Nokia might just have hit the ‘affordable rugged phone’ sweet spot with the Nokia XR20. It’s a reasonably priced, super-tough phone that isn’t awful to use.
That might sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I’m really not. Rugged phones are typically very good at the ‘rugged’ bit and not so good at the ‘phone’ bit, and with very good reason.
As a rugged phone manufacturer, the sheer investment required to make your smartphone atypically drop, heat, dust and water-resistant is surprisingly high. That means you have to cut corners with the internal specifications, at least if you want your rugged phone to come in at a price that hard-working people are willing to pay.
Case in point: the recent Motorola Defy. Built like a tank and competitively priced at £279, it nonetheless performs about as well as a normal phone worth less than half that amount. Its first line of defence against damage is that you don’t want to use it much.
Nokia has elected to bump everything up a notch. At a slightly higher price of £399/€499, it retains its affordability. But a competent processor, display, and camera, as well as one or two unexpected luxuries, ensure that it just about passes muster as a modern smartphone.
Design & Build
I’ll deal with the Nokia XR20’s rugged credentials in the next section. What’s most striking about it, though, is that it’s relatively pleasant to handle.
At 10.6mm thick and 248g, it’s no one’s idea of a slim and pocketable modern smartphone. It’s a tad slimmer than the Defy, but also 16g heavier. For further context, even the monstrosity that is the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra weighs a mere 234g.
Despite this, the Nokia XR20 doesn’t feel like a war-ready tool. The colour of my Ultra Blue model (it also comes in Granite) serves to soften that military-industrial vibe, while the sides of the phone see solid, angled metal breaking through the tough plastic casing.
There’s a little splash of colour on the top of the phone in the shape of a little red programmable ‘emergency key’. I set this to turn on the phone’s torch function, but you can opt to attribute any function to it.
Flip over to the bottom of the phone and you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, right in between a lanyard connection point and the USB-C port. All welcome, if not unexpected in this rugged smartphone category.
The left-hand edge contains its own bonus button, in the form of a textured Google Assistant button. I’m never convinced that such a thing is wholly necessary, but I suppose I could be convinced that some form of quick hands-free operation is useful in a gloved or dirty-handed scenario.
On the right-hand edge, you’ll find the usual volume and power buttons, albeit with added tactile heft thanks to the robust metallic materials used. The power button is recessed in a little alcove, which helps steer your thumb into place for the built-in fingerprint sensor function. It works reliably, if not particularly swiftly, but that’s more down to the device’s performance shortfall.
The back of the phone sees the camera module protruding, which seems like a less sound decision than the Motorola Defy’s recessed equivalent. But it is at least surrounded by a thick metal frame, and it remained scuff-free in my drop test.
The whole point of the Nokia XR20 is that it can take far more of a battering than a normal phone could take. To that end, it has been certified with a MIL-STD–810H rating.
That’s actually a slightly more up to date testing standard than was employed for the Motorola Defy’s MIL-STD–810G, though this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the Nokia XR20 being any tougher. It just received a more up to date, and thus thorough, going over.
Ultimately this rating means that it’s been put through a similar assault course of thermal shocks, extreme temperature tests, tumble and vibration gauntlets and exposure to various fluids. All the stuff that ensures a device can cut it in an actual warzone.
In my own less militaristic testing, I dropped the Nokia XR20 onto a concrete slab from a height of 1.2m, just as I did with the Motorola Defy before it. The results were broadly similar, with the Nokia XR20 coming away with a slight dink on the plastic corner that bore the brunt of the impact and some very light scuffing on the rear cover.
Crucially, there was no structural damage, and the display remained completely unscathed. That latter point is partially due to the provision of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus, which is the high-grade glass material that’s typically only used in top-end flagship phones.
Indeed, so confident is Nokia in its display strength, it’s promised a 1-year free screen replacement. Not only that, but it provides an extended three-year warranty for the XR20.
The phone is IP68 certified too, so it’ll stand up to full water immersion. It’ll also stand up to hot liquids, which isn’t something your average smartphone can boast.
I ran the same ‘coffee spill’ test that I exposed the Motorola Defy to, which involved pouring several large glugs of 60°C water straight from a temperature-controlled kettle onto the device. After a quick towel down, the XR20 ran perfectly.
Display & Speakers
As you may have guessed from the name, the Nokia XR20 is basically a rugged version of the Nokia X20, and you’re essentially getting the same underlying screen. We found the X20’s display to be “bright and detailed” in our review, and the same holds true here.
Once you get past that impressively robust Gorilla Glass Victus covering, you’re looking at a reassuringly ordinary 6.67in IPS LCD with a 1080 x 2400 (Full HD+) resolution. It’s not especially vibrant – this is no OLED panel – but it hits a level of bare minimum competence that the Motorola Defy’s display largely fails to achieve.
The key spec here is that Full HD+ resolution, which ensures that all forms of content look nice and sharp, even thumbnail images and tiny web browser text. Still, it’s not unique among rugged phones, with both the CAT S62 Pro and the Doogee S88 Pro going with the same resolution.
Another important factor here is a decent 550 nits of brightness, which ensures that the phone retains viewability outdoors. That’s crucial in a phone built to be used in fresh (and perhaps not so fresh) air.
One spec that doesn’t quite keep pace with modern non-rugged phones is the Nokia XR20 display’s 60Hz refresh rate. It was disappointing not to get 120Hz or even 90Hz in the Nokia X20, and it’s still a little disappointing here – though of course, stamina considerations play a more prominent part with such an outdoorsy device.
Even so, the media playback experience is surprisingly decent on the Nokia XR20. Accompanied by a pair of stereo speakers that get plenty loud, if not especially detailed, it makes viewing video content viable even with a fair amount of background hubbub.
Specs & Performance
We’re all used to being underwhelmed by the performance of rugged phones, and the Nokia XR20 doesn’t throw up any surprises. Again, this is the Nokia X20 at heart, so you get the very same Snapdragon 480 5G chip beating at its heart.
This is actually a relatively fresh provision from Qualcomm, built to a reasonably efficient 8nm production standard. But it’s still modest when it comes to output, especially when backed by a mere 4- or 6GB of RAM rather than the X20’s 6- or 8GB.
On the plus side, the Snapdragon 480 5G packs 5G connectivity (the clue’s in the name). On the negative side, it’s not going to be setting any speed records.
An average Geekbench 5 multi-core score of 1642 might top rugged rivals like the Motorola Defy (1401), the Doogee S88 Pro (1347), and the CAT S62 Pro (1310), but it gets nowhere near similarly priced non-rugged phones. The OnePlus Nord 2, to name the most recent high profile example, scored 2694.
It’s a similar story when it comes to GPU performance, the Nokia XR20 tends to score 1- to 2fps faster than Motorola Defy across several of our GFXBench tests, and tops the Doogee S88 Pro and CAT S62 Pro in several areas, but it gets trounced by the Nord 2.
When it comes to gaming, PUBG Mobile defaults to HD graphics and a High frame rate, under which it runs well. Just as with the Nokia X20, unsurprisingly. But if you want to push things further for similar money, you’re going to have to drop the ruggedisation and go with a Poco F3 or the Nord 2.
In general day to day use, the Nokia XR20 runs along just fine. But it lacks the smoothness and the responsiveness of even non-rugged phones selling for half the price. Part of that is down to the modest processor, and part is down to the 60Hz screen refresh rate.
This top model comes with 128GB of internal storage, rather than the relatively slight 64GB supplied with the entry model. There is a microSD slot provision if you want to expand that, though.
I’ve mentioned a few times that the Nokia XR20 is based on the Nokia X20, but somewhat curiously that doesn’t apply to the cameras. Nokia has gone with a slightly different, simpler dual-sensor provision. You get a 48Mp wide sensor and a 13Mp ultra-wide, and that’s your lot.
We’re not at all upset at losing the Nokia X20’s 2Mp macro and depth sensors, which were pretty useless in truth. It’s a shame there’s still no telephoto lens, though.
Together, this simplified system is capable of getting reasonable results. The main 48Mp sensor captures fairly balanced, natural-looking shots in good lighting, with auto HDR stepping in well to rescue potentially over or under-exposed shots.
The ultra-wide loses a certain amount of contrast, detail, and colour pop, with a more faded and soft look compared to the main sensor. But it’s a lot better than many lower to mid-priced equivalents we’ve used.
Portrait mode works quite well to isolate the subject with an exaggerated bokeh effect, but the tone of the skin and the general level of exposure seems to suffer versus simply shooting with the default auto mode. After testing, I left the mode well alone.
Ditto the 8Mp selfie camera, though in this case, the tendency to over-expose in selfie-portrait mode seemed to help inject some much-needed life and pop into the otherwise dull regular shots.
Night mode at least avoids the lazy tendency to simply apply a fake brightening effect, but that does also mean that very low light shots look a little murky. There’s no OIS (optical image stabilisation) to keep things crisp here.
Video is a bit of a write-off too, with the possibility of a mere 1080p at 60fps.
All in all, you can get a much better camera system if you’re willing to forego that rugged build. The OnePlus Nord 2 packs in a flagship image sensor, while the Pixel 4a benefits from Google’s image processing wizardry.
In the limited terms of a rugged phone, however, the Nokia XR20 camera gets just about respectable results.
Battery Life & Charging
The Nokia XR20 packs in a 4470mAh battery, which is a decent size, though far from huge. The Motorola Defy features a 5000mAh battery, by comparison.
Still, it’s more than up to the task. You’ll be able to get through two days on a single charge if you don’t push things too hard with movies, games and the like. A PC Mark battery test score of 18 hours 48 minutes is truly excellent, and comfortably beats the Motorola Defy’s 17 hours 27 minutes.
18W wired charging is supported, which really isn’t all that fast for an ostensibly mid-range phone. Even the Motorola Defy packs in a 20W charger.
What’s more, you don’t get any charging brick supplied in the box of the Nokia XR20 – just a USB cable. Once I did hook up a suitably meaty charger, I was able to get it from 0 to 35% in half an hour. Not exactly speedy, but a smidgen faster than the Motorola Defy at least, courtesy of that smaller capacity.
Refreshingly, though, the Nokia XR20 does support wireless charging. This is surprising given that the Nokia X20 on which this phone is largely based doesn’t include it.
One strength the Nokia XR20 shares with the Motorola Defy is its dogged adherence to a pure strand of Android, with few of the custom UI distractions produced by most other manufacturers.
Indeed, the Nokia XR20 technically wins out here, with Android 11 rather than Android 10 at its core. What’s more, Nokia’s commendable focus on legacy support means that you’re guaranteed three years of OS upgrades and four years of monthly security updates.
There’s a lot to be said for this Android One approach, with much of the heavy lifting done by Google’s excellent suite of pre-installed apps. You don’t get any confusing secondary web browsers, no gaudy theme stores, and no duplicate media apps.
You do get a few preinstalled third-party apps, however, such as Spotify, Amazon, ExpressVPN, and Nokia’s own My Phone customer service app. But at least they’re all stashed away in a single, separate folder.
Price & Availability
The Nokia XR20 is available now in the UK and select European countries. It rolls out in the US on August 24.
It’s priced at £399/€499, which is a full £100/€100 more than the Nokia X20 on which it’s loosely based. This is for the 4/64GB entry model, but there’s also a 6/128GB iteration out there for £449/€569.
That might sound expensive for a phone with entry-level specifications. As we’ve discussed, however, ruggedising a phone costs a lot of money – there’s a similar price gap between the Motorola Defy and the similarly specced (but non-ruggedised) Moto G9 Play.
Indeed, the Nokia XR20 occupies something of a pricing sweet spot in between the aforementioned Motorola Defy and the more expensive CAT S62 Pro.
As rugged phones go, the Nokia XR20 is one of the most balanced and broadly appealing we’ve used. It’s tough in all the right places, but it’s also reasonably painless to use.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a particularly well-specced phone. But it has a sufficiently bright and sharp display, and its camera isn’t a total write-off. You even get surprise little luxuries like wireless charging and stereo speakers.
The design, while hardly slinky or downright attractive, isn’t a total eye-sore, with appealingly industrial exposed metal sides and a pleasantly non-utilitarian shade of blue. There’s also get the security of an extended warranty, a year’s free screen replacement scheme, and an admirably long software update commitment from Nokia.
Not that the company has hit a home run here. Performance is fairly mediocre, and we would have liked to see a little more oomph in the CPU department. Elsewhere, a slightly higher screen refresh rate would go a long way to making the XR20 feel a little more current, while the advances made by affordable ‘normal’ phones make us think there’s still room for improvement in the camera department.
But if you’re in the market for a genuinely tough phone that won’t break the bank, and that can stand up to home life as well as extreme environments, this is just about as good as it gets right now.
Nokia XR20: Specs
- Android 11
- 6.67in, FHD+, LCD, 60Hz, flat display
- Gorilla Glass Victus (front)
- Side-mounted fingerprint sensor
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 5G
- 4/6GB LPDDR4 RAM
- 64/128GB storage, microSDXC slot
- 48Mp, f/1.8 main camera
- 13Mp, f/2.4 ultrawide camera
- Up to 1080p @ 30fps rear video
- 8Mp, f/2.0 front-facing camera
- Stereo speakers
- Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
- Bluetooth 5.1
- 4630mAh battery
- 18W fast charging
- 171.6 x 81.5 x 10.6mm
- MIL SPEC 810H, IP68
- Ultra Blue, Granite