Nokia 1.3 review - Does a 99-dollar smartphone make sense?

Updated: June 3, 2020

Back in 2013, when I purchased my Nokia 520 phone, I never expected it to survive until 2020, and continue working smoothly and reliably. But then, I have always loved Nokia phones. Really loved. They had elegance and style above all, they were durable and made to last. I still own and use a Nokia E6, and it's remains a cool device, despite its age.

My foray with Nokias - or rather Lumias - continued for a while, culminating in the Lumia 950. When the sad time came to look for its replacement, I did consider Nokia 9, but because it didn't have an audio jack, I didn't buy it, and went instead with Motorola One Zoom. This turned out to be a pretty smart choice. However, Nokia remained in the back of my mind, and when I glimpsed the freshly released Nokia 1.3 in the online stores, my brain started revving up. I went back to my 520 experience. Its 2013 price tag was USD179.99, which might even seem a bit high given its spec. Perhaps one can have a solid smartphone experience for less. Significantly less. Indeed, what can one do at roughly half that cost? This is my review of the 99-dollar Nokia 1.3. Let's begin.

Teaser

Specifications

Nokia 1.3 is designed to be an entry level smartphone. But on its own, that doesn't say much. Because the market is so saturated, entry doesn't necessarily mean cheap or ugly or bad. On paper, Nokia 1.3 brings a reasonable set to the table.

It's a 5.7-inch phone, with a 720x1520px IPC LCD screen. It comes with a quad-core 1.4 GHz Cortex A53 processor, Adreno 308 graphics, and Android Go, which is a simplified version of the full Android system specially designed for phones with less computing power. In other words, it's Android Lite, which doesn't necessarily sound like a bad thing. You get Q, an upgrade promise, two years worth of updates, and a vanilla Android One experience.

Then, the phone comes in dual-SIM guise, with 1 GB RAM and 16 GB internal storage - which can be expanded to 400 GB using an SD card. The optics are modest, 8MP front, 5MP back, good for 720p 30FPS videos. There's an audio jack, of course, microUSB 2.0 for charging, and a massive 3,000 mAh removable battery. Sounds like a proper bargain. The phone is visually pleasing, too.

Nokia 1.3, back cover off

Case design

A really bad start

You know how, sometimes, a tiny thing early on can ruin the entire experience afterwards? This is what happened to me with Nokia 1.3. The manual says - insert your finger in the crack between the back cover and the display, lift and bend the back cover. Sounds simple. Indeed, you need to do this to insert the battery and the SIM card(s), plus the optional SD card.

I found this simple task difficult - because my nails are not made from adamantium. I did manage to get the cover off with considerable amount of force and bending, which doesn't sound like a healthy activity for a phone. But then I didn't insert the SIM right away. I thought, let's do this at a later date.

Then, I tried to complete my Google Account setup - I went for a brand new one. Didn't go well, either. First, it wouldn't let me continue without "proving" that I'm not a robot (well, am I?). So I needed to give a number to get a verification code. But I couldn't receive it on the phone I was configuring - because the SIM wasn't in. Catch 22. This meant turning the phone off, inserting the SIM and starting over.

Only now, I couldn't pry the back cover off. With the battery in place, the little bend I could exercise earlier wasn't possible anymore, and the phone refused to budge. Not that different from my One Zoom SIM card foray, except that one was self-inflicted through a mistake, and this one was entirely reality not meeting the expectations, or the instruction manual set.

I thought, wait, maybe I'm what the French call le cretin, so I asked my wife to try as well. Perhaps my over-manly fingers aren't designed for the delicate task. But even she couldn't do it. I spent a good few minutes trying to work it out. You can imagine the amount of disappointment and expletives.

I worked the problem out with brute force - I used a metal ruler to crowbar the lid off, and in the process, of course, I left scratch marks, and even shaved off a piece of the phone's internal body just off the back of the top speaker. Whether this caused a damage or not, I really don't care. Because this little thing completely ruined it for me, and everything you read on is an attempt to stay civil and coherent, but as far as I'm concerned, this phone is dead to me.

Damage after prying back cover off

What's the point of a removable battery, if you can't do it quickly and easily?

What's even worse, I still couldn't verify that I'm not a robot. The SIM was brand new, and it needs carrier-level configuration, which also means phone reboot and whatnot. Not doable at this stage. So all my anger was in vain. I had to use a different phone to get the verification code, and even then, it didn't work smoothly. So silly. So sad. Eventually though, I was able to create my Google account and continue with the phone setup.

Questions

I am always amazed how ever so slightly different every Android phone setup is. Most of the stuff is identical, but then, an odd element or two are completely new. For example, in the Nokia 1.3 setup, Google offers Face unlock without suggesting alternative methods. You need to click skip to get to the PIN and password options. I really don't understand why would this be shown to the user, especially since the actual intro text tells you that using facial recognition is less secure than the other venues. Then, one of the last steps in the setup - user experience program.

Face unlock User experience program

And then, I finally got to the home screen. There weren't that many updates. The phone's firmware was up to date, and some apps did need a refresh, but this went without a hitch. I am a bit surprised by the number 4 symbol next to the Wireless icon. Does this denote 4G connectivity? If so, shouldn't it be superimposed over the mobile network icon?

Home screen Apps

Settings System update

It looks clean and fairly simple yet functional. Understated Nokia. The focus is of course on a small core of Google applications, and an extra nudge to use the Google Assistant. You can change the icon set on the home screen, except the search bar at the top. That one is hard-fixed there. More on this later.

Privacy & security

By now, you are aware of my Android & reasonable privacy strategy. You can tweak and toggle pretty much every setting, but it takes time and dedication. But Google does let you slim down the amount of noise and telemetry and whatnot considerably, as long as you're willing to invest time going through every single setting, and being consistent and persistent about it.

The Nokia 1.3 proved relatively easily to tame. It only has thirty odd apps, roughly half the usual set on more powerful phones. Quite vanilla. I needed only about an hour going through settings, turning permissions off, and in some cases, disabling the apps. Some of these cannot be uninstalled, as they are part of the operating system image, but they can be disabled, which amounts to almost the same end result.

Permissions, toggle off Permissions, more

Assistant, permissions off

In almost every case, you get a warning that says the product might not work as expected. I've not encountered any issues yet, and in almost every case, you will be prompted to provide granular permissions when needed. Of course, if you say disable microphone for the search or assistant, you won't be able to Hey Google it. But then, that's expected. Finally, there were some odd choices, like Youtube Music being configured to track physical activity. Not sure why this would be the app to do that, but whatever. Off.

Physical activity permissions

In addition to the basic permissions and notifications, you do also need to launch each app once and do some extra work there. For example, Digital Wellbeing will track your usage, unless you disable it. The same applies to several other applications (like Google Play). Then, when it comes to physical buttons, Nokia would always use an extra one for special actions. My Lumia 950 has a dedicated camera button, which is super handy - it ain't Nokia per se, but the Lumia line was conceived while still under Nokia, and the design choice remains. With this little smartphone, you get an Assistant button on the left - you can disable it, though. Camera activation is done by double-clicking the power button, like most other Android phones.

Digital wellbeing Assistant button

Other settings

The phone comes encrypted. No silly night mode or dark mode is enabled, good.

Display settings

Google Play

The first thing, Google play asked me if I wanted to be notified of deals and updates. Nope. Then, you get the browser installation prompt. I did install Firefox, of course, because it's nice and configurable, including a plethora of nice extensions. As you can expect, I installed an adblocker, and this time, I went with Ublock Origin, to see how compares to Adblock Plus on the phone (not just desktop), both on the usage and resource fronts. I spent a little bit of time taming Firefox, but nothing drastic in any way. Funnily, you don't get the zoom-in address bar nonsense here, where it would make reasonable sense, unlike the desktop.

Google Play, loop questions Browser install setup

Applications

A simple phone doesn't need much. Firefox and VLC do the job. Boom.

Firefox VLC

Multimedia

The simple question is: how well does it play videos and music? I tried some fine songs, side by side with One Zoom, and you can hear the difference right away. Nokia 1.3 comes with flatter, tinnier sound, and it's noticeable. But then for casual listening, this is more than adequate. The one problem I did have was - VLC couldn't "see" media files inside the Music folder (using its built-in internal structure storage scan), but when I pointed it to the Music shortcut, it had no problem picking up the library of songs. Quite weird that. The playback was ok both in the default player and in VLC.

VLC library empty Quick access shows songs

Music playback 1 Music playback 2

Video playback is modest. I selected a random Nurbungring racing clip, because that's good for your chakras, and started with 1080p. The audio was fine, but the video playback completely stalled. Even on 720p, it was skipping frames and stuttering. You get a reasonably smooth experience at 480p, but even then, the interface doesn't always respond instantly. All in all, kind of expected for the price tag.

Video playback

Camera

Fairly basic, but not too bad. The problem is, what you see on the screen looks way better than the actual images captured and stored on the phone. The camera app is less intrusive than say the Motorola One Zoom, and you don't even get the option to store your photos in HD resolution in the cloud, as you need to install a (Google) app for that. A bonus for those keen on privacy. The lightness of Android Go sure has its advantages.

Camera app 1 Camera app 2

Now, the actual camera quality ... As I said, okay. Left, Nokia 1.3, right Motorola One Zoom, all default settings and whatnot. Not surprisingly, the much more expensive phone gives you better sharpness, contrast, separation between foreground and background elements, and color quality. That said, for 99 dollars, Nokia 1.3 captures rather decent images, and it's more than suitable for casual photography. Especially if you plan on using this device for utilitarian purposes.

Camera, Nokia 1.3 Camera, Motorola One Zoom comparison

Camera, Nokia 1.3 2 Camera, One Zoom comparison 2

Performance, responsiveness

Not the fastest in the world, as you can imagine. Mostly, the delay occurs when you initiate an action or open an app. This is where you incur 1-2 seconds of penalty, and once things are loaded into memory, it's mostly fine. But then, Nokia 1.3 isn't designed to be blazing fast, and for its price tag, it's more than adequate.

Using

Battery life

This took a little bit of time, as I had to do a full proper charge, and then use the phone. My big problem was that I didn't really want to use it after the back cover fiasco, so I kind of forced myself. With light usage, four days easy. Now, I'm not going to commit to any numbers, because they actually ought to get better over time. Android is pretty good at optimizing usage - my One Zoom went from about 7 days to 9 days between charges, which is splendid. So I will come back and share the battery life results with Nokia 1.3 in a month or so.

Other things

A few days into the usage, the Google search bar widget changed to a simple square one. This seems to be a direct result of my privacy-focused tweaks, but I wonder why I've not seen this right away. Perhaps a reboot or two are needed to sort everything out? Still, a tiny detail, though.

Square widget

Conclusion

There are two sides to this review - the gentle golgotha I underwent with the phone cover removal, and what happened after I managed to create my account and continue using the phone. I wish I could ignore the first part of this experience, but I can't. It's like a car test drive. A tiny thing, as trivial as a stinkeye from the salesperson, can sabotage the whole deal. With electronic gadgets, the difference is, you've already made the purchase. But were I able to test before buying, I'd give the phone back, because the inconvenience of use nullifies all the excellent points, and there are many of those, in the phone. Actually, I did buy two of these, so one of them is going back without being opened. This other one, I'll ping Nokia and ask what they think about the lightly used, moderately scratched second. Worst case, I've wasted a hundred dollars, and while it's not an amount to be sneezed at, scoffed or ignored, I'll swallow my pride.

Now, the second part of this review. Nokia 1.3 is a really cool phone for those who don't care much about the mobile fads, and want a fairly basic if still capable device for their everyday phone stuffs. The Android Go operating system goes hand in hand with this intent. The simplified interface is actually a blessing, given how convoluted Android can be. Plus, you get decent everything - screen, colors, responsiveness, camera. Nothing stellar, but not too shabby either.

And so there we are. An excellent product ruined by bad packaging. I simply can't get past the cover thing. Just can't. That's the end of this review folks. Take what you will from it, and make your decision. For me, this is tainted love.

Cheers.

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