(Pocket-lint) - When Nokia announced its return to smartphones, there was an understandable excitement about the 2017 version of the Nokia 3310, which saw the once classic phone dominate the headlines once again.
We remarked at the time that this might be a bad thing, diverting attention to a phone that was a play to nostalgia, with the big omission being a flagship phone. Six months on and Nokia going top-end is still only the stuff of rumours.
Instead, Nokia appears to be going for the affordable end of the market, with the Nokia 3, as reviewed here, being the cheapest of the bunch. There's nothing wrong with these sorts of mass-market ambitions, but the Nokia 3 isn't a great starting point.
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Nokia 3 review: Design
- Metal core meets quality polycarbonate back
- 143.4 x 71.4 x 8.48mm; 141g
Nokia has very much focused the start of its comeback around design. For a device like the Nokia 3 that makes perfect sense, as design is its strong point.
This is a handset that has a quality feel and build, with good looks thrown in for good measure. The machined metal core of the phone gives a nice solid feel to things, while the 2.5D glass edges on the screen and antenna bands in the frame ape the looks of phones that are a lot more expensive.
Capacitive navigation buttons run across the bottom of the display. Unusually, however, these aren't backlit – so you just have to trust they are there, as on the black handset we reviewed these symbols are invisible most of the time.
The subtle Nokia lettering of the rear is a welcome design point, and we're sure that the brand still carries more weight in some parts of the world than many of the less familiar brands which are now emerging in the budget space.
However, good looks can be a little deceptive and one of the big changes in recent times has been the widespread increase in device quality at lower price points. The days of horribly plastic phones with resistive touchscreens is gone and Nokia is by no means alone in the affordable-but-nice-looking basket.
Nokia 3 review: Hardware and display
- 5-inch 1280 x 720 pixel display (294ppi)
- MediaTek 6737, 2GB RAM
- 16GB storage, microSD card slot
With a 5-inch display there's plenty of space to play on the Nokia 3. It gets the HD tag for adequate resolution, and while there are devices pushing more pixels at this size, in daily use that doesn't make a huge difference to the user experience.
While the resolution is fine, the colouration of display itself is weak. Open the Play Store as you necessarily do when setting up a phone and you'll notice that the greens aren't as green as they should be and things cascade from there. With the colours on the display being poor, you'll never really know what your photos look like, what your friend's photos look like or what that video you're watching is supposed to look like.
We'll help you out here: the photos from the camera look a lot better than this phone will display them. It's sort of the reverse arrangement to many flagship phones that will make your photos look better. The Nokia 3 will make everything look worse.
Powering the Nokia 3 is a MediaTek 6737 chipset with 2GB RAM. It's a budget choice for a low-cost phone and that's understandable, but it does have an impact on the how the phone runs. There's very little snap or immediacy to actions so the day-to-day use is a little jilted.
For example: double-pressing the power button can open the camera - it's a potentially great shortcut - but it's so slow that we found ourselves getting stuck in a loop, locking the phone again because we thought it hadn't worked the first time, or the third time, or the fifth time. It does work, it just takes six seconds or so as the phone vibrates, gives you a white display, gives you a black display and then finally loads of camera app.
The Nokia 3 isn't for the power user. For those who want to message and use light apps it's a device that doesn't present too much of a problem.
There are some across-the-board weaknesses though: we found that location was a little iffy, as once we'd got Pokemon Go loaded up, its GPS positioning would regularly drift off; the same applied to Google Maps, suggesting that it didn't really know where we were. We also found the Wi-Fi to be a little weak, often disconnecting and finding problems that other devices rarely do.
On a more positive note there is 16GB of storage as standard, with support for microSD so you can easily expand this to let you store more music and content.
Overall, while the spec sheet doesn't raise too many alarm bells at first glance, having lived with the Nokia 3 for over a week, we can't say it's a great experience on the hardware front. Firstly because of the weak display, secondly because of the sluggish performance.
Nokia 3 review: Battery life
- Slow charging via Micro-USB
- 2630mAh battery
It's often the position that low-tier devices perform well because the hardware is more restrained. Pushing fewer pixels and not having a powerful GPU burning through the battery can make these devices perform fairly well.
However, the Nokia 3's longevity per charge is pretty average, given its moderate 2630mAh battery capacity. Fire up those mapping apps, take a few calls and reply to your emails on the move and you'll find you're burning through the battery pretty quickly.
There's also no fast charging that we could find, so it takes what feels like age before the battery is topped up again. If you're a nightly charger and infrequent user that's not a problem, but for those who need to speedy top-up before heading out in the evening, you won't find it here.
The battery performance should be better and charging should be faster. Without it, the Nokia 3 feel a little dated.
Nokia 3 review: Software
- Android 7 Nougat
- Limited bloatware
One of Nokia's big sells at the announcement of its new devices was that they would be pure Android. That's a welcome move: the Nokia 3 is unsullied and free from the unnecessary tinkering that blights so many Android phones. There's are a couple of changes on the software front, including a bespoke camera app, and a support app, but that's about all.
Even the launcher is very much a Google-y effort, giving your apps at a swipe up and making recommendations across the top row based on your usage (although you can disable this). Otherwise, of course, you're left to install whatever you like from Google Play.
Despite the use of stock Android, however, the Nokia 3 still doesn't run very smoothly.
Nokia 3 review: Cameras
- 8-megapixel rear camera, 8-megapixel front camera
- Custom camera app
As we said, the only main area that Nokia has made changes is in the camera app. This gives you a Nokia experience rather than the standard Android one. Grabbing photos, switching cameras and taking video is all fairly simple using the controls in the app.
There are additional settings for things like a spirit level and compass, as well the option for manual controls too. We suspect most will stick to the automatic mode.
There's an HDR (high dynamic range) mode, which isn't an automatically applied feature - it has to be on or off, as the phone has to be kept still while it combines multiple exposures. It's noticeably slower with this mode active, too.
There is also burst capture which is a little surprising given the slowness elsewhere in the phone, but this seems to work fine.
However, the camera experience is blighted by a few elements. There's the poor display, which makes it difficult to determine whether you've taken a good photo or not. The interface interactions can be a little slow. And auto-focus is hardly snappy either.
But above all, we found the photos taken with a Nokia 3 to be a little dull and lifeless. There's little vibrancy to colour and image noise appears quickly when shooting indoors or whenever the light isn't perfect.
This camera only really produces good photos when the conditions are perfect and unlike a lot of cameras these days, the slow HDR experience means that it takes more effort to rescue those in conditions that are a little dull.
The Nokia 3 feels like the wrong first step for a new Nokia. We accept that there's a great demand for phones that are affordable, but with the likes of Motorola offering some great devices around this price or a fraction higher, it's hard to see how the Nokia 3 competitively fits into the equation.
That's a shame, because we think that smartphone fans wanted something worthy of the Nokia name. As it is, the Nokia 3 is a forgettable device and can only really be recommended for someone who is an infrequent smartphone user, with low expectations when it comes to performance.
If you were expecting a new budget darling, then you'll be disappointed with the Nokia 3.
Alternatives to consider...
Motorola has ruled the budget roost in recent years, thanks largely to the Moto G family. This latest model of phone has been creeping up in price, but with a metal body and a fingerprint scanner, you're actually getting a lot for your £169. Yes, it's £50 more than the Nokia 3, but you get a much better experience, a smartphone you'll be happy you bought.