In years past, the name ‘Nokia’ had significant heft in the mobile phone market. Even in its Windows Phone-hued twilight years, it was a brand name that had cachet, one which was a byword for robustness and quality. That period, however sweet, has long since passed, and in the present its new owner has everything to prove.
HMD Global has been, for some time, trying to breathe new life into the legendary Finnish name, and has achieved some notable successes. The 5.4 is its latest ploy to reclaim a little of the luster that Nokia possessed, in the budget arena that it once owned wholesale.
Upon picking up the Nokia 5.4, the plastic frame and rear do not inspire confidence, however with use it becomes apparent that this is a tough little customer. It is very difficult to twist or flex, a testament to the thought which has gone into its design.
Aside from this, on the front you'll find an 19.5:9 aspect ratio screen, a punch-hole selfie camera, and a ‘Nokia’ logo, making this very much a generic 2021 phone through and through.
The rear is a little more daring, with a pleasing blue gradient (in our 'Polar Night' review unit) which catches the light at odd angles. The four cameras are housed in a circular arrangement which is clearly intended to invoke the legendary Lumia 1020, with a fingerprint sensor underneath.
This isn’t a phone which will stand out on the street, but it's one which very much feels as though it will stand up to the pressures of everyday life.
The screen, at 6.39 inches and 720p, is not a resolution champion. At this price point, and below, good 1080p panels have been utilized by the competition, notably Xiaomi, for some time. That the Nokia 5.4 misses out is a shame, as text and games can appear noticeably jagged.
On other points, for saturation and brightness, we were pleased, however. The panel isn’t washed out and it's viewable outdoors, but the overall impression isn’t great.
This impression continues when it comes to the chipset and performance. The Snapdragon 662 is not a new chip, and paired with 4GB of RAM it is enough to see Android perform reasonably but never excel. Opening heavy apps and complex games will see frame rates plunge, and in general navigation a number of noticeable ‘hiccups’ will occur with inconvenient regularity. Multi-tasking is generally a chore.
Cameras are not a strong suit either. Having ‘quad’ before the word ‘cameras’ is sometimes a sign of valuing quantity over quality of output, and here that rule applies. The 48MP main shooter turns out hugely over-sharpened 12MP stills in good daylight, and things go south from there - the 2MP macro shooter is a particular disappointment.
The 5MP ultra-wide sensor captures little detail too, and possesses only a very narrow dynamic range. Camera performance at this price point is only improving with time, here Nokia appears to have missed the memo.
Battery life is a generally positive area, however. We found that it was never possible to defeat the Nokia 5.4 across a single day of usage, and that it was equally impossible to make it reliably into a second day. Fast charging is available, although there is no fast charger available in the box. Standby times were a particular high point, emphasizing the efficiency of the software as well as the size of the battery.
Software is an interesting mishmash, with Nokia - through HMD Global - taking a distinctly different approach to the competition. Where others are going their own way with Android, Google included, Nokia is steadfastly sticking to an almost ascetic, ‘pure’ version featuring only Google apps.
On the one hand, this means that the interface is generally uncluttered and simple, and on the other it means the device is almost completely devoid of personality. Though certainly usable and simple, many of the ‘value-adds’ offered by the likes of Samsung are nowhere to be seen.
Other positives include the presence of a 3.5mm headphone jack, a loud and clear speaker arrangement, and surprisingly solid Bluetooth audio chops, offering a solid connection that other phones often lack.
The budget phone market is one of the most competitive around, as everyone wants a slice. Nokia has the brand name awareness, but with the 5.4 it doesn’t necessarily have a phone which is going to leave a mark.
With a plastic design, bland software, poor cameras and a cut-price screen, it has many of the perceived negatives of going ‘budget’ without corresponding returns. With a killer feature, or stellar performance in a specific area, the sacrifices may have seemed worthwhile, but currently this is a likeable phone which is nonetheless completely outclassed by its competition.
Nokia 5.4 release date and price
- Out now in the US, UK and Australia
- Costs $249.99 / £159.99 / AU$329
The Nokia 5.4 is available now in the US, the UK and Australia, with prices starting at $249.99 / £159.99 / AU$329. It's available in a choice of Polar Night or Dusk, also known as blue or purple.
- Robust plastic build
- Unreliable fingerprint scanner
- Feels lacking for the money
If classic Nokia was known for one thing, it was design. Though it didn’t always produce the most chic or stylish handsets, the brand had a reputation for producing phones which could take every knock, crash or bang in their stride without flinching.
This was understandably easier in the days when phones were smaller, lighter and made primarily of plastic. Nonetheless, the Nokia 5.4 has clearly been produced with robustness, if not outright ruggedness, as a goal.
The handset weighs a not inconsiderable 181g, it definitely has a presence in the hand but its overall heft inspires confidence. It is well-balanced too, which makes one-handed use easier in general.
On the front can be found the 6.39-inch screen and a punch-hole camera, and below these there's a muted Nokia logo. The right side of the device houses the volume rocker and power button, complemented by a Google Assistant button on the left, a headphone jack up top, and a USB-C port on the bottom. The Google Assistant button cannot be remapped to another useful function, which is unfortunate.
Housed on the rear of the device in a circular ‘Oreo’ can be found the four cameras, with a fingerprint sensor underneath. We found this to be generally unreliable and a bit of a liability in day-to-day use, so hopefully the performance is something which can be tweaked with a software update.
Despite the plastic frame and rear, the Nokia 5.4 feels well-constructed, though decidedly not premium. At this price point we would have liked to have seen something as a value-add, at the moment the device feels no different than something priced even lower.
Whether extra glass in the construction, a little aluminum or an extra flourish, a little extra je ne sais quoi is needed to justify the entry price.
The available color options, blue and purple (Polar Night and Dusk) are both pleasant enough if understated - either will fit into everyday life easily.
- 6.39-inch 720 x 1560 screen
- Reasonable quality but can't match the competition
We know in 2021 that resolution, though important, is not everything. The iPhone 11 is a device costing upwards of $599 / £599 / AU$999, which also comes with a ‘HD+’ panel in tow, so such a panel on a handset with a lower asking price should therefore be excusable.
The 6.39-inch LCD display on the Nokia 5.4 is certainly competent. It can get decently bright and so competes well with strong sunlight, and it represents color well, if a little cool for our liking. All well and good then, except when the question of the competition is raised.
Most, if not all, of the competitors to the Nokia 5.4, especially from Xiaomi, offer 1080p panels at the same price point (and sometimes lower). This is a good panel, but at 720 x 1560 (and around 269 pixels per inch) it doesn’t have the numbers to compete in the marketing game with a suite of players that is only growing bigger and stronger with every passing quarter.
The 19.5:9 aspect ratio keeps the device relatively svelte in the hand, if a little tall generally. This extra height of course provides extra reading space, though the relatively low resolution means that text is often noticeably jagged.
In all, while this display will certainly be good enough for most people, most of the time, there is a lack of ambition present, which is to the detriment of the overall feel of the device. A phone should ideally not feel exactly what it costs, the Nokia 5.4 unfortunately does.
- Quad-lens camera but the lenses aren't great
- Intuitive camera app
- Washed out colors in photos
Camera quality is, of course, almost the primary metric by which phone performance is measured. Where performance, battery life, display quality and more have all plateaued in terms of their potential for the moment, and at the price point, there is still ground to cover for cameras.
Google took a huge leap in 2020 with the Pixel 4A, offering highly competent camera performance for $349 / £349 / AU$599, and the moment is ripe for a similar leap at an even lower price point. Despite Nokia’s historic camera chops, the Nokia 5.4 is not a performer in this area.
It does come with four snappers on the rear and one on the front. These are the standard 48MP f/1.8, 2MP macro (fixed-focus), 5MP ultra-wide and 2MP depth sensor pairing, with a 16MP selfie camera up front.
The camera app takes clear inspiration from the Google Camera app available for Pixel devices. Options are clearly laid out and simple, it will never be a barrier to quick photo taking. An oddity is the inclusion of a ‘cinema’ mode, which intends to allow more control over video capture. Reminiscent of ‘pro’ modes in other smartphones for still shooting, the extra options are welcome, if not well-explained.
General performance is a mixed bag. Photos are usually quick to take, but suffer from a number of issues. Chief among these is over sharpening. Every edge comes highlighted with a tell-tale halo, with foliage in particular suffering. Although photos will look okay zoomed out at a fit-to-screen size, going any closer will reveal oil painting-like textures.
Dynamic range is generally lacking, color tends to be washed out and cold, and the app will generally take a while to get a focus lock, which can be an irritation. The macro camera is, as with almost every other 2MP sensor at the price point, completely useless, while the 5MP ultra-wide captures with neither detail nor dynamic range and so also struggles to justify its existence.
The included Night Mode does the usual software tricks to improve low-light performance, being several long exposures merged. In general it produces better low-light pictures than the ‘standard’ shooting mode, with more detail and color brought out, but it doesn’t challenge the best.
Video performance is especially lacking, capped by the low bit-rates available, while selfies are at best competent. Footage captured with the cinema mode engaged can look a little like ‘bigfoot discovery’ b-roll submitted to mystery shows - which is not a flattering comparison.
At the budget level, there are always compromises to be expected - and the camera on the Nokia 5.4 feels like a big compromise. Although there are moments of promise, and generally competent performance, this is an area where the competition is doing more, and better, leaving the Nokia outgunned and outclassed. One good sensor rather than four middling options would have been a very satisfactory alternative.
Specs and performance
- Snapdragon 662 chipset and 4GB of RAM
- Generally acceptable performance
- Struggles under pressure
Long gone are the days when buying a budget phone meant a significant sacrifice in terms of speed and experience compared to more expensive models. More often than not, and especially at the $200/£150+ range, modern handsets come running decent chipsets paired with enough RAM to keep things trundling along well.
The Nokia 5.4 falls nicely into this bracket. It uses a Snapdragon 662 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, which should be enough storage for most across the duration of a standard two-year phone contract.
Built on a 11nm fabrication process, the Snapdragon 662 promises a marriage of performance and efficiency, and we found it made its way through Android without too much of a hitch. It does not take much to cause the Nokia 5.4 to build up a sweat, however. Any heavy app or form of multitasking will cause noticeable lag.
In Geekbench 5, the phone achieved a single-core score of 307 and a multi-core score of 1,387. While artificial performance metrics do not translate into real life experience, this is nonetheless a reasonable result for the price bracket.
The generally acceptable performance is aided at least a little by Nokia’s pared back approach to software. This is a conscious decision on the part of the firm, offering close to what used to be called a ‘stock’ version of Android.
The effect is somewhat diluted now by the presence of so many ‘Google’ branded apps which are now a core part of the Android experience. The lack of any Nokia software on hand means that this feels more like a ‘Google’ phone than a ‘Nokia’ phone.
It then also means that the phone is almost completely generic to use. It works well, the launcher is cleanly laid out, and it is simple to navigate, but there is no sense of a designed experience being approached. Nokia’s approach to software is defined almost more by its absence than any particular idea.
More philosophical points aside however, this is a phone which will function perfectly well for most. An added bonus is Nokia’s stated commitment and decent track record for offering long-term support for updates, meaning that this device has a degree of future proofing to pad out its useful lifespan.
- 4,000mAh battery
- Easily lasts a day
A strange trend which has developed over previous years has been the emergence of stellar battery life as a hallmark particularly of budget phones, especially when compared to their more expensive high-end counterparts.
This is due often to a pairing of a large capacity battery with a low-power chipset, which describes well the situation with the Nokia 5.4. Although its pack will not trouble the likes of the Moto G9 Power, at 4,000mAh it is nonetheless sizeable.
In general use, bearing in mind that this is during lockdown - with a lot less travel than might be possible in ‘normal’ times - we were never able to kill the battery before the end of any particular day.
On our heaviest day, using the device as a sat nav for around an hour, listening to an hour of music over Bluetooth, and generally responding to messages and watching videos, we were able to eke out over four hours of screen-on time.
This will not be representative for many, as performance in this area will hinge on particular use cases, but it is encouraging. For most kinds of users, this will be a phone which will meet their needs and then some, though power users may wish to look elsewhere.
A pleasant inclusion is reasonably fast charging. Although it will not trouble the likes of the Realme 7, we were able to top up by around 40% in 30 minutes.
Should I buy the Nokia 5.4?
Buy it if...
You want long-term software support
Nokia has promised at least 3 years of security updates for the 5.4, which is more than you'll get on even some phones that cost a lot more.
You need dependable battery life
This is a device which will last all day every day. That said, it probably won't stretch to two, and many cheap phones last longer.
You want a clutter-free Android experience
Aside from the necessary Google add-ons, the Nokia 5.4 has no bloatware installed.
Don't buy it if...
You value a good camera experience
The cameras on this device are disappointing and turn out sub-par images. There are a lot of them, but it's definitely a case of quantity over quality.
You want the best quality screen
With a relatively low-resolution, reading in particular on the Nokia 5.4 can be unpleasant.
You are a power user
No part of the Nokia 5.4's spec sheet is designed to excite the user or outdo the competition. More powerful options exist elsewhere.
First reviewed: March 2021