Nokia 4.2 review: Good, but not good enough

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There hasn’t been a Nokia 4 before. There’s a Nokia 1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8, but no 4. You may assume this is the same reason that there’s no OnePlus 4 – that the number four is considered unlucky in China – but if that’s the case, then the company has clearly decided that things are going well enough to take the chance.

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And they are going well. As Nokia’s PR gleefully pointed out to us a few months ago, the company has tripled its user base in the last year. That’s not bad for a business that was considered a byword for 90s nostalgia until a couple of years ago.

But back to the confusingly-named Nokia 4.2 (presumably 4.0 and 4.1 didn’t make the cut). Did Nokia really need to plug the gap between 3 and 5?

Nokia 4.2 review: What you need to know

The Nokia 4.2 is aimed at the lightest of wallets. While It isn’t the cheapest Nokia smartphone currently on the market – the Nokia 1 holds that honour – the Nokia 4.2 is the very definition of a budget handset, equipped with low-powered internals and only a 720p display.

The cutbacks might seem quite harsh at first, but the Nokia 4.2 is actually rather generously kitted-out, at least when compared with the competition. It has a dual-camera on the back and 32GB of expandable storage, neither of which you see particularly often with a phone this cheap.

Unlike Alcatel’s own wallet-friendly lineup, the Nokia 4.2 is also running the most up-to-date version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android 9 Pie. Better still, it benefits from Android One certification, which ensures regular security patches and OS updates for at least two years.

Nokia 4.2 review: Price and competition

So far so good, but the Nokia 4.2’s crowning achievement lies in how much – or in this case, how little – it takes from your wallet. You can pick up a Nokia 4.2 from your local phone shop for only £150. To put that into perspective, you can own a total of five Nokia 4.2’s for the price of a single Galaxy S10, and still have a bit of change leftover.

But that’s not to say that the Nokia 4.2 is sitting pretty in its own little smartphone niche. Far from it in fact, because, as we’ve seen in recent years, this end of the price scale is filled to the brim with handsets, albeit handsets of varying quality.

Nokia’s biggest challenger comes from Motorola, with its well-priced handsets being attractive propositions for the budget buyer. The G7 Play is perhaps its biggest direct rival, and it benefits from a faster Snapdragon 632 processor and a brighter, f/1.8 primary camera unit.

There are other rivals to mull over too, including Sony’s Xperia L3 and Samsung’s – ultimately disappointing – Galaxy J4 Plus. The cheaper Vodafone Smart V10 is also a solid alternative, although I haven’t quite had the chance to test it out just yet.

Nokia 4.2 review: Design and key features

If you’ve picked up any of Nokia’s many, many handsets from the last couple of years, then the Nokia 4.2’s design won’t be at all surprising. It’s perhaps a little curvier, but it still boasts the smart design and neat, subtle branding that you’ll have seen elsewhere.

The 5.71in display dominates the front, but it isn’t close to bezel-free, with a chunky black line running around the sides and top before a thicker chin appears at the bottom. Despite this, it still needs space for a notch with the front-facing selfie camera appearing through a small, circular cut out at the top.

It’s not a bad look by any means – just a reminder that you’re not dealing with a flagship phone. It’s certainly a looker in the price bracket it finds itself in, however, and I especially liked the white notification light which flashes along the circumference of the right-mounted power button.

What I don’t like is that the Nokia 4.2 is limited to micro-USB charging. The charging speeds are agonisingly slow compared to its USB Type-C counterparts, and the phone isn’t IP-rated in any shape whatsoever, although this is pretty much expected at the price. The top-mounted 3.5mm headphone jack helps recover some shred of goodwill, though.

Nokia 4.2 review: Display

The display’s technical specifications are far from revolutionary, too. Incorporating a popular cost-cutting tactic, the Nokia 4.2 is fitted with a dull HD+ (1,520×720) resolution IPS panel, which means it doesn’t benefit from the perfect contrast ratios and deep, inky-looking black tones of its premium OLED stablemates.

This doesn’t necessarily add up to a terrible viewing experience, however. Samsung tends to scrimp on the resolution, for instance, yet its low-end phones successfully provide solid screens for the same kind of money. Alas, the Nokia’s screen doesn’t manage to hold up so well under the same scrutiny.

In technical testing, our display calibrator revealed that the Nokia 4.2’s screen was capable of producing just 80% of the sRGB colour space, with a total volume of 86%. Generally speaking, much of the colour palette looked washed out, lacking the bright, vibrant hues of competitors like the Samsung Galaxy J4 Plus.

It’s not a bad screen to look at, but there are much better options available, even at this price. It doesn’t manage to do a good job of dialling up the brightness in sunny conditions either, only managing a rather dim peak luminance of 395cd/m2.

Nokia 4.2 review: Performance and battery life

For the processor, Nokia has gone for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 439; a low-end octa-core chipset that’s clocked at just 1.95GHz. As far as we can tell, the 439 has only appeared in a handful of inexpensive Vivo, Xiaomi and Alcatel handsets that we’ve not reviewed. This is backed up by a reasonable 3GB of RAM for multitasking and 32GB of internal storage, which can be expanded up to a further 400GB via microSD if you run out of space.

Because little else uses this configuration, I wasn’t expecting barnstorming benchmark results, and this turned out to be well-judged. The Nokia 4.2 struggled to play catch up with Motorola’s budget offering, although it did manage to outperform the Galaxy J4 Plus in Geekbench 4’s duo of single- and multi-core CPU tests.

Of course, you can’t expect miracles in this price bracket, and for the most part, performance seems snappy in day-to-day operation. It’s not the fastest budget phone, but it’s definitely not the slowest, that’s for certain.

The Nokia 4.2’s gaming capabilities paint a similar picture, with the GFXBench Manhattan 3.0 on-screen test returning an average framerate of 18fps. You’ll struggle to play the flashiest Android games on Google’s Play Store but, provided you’re willing to set the bar at simpler 2D titles, then you shouldn’t notice any game-breaking problems.

Battery life, on the other hand, is far from ideal. Reaching a pitiful 11hrs 33mins in our video playback test before finally kicking the bucket, the Nokia 4.2 isn’t suited for long periods away from the wall socket. This is strange, considering the low-resolution screen should – in theory, at least – boost stamina, but I suspect the inefficient Snapdragon 439 is to blame.

Nokia 4.2 review: Camera

More intriguing is the Nokia 4.2’s camera set up, which brings multi-lens imaging to a more affordable price point. It’s a dual-camera array this time around, with a 13-megapixel main camera that’s supported by a 2-megapixel depth sensor for arty bokeh shots where the background is blurred.

So far, so familiar, but what really sets it apart is Nokia’s own AI-imaging algorithms. In theory, these read scenes and take multiple images at different exposures, putting them together to produce a picture that packs a lot more detail. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but it’s not a million miles away from the same tricks employed by handsets at the top end of the pricing scale.

Costing a fraction of the money, the Nokia 4.2 manages to pull off a fraction of the image quality, but that itself is by no means a small feat. In fact, Nokia’s budget handset manages to do very well indeed, capturing images that are filled to the brim with detail, with accurate, well-judged exposures.

The phone’s HDR mode also did a good job at lifting up dark, shadowy areas of the image and softening overly-bright sky scenes. The colour palette is nice and neutral, too, especially when compared to the same images taken on the Moto G7 Play, where they suffered from strange, burgundy hues.

Things begin to level out when the light begins to dim, although not that that’s a good thing. Both phones struggled to cut through the darkness, with objects lacking any definition and detail. The resulting images are filled with visual noise and compression artefacts.

Sadly, there’s not much to say about the Nokia 4.2’s video capabilities. Even though the Moto G7 Play can record at 4K resolution and 1080p at 60fps, the Nokia 4.2’s shooting modes are restricted to just 720p and 1080p footage at 30fps. Thankfully, the actual video quality is rather good for the price, even if the lack of stabilisation isn’t ideal.

Nokia 4.2 review: Verdict

As we come to an end, it’s clear that the Nokia 4.2 is a slight misstep for the Finnish firm. We don’t expect a phone at this end of the price scale to be faultless, but when the Nokia 4.2’s issues are this plentiful – and the Moto G7 Play does things better in almost every regard – it struggles to earn a recommendation.

The Nokia 4.2 is a perfectly adequate phone, there’s no doubt about it, but I simply don’t think that’s enough for the Nokia 4.2 to stand out from the growing budget crowd.

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