The budget phone space is certainly filling up with some spectacular options. From the extremely capable Honor 7X to the newly-released Moto G6, buyers strapped for cash have several great phones to choose from. But as much as those devices have impressed us in the last few months, HMD Global's Nokia 6.1 has surpassed all of my expectations for a sub-$300 phone.

On paper, it sure sounds like it ticks all the boxes. While it's a fantastic device, the best one under $300, it's not without its faults. Like other Nokia devices, camera performance is middling at best. And while it has a lot of the features of upper-echelon smartphones, HMD decided to go for a 16:9 display, which isn't a bad thing. Just be prepared for chunky bezels.

The perfect budget phone continues to elude us, if such a thing truly exists, but the Nokia 6.1 comes very close with its emphasis on simplicity and getting the fundamentals right (mostly) — and it manages to do so for just $269.

Specs

Display 5.5" 1920 x 1080 IPS LCD
Software Android 8.1; Android One
CPU Snapdragon 630
RAM 3GB
Storage 32GB, expandable via microSD
Cameras 16MP rear, 8MP front
Battery 3,000mAh
Connectivity 802.11 a/b/g/n; LTE Bands 2/3/4/5/7/12/17/20/28/38
Misc USB-C, fingerprint sensor, 3.5mm headphone jack, Bluetooth 5
Colors Black/copper, white/iron, blue/gold
Price $269

The Good

Value For $269, this is one hell of a phone. You get solid hardware, USB-C, and Android One (meaning better updates), all in a phone for under $300.
Build quality HMD built a great phone that looks and feels high-end. From the metallic accents to the overall heft of the device, the Nokia 6.1 feels like it should be more expensive.
Software Being an Android One device, you can expect two years of software updates straight from Google. You also get a clean stock experience that doesn't get in the way or bog down the phone.
Battery life The 3,000mAh battery lasts for quite a long time, easily going for a full day or more.

The Not So Good

Camera HMD still has a hard time getting the camera right. Even though daytime photos come out pretty decent with sharp details and nice colors, the quality becomes more mediocre as the light begins to dim. Everything turns soft and blurriness is a real issue thanks to the lack of OIS. Nighttime shots are grainy, too.
Speaker It's bottom-firing and not very good, i.e. tinny. It's easily covered up by your hand or fingers and it can't handle high volume very well.

Design, hardware, and what's in the box

Unlike the glass trend that we're seeing trickle down to budget devices, like the Moto G6, HMD opted for an all-metal build for the Nokia 6.1. In keeping with the Nokia brand's long-time reputation for durability, this phone is built like a tank, milled from a single block of series 6000 aluminium. From the minute you take it out of the box, you know immediately that this thing is solid. From the cold metal frame to the soft-touch coating on the back (which picks up fingerprints and smudges very easily), this phone can survive a lot of punishment, all while looking great. HMD did a great job capturing the Nokia industrial design feel; the black/copper unit I received is gorgeous in its subtlety and simplicity.

The buttons sit on the right side of the phone, both with the metallic accent surrounding them. Each press gives a solid click, though with a little less travel than I'd like personally, but they bounce back quickly after bottoming out. Up top, you'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack and the SIM/SD card tray on the left. Down along the bottom is the USB-C port and the small, underwhelming speaker. The sound that it puts out is tinny and it's way too easy to cover the speaker when holding the phone, both in portrait and landscape.

 

Flipping it over, you'll see the elongated, elliptical Zeiss Optics camera and dual-LED flash array. Below that is the fingerprint sensor, which while fairly quick and accurate, is a bit too far down for my like. I'd often press my finger against the flash on the lower part of the camera oval instead of the reader itself. After tall phones like the Pixel 2 XL and OnePlus 6, it took me a few hours to adjust.

HMD decided to stick with a 16:9 display for the Nokia 6.1, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The bezels are quite massive, however, looking like a phone from a few years ago. The 5.5" 1080p IPS LCD itself is just fine, though it won't wow you or anything. Colors lack any sort of vibrancy or pop, but at least it gets bright enough for outdoor use.

The Nokia 6.1 uses a Snapdragon 630 SoC, versus the Moto G6's Snapdragon 450. Unfortunately, the U.S version of this phone is limited to 32GB of eMMC 5.1 storage and 3GB of RAM (versus the 64GB/4GB international variant), not to mention lacking CDMA support. It's pretty safe to assume that these decisions were to keep the price below $300. Nonetheless, performance is pretty good.

On the software side, you get stock Android 8.1. This phone is part of the Android One program, which means a clean, light experience, plus two years of software and three years of security updates from Google. And the 3,000mAh battery keeps the Nokia 6.1 chugging along — I easily made it through a day with moderate to heavy usage with 40% or so battery remaining. I could have gotten through the second day if I had been careful.

For now, only the 32GB/3GB version of the Nokia 6.1 is available in the U.S., like I mentioned above. You'll have your choice of black/copper, white/iron, and blue/gold color options. The retail box is just what you might expect for a budget phone and it includes the barebones things like a SIM tool, basic wired earbuds, charging brick/cable, and the usual assortment of manuals.

Camera samples

Below is a sample gallery taken with the Nokia 6.1 camera. In bright daylight, it produces pictures with good detail and colors. When the light starts to dim, like indoors and as the sun sets, things get a bit weirder. Photos become blurry and grainy the darker it gets, especially since there's no OIS onboard.

Our verdict: Should you buy it?

Yes, if you're on a GSM carrier. Whether you're looking for a phone to meet a tighter budget or you want an inexpensive backup, the Nokia 6.1 is definitely the one to go with. At $269, you won't find a better value right now, unless you really want more RAM or a 2:1 display — in that case, you might be happier with the Honor 7X or Moto G6. Obviously, if your budget is more flexible, the OnePlus 6 is a fantastic option starting at $529.

For $269, it's the best phone in its class, despite its flaws.

The Nokia 6.1 gets a lot of things right. Not only are its specifications top-notch for the price point, but it's also an Android One device, which really helps to mitigate the update anxiety present in most budget phones (even Motorola's, sadly). It's well-built and gorgeous, too, sporting a very attractive industrial design with just the right amount of flair to make it unique.

The biggest drawback to the Nokia 6.1 is its camera, which is to be expected. A lack of OIS really hampers things, especially in low light. Most indoor/nighttime shots came out blurry (since I don't have stable hands), and graininess was an issue. One thing I will give the camera is that the shutter is fairly quick in most situations, with hardly any lag. You also get HMD's "bothie" functionality – where the phone uses the front and rear cameras simultaneously – if that's something you're interested in.

The Nokia 6.1 is not a flagship by any means, but it definitely gets the job done and it does so with its own unique style and subtle flair. For $269, it's the best phone in its class, despite its flaws.

Buy it if...

You want an inexpensive, reliable phone that will do everything you need it to without lag, stutter, or crashes. At the same time, you still would like things such as USB-C, a headphone jack, and a fingerprint sensor. Perhaps the mediocre camera doesn't concern you, or you won't notice a 16:9 display with chunky bezels. The Nokia 6.1 is also a great backup phone, in case you ever might need it.

Don't buy it if...

You want blazing fast performance, stellar photos, and the latest design trends like glass bodies and tall displays, all of which are a far cry from the $269 Nokia 6.1. Maybe you're fine with everything this phone has to offer, but the lack of CDMA support is a deal breaker for you. In that case, I'd point you over to the Moto G6.