Nokia has been making phones for a long time, both under its own steam and as a brand of HMD Global. The company's smartphones cover a wide gamut of price brackets. And the Nokia 5.3, priced at $200 or sold via Amazon for less than $180 and recently sent to me for review, is among the most affordable in its lineup. But does that equate to a good value?
As often as not, devices sold at under $250 are either carrier-locked or terrible in one way or another. More often than not, they're terrible in more than just one way. That isn't an apt description of the Nokia 5.3. While there are plenty of tradeoffs, this device will more than satisfy most users' needs in nearly every regard.
But that's an over-simplification too, of course. So let's dig in and see how Nokia 5.3 really performs under a deeper review.
The 5.3 hardware is Nokia, through-and-through
The hardware here has a decidedly 'Nokia' flair and that means at least a few things, right-out-of-the-gate. First, it means comfort. Nokia and its parent company have been making phones for a long time. And nearly all of its phones follow a similar profile of curved edges, rounded corners, and build-quality.
My Nokia 5.3 review unit met those expectations. There were no sharp edges, no big frame gaps, and the back of this phone is curved just slightly to fit better in-hand.
Being built under the Nokia brand also means that the colors for this device have distinct details. For starters, this phone looks great in the "Charcoal" color that was sent out for review. It's also available in Cyan blue or an orange-tinted Sand hue. Under different lighting, as shown in the images below, different tones are brought forward from a matt gold-tinted gray to deep green and blue-tinted black. All accented by a great-looking gray frame and silver buttons.
On build-quality, this phone also feels solidly built. Each of the buttons and ports clicks through as they should, hinting at a long-life to come. The built-in rear-mounted fingerprint scanner is quick — as is face unlock.
And, because this phone seems to be built from a metal frame, with a glass panel and plastic at the back, it should be more durable against drops too. At least drops that don't land on the face of the device. The back will scratch more easily but it won't shatter like glass will. And there aren't any unwanted clicks, creaks, or groans from the body of the Nokia 5.3 either under pressure.
Instead, users are given a solid handset, with a sturdy build taking precedence over unnecessary or tacky stylization.
The sole caveat here seems to be that Nokia doesn't make any mention of an IP rating. So it may be best to stay away from overly-dusty or wet environments.
Nokia 5.3 display sticks with what works
There is effectively just one complaint that's really noteworthy when it comes to how the Nokia 5.3 display performs under review. And that's a small one. Namely, this display has much bigger bezels, especially in the chin region, than a 2020 smartphone should have.
Now, that's not going to cause any big issues for anybody and there are worse things that could be going on at this price. Especially as that pertains to clarity, color accuracy, and responsiveness. On all of those points, the Nokia 5.3 hits the nail right on the head, matching most devices in the mid-range without issue.
The screen is also more than bright enough for outdoor use in direct sunlight. That's something not even flagships can always guarantee. As noted in the title of this review, this smartphone is reliable first and foremost. And that may be apparent nowhere more prominently than in the display.
The only other notable thing that some users might take issue with is the waterdrop notch. Most OEMs are moving on to punch-hole cameras at the front. But that will come down to personal design preference more than anything else. It's not big enough to really get in the way on day-to-day use.
Performance comes close to perfection and then drops steeply with multitasking
Typically, under review, I put devices through a few separate tests for performance and I did so with Nokia 5.3 too. First, I run the most intensive apps and games I can find. Then I test day-to-day apps like Chrome, texting, and youtube. And then I multitask with at least 3 apps each from the games, day-to-day, and system-level apps running at once.
Here, this phone nailed down the quality of performance in all categories. Although it did struggle when I turned the in-game quality settings up on a few titles. Such as PikPok's Into The Dead 2 and Activision's Call of Duty Mobile. Namely, by showing a bit of jitter on the graphics side. But, during multitasking, things didn't hold up quite so well.
That caveat became most apparent while running games and day-to-day apps simultaneously in a split-screen view. The apps would hang for a moment after accepting input and app-switching would too. But it was also apparent in general multitasking, whenever more than a dozen or so apps were opened. And, with more than a dozen extra apps installed and a dozen apps running, even system-level apps started having a hard time.
As noted in the display section, the inputs on the display side were still on-time. The issue seemed to be with the performance of the apps themselves, here. As long as the number of currently-running apps is kept below nine or ten, performance stayed on point. So it shouldn't be a dealbreaker for the overwhelming majority of users. However, it's worth being aware of, even if that is above and beyond what many similarly-priced devices can accomplish.
The battery is the biggest shortcoming of this smartphone
The battery drain that I saw with this phone is, of course, subjective. Not everybody is going to go so far as to kill off battery-saving features and turn the brightness up all the way up, as I did for my review of the Nokia 5.3. And not every app drains the battery the same. Individual use aside, there are already too many factors to provide an accurate picture of how the battery will drain for you.
With that said, I did manage 6-hours and 26-minutes of screen-on time. And most of that was spent gaming with some web-connected multiplayer titles. 2-hours and 30-minutes, to be exact. I spent a little over an hour-and-a-half streaming video and music. And a little short of two-and-a-half-hours in intensive day-to-day activities. Those ranged from checking email and messaging to video calls and web browsing.
But the battery only lasted a total of 12-hours and 46-minutes during that test. While the longevity of this handset is easily be extended by turning battery-savings on and adaptive brightness, it's not great under intensive use. Especially since standby only drained a percent from the battery percentage.
Charging up isn't much better either. The first half of the charging was quick at more than 2-percent per minute. But once it hit 50-percent it slowed down significantly. Overall, charging to full took 2-hours and 15-minutes.
Audio with Nokia 5.3 is good but the best feature is its variety
Smartphone speakers, with only a very few exceptions, are awful. While the speakerphone and mics work as expected with Nokia 5.3 — better than the price would seem to suggest — that's not the highlight of this phone. Bass and power are not going to be highlighted on that front, at any rate. Since those perform as might be expected too.
Not only does Bluetooth 4.2 offer a great experience as we'll discuss in the connectivity segment of this Nokia 5.3 review. The device also has two other options for listening. First is the obvious example, shown in the image above. Nokia is sticking to its guns on the 3.5mm audio jack. That's going to be great news for anybody who still holds that wired standard audio is the best.
But, for those who want a bit more and maybe slightly higher-quality audio, USB-C audio output is present and accounted for too.
That means, in effect, there are three options for audio output aside from the speakers. All of those, except USB-C is slightly quieter than I'd liked to have seen. But the quality is on-point and direct device casting is also built-in. So, taken together, the arrangement represents one of the widest available set of audio options on any smartphone.
Software on Nokia is vanilla Android One program
On the software front, users can expect no extras in Settings or in the app drawer. For some users, that arrangement may actually be annoying or boring. But, for others, it means a vanilla Android 10 — and eventually Android 11 — experience. And less than a single page of apps installed, even accounting for the app drawer's "recent apps" bar.
Only around 24 apps were installed out-of-the-box when I first turned on my Nokia 5.3 review unit. That includes Google's suite of apps from Assistant and Calendar to YouTube Music. And it includes the usual AOSP apps. So Phone, Contacts, Clock, Calculator, and a couple of others were installed. But there aren't any other extras to take up space. No Facebook and no Amazon-affiliated apps, for instance.
The only extra is Nokia's My phone app for support, the Nokia community, diagnostics, and app recommendations.
As a result, the software here is smooth and unflinching, right out-of-the-box. And that extends to the software behind the face unlock, fingerprint security, and every other software-related experience too.
Nokia 5.3 has an acceptable camera for its price, with one exception
Like the rest of the software in the Nokia 5.3, the camera was decidedly minimal and straightforward during this review. That's not at all to say it's basic though.
In fact, the trimmed back approach allowed autofocus to work much more quickly than might be expected at this phone's pricing. And it stayed that way no matter what filters and beautification tools I had enabled. Even with HDR and other features turned on. Moreover, the same held true for color accuracy and detail, as shown in our sample gallery for this handset on Flickr, although Macro Mode was hit-and-miss.
Now, this camera isn't as fully-featured as some others. There are no AR effects and the only AI present at all are those associated with scene detection. But those aren't going to be a big caveat since there are plenty of great camera apps out there to supplement. Where this camera failed to impress is the same area most phones, even at twice its cost, fail to impress. Namely, on night shots.
Those, even with a tripod, turned out mostly blurry and felt effectively detail-free. Only with a decent light source did they turn out well at all and in those circumstances, the primary camera seemed to do just as well. Even in dimly-lit settings in daylight, such as in a heavily shaded area indoors, a lot of detail is lost. So while the camera is better than comparatively-priced devices, almost perfect for its value, it's not necessarily great.
Connectivity on Nokia 5.3 isn't bleeding-edge but doesn't need to be
It just about goes without saying that the Nokia 5.3 is an unlocked device. The only carrier that isn't explicitly listed on its Amazon page is Verizon, the sole remaining non-GSM carrier. Or at least, the only one without accounting for Sprint — slowly being absorbed entirely by T-Mobile. So it also goes without saying that Nokia 5.3 performed in spectacular fashion during my review on Google Fi using US Cellular and T-Mobile towers.
In fact, it performed better than just about any handset I've reviewed at this price within the last several months on the connectivity front. LTE signals were at full bars where I'd typically have just two or three with some other gadgets. And Wi-Fi connections are just as solid, taking full advantage of my home 200Mbps network.
Better still, quite aside from the inclusion of NFC, hotspot tethering, and 'Chromecasting' all working as would be expected at a higher price, Bluetooth here was more solid than most mid-rangers and flagship-killers I've tested. That's only Bluetooth 4.2 with support for up to aptX. But the connection just seemed to stay solid better and at a greater distance than many other devices.
So this phone not only contains every connectivity feature you could want — aside from bleeding-edge tech like Wi-Fi 6 — but they all work great too.
Yes, Nokia 5.3 is an easy-to-recommend smartphone if you're on a budget
Nokia 5.3 is yet another device to prove that phones don't have to be very expensive to be very good. At least, for those who don't need stunning night captures, dozens of apps open at once, or the fastest-charging battery tech. On those fronts, this Nokia handset falls short of the expectations set elsewhere and that can be, or at least it will be for some users, a jarring experience.
Where this device really shines is in terms of its minimalist approach to smartphones. Stock Android via the Android One program means this phone will almost always be up-to-date. And that there aren't a lot of apps contending for attention immediately upon unboxing. A worthy daytime camera, all the bells-and-whistles on connectivity except the bleeding-edge technology, and great audio options round things out.
The Nokia 5.3 is going to be well worth the consideration for the overwhelming majority of users. If not one of the best options around.