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Nokia 5.1 review: Don’t Nokia it until you try it

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
189
inc VAT

A competent, rather good-looking sub-£200 smartphone with a couple of significant weak spots

Pros 
Fantastic design
Very good camera
Cons 
Poor battery life
The Moto G6 exists
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Nokia is a company making up for lost time. Out of the smartphone game for the three years (or more if you choose to discount the Windows Phone era), the brand sprung back to life under licence from HMD Global. Since then, the company has been spitting out phones at an incredible rate. And, perhaps more incredibly, people are buying them in bigger numbers than rivals such as HTC, Sony and Google.
 
This instant success, though surprising in the cutthroat dog-eat-dog world of smartphones, is richly deserved. The second coming of Nokia has seen quality phones at every budget level, all packaged in an attractive, understated design.
 
The Nokia 5.1 sets out to continue the run of good form and does so admirably.

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Nokia 5.1 review: What you need to know

Rather than mimicking Apple and only aiming at the high end, or Alcatel and only pitching to the low end, Nokia intends to have a phone for every budget, like Samsung. Unlike the South Korean smartphone giant, however, Nokia seems to push each phone as hard as the others – it’s not all about pushing the Nokia 8 Sirocco flagship.

This is a Full HD+, 5.5in smartphone packing Android Oreo. It eschews Qualcomm for a cheaper, rather slow 2GHz octa-core MediaTek 6755S processor but the company is hoping the presence of Android One, which is to all intents and purposes, unsullied, pure Android, will compensate.
 
Despite this, the Nokia 5.1 comes in at the lower to mid-range end of Nokia’s stable – although for many reading this, it will be the budget entry. The £80 Nokia 1 is aimed at emerging markets, while the £130 Nokia 3 is the firm’s budget model.

Nokia 5.1 review: Price and competition

The Nokia 5.1, on the other hand, is pitched in the sub-£200 sweet spot, offering a decent saving on our current budget favourite the Motorola Moto G6. Other big players in this space include the Honor 9 Lite, the Honor 7X – which originally cost £270 but has dropped dramatically – and the 2018 Samsung Galaxy J3 which goes for £150.

Best Nokia 5.1 contract and SIM-free deals:

Nokia 5.1 review: Design

This isn’t the 1990s: Nokia no longer aims to set the trends in terms of design, but it does a very good job at making its handsets look extremely classy in an understated, minimalist way. Pictures, to a degree, don’t do it justice: it looks and feels smooth in the hand and is all curves and soft aluminium. The dark blue and copper colours aren’t reflective and shiny: they’re matte anodised and stylish.

 
Otherwise, there are no trends being bucked in this neighbourhood. The Gorilla Glass 3-coated screen is a 5.5in jobby with an 18:9 aspect ratio and you’re looking at a single camera on the back. Your money also stretches to a rear-mounted fingerprint reader, a headphone jack and expandable storage to fit a microSD card of up to 128GB on top of the built-in 16GB or 32GB it ships with.

Nokia 5.1 review: Screen

One of the ways Nokia brings the 5.1 in at under £200 is through screen technology. That’s another way of saying the Nokia 5.1 uses neither the latest or greatest. It’s a Full HD+ 5.5in IPS panel, rather the OLED than the more expensive handsets tend to use. Most people won’t care but connoisseurs will tell you OLED technology leads to deeper black level response, perfect contrast and better battery life.

 
The only sign this is a 2018 handset in terms of the screen is its 18:9 aspect ratio. In other words, if you’re coming to a new phone for the first time in over a year, it’ll seem slightly taller and thinner than you’re used to.
 
That doesn’t make the Nokia 5.1 a bad panel – far from it, in fact. As screens in this price bracket go, the Nokia 5.1’s is very good. It covers 90.2% of the sRGB gamut with a respectable contrast ratio of 1,326:1. The only slight letdown is the brightness, which peaks at just 404cd/m2. That’s not exactly dim but it’s poor for a modern LCD screen and means you may need to find shade if you want to read your email on a bright day. 

Nokia 5.1 review: Performance

Performance, unfortunately, is where the Nokia 5.1 begins to come a little unstuck. Menus occasionally lag and even transitions between screens look a ropey at times. To be clear, this isn’t all the time but it’s frequent enough off the back of a fresh install to worry that, in the long term, it’s going to become more of an annoyance.
 
For anyone hoping the MediaTek MT6755S was going to be a budget game changer, that will be a disappointment. In fact, it actually sits at a similar spot to last year’s Nokia 5, which was powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 430.

 
As you can see, the Motorola Moto G6 is head and shoulders above all its near rivals – though it is, of course, 14% more expensive. The Kirin 659-powered Honor devices offer marginally better performance, but not enough to swing a buying decision either way.

This sameyness is repeated in the GFXBench tests. All the devices tested manage the same seven to nine frames per second in the intensive Manhattan 3 benchmark. Ignore the seemingly better performance in last year’s Nokia 5 in the onscreen tests – that difference can be explained away by that phone’s lower resolution (720p) screen. In fact, you’re looking at a modest but decent bump in graphics performance.

This doesn’t mean you’ll be playing all the latest 3D games in top detail. I found Real Racing 3 ran surprisingly smoothly but PUBG Mobile – even at the lowest graphics settings – would freeze for seconds at a time at regular intervals. Suffice to say, you’ll struggle to be the last one standing in the Battle Royale if you’re using a Nokia 5.1, but 2D puzzle games should give it no problems at all.
 
You may not be playing for too long, mind. The 2,970mAh battery powering the Nokia 5.1 doesn’t appear to offer a great deal of stamina. Over the course of our standard battery test, where a looped video is played on a phone in Airplane mode set to 170cd/2, the Nokia 5.1 lasted just 9hr 28mins, which is pretty poor compared with its rivals.
 

 
Most alarmingly of all, the bump in screen resolution and change from Qualcomm to MediaTek processor leads to battery life in the Nokia 5.1 that’s nearly five and a half hours weaker than its predecessor. 

Nokia 5.1 review: Camera

Camera-wise, you’re looking at a 16-megapixel affair with dual-tone LED flash. Any fears that the snapper will betray the sub-£200 price are quickly dealt with. Outdoors in daylight, the Nokia 5.1 produces images that are pretty decent, although it does struggle a bit to pick up shadows.

 
The only downside? The cheaper Moto E5 knocks it into a cocked hat and for £70 less, too. As the side-by-side images show, when you zoom in, the Moto E5 loses less detail on the brickwork, delivers better contrast and provides more natural colour to boot.

It’s a similar story in low light. The Nokia 5.1 isn’t a bad performer here but it produces images that are far warmer than I’d like. And again, when you zoomed details look much softer than they do on the Moto E5.

Now, there are definitely compromises elsewhere with the E5 as you can see in the earlier performance graphs and it’s more a testament to how brilliant Motorola’s budget cameras have been of late than a criticism of the Nokia 5.1. All the same, the Moto G6 has an even better camera than the E5, so if photography is important to you, there are better options for a little more or a lot less.

 
On the front of the Nokia 5.1 is an 8-megapixel camera for selfies, video calling and whatnot. Bluntly it’s not brilliant. As you can see from the samples below, it picks up weird lighting gleam from the light behind me and is generally quite blurry and low quality. The beauty mode is entirely optional, though, which is nice for people who like their social media shots to have some realism rather than an alien sheen.

Nokia 5.1 review: Verdict

The Nokia 5.1 is, all things considered, a likeable phone indeed. Nokia’s sense of minimalist design is up there with the best; in fact, I think this is a nicer looking handset than many more pricey handsets.
 
The beauty is somewhat skin deep, though, and both performance and battery life are a letdown. What really hurts its chances at this price, though, is the existence of the Motorola Moto G6. For £30 more, you can get a phone which is better by almost every imaginable metric.

That’s a tough break for the Nokia, but it shouldn’t take the sheen off what the company has achieved here. If you see a good deal, don’t be afraid to take the plunge.

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