Review: Nokia 5.1

The Nokia 5 (2018) or Nokia 5.1, comes as a direct successor to the Nokia 5, by many the best value for money device from HMD’s 2017 lineup of Nokia Android smartphones. Nokia 5 was my personal favorite because the device offered decent performance, great design and build quality, and all for a good price. The 5.1 comes in a similar form and with a specs bump, while retaining a similar price.

Specifications

  • Screen: 5.5″ FullHD+ LCD IPS 18:9, Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Dimensions: 151.1 x 70.73 x 8.27 mm
  • Processor: MediaTek Helio P18 (MT6755S), Octa core (4 x [email protected] GHz  + 4 x [email protected] GHz)
  • GPU: Mali-T860
  • Memory: 2 GB/ 3GB
  • Internal memory: 16 GB / 32GB
  • Main camera: 16 MP f/2.0 PDAF, dual-tone flash
  • FF Camera: 8MP f/2.0 fixed focused
  • Connectivity: LTE Cat 4 150 Mbps DL \50 Mbps, microUSB2.0, 3.5mm headphone jack, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, BT 4.2, fingerprint sensor
  • Battery: 2970 mAh
  • Colors: Copper, Tempered Blue, Black
  • OS: Android 8.0 Oreo (Android One)
  • Price: €189 for 2GB/16GB version

Pros:

  • Excellent screen
  • Design and build quality
  • Android One and upgrade guarantee

Cons:

  • 2GB RAM and 16GB storage in the base version
  • Minor software bugs
  • Camera performance could be better indoors

 

Unboxing

Nokia 5.1 comes in a familiar package. On the front we have the resurrected iconic “Handshake” and a picture of the device, with the name of the phone and Android One logo below. On the back there is another illustration of the device from front, back and side with some quick glance at key features right next to.

YouTube

In the package we can find the phone, headphones, a USB to microUSB cable and a wall adapter. Manuals and other paperwork are inside, too. All the plastic inside, and the box itself, can be fully recycled.

 

Design, build quality and ergonomy

Nokia 5 debuted with a pillow-like design, making the phone really comfortable to hold. The old 5 also looked good, especially in blue or copper color variant, and it felt solid thanks to the unibody aluminum housing. The successor of 5 retains the pillow-like design, but in a slightly bigger, and narrower housing, thanks to the 18:9 screen ratio. HMD still used the same technique of pushing the antenna lines to the top – wrapping the corners of the device and melting almost seamlessly with the blue aluminum back of our review unit.

On the front of the device, we have an increased, 5.5 inch display that fits perfectly into the black front surface. Above the screen there is the speaker grill, sensors and the Nokia logo. Below the screen we find just the unused space, or in other words the bottom bezel. The fingerprint sensor is moved on the back, while the navigation keys are not hardware based, but on-screen.

 

On the phone’s right side, we find just the nano-SIM and microSD card ports that can be accessed by using the ejector pin included with the device. The opposite side has the volume up and down buttons, and the power button. Compared to the old Nokia 5, buttons on the Nokia 5.1 are larger and more pronounced. They don’t feel as solid as on the 5 because of that, but they are easier to click. One of the cons related to the buttons on Nokia 5 was that the power button and volume button were too close one to another. This is not the case with the 5.1, and I’m glad to see that HMD “fixed” that, so you clearly feel if you’re pressing the power button or the volume down button.

This phone also packs a 3.5mm headphone jack located on the top, while a microphone, the MicroUSB2.0 port and a single speaker are located on the bottom. This time we also have two screws left and right from the port on the bottom, maybe for easier screen removal?

Nokia 5.1’s camera comes in a shorter housing, with a microphone above and a fingerprint sensor located below the camera on the back. The Nokia logo remains central on the backside of the device, with the Android One logo and the legal stuff laser printed on the lower part of the back.

The softly curved corners of the phone allow a great and comfortable grip, even better than on the old Nokia 5 thanks to the narrower design. I didn’t find the phone slippery during the usage, but a case as an extra layer of protection is always recommended.

 

Overall, the exterior of Nokia 5.1 builds on the design we saw with the Nokia 5, and in my personal opinion in a good way. Some might prefer the fingerprint sensor on the front and less bezels on top and the bottom of the screen, but the phone is comfortable to use as it is, and is an above average piece of hardware in its price class.

Screen

The single greatest upgrade Nokia 5.1 received is the display. Instead of a 5.3-inch 720p display, Nokia Mobile equipped the Nokia 5.1 with a 5.5-inch display with FullHD+ or 2160 x 1080p resolution, in the modern, 18:9 ratio. The screen is covered with Gorilla Glass 3 for protection and features the usual polarization filters thanks to which you cannot really say where the bezels end and the screen begins when its turned off. This allows a totally black front surface, which looks very attractive, as we saw with numerous Lumia and HMD Nokia devices before.

The screen is the best feature of the Nokia 5.1 – with good color reproduction, especially in displaying the black color, considering it’s an LCD, and a compact 18:9 ratio that allows a better grip. The 18:9 side ratio also causes problems when viewing videos in the 16:9 ratio, because you have to zoom in and cut some content on the sides to have a full screen experience. It is a better option for viewing social media, because more content can be displayed on the screen vertically, while for reading I wouldn’t call it better than 16:9, but I had no problem reading eBooks and PDF files. You will get used to it quite quickly anyways.

The screen brightness could be better calibrated – for example, the lowest brightness is still a bit too bright for my taste, while the max brightness isn’t as bright as I want. Maybe I am asking too much, because you can still use your phone under direct sunlight, and it won’t burn your eyes in the dark when you turn on the display.

Software

HMD Global embraced the “Pure” Android approach with Nokia devices, and all announced Nokia smartphones this year, above Nokia 1 and Nokia 2, are members of Google’s Android One program. Basically, Nokia Mobile doesn’t personalize the device with UI changes, but it also lacks features that competitors integrate in their own skins. We talked a lot about Android One and if this approach is the best way for HMD. For the devices in the lower and middle end of the market, I find Android One as a good approach, because Nokia Mobile can spend more time in optimizations than offering more software value, thus allocating remaining resources in increasing the hardware aspect of the device. In the higher end segment, more software features are something users who buy flagships expect.

Nokia 5.1 comes with Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box, with the latest August update available for download. As a part of Android One program, Nokia 5.1 should get the Android Pie update. We don’t know if the 5.1 will receive Android 8.1 before going on Pie or it will be transitioned to Pie directly. Anyways, HMD promises two years of software updates and three years of security updates for the device.

Standout software features of Android Oreo on Nokia 5.1 are “Ambient Display”, that wakes the screen when you receive notifications and “Tap to wake”, where double tapping the screen wakes the device. Unfortunately, there is no “Night Light” feature or dark UI theme (which isn’t a real dark UI theme but just changes the background of menu and sound controls to black), because these features come with Android 8.1. Also, Nokia 5.1 doesn’t come with the “swipe fingerprint sensor for notification” gesture, which is a useful option with large screen smartphones. The device will eventually get the update for night light and dark UI (and hopefully the swipe down gesture), but you won’t find them out-of-the box if you buy the device now. Of course, there is always the Google Play store with the vast selection of apps and personalization option that allow you to (almost fully) personalize the device as you please.

The only apps HMD preloads, alongside the usual Google stuff, is Nokia Mobile support app and the camera app. Nokia Mobile support app is a really useful app, that features a chat with customer support, warranty checks, user guides, gives info about the device, locates the nearest care center, ect. The camera app is also something HMD is developing, and we will say more about it in the camera section of the review, that follows down below.

Camera

The successor of Nokia 5 also comes with an upgraded camera. HMD equipped the Nokia 5.1 with an 16MP shooter with phase-detection autofocus. And that’s all Nokia’s official page and data sheet mentions. Other details about the rear camera on Nokia 5.1 include a f/2 aperture (as the photos info shows), and a dual LED flash. The front shooter is 8MP with fixed focus and a f/2 aperture.

The overall photo quality is good – it’s improved compared to the old 5, but still somewhat average. Focusing takes time and I experienced a lot of misses, but once the subject is “in focus”, photos turn out good. Dynamic range is ok, but colors sometimes feel dull, while postprocessing sometimes adds a bit more sharpness than needed, which isn’t necessary bad and depends what are you photographing. Macro shots did turn out very good and nature shots as well. Close up photos of objects and people in good light turn out good, too, but if conditions are changing and there isn’t enough light, photo quality degrades, with significant increase in digital noise. Photos in daylight can turn out really great (if focus hits right), but indoors the lack of sharpness and details is noticeable, with phone tending to use too high ISO values.

Photo samples in reduced size from Nokia 5.1 follow down below. You can find more full resolution shots in our Flickr gallery here.

In a direct comparison with the old Nokia 5, it can be seen that the new Nokia 5.1 produces better images overall. In lower light conditions images are brighter (higher ISO setting), while in good lighting conditions the photos are similar with the 5, but with a slightly better color reproduction. The bump in imaging segment isn’t that great as with the improvements with the display, for example, compared to the predecessors, but with a steady hand and good lighting conditions the 5.1 can produces good pictures.

Video quality is in line with its price class. There is no optical or digital stabilization, so you have to have really steady hands (something I don’t have) while recording. Color reproduction is good, but (re-) focusing is slower than I expected. A positive thing is support for FullHD recording, where a lot of details can be captured, but again without EIS or/and OIS, steady hands are a requirement.

YouTube

YouTube

YouTube

Nokia 5.1 doesn’t come with ZEISS optics, so there is no support for the Pro mode in the Nokia Camera app, and there is no real manual mode. Nokia 5.1 camera app supports direct livestreaming to YouTube and Facebook, as well as slow motion and time laps video recording. HMD’s camera app “9.0”, which brings Google Lens and Google Motion support, as well as emojis, face masks, artificial lightening for selfies and other features, should also come soon on the Nokia 5.1. In fact, it was available by mistake to all devices, and the app worked out fine on 5.1. After a few hours from initial release, the update was pulled from store, but should again be available when ready.

Overall, Nokia 5.1 camera capabilities won’t impress anyone, but the phone is capable of taking good photos and videos in favorable conditions. It will serve well for social media photos, and selfies, even though the front camera doesn’t have autofocus. To make shots look better, you can always  use the Snapseed app. If you use the front camera a lot in your life, I would recommend searching for an option with autofocus just for the sake of autofocus, because with fixed focus even a small move you make can cause an out of focus image, while autofocus cameras are more flexible in that regard. We could say that the camera improved compared to the predecessor, but it won’t make mobile photographers (that) happy, especially with the lack of “Pro mode”. I would recommend spending a few tens of dollars/euros more on an “older” Nokia 6.1 for better image quality and Pro mode or a similar alternative, if camera is something you really care about on phones.

Hardware, Performance and Connectivity

Nokia Mobile claims that the all new Nokia 5 is 40% faster than the old one, and in benchmarks that really is the case. In real life, I can’t say I felt a 40% speed bump, but you can notice that apps and background tasks do take less time to load and complete, so a performance update is present. Nokia 5.1 features MediaTek’s Helio P18 chipset with an octa-core CPU consisting of 4 A53 cores clocked at 2.0GHz and 4 cores clocked at 1.2GHz. Nokia 5.1 comes in two memory configurations 2GB of RAM with 16GB of internal storage and 3GB of RAM with 32GB of internal storage.

The phone handles everyday tasks quite well. Most social media apps, Gmail, IM services and web browsing are something the 5.1 does well. Occasionally you need to wait a few seconds for some apps to load, same as with the old 5. For intensive mobile gaming I wouldn’t recommend the 5.1 based on her performance (though the screen is great), but I managed to play Asphalt 9: Legends with minor lag, so you can play even some heavier games, but not with a seamless experience. There were some app crashes during my usage – to be more precise, Instagram was the only problematic app I installed. After a few minutes of using the app, and viewing different stories, it just closes. Don’t know why and re-installing it (did it once) doesn’t help. Other apps behaved normally. Skipping frames while doing navigation animations in the UI is also sometimes present, especially if you have that Google feed on “swipe left” activated. Turning off the Google feed by long pressing on the screen and selecting “Home settings” helps.

RAM management is ok, considering the Nokia 5 had some problems with keeping the apps running in the background, that was allegedly fixed via update. You can without a worry keep 3 to 5 tabs open in Chrome, with 3 to 5 apps running on the device and the RAM manager will handle it fine. If you go over that, the phone starts hibernating apps and refreshing tabs in Chrome. I don’t find this a major deal, but it can irritate a lot of user. Our review unit had just 2GB of RAM, so if you like what you heard about the 5.1 up until now, but want a more pleasant experience for your everyday needs, I suggest considering a 3GB RAM version.

Apropos, memory – the unit we have has 16GB of internal storage of which 50% is taken by the OS out of the box, so you effectively have just 8GB of memory. Facebook group of apps (Facebook, Whatsapp, Messenger, Instagram), that practically everyone uses, takes up to a 1GB just upon installation and the memory they take will keep growing with usage. For some reasons Google’s own services like Chrome and “Google” take alone another 800MB, so with just a few apps installed you’re left with 4GB of free memory for games, photos, music and documents. Nokia 5.1 has a gorgeous 5.5 inch high resolution display, perfect for media consumption, but media consumption takes up memory. You can expend the memory with a microSD card, something I recommend for better user experience in the long run, but the amount of storage on the basic version lacks behind other parts of the phone. I’m aware that in this segment compromises are everywhere, but putting 32GB of storage on the base version, while keeping the RAM at 2GB would significantly improve the 5.1 overall. The price of memory has gone up in the recent years, so to keep the price in line with the predecessor, more memory wasn’t an option for HMD Global. Those that want more memory do have to give a few bucks more for the 3GB + 32GB configuration, which is a fine choice.

While doing usual everyday task, you won’t notice Nokia 5.1 getting warmer, but longer YouTube watching or Social Media consumption (I mean, if you go for it more than an hour) tend to warm the device, especially here in Croatia with a high air temperature in the summer. Playing games also cranks up the heat emission. Not that you’re going to get burns, but you will feel the temperature rising. I wouldn’t classify this as a big problem, considering the more expensive 7 plus also had a temperature increase with Asphalt 9: Legends, but it is fair to point it out for users that don’t tolerate temperature change while doing more intensive tasks.

In the first few days of using the Nokia 5.1, I was considering returning the device because of connectivity issues. It may seem a bit tragic (considering this isn’t my first phone), but that what I experienced wasn’t a bug, but an Android feature. It’s called “Intelligent power saving standby” and is turned ON on the 5.1 by default, so make sure to turn that feature off. You can find it in the Battery settings. Turning that off, after doing a hard reset, solved all connectivity problems. To be more precise, problems I had were interrupted WiFi connection and Bluetooth connection in the background, and with that “intelligent” save gone, it works as it should.

Overall, for an average user the phone will perform well. If you do a lot of mail, social media, web browsing and your phone is an important part of your daily life, the short waiting times when 3rd party apps start can add up to a significant time spent waiting for an app to load. To be honest, as a user of Nokia 5, it was bearable for me, but if you need more performance for your bucks, considering looking for something with a better SoC – like the Nokia 6.1 Plus or 7 Plus, that are also higher in price. Back to 5.1 now.

Unfortunately, there is no WiFi ac standard or Bluetooth 5.0, but the onboard BT4.2 is an update compared to BT4.1 on old Nokia 5. Other connectivity features include NFC, LTE Cat.4 (150/50), 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB2.0 and the usual GPS/GLONASS support. Nokia 5.1 also has FM Radio, which is always a nice addition to have, especially in areas with bad internet coverage (or/and data plans).

Call quality is good, with an excellent microphone and a more quite earpiece than on other Nokia Android smartphones I used. Overall, Nokia smartphones do have a quite loud speaker for calls, so the one on the Nokia 5.1 can be characterized as average in loudness. The second noise-cancellation microphone works very well, with the person on the other end of the line reporting no background sounds in middle noisy environments and still being able to hear my voice clearly in loud environments.

Battery

Nokia 5.1 comes with an non-removable 2970 mAh battery  –  1% less than on the old Nokia 5. The battery life is average, but comes short compared to its predecessor, primarily because of a bigger and higher-resolution display. You will still manage get a full day of average use on a single charge with 4 to 5 hours of screen on time. The battery life will differ slightly depending on your setup. Lowering the brightness and blocking apps you don’t use from running in the background usually helps with battery life.

The charging of the phone from 0 to 100 takes a little less than 2 hours, which we could classify as too much for todays standards, but considering the price class of the device, it isn’t a big deal. A bug (or feature?) that irritated me with the device was that it turns off when the battery reaches 6%. I know battery indicators aren’t precise and that you shouldn’t drain your battery all the way to 1% or 0%, but when you see that you have 5% left, you expect the phone to be able at least to make a phone call or endure sending an SMS. Considering the battery is smaller, while the display increased, the autonomy of Nokia 5.1 doesn’t exceed the one of Nokia 5, but it will still get you through a day, as said.

Conclusion

The 2017 Nokia 5 has been my primary device for almost a year, so I dare to say that Nokia 5.1 represents a real upgrade compared to the predecessor, as all upgrades should be. The only segment I could find stagnating or going backwards on the Nokia 5.1 is the 1% decrease in battery capacity, that resulted with an autonomy that isn’t on par with the Nokia 5 when the 5 launched, but is in line with market standards.

I recommended the Nokia 5 to basically everyone who isn’t a serious user of smartphones (meaning they use their phone mainly for texting, calling, some social media and apps, and web browsing), and no one really had any serious complaints about the device. I do have to say that, considering the competitiveness of the market, when the price in stores fell 20%, Nokia 5 seemed to be a real best buy device.

HMD Global launched the Nokia 5.1 at a similar price point as Nokia 5. In fact, in Croatia, the price is exactly the same as the one of Nokia 5 when it launched. The phone offers decent value for the money, but not as good on paper as the offers from Chinese competition. The design, Android One, screen and 2-year upgrades are something that sets the 5.1 apart from the competition, and if the base version of the phone came with 32GB of internal storage for the starting price of the 16GB version, knowing how Nokia 5 behaved during time, I wouldn’t really mind recommending the 5.1 over everything else in the price class for the average user or someone that values the design or a great screen over other parts of the phone. The camera is also capable in good lighting conditions.

The low and mid range segments are all about compromises, and if your priorities on the device include a good design, build quality, exceptional screen and software upgrades, the 5.1 won’t disappoint. If you want more memory, you can add a few bucks and get the 3GB+32GB version. If you value performance and camera quality more, maybe something stronger like the Nokia 6.1 or 7 plus could be for you, but they come with a higher price tag. Overall, the Nokia 5.1 handled all my daily tasks well, but with the Nokia 5.1 Plus and 6.1 Plus on the horizon featuring more powerful specs, it really targets customers valuing the design and screen above everything else, while the “Plus” versions are more value-for-money oriented. Depending on your needs, the 5.1 could be a solid 2-year companion. Is it the best in its price class? In design and screen I would dare to say yes, while for other aspects it really depends on your local market and what kind of phones the competition (and even HMD with 5.1 Plus and 6.1 Plus) offers.