With everything that’s happening in the Indian smartphone market — The coronavirus pandemic, a war cry against Chinese smartphones and increasing competition in the budget segment, HMD Global’s Nokia has remained in the sidelines so far. The company had a big launch planned during MWC but after the tech-show was cancelled, Nokia announced a bunch of smartphones via an online event for Europe. The Nokia 5.3, which was announced back in March, finally launched today in India, armed with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 SoC, a quad-camera setup and more. With strong demand for non-Chinese brands (Nokia is indeed one of the few non-Chinese players in India), can the Nokia 5.3 make the switch over from Chinese smartphones worth it? You can watch our video for a quick take on the Nokia 5.3, or read our in-depth review to know more.
Even while most mid-rangers under Rs 15,000 are coming with MediaTek’s chipsets, Nokia chose to stick to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 SoC, the chipset that powered by the Redmi Note 8, the Vivo U20, among many others last year. It’s unclear why Nokia had to stick to using an older mid-range chip, especially given how closely it works with Qualcomm in introducing new chipsets in their smartphones, but the gulf in performance is significant when compared against its Chinese rivals — The Redmi Note 9 and the Realme 6i. Both of them are powered by MediaTek’s G-series chips, tuned for gaming and high performance. And the Snapdragon 665 does not seem able to keep up —
Benchmark scores peg the Snapdragon 665 lower than even the MediaTek Helio G80 powering the Realme 6i and the Narzo 10, while the Note 9 is a cut above all. This is consistent across all benchmark apps we ran, to test CPU and GPU performance.
Having said that, it’s important to note that benchmark scores given by MediaTek chips can be deemed inadmissible for comparison. MediaTek chips can detect when a benchmark app is running and puts the CPU running at peak capacity for only the duration of the test, resulting in scores higher than what you’d get under normal circumstances. Despite that, the gap in scores between the Snapdragon 665 are still too significant, and this factor can be negated.
The Adreno 610 GPU in the Nokia 5.3 had so far proved inferior to the competition, but Call of Duty: Mobile allows the phone to run at ‘Very High’ graphics, not that the experience is anything to be happy about. At the highest graphics settings, CoD: Mobile on the Nokia 5.3 manages a paltry 28 FPS, but with 100% stability. The gameplay feels sluggish as a whole, but there are no additional frame drops. So if you can get used to playing at low frame rates, you wouldn’t mind a few rounds on this phone. But this one’s not good enough for the ongoing Call of Duty: Mobile Championships.
As for PUBG Mobile, the graphics can only be pushed till ‘balanced’ and frame rate set to medium. During our 15 minute test of a battle royale match in Erangel, the Nokia 5.3 felt similarly slow and sluggish, but no additional frame drop, even during intense gunfights.
Nokia is one of the few brands that are still committed to Google’s Android One programme, and the Nokia 5.3’s software is the same as the Google Pixel, sans the Pixel-exclusive features. With no additional third-party apps, the Nokia 5.3 is the cleanest Android skin to use, and also the simplest. Nokia has also been quite consistent with its update rollouts, and the Nokia 5.3 has been promised to get at least two version updates in its lifetime.
Despite the Pixel-like software, the experience of using the phone is far from smooth. The smartphone feels slow and sluggish in daily use and requires a lot of patience for daily usage. That’s because even the first-party apps like Dialer, Camera and Gmail take upwards of 5 seconds to launch from cold. Small things like auto-rotate will take ages to trigger. Multitasking will make the phone crawl and there’s nothing like a dedicated gaming mode to please gamers.
So even with an ad-free, no-frills Android skin, the Nokia 5.3 struggles to offer an experience that’s reliable enough for prolonged daily use.
The camera is what the marketing claims will be the reason to own this phone. Well, the 13MP primary camera at the back is indeed a good shooter. But the other three lenses could do much better to take on the competition. The Nokia 5.3 lacks the large-format 48MP and 64MP cameras common for the mid-range segment. Neither does the phone rock the Zeiss branding we expect from Nokia smartphones.
Yet, the daylight output from the 13MP primary camera is crispy sharp, with adequate dynamic range and saturated hues. The photos can be shared on social media without much editing, and the shutter response is fast enough after the initial 5-second wait to launch the camera app.
In low light, even with the Night Mode turned on, the Nokia 5.3’s camera feels horribly outdated. The low-light shots come out shaky, full of noise and with no detail whatsoever. You can just barely make out the frame you’ve shot. Nothing more. The photos can’t even be saved in post-processing.
The 5MP ultrawide lens produces good photos when the light is optimal but the quality goes down swiftly when shooting indoors or under low light. The Night Mode also works with the ultrawide lens, but the results are of no good.
There’s also an 8MP selfie camera that produces good selfie portraits but relies heavily on beauty filters that smoothen the facial details.
With nothing in the smartphone that can draw too much power, the Nokia 5.3 manages well over a day with a 4000mAh battery on board. The battery consumption is conservative if you just stick to browsing, texting and calling. But running the benchmark apps, heavy use of the camera, watching an episode of Black Mirror on Netflix and playing a 30-minute match of PUBG Mobile will drain the battery by evening. The Nokia 5.3 also charges with just 10W power. There’s no fast charging support on this one.
Design and Display
So far, the Nokia 5.3 has turned out to be a strictly average smartphone, far behind the competition it faces. But the design of the smartphone hides that fact. Like most Nokia smartphones, the R&D team has put exception attention to detail, carving a smartphone that’s ergonomic, non-slippery and easy to use. The material is plastic and there’s Gorilla Glass 3 protection on the display, but it’s the finishing that exudes premium, while the little attention to detail like the breathing notification light on the power button makes it all the more useful.
The 6.53-inch display, however, takes away from the exquisite design. The 720p resolution can be made out when placed beside the Redmi Note 9, and it’s barely visible out in the sun. There isn’t much to write here except to ask readers to tone down the expectations when it comes to the display quality.
In all, the Nokia 5.3 comes out as a missed opportunity for the brand. With strong demand for non-Chinese smartphones in the market, this could have been the right moment for HMD Global to swoop in and capture the market, but the Nokia 5.3 would be an inferior choice amidst the likes of the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9, Realme Narzo 10, and even the Samsung Galaxy M20, all of which are better than the Nokia 5.3 in at least a few aspects. Then again, the Nokia 5.3 will be more readily available than some of the best options in this price range.
The design and the daylight camera output is what the Nokia 5.3 gets right, and the battery lasts a day. The software too is a good differentiator, provided you can bear with sluggish performance. Where it falters is in gaming, low-light photography and overall performance. All things said and done, you can give this one a skip.