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Nokia G21 review: A low-cost letdown

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
150
inc VAT

With just a few positives and more than a few negatives, the Nokia G21 is a bit of a disappointment

Pros 
Dirt cheap
90Hz screen for less
Clean version of Android
Cons 
Dreadful display
Mediocre battery life
Slow performance
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The world of budget smartphones isn’t as bleak as it once was. After all, there are plenty of terrific low-cost options to choose from these days if your buying budget can’t quite stretch beyond £200, and some aren’t much of a compromise, either.

READ NEXT: Best budget smartphone

What this means, however, is that competition is fierce. Motorola and Nokia, for instance, continue to be locked in a never-ending battle for budget supremacy, releasing smartphones at a feverish pace.

One of these is the brand-new Nokia G21, which hopes to pull ahead from Moto’s fleet of budget devices by bringing flagship-class features – namely a high refresh display – to the cheaper end of the phone-buying spectrum.

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Nokia G21 review: What you need to know

Nokia does this by keeping costs as low as possible in other areas. The most obvious example is that while the Nokia G21’s 6.5in display supports a maximum refresh rate of 90Hz, it’s still only a simple IPS panel with a 720p resolution – and, as you’ll see later in this review, it’s pretty dire quality-wise.

Still, for your (relatively little) money, there’s plenty to like. The phone comes with a clean installation of Android, which means no preinstalled apps or pesky software skins, with dual-SIM capabilities and a 50MP main camera. Processing is done by a Unisoc T606 chipset, complete with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of expandable storage.

Nokia G21 review: Price and competition

You get all this and a free case for just £150. Not bad considering the latest iPhone costs more than five times the price, right?

Except, as I mentioned in the introduction of the review, there’s actually plenty of competition to contend with. To start with, the G21 finds rivals in Nokia’s own corner, with the £160 Nokia 5.4 earning praise for its quad cameras and eye-catching design last year. The Moto G31 is another solid rival, with a great display and a long-lasting battery life for just £20 more (£170) and the upcoming Galaxy A13 (£179) might be worth checking out, too.

If you’re prepared to spend an extra £50 (£200), the recently launched Xiaomi Redmi Note 11 is a far better choice, with speedier performance, a boosted battery life, an improved set of cameras and a remarkably colour-accurate FHD+ display.

Nokia G21 review: Design and key features

Nothing is out of the ordinary in terms of design, but that’s hardly a bad thing. As with most low-cost Nokia handsets, the phrase “you get what you pay for” doesn’t really apply here, since what you’re actually getting is a phone that fits in nicely on the shelf next to handsets that cost twice the price.

Sure, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s made of plastic, but the construction is solid, with a textured rear panel and flat sides to ensure the phone fits nicely in one hand. It doesn’t flex when twisted with considerable force, either, although the lack of an IP rating and Gorilla Glass protection might be off-putting for accident-prone buyers.

On the flip side, consumer-friendly additions include a 3.5mm headphone port on the top edge, with space for two nano-SIMs as well as a microSD card. The Nokia G21 charges via USB-C at the bottom, delivering a maximum 18W of power to the phone’s large 5,050mAh battery.

I was sent the Nordic Blue model for review, although the phone also comes in a more muted Dusk colour. Other than the lack of protection from the elements, the only major downside is the chunky bezel underneath the screen, with an accompanying U-shaped hole-punch notch at the top.

Nokia G21 review: Display

The Nokia G21 is the cheapest phone I've reviewed with a 90Hz display. High refresh screens have steadily been trickling in from the high end lately, but you won’t find anything above 60Hz for less than this.

READ NEXT: The best phone battery life

It’s typical budget fare elsewhere, though. The resolution is just 720p, which on a 6.5in display gives you a weak pixel density of just 270ppi. Text and image outlines don’t look as crisp as they should, with jagged edges making things generally hard to read.

It’s pretty dire in the quality stakes, too. An average Delta E of 3.59 points to a screen that’s far from being considered colour-accurate, with wild inconsistencies throughout. The phone’s contrast of just 306:1 is also one of the worst I’ve seen in recent times, resulting in a washed-out viewing experience that lacks any semblance of vibrancy.

Brightness is so-so at 393cd/m², but the phone’s lack of contrast makes reading the screen in bright sunlight pretty much impossible. None of this is helped by poor viewing angles, either.

Honestly, I’m shocked that Nokia is okay with how this screen looks, and it’s a serious downside from what should have otherwise been the star of the show. Not to mention that the display just doesn’t feel very nice to use: response times are sluggish and scrolling can be quite juddery.

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Nokia G21 review: Performance and battery life

Perhaps things will improve in the performance stakes? Inside, the Nokia G21 uses the octa-core Unisoc T606, which is a 12nm chipset clocked at 1.6GHz. You also get 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, which is a bit measly but can at least be expanded further via microSD.

When it comes to processing speeds, what you’re getting here is a low-cost phone that can just about keep up with Android 11’s various actions and applications, but don’t expect day-to-day performance to be stress-free.

In the Geekbench 5 single- and multicore tests, the Nokia G21 scored 311 and 1,190, which is about on a par with the Moto G31, but trails slightly behind the Nokia 5.4. Predictably, not a single one of these phones is a match for the pricier Xiaomi Redmi Note 11.

Gaming is a slightly better story, with the G21 achieving an average onscreen frame rate of 25fps in the GFXBench Manhattan 3 onscreen test. Both the Moto G31 and Redmi Note 11 scored lower in the same benchmark, although it’s worth noting that the latter is rendered at a higher 1080p resolution.

Sadly, battery life is another weak point. The Nokia G21 isn’t anything special, with a score of just 17hrs 33mins in our standardised battery test. That might be a three-hour improvement on last year’s Nokia 5.4, but it’s nowhere close to the Moto G31’s result of almost 24 hours.

Nokia G21 review: Cameras

The Nokia G21’s primary camera is a 50MP (f/1.8) affair, and this is aided by a pair of 2MP depth and macro sensors, which are mostly redundant. You might not get much use out of these secondary lenses, but the good news is that the main camera is surprisingly competent for a phone as cheap as this.

READ NEXT: The best phone cameras

Images aren’t mind-blowing, but for the price, you’re getting pictures that have a good amount of detail, well-judged auto exposure and accurate colour representation. Some of the low-light shots are a bit on the grainy side, but there’s still a lot to like here.

I was particularly impressed with the Nokia G21’s portrait images, which for the most part captured my subject rather well. Portraits were well defined, facial features were captured nicely and there was plenty of background blur, too.

There are also a good number of shooting modes at your disposal. The Nokia G21 can capture slow-motion and timelapse videos, as well as stitched-together panorama images. Video quality is decent and is capped at 1080p 30fps.

Nokia G21 review: Verdict

That being said, I don’t think the Nokia G21’s cameras can do enough to outweigh the phone’s long list of negatives. Yes, the design is rather nice and the clean Android installation is always a positive, but the phone’s so-so performance and weak battery life don’t help the Nokia G21 pull away from the competition.

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Besides, we haven’t mentioned the display. I don’t say this often, but the Nokia G21’s screen is really quite poor, and that alone is enough to stop the phone from earning any sort of recommendation, no matter how cheap it might be. Do yourself a favour and pick up the Moto G31 instead – it might not have a 90Hz display like the Nokia, but it’s an OLED, so your eyes (and sanity) will thank you for it.

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