Nokia 6 Review: A Solid Return to Smartphones

The Nokia 6 is the current* spearhead of the brand’s return to the smartphone world in 2017 and follows several years of being locked out, following the Microsoft buyout of its Devices division in 2013. It’s still Nokia in terms of logo and branding, it’s still designed in Finland, it’s still made like a tank, but the actual firm behind it is HMD Global and all the manufacturing is in China. So take the ‘Nokia’ branding with just a pinch of salt.

* The ‘8’ has now been announced, and we’ll review that in due course as well.

Nokia 6 Review

As a smartphone, the ‘6’ is well styled, I was enormously impressed by how solid it is, with slab aluminium sides and polished chamfered edges, reminiscent of the Apple iPhone SE – only a lot larger, of course. This is heavy too, at almost 170g, almost in phablet territory with a 5.5” screen.

Nokia 6 side view

The styling also takes an odd cue from the HTC U11, with the fingerprint sensor and capacitive controls mounted low on the 14mm bottom bezel rather than being centred. At this price point (£200 inc VAT in the UK) design imperfections are tolerable, whereas they’re harder to stomach on a £600 superphone. Plus in this case the actual capacitive response area is much larger than on the U11 and my thumb or finger always found its mark.

Nokia 6 buttons view

The fingerprint sensor itself is 100% accurate but the specification here means that it takes a second from placing your thumb to the Nokia 6 being unlocked and the display powered up. Is a second too long? Not for the target market, though anyone exposed to flagships will notice a difference.

Around the perimeter is a welcome 3.5mm headphone jack, all metal volume and power buttons, a speaker aperture (of which more later) and… a microUSB charging and data port.

Nokia 6 bottom view

That’s right – microUSB on a £200 smartphone in 2017, rather than the now ubiquitous USB Type C. It feels very out of place and my theory is that the Nokia 6 design was actually finalised at least 18 months ago, back at the tail end of 2015, when USB Type C was still only on flagships. The delays HMD Global faced getting the Nokia 6 to market have left it with this single anachronistic spec point. Most users won’t mind, of course – microUSB jacks and chargers are everywhere still. And, to be fair, it’s just about the only major disappointment in the Nokia 6.

Nokia 6 rear view

On the back is the reassuring ‘NOKIA’ logo, just as on the Lumias of old, plus a very ‘Nokia’ vertical raised camera island. I suspect that the raising is purely cosmetic, since there’s no reason for this pretty average phone camera to need the extra thickness. I’ll come back to the camera later on.

Nokia 6 camera island

There’s no waterproofing or dustproofing in the Nokia 6 but that’s normally something you do only get on more expensive devices, since significant extra design, manufacturing, and QA work has to go into achieving the various IP ratings.

The display is IPS LCD and 1080p resolution. With the RGB stripe (i.e. all pixels represented, unlike on AMOLED screens), the screen is extremely crisp and decently bright, though I noted that contrast levels weren’t brilliant in the sun. Again, remember the price point though.

Nokia 6 in the sun

Speaker(s) and audio

The top earpiece is used exactly as in the HTC 10 and U11, acting as a ‘tweeter’ and is piped the left channel for any stereo audio. This is – absolutely – a hack of the highest order. The results when watching Netflix or similar are a definite imbalance in the sound, with 90% of the volume coming from the bottom firing main speaker and 10% from the earpiece. Much of the time this doesn’t really matter, but just occasionally something’s supposed to be happening in the left channel in terms of music or effects and… you can hardly hear it.

Still, for sat-nav, podcast and speakerphone use, the speaker combination is absolutely fine and pretty loud – I’d match it exactly against those HTC flagships in this regard, yet on a phone that’s not far off a third the price.

There’s some audio processing too, with ‘Dolby Atmos Surround Sound’, though without a proper stereo speaker set-up then it’s all rather wasted (for comparison the ZTE Axon 7 from 2016 had the same Atmos system but on a pair of true front-facing stereo speakers).

Also on the audio front is an FM radio aerial built-in, not something you get on every phone nowadays, and indicating the Nokia 6’s potential markets, in countries where data isn’t ubiquitous and where FM radio is still a major source of news and entertainment.

Imaging

The 16MP f/2.0 main camera shoots in 12MP in 16:9 and results are generally good, see the examples and comments below. The Phase Detection Auto-Focus regularly got confused by some of my arty macro shots, but you’ll have no issues for regular photos. In low light, results are distinctly ‘meh’, though not overly noisy, so there’s some effective noise reduction at work, even if details are then not as clear as you’d like. Again, think of the price, though – results are perfectly in line with this.

For each sample below, there’s a 1:1 pixel-level crop to show actual quality:

Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, there’s VERY decent detail in good light, with just a very slight ‘processed’ look….
Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
Great detail on macros too, though note the blown out section – dynamic range isn’t great on this fairly cheap sensor.
Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
More great detail, close-up, though again in good light, on a window sill.
Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
Indoors in reasonable light, results are still more than acceptable.
Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
Taken at dusk, artefacts are just starting to show, plus the whole photo has a slight colour cast that wasn’t there in real life…
Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
Happily, forcing HDR on fixes a lot of issues in bright and low light. Here it’s kept colours, exposure and detail all first class, at sunset in the UK. Look at the wired glass backdrop.
Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
In typical indoor lighting, details turn mushy – this snap might be OK reduced to Facebook resolutions, but you can see the blurriness if you look closely.
Photo sample, see below for a 1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above
Night time shots turn out better than expected, given that there’s no OIS here. Just a slight blurring and very little digital noise. Impressive, and accurate to what my eyes could see.

Camera operation isn’t speedy – at first, there was a second or so shutter lag, but this got better and faster with use, so the underlying file system and image storage does take some running in, it seems. A little odd. 

The Camera app UI is kept simple, though with some nice extras included on the menu, including a spirit level – no more sloping horizons!

Although there’s no physical shutter button on the Nokia 6, a tap on the volume up button also takes the shot and you quickly get used to this arrangement. Importantly, the squared sides of the phone mean that keeping a grip while snapping is very easy. Who on earth decided that phones should have curved sides? This is far, far, better. Not as sexy, but better.

Video capture is at 1080p but there’s no software or hardware stabilisation, so results are unremarkable. The front camera’s 8MP, by the way, and also not worth dwelling on.

Performance and battery

The Snapdragon 430 chipset in here is paired with 3GB RAM and the Nokia 6 chugs along happily in this configuration, without ever really seeming speedy. The target market won’t mind and games work just fine – it’s only as a reviewer of, for example, the HTC U11, that I see a performance difference in the user interface. 32GB of internal storage is backed by microSD support, though you do have to sacrifice the optional second (2G-only) nanoSIM slot for this – not a big deal for most users, I suspect.

You also get support for 5GHz Wi-fi and for NFC, the former meaning that HMD has gone the extra mile in terms of licensing all the Snapdragon 430’s capabilities, and the latter meaning that Android Pay is a ‘go’.

Battery life was good in my tests, with the 3000mAh battery working with the comparatively low end chipset to easily get through a day. In theory there’s fast charging, compatible with Quick Charge 3.0 – this comes with the Snapdragon 430, though in my tests I couldn’t get the Nokia 6 to acknowledge any of my fast chargers, so perhaps there’s a software update needed to enable this? You only get a standard 2A charger in the box, so there’s not much more I can say about Nokia’s claims here!

OS and interface

The OS here is vanilla Android 7.1.1, with nothing fancy added. Because of this, I suspect, it’s trivial for Nokia to keep things up to date, with the August security updates from Google only days after the Nexus and Pixel phones, with Google Assistant available out of the box, and with the official Google Pixel launcher. Stunning, and – again – why can’t every Android phone be like this? I know, I know, differentiation…

Homescreens, very stock
Homescreens, very stock, with the Pixel launcher and all mod cons!
Settings and status - perfectly up to date!!!
Stock Android throughout, and check out that security patch level. Nokia promise to keep this bang up to date!

You do typically get a few app extras: Amazon Shopping, Amazon Prime Now, eBay and Deezer, popped up in the UK after inserting my SIM card. All of these presumably with some kickback to Nokia for their inclusion and all specific to where the user is in the world, but don’t worry – these can all be uninstalled and you just build the phone up with the applications that you want in the usual way.

Screenshot
One of the few app extras is a Support application, essentially a full user guide and useful information and links should things go wrong. Nicely done, Nokia.

Verdict

It’s hard to criticise Nokia too much for the ‘6’ here – it’s almost the perfect budget smartphone. Tech geeks might sniff at the microUSB charging port, the stereo cheat for the ‘speakers’, the way a second nanoSIM only gets 2G capabilities, the unremarkable camera, but they’d be missing the point. At £200 all in (in the UK), this gets a less demanding user a full 5.5” FHD display, plenty of RAM and storage, and good enough components all round, including that NFC chip and Android Pay.

So while you and I, hardened Android Beat readers, might be eyeing up the new Nokia 8 instead, the ‘6’ can hold its own and should be a surprisingly big seller in many world markets.

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  • Keith B

    The management team seemed to be made up of mainly ex Nokians and HTC staff with some Microsoft Mobile as well. Hopefully the prospects are good.

    • Death89

      I think the price of the 8 is way over the top considering their position at the moment, but I’m still tempted by a 6 just as a spare phone to my iPhone 5s and just to keep my hand in with android. Flagship phones haven’t moved enough to tempt me to part from this little thing fully yet.