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Nokia 7.1 Hands-On Review: Shockingly Good for $350

The Pixel 2 starts at $649, and the Pixel 3, coming later this month, doesn't figure to get much cheaper. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S9 currently goes for at least $560.

Meet the $349 Nokia 7.1. This 5.8-inch, metal-and-glass handset is touted as the hero of Nokia's budget offerings. Presale begins today (Oct. 4) at Amazon, Best Buy and B&H. The Nokia 7.1 ships Oct. 28.

I got to go hands-on with the Nokia 7.1. And I found that while this phone certainly doesn't have the flagship chops to go toe to toe with the year's hottest handsets, it's still a very respectable — and, dare I say, attractive — affordable Android option.

Looks the part

The Nokia 6.1 I reviewed earlier in the year wasn't necessarily cutting-edge in terms of smartphone design, with its thick bezels and matte-black aluminum build. But the phone looked striking and classy with its copper accents, and I'm pleased to report that Nokia has lavished the same attention to detail on the 7.1's exterior.

Yes, you can't get away from the fact that there's a notch here, dipping down into the phone's display. While I'd rather just have a slim bezel at the top, the truth is that I don't mind the notch much, because the rest of the phone feels and looks so good. There are slabs of 2.5D glass on the front and back (the one shielding the screen is Gorilla Glass 3, while Nokia calls the other simply "toughened glass"). A band of extruded, 6,000-series aluminum serves as the frame, which has been curved just enough to make the device comfortable to use.

The Nokia 7.1 will come in two colors in the U.S.: gloss steel copper and gloss midnight blue. The latter is really more like black; Nokia tells me it shifts in light, but I struggled to notice the effect during my short time with the device. That may be because I spent so much of my time gazing at the steel model.

I'm not sure I've seen a better-looking midrange smartphone all year. The steel is more of a warm silver, and the copper complements it beautifully. The antenna bands are a lighter shade of gray, and the whole design looks like that of a device you'd expect to cost a couple hundred dollars more. This Nokia really is surprisingly pretty.

Unfortunately, though, there are some drawbacks to this beauty. While the 7.1 does offer the convenience of a headphone jack, it's rated for water resistance at only the IP52 level. That means you can't submerge the phone. And even though there's a glass back, wireless charging isn't part of the package. The lack of support for charging pads isn't shocking given the Nokia 7.1’s low price, but it's something to be mindful of.

Solid specs

In the U.S., Nokia will exclusively offer the 7.1 with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Power comes from a Snapdragon 636 processor, a chip Qualcomm says is 40 percent faster than the 630 model used in the Nokia 6.1. There's also a microSD card slot, which allows owners to expand storage by up to another 400GB.

Those aren't bad numbers at all, especially when you consider that the Moto Z3 Play carries all of those same attributes but charges $150 more. Ultimately, we're itching to see how those specs perform compared to the Honor 8X and its new Kirin 710 chipset. While Honor's device hasn't gone on sale in the U.S. yet either, the company tells us the phone will eventually make its way to our shores. If the 8X costs somewhere in the ballpark of the Honor 7X's $199 price, Honor could make life difficult for Nokia and its new handset.

MORE: Best Budget Phones — Unlocked Phones Under $200 and More

Beefier internals aren't all that the Nokia 7.1 has going for it, however. The Finnish phone maker has brought its PureDisplay technology to the new handset's 5.8-inch, 19:9, full-HD+ panel. With PureDisplay comes HDR10 support, as well as an upscaling engine that takes SDR content and renders it in something that much more closely resembles HDR.

To get a sense of what the PureDisplay processing does for SDR content, Nokia allowed me to see it running side by side with a 7.1 that had the upscaling feature turned off. Immediately, I noticed more-robust contrast in the device that had the setting enabled. A short video clip flying over a forest in autumn revealed brighter ambers, greens and yellows in the trees, though I didn't notice the improved visibility in the shadows that HDR typically brings. We'll need to evaluate the results more closely before we can give Nokia's tech a proper verdict.

In terms of cameras, the Nokia 7.1 has two on the back: a 12-megapixel sensor with an f/1.8 lens and a secondary, 5-MP shooter exclusively for depth (no optical zoom here, sadly). You can use these cameras to take bokeh-effect portraits, as well as Nokia's signature "Bothies," which combine feeds from the front and back cameras to make a collage.

Nokia tells us that the 7.1 will launch with Android 8.1 Oreo but will get the Android 9 Pie update before the end of the year. As part of the Android One program, users can expect a clean, Pixel-like software experience devoid of bloatware, with two years of version updates and three years of security patches.

Outlook

The Nokia 7.1 looks like a very handsome midrange phone, and even in the brief time I've had with the device so far, it made an impression on me that few handsets in this price range tend to make. With all of Nokia’s phones, HMD is focused on delivering a premium Android experience at a lower price than Google's Pixel products offer, and so far, it looks like the company is on the right track with the 7.1. Keep your eyes peeled for a full review soon.

Photo Credit: Adam Ismail/Tom's Guide