Since it resurrected the Nokia brand almost two years ago, HMD Global has executed a rather simple marketing strategy to great success: produce acceptably good phones at reasonable prices and let the Nokia brand do the rest of the work. While simplistic at first glance, there is no doubt the strategy has worked: within 20 months of its return to the mobile market, Nokia was already among the top 10 smartphone vendors in the entire world.
This no-frills mentality also permeates Nokia's approach to the software on its phones: it makes next to no modifications to the pure Android experience provided by Google, and makes little effort to distinguish itself. That laissez-faire attitude has itself become a distinction for Nokia. While even $1,000 flagships from competitors may receive the latest version of Android months after its release by Google, Nokia is now the largest partner for Android One, and even its cheapest phones are slated to receive the Android 9.0 Pie update in record time.
Today, we have one of those low-end phones from the revitalised Finnish brand: the Nokia 2.1. Available for between $90-$110 in various markets, the phone is among the cheapest you can buy. Let's see if it can hold its own against the barrage of Chinese brands nipping away at the heels of any smartphone manufacturer trying to make a dent in the low-end of the smartphone market.
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 425|
|Operating System||Android 8.1 Oreo (Go)|
5.5" HD 1280 x 720p (16:9), 267ppi, IPS
Audio: 3.5mm socket
153.6 x 77.6 x 9.7mm / 174g (6.14oz)
Rear: 8MP, LED flash
|Camera Features||HDR, Panorama, Manual Mode|
|Storage||8GB + 128GB microSD expansion|
|Colours||Blue/Copper, Blue/Silver, Grey/Silver|
Design and display
The design of the Nokia 2.1 is among the best things about it. I may not be the most fashionable of critics, and I've made my general dislike of glass backs clear before, so the polycarbonate back of the handset that others may call 'cheap', I consider a breath of fresh air.
The first phone I ever owned was a Lumia 920 so maybe it's my nostalgia speaking, but I loved the design language of the early Lumia phones. They were made of polycarbonate materials just like the 2.1 and they looked and felt amazing.
The Nokia 2.1 looks quite a lot better than you'd expect for its bottom-of-the-barrel pricing. The blue back of the sample I received is plain and clean but looks elegant, and the texture on it is coarse though surprisingly comfortable in your hand. Unlike glass-backed phones, it also retains its looks without becoming a mess of fingerprint smudges after a day of use.
I'm not always concerned about the phone slipping out of my hands or off the desk and, even if it did, I can rest assured it can take a few blows before dying on me. The durability of the Nokia phones of yesteryear is on full display here.
The back is removable, but weirdly enough, the battery is non-removable.
The phone's screen is a 5.5" IPS display with a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio and a resolution of 1280 x 720. That translates to a pixel density of 267ppi. It's nothing to write home about, but that's to be expected at this price point. It's functional and gets the job done.
Being a low-end smartphone launched in the middle of the year, it's also definitely not jumping on the bezel-less or notch bandwagons. One thing I did appreciate seeing, though, was the two full-size speaker grilles in the front. The phone thus boasts a stereo speakers setup, something that's missing on even many flagship devices these days. They do get relatively loud as a result but, as expected of a $100 phone, the sound quality is not particularly good and the audio output feels rather muddy when compared to a good pair of headphones.
There is a copper strip running around the periphery of the smartphone that combos well with the blue back. It does not, however, sit flush with the body and may be slightly uncomfortable if you hold the phone at the wrong angle.
There's a micro-USB port at the bottom of the phone and a headphone jack at the top. The volume rocker and lock button are where you'd expect them - on the right side of the phone - in the same copper as the rim around the phone. That same copper is also used for the prominent Nokia logo rounding out the exterior design of the phone.
This is a cheap phone and the camera was simply not a priority in its design. So, if you're expecting me to rave about the amazing quality, you would be mistaken. The Nokia 2.1's camera is sub-par at best. The bright and colourful reds and pinks of flowers become a dull and bland near-white after going through the 2.1's 8MP main sensor. The included HDR mode helped recover some of the colour in the shots I took, but it still was nowhere near what the actual scene looked like.
The camera is, however, surprisingly quick at taking shots, which I did appreciate. The camera app is also relatively well-done, with the HDR, Panorama, flash, manual mode, and delayed shot options easily accessible. Those are also all the options you'll get with the camera. No-frills is the theme of the day.
The 8MP camera is also not the best at capturing detail. Zoom in a little, and you'll immediately notice the image quality starting to degrade. Dynamic range is simply abysmal, as shifting focus between the sky and the tree in the first two pictures below clearly demonstrates. Unsurprisingly, low-light performance is also not particularly great.
The Nokia 2.1's camera is passable if you're on a budget and just want something to capture the important moments in your life. Just don't expect those moments to look particularly great when you revisit them down the line, especially if you don't have the patience to use HDR all the time.
Performance, storage and Battery Life
Performance is one area where the 2.1 was slightly disappointing. Lag was ever-present in my experience with the phone. When you make a call, it even takes almost a whole second before the in-call options are displayed on the screen, and on one occasion, Chrome simply crashed when I loaded a slightly more demanding desktop site unoptimised for mobile.
All of this is not necessarily ideal, but is par for the course at this price point and when taking the entry-level Snapdragon 425 powering the phone. What I found entirely unacceptable, however, was HMD's penny-pinching when it comes to the internal storage on the phone. Compared to its closest competitor, the Redmi 6A, the Nokia 2.1 has only 1 GB of RAM to the 6A's 2GB and, more importantly, only 8GB of storage to the Redmi's minimum of 16GB.
In 2018, 16GB is barely enough storage as it is, but to go down to 8GB, regardless of the phone's price, is simply unacceptable. When you first start up the phone, you're only able to use 4.5GB as the rest is taken up by the system. Installing the bare minimum of apps I need on a regular basis brought that number down to 2.55GB, and I had to resort to deleting some apps just to make enough space to download my WhatsApp backup.
Thankfully, the phone does support up to 128GB of storage expansion via a microSD card, but in this case, that's a necessity and not a luxury. I'd have preferred if HMD simply raised the price of the phone slightly to accommodate more storage or cut corners elsewhere.
From that shameful low, we can come to one of the 2.1's most prominent highs: the battery life. Packing a 4,000mAh battery in conjunction with a low-end processor means the Nokia 2.1 has one of the best battery lives for any smartphone. I wasn't using it much since I am currently on break, but the phone was able to last me days on end without the need to recharge it and I almost forgot you needed to charge it at all.
This is where the Nokia 2.1 truly shines, and has a leg over its competition in this price bracket - and, indeed, even many flagships. Nokia promises 3 years of monthly security updates for the phone, alongside a guarantee of upgrading the phone to the next two major Android releases from when the phone launched. That means the 2.1 will be upgraded to Android 10.
That is a kind of software support that is simply unheard of at this price. The only company that may come close is Xiaomi with its Redmi series, but while older Xiaomi phones like the Redmi 3 or Redmi 4 series are slated for an upgrade to MIUI 10, they do not actually qualify for the Android Pie update. Thus while they do get some new features, the update is largely window-dressing and they won't get all the benefits of the latest release of Android. If the manufacturer stays true to its promise, however, the Nokia 2.1 would be a significantly future-proofed device as a result.
The company has maintained a good reputation in this regard with its previous phones, and I'm currently on a security update from August. That's not exactly the monthly update schedule that HMD promises, but it is still certainly better than most.
That doesn't mean the software experience on the Nokia 2.1 is perfect. The phone runs Android Go, and while you have slightly watered-down versions of the normal suite of Google apps installed by default, you can choose to download their normal counterparts whenever you want. In this, I found little of note in the switch from Android to Android Go.
I did notice a few odd quirks in my two weeks with the phone, though. The first was the phone's inability to remember my preference of keyboard, as I tend to prefer third-party options over Gboard. The phone kept defaulting to Google's voice input, for some reason, instead of selecting the virtual keyboard I wanted, until I had no choice but to disable voice input entirely and leave my keyboard of choice as the only input method. It wasn't a big deal for my use, but for people who often dictate their messages while driving, that could be an issue.
I also noticed that the phone created duplicate contacts for all of my phone contacts who were on WhatsApp, instead of just merging them together as almost every other phone I've ever used does.
None of these flaws was a deal breaker, though. When you consider the price of the device especially, the Nokia 2.1 has some of the best software support in the industry.
As I stated in my introduction, the Nokia 2.1 is a phone that really is scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to how much less a smartphone can cost without joining the ranks of feature phones.
That does mean that a lot of the Nokia 2.1's flaws, such as its camera or its poor performance, can simply be forgiven and ignored. When you add to that Nokia's excellent software support, the Nokia 2.1 seems like one of the best low-end smartphones you can buy on paper.
Alas, that's where the 2.1's value proposition ends. Once you look away from the paper and look around in the cell phone store, you simply can't help but notice that other phones just provide a better bang for the buck. For one, the lack of storage on the phone is tantamount to a cardinal sin on a smartphone of any price in 2018.
Then, consider the competition: the Redmi 6A, for example, not only packs twice the RAM and storage, but also has a better 13MP main camera. To add to that, in some markets like India where the budget segment of the smartphone market is actually a large contributor to sales, the Redmi 6A can be found for almost 13% less than the Nokia 2.1.
The only two areas in which the 2.1 trumps Xiaomi's offerings are a larger battery (4,000mAh vs 3,000mAh) and superior software support. The latter is crucial, but ultimately not as tangible as more RAM or better specs. Thus, its importance is ultimately lost to many of the people who would be buying smartphones in this price range. The former is an awesome perk to have, but is ultimately superfluous if the 3,000mAh battery of the Redmi is able to last you through the day. Nokia may get the bragging rights here, but it doesn't really provide something that users would really miss. On the other hand, in my just 2 weeks with the phone, I was already pushing the limits of the phone's storage and I'd gladly trade a slightly smaller battery for more storage.
The end result is that unless you really care about battery life and Android updates, you'll be better served elsewhere, a conclusion HMD could have easily avoided had it made just a few decisions differently and had its priorities straight.