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Nokia C21 Plus review: The new ultra-budget king

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
100
inc VAT

The Nokia C21 Plus provides great value for (very little) money

Pros 
Low price
Unmatched performance
Nice design
Cons 
Weak battery life
Slow micro-USB charging
No NFC
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You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s not a lot of choice when it comes to buying budget smartphones. After all, most of the attention is fixed on high-priced flagships but, if you know where to look, you can pick up a real bargain, with low-cost handsets such as the new Nokia C21 Plus offering tremendous value for money.

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The new phone forms part of Nokia’s “value first” strategy, which has paid off handsomely for the company in recent times and it continues the firm’s strong performance at the budget end of the smartphone market. Indeed, its combination of price, specifications and design make it our favourite ultra-budget handset to date.

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Nokia C21 Plus review: What you need to know

It’s worth quieting your expectations just a little before we proceed, however. This isn’t the sort of phone that benefits from the latest and greatest technological advancements. If you want something like that, you’re going to have to spend a lot more money.

What you do get with the Nokia C21 Plus, however, is an affordable smartphone that’s mostly free of the compromises we’d normally expect in a device that costs this little.

The Nokia C21 Plus has a large 6.52in 720p IPS display and a dual-camera array. A Unisoc SC9863A processor runs the show, alongside 2GB of RAM, 32GB of expandable storage and a 4,000mAh battery. It uses a specially tailored version of Android for low-power devices, called Android 11 Go, with Nokia promising up to two years of core Android upgrades as well.

Nokia C21 Plus review: Price and competition

Launching during an economic period of cost-cutting and credit crunching, it’s obvious that the Nokia C21 Plus has arrived at exactly the right time. It costs a penny under £100, making it one of the cheapest smartphones you can buy right now.

But it’s not the only phone that tiptoes near the £100 mark. Low-cost handsets such as the Alcatel 1B (2022) and Motorola Moto E20 are both a little bit cheaper than the C21 Plus, costing £80 and £94 respectively, although we’re yet to review either of these handsets.

The C21 Plus faces competition from within Nokia itself, too. The Nokia 1.4 is right at the top of our list of the best sub-£100 smartphones, even if it is on the verge of being discontinued. Alternatively, if you have more money to play with, then the Realme C31 (£129) is worth investigating.

Nokia C21 Plus review: Design and key features

Budget smartphones hardly push the boundaries in terms of design but the Nokia C21 is better than most.

It’s a bit thick by modern standards, at 8.6mm, but there’s a lot to like here, with reasonably skinny screen bezels, an unobtrusive hole punch notch for the selfie camera and wavy fingerprint-like ridges covering the phone’s plastic rear panel. It comes in either Dark Cyan or Grey in the UK. The former is what you see in the photographs on this page.

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The Nokia C21’s pair of cameras is located inside a small rectangular camera block and this is sensibly positioned in the top-left corner, above a rear-mounted fingerprint reader. The latter worked well in testing.

The phone’s SIM card tray has enough space for two nano-SIM cards, and it even has an extra slot to insert a microSD card if you wanted to boost the internal storage. A 3.5mm headphone jack is placed on the top edge, too. Sadly, the phone doesn’t support NFC payments.

My only other gripe is the inclusion of a micro-USB charging port at the bottom. Charging speeds are agonisingly slow as a result, taking over two hours to fully charge from empty in my tests. Nokia does at least include the relevant chargers in the box, however.

Nokia C21 Plus review: Display

Given the price, you shouldn’t expect the Nokia C21 Plus to provide the world’s best viewing experience but, again, the phone’s screen is quite good for the money. Technically speaking, it’s merely a simple 6.52in IPS panel, with a resolution of 1,600 x 720 but it performed rather well in our tests.

Colour accuracy is a bit on the low side, with a measured average Delta E of 2.87 but otherwise there’s a lot to like, with a contrast ratio of 1,604:1 and a high peak brightness of 390cd/m2. It would be nice if Nokia could somehow squeeze some sort of high refresh tech into its sub-£150 smartphones but for the price you can’t mourn its absence.

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Nokia C21 Plus review: Performance and battery life

The Nokia C21 Plus is powered by a Unisoc SC9863A processor. This is an octa-core chipset clocked at 1.6GHz with an IMG8322 GPU and, in the UK, it comes backed by just 2GB of RAM – definitely the minimum for Android – as well as a mere 32GB of expandable storage.

That might sound a bit weak but the Nokia C21 Plus is actually the fastest in its class when it comes to our benchmarks. The previous winner, the Nokia 1.4, is 25% slower than the C21 Plus in the Geekbench 5 multi-core test, and the differences between the two are immediately clear as soon as you switch them on.

The Nokia C21 boots faster, unlocks faster and is generally a faster phone to navigate. It still has its moments – particularly when switching apps, with the occasional stutter while scrolling – but you won’t find anything as rapid without paying considerably more money.

Graphics rendering is also much improved, although the picture here is still rather bleak. An average on-screen frame rate of 16fps in the GFXBench Manhattan 3 gaming test is over three times faster than the Nokia 1.4’s result but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Battery life, alas, has received a bit of a setback. Lasting a mere 13hrs 10mins in our video playback test, the Nokia C21 Plus falls around one-hour short of the Nokia 1.4. With a score as low as this, you’ll definitely need to charge the phone every night, even with moderate daily use.

Nokia C21 Plus review: Software

The Nokia C21 Plus runs Android 11 Go Edition, which is a tailored version of Google’s mobile OS specifically designed for low-end devices. What this means is that the phone launches with tweaked ‘Go’ versions of Google’s applications, such as Chrome, Maps and Gmail.

These take up less storage space than the regular versions – which is handy considering the measly 32GB of internal space – and updates are smaller, too. The way you use the phone is largely the same as the normal version of Android 11 albeit with fewer easy access settings in the notification drawer. The app switcher doesn’t show recent screenshots of your open apps, either.

Another feature that’s absent in this version is the icon in the corner of the camera app, which previously indicated the amount of remaining images you could take before filling up the phone’s storage. I’ve always found this incredibly useful, especially when space is limited, and I hope it returns in future updates.

Nokia C21 Plus review: Cameras

The Nokia C21 Plus’ cameras are fairly simple affair, comprising a 13MP main camera, a 2MP depth-sensing unit and a 5MP selfie camera on the front. There’s not much to say here, except that they do the job reasonably well in a pinch and that you’ll need to spend a lot more if you’re a snap-happy Instagram fanatic.

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There’s an okay amount of detail to captured images and the colour balance is nice and neutral but it’s far from perfect. Depending on the light, photographs can look soft and in bright conditions, it had a tendency to overexpose images. There was a fair amount of lag between pressing the shutter button and the camera actually capturing the image, too.

Portrait shots didn’t have much in the way of background blur, either, and there’s an obvious face smoothing effect applied, even with the slider set to zero. The selfie camera wasn’t too bad, at least.

Finally, video is captured at 1080p and 30fps, up from the 720p limit on the Nokia 1.4. Footage looks good for the most part but there’s no image stabilisation so you’ll have to be careful to hold your phone still when recording.

Nokia C21 Plus review: Verdict

The Nokia C21 Plus is a cracking budget smartphone. It eclipses the Nokia 1.4 in multiple areas, including processing power and overall design, and the display isn’t too bad, either.

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It has its flaws – the slow micro-USB charging is painful and the battery life is weak – but you can definitely do a lot worse for just £100. In fact, on balance, I’d say it’s the best phone right now in its price bracket.

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