As someone who spends a lot of time with smartphones, I often get asked, “Hey Ron, what Android phone should I buy?” The high-end answer is usually easy: buy a Pixel phone. But not everyone is willing to shell out $650+ for a smartphone, especially the types of casual users that ask for advice.
Enter HMD’s Nokia phones, an entire lineup of cheap smartphones ranging from $100 to $400. HMD recently launched the second generation of its lineup, with phones like the Nokia 2.1, 3.1, and 5.1. We recently spent time with the highest end phone in this series that happens to be one of the few HMD devices for sale in the US: the Nokia 6.1. And for $269, you get a pretty spectacular-sounding package of a Snapdragon 630, a 5.5-inch 1080p screen, stock Android 8.1, fast updates, and a metal body.
The fall of Nokia and the rise of HMD
Since this is the first HMD-made Nokia phone we’ve reviewed, it’s probably good to dive into the history of HMD first. Believe it or not, this company was specifically created to be “The home of Nokia phones.”
Once upon a time in a post-iPhone world, Nokia hired a Microsoft executive to be the new CEO of the company. Nokia became an exclusive Windows Phone manufacturer. Many poor Microsoft-centric business decisions were made by Nokia’s Microsoft executive. Eventually Nokia’s value fell low enough that Microsoft ended up buying Nokia’s phone division.
Thus, Nokia became a telecommunications company that didn’t make telephones, Microsoft got a phone manufacturer and a 10-year license to use the Nokia brand, and the Microsoft executive got to go back home to Microsoft.
In-house Microsoft phones weren’t ultimately enough to save Windows Phone, and when the platform died, the end of Nokia phones seemed imminent. With Nokia phones in trouble, a mysterious company called “HMD Global” appeared. Along with Foxconn subsidiary FIH Mobile, HMD soon started buying up what was left of the old Nokia assets. Eventually, branding, software, patents, licenses, and 4,500 employees were divvied up between the two companies. HMD became the global licensee of the Nokia brand for phones, and it had an agreement to do manufacturing at FIH Mobile’s newly fortified facilities.
But where did this mysterious “HMD” company come from? If you’re like me (and you’ve followed this kind of insider industry news for awhile), any time an old brand gets snatched up by another company, you assume it’s some Chinese firm looking to break into wider markets. Motorola, Blackberry, and Palm all roughly fit into this narrative. But evidently this fate hasn’t befallen Nokia—HMD isn’t looking to wear the Nokia brand like a desiccated husk. HMD is .
The similarities between HMD and Nokia are so numerous, it is almost suspicious. HMD, like Nokia, is a Finnish company. Nearly all of HMD’s executives are former Nokia employees. HMD’s headquarters is actually from Nokia HQ. HMD is not Nokia, and Nokia doesn’t hold any investment in HMD, but it seems unlikely that two companies could be any closer while still being legally and financially distinct.
So far, HMD has stood out as a smartphone company by saying all the right things when it comes to the software. Most OEMs try to rebrand Android with a heavy skin that provides little value to consumers, but HMD has been pushing a “Pure Android” angle for its software. It’s also putting an emphasis on fast updates, promising devices that are “pure, secure, and up to date.” Today, HMD is also one of the rare companies that is putting effort into low- and mid-range smartphones.
HMD sells feature phones, too, an initiative that still moves significant units in the developing world. With its plethora of Nokia DNA, HMD has even managed to make feature phones interesting by resurrecting legendary Nokia phones of the past. So far we’ve seen remakes of the Nokia 3310 “brick” phone and the “banana phone,” the Nokia 8110.
In its latest round of funding, HMD was valued at more than a billion dollars. In 2017—HMD’s first year of operation—the company shipped 70 million Nokia-branded phones (that’s smartphones and feature phones) with sales operations in more than 80 countries. Between smartphones, feature phones, and a round of second-generation devices, there are already about 20 HMD-made Nokia phones. It’s not pointless model spam either; Nokia’s seven current smartphones each occupy a unique price point, ranging from about $100 to $700. This is an absolutely outrageous amount of progress for a company that is only a year-and-a-half old—again, it’s all kind of curious. This doesn’t seem like a startup company at all. It feels more like someone walked into a dusty old Nokia factory, switched on the lights, and started churning out phones again.
Despite all its progress, HMD’s impressive scale hasn’t yet translated to profitability: the company posted a $77 million loss in 2017. It has only been a year, though, and it certainly seems like HMD’s off a good start. The company undoubtedly appears a lot more stable than the last billion-dollar smartphone startup, Andy Rubin’s Essential. Compare the first year for each: HMD diversified and launched, like, 12 phone models at a range of price points. Essential bet the farm on a single high-end smartphone, it didn’t sell well, and now the company seems to be circling the drain.
For now, the only bad thing I can say about HMD is that it has been tough to get these Finnish phones in the United States. The Nokia 6.1 is one of the few HMD phones that has made the jump to America so far, but there’s good news on that front. We’re scheduled to get more HMD devices in the US this year than we did last year.