Review: Nokia 5.1 Plus

The Finnish startup responsible for bringing back the Nokia brand to the smartphone market, HMD Global, in just two years, introduced a wide portfolio of devices, covering almost all price segments. A really crowded space in HMD’s portfolio is the lower to midrange market segment, where we find quite a lot devices, like the Nokia 3.1, 3.1 Plus, 5.1, 6.1, and the subject of today’s review – the Nokia 5.1 Plus. How it performs and how it stacks up against some similarly priced Nokia devices, we’ll try to answer below.

SPECIFICATIONS:

  • Screen: 5.8″ HD+ LCD 19:9
  • Dimensions: 149.51 x 71.98 x 8.096 mm
  • Processor: MediaTek Helio P60, 4 x [email protected] GHz + 4 x [email protected])
  • Memory: 3GB
  • Internal memory: 32GB, support MicroSD card up to 400GB
  • Main camera: 13 MP f/2.0 PDAF + 5MP depth sensor, LED flash
  • FF Camera: 8MP f/2.2, fixed focused
  • Connectivity: LTE Cat 4, USB Type-C, 3.5mm headphone jack, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, BT 4.2
  • Other: Fingerprint sensor
  • Battery: 3060 mAh
  • Colors: Gloss Black, Gloss White, Midnight Gloss Blue
  • OS: Android 8.1 Oreo (Promised update to Pie)

PROS:

  • Good looking design
  • Comfortable to use
  • Good bokeh mode

CONS:

  • Glass back a fingerprint magnet
  • Camera bad in low light
  • Minor stability issues

Unboxing

Nokia 5.1 Plus comes in the new standard packaging for all Nokia Android smartphones. On the front we find the reincarnated iconic Nokia handshake, while the back is reserved for legal info and info about the phone in general.

Inside, we have the phone, WH-108 headphones, USB Type C charging cable, a wall adapter, SIM door pin and user guides in different languages. Same as with any Nokia box, the Nokia 5.1 Plus’ box is fully recyclable.

Design and build quality

Nokia 5.1 Plus comes in a different shape compared to devices from HMD Global we saw before. Not only is the body a combination of polycarbonate and glass, the device also features a notch. The housing has a nice oval shape with softly curved sides, making the phone extremely comfortable to hold in hand. It’s pretty narrow, measuring 149.51 x 71.98 x 8.096 mm, allowing simple one hand use. The design philosophy of this device is quite in contrast to Nokia 6.1, for example, where we had a sturdy, aluminum unibody with sharper edges. The Nokia 5.1 Plus’ build quality cannot be compared to Nokia 6.1 or other metal-unibody phones from HMD Global in terms of, but the 5.1 Plus is much more comfortable to hold. Metal phones are often cold and usually have sharper edges, while Nokia 5.1 Plus’ polycarbonate frame and 2.5D glass on the back offer a more pleasant feel in the hand, especially during longer usage. Because the back is glass, the device is more slippery and for sure more fragile compared to metal or full-plastic phones. The narrow width, thanks to a taller display, compensates for the slipperiness because you can hold the phone more firmly in your hand.

On the front of the device we have a 5.8-inch display with a wide notch at the top and a chin on the bottom. Looking at press images of the device, I first thought that the chin was much bigger, but it is around the height of the notch. The chin under the display, where the Nokia logo is centrally placed, is still smaller than the bezel of Nokia 6.1, so HMD calling the display edge-to-edge, and considering the price category, could be a valid characterization. Inside the notch, we have an 8MP front camera, earpiece and usual sensors (Ambient light sensor, Proximity sensor…).

On the left side of the phone we find the standard power and volume buttons, while on the right side we have the hybrid microSIM/microSD card port. The buttons are made from plastic, nicely elevated and easy to click. They don’t giggle and are firmly placed, though there is no “premium” feel on them as on metal buttons.

On the bottom, we have the speaker, microphone and the USB Type-C port. The top is reserved for the 3.5mm audio jack and a second microphone for noise cancellation during calls and audio recording during videos.

The back is covered with 2.5D glass, which makes the Nokia 5.1 Plus a fingerprint magnet. The rear camera configuration consists of a 13MP main and 5MP depth sensor with LED flash. A fingerprint sensor is located below the camera housing. The sensor is almost completely flat with the surface (there is no ring around it), so finding it at first try could be harder until you use the phone for a few days. The camera housing is bit elevated and there is no way that you cover one of the lenses when trying to unlock the phone. The fingerprint unlocking works very well and with decent speed. Under the fingerprint sensor we find the silver Nokia logo, while in a darker shade of white in the lower part of the rear side we have the Android One logo and legal/regulatory information.

With Nokia 5.1 Plus, Nokia Mobile took a different step in design and I don’t mind it. There is a place on the market for plastic-glass unibodies and notched displays, so offering such phones makes sense. Compared to the traditional aluminum bodies, Nokia 5.1 Plus is more comfortable to hold and use, and if for you comfort comes before build quality and sturdiness, the 5.1 Plus’ body might be for you.

Screen

The most questionable component of Nokia 5.1 Plus is the screen. Not (exclusively) because of the notch, but mainly because of the HD+ resolution. The 5.1 Plus has a 5.8-inch screen with 1520x720p resolution. Compared to standard HD resolution, HD+ on Nokia 5.1 Plus’ screen has 240 more pixels in height. That gives a 19:9 screen ratio and 287ppi density. The screen is also covered with 2.5D glass.

The display quality is surprisingly good. Considering I recently used the 5.5-inch HD screen of the Nokia 2.1, I didn’t expect much for 5.1 Plus’ HD+ screen. During everyday usage, you will hardly ever notice individual pixels on the 5.1 Plus. Comparing it directly with a solid FullHD screen as the one on Nokia 6.1, you can see the difference in sharpness and the fact that more content fits in a higher-resolution display.

It’s an LCD panel so the color black isn’t really deep, but the reproduction of white is quite precise. Viewing angles are good, while the saturation could be better. Overall, I didn’t feel a significant downgrade going from Nokia 6.1’s FullHD to Nokia 5.1 Plus’ HD+ screen, so HMD Global did pick a good screen supplier for this one.

From software features related to the display, it is nice to have the double-tap to wake up option and ambient display for displaying notifications when they arrive (or periodically) and to display the clock when you pick the phone up. Really simple, but useful gestures that are details that make using phones simpler. Especially the double tap option because of the rear-placed fingerprint sensor. There is also a night light to make falling asleep easier after using the device before bed. Not related to screen, but a handy gesture is swiping the fingerprint sensor to bring down the notification center. If you want to activate that, go in Settings->System->Gestures.

Hardware, connectivity and performance

Other Nokia 5 – series devices, like the Nokia 5 in 2017 and Nokia 5.1 a year later, weren’t really performance powerhouses in their price category. There were more oriented towards build quality and better display with the Nokia 5.1, but the new Nokia 5.1 Plus does come with respectable hardware for the lower midrange segment it targets.

We have an octa-core MediaTek Helio P60 inside, that consists of 4 ARM A73 cores and 4 ARM A53 cores clocked at 1.8GHz. All 8 cores work between 800MHz and 1.8GHz in clock speed, while the 4 A53 cores are usually lower clocked (high efficient cores) and the A73 cores are higher clocked (high performance). During intensive tasks, they both max out at 1.8GHz. Coupled with P60 we also have 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage and ARM Mali-G72 MP3 GPU.

Nokia Mobile often advertises the 5.1 Plus as a “gaming smartphone”. In today’s terms, Nokia 5.1 Plus isn’t a gaming smartphone like the Razer Phone, Asus ROG smartphone and similar, but it is capable of running every game from Google Play store. The P60 is cable for smoothing gaming in non-demanding games, but it struggles in some high-demanding games. For example, you can normally play and enjoy the latest Asphalt 9 on it, but in scenes with a lot of objects flying around, where the CPU and GPU need to give their best to track and render all the details in the screen, the frame rate drops and you can easily hit an object and “lose” the game. It doesn’t happen often, because some tracks are graphically more demanding than others, but it can happen. In PUBG, another popular mobile game, it recommended “normal” graphic settings and I didn’t find any issues with it (apart from playing a shooter game on touch screen in the first place).

Everyday performance is also very good. It handles tasks like browsing, using social media, YouTube, and communication apps very well. It’s not as blazing fast as high end chips, but it is at least as fast as Snapdragon 630 on the Nokia 6.1. Nokia Mobile also did a good job in heat dissipation on Nokia 5.1 Plus, because during the 2-week usage I had no case of overheating or getting to uncomfortable high temperatures (40+ Celsius) – neither during charging, everyday use or gaming. The reason for this might be that the P60 on Nokia 5.1 Plus is clocked at 1.8Ghz and not on 2.0GHz like on the Chinese version. I don’t know if that 200MHz make a big difference in performance, but if losing them we have a  thermally more stable device, it was a good call in my humble opinion.

In the first week of using the device, I did experience some hiccups – the screen froze few times and locking and unlocking it brought it back to normal, and it stopped working one time, when soft reset came to help. It’s interesting that in week 2 of usage I recorded no similar incident, while another “freeze” happened in week. Overall, it wasn’t enough for a serious user experience degradation in my case, but that could be annoying to others, so hopefully HMD will patch it up with future updates.

From the 32GB of internal storage in the device, 9.2GB are reserved for the system, so that leaves you with around 20GB for data and apps, which isn’t much in today’s world so buying a MicroSD card eventually should be on your mind. As an “Android One” device, you do get unlimited cloud storage for photos in high resolution so leveraging that would be smart.

Thanks to polycarbonate and glass unibody, Nokia 5.1 Plus has really good signal reception. There is WiFi ac onboard and a bit older Bluetooth 4.2, that does a good job in connecting with external speakers or gadgets, like fitness bands. Call quality is on a high level, with a loud earpiece and good noise cancelation system. In general, HMD’s Nokia device do have a high call quality in every market segment and Nokia 5.1 Plus is nothing different.

Other connectivity options include USB Type-C for charging and file transfer and the 3.5mm headphone jack. The main speaker is good for listening to music or watching videos out loud, but it’s not as loud or as good in sound reproduction as on other (higher end) Nokia devices with a “smart amplifier”, but it will serve well.

Software

Nokia 5.1 Plus runs Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box and is a member of the Android One family. The device will be supported for 2 years with software upgrades and 3 years with security updates, so you can expect Android Pie and the next version of Android to surely be available for the 5.1 Plus.

Being an Android One device, Nokia 5.1 Plus comes with a clean UI and essential Google apps. Almost everything can be uninstalled, and you can choose any other app you want to use from the Google Play store. Two apps HMD makes for their phones is the camera app, about which we will talk more in the next section, and the support app. HMD has been really investing in the Support App, that not only offers a way to contact the Nokia Support team directly, but you can also access the Community Forum, Nokia store if available in your region, check warranty, metrics about the device, locate the nearest care center, etc. All in all, a solid companion app that is constantly being updated with new features.

The negative thing with Android One is that compared to custom skins of other Android manufacturers like Samsung, Huawei or Xiaomi, it lacks additional features. A lot of features other manufacturers build into their UI aren’t really that useful, but a number of them are. Some might find the “cleanliness” of Android One positive, while others think it’s negative. It’s up to you. There is always an option to install the apps you want from the store, but 3rd party implementations aren’t usually as good as 1st party implementations. I think an average user will be satisfied with Android One, but if you come from Android devices with a heavy custom skin, be warned that some features the vendor implemented by itself, might not be available out-of-the box on the 5.1 Plus, but you always have the Play Store.

As you already know, Nokia 5.1 Plus features a notch. Our review unit comes with the notch disabled (blacked out) out of the box, and with no option in settings to turn it on. In my opinion, the blacked-out notch is how it is supposed to be. The status bar icons are pushed all the way to the top of the device, and you get more space for the actual content. The problem with Nokia 5.1 Plus’ notch is that it is a relatively wide-notch, so not all status bar icons (if you have a lot of notifications) can be displayed up there. There is a white dot suggesting that there are more. On Nokia 7.1, for example, the notch is smaller, so more icons can be displayed. If you receive a lot of notifications from different apps and you like them all to be displayed with their icon in the status bar, the notch might make problems for your use. But you can easily fill a notchless screen with status bar icons as well.

Hidden notch setting

That said, I didn’t find a blacked-out notch irritating as such. It’s mostly invisible when you use the device, and is even hard to notice when you turn the display off. Putting the notch “on”, does look a bit ugly in my opinion, so it was a good call for HMD to keep it blacked-out (as an extension of the status bar) out of the box.

If you want to turn the notch on, or you have a Nokia device that  comes with the notch on out-of-the-box (like 7.1) and you want to turn it off, the simplest way is to install a third party app called “More Shortcuts”. Notched Nokia phones do have a setting for blacking out the notch, but the setting is hidden by default. To find the system setting, use the already mentioned app. When you open it, tap activity, search for “status bar style”. Select the option and confirm to install the shortcut on the homescreen. I’m aware that installing an app to find a system setting is irritating and I don’t know why it is hidden in the first place. HMD stated that the option will be back, and until they make it visible in the settings, we have to use other methods.

Our review unit carries the build number 00WW_1_130_SP01 and runs Android 8.1 Oreo with the December security update and is the TA-1105 variant. With Android Pie, users can expect features like Adaptive Battery Sever or Digital Wellbeing, but we don’t know what particular changes will be available for 5.1 Plus. The release date of Android Pie for Nokia 5.1 Plus wasn’t announced.

Camera

Nokia 5.1 Plus features a dual-camera rear setup, where we have a 13MP f/2.0 primary camera with phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) and a 5MP depth sensor, as well as LED flash. The primary camera on the phone has an f/2.2 8MP front-facing camera with fixed focus.

HMD really invested in bringing a wide set of features to its camera app, so even though Nokia 5.1 Plus doesn’t feature ZEISS optics and the “Pro Mode”, we do have integrated Google Lens, face stickers, Bothie and P-I-P modes, slowmotion and timelaps recording and even direct livestreaming from the camera app to YouTube or Facebook. Another feature of Nokia 5.1 Plus is the “Live Bokeh” mode, that utilizes the 2nd camera (depth sensor) to create nice shots with blurred background, something that is trendy nowadays.

Daylight photo quality can be characterized as decent. The colors aren’t really natural looking and the camera tends to overexpose highlights, making the shadowy areas look darker. The postprocessing adds contrast and sharpness, making the photos appear very good, especially when viewing directly on the phone. Compared to a phone that does color reproduction better, like the Nokia 6.1, one can see the difference clearly.

In low light conditions the photo quality drops significantly, with more noise and less details being visible on the picture. With good street light, you can take acceptable looking low light shots, but it overall isn’t for lowlight photography.

Down below you can find some reduced sample images and comparisons with the Nokia 6.1, while the gallery in full resolution can be found on Flickr.

Live Bokeh
Nokia 5.1 Plus vs. Nokia 6.1
Comparison at 100% crop

The Nokia 5.1 Plus support recording FullHD videos via the back camera. The daylight video quality is good, with above average digital stabilization. The amount of details and the focusing is solid, with the audio recording also being on a level, but still with a bit too cold color reproduction. Low-light video is poor in quality.

YouTube

YouTube

YouTube

Overall, the camera won’t delight anyone, but features like live bokeh and livestreaming to YouTube and Facebook may attract some users. The photo and video quality is average, and will be ok for sharing important moments or selfies via social media or preserving it in some cloud collection. For serious or low light photography, it is not.

Battery

Nokia 5.1 Plus comes with a 3060mAh battery. Even though that capacity looks like it will hardly do it for a day, the battery life is surprisingly good. With moderate use, you will end up the day with up to 30% left. The battery is capable of holding from 6 to 7 hours of screen-on time, and with a bit heavier usage, I regularly end the work day with 20% capacity left, which is inside the industry standard of “1 charging per day”.

It’s not a 2-dayer like the Nokia 7 plus or Nokia 2(.1), but it will certainly last you the whole day of reasonable use. Comparing the battery life to Nokia 6.1 with 3000mAh or Nokia 7.1 with the same capacity, Nokia 5.1 Plus endures longer, and my guess is that MediaTek did a good job with the 12nm P60 SoC and the below FullHD screen on Nokia 5.1 Plus makes it less power-hungry, than the 6.1 and 7.1 with FullHD(+) screens.

The device chargers via the USB Type C port placed on the bottom, but it doesn’t feature fast charging. The included wall brick supports 10W charging, which is standard for the lower end class, and the battery chargers from zero to 100% in around an hour and a half.

Conclusion

I have to be honest, I was very skeptical from the moment Nokia Mobile announced the Nokia 5.1 Plus, as Nokia X5 half a year ago in China. I mean, a device very similar to Nokia X6 (6.1 Plus), with a MediaTek SoC, below FullHD screen, polycarbonate frame etc. I didn’t really see a need for it, especially with Nokia 5.1 there. Well, after using the device, my opinion about the Nokia 5.1 Plus changed.

The biggest thing I got out from our few-week review period is that Nokia 5.1 Plus has a conceptually different design from the Nokia 5.1 or Nokia 6.1. I mean, it is obvious looking at it (glass back, polycarbonate frame, notch), but after direct comparison one can see that they target different user groups. Nokia 5.1 Plus is sleeker, more comfortable to use, has great screen-to-body ratio and very good internals, while the Nokia 5.1 and 6.1 come in a full-aluminum body, made primarily for durability. My point, after this short metaphysical rant, is that even though the Nokia 5.1, 5.1 Plus, 6.1 and even the Nokia 3.1 Plus all retail in more or less the same price category, the devices target different user groups, often via different sales channels so one can make a case that there is place for all of them. Probably not for all on all markets, but that’s for HMD’s sales strategists to decide.

The sleek and narrow body of the Nokia 5.1 Plus makes the device a joy to use, and after the first few days of being afraid of the phone not slipping through my palms and breaking that glass back (or front), I got used to the smoother backside, and the narrower body with rounded sides (and corners) allowed me to hold the phone firmly and use it one-handed without much worry that I had the first few days. It doesn’t feel premium as other Nokia phones with aluminum frames or housings, but it looks good and feels solid in the hand.

The “controversial” notch isn’t something that bothered me, considering it is blacked-out out of the box and it only displays “limited” number of icons, something I talked about in the previous segments of the review. I was more bothered with the 18:9 screen ratio, because most video content is still 16:9 and you can either choose to zoom-in and lose some content or tolerate the black bars. This is more a subjective downside to 18:9 screen ratio from my side, than a criticism of Nokia 5.1 Plus’ screen, which is very good, even though it’s not FullHD.  Phones with narrow screens are easier to hold, so I understand why some compatibility issues are caused for a better user experience overall.

In terms of performance in general, Nokia 5.1 Plus performs as expected from a midrange. Mostly consistent, with a few hiccups, but nothing serious. It’s not as fast in opening apps and in general as phones with Snapdragon 660 (like Nokia 7 plus), but it holds its stand very good against Snapdragon 630 and 636. HMD promotes it as a gaming phone, and that it isn’t compared to specially made gaming smartphones (few times costlier than the 5.1 Plus), but you can play virtually every game from the PlayStore. Some won’t run as smooth as you want, but it will be playable and I enjoyed Asphalt 9 very much on it. If you’re more serious about gaming, I would recommend checking the 7 Plus instead if it can be found in limits of your budget – Snapdragon 660 and a big battery will suit gamers better.

Nokia 5.1 Plus also emits less heat than the Nokia 6.1, so for SoC choice, HMD did a good job here. Yeah, it’s MediaTek and that comes with a stigma of performance, heat and update issues, but I can tell you that the P60 does a solid job in the first two, while the third one remains to be seen. The Nokia 5.1 Plus isn’t yet updated to Android Pie, while the Snapdragon-running 6.1 and 7.1 are.

And now the tricky part – the price. In Asian and Middle Eastern markets, the Nokia 5.1 Plus retails for around 150 euros, and for that price, I can really recommend the 5.1 Plus. In Europe, the price of Nokia 5.1 Plus is set close to 250 euros (one reason is offline availability), and, in fact, it directly competes with the Nokia 6.1 and that’s the main reason why Nokia 6.1 is (too) often mentioned in this review. In that price range there is also a lot of choice from brands like Huawei (Honor) or Xiaomi, so the decision comes down to do you want a Nokia and everything that comes along with a Nokia Android One phone (including a bit higher price compared to Chinese phones on paper)? And then, between the Nokia 5.1 Plus and Nokia 6.1, the choice depends do you value more build quality or comfortability in hand. If camera is an important aspect for you, the 6.1 is then a better choice and Nokia 7 Plus even better.

At the end, it all comes down to personal preferences. The Nokia 5.1 Plus is an overall well-made phone, and based on the situation on your market, it can be a great value-for-money device.