An oddly similar concept to the Motorola ThinkPhone. The XR21 is a robust but elegant design that stands out from cheaper Chinese rugged options. However, for the hardware inside, this price seems implausibly high.
Lighter than many rugged phones
Dual custom buttons
No MicroSD card support
Camera is underwhelming
Cost is excessive for spec
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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: 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.
- Value score: 3/5
Nokia XR21: Specs
|Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 5G
|128GB UFS 3.1
|6.49-inch IPS 120Hz 450nits
|Dual Nano SIM (no MicroSD)
|168 x 78.58 x 10.45mm
|IP68/IP69K, MIL-STD-810H compliant
|64MP Main, 8MP Ultrawide
|WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.1
|4800mAh (Max charge 33W)
|Midnight Black, Pine Green
Nokia XR21: design
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Hardware score: 4/5
Nokia XR21: cameras
- 64MP Main sensor
- 8MP Ultrawide
- Only 1080p video recording
The Nokia XR21 has three cameras:
- Rear cameras: 64MP OmniVision ov64b40, 8MP OmniVision ov08d10 ultrawide
- Front camera: 16MP OmniVision ov16a1q
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
|Aztec OpenGL Standard
|Aztec Vulcan Standard
|% gained in 30m charge
|Slingshot Extr. Open GL
|Slingshot Extr. Vulkan
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: 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?
|A budget processor, 6GB RAM and 128GB of storage doesn’t add up to this price or close.
|Elegant for a rugged phone, but the lack of wireless charging or a MicroSD card slot is a concern.
|A budget Snapdragon delivers efficiency but not performance.
|Limited cameras that aren’t recent designs. At least it has Widevine L1 video decryption.
|Gets blown away by the cheaper Motorola ThinkPhone
|Expensive for this specification
Buy it if...
You need a phone to go outside
Want to go hiking or on a building site? Then the XR21 is a decent replacement with reasonable battery life and a workable camera, but inside a package that can handle rain, dust and being dropped.
Want to travel light
At around 231g, this is one of the light and rugged designs that doesn’t trade practicality for waterproofing. However, the Motorola ThinkPhone is even lighter at around 189g and has a better processor and a larger battery life.
Don't buy it if...
You are expecting a bargain
The cost of the XR21 is excessive, given the specification. Surely, at this price point, it should have a better processor, cameras and more memory?
You need more than 128GB of storage
Most phones have 256GB or even 512GB these days, so finding one with just 128GB is something of a culture shock. But the XR21 doesn’t even offer the excuse of more storage using a MicroSD card slot. Avoid if you like to capture lots of video.
Doogee S100 Pro
Using the G99 SoC and 104MP camera sensor, this is a marginally more powerful option. But with a price tag of $400, this is also much cheaper than the Nokia. You get a huge 22000mAh battery for the investment, making it last longer on battery power but also much heavier to carry.
Read our Doogee S100 Pro review for more information.
Lenovo ThinkPhone by Motorola
Another lightweight rugged design, sold by Lenovo outside the USA and under Motorola branding inside that region.
A much cheaper option that nets you the superior Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 SoC, 8GB of DDR5 RAM and 256GB storage.
Read our Lenovo ThinkPhone by Motorola review for more information.
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Mark is an expert on 3D printers, drones and phones. He also covers storage, including SSDs, NAS drives and portable hard drives. He started writing in 1986 and has contributed to MicroMart, PC Format, 3D World, among others.