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Nokia 9 PureView review: Five great cameras, one big problem

I don't like not liking something. It's not a feeling I relish; I prefer to find the good in things, as I do people.

Which is why it's taken me so long to write this review. The Nokia 9 is not worth buying, despite possessing some redeeming qualities. It's one of the most frustrating products that I've used in recent memory because of its baggage, the brand it attempts and fails to redeem, and the technology that has so much potential and such flawed execution.

The Good

  • Beautiful, symmetrical design
  • Camera is extremely powerful
  • Software is clean and fast
  • Excellent haptics

The Bad

  • The fingerprint sensor is awful
  • JPEG output is underwhelming
  • Some software bugginess
  • Last year's SoC
  • Tinny speaker

About this review

I've been using an international version of the Nokia 9 since early March 2019. It has received one software update, from 00WW_4_17C to 00WW_4_19A, which improved software stability a bit but did not address camera output or the fingerprint sensor. It did add face unlock, though, which was appreciated. All photos shown in this review were taken with the latest software update.

Nokia 9 PureView The Phone Itself

CategoryFeatures
Operating SystemAndroid 9 Pie
Display5.99-inch 18:9 pOLED QHD+
Gorilla Glass 5
ChipsetQualcomm Snapdragon 845
RAM6GB
Storage128GB
Battery3320mAh
ChargingUSB-C
18W wired charging
Wireless charging 10W
Water resistanceIP67 water and dust resistant
Rear CamerasTwo 12MP RGB f/1.8 1.25μm
Three 12MP monochrome f/1.8 1.25μm
Front Camera20MP 1μm
SecurityIn-display fingerprint sensor (optical)
Dimensions155 x 75 x 8mm
ColorsMidnight Blue
Price$699

The story of the Nokia 9 must be told in two parts: the one about the phone itself and the other about the camera.

The phone is beautiful, with shiny metal sides and a curved glass back that, despite its trypophobic properties, maintains its symmetry all the way through. I've used it for weeks now, and I'm still deeply taken with the arresting design and unconventional layout. Its buttons are clicky and satisfying, and despite its slippery back, it's a joy to use and hold. When I use it I feel like I'm holding something substantial, bordering on jewelry.

The 6-inch AMOLED display, notchless, is similarly arresting. While it doesn't get as bright as I'd like, I'm a huge fan of its vivid colors and excellent touch response.

Unfortunately, the screen is also home to the worst in-display fingerprint sensor I've ever used. This thing is an abomination, something that should have been passed over ten times before being thrown in the product planning dustbin. Not only is it unreliable, but it's poorly placed a third up the display. It almost never works the first time, and it requires pressing far too hard to activate even when it's in a good mood.

I'd imagine that, physically, it's the same component found in the OnePlus 6T and Huawei Mate 20 Pro, but for some reason, Nokia just couldn't maneuver its way through the technical hurdles required to optimize it. So while I've never been entirely happy with the reliability of these first-gen in-display fingerprint sensors, I hold out hope that with a few software updates it can graduate from unusable to passable. After using the more modern in-display fingerprint sensor in the Huawei P30, I'm hopeful the issues won't last more than a generation, but man is this a frustrating experience.

The frustration is somewhat mitigated by the addition of face unlock in a recent update, but it's neither particularly fast (especially compared to devices like the Galaxy S10 or OnePlus 6T), nor is it secure.

The Nokia 9's bottom reveals a USB-C port and single downward-firing speaker, another disappointing element to this phone. While it gets loud, it's thin and tinny, with awful equalization. Everything sounds like it's been compressed to the, um, nines, which makes watching videos or even listening to podcasts considerably less enjoyable than on other devices. That there's no headphone jack is a bummer, too, but thankfully the company bundles a pair of decent headphones, and a USB-C dongle, in the box.

There's a lot to like about the Nokia 9's hardware, but the in-display fingerprint sensor all but ruins the experience.

You're hearing a lot of negatives, so how 'bout some upsides? The haptic motor in here is on point — definitely up there with the Pixel 3 and LG V40 as one of the punchiest and most satisfying to use. Not quite iPhone good, but which Android device is? Also call quality is great from the earpiece, and battery life is great — all day, and then some — with the modestly-sized 3320mAh battery. There's also Qi-based wireless charging if you're so inclined, but the back is so slick I'd recommend avoiding a flat charging pad unless the phone is safely ensconced in a case.

That the phone runs 2018's Snapdragon 845 SoC doesn't matter — with two major exceptions, which I'll get to shortly — because overall performance is relatively smooth, and there's 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage inside to back it all up.

Why put a 2018 processor in a 2019 phone? Because Nokia worked with Light, the makers of the crazy 16-lens camera/smartphone/thing, along with Qualcomm, which controls the image signal conduit for the photos themselves, to ensure that five-camera setup works as well as possible. But like the phone's Android One-based software, the camera is a mixed bag.

Nokia's decision to use Android One as its software base is a long-term win, even if the actual implementation isn't completely free of bugs.

Before we get to the main event, let's talk about that software for a minute. Ostensibly this is the same Android 9 Pie experience you'd find on a Pixel, right down to the launcher. While Nokia inserts itself where necessary — the camera app, for instance, is all Nokia — this is clean and beautiful. Except for the instability part (which, to be honest, it also shares with the Pixel 3).

On the latest software build, apps crashed with regularity, especially the camera, and the OS would occasionally lock up entirely, usually when processing photos in the background. Given that this is a photo-oriented product, that the device spends so long crunching each photo behind the scenes is its sad fate, but it's one that you must contend with when there's so much potential buried within.

Nokia 9 PureView The Cameras

It's difficult not to feel a tinge of excitement when you read the hyperbolic marketing claims on Nokia's website:

Working in perfect unison, the five 12 MP cameras collect up to 10 times more light than a single smartphone camera color1 sensor. The results: photos with superb dynamic range that capture detail and texture from both the highlights and shadows, plus incredible depth-of-field and vibrant, truest-to-life color.

Like, who doesn't want that? Better photos in every situation, coupled with more data through advanced computational photography. With every instantly-sharable JPG, you get a tweakable, data-rich (and megabyte-heavy) RAW file saved as a DNG, which can be edited in Lightroom CC on your phone or desktop. It's a tantalizing proposition.

But, like all meteoric claims, this one was too good to be true. It took me a while to write this review because I wanted to spend more time with the Nokia 9's camera, to figure out its quirks and distill my thoughts into whether such power — and let me be clear, there's plenty of potential here — yields superlative results.

Let's break it down a bit: every photo taken on the Nokia 9 uses all five cameras — that's three monochrome sensors and two color ones, all using the same basic hardware and f/1.8 lens — to capture as much light data and detail as possible. While you only get a preview of a single sensor in the viewfinder, after an agonizing processing delay, the final photo is a product of the raw light and color mixed with a complex set of software instructions that have navigated through Qualcomm's image signal processor. The idea is that in any situation you get a photo that's both true to life and ready to be improved upon.

Of course, JPEGs are highly compressed, and each phone vendor applies its own set of rules based on a variety of factors. Fans of mirrorless and SLR cameras, for example, often claim that Fujifilm's JPEG processing is unmatched in the industry, preserving as much of the raw photo's original detail and texture while amplifying (but not exaggerating) the colors.

After spending weeks taking photos with the Nokia 9, the two words I would use to describe JPEGs taken with the phone are "oversharpened" and "flat". Nearly every photo looks like it was sucked into Adobe Lightroom with the Clarity toggle ramped to 100 and the saturation reduced to 50. If I were an editor, most of the JPEGs would go straight into the trash, unedited. Such is the nature of a compressed image that begins its life so far from usable.

Occasionally, though, the phone would spit out JPEGs that surprised me, with beautiful, natural color and outstanding bokeh. In the right conditions, the Nokia 9 lives up to its PureView name, and in those instances, I wanted to continue using it. But those moments were few and far between.

Thankfully, the phone's camera output is somewhat redeemed by its RAW photos. Yes, most phones are able to capture lossless photos in some format, but few of them contain the sheer amount of usable data as the Nokia 9. That's how I came to redeem some of the unusable JPEGs — by importing the DNGs into Lightroom Mobile and exporting them JPEGs that I would actually want to share.

The problem is that I don't want to have to do that with every photo; on the other hand, I was so impressed with the RAW files' versatility that I just might have to integrate the procedure into my daily workflow. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the comparison shots below; on the left is the original JPEG; on the right is the DNG lightly edited in Lightroom Mobile and exported as a JPEG. The difference is significant.

Original unedited JPEG (left) | Lightly edited JPEG generated from RAW files (right)

Along with all that exceptional detail, the Nokia 9 creates a depth map with up to 1200 points of differentiation in a single photo. Each one can be refocused after the fact by using Google Photos' native tools, and the process is pretty easy and fun. It's neat getting really granular about focus, and trying to eke different interpretations of the same photo, but the reality is that I think, outside of a few niche cases, this isn't going to be a widely-used feature.

I'd have much preferred Nokia to focus its attention on getting the portrait, or Bokeh mode, up to snuff, but like the JPEGs themselves, the results were hit or miss. While most cameras, including the Pixel 3, have difficulty properly separating a foreground subject from the background, especially around fine detail like hair, the Nokia 9 just failed outright most of the time, resulting in portrait photos that were underwhelming. I made sure took the same shot several times to ensure it wasn't just an aberration — but no, it's just a badly-implemented feature.

Further harping on the camera, low light capture on this thing isn't great, either. Given its pedigree, and the number of megapixels it cumulatively uses to pick up extra light, the Nokia 9 should perform incredibly in the dark. It didn't do terribly, per se, but there's no explicit night mode, and every time I wanted to get the results I would easily obtain from the Pixel 3's Night Mode, I'd have to manually lower the shutter speed to 1/4 and increase the ISO to 6400. It didn't help.

An example of the very mediocre edge detection in Nokia's portrait mode.

Finally, because each photo is processed and finetuned after each capture, it takes between 10 seconds and a minute for each one to appear in the gallery, an absurdly long time for anyone to wait. This isn't a phone where you can reasonably expect to shoot and share like you would on, say, a Galaxy S10; it forces you to slow down, plan your shot, and consider each one after the fact. There's a staid, organic elegance to that kind of workflow, especially since if you're taking RAW photos, the results can be incredible, but it definitely doesn't feel modern. You may find that refreshing; I just wish the photos were better straight out of the camera.

As much as the Nokia 9 gets wrong, though, it also gets a lot right. While the camera app isn't very stable, it's full of useful features, toggles, and modes to help you tweak your way to photography bliss. And while I wish the phone itself had a dedicated shutter button, à la the Lumia 1020 or PureView 808, the software more than makes up for it.

Should you buy the Nokia 9 PureView?

Nokia says that it's working on a major software update to fix a bunch of the problems with this phone. In fact, that's been the message for the entire month I've used the phone. I decided to stop waiting because, by the time the update is released, any interest in the phone would have long passed.

During its open weekend blitz, the Nokia 9 PureView dropped to $599 as a promotion, but its regular price is $699 — still lower than most flagships today, but higher than, say, the OnePlus 6T, which arguably produces better photos with much, much less overhead. To justify the purchase, you have to know what you're getting yourself into; this isn't a phone for casual photographers. It's for someone who wants to tweak, to eke out something profound from raw data, to curate a collection instead of merely sharing a photo. But that person isn't me.

I like a lot about the Nokia 9, and want to like its ambitious, tenacious camera — but I can't recommend it to most people. Not until the company pulls off a software miracle.

3 out of 5

There's a good phone and a great camera in here somewhere. My feeling, though, is that we'll finally see that full potential play out in the inevitable Nokia 9 sequel.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

33 Comments
  • Nokia, it seems, still haven't got their flagship "recipe" right. They're still having much more success with their midrange phones.
  • This is so disappointing to read. I had really hoped Nokia found a unique hardware method to take outstanding photos. I would've liked to have seen some of the dark/night photos but the photos of the room and the lamp give me a sense. Up to 1 minute to output a jpg!?! That's a league longer to process than it took their 1040 with a very old chip!
  • While processing does take long, I was worried about night shots after what I had read but the photos I took at night were seriously impressive, sharp and detailed ...I wish there was a way to share them without having to share my instagram page since I have it private but generally speaking everyone who saw them, couldnt believe they came out of a phone.
  • Can't you just use Google Drive and share the pictures that way?
  • Hold on let me try
  • https://1drv.ms/f/s!AueUUPmes_pkytEY5N1VwFDv11uKSA Try this link, sharing from onedrive. I included some bokeh in there as well. As for the night shots, there's a few that are untouched and you should be able to tell those from the edited ones. Btw im not a photographer, so aside from editing photos, I dont have a clue about using exposure or any of that pro stuff, these were really just quick, click and shoot to test out the cam as well as editing capabilities.
  • I really thought this was the one but I'm glad I didn't pull the trigger on it. In the forums picture output looks quite decent though. But lack of a few hardware options and a slow update for the most important focal point of this phone caused me to pass this one up. My V30 still holds up to the test of time for my usage but the P30 Pro is definitely the most tempting phone available right now for me followed by the more well rounded Samsung Galaxy S10+(which I may end up getting because of it's options). I really hope Nokia treats this phone like a flagship and fixes ever single camera issue users have encountered.
  • Been using my Nokia 9 for about 3 weeks. The display is absolutely amazing, I came from a v30 and that display looks trash by comparison. I am annoyed by photo processing times, usually it's done in 10-20 seconds. Main complaint is fingerprint scanner. If they could improve this with software update and maybe add a single shooter mode in camera app it would be almost perfect
  • "On the latest software build, apps crashed with regularity, especially the camera, and the OS would occasionally lock up entirely, usually when processing photos in the background." I own this phone. I have had it in service as my daily driver for several weeks, taken hundreds of photos, and none of this has EVER happened, not a single time with the camera or any other app. It's really incredible to read this, I just don't know what to think. Only two things make sense to me...you have no idea what you are doing, or the hardware you have is not right. I'm going with the latter on this one :) It takes mine about 10-12 seconds on average to process a photo and then show up in the gallery. My .jpg files turn out quite nice actually. Having shared them with several people and everyone has been rather impressed. I've been too busy working to mess around with post processing, someday. The camera app is definitely not fast. It's slow to open and takes too long to switch modes for my liking. My biggest complaint is almost a month and no camera updates or attempts to remedy the fingerprint sensor. Was hoping we would see something to address the speed and some of the weirdness I have seen using the flash in a poorly lit room.
  • 10-12 seconds to process the picture? wait, what? So for an action shot, you better get it right the first time, or the object will be out of sight for the second shot..
    I personally never liked the 5 camera setup. Looks fugly..
  • You don't have to wait for the photos to process. That takes place in the background. You can just keep shooting as fast as you can press the shutter.
  • Other reviewers have made the same complaint. No company would be foolhardy enough to not replace a faulty review unit. So I'm going to hazard a guess that Nokia does not find the reviewers experience to be incredible or surprising.
  • The fingerprint sensor is the one thing right about this article, the occasion crash does happen but only when taking photos and battery is very low ...that could be due to the power the camera uses. The camera is MUCH better than what is mentioned in this review and i posted a link in one of my comment replies with over 20 photos I took ..bokeh and nightshots as well. All photos were take with the normal cam and taken quickly while walking around to test the camera. Editing the photos is a major plus and while I havent had sharpening issues with jpgs, you can tone them down with lightroom. Photoprocessing does take time but results are worth it that you eventually dont care, especially since it happens in the background and you can continue snapping more shots while they process.
    Apparently they're sending an update soon that will iron this issue out. I play a lot with he cam and i talk a lot and use bluetooth headphones, the battery last me all day but is pretty much 1 digit percentage by the time i go to sleep. My only real gripe with this phone, is the fingerprint reader, so much that I decided not to use it at all but this too is apparently being ironed out. OIS would have definitely benefited this and made photos even better but I guess they were saving stuff for the sequel.
  • Interested to read people's thoughts on the comparison between the JPG and Lightroom-edited RAW photos. To my eye, only the second Lightroom-edited RAW photo (the snow landscape) looks better than the unedited JPG, as the snow is whiter and the photo seems more dramatic. Otherwise, I prefer the "stock" JPGs, which seem more real. Edited RAW photos 1, 3, 6 (and 2, although I prefer it) look like someone shot the photo using a flash or artificially turned up the brightness too much. I see almost no difference in 4, so would say the photos look the same. In 5, the photos are nearly similar except there is more detail/contrast in the cabinet drawers in the JPG.
  • Agree completely. The edited pics look like the one editing them didn't know what he was doing.
  • I tend to favor the more natural images myself. Most of them are not too bad, but the photo with the banana looks like it was taken with a Galaxy S7. I remember when I had my former U11 and was taking a shot of flowers in a restaurant. The waitress came by and was looking at the photo, looking at the flowers, looking at the photo. She said "How did you get the picture to look EXACTLY like the flowers?", and I said "Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" I know realism is not what we want a lot of time, but it shouldn't be hard.
  • This is exactly what i was thinking! The RAW files can turn out WAY better than what these edits are. I feel like these edits contain overly boosted colors. The most i did with the RAW file was to ensure it wasn't overly sharpened. If you are looking for a phone with great RAW files to edit this is the way to go but the JPEGs are rarely usable.
  • "If you are looking for a phone with great RAW files to edit this is the way to go but the JPEGs are rarely usable" But, why not just get a phone that gives great RAW files AND JPEGs?
  • I'm not experiencing most of these complaints. I've never had apps crash or the OS lock up. The phone performs fluidly. I couldn't be happier with the pics that it takes. It probably has the most realistic colors of any smartphone currently available. Perhaps people have just gotten too accustomed to the phony, over-saturated pics that most phones are producing. I actually wouldn't trade it for any phone that's currently available at any price. I'm getting beautiful shots just using it as a point and shoot, so I dispute the notion that it's not a camera for casual photographers. The only real letdown with the camera is not having OIS for the video portion. For me that's a non-issue because I'm a professional videographer and have professional cameras at my disposal, so I rarely do video on the phone. The still camera doesn't need stabilization. I have yet to get a blurry shot. Maybe the reviewer just has a defective phone. I suggest if any of you are curious you should check out the photos in the forum.
  • Daniel, in the bad points you say battery life is disappointing but then you go onto say that it is good in the actual review. Which is your actual opinion?
    I'm sure the camera will be improved via updates, well let's hope so as if it doesn't happen then there will be no reason for buying what Nokia tout as a camera enthusiasts device.
  • I'm sure I read somewhere that the slow processing is a result of Android's limitations not the phone. Currently Android only supports 3 camera's and the Nokia has 5 so it has to convert those 5 shots and process them as 3 to suit the software
  • Overpriced and does not work on Verizon
  • I'd say it's great value for money for a flagship.
  • This phone was on my radar, but I'm a little put off by their interpretation of the science involved. Multiple cameras taking the same shot is equal to one camera taking multiple shots. They are both doing image stacking, correct? Combining five images taking several seconds, when other phones do it instantly, is a bit peculiar. I do have to admit that I like the looks, and love that they rebelled against compromising the screen (not counting the rounded off corners). I can see why a photo-centric device would not want a hole in the viewfinder. Hey, can we call the owners of punch hole screens "glassholes" now, or is that still reserved for Google Glass owners?
  • Fair review. I get it. I have this phone. To the reviewer: you should have tried ISO 2500 not 6400 (and still at 1/4) for those low light shots. Makes no sense why, but ISO 2500 works way better (literally night and day). My best guess is that 6400 creates so much noise in each sensor image, and combining each of those noisy shots just results in total disaster. Whereas at ISO 2500 the result is great. If reviewers give the P30 a pass for taking a four second exposure in low light (in its automatic mode), I think they should obviously let the Nokia get away with a 1/4 second exposure. Also, your Lightroom examples should have been better. Why only "lightly" edit when going further was easily possible with all that image data and would have resulted in much better final result?
  • I ordered this at the $599 intro price and waited. Then the Pixel 3 was on sale at the same price. After reading initial frustrations with the camera, I canceled the Nokia order and bought the Pixel 3. Best move I've made since getting engaged...
  • "Nokia's decision to use Android One as its software base is a long-term win, even if the actual implementation isn't completely free of bugs." And then goes on to complain about bugs and freezes and crashes. Android One, much like any version of stock Android directly from Google, is a complete sh*tshow. It's so on the iPixels and it's been so on every single HMD phone. If some of you tech bloggers would start being honest instead of constantly licking Google's feet and coming up with excuses, having Android One would have already been a red flag for the BAD experience that stock Android is. And no one would be surprised by this. But no. You keep banging on about how great the iPixels are and how better and a "long term win" stock Android is, and then when an OEM gives you that, you complain it's buggy. Well, guess what? There's a reason why Samsung, Huawei, Sony etc take time updating their phones with major OS updates. Those companies do what Google doesn't (and neither does HMD by extension) : they spend time and money fixing and improving the OS. As for the rest of the HMD 9, meh. It's just another product of an inept CPO who's so narcissistic that he would rather burn with the house than to admit there's a fire.
  • Looks like Nokia has another dud on their hands with the Nokia 9, it's a shame. But then this isn't the same Nokia that gave us the impressive 40 Megapixel camera on the Lumia 1020 back in 2013.
  • Reading between the lines, and considering the delays, I think there's plenty of reasons to avoid this phone. They're saying it's going to be a limited release, I can only speculate, but I think that all means that there's a replacement in the works, and this was horribly delayed because of problems, so they want to recoup some of the costs. I'd avoid, because I suspect the phone will become a bit of an orphan, and there's nothing worse than a phone which is buggy, and doesn't receive support. Also with the recent news of the divorce of sorts going between HMD and FIH, I don't think the future bodes well for Nokia phones. We're going to see a few makes drop off in the next year or two.
  • I really hope the 9.1 addresses these issues (fingerprint, speakers, SOC) plus adopts the notch/punch hole design to better compete with current flagships.
  • No, no notch! I bought this phone partly because it has no notch. I also bought it because it has a flat display and just the right amount of bezel on all sides.
  • While listening to podcast: trutal I came here. Wanted to see how rubbish the pureview photos are. I agree this is a bad phone, and it’s just a terrible experience to use the camera. The photos though. They do look better than those from raw to lightroom, agree with the other comments. Sure the lightroom one is super hyper real and vibrant like most modern smartphone output like the pixel, the nokia output is closer to a traditional camera, can’t tell if it’s over sharpened without clicking the photos. This phone deserves a better processor. Maybe an a12x would do the job, 18000 multicore to crunch all those pixels. Pity it does not live up to pureview 808. I remember back in the windows phone days, they used to have a handheld stabilised long exposure for night shots. Where did that go? For now maybe I still prefer the snapdragon s10e or p30 non pro as pocket cameras.
  • I was considering buying this phone, but decided not to because I was told doesn't work on Verizon (CDMA). Also, because of the long delays in the Nokia 9 PureView release, I wondered if the delays were caused by the trying to coordinate the camera array with an older generation processor. I believe next generation multi-array camera set-ups will be far better than this one. The Nokia 9 PureView camera technology came from LightCo. If you want to see the future of the technology go to: LightCo Solutions