Nokia XR21 2023
The Nokia XR21 has a split personality. On the one hand, it is tough as nails with IP68/69K/MIL-STD-810H, and on the other, it has a lightweight processor as your daily smartphone drive.
Please don’t take that as bad because all rugged phones make compromises. For example, the Cat S42 H+ also has IP68/69K/MIL-STD-810H and a lightweight MediaTek SoC driving it.
So our advice upfront is that if you want rugged, the Nokia XR21 is pretty much as good as it gets. If you want a phone with an SD695 5G SOC, look at the Nokia G60 for far better value. And you can stop reading now!
In this case, it will withstand (without the need for rubber port protection)
Currently, the only phones in Australia with this rating are Cat S42H (Cat S42 H+ 4G – rugged, rubberised, and tradie-proof), Cat 62 Pro, and Motorola Think Phone (Motorola ThinkPhone – for thinking people).
You may want to read our guide on Waterproof phones – fact or fiction.
Australian Review: Nokia XR21 2023, 6/128GB, DS Model TA-1486
We use Fail (below expectations), Passable (meets low expectations), Pass (meets expectations), Pass+ (near Exceed but not class-leading) and Exceed (surpasses expectations or is the class leader) against many of the items below. These are based on the price bracket as well. You can click on most images for an enlargement.
We strongly advise you to buy a genuine model with Australian firmware. It is easy to identify the Australian version – under Settings>About Device>Regulatory, there is an Australian RNZ C-tick mark. There is also an RNZ C-Tick on the box. They use unique Australian 5G sub-6Ghz and 5G low-band frequencies, requiring local activation first. Read Don’t buy a grey market phone (guide)
As we said earlier, the prime reason to buy is for its rugged IP68/69K/MIL-STD-180H rating. Otherwise, stop reading and go and buy a Nokia G60 with the same processor and similar specs at RRP$549 (on sale at $349). That is what I would do!
Nokia XR21 achieves a rugged rating without too much tough-looking kit. Gorilla Glass Victus provides a 1.8M drop rating, the TPU corner bumpers and rear case help, and it is IP68/69K without rubber covers on the ports.
It is a 2400 x 1080, 20:9, 60/120/Adaptive, 8-bit/16.7M colour, IPS LCD screen. While it is pretty bright 450/550 nits Typical/Max with decent 1200:1 contrast, its colours are slightly muted. It also has limited off-angle viewing and is hard to read in direct sunlight. Widevine L1 is for streaming FHD SDR movies.
It is not a bad screen at all – but we feel for a rugged device, it should be far brighter and more daylight-readable. Nokia has a one-year screen replacement warranty to show its confidence that the screen will not break.
The screen can be used with gloves and wet hands.
Nokia XR21 uses a Qualcomm SD695 5G System on a Chip (SoC), providing adequate power for typical smartphone use. It is not a bad SoC or fit – just not what we expect in a $799 phone. You can read complete benchmarks here.
It is not a gaming powerhouse – you need to buy an SD8 series, but it will play PUBG and browser-based games at 30fps on medium settings.
Nokia XR21 has good thermal management, especially for a sealed IP68/69K phone. The SoC barely throttles. While that is not crucial for a mid-range device, you can be a heavy user and still get full power.
Nokia XR21 has a dual SIM or SIM/eSIM, DSDS (one active at a time), and dual ring tones. It finds the closest tower at up to 2.5pW (good). While it finds the other three towers, these are unusable.
This is strange as the SD965 5G X51 modem usually performs very well. We suspect the lower signal strength is a casualty of the IP construction.
Phone Summary: For the city and suburbs only where you have good tower coverage.
It has a 4800mAh battery and is rated for 33W charging. There is no charger inbox – Bad Nokia (Samsung, Google etc.).
Nokia claims it has an 800-cycle recharge life (before it falls below 80% charge capacity), which is above the typical 500 charges for Samsung, Apple, and Motorola. Only OPPO offers more on some phones at 1600 cycles.
Despite the 33W rating, it only ever charged at 5V/2A/10W. We tried Belkin 30/65W, Google Pixel 30W, Anker, Cygnet, other chargers and 3 and 6W cables.
It should get two days of typical use. However, the video loop is short of expectations at 14 hours 35 minutes – similar SD695 SoCs give at least 18 or more hours.
We suggest you buy the $39.95 Nokia 33W QC 3.0 charger. We tested with a range of chargers with PPS and PD with 3.3-11V/3AS/33W, 11V/3A/33W, 12V/2.5A/30W and still only got a 10W charge. We don’t like your chances of a faster charge.
It has an earpiece and bottom-firing speaker – a typical stereo phone setup.
Nokia claims 96dB @10cm max loudness. It uses 2 x Awinic AW882 SmartPA 5.2W amplifiers that typically produce closer to 80 dB at one metre. We tested 81dB (loud enough).
The sound signature is mid for clear voice – not music. That means no low/mid/high-bass, late mid, and no treble.
The sound stage is as wide as the phone in landscape. But a distinct bias to the bottom speaker means poor Left/Right separation.
Bluetooth 5.1 BLE is very good with SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX TWS, aptX Adaptive, and LDAC codecs.
Hands-free calls are excellent.
Let’s just say you can drop this from 1.8m, drown it in 1.5 metres of water, and then pressure hose it. The camera sensors are protected with Gorilla Glass with DX+, which lets 98% of light through.
It launched with pure Android 12, so three OS upgrades take it to 15. It also has four years of security patches to 2026. This is a keeper.
While it is pure Android, Nokia has succumbed to taking payment to include bloatware, including Amazon Music, Amazon Shopping, Booking.com, Express VPN, GoPro Quik, LinkedIn, Netflix, Quickstep and Spotify – all of which are easy to uninstall.
It uses a 64MP (bins to 16MP) Omnivision OV64B sensor. Omnivision is an up-and-coming sensor maker that offers a lower cost than Sony or Samsung. It is fit for purpose.
The 64MP does most of the work. There is an 8MP Omnivision OV8D for Ultrawide shots and for ‘Capture Fusion’ shots (both sensors capture a bracket of shots, and AI uses the information to create a better picture). It uses the SD695 AI to estimate depth for bokeh (no depth sensor) and Night Vision 2.0.
Video is 1080p@60fps without Qualcomm EIS (electronic image stabilisation) and 1080p@30fps with EIS – a 5.4X crop to the horizon to keep the image stable electronically.
All that aside, the shots are not as good as expected. I think Nokia has more work to do on software updates. Daylight shots lack HDR definition; anything past 2X digital zoom is a waste of effort, noise could be reduced, and it needs more dynamic range. Night capture 2.0 needs more vibrant colours, less noise, sharper images, and better focus.
Let’s just say that it is better than social media class and has potential for improvement.
You will have made it this far if you set out to buy a rugged phone.
I have the Motorola ThinkPhone, Cat S42H and B40 handy to make comparisons. Cat rugged phones tend to look ‘blokey’ with thick rubber bumpers. I can attest to their durability, but they also use fairly low-powered SoCs.
The $999 Motorola ThinkPhone delighted me as it was Carbon fibre/Kevlar/Armid elegant, had a powerhouse SD8+ Gen 1 SoC, 8/256GB, USB-C 3.1 5Gbps port, <1hour 5000mAh 68W fast charge, excellent camera, and a very bright 6.6” AMOLED screen. If you have $200 more, this is the choice.
If you don’t, then for $799, the Nokia XR21 is reasonable value. There is a specs comparison here.
Features: 85 – It has everything you expect from a mid-range phone with an SD695 SoC and 6/128GB. The bonus is its rugged form factor.
Value: 70 – If you compare it to the plethora of SD695 phones, it is overpriced. If you compare it to rugged phones, it is reasonable value.
Performance: 80 The SD695 is fit for purpose. The camera needs work. Battery life is good. The screen could be more daylight-readable.
Ease of Use: 95 – Pure Android and an excellent 3+3+4 warranty/OS/security patch policy.
Design: 85 – It is thick, heavy, and rubbery but is still a good-looking glass slab overall.Australian Review: Nokia XR21 2023, 6/128GB, DS Model TA-1486it only ever charged at 5V/2A/10WThrottle testTest Boost Mobile, TelstraIn the boxSecurityFront