There’s a broad display notch up the top of the display, but it’s disguised by a black notification bar, so the only time you’ll notice it’s there is when you have more than three notifications and there isn’t room to display all the icons. This didn’t happen to me all that often, and a dot will appear to let you know when it does.
Inside the phone there’s a true mid-range chip in the form of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 710, giving the device a significant bump in multitasking and general performance over the Nokia 7.1. In fact it’s tough to complain about the performance here at all, even if the spec sheet shows it has quite a bit less power compared to high-end Androids. Navigating and web browsing is as smooth as you can get, and it blazes through most apps and games.
Elsewhere it’s the usual stuff; a quick fingerprint scanner on the back, a 3.5mm headphone jack, NFC, 64GB of storage and room for an SD card (or secondary SIM). There’s also a 3500mAh battery, which is enough to get you past the 24 hour mark if you’re not driving it too hard, and 18W fast charging via USB-C.
In terms of camera, theres’ a 12MP + 13MP pair at the rear, which take great shots with all the trimmings you’d expect (faux bokeh, 4K video, slow motion etc), and the faster processor helps this all tick along nicely. The big 20MP selfie camera is a welcome upgrade from the 7.1 as well, tuned to grab detailed self-portraits even in fairly low light, even if it’s nothing exceptional compared to the biggest and best phones out there.
But what really makes HMD’s Nokia smartphones sing is the Android One certification, which means there’s a clean, uncluttered and up-to-date version of Google’s software installed, with updates and patches guaranteed for a few years.
Android 9 Pie is just as snappy and helpful here as it is on a Pixel 3, and all the default apps here come straight from Google. It’s a very bloat-free operating system, with the only obvious Nokia touches being the camera app (featuring Dual-Sight, for if you want to capture or stream from the front and back of the phone simultaneously) and PureDisplay, which has a set of options to tweak the colour and contrast of the LCD.
Of course there are some sacrifices you make when you buy a flagship-style phone at half the price of most flagships. For starters there is no IP rating, meaning a dunk in the pool or toilet is likely to kill the Nokia 8.1. Less crucially, I also found some niggles with the physical design. The bottom-mounted speaker is easy to cover with a hand when watching videos, and the shallow power button and volume rocker a firmer press than most phones, which can be a workout for the thumb.
All that aside, this is an incredibly solid smartphone that delivers one of the best Android experiences you can get. The software is near identical to that on the Nokia 7.1, so those hunting for the least expensive way to get pure Android in a stylish package will likely still look there. But the 8.1 offers a bigger and nicer screen, much better performance and improved cameras for its extra $200, which is an attractive proposition.