Sony normally). The phone looks pretty nice, even if it has a rather large “chin”. The fingerprint reader is the right location – on the back.
The phone I got had 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, putting it on par with my Sony Xperia XZ2. Once again, simplifying switching between different devices from different vendors.
It is a rather light compared to what I am used to, and the size is convenient – just a bit smaller than the Sony, and definitely usefully smaller than my old Sony Xperia Z5 Premium monster phone. I think this size around 5.8 inch at something more elongated than 16:9 is pretty ideal. Big enough to read full emails and web pages, small and narrow enough to easily hold in you hand.
So, it fulfills my requirements. But this phone is still less than half the price of the one I usually use. What gives? What kind of compromises does it entail to move from a flagship to a mid-range?
The speed of the processor – the Nokia 7.1 uses a Snapdragon 636 instead of the Snapdragon 845 in my Sony. The Nokia does feel slower when doing a lot at once, and sometimes it kind of stops and pauses. Chrome has hung on me a couple of times instead of just loading complex pages. Most of the time, this is not noticeable, but there are instances when the phone does not react quite as quickly to input as I am used to.
The screen can be hard to read outdoors in bright sunlight. It feels like something from a say five years ago. Not a disaster, but not as nice as my Sony.
The touchscreen is also noticeably worse at picking up down-swipes from the top to get to the notifications pane and settings. I sometimes have to change finger or wet a finger just a bit to make the screen react. The notch thing also makes the area available to hit to pull down the notifications a lot smaller! I could not get double-tapping the screen to wake up the phone to work reliably. Overall, the notch on the screen looks “modern”… but I think I rather have a thin bezel along the top than a notch. I want more room for notifications, and a big nice target to hit to pull down notifications and control buttons.
The phone does have a classic headphone jack, which makes sense. If you are buying a 3000 SEK phone, you do not necessarily want to pay another 1000 to 2000 SEK to get a Bluetooth headset to go with it. By supporting wired connections, the overall package cost comes down a lot. Now, since my Sony XZ2 ditched the headphone jack, I have gone all wireless anyway… leading to some noticeable differences.
It appears that the Bluetooth range is lower and that I get more skips when listening to audio over Bluetooth. The Nokia is more sensitive to interference from other wireless devices it seems – and often skips when in crowded places. With the Sony, I can easily be ten meters away with wireless headsets without a problem. The Nokia, not so much. It simply does not work as well. When I change volume on a Bluetooth headset, it does not change the volume on the phone in the same way that the Sony does – it just changes the local volume in the headset, in effect giving you two separate volume controls. Not a big deal, I have seen the same behavior in PC wireless headsets.
The weight is significantly lower than the Sony – which could be considered a feature since the XZ2 is rather heavy for its size. It did make the phone feel a bit more “toylike” initially, but I got used to it.
The Nokia does not feature wireless charging, but I find that a totally useless gimmick. My experience on the Sony is that you have put the phone just precisely right on the charging pad for it to work, and if you have any kind of case for the phone, it does not work at all. Since I find cases to be mandatory to protect a phone, wireless charging is pointless.
One significant difference is that the Nokia is not water-proof, which has been one of my main must-have features for phones ever since I got a Sony Xperia V back in the day (which btw was a primary example of a device that did not age very well at all).
On the software side, there are a few small things that I miss from the Sony. Android One does not display the charge level of connected Bluetooth devices – but the Sony Android build does. The main battery charge level can only be shown superimposed over the battery icon rather than shown next to it, which is rather unreadable. There is no shortcut icon in the notifications pane to control data roaming, which I find very useful on the Sony. It is a bit more bare-bones, basically. But it gets the job done.
Another aspect of Android One is that you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get at the application drawer, rather than have an icon for it. I have not found any way to get an application drawer icon into the center of the screen instead of the Google Play icon – which is a really bizarre application to have front and center. Going to the Play store is not exactly the most common operation in daily use. However, swiping up quickly become second-nature, and when I got my Sony back, I actually changed it to replace the app drawer icon with the swipe movement. But all this swiping definitely is not as easy on user discoverability.
Android One fully supports Android Enterprise for injecting work email and calendar into the phone. I have read about some other budget phones or consumer phones that entirely skip supporting Android Enterprise… which would not have been acceptable for me since this phone did indeed need to connect to the corporate network in BYOD fashion.
Using Android One does have the advantage of bringing with it some of Android 9’s latest features that are missing on the Sony (which is still lightly modified from base Android 9). You get the Android 9 modern task switcher, with a different way to access Split Screen mode (it is still there). You get the “Digital Wellness” features that Google introduced last year, which is not (yet) on my Sony. I really like the option to turn the screen to grey scale, before moving to full night mode.
The Notch, Again
This is the first time I have used a phone with a sensor notch, and it is kind of interesting to see how inconsistently Android handles it. Most of the time, “full screen” apps get the area below the notification line, to get a solid rectangle to draw in. However, the YouTube app is allowed to draw across the whole screen, including the area that is partially covered by the notch
Overall, using the Nokia 7.1 was a revelation – at half the price of a normal flagship, or a third of the price of insane flagships like Samsung puts out, and a quarter of the cost of the ludicrously over-priced Apple devices, you get what is a perfectly workable phone with very little compromise. There is nothing important that the pricier phones can do that this one cannot, and honestly it seems that most of what makes a flagship these days are useless gimmicks (like heart-rate monitors, additional cameras, other biometrics, …) and design (smaller bezels, hole-punch or crazy camera setups, …).
What does make sense to pay for is a better screen, a faster processor, and waterproofing – as long as the software load is reasonably clean. To me, the Nokia does everything that a phone needs to do sufficiently well. Going down in price below the Nokia 7.1 would entail too much sacrifice though, as both performance, memory, and screen resolution would start to get too compromised for comfort.