Saturday, 7 July 2018

Nokia 7 Plus

We’re all suckers for that N word, ain’t we! Even though it’s not the real N, it feels close enough! So when a new device comes along, we’re all over it. Well, most of us here are! The Nokia 8 has done well for me since I got the 128GB version in, though I have been ongoingly bugged by that Navigation Control cluster on the chin. And I have wanted so much to hate the battery life at 3,090mAh, but sadly for my tiny brain, it performs excellently.

The Nokia 8 came with ‘standard’ Android as has been updated (with one small glitch in April 2018) as promised very nearly as quickly as the Pixel devices and now stands on 8.1.0. And April 2018 Google Security. I have no doubt that May’s will be along any minute.

Nokia have now decided to adopt the AndroidOne approach. There are various stories and quotes flying around about how far back that they’re going to port that through the existing range of 8, 6, 5 etc. but in the meantime, the new Nokia 7 Plus comes shipped with it. And the point about AndroidOne, as I understand it, is that Updates come straight from Google and are controlled alongside the Pixel devices. In other words, first out and fast while others vegetate! (Scroll right down for more on that.) There’s certainly no bloat with this device - in fact, the only app I can find that isn’t ‘stock’ is the camera one. Oh, and ‘Support’.

Imagine my disappointment, then, to discover that this device arrives with AndroidOne on the box but only running 8.0.0. and February 2018 Security. There’s a placeholder icon on the Security Update page which is an orange phone with an exclamation mark in it, where usually one would expect to find a blue one with a tick in it. This suggests to me that they know that there’s an Update coming but nobody has thrown the switch to allow it out. And my theory is that this device, pushed out first in India and the East, has had 8.1.0. pushed out along with April 2018 Security Update, and that in the UK they just weren’t ready for the release! They could do it, but haven’t.

Anyway, I’m sure it’ll come. Just annoying! But on with my thoughts on the device itself. It’s a big device. Not only fat but also tall and wide. The fat is fine at 8mm - I’m happy with the extra for more battery but the tall could have been shorter without the unnecessary ‘chin’ which serves no obvious purpose, bar symmetry. The top has various sensors, so can be forgiven, but not the bottom. It’s actually very nearly the size of my Razer Phone - and that packs in two stunning speakers!

It’s also a heavy device - again, I accept the weight as a trade for more battery - and to be fair, it does feel well balanced in the hand. All this of course is built around the trendy 18:9, 6 inch screen (with needless curved corners). It’s a 1080p IPS LCD covered with Gorilla Glass 3, which seems to have the advantage (quoted in some quarters) of being less susceptible to scratches than GG4 or 5 but not so shatterproof. I’ll take the 3! The body is made from 6000 series aluminium and it has copper accents around the edge with antenna breaks, taking in all buttons and enveloping protuberances and cut-outs - including a classy-looking copper line around the screen itself.

The back of the device is again the same aluminium (no Qi charging) but coated in a ceramic feel material which is attractive and classy-looking but adds nothing to gripability. Fortunately there’s a TPU in the box, though it’s a bit nasty. I got a better one. Volume rocker and Power button on the right seem solid enough, just in the right place for me, SIM/MicroSD Tray on the left, 3.5mm earphone socket up top and speaker, USB-C charging socket and one of three microphones on the bottom. On the back is a camera island, vertically arranged with two lenses and the word ZEISS between them, LED flash to the right, fingerprint sensor below, NOKIA under that, again in the copper accent, then some technical junk below and the word AndroidOne. It feels classy throughout, solid, premium. I can just about get finger and thumb to meet around the width without a case on. It’s a very pleasant phone to hold and look at, in short, but it just could have been a tad less tall and had something grippy on the back for those who wish to communicate naked!

On 18:9 screens, I waver between thinking that it’s a stroke of genius to get phones less wide but enable better viewing content, to questioning the whole thing as a gimmick and 16:9 is perfectly fine. Screen brightness on the Nokia 8 was amazingly good for an LCD - they had worked wonders. I was hoping for the same. In my tests here, it’s not as good. At 50% brightness (on their scale) the 8 is well ahead of the 7+ but at full brightness, the newcomer gets closer. It’s still not as bright, but it certainly isn’t far off. The difference can be seen though in viewing angles. With both devices on 100% leaning them away from the eye-view, the 8 holds out out whiter and brighter than the 7+ does. Auto-brightness engaged, for the same % on their slider, auto-adjusted, the 7+ is brighter. But we know what these sliders are like, don’t we!

Different to the 8 is, presumably under AndroidOne, the removal of various lock-screen settings including Glance. There’s no always-on like they have attempted to bake into the 8, but rather a much more Pixel-looking arrangement which comes on with Notifications and if you lift the device, or double-tap the screen to see the actual device’s lock-screen (as opposed to the AndroidOne system one). The 8’s attempt was half-baked anyway as you could only set it to stay on for a maximum of 20 minutes and it was as dull as dishwater, which made it virtually illegible in all but darkness. So maybe this way it’s better. It’s certainly bigger/brighter. The gold standard here remains what LG have done, even with the G6 and LCD screen, or Moto with Gesture-control.

Under the hood, this model has 64GB of storage (with MicroSD) and 4GB RAM with a Snapdragon 660 chipset. Bearing in mind that devices such as Moto Z2 Play (626) and BlackBerry KEYone (625) speed along very nicely, and claims from the manufacturer that the 660 is 30% faster and 20% more power-efficient than (even) the 653, I’d expected a next step-up in mid-rangers approaching flagship performance.

Sadly, and I’m really hoping that this is software problems and not hardware, the 7+ shows signs across the device and UI of lag/slug. It’s not earth-shattering and in real terms, the user shouldn’t worry really with updates coming, but I had to say it! All operations, compared to the 8 - or even fairer, compared to the 625/626 devices mentioned above - just have a tiny wait. It’s nano-seconds in reality, but it’s there for the purist annoyance! The keyboard (gboard) I think is problematic. I’m forever making mistakes using it in a way that I don’t find on the same gboard on various other devices. The space-bar often doesn’t register as a tap, when on other devices I have no such behaviour. It’s so consistently present after much testing that it can’t just be me! I think it’s more bugs.

The bigger issue for me is having to go back to 64GB of storage and MicroSD. As reported elsewhere, this shouldn’t be required in 2018. For goodness sake manufacturers - follow Apple and give 128GB options at least and do away with annoying memory cards which, half the time, corrupt and can’t be used between devices without the crossing of one’s fingers! Anyway, I won’t start on that one again!

The dual camera modules work together to create interesting options, including 2x telephoto and ‘Live Bokeh’. The twin-set comprise 12 MP f/1.75 and 12 MP f/2.6 units, EIS but no OIS and claim Zeiss optics. The Nokia Camera App is very much like the Nokia of old, most recently seen in Microsoft’s Lumia devices. Some swear by it, others swear at it! There’s 4K Video recording but no stabilisation - you have to switch to 1080p to get even EIS. There’s a 16 MP f/2 Selfie (no AF) again with Carl Zeiss optics, 1080p video and now evolved ‘Bothie’ - now you can also shoot P-I-P optionally!

I have found the camera to be fine for my purposes - and as I always say, it will be for 95% of the people using it for 95% of what they’re shooting. As usual as we come down the line of cameras in phones, it struggles in low light, is absolutely fine in good light, but it’s a tool of the masses, not pixel-peepers and would-be pro-photographers.

The Live Bokeh function I’m finding works quite well if you get it right, but there’s too often a warning which comes up telling the shooter that they’re ‘too near’ instead of confirming ‘depth success’ (then the resulting image switching to a ‘normal’ one). The camera app can be slow to launch and switch between modes. Capture times are reasonable and certainly an improvement for some, over the Nokia 8. The Nokia Camera app with Pro Mode certainly gives the user control over all aspects of the shooting experience. It presents with the foundation of a better camera than what’s gone before but is far from finished at the moment and certainly needs work and updates urgently.

Nokia have retained the 3.5mm audio socket and provided the user with a single bottom firing speaker. I’m comparing the speaker here with the Nokia 8’s as it seems the closest and the result is that after much testing with different types of music and files, the 7+ speaker is slightly louder than the 8’s but the 8’s is by the same margin, slightly more qualitative. Both speakers are perfectly fine for general use, but not as a primary music device. Nokia claim that the speaker has a ‘smart amplifier’ on the 7+ so maybe the component is the same as the one used on the 8 but the 7+ gets this boost in volume. There’s really not much in it, they’re both fine for general use and neither sound terribly tinny.

The headphone output sounds more than good enough to me, paired with a half-decent set of headphones (there’s a nasty pair of in-ear-canal claustrophobic ones in the box), but there are reports I read elsewhere that some people are not happy and again, software needs attention to drive hardware more efficiently. The new-look Oreo Equaliser is included, which gives some options, but I do usually end up listening to a ‘flat’ curve or just switching it off. But some attention has been paid to the UI of this software. Apparently there’s supposed to be an FM Radio present. But there isn’t! One reporter said that he had successfully downloaded an FM Radio app and got it to work. I couldn’t.

It’s probably fair to expect that the same microphones have been used on the 8 and 7+ but maybe not! On testing OZO Audio with the 4K Video on both devices with the same conditions, the production on the Nokia 8 seems better to me. The separation seems wider and more directional and sound richer. I really wasn’t expecting that, but maybe they have downgraded the hardware here - or it’s another unfinished piece of software in the Camera app, which, as already discussed, is not the same as the app in the 8.

On the security front, I can’t get the face-unlock to work! I’ve registered and re-registered my face but it just doesn’t work! Having floated this on the Community I am reliably informed that this is yet another area that is being worked on as they know it doesn’t work! The rear mounted fingerprint scanner seems to work OK, though the same applies as above really. It’s not lightning fast like some, but there’s a little wait. Tiny. But it doesn’t feel quite right. But it works well and recognises well. (I didn’t test it for Android Pay - maybe someone else who is keeping the unit can do this and report in the comments - my bank is getting fed up with me doing this testing phones!) I have no reason to think that it won’t work fine (but it would be good if someone could confirm).

The registration process is Pixel quick, not Sony slow! It’s in a much better place on the back, as far as I’m concerned. I’d much rather go with on-screen navigation controls than have a capacitive cluster on a chin, like with the 8. Having said that, there is, as I reported above, a bit of a wasted chin here! And back or front, it’s still oodles better than a dumb, ludicrous, impractical side-placement employed by (a thankfully reducing amount of) others! The swipe-down for Notifications Shade which is supposed to work via the fingerprint scanner doesn’t work. And I can’t find any controls in Settings to change that.

There’s no elements proofing with the 7+ at all. Maybe annoying for some but I guess that’s one of the sacrifices which will be made, depending on price-point. Some things have to go! There’s holes all round it of course, so I guess be careful around water! One of these is a USB-C port and a fast charger is supplied in the box. The phone charges super fast with it, or any other fast charger. It might be a bit unfair and early to assess battery life - I’ll report back in the comments later - but as I write, it was charged to 100% 18 hours ago, since then I’ve had the screen on for 4 hours set to about 50% brightness and I’m showing 65% battery left. The 3,800mAh unit is one of the primary reasons that I was considering this phone and this early appraisal seems pleasing. Raising the figures pro-rata, it might well do 36hrs with 8hrs SoT optimistically, which is even better performance than my Razer Phone. Hurrah. Result!

I have found connectivity to be just fine for cellular and wifi, bluetooth and NFC but some Community members have reported problems. Wifi seems to degrade and slow down for some and it's also slow to connect to 4G. I haven’t found this, to be fair.

I have the Black/Copper version here but you can also get a White/Copper one. There’s also a dual-SIM version in some markets and talk of a 128GB 6GB RAM version coming, but whether that’s true or it ever reaches the UK, who knows. The good news is that there’s an awful lot of nice smartphone here for the mid-range release price of £349 in the UK. We know that will come down to £249 in time, by which time maybe the software and bugs will be sorted and the unit will be fit for purpose/market with the promises assigned to AndroidOne fulfilled.

For me, the question is about whether it’s nice enough to replace the Nokia 8, let’s be fair and say a 64GB version. The chipset is slower here, but for 95% of people that won’t matter and they won’t notice. The battery life looks great and to me, that could be a clincher. The screen is 18:9 here - that will attract people, no doubt, though I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with 16:9. Having said that, this screen really does look the part. It has a Pixel 2 XL feel about it with gentle/subtle curves in the right places heading for the copper, it looks more like AMOLED than LCD in most situations and that might be enough to win over the purchaser. Having said that, the Nokia 8 is much more high-end for specs, which is more likely to attract people in this Community and at the moment, most people buying this 7+ in the UK at least, I think will be returning it.

It feels great in the hand and looks lovely, but it also feels horribly unfinished in almost every department. It feels rushed out, like a Google service might be(!), and attention to detail missing, promises of updates without fruit. I can’t recommend this unit just now, but when it’s fixed up, updated, bug-fixed and market-ready, it will make a fine device - and by then, cheaper!

Your comments, experiences and thoughts welcome in the comments below.

Google created this in 2014 as a means to provide emerging markets with affordable access to devices and the internet. Now it's moved from low-end to mid-range! So we get security updates for three years and OS updates for two years, core Google Apps and services, approved by Google hardware based on performance tests all free from manufacturers' meddling and bloat - outside of agreed additions - like with Nokia, the Camera App. The new Nokia range get it, with promise of back-porting to the line-up, Motorola Moto X4 (USA-only version), HTC U11 Life, Xiaomi Mi A1 and more as we go.

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