So after giving the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus a fair trial but finding it wasn’t for me I decided that in lieu of the Pixel 2 coming to New Zealand that the next best thing for me is a Nokia 8 from Spark (they’re the exclusive partner in New Zealand for Nokia). For some background as to why I left my iPhone 6s Plus and decided that Android would be my future home here is the link to the Samsung Galaxy S8 review where in the introduction I laid out the context in which the decision was being made ( link ). In this review I will also talk about how dealt with losing some of the niceties that one gets used to when being in an all Apple ecosystem and how one can address that when retaining a Mac but moving to the Android world.
The reasoning for moving from Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus to a Nokia 8 is actually pretty straightforward – I prefer vanilla Android. At the time of purchase of the S8 the Nokia range were not available in New Zealand so I decided to settle for the consolation prize rather than holding off – typical impatient me but I’m now back with what I am comfortable using. I also find that with a more vanilla Android like what Nokia has provided you tend to find that you won’t suffer from vendor specifics that get introduced as the OEM is customising Android as I’ll explain later in this review.
The hardware design is basic and straightforward – it won’t set the world alight in terms of earth shattering design but it is functional and I think that is probably more important in terms of longevity than wanting to have the latest cutting edge trend. The device feels in the hand is light and yet it feels substantial in terms of quality like what one expects from a Nokia branded phones. It is something that I really liked about the Lumia 920 was the fact that even for a plastic phone it felt solid with the only let down being the operating system running on an otherwise fine piece of hardware. Regarding whether the Nokia 8 is slippery or not – it is a bit of a non-issue for me as I always have a cover on my phones (wallet style with my EFTPOS/credit cards in there) but holding it in the store and carrying it around inside I found it ok – it isn’t ‘grippy’ by any stretch of the imagination but isn’t slippery either.
When it comes to the ports that are available, Nokia make use of the USB-C 3.1 connector and unlike other handset vendors they have kept with the much desired 3.5mm headphone jack. Side note regarding the removal of the headjack, for me the issue with the iPhone was the fact that it made people dependent on a proprietary connector (lightning) where Apple themselves become the gatekeepers and toll collectors as to whether third parties can make accessories for the phone such as earphones. Compare that scenario in the Android world where the move to standardise on USB-C meaning any Tom, Dick or Harry can create USB-C accessories without the overhead of dealing with a single vendor trying to take their cut thus the possibilities of accessories at various price points is possible when embracing the USB-C connector and sticking with open standards (which is the reason i think Apple might not have gotten as much flack had they decided to fully standardise on USB-C for all iOS devices and got rid of the 3.5mm jack at the same time – it would have marked an end of proprietary connectors and a new era of open innovation).
The one thing that attracted me to moving over to Nokia was the vanilla Android experience – the goodness of Android without the bloat and needless tweaking (what I consider needless) of Android resulting in long delays in security updates coming out or upgrades. The Pixel 2 and Nexus range also provided that but unfortunately Google hasn’t any interest in bringing the Pixel 2 to New Zealand so for those of us who recoil at the horror that is Samsung’s handy work, the option that is available is the Nokia line up. Personally I would sooner have vanilla android that might not be as feature rich as the competitors and instead the money that would have otherwise been spent on those tweaks to be put into ensuring updates and upgrades are delivered in a timely manner.
When it comes to updating after I set up the phone I was disappointed that when I ran the system update it claimed that it was already up to date even though the ‘Android security patch level’ was still dated July 2017. I had some to and fro from Nokia and Spark but neither of them were able to help me with Nokia claiming that “well, it must be all up to date then” (I pointed out that simply isn’t the case given how updates have been released globally for said phone) and the person from Spark was entirely clueless on what is going on. In the end I fiddled around with ‘Opera VPN’ and set it to the United States (after removing my SIM card and doing a complete factory reset with the only network connection being to my wifi router) and it found those updates that Nokia claimed didn’t exist (my phone is all up to date – ‘Android security patch level October 2017’). Long story short – I’ve made contact with Spark (since they’re the retailer and the people who have been working with Nokia to bring it into New Zealand thus they’re the only ones who can do something about it) because it is clear that the server that is serving up the updates is checking the IP address of where in the world one is located and it is refusing to serve up updates however outside of New Zealand those updates are being served up like clock work.
Another peculiarity I found with Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus was that I was unable to get it working with Handsfree 2 from Tunabelly Software yet I never had an issue using it with HTC or Nexus devices in the past which led me to wonder whether Samsung had done something to break compatibility as they tweaked around with Android. Funny enough one of the first things I did was setting up Handsfree 2 on my computer again and everything worked perfectly with the Nokia 8 – no noise and garbel coming (instead of hearing the actual call) through when making a phone call which re-enforces my hypothesis that Samsung has buggered something up in Android.
When it comes to synchronisation with the Nokia 8 there are limited options unfortunately since Apple doesn’t support MTP natively (makes sense since they don’t make any products that use the MTP standard) so one has to resort to ‘Android File Transfer’ which unfortunately is older than god himself and Google hasn’t been bothered to update it in the years they’ve been making it available. The net result of that neglect has been the libmtp that it is dependent on is so bug riddled that you’ll see random errors come up with no clue as to what is actually causing them – files not copying for no reason giving other than the application itself giving up. Btw, Samsung is no better with their Samsung Switch software which bundles the same out of date Android transfer application in with their own application thus getting the joy of it having it die half way through a transfer of several thousand songs. If you think that is bad – you then get the joy of manually managing your music by dragging and dropping – what a nightmare.
So rather than dealing with that nightmare I bought a copy of SyncMate 7 and because Nokia didn’t bugger around with the internals of Android we end up getting a functional MTP implementation on the Android side (try using Samsung Galaxy S8 with non-Samsung MTP synchronisation clients and brace yourself for the frustration that’ll arise in you as you try to get it working) thus one can setup SyncMate 7 without having to go into developer mode and enable debugging on the USB port. When setting up SyncMate you click on the plus symbol, click on MTP, then select all the options. To ensure that your music your music comes up so that you can synchronise as well as keep track on what is on the phone vs. on the computer remember to tick the following:
Which will export an XML based file so then SyncMate 7 picks it up, imports it and it is a matter of doing what you used to do in iTunes – ticking off the music you want on your phone then clicking sync. One thing you’ll notice is that when you click on the artist’s name rather than the album that the albums in the box above it are automatically chosen – something iTunes didn’t do which was strange. For those wondering – no errors occurred because the libmtp version that SyncMate uses is 1.1.13 which is around 5 years newer than what is included in Android File Transfer/Samsung Switch is – in other words, a lot of the bugs in the older version had been fixed.
As noted before, it is important to keep in mind that this review is written from the perspective of a Mac user so when you consider buying a Nokia 8 vs the well trodden path of buying an iPhone. With that in mind it is important to take into account two things you’ll also need to purchase if you want to make the experience as seamless as possible: SyncMate (with lifetime upgrades) and Handsfree 2 which adds another NZ$100 to the cost of the phone (the phone being NZ$999). Handsfree 2 will give you the same experience you had before when you could answer calls and send text messages from your desktop (although that tends to be a secondary feature in my life since most people I know have standardised on WhatsApp) like you could with the iPhone. The second piece of software, SyncMate 7, which is a replacement for the synchronisation of iTunes which is reliable (when compared to the Android File Transfer that I tried using), able to import ones iTunes library and keep track of what is on the phone vs. what is on the computer as to keep everything in check.
One thing to keep in mind that with a vanilla Android like what Nokia provides it is a double edged sword – yes it is clean, simply and lacking in bloat but the sort of sophisticated features such as an audio equalizer, a sophisticated camera application etc. but if you’re someone like me who doesn’t want all that stuff ten the Nokia 8 is a great replacement for an iPhone if you’re finding that the latest release is little eye watering in the price department or wanting to get an experience close to it but without the price tag. Would I recommend it? yes, I would without a doubt – if you want a smartphone that allows you to do what you want without the software getting in the way then the Nokia 8 is a great option.
After all that glowing praise you’d think that I was going to keep it but that being said I have returned the phone to Spark because Nokia wasn’t allowing for updates to be delivered to phones located in New Zealand. Yes, I could pull out my SIM card, completely clear the phone, install OperaVPN to do updates but could you imagine doing that every single time I wanted to update? I talked to Nokia with their online chat service and I kept being ignored or kept getting the same song/dance about ‘updates being rolled out’ but they never actually addressed the fact that, yes they roll out, but they didn’t address why I didn’t receive the September or August updates which should be instantaneous given that we’re well past those months and the rollout should have been completed by the end of that month. I went to the Spark store in Queensgate, talked to the store manager and showed him the messages from Nokia plus the messages from Spark and he gave me a refund along with apologising regarding the whole experience. In the end I got a great impression of Spark but got a horrible impression of Nokia – if you’re going to enter into the phone market then you’ve gotta get it done right and not the situation of half baked buck passing support structures that avoid addressing problems when reported.