Nokia N1 review: THIS is how to build an Android tablet

It’s not often that we review products that don’t have an official distributor in the UK – but the Nokia N1 tablet is an exception to the rule. Grey importers and the ubiquity of eBay sellers, however, mean you can get hold of one for around £210 if you really want one.

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend this as a route to buying a product. Unless you’re getting it from a reasonably reputable importer, your chances of getting a refund if it’s faulty are minimal. Service and support will be hard to come by, and you’ll have to deal with a few rough edges such as non-UK standard power adapters.

Nokia N1 review: Bottom edge

However, I think the N1 is a worthy exception. It’s not only one of the nicest Android tablets I’ve seen, it’s probably the best. It’s good enough, in fact, to make me think it could win over some people who started off wanting an iPad.

It helps, of course, that it looks like an iPad. Like the iPad mini 3, it has a 4:3 aspect ratio and a 7.9in, 2,048 x 1,536 display that’s incredibly sharp. It hits 410cd/m2 at maximum brightness, has superb colour accuracy and excellent contrast. The case is well-engineered aluminium, and the curved edges remind you immediately of Apple’s devices.

My only quibble over the physical design is that it feels a little top-heavy when held in portrait mode. Nokia has attempted to evenly distribute the weight throughout the body, but because you tend to hold the bottom of the tablet in portrait mode, this makes it feel a little heavy. But this is a tiny detail. Suffice it to say, it’s a lovingly crafted tablet.

Nokia N1 review: Buttons

Hardware

Internally, though, the N1 is very different from the iPad, and from most other Android tablets too. Rather than going down the ARM route or using a slow Atom, the N1 employs one of the latest quad-core 2.3GHz Intel Atom – the Z3580.

This makes it fast: we had no problems running graphically intensive games on it. Benchmarks reveal it isn’t the fastest tablet around, though, with a 26fps result in the GFXBench T-Rex (onscreen) test, and Geekbench 3 results of 874 in the single-core test and 2,585 in the multi-core test. This places it behind tablets such as the Nexus 9 and Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet.

Nokia N1 review: Headphone jack

Thanks to the 5,300mAh battery, it’s going to give you all-day performance; in fact, in heavy everyday use, it happily lasted two days between charges. In testing, the N1 looped a 720p video, with the screen set to a brightness of 120cd/m2, for 10hrs 23mins, which is good, but not the best I’ve seen.

There’s 32GB of storage as standard, but not all of that is available for use. I had just under 24GB of space available without installing anything. And some people will be disappointed to see there’s no microSD slot, so that’s all you’re going to get. Still, this is more than you’ll get from the entry-level (and similarly priced) iPad mini 2.

Nokia has always been famous for the quality of its cameras, which makes it even more of a disappointment that the 8-megapixel sensor on the back of the N1 isn’t really much good. It’s adequate outdoors – but no more than that – while indoor pictures are grainy even in decent light.

Nokia N1 review: Camera

Software

The good news on the software side is that Nokia has wisely kept the N1 very close to stock Android 5.0.2. There’s no bloatware or attempts to “improve” Google’s own apps, which means it’s a pleasure to use.

The one big feature Nokia has added is the “Z Launcher” homescreen. Although this looks very much like stock Android, displaying your apps in a grid, there’s one significant difference: you can use your finger to write a letter, and it displays apps, bookmarks and contacts beginning with that letter.

At first, I thought this was a bit of a gimmick. After using it for a while, however, it grew on me, and I found it a speedy, intuitive way of getting around. Want to get to settings? Just scrawl “s” followed by “e” and there they are. The recognition engine isn’t perfect, and in particular I found that it would get confused if I wrote one letter very quickly followed by another, but with very little practice it worked reliably.

Nokia N1 review: Main shot from front

Verdict

The Nokia N1 is an excellent Android tablet. The design, performance and battery life are enough to put the whole Android tablet category in a different light. If other manufacturers want to compete with Apple, they should look at the N1 as a benchmark for how to do it.

Which just leaves the question of whether you should buy one – and this is where things get more complex. Were Nokia officially distributing it, we wouldn’t hesitate to answer with a resounding “yes”. Our review sample was supplied to us by a company called Colourful Tech, which was set up to import the N1 but is currently on trading hiatus while it tries to sort out a dispute with Nokia. Meanwhile, you can probably pick one up on eBay or via other grey importers.

But as we said upfront, this isn’t without its risks, which makes the N1 difficult to fully recommend. We hope that Nokia takes note and finally brings the N1 officially to the UK, because if it does we’re confident it will have a real hit on its hands – and it would then be a product we’d be happy to recommend without reservation.

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