Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Nokia XR20

A while back, I got in a Nokia 800 Tough. A rugged phone from HMD running KaiOS. It's tough (as the name may suggest) and good for banging in nails with, but it wasn't mainstream Android. The XR20 is much the same rugged/tough body but yes, with proper Android - and even AndroidOne, with promises of updates and even replacement screens going forward. Is it worth the spend, I wondered. Let's find out.

One of the big concerns here was the chipset, being a SnapDragon 480. Seriously? A 400-series SoC? My mind went back to the now woefully inadequate Marshall London and various low-end Moto devices over the last few years, pushed out with a small budget in mind. Hold on though - as our good friend Mike Warner who knows about these things has looked into this modern incarnation of the SD4xx series and declares that things are not how they used to be and we can expect a much better performance now from this 5G-enabled version.

We'll come to all that, but first the device itself. It comes in a box with not much else really. Not even a charger! A cable and some papers with a promise of some sort of charitable donation from the firm for each unit sold to ClearRivers who keep plastics out of the oceans and encourage the buyer to get some trees planted post-purchase, on Nokia. It's not a cheap phone, but we'll see if the £449 (128GB/6GB) and £399 (64GB/4GB) is justified as we go forward here.

The phone is huge! It has a 6.67" screen but because of the thick rubber, IP6/8 and MIL-STD-810H armoury it's even bigger than the other hoards of 6.67" screened phones coming out of China with regular monotony! There's an aluminium chassis and Gorilla Glass Victus (the best there is just now, outside Apple's Ceramic Shield, also used on the top-end Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra) adding to the 'drop-to-concrete from 1.8m' coating along with 3-D NanoTextured back! All this adds up to a big and heavy device, weighing in at 248g. It's one of the heaviest phones I ever handled!

So you can drop it from great heights, chuck it in the (plastic-free) ocean, kick it around, use it as a football (as various promo videos have shown) and just generally abuse it as much as you like. The company further claims that in the first year of ownership if you break the front glass they will replace if for free! Wow! And actually, handling the phone you do get the impression that they're not kidding. Hammer nails, like the 800 Tough could! There's even a lanyard hole on the corner for those who wish to add a carry-strap!

The back of the phone is plastic, this 3-D texture thingie. It's supposed to be 'grippy' and whilst it certainly is more 'grippy' than your average glass (or plastic) back, it's not anywhere near as slip-free as a simple TPU case. Now, you wouldn't want to put a TPU case on this - for one thing, it would make it even bigger! But also, why worry! If it slips and you drop it, pick it up, repair the damage to whatever it hit(!), any carry on. A virtual guarantee of no damage. There are limits of course, one of which might be 70mph out the window, dropped on the M1. I'm guessing it wouldn't survive that - but who knows!

There's a big NOKIA in the middle of the back and a square camera island with two lenses and two LED flashes. I'll come back to that. The island is about 80% of the way up the back and central, covering the middle third of the width. At the bottom, there a USB-C socket, one of the two stereo speakers, microphone, 3.5mm audio-out socket and even a lanyard loop-hole! At the top, there's the SIM Card Tray and a red button which I'll come to, on the left is a sizeable, knurled, dedicated Google Assistant button (which can't be assigned to anything else - just on or off) and on the right, a volume rocker and capacitive fingerprint scanner doubled-up as a power button.

The edges are tough rubbery/plastic stuff round the top, bottom and corners, breaking into aluminium down both sides where mostly the buttons are housed. The buttons on the right feel like they are solid, industrial quality, but not so much the Assistant button on the other side, which feels like it has a tiny bit of play when encouragingly wiggled. Laying that aside, the whole phone feels very much what it is - a military-finish, industrial-grade brick!

The red button on the top can be assigned to (pretty much) what you like in terms of functionality for short-press and long-press - apps or functions, there's a big list. I have the short press assigned to music play/pause and long-press to torch. The play/pause works excellently well with all the four music players I've tried it with - even hours later, just picks up from where you paused - and the torch turns on based on the previously-used settings assignable in the drop-down Notification Tray shortcut.

If you long-press the Torch shortcut you get a picture of a torch with three settings of brightness. First button gives you one LED on, second gives you both and third, puts both of them on full-power. And it's blindingly bright! Don't look straight at it! There's also an SOS setting there too which, when tapped starts firing out a dot-dot-dot/dash-dash-dash etc. and appears to keep going while the phone still has power. You get the feeling that if you were stuck somewhere on a raft in the Atlantic, this would be genuinely useful as it's so bright.

The SIM Card Tray has space for two SIM 5G Nano Cards or one and a microSD Memory Card in the usual Hybrid way. Both SIM Cards can be used for 5G and both for data. It has the usual pokey-hole to get it out and it is, of course, rubber-sealed against the elements. The Assistant button does nothing more than any other way of invoking the Google Assistant, so take your pick - or turn it off, as I say. To be fair, in the few days I've been handling the phone I've not once pressed it by mistake, so probably fairly safe to leave on.

The capacitive fingerprint scanner is quick to set up and 100% accurate in use - first time/every time. You can assign the usual total 5 fingers to it but clearly the most useful are right thumb and index finger. Third finger of the left hand is also useful when stretching round the back, but to be honest, by the time you've done any of this, the face unlock has kicked in and works similarly perfectly well - maybe a bit too well as it worked today when I purposely covered my mouth and nose. It's quick to set up though, even with my beard! The power button works like you'd expect, firing up the lock-screen with options in settings to allow payment cards, connected equipment controls and so forth.

Handling is the biggest issue here. I do realise that it's all the trend to have bigger phones, but this really is bigger than pretty much all of them out there just now, certainly new and available. The screen is 6.67", then it has (what we consider to be in 2021) thick bezels - and then there's the rubber housing! There's no way I can get even close to meeting my thumb and index finger around the waist of the phone - this is a two-handed phone, most of the time. There's not even a quick-shrink option from Nokia as a one-handed mode here (outside of the usual gBoard option) that I can find in order to help with that!

As for me, those who follow my musings will know that I much prefer a smaller phone and being able to get everywhere on the screen one-handed - but hold on! Maybe I'm coming round! The few days that I've had this phone so far have shown me that maybe these things are not always about size - but also balance in-hand. The XR20, maybe because it is so thick and heavy, does indeed feel balanced in the hand and I am beginning to find that I'm OK with it. Honeymoon period, for sure, but usually I'd have given up by now on phones this size and be keen to polish off the review!

Another reason why I've not chucked in the towel is because of my love of the AndroidOne programme. HMD promise that this phone, arriving with Android 11, will get updated to 12, 13 and 14! That's the Google OS releases over three years ending with Android 14 for (period of currency) to autumn 2024 - and on top of that, four years of Security Updates, so to summer 2025. Good stuff indeed as these guys (and other Android phone manufacturers) try to get as good as Apple going forward. Who's to say that by then it might not be pushed even further. There is the reality of ageing hardware of course and the Snapdragon 480 SoC might feel very old by then anyway. I'll come to that shortly.

AndroidOne is a very clean implementation of Android which makes it feel very much like a Pixel experience. I was surprised to find three added third-party bloat apps on the phone during setup however, which is very much not like the AndroidOne I have experienced up to now and clearly HMD trying to make a fast buck. Fortunately, all three can be readily uninstalled for those of us who know what we're doing. Spotify, Amazon and ExpressVPN. Shame the party was spoiled a bit with that, but never mind. It's back to clean in a jiffy! The downside of AndroidOne is that you get very limited useful add-ons which others can enjoy such as Motorola's three-finger screenshot or Approach/Peek - or even the bells and whistles of a DeX from Samsung. It all feels a bit like they can do this if they want to, however, as Samsung offer similar levels of ongoing updates and support now - and also have all those extras. Depth of resources is key, to a large degree - HMD Global/Nokia having nothing like that of mighty Samsung, Xiaomi or Apple.

It's clean enough though. And Nokia have indeed slipped in a few of their own pearls, like the aforementioned torch for example - and even an Always on Display! I was surprised to see that even though others have done this with LCD screens (even Nokia have dabbled), it's mostly an OLED thing. The downside of this is that all of the screen is always on. So in a dark room, you can see the whole of the screen in grey around the clock/date and notifications. Which also means that the battery is given a hit it doesn't need. This is why you can turn it off in Settings if you prefer. I'd like to have seen a 'timed' option with this so it could be disabled automatically at night. Maybe Tasker or Action Blocks would sort this.

Double-tap to wake phone is available, lift to check and wake on incoming notifications also, so choices for all. AoD is pretty similar to the Nokia 9 PureView's in that it has digital clock, day, date and month then Notification icons below. Down the bottom of the screen there's a battery remaining percentage readout. If you invoke the options in the Google Assistant it will also show Android 12 style clock, notifications and display when it's charging - with two big numbers for minutes over two more for hour - all feels very Material You! So, unlike the otherwise great Moto Approach/Peek, you can see the time from across the room!

The LCD panel is 1080p and 20:9 ratio which returns 395ppi. It has a fixed 60Hz refresh-rate, which is fine with me - but notable that the likes of Realme and others are now almost standardising on not even 90Hz but 120! So I guess this isn't great for those with young eyes or gamers who can notice the difference. Better news is that it is capable of 550nits of brightness apparently and sure enough, to my eyes, when wound up on the slider, it looks more like an OLED for brightness and saturated bright colours than LCD. Remember the Nokia 8? Very similar. They're clearly getting better. You can also, if you like, adjust the colour temperature for warmth or cooling, but I think I prefer it at the default in the middle. As I said before, it's protected with Gorilla Glass Victus which will certainly help with breakage if not scratching - we shall see!

There's a selfie hole-punch lens at the top-centre of the screen which, yes, gets into eyeline when utilising the whole screen for watching a film, for example, but as usual with these things, the brain removes it after a while. There's an Enhanced Touch Sensitivity option which means that you can use it with gloves or when wet and so forth. I've tested this on/off with various gloves and materials and it does indeed make a difference - turn it off and gloved fingers struggle, on and it's fine. Maybe another reason why this screen couldn't be an OLED. Don't know. Otherwise, the screen is fine. Big, bright and colourful - as long as you're OK with the huge size!

The SnapDragon 480 5G (8nm) chipset which I referred to earlier does indeed seem to work pretty well generally. I have found some slowdown here and there when copying large lumps of data around and accessing some Settings searches, oddly. The 'on the fly' searching in Settings is dog-slow to keep up and refresh, whereas inside Chrome, for example, it's all very fast. So this could be bugs and optimisations which Nokia will fix with updates, rather than a slur on the chipset. Start running CPU Benchmark tests and results indicate that although a better performer than I thought it might be, this is no flagship.

The 128GB version here has 6GB RAM (the 64GB unit only has 4GB RAM) and switching between tasks presents no problems that I can see for normal day-to-day use. The internal storage seems fast enough on read/writes for all normal purposes for most people, the slowdown I refer to above is more about copying data from a computer or supposedly fast SSD, inside apps and so forth. There's also a microSD Card slot (taking up one of the nanoSIM slots) for those who want it and it's playing nicely here with my 512GB microSD Card. Plugging in a 2TB SSD to the USB-C socket (3.0) also presents no problem, except that slower performance in terms of copying data.

The phone's speakers are supposed to be very loud, 96dB is quoted by Nokia. Well, they are indeed loud compared to most phones I've tried, though I'm not sure that they reach 96dB. I suppose they must have tested this in perfect conditions to come up with the figure. My tests here indicate 89dB and the next-best (loudest) phone I have to hand here (Motorola Edge+) under the same conditions reaches 86dB. So, I don't know. It would be interesting to see how they test this! Of more concern though is the quality - as loud as they may (or may not) be, there's no control of the quality of output - so the 'loud' is tinny-loud. It needs more bass and the treble toning down. Of course, this can be done inside music apps (to good effect) but with no system-wide Dolby Atmos (or similar) you've lost that facility in, say, YouTube or any other service/app which doesn't offer equalisation. I think I was hoping for better here.

UpdateSteve Litchfield has found the speakers to be 'proper' stereo. There is a bug with the stereo which resulted in the 'Dual' switch to turn itself off randomly during the review period, which no doubt Nokia will fix. The speakers are the usual 'faux' stereo as Steve dubs it, as far as I can tell. If I block the bottom-firing speaker, the top ear-piece one output doesn't sound so rich and vice-versa.
As usual though I find that the overall experience is fairly well balanced and when the phone is 18" in front of the head, the balance of stereo seems fine and stage wide enough. The speakers don't switch round when the phone is turned, so the bottom-firing is always the right and ear-piece left. Which puts the volume controls on the top, so I guess it makes sense.

We do have a 3.5mm audio-out socket at the bottom of the phone and I've been testing here with a couple of pairs of reference and studio headphones. The output via headphones is not particularly loud (100% is fine for me but others would want 150% I reckon!) but there is a decent hike in quality over the speakers' output as we'd expect. Switch that to bluetooth headphones, testing here with the Sony set, and again as we'd expect, the quality and volume is much better, louder and of super quality. It's hard to fault bluetooth these days, here offering v5.1. Sony WH-1000XM4Sony MDR-7506/1, AKG K701.

The main camera is a 48MP f/1.8 unit supported by a 13MP f/2.4 (wide-angle) and an 8MP f/2 Selfie round the front. As usual, I'll pass you onto our resident pixel-peeper Steve Litchfield in the coming weeks who will get hands-on with this phone sometime in the coming weeks and come up with some thoughts. But as much as I'm not into digital photography from phones, I'm fairly sure that the outcome will be close to a 'yawn fest' as the camera interface is pretty boring and options dull. I sent over a few snaps to Steve who concluded on initial viewing that "they're not terrible". Which probably says a lot! However, for me and the 95% of people not expecting dSLR performance from a camera in a phone, the results are perfectly good enough for what the 95% will (want to) do with them.

One issue with the camera, which I'm assuming is a bug, is that if the camera app is not already in RAM, the first tap on the launcher icon opens up the app then immediately kills it! Tap it a second time, and it stays open. It must be some RAM allocation thing I guess and I would be confident that they will fix it in software.

Video shooting can be switched into 'Cinema' mode, which forces a full-width (1920 x 822) recording at 24fps and gives a bunch of manual controls. We're not talking Sony Photo Pro app here, but it seems to offer a bunch of options, including the OZO 'wind noise reduction' (not that it seems to make much difference) and various movie-centric 'filters'. The ordinary 'video' mode offers the OZO as well but not the manual controls.

There are some funky effects in the Portrait mode, some of which seem actually useful rather than designed to titillate the average young teen and their schoolfriends! Night mode does a reasonable job of processing images in dark corners if you hold still long enough for the capture and accept the noisy outcome and then there's a bunch of other shooting modes under a 'more' button including a Pro mode with those manual controls again. Close-focus is pretty poor compared to most that I've tried in recent times. There's a 'dual' mode to shoot from both cameras at the same time (with sliding partition), SpeedWarp which seems to be a speeded up version of TimeLapse (which is also present), Action to prioritise faster shutter speeds, presumably, panorama and slow-mo. Not very exciting, but maybe Steve will play with some of them - and test the OZO more thoroughly.

The phone has Qi Charging which it can execute at 15W with the appropriate charger, otherwise it's 18W by cable - if you buy one! They figure that people already have them (and haven't sold them on with their last phone)! The Qi Charging works well, after an initial blip where it seemed to 'stall' and I was waking up in the morning to a phone only charged to 90% or so. We did think that this was the phone being 'dumb' and not switching between top-up and charge, once charged to 100% at, say 2am. But on further testing, this seems to have stopped and the last couple of days it has been on 100% so maybe that's a mystery! Charging with 15W or 18W is fast enough for me and will protect the life of the battery, which users will be hoping will see them through the 4 year support/update time (at least) so a good idea to look after it by not charging routinely at/in silly-fast speeds/times.

The battery capacity is 4,630mAh, so certainly big enough for two days of average use (for me) here in my testing. The LCD screen and less-powerful chipset will of course help that and frequent top-ups where you can to assist too. I've run my usual 10% Reading Test and consistently get about 2 hours, from 100% down or starting halfway down the scale. Not terribly clinical, but I do have a level playing field for that test and have done for many years. Two hours is very good for 10% and in keeping with the expectation on size of battery.

Connectivity is good in all respects. Bluetooth range seems decent, WiFi (the phone has WiFi 6, incidentally) connectivity is strong and fast, NFC sees other gear well but I have not been able to test Google Pay at this time (though am assured from others that it works), GPS too - seems to lock on well to location quickly when using various services and apps and cellular (on 4G - sorry, can't test 5G) seems solid as I test with data and voice-calls. Sounding good at this end and that, clear and strong.

This is a great (and I mean BIG) phone, heavy, solid, built like a brick. It feels like it's a little overpriced, though Nokia UK are currently knocking £50 off. The corners have been cut with the chipset and the LCD screen, but the money has been spent on all that ruggedising stuff, certification for IP/MIL etc., ongoing support to gain the confidence of purchasers of OS/Security updates well into the coming years, louder-than-most stereo speakers, additions in keeping with the building site/adventurer/sportsperson like the bright, bright torch and that red assignable button. Glove-use and never being short of a hammer - or fearing a fall. They have insured against the Vectus screen breaking too - yes, this is where the cost has gone and when you drill down into that (not the phone - you couldn't!) perhaps the pricing equation is better than it first seems.

There's a lot of phone here, it has a pleasingly clean version of Android and even still AndroidOne, as close to the beating heart of Google you can get without a Pixel. I like it a lot and even though it may not always have my main SIM Card in it, I intend to keep it now that I have it to see how it ages - and to hold Nokia to their ongoing promise of support and insurance! I would recommend it to the right buyer, but you'd have to value the attributes for what they are - and not expect a flagship, curvy, sleek, jewellery-centric object of fashion and desire!

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