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Nokia XR21 Rugged Phone review

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Nokia XR21: 30-second review

Where the majority of rugged phone designs are hefty items that would constitute a blunt instrument if referenced in an assault case, the Nokia XR21 has taken an entirely less bludgeoning approach.

What customers get with the XR21 is a large but modestly weighted phone that has the rugged specification that enables it to cope with being dropped, used in the rain and in generally inhospitable environments.

We’ve seen the same approach previously from Lenovo with its Motorola-made ThinkPhone concept, and the XR21 bears an uncanny resemblance to that design.

The ThinkPhone wasn’t cheap, and at over $500, the XR21 isn’t either. Most phones costing this much have a more powerful processor, additional RAM and extra storage.

That’s not to say that the Snapdragon 695 5G is weak, but it is not the fastest SoC made by Qualcomm.

Disappointingly, the XR21 storage can’t be augmented because the SIM tray has no MicroSD card option. That’s annoying, and the camera, while workable, isn’t at the level we’d expect at this price point.

Overall, this design ticks all the rugged boxes nicely and is a practical phone to use as a daily driver, but it has more of a challenge justifying its price.

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Mark Pickavance)

Nokia XR21: price and availability

  • How much does it cost? From $499,£549
  • When is it out? Now
  • Where can you get it? Direct from Nokia or through an online retailer

Coming in Black and Green colours, the UK cost direct from Nokia is £629.99, although that assumes you don’t offer a trade-in phone that reduces the price to £549.99. As a sweetener, Nokia is bundling the Nokia Clarity Earbuds 2 Pro with the phone.

This phone doesn’t come with a charger in Europe, but Nokia will provide one with the 33W charging specification for £29.99.

Oddly, considering that Nokia is a European brand, USA customers get a much better deal. The US cost of the XR21 is just $499, but there are no Earbuds or trade-in options. This American model is unlocked and works with the following US carriers: Boost, Cricket, Go Talk, H2O Wireless, Metro, Mint, Simple Mobile, T-Mobile, Tracfone, AT&T.

Considering that this phone only has 6MB of RAM and 128GB of storage, the price is high. The comparable Motorola ThinkPhone comes with 8GB and 256GB and costs less than $400 on Amazon.com.

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Mark Pickavance)
  • Value score: 3/5

Nokia XR21: Specs

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CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 5G
GPU: Adreno 619
RAM: 6GB LPDDR4X
Storage: 128GB UFS 3.1
Screen(s): 6.49-inch IPS 120Hz 450nits
Resolution: 2400×1080
SIM: Dual Nano SIM (no MicroSD)
Weight: 231g
Dimensions: 168 x 78.58 x 10.45mm
Rugged Spec: IP68/IP69K, MIL-STD-810H compliant
Rear cameras: 64MP Main, 8MP Ultrawide
Front camera: 16MP
Networking: WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.1
OS: Android 13
Battery: 4800mAh (Max charge 33W)
Colours: Midnight Black, Pine Green

Nokia XR21: design

  • Elegant
  • No MicroSD card
  • Left aligned cameras

In the past few years, we’ve seen some monstrous rugged phones that are so big and heavy that they’re not very practical for daily use. Thankfully, the XR21 isn’t one of those, and while it is large, the 231g weight makes this an easy phone to carry with big enough pockets.

The external features of this phone are a combination of the familiar with a few unexpected twists. On the right side is a volume rocker and the power button that doubles as a thumbprint reader (for the right-handed), a very typical arrangement.

Our only reservation here is that the thumb sensor is very narrow, and it’s also shorter than the thickness of this reviewer’s thumb. That would suggest that recognition accuracy won’t be the best, as it detects a small slice of the possible data set.

On the left is a custom button, with an additional redefinable button on the top edge along with a 3.5mm audio jack. Where the card slot is normally on the left, for whatever reason, it ended up next to the USB-C charging port on the bottom edge.

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Mark Pickavance)

On the subject of the SIM card tray, this accepts two Nano-sized SIM cards but no MicroSD card. Making the 128GB internal storage the most that this phone will ever have. If Nokia had included 256GB with this phone, maybe that might have been fine, but with 128GB total, the XR21 isn’t ideal for those wanting to capture 4K video.

The rear of the phone has a subtle texture, making it easy to grip even when wet, and other than the projection of the camera cluster, it’s entirely flat.

With a relatively modest internal battery size and a flat back, it may sound like the perfect combination to offer wireless charging, but Nokia passed on that, too.

What’s slightly confusing is why the cameras are offset to the left, as this just makes it marginally more difficult to take accurately framed pictures.

Overall, the design of the XR21 isn’t anything wonderful, but it also isn’t horrible. It won’t annoy too many people unless they’re left-handed, like wireless charging or need more than 128GB of storage.

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Mark Pickavance)

Design score: 4/5

Nokia XR21: hardware

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 5G
  • Big bright screen
  • Modest battery

As its name suggests, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 5G mobile platform supports 5G communications for regions with that technology, but it also works with 4G for those without it.

This SoC uses the Kyro 660 CPU and combines it with the Qualcomm Adreno 619 GPU to provide a boost to generated graphics and video rendering. The CPU consists of two 2.2GHz Kyro Gold cores for performance and another six Kyro Silver cores running at 1.7GHz for more power-efficient running.

In a direct comparison with the MediaTek Dimensity 1080, the Snapdragon 695 is slightly quicker, but not dramatically so. That makes it significantly less powerful than the latest Snapdragon 7 and 8 devices.

The strengths of this silicon are that it supports the NX bit and has a well-defined Trusted Zone mechanism, both providing better hardware security.

The maximum amount of memory the Snapdragon 695 can address is 12GB, but Nokia decided not to provide all of that, with just 6GB in the XR21.

But the issue here isn’t that. It’s the relatively lacklustre GPU that Qualcomm saddled this SoC with that’s potentially a bigger issue. While workable for light gaming, it’s not up to rendering 3D with much fluidity. But Qualcomm only created this as a chip for budget devices, so how it ended up in a premium-priced Nokia is probably the important question.

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Mark Pickavance)

The screen on the XR21 is a 6.49-inch IPS panel which supports 120Hz operation and has a quoted brightness of 450nits. Despite being bright, the screen surface is shiny, making it challenging to read outdoors.

In keeping the weight down, the biggest factor is inevitably the battery, and the XR21 only comes with 4800mAh. That’s plenty by standard phone specifications, but for a rugged phone, it’s modest or even on the low side.

This doesn’t make this the ideal choice for a wilderness trek that lasts more than a couple of days unless you are also prepared to take a power pack to recharge. Ironically, it undermines the point of having a lighter device.

Balancing the relatively small battery capacity, it does recharge quickly if you have a USB-C power supply that supports 33W charging.

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Mark Pickavance)
  • Hardware score: 4/5

Nokia XR21: cameras

  • 64MP Main sensor
  • 8MP Ultrawide
  • Only 1080p video recording

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Mark Pickavance)

The Nokia XR21 has three cameras:

  • Rear cameras: 64MP OmniVision ov64b40, 8MP OmniVision ov08d10 ultrawide
  • Front camera: 16MP OmniVision ov16a1q

Typically, OmniVision is the sensor maker that budget phone makers use for their macro or wide-angle support sensors, where the main sensor is often Sony or Samsung in origin.

Nokia decided to commit entirely to OmniVision for all the sensors, front and rear, maybe to get a better deal on price.

The 64MP OV64b is a 2020 design and was OmniVision’s first 0.7 micron 64MB sensor built for thin smartphones. It uses the classic pixel-binning technology to deliver a 16MB capture with enhanced colour accuracy and sensitivity. It can capture at the full 64MP resolution but with a reduction in image quality.

In theory, the OV64B supports 8K captures at 30fps, but in this implementation, the best on offer is only 1080p at 60fps.

As compensation for these limitations, the camera app has a wonderful selection of special features that include slow motion, SpeedWarp (hyperlapse), night mode, dual rear and front shoot, flash shot, panorama and Pro.

Overall, this is one of the better-supported camera tools we’ve seen on a rugged phone, which only makes us wonder why it is limited to 1080p video. Our conclusion is that the 128GB of storage was the controlling factor in that choice since the OV64B is capable of much more.

The results are generally acceptable, although the AI functionality is somewhat ham-fisted in its approach to sharpening and tends to give the processed images a less-than-desirable hue. We found that turning it off yielded better results most of the time.

The snag with the cameras, other than the lack of 4K video, is that compared to the latest Samsung sensors that many Chinese rugged phones use, this isn’t cutting-edge technology. Those wanting a rugged phone for photography can find cheaper phones with 108MP sensors that are superior in most respects.

To end this section on a positive note, this is one of the few phones we’ve seen with Widevine L1 video decryption, enabling it to get the best quality video from streaming services like Netflix and Disney+.

Based on the natural resolution of the display (2400 x 1080), watching shows in movies in 1080p (1920 x 1080) should be possible from many services.

Nokia XR21 Camera samples

  • Camera score: 4.5/5

Nokia XR21: performance

  • Budget SoC
  • Lacklustre GPU
  • Quick battery charging
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Benchmark Test Nokia XR21 ThinkPhone
Geekbench: Single core 670 1314
Multi core 1935 4259
OpenCL 1392 6357
GFX Aztec OpenGL Standard 19 117
Aztec Vulcan Standard 19 126
Car Chase 17 85
Manhattan 3.1 30 120
PCMark: Score 9163 16474
Battery 16h 38m 15h 25m
% gained in 30m charge 25 55
Passmark: Overall Score 9574 16525
CPU Score 4397 8080
3DMark: Slingshot OpenGL 4154 Maxed Out
Slingshot Extr. Open GL 2957 Maxed Out
Slingshot Extr. Vulkan 2734 Maxed Out
Wild Life 1212 2840

Given the similarities between them, it seemed useful to compare the Nokia XR21 with the Lenovo (Motorola) ThinkPhone.

For Nokia, these numbers might make for difficult reading since the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 makes diced sushi out of the Snapdragon 695 but in a cheaper phone.

The only place where the XR21 makes any gains is in battery life, where I managed roughly an extra hour of running time. However, the ThinkPhone will charge faster and can get the entire battery capacity back in under an hour.

What’s slightly annoying about these results is that the ThinkPhone doesn’t post scores for most of the 3DMark tests because it maxes out the software.

The XR21 will run these tests, but that’s because it is substantially slower.

Of the graphical challenges, the GFX tests demonstrate that if you want to play games, the XR21 isn’t the phone of choice.

Overall, the Snapdragon 695 was a poor choice for a premium phone since it doesn’t offer the power that that sector expects.

  • Performance score: 3/5

Nokia XR21

(Image credit: Nokia)

Nokia XR21: Verdict

The XR21 is a confusing product because it seems to assume that the Nokia brand is something more than it justifies, considering its dramatic fall from grace as the leading phone brand in the world.

While even this gnarled reviewer has a little nostalgia for old Nokia’s, it wouldn’t make me pay an extra $200 or more for the joy of owning one over what the XR21 should truly cost.

As well-engineered as it undoubtedly is, this is a budget SoC with a limited amount of RAM, storage and a mediocre amount of battery. None of these things translate into a must-have phone design, and those who specified this device must have known that.

If it costs less, we’d be talking more about the clean lines and power-efficient SoC and less about how the XR21 doesn’t meet the expectations of its premium price tag.

Should I buy a Nokia XR21?

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Oukitel WP30 Pro Score Card
Attributes Notes Rating
Value A budget processor, 6GB RAM and 128GB of storage doesn’t add up to this price or close. 3/5
Design Elegant for a rugged phone, but the lack of wireless charging or a MicroSD card slot is a concern. 4/5
Hardware A budget Snapdragon delivers efficiency but not performance. 4/5
Camera Limited cameras that aren’t recent designs. At least it has Widevine L1 video decryption. 3.5/5
Performance Gets blown away by the cheaper Motorola ThinkPhone 3/5
Overall Expensive for this specification 3/5

Buy it if…

Don’t buy it if…

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