Nokia has been making smartphones for quite some time and among the latest of those is the Nokia 5.4 — recently sent to Android Headlines for review. Following on the Nokia 5.2 and Nokia 5.3, this phone is planted firmly in the budget segment of the range. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be a budget experience.
Some things that Nokia is known for, and that continues here, are design and software. In the case of Nokia 5.4, the company isn’t stepping away from those central tenets either. In fact, the latest in its line-up brings a fresh take on a classic, timeless design and brings the latest that Android has to offer with Android 10 and planned updates to Android 11. But that’s not all it brings to the table.
From improved battery life to a better camera and audio, Nokia 5.4 is a true successor to its forebearers. And that makes it a phone to watch, at a price of just $249.99, if you’re in the market for a budget-friendly smartphone. Let’s take a closer look at how this phone did under testing.
How has Nokia evolved the hardware for this generation?
Nokia’s 5 and 7 series phones are, as it stands, a staple in the mobile world. The company has consistently put forward its best foot on design and the hardware always feels great in hand. Even if the best materials aren’t always in use.
In the case of the Nokia 5.4, my review unit arrived in a Polar Night coloration. It’s also available in a purple/magenta Dusk color. In both cases, that color fades from the center of the phone to a near-black hue. With a grid- or carbon-fiber-like pattern etched just underneath and only visible in the right lighting. The color itself, in fact, is only fully visible at the right angle and under proper lighting. Put simply, the effect is stunning.
At the center of the back panel, near the top, Nokia has held true to its camera and fingerprint scanner placement as well. And the curved edges of the phone, combined with the placement of those elements, ensured that my hands almost never went anywhere near those unless I intended to.
Of course, those decisions also equate to a phone that feels and looks much more luxurious than it actually is. While all of the ports and buttons are solid and well-built too. That’s setting aside how snappy the fingerprint sensor here is.
The primary caveat to that design is going to be a matter of subjectivity. Namely, because glass isn’t used and because the phone is so shiny, fingerprints stick out like a sore thumb. More to the point, I found it almost impossible to keep the screen or back panel either dust- or fingerprint-free. That’s going to be a problem for anybody who wants a phone that looks great without putting a case on it.
The other caveat is that Nokia still insists on branding the phone both on the front and back. Whether by happenstance or by design, that makes the front lower bezel — around three times as thick as others — feel unnecessary.
In terms of design changes from the Nokia 5.3 to 5.4, the biggest or most noticeable change is that the camera’s LED flash has been moved. It used to sit in the center of the camera array. But now sits to the left when viewed from the back.
Other changes are more subtle. This phone feels much better in hand than previous iterations and definitely feels more solid. The company doesn’t mention a water-resistance rating at all though. At least not so far as an IP rating goes. It is meant to be both dust-resistant and water-resistant, according to some sources. But it will still probably be a good idea to keep the Nokia 5.4 away from overly dusty or wet environments.
This Nokia has a great display but it’s also one of the shortcomings
Nokia 5.4 ships with an HD+ 6.39-inch display panel at the front. On paper, that doesn’t sound all that great since HD+ — as opposed to FHD or FHD+ — is technically only 720p in at least one direction. Specifically, with a 720 x 1560 pixel resolution. Moreover, that really is going to be too low for some users.
In reality, the panel used here is crisp and clean, with deep blacks and bright colors in every app I tested this phone with. Albeit, not as deep as on phones that don’t use IPS LCD screens. The display on the Nokia 5.4 was also incredibly responsive under review though. With zero or near-zero latency in touch interactions so far as I could tell and so far as most users will notice.
The biggest caveats then come down to the bezels and brightness. In the first case, the surrounding bezels are slim and serviceable on three sides. But the lower bezel, as noted above, is three to four times as big. And that feels like it primarily comes down to the inclusion of branding on that bezel.
Screen brightness could ultimately end up being the bigger problem for some users. While it is bright enough for all indoor use cases I tested under, it doesn’t seem to get much brighter — even at max brightness — from around 40-percent brightness. And that does mean that outdoors, under bright lighting conditions and direct sunlight — it becomes harder to see. Not impossible to see, of course. Those days are long behind us for most smartphones. But difficult enough that it can’t be described as a great experience.
Battery charging is acceptable but longevity is the name of the game for Nokia 5.4
Now, Nokia claims that its 5.4 can achieve up to two full days of battery life under the right conditions and my review seems to confirm that. With display-brightness maxed out and battery savings turned off, I easily saw seven hours of screen time. That’s from an overall stretch of around 24-hours. And that could certainly be extended simply by turning on auto-brightness and other battery-saving features.
Of course, battery life is ultimately subjective. And the majority of my time was spent in light-to-moderate mobile games and on YouTube. Those who are playing more intensive games will likely see less. And those who hardly ever play games, listen to music, or watch videos will undoubtedly see more.
Setting that aside, charging the device up is a far less individual matter. Using the included charger, the Nokia 5.4 fuels up at around one percent per minute — though it starts a bit faster than that. That’s all the way up to around 50-percent, where the speed drops off. It took right around 2 hours to recharge completely. That’s quite a bit slower than some users might prefer but, given the long battery life and how fast the first segment charges, isn’t bad.
In fact, it’s above-average overall. This means that Nokia hasn’t traded off in favor of charging speed with a smaller battery. Or used an oversized battery to gain extra hours of use. Instead, it’s just managed to give users great battery life with one that won’t any longer than usual to fill back up.
Specs and performance from Nokia 5.4 are par for the course but not exceptional
Now, Nokia 5.4 — as noted at the beginning of this review — costs just $249.99. And users probably shouldn’t expect too much from their phone at that cost. In fact, given the price, 4GB of RAM feels like more than enough. 128GB of storage, conversely, feels better than average. This phone will store a lot of great photos, games, apps, and music.
Where that all seems to come crashing down is on the software side. Or maybe the Snapdragon 662 chipset. That’s definitely powerful enough to drive through just about any application that could be thrown at it. With the noteworthy exception of professional-grade video and photo editing software. And I noted as much during my review, with the latter apps taking quite a bit longer to respond and finalize edits than usual.
It didn’t do quite so well on the mobile gaming side of the equation. The primary OS is, of course, buttery smooth. As we’ll discuss momentarily, this is running near-stock Android. But even with light mobile games such as Free Rider HD or Golf Blitz, Nokia 5.4 jittered on more than one occasion. In the former title, on more than one occasion, the app crashed entirely.
As seen in the battery segment of this review, I didn’t turn any battery-saving features on during my review. So it isn’t immediately clear where the problem stems from. Other phones running similar chipsets haven’t given me nearly as many issues in games. So this could be a software problem. And, if that’s the case, it will get fixed. Nokia has, after all, been far better than most competitors when it comes to providing updates. Particularly on less powerful hardware such as the Nokia 5.4.
There’s also a 6GB variant available in some regions which may perform better. But Nokia sent out the 4GB RAM variant to Android Headlines.
All of that is to say that this phone works exceedingly well as a daily driver. But if you plan to buy this for a gamer or are a gamer yourself, this may not be the one to pick.
Audio is getting better this generation, still not phenomenal
Now, the predecessor to the Nokia 5.4 — the Nokia 5.3 — was awful under review when it comes to smartphone speakers. They were better than might be expected for the price. But they were also still incredibly tinny.
The Nokia 5.4, conversely, does away with the problem of coming across as quite so grating. While it still lacks power, as all smartphones do, especially in the bass end, they are definitely more representative across the spectrum. And they’re as loud as ever too. Thankfully, Nokia 5.4 follows the example set by previous series devices. Namely, that it keeps both USB-C audio output and includes a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.
Both of those features go a long way toward correcting issues seen in the on-device audio. And, although USB-C audio is a bit higher quality, both provide exactly the experience you’d want on this front.
One disappointing aspect though is that Bluetooth 4.2 is still in use. While almost lossless and workable, especially when it comes to connecting other things, this just isn’t up to the standard I’d expect. Even for a budget smartphone. Bluetooth 5.0 has been around since 2016. And Bluetooth 5.1 has been around since the beginning of 2019. So this is not at all the latest standard, let alone the best for audio.
With so few changes between the Nokia 5.3 and Nokia 5.4, a Bluetooth update is one change I absolutely expected to see. And it’s a disappointment that it’s nowhere to be seen.
With that said, the Nokia 5.4 still represents among the widest array of options when it comes to audio output from a smartphone. So it definitely has that in its favor.
This series’ cameras just keep getting better
No fewer than four cameras are included on the back of the Nokia 5.4. Those are a 48-megapixel main sensor, a 2-megapixel sensor for depth, a2-megapixel macro sensor, and a 5-megapixel ultrawide sensor. That’s in addition to the 16-megapixel front camera.
Now, we could go on and on about technical specs for those cameras. But specs so rarely align directly with real-world experiences that it renders that discussion effectively pointless. What really matters is whether or not this camera churns out great photos. And for the most part, it does.
During my review of Nokia 5.4, there were only a few caveats I noted — mostly coming back on user issues. First, hand-shake can be a real problem for getting clear shots with this phone. I don’t necessarily have the most steady hands, to begin with though. So that seems to be a problem with the user since other shots, where I was steadier, turned out great.
Night mode also still leaves a lot to desire with this generation. While the camera has gotten better for Nokia on that front, images were still grainier than I’d have liked. Especially in the lowest lighting levels. On the other hand, bright backlighting had a tendency to throw forward all kinds of artifacts in photos. Albeit, only when the backlighting was brighter than what most users will encounter. And zoom shots on this phone are effectively pointless to try and take. They’re blurry. Full stop.
Otherwise, this camera performs better than its predecessor effectively across the board. As shown in our sample gallery via Flickr. Color capture is accurate, detail capture is high, and wide-angle shots are sweeping and well caught. The camera software itself is intuitive and easy to use. Complete with assistive software for helping switch to the right mode at the right time.
Nokia 5.4 is as close to stock as it gets, updates and all
One thing that Nokia has always been great with under review, and that includes the Nokia 5.4, is software. Their iteration of Android stays just about as close to stock as it’s possible to be without being a Pixel handset. That’s because this phone is in the Android One program.
Because of that, Nokia 5.4 didn’t include a massive array of bloatware from the moment I turned it on. Instead, the only aftermarket apps I saw were Netflix and Amazon’s shopping app. Google Play Movies (now Google TV) is included, as are other Google and YouTube apps. There’s a near-stock calculator, a “My Phone” app for direct access to Nokia, and an FM radio. But, overall, the apps don’t even fill a single page of the app drawer.
All of Android 10’s gesture-based navigation, dark mode, and other features are intact too. Paving the way for a great user experience, for those that would rather download their own preferred apps.
In terms of jitter and slow-downs, the Nokia 5.4 only showed those in some of the games I tested this phone with. The primary operating system and pre-installed apps are all buttery smooth and lag-free. Better still, Nokia is among the top OEMs when it comes to updating its handsets. So users should expect years of regular security patches, at the very least.
4G doesn’t really feel good enough for the modern world, even at this price
Nokia 5.4 performed brilliantly on the connectivity front under review — with a few exceptions as noted earlier here. The biggest drawback and this is a big one to my mind, is that it doesn’t ship with 5G in any form. Instead, users are stuck with 4G LTE and VoLTE — which feels like a letdown in 2021.
Now, 4G still works and isn’t going away anytime soon. And most carriers are still offering consistently better 4G than 5G. But that should be changing soon and phones are a long-term investment even at this phone’s price.
Setting that aside, 4G did work great under every circumstance I tested. And Bluetooth 4.2 was still workable for everything but the best audio experience.
The big draw for Nokia 5.4, on the connections front, is that it comes with both dual SIM support and an extra slot for a microSD card. That means that users can expand storage, up to 512GB, without taking away the ability to connect to two networks. Or to separate networks for work and personal usage. Both SIM slots are nano-SIM too. And that’s a bonus since that’s the most common SIM size in use now. If you happen to be a business user or just want more options for data and talk connections, this phone is going to suit that need perfectly.
Is Nokia 5.4 worth the upgrade?
When it comes to the overall value for the money, Nokia 5.4 hits a genuine sweet spot. And, of course, this phone will undoubtedly join the ranks of our top budget smartphones in the near future, following this review. On battery life alone, it deserves that distinction. But, as noted above, it’s not great for games or the most intensive apps at all.
With all of that said, the performance was the only real caveat to be found here. And that’s not so bad as to lower the overall score by much at all. Conversely, this phone does more than enough to make up for that small discrepancy elsewhere. So if you’re in the market for a sub-$250 smartphone, this could definitely be the one for you.
The camera, audio, and other small caveats are to be expected at this price. And, in fact, aren’t so bad as to warrant much of a second glance. At least not at this price point.
For great battery life, a beautiful HD+ display, color-accurate fast-operating camera, stock Android 10 and soon 11 without bloat, and more, Nokia 5.4 is a force to be reckoned with. And, if you happen to be coming from the Nokia 5.2 or 5.3, it’s definitely worth the upgrade.