Sunday, 9 June 2019

Nokia 9 PureView

Nokia phones seem to draw me in more than almost any these days. The attraction is of course, nostalgia, but also the clean version of Android, almost always AndroidOne software now, but each device having a certain class or USP of its own. This is why whenever a new device rolls out of HMD, I find myself disproportionately enthused!

The Nokia 9 PureView was not immediately on my radar, however, as the USP here was photography and I (still) think that hoping to get the flexibility and quality of even a £100 compact camera out of a 'flat' phone is too tall of an order. The compromise, up to now, has not been worth enthusiasm. However, with software development treading where optics can't - and in some cases folding imagery via mirrors and tunnels - maybe there's light at the end of it! Nokia/HMD are pushing boundaries and the 9 PureView is certainly worth a look, particularly as it's been a Limited Edition release and who knows when it might no longer be available - or indeed what existing units in mint condition might become worth! It's time to take the plunge and buy a phone to keep - for a change!

Comparison
It's tempting to compare the 9 with the 8 Sirocco in terms of bare-bones as it shares the same 6GB RAM, 128GB (non-expandable) storage, P-OLED screen, QHD(+) resolution, GG5, the exact same Always on Display, Android One software, Zeiss optics, single loudspeaker, no 3.5mm audio-out socket but 24-bit audio and OZO recording in 4K Video, Qi charging of almost the same size battery - in fact one of few differences is the Snapdragon chipset which the 9 updates to 845 from 835. I get the impression that they're from the same stable! But there are also differences of course, not least of which is the physical size.

Long, not Dumpy
The Nokia 9 is physically very different to the 8S as it has been made with the now becoming-standard 'long' screen rather than the 8S's 16:9 'dumpy' one - and flat! Pros and cons for both of course, but the width of both is about the same. This clearly means that for the same width, the 9, as I said, is taller. The significance of this for me is that the typing experience on the on-screen keyboard is no worse! The wide 16:9 8S screen makes typing a pleasure, and the 9 retains that. Important stuff! Compared to some other devices I have to hand then, it's a tad smaller in height and width than the Pixel 2XL but certainly less fat, almost exactly the same in all directions as my Moto Z3 Play - so much so that I wonder if my Mods might fit(!) - obviously smaller all-round than the Razer Phone 2 and very similarly-sized to the Nokia 8 (non-Sirocco).

Around and About
The front is a flat piece of glass with substantial sized bezels, chin and forehead. Hurrah! At the top there's a range of sensors, ear-piece speaker and Nokia logo - and at the bottom, nothing! The design language is sympathetic to many recent Nokia devices, including the 6 and 7 Plus, with that chamfered edge of metal around the edge front and back, visually moulding the glass to the 6000-series aluminium circumference. On the right edge are the volume rocker and power buttons, similarly fashioned, solid and clicky. On the bottom is the USB-C data/power port and single mono speaker, on the left there's nothing and on the top, a SIM Card tray with pokey-hole eject. You can get a Dual-SIM model, but this one is single. On the back, which is another sheet of GG5, is another Nokia logo, androidone logo and the array of lenses, which we'll come to, potentially making this a very special phone. The back is a fingerprint magnet, very slippery and reflective. There's one colour available and it's this Midnight Blue. It's attractive in a conservative kind of way. But yes - a TPU is an absolute must (and there ain't one in the box). You will drop it - and it will break!

Hoo-Har
When this phone first hit the shelves in February/March this year, there was much hoo-har about the quality of the in-screen optical fingerprint reader. People were reporting that it was near impossible to register prints and even when they did, it wouldn't recognise them - and another whole host of problems. I didn't see a unit which behaved this way - behind the cutting edge as I am - so can only report on what I find now. The April 2019 Google Security Update was apparently bundled with a whole host of improvements, not only to the camera but also the fingerprint scanner. When I fired up this device, the first thing it did before letting me in to see anything, was to apply that update. So that's where I'm coming from.

Fingerprint Scanner
The registration process is slow and fussy. When the screen is at rest and off, you're not only presented with the AoD but also a target for your fingerprint. Presumably in time, this optical system will disappear and everyone will adopt the much better, faster and more secure ultrasonic version. In the meantime, and having tested this over a number of days, I've turned it off! It's horribly unreliable with time and time again failure to recognise fingerprints. I've tried removing and re-registering to no avail. There are a couple things that those with more patience than I can try. Firstly, it seems to work better when fingers are not dry. So 'moist with sweat' fingers have a much higher success rate. (I'm sure somebody will prove that this is not physically possible, but it seems very much like that in my tests.) Secondly, keeping fingerprints upright, bottom to top, works much better both on registration and in use and lastly, it always works better straight after rebooting the device (which might point to processor/RAM). If you try to use it side-on, it struggles to register and won't often recognise. Which is a shame because the natural position for using it is thumb coming in at 45 degrees. It's not right and is much worse than any other system I've tried. They need to fix this somehow - and they can, as it's software.

Mugshot
The route in, is assisted, however by face recognition. A quick tap on the screen and the face recognition works for me, with full face beard, perfectly every time. From all angles and most lighting. Some have said the payoff here has been security but it's not possible to use this for purchase security, which I reckon is a good thing. The point is, that if you don't want to struggle with a fingerprint scanner that's rubbish (at this point), you have another good option. Or if you're really paranoid, turn it all off and use a password/code/pattern in the traditional way! It's a real shame that this feature has been brought to phones too early for its own good - a capacitive scanner on the back - or better still, on that empty chin, would have been a much better option.

Always On
As I said earlier, the AoD is the exact same version as the Sirocco's and gives four choices for clock and display content, settings to time-out (or never), always-on when on charge (so a handy night-light-clock) and it's equally bright, big and white on this AMOLED screen. Take note, Google and adopt for Pixel! [I note that in Android Q Beta 4 changes are being made to the size/clarity of the AoD.] It's so nice to have a true AoD though this one doesn't seem to wake up very well after switching off having been in a pocket. I'm continuing to test that but at the moment, it seems that every time I get it out of my pocket, I have to press the power button to wake it up.

Bright and Sharp
Heading back to the screen, it's a bright and sharp and gorgeous 1440 x 2880 (538ppi) in 18:9 ratio. It's all-but 6" and is a P-OLED protected by GG5, like the N8. Watching video on the device is a real treat as the brightness and colours pop out. Wind up the brightness manually and it is incredibly bright. Delightful.

Clean Sweep
The phone arrived with Android 9 (Pie) in place and quickly updated to that aforementioned April Security with the improvements that I wasn't able to appreciate on a before and after. The AndroidOne software ensures a near-Vanilla clean software experience with additional useful features like the Nokia AoD, Camera, Lightroom (optional at startup), My Phone (Nokia's Support and Maintenance package) and that's it. Hurrah! I don't think we need to go over all the aspects of Android Pie again, but it's all here and works very nicely. I've not even installed Nova Prime!

Flight OTG
As I said before, under the bonnet there's a Snapdragon 845 chipset, which no doubt everyone will say is 'very last year' but seems to do the job well. There are some things related to camera which could be done faster, which I'll come to, but I really don't think that a SD855 would fix that, and 6GB RAM which keeps everything around the UI flying nice and quickly. The 128GB storage could be more (or a microSD Card slot could have been added) but I would have been delighted if it had been doubled to 256GB. For those pushing the camera to limits, that will certainly be a restrictor and necessitate the use of flash SSD plugged in OTG. Thankfully that OTG seems to work well and I've been able to read/write media to cards. The device is not a heavy one at 172g but it is IP6/7 rated for dust and water.

Lend me your Ear
We now come to my favourite topic, sound output - the single mono speaker and lack of 3.5mm audio-out socket. The speaker is bottom-firing and if left unobstructed produces a decent enough sound. It's louder and better quality than the Sirocco's with a tad more bass and certainly more volume. Perfectly good for the vast majority of people - and equaliser available in software (not system-wide) of the user's choice. I've been using Equaliser + Pro again and it enables the speaker to pack a decent punch after tweaking. The lack of an earphone jack will impact different people in different ways of course, those who want to use legacy gear will weep, whilst the vast majority won't give a stuff and get on with the Bluetooth 5 and aptX. In the box there's a revolting looking intrusive ear-canal attacking pair of earphones(!) with in-line control (which works with both media and Google Assistant) but they work OK and sound fine with the 24-bit thing once the supplied USB-C to 3.5mm adapter from the box is employed! What's notable however, is that when I plug in my decent reference AKG headphones, I can hardly hear anything! Tried again with the dongle which came with the Sirocco - same result. Tried with the Razer Phone 2's super-power DAC dongle and suddenly it all came to life! Volume and power and rich sound. The dongles supplied in the box of these devices are clearly doing nothing and a DAC-enabled solution is needed to get any decent volume and quality. But then, to be fair, this is not a music-centric phone!

USP Hit or Miss?
No, it's a photography-centric phone of course and this is where I turn to the camera(s). The basics of what's being done here is that an array of 5 cameras are working together to supposedly create super-snaps! 5 x 12MP f1.8 Zeiss Optics units, two of which have RGB sensors and the other two, mono. There's nothing special about these cameras, lenses, sensors - it's in the combination, ToF and software that the magic is supposed to happen. (Time-of-flight is supposed to resolve distance between the camera and the subject for each point of the image, by measuring the round trip time of an artificial light signal provided by a laser or a LED. Wiki.) The array of lenses on the back are distinctive and interesting-looking, already having attracted comment and questions!

RAW Depth
Each camera takes a separate image when the shutter is fired, the images are then combined and processed. JPEG is the standard but RAW is available for those who want to go nuts on detail and post-processing - and produces DNG files. The Adobe Lightroom software will allow on-device tweaking of lots of parameters of the taken shot, though have to then be converted back to JPEG to be shared anywhere sensible via the phone. There's a Depth Map setting which can be turned on and off - if on, 1200 levels of depth are recording with every shot. Processing takes about 5-10 seconds after each one, then the resulting image can be opened in Google Photos (on the phone) and the point of focus and level of 'blur' can be adjusted and 'new' photo saved.

Eating Storage
This works excellently (and is great fun) but we understood that it is also supposed to work in Google Photos Editor in Chrome and it doesn't seem to do so - that final Depth Slider is missing from the array of options. Perhaps this will be fixed by Google/HMD. One thing to be aware of is that the phone creates an image roughly 5x the size if Depth Map is on, which might be an issue for those with auto-upload over cellular connection operative. I have enjoyed playing with and impressed by the results of the 10-second 'bulb' setting for low-light photos, but of course you do need to somehow keep the phone still for the duration. I've also been impressed with one thing I never assess during reviews these days - the LED flash, which though no Xenon, works much, much more effectively than most phones I've tried recently - with half-decent power/coverage and balanced light/colours.

Eating Data
Shooting in RAW of course records all sensor's data in the images which provides for much more flexibility in Lightroom and other image-manipulation solutions over the good-enough-for-most compressed-to-save-space JPEG equivalent. This is all real 'pro' stuff (or at least 'nerd') for those who really think they have a use for photos beyond what 98% of people do! But fine, it's a hobby! I see the difference when testing it here and zooming in - though again, users should be aware of the much bigger c.30MB file sizes - not only for sharing around and backing up, but also the hit on the 128GB on the phone - and no expanded memory. And don't forget processing time - don't be in a hurry!

Playtime!
There's loads to play with for someone interested in pushing the boundaries of photos from phones and playing with images as a hobby or profession (if they are stuck somewhere without their proper gear, I guess), though we do await software improvements and tweaks. Other phone hardware still seems to do a better job, despite this phone's supposed 'expertise'. The inclusion of a free (light) version of Lightroom is helpful for playing around, even if some of the higher-end features will cost the user not a one-off payment, but £4.39 per month to use! Steps back. Depends how keen the user is to play about with images on-the-go, I guess.

It's OZO Cool
Apart from the above, the camera interface is very similar to the Sirocco's with Nokia's style and design - with a pretty much similar feature-set. Time lapse, slow-mo, Pro, Mono, Panorama, Square - the usual stuff. There's a button which zooms you in to 1x, 2x and 5x but it's not optical - and there's no OIS - the software and smart combination of lenses and sensors is supposed to negate the need, I think! But it doesn't help for video - which only uses one camera and electronic stabilisation (which is kind of better than nothing)! Incidentally, the OZO sound recording is present, like with other Nokia phones, and works superbly well when shooting 4K video. Mind that storage though! There's a 20MP Selfie camera on the front with which you can use the Bokeh Mode, which does a decent enough job, but there's obviously no Depth Map thing going on, with the 5 cameras facing the other way!

Shaking Power
One thing to note is that the vibration motor in the phone is one of the strongest I've used for years! It makes a right old racket if left on a table, almost negating the need for ringtones! The AoD, like with the Sirocco, doesn't seem to hit the battery too hard and has a little more capacity at 3320mAh. In my tests over a week or so I'm doing well with it - no trouble at all getting through a day - in fact most times, it can be eek'd-out to a day and a half or so - as always, depending on what you're doing with it! Start mashing RAW photos on a day out and uploading 4K video, watching films and blasting music and it'll be a different story, as with any phone. Power management is helped here by the QC3 brick in the box and Qi Wireless charging for sipping as you go.

Hovering Around, Waiting Development
Some phones seem to really struggle with Android Pay terminals, in my experience - some even needing their case taking off to work at all - but this works amazingly well. Two, three, four inches hovering over the receptor and it picks up and works. If you want one of these units (and trust that Nokia will continue to develop the potential going forward) you'd better not hang about as it was a limited release. Who knows when it might just not be available (and we'll be onto the next thing)! The phone, as I said, is AndroidOne, so there is some commitment in that regard at least for 2 OS Updates and 'regular' security Updates (though this is feeling a little forgotten already, still on April).

Further Viewing and Reading
Those who want to pull the results apart and deeply analyse the performance of the output of images from this phone, which should be its USP, should take a look at Steve Litchfield's (very, overall fair at the time but negative) Phones Show 361 and see that improvements all round are needed by Nokia for people looking under the surface (though the 100% fingerprint scanner failure rate then is really not true now - it's up to about 50%!). For the rest, who want to tinker with tech and see what's going on, they might want to consider even buying! It's not cheap, but it's also not expensive! Half way between budget and flagship at around £500 (or I see $400 in the USA). I was hoping that the price would drop, but no - not in the UK, even to the USA level. I shall be very interested to see where Nokia take this and how much development comes along, so I'm happy to keep it in stock.

Resuscitate the Duck!
There's lots of negative commentary out there about this phone, but I have hope for the underdog. People like to jump on a project that appears to be a dead duck, but I really like the phone - for more reasons than its USP. Sucker for Nokia? Yes, this is most likely the case, I admit! If this were a phone made by any other company with the development yet to come and these gaps in performance, I'd have laughed at it, not given it a second look, least of all considered buying it!

6 comments:

  1. Ted, sorry to nit pick again about the headphone thing, but just to note that when you write "Tried with the Razer Phone 2's super-power DAC dongle and suddenly it all came to life! Volume and power and rich sound." - all you're really doing it reviewing the Razer 2 DAC dongle - you'd get identical results plugging the dongle into the cheapest of cheap Type C handsets. 8-)

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  2. Ah - it seems I can't edit comments here. Oh well. The previous one from me was a note to readers rather than to you, Ted, I think you knew what you meant in the audio test!

    It's a great review overall though, very fair.

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    1. Sure, Steve. I knew that. It was more a comment about the non-supply of decent components in the box, for a quid or two, no doubt - but to be fair, it's not a music phone. Cheers.

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    2. A decent DAC-in-a-dongle is £10+ at least, mind you - maybe the Nokia is driving analog audio through a passive adapter and just hasn't got the oomph to drive your reference headphones?

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  3. Thanks for the excellent article Ted! I bought mine almost on a whim during the pre-order period and lent it to Steve for his review. I will admit to having had great expectations for it and feeling more than a bit underwhelmed when I finally started experimenting with it.
    That said, I recently had the updates from Nokia and they have made a significant difference. The fingerprint scanner has improved enormously to the point where it is now usable and 'lets me in' 50-60% of the time, sometimes more - Yaaay!
    Photo processing aside, the phone is also blisteringly fast compared to my 'old faithful' OnePlus 3 which is now quite 'tired' despite a reset and the recent update to Android 9.
    Anyway, your review here convinced me to bite the bullet and try using my 9 as my main phone, and so far it's doing well!
    The only thing I'm really, really missing so far? The alert/notification slide switch from my Oneplus 3 - it's a small thing but it's just so useful!
    Regards & thanks, LW

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    1. Thanks Lawrence. I think it's worth sticking with as long as one is not like Steve and just get annoyed because the camera is not as perfect as previous PureView models. Yes, that update does seem to have made a difference, you're right. I get over 50% now. I think they'll fix it eventually. And yes, it is blisteringly fast! No doubt - it's a flagship. There's loads to love, for the patient. BTW, the June Security arrived this week, so check if you haven't. Nothing exciting, but encouraging.

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