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Nokia 3 review: A beauty that’s only skin-deep

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The budget smartphone category has been in the doldrums this year. With prices rising for gadgets across the board (thanks, Brexit), manufacturers have found it tough to continue to improve their products while keeping prices low. The Motorola Moto G5 was actually worse than the Moto G4, and there hasn’t been a great deal of activity in the £100 to £200 price bracket since to liven things up.

It’s against this background that the Nokia 3 arrives, and the upshot is that the competition isn’t as tough as it might have been. It’s somewhat alarming to think that, today, the Nokia’s strongest competition comes from the two-year-old Moto G4.

Still, we should be thankful for small mercies. The Nokia 3 heralds the return of the Finnish technology firm as a smartphone brand after an absence of almost three years, and it arrives this time with much humbler, more achievable ambitions.

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The last Nokia-branded smartphone I reviewed was the Nokia Lumia 830, a 5in handset running Windows Phone 8 and costing almost £300, which was marketed as a premium alternative to handsets such as the Sony Xperia Z3.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the Nokia 3 has an entirely different set of rivals in its sights: at a price of £130 it’s up against phones such as the Motorola Moto G4, the Moto G5 and the Samsung Galaxy J5 – and it’s cheaper than all of them.

Nokia 3 review: Design and key features

What you get for your money is a very nicely designed budget smartphone and one that, rather neatly, gives a nod towards Nokia smartphones of times gone by. Just like the Lumia 830, this phone has a metal frame and a coloured polycarbonate rear panel, with the Nokia logo elegantly carved inline with the camera module in the centre of the rear of the phone.

It’s 7.5mm slim and weighs only 140g, and its 5in display means it’s more pocketable than the 5.5in monsters that have become prevalent among top-end handsets. Add a microSD slot for expanding the 16GB of internal storage and a 3.5mm headphone jack for extra practicality and you have a decent all-round package. The inclusion of Gorilla Glass on the front means the touchscreen feels silky under your thumb and not sticky.

This being a budget smartphone, it doesn’t have USB Type-C, so there are no fast-charging capabilities. There’s also no waterproofing and no fingerprint reader. However, Android purists will be happy to discover that the Nokia 3 runs stock Android 7 Nougat, with no extras and no preinstalled Nokia apps. That’s what I like to see.

Nokia 3 review: Display

The quality of the IPS screen is a little bit up and down, though. The first thing you should be aware of is that it’s only 720p, so it doesn’t look as crisp as, say, the 1080p screen on the Moto G5 or even the larger, 5in OnePlus 5. Despite the slight “grain”, though, it’s perfectly serviceable and readable in bright conditions as well.

That’s partly due to its brightness – it reaches a respectable maximum of 473cd/m2 – but also because it’s fully laminated, with no air gaps between the glass and LCD layers, and has a polarising layer to cut glare. The result is a screen that’s as readable in bright conditions as many more expensive phones and its contrast ratio of 1,119:1 help lend images good impact as well

It’s a shame, then, that colour performance is so poor. To the eye, the colours on screen look weirdly off, and measuring with a colorimeter confirms this, with an average Delta E measurement of 4.47 (Delta E is the number that tells you how far onscreen colours are away from the perfect hue; anything approaching or below 1 is brilliant, and above three is bad). Reds, in particular, look terribly muddy and dull but, in reality, no area of the colour spectrum escapes, and the result is that everything looks, well, odd.

Nokia 3 review: Performance and battery life

Under the hood, the Nokia 3 is more city car than motorway cruiser. It’s powered by a quad-core MediaTek MT6737 chip running at a clock speed of 1.4GHz, backed up by 2GB of RAM. While there’s nothing in particular about the headline specifications that catches the eye, performance is well below par in this price bracket.

Above you can see the Nokia 3 compared directly with its main rivals, and it’s slower than all of them. That’s something you can feel while using the phone, too. While it’s responsive enough with basic tasks such as scrolling through websites and menus, and flicking from homescreen to homescreen, it becomes sluggish when panning around Google Maps. Playing action-heavy games such as Sky Force Reloaded can cause slowdown, too, and it’s slow to launch apps and reboot.

Battery life isn’t a disaster but, once again, the Nokia 3 falls behind its rivals, lasting 10hrs 40mins in our video-playback test. This means you’ll struggle to get through a day with moderate use. Move up to a Moto G4, Galaxy J5 or preferably the Lenovo P2 and you’ll get a longer-lasting phone.

Nokia 3 review: Camera

The camera is usually where budget phones suffer the most, and the Nokia 3 is no different. It certainly doesn’t help that it starts with a collection of specifications that look they came from a two-year-old handset.

At the rear you’re getting an 8-megapixel, f/2.0 camera with very few mod cons: no phase detect or laser autofocus, no optical image stabilisation, no dual camera like the Honor 6X. It can shoot video, but only at 720p. What is this, 2012? The front camera is another 8-megapixel affair with no flash.

Photographs produced with the Nokia’s camera are, to say the least, uninspiring. In low light, images and video are bland and soft in focus, while in good light things don’t get much better with the camera frequently overexposing and burning out the highlights.

The two-year-old Moto G4 has a better camera than this and the Lenovo P2, although a touch more expensive, produces far crisper and more vibrant stills.

Nokia 3 review: Verdict

I really, really, really wanted to like the Nokia 3. I’ve always loved the way the company designs its smartphones, and the look and feel of this model is classic Nokia. I like the fact that it runs pure Android and that it has 16GB of storage. It’s also good that you can expand that via micro-USB. It’s an attractive, practical handset and one that’s cheaper than most of its rivals, too.

In every other respect, however, the Nokia 3 lags behind. Performance is below par. Battery life is below average and the camera is disappointing. Hopefully, when the Nokia 5 and 6 arrive they’ll be a significant step up.

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