Nokia 5.3 review - A surprisingly refined, fun smartphone

Updated: December 28, 2020

In early 2015, I purchased one Lumia 535, a budget smartphone with Windows Phone 8.1 on it. Since, it has served loyally, until about a month ago, when the device started exhibiting hardware issues - random reboots or shutdowns, usually when handled a bit more roughly. I started looking for a replacement, and - with great poetic justice - I chose Nokia 5.3.

The numbers align so well. But does the experience? Recently, if you recall, I tried Nokia 1.3, and it was a less-than-ideal ordeal, with removable-yet-not-quite backcover problems and mediocre performance. So how much difference is in roughly 60 dollars worth of hardware? With a price tag of USD160 (equivalent) plus 20% Cyber Monday discount, Nokia 5.3 ended up in me lap. Now let's see what gives.

Teaser

Considerations

Why this phone? Well, when I started looking for the Lumia successor, the needs list was fairly short - a simple, no-nonsense device that does the basics well, has an audio jack (super important), and will not be deprecated all too soon. This meant looking for a device that is part of the Android One program, which means three years of security updates (at least), and as vanilla experience as it gets, sans any bloatware.

But there was one problem ... this successor phone was meant for a woman's hands - not my manly ape paws - and apparently, BIG phones are all the rage now. Read this in Mugato voice: big phones, so hot right now.

It is almost impossible to find a nice, small-size (less than 5-inch screen) smartphones that fit the vanilla category, have an audio jack and/or do not cost a fortune. Believe it or not, I even looked at iPhone 12 mini, and iPhone SE because I really value Apple's commitment to their customers, and the fact they still provide operating systems updates to their old devices, including iPhone 6S. That's worth a bob or two in my book. But then, the prices are prohibitive for what would essentially be a secondary, basic device - and there's no audio jack, the same reason I didn't selected Nokia 9 and went for Motorola One Zoom about a year ago. Small differences, big decisions. Last but not the least, iOS is way more restrictive than Android, and I like me own MP3 tunes and adblocking in Firefox. I find these critical for a good phone experience.

I kept looking and did find a few other smaller phones, but they all cost 2-3x more than Nokia 5.3, many didn't have audio jacks, and most had older chipsets, or had been released to the market a long time ago - as far as mobile devices are concerned, which would be 2017-2018. Then, there were a few other reasonable contenders, but I wasn't keen on their branding - vendors that tend to embelish the operating system with way too much bloatware, even if the devices themselves are quite all right.

And so, despite my less-than-ideal experience with the el-cheapo Nokia 1.3, I went for 5.3. Modern chipset, vanilla, audio, great price, discount on top of that. Now, the review begins.

Specifications

Nokia 5.3 is a large device. It measures 6.5 inches diagonally, which makes it bigger than most of the phones I've tried and tested and reviewed on Dedoimedo in the past few years. However, it is relatively light and does not feel massive. The screen resolution is 720x1600 pixels, 268ppi density. Inside the phone, you get a Qualcomm Snadragon SM665 chipset, with an octa-core processor - four cores clocked at 2.0 GHz AKA Kryo 260 Gold, and four cores clocked at 1.8 GHz AKA Kryp 260 Silver. The GPU is one Adreno 610.

Then, my phone had dual SIM, 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage with a separate micro-SD slot, and on the back, a quad-lens camera, featuring all sorts of goodies, including a 2MP macro unit, 2MP depth unit, 5MP ultra-wide lens, and finally the 13MP standard (wide) lens. These, coupled with the processing might soldered onto the board inside, should allow for 4K recording at 30 FPS. The rest of the sensors package included the usual Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC, and 3.5mm audio jack. And then, to power it all, there's a huge 4000 mAh non-removable battery.

The first 120 minutes - making the operating system behave

The account setup was simple - but it took a while, because there was a system update, a whooping 1.6GB download. Once this finished, relatively quickly and quite successfully, I was able to continue and configure the phone.

I've already shown you this several times - in both my Moto G6 and One Zoom reviews, and as outlined in my detailed Android privacy guide. My first task of the day is to go through EVERY setting, and make sure the system is configured for my convenience. As always, no two Android devices are the same, and even though it runs the latest version - like my Nokia 1.3 and One Zoom - there were still differences in the setup, menu options, and features.

Search provider Ready

In a nutshell, I did the following:

Screenshot notifications App permissions

Physical activity Usage access

Notice the swipe navigation button - that goes away shortly.

You do need to be thorough, because suggestions come in various forms. For example, the Home screen has its own, Camera has its own, Photos has its own, there's news, there's maps and localization, and of course, the Assistant, so you have to be patient, thorough and methodical. But it can be done, you have the options, and with every iteration, it's becoming easier.

Assistant stuff 1 Assistant stuff 2

Assistant 3 Assistant stuff 4

All of these bits and pieces go to off very soon. Default assist app = None.

General, personalization

Web pages & app, searches in your area, nope.

Then, setting up the account, contact sync - stuff like that - went more smoothly than before. Another little plus for Android. So far, this has been the least intrusive and the most cooperative Android phone setup I've done, and it has nothing to do with my exposure and experience, it's got everything do with improved system functionality. Whether it's a result of benevolent intentions or strict EU legislation, it doesn't matter, I care about the end result as a consumer. So, good.

Annoyances

There were a few odd problems and some outright low-IQ shenanigans. While configuring the system and tweaking application permissions, I noticed that one of the apps showed some of the text in a wrong language, i.e. not my selected one, which is always US English for computer interfaces. This seems to be an unusual problem, and already reported months ago. No solush. Yet.

Notifications label for Google, wrong language

Someone didn't translate things correctly it seems.

And then more and more tweaking still, normal navigation, more options that need to be toggled off:

Navigation Annoyances

Normal navigation, and what is this "At a glance" thing? Also, 3-button nav = less finger tapping wastage.

Chat stuff is also annoying - you get the "new" rich messages, but you can toggle these off and use the application for what it's meant to do - SMS, if anyone still uses those (why not, but hey). What I found particularly jarring is the "smart reply" thing. I toggled it off completely, but I still saw an overlay for Whatsapp notifications showing with these corny one-word, one-liner replies. Might need more investigation, but all in all, yet another feature that takes away from human interaction and turns it into botty nonsense.

Smart Reply Link previews

Even Google tells you web link previews could be harmful, so why have them to begin with?

The Calendar app on Nokia 5.3 is meh. It feels very crayony, with overbright, childish colors and not really that useful information. Similarly, you cannot set reminders without using the Assistant. This seems to be a gentle, not-so-gentle shove-push to make people use the Assistant. Nope. Why do I need Assistant for what is essentially a single-tone alarm? Nonsense. Weather app, also crayony. Plus, less readable. Plus, the vast emptiness in between the top and bottom parts - showing Tomorrow and Next-days forecast would have been a far more sensible option. Plus you don't see what the selected location is. Plus, why do I need 'Search places or the web' in a weather app? And why the inconsistent search field text?

Reminders Weather app

No Assistant, no reminders! And the outgoing Lumia 535 had such a simple reminder feature ...

Apps, media, performance

The usual deal, nothing unpredictable here, as far as it comes to Play Store and its repetoire of stuff. Good and easy access. And you even get a prompt to try non-default browsers on first launch. So I installed Firefox, of course, and it works majestically. Fast and elegant, it has also improved quite some since my review, and you get important, valuable privacy-focused add-ons like UBlock Origin. Makes the low-IQ Internet slightly less low-IQ.

I played some music and videos - it was all good. The sound is reasonable - a bit bassy, echoey, but definitely not tinny like it was on Nokia 1.3. I was also able to play HD clips without issues. The same one that completely stuttered on Nokia 1.3 worked just fine at full resolution here. The system does things instantly. Great responsiveness, fluid graphics. Very nice, I like.

HD video

Firefox, video

Firefox plays minimized video, screen locked, all of it.

Camera

Seems like a very decent sensor, price notwithstanding. Just to get a sense of what gives, I did a little comparison to my One Zoom. Nothing scientific, not a product competition. I've done this quite a few times in the past, with my Lumia 950, the various Motorola G phones, and so forth.

Side by side comparison 1

First attempt above, outdoor shot with good lighting and lot of detail. Nokia left, One Zoom right. Nokia comes with the cooler (and expected) Nokia color tones. The camera also focused on the sticking out branch, whereas One Zoom selected a more center distance focal point, hence the branches in the back look sharper, and there's better foreground and shadow separation. I'm trying to sound smart in this paragraph.

Side by side comparison 2

Second attempt, similar conditions. I think the big difference is what happens off the center of the camera. One Zoom does detail a bit more accurately. Notice the branch texture. Even so, I am quite impressed with the Nokia's camera. It looks and feels vibrant, the image detail is pretty decent, and you do get a sense of depth.

Side by side comparison 3

Lastly, I did an indoor shot - decent light. Here, you get a really good sense of the color spectrum. One Zoom is truer to reality, and you can clearly see the difference in detail/separation if you look at the rods and the knobs at the end. That said, I'm really pleased with what Nokia 5.3 can do.

I also liked the zoom/blur capability. You can really take "macro" photos, and the camera manages to keep focus, even when you bring your phone really close to your object of interest. Typically, most phones lose focus and blur when you bring the device to within 7-8 cm of the object, but with the Nokia 5.3, it was down to 2-3 cm and still managing really well. You can go proper artistique. Me impressed.

Camera interface

Battery life

This took a while measuring, naturally. Remember, my usage pattern is completely different from the Average Joe. And tuning the system for peace and quiet definitely helps. For instance, on my One Zoom, I go 8-9 days between charges - I typically charge at about 15% mark, and use the phone for roughly 2-3 hours in that period (mostly media).

With massive 4000 mAh - identical to One Zoom - you can go days and days without recharging. I first let the phone be for a few days without any major activity. It ate only 25% of the juice in four days. This means, technically, phone's battery + my own pacified/tweaked configuration, you can go more than two weeks in a single charge. Respect. Now, if you do start using the phone, the numbers change a little, but they are still tremendous.

Battery 1 Battery 2

Comparison to Nokia 1.3?

There isn't one really. Because Nokia 5.3 is sooo much better. It's a proper phone, fast, elegant, with a premium feel, excellent performance and responsiveness, and a decent camera. This can't be said of its sibling, which cuts corners perhaps too sharply. So there might be a lower limit for what consistutes a useful practical smartphone, but then, with not that much more money, you can do a proper quantum leap into the highly usable territory. Nokia 5.3 definitely does that.

Conclusion

Ever since I got my first Nokia, I think way back in 2000, it's been my rule to have at least one Nokia phone in my usage. With the retirement of Lumia 535, Windows Phone is no longer an active operating system in me household, joining Lumias 520 and 950 on my nostalgia shelf. But Nokia is still there - the old Symbian, full-keyboard-and-touch, dual-Wireless E6 still works fine, including two weeks between charges on its original battery, dating back to 2011. Now, Nokia 5.3 joins the fold.

Overall, Nokia 5.3 is a surprisingly refined device. It feels posh in your hand, it looks the part, the screen is pleasant enough to gaze at, the hardware and software deliver a very reasonable performance - beyond my expectations, and Android has achieved yet another level of refinement. While Windows Phone will always be my favorite touch operating system, Android has improved significantly, and continuously, and while there are many negative things to be said about various Google's endeavors, you cannot fault the work they've done on the mobile.

Then, the camera is decent, the battery life is excellent, and the price is oh-so good. I mean, this really is a bargain. I am quite pleased. If you need a phone that's more than just a utilitarian brick but doesn't require a kidney donation to finance, and you're okay with average-plus results across most categories with some really excellent results here and there, Nokia 5.3 can be a really smart choice. Noice. And we're done.

Cheers.

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