Comparing Mid-range 5G Smartphones for Around $700 and Below

5G smartphone prices are coming down rapidly. We had to revise down our forecasts for 5G smartphone prices during 2020 and, consequently, our volume estimates up. At the end of 2020, realme offered the lowest price on a 5G smartphone with a retail price of around $150 in China.

Heading into 2021, the range of 5G smartphones continues to broaden, and with Qualcomm launching 5G on its Snapdragon 400 series, we can expect the retail prices of 5G capable smartphones to fall further. However, the ongoing component shortages may make pricing more resilient than it might otherwise be.

Across Europe, the proportion of premium devices sold remains more or less constant. However, the market for mid-range smartphones has grown and is expected to continue expanding. We have collected a cross-section of three mid-range 5G smartphones for comparison. These include the OPPO Reno 4 Pro 5G (12GB RAM with 256GB storage). It is priced at $970 (GBP £699 here in the UK), but available from some channels and elsewhere in Europe for around $780.

The next is the Nokia 8.3 5G (6GB RAM with 64GB storage). It is officially priced at $690, but now available for around $475. Lastly, we have the realme X50 Pro 5G (12GB RAM with 256GB storage). It is priced officially at $970, but now widely available for around $600.

The OPPO and Nokia smartphones are relatively recent launches – both using the excellent Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G platform, with integrated Snapdragon X52 5G modem. This configuration supports theoretical peak download speeds up to 3.7Gbps, and upload speeds up to 1.6Gbps. The realme smartphone, on the other hand, has been available for almost a year and is based on the previous flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 mobile platform, featuring a discrete Snapdragon X55 5G modem. It supports peak download speeds up to 7.2Gbps, and upload speeds up to 3Gbps. While both modems support mmWave and Sub-6GHz, the devices used in this comparison only feature Sub-6GHz; mmWave spectrum is not yet available in the UK and most of Europe.

The launch of the 5G capable iPhone 12 for $799 established a benchmark for the very high-end of the mid-range, so to speak. Apple’s pricing has often created headroom that Android rivals can exploit. Had Apple launched at $699 – where the iPhone 11 had the year before – it would likely have forced more compression in Android pricing, but the $100 buffer has given Android rivals some space to play a broader game with their portfolios. But for now, we are going to look at what plus or minus £500 (US$ 690) will buy you in terms of 5G handsets.

Design: Glass and Metal All Round, But Textured Glass for The Win

The design of smartphones has improved over the last five years. The products being reviewed here are good examples of the quality of the designs now available to consumers, and we have to work hard to find fault. The standout product of the three is the OPPO. It has a beautiful, graduated sky blue back made of textured glass that feels almost sandblasted. This blends smoothly into its shiny metal frame that, in turn, blends well into the curved glass of the display. The back is eye-catching and resists smudging from fingerprints. The cameras are contained in a distinctly designed array at the top left of the back. This is an on-trend position consistent with many products being launched in early 2021.

The Nokia is also good-looking. It too is a graduated blue but of a darker shade and made from shiny glass. While attractive, it is prone to showing fingerprints. It is also slippery and apt to slide-off even moderately sloping surfaces. The Nokia has a stainless-steel chassis that blends well with the back, but the display is not quite as seamlessly fitted to the sides as OPPO has managed. Close inspection shows a black, radiused frame sandwiched between the display glass and the sides of the Nokia. It is not obtrusive in any way but less slick than the OPPO. The camera system on the Nokia is a circular array in the top center of the back panel. This is reminiscent of the position that Huawei has used on its Mate series and a few other products. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it but could be regarded as off-trend relative to newer products, but it is distinctive.

The realme, as with several aspects of these three products, sits somewhere in the middle, though in this case closer to the Nokia. Its back is also of glass with a matt finish, but it is somehow more prone to gathering fingerprints than the OPPO.

The OPPO and realme both offer under-display fingerprint sensors (FPS) with simple facial recognition offered as well. The under-screen FPS works well on both phones. The Nokia’s FPS is integrated into the power button on the right-hand side, which also acts as the screen wake, lock button. The FPS works okay, though can sometimes be a little hesitant with unlocking. This also means a left-handed person will likely need to use their index finger to unlock the device.

On the Nokia, above the FPS button is a volume rocker. On the left-hand edge of the phone is a button whose sole purpose is to invoke the Google Assistant. This function can be disabled in Settings, but the button cannot be reassigned. I tend not to use Assistant much and found the placement of the button irritating; it was too easy to accidentally activate when in a pocket or otherwise handling the phone. Both the OPPO and realme have the power/lock/wake button in the same place as the Nokia, but the volume rocker on the left-hand edge of the phone.

None of these phones have any IPX rating, usually one of the first casualties of cost cutting.

Connectivity: Same Processor, Different Results

Due to the ongoing limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we were not able to use 5G across a wide area. We, therefore, conducted 5G testing in and around Newbury in the UK. Newbury is the home of Vodafone and there is an established 5G network in the town with several base stations. Most of the tests were carried out within line of sight of a base station, while others were conducted at the very edge of coverage.

We used a mix of two testing applications for all our tests, OpenSignal and 5G Mark. 5G Mark tests a range of real-world use cases beyond simple uplink/downlink speeds. For example, it tests streaming and browsing performance. It usefully provides a numerical score after each test.

Using the 5G Mark test application, the OPPO achieved the highest overall score at almost 168,000, with the realme second with 150,000 and the Nokia bringing up the rear at 125,000. The OPPO achieved the highest download speed at 237Mbps, the realme at 236Mbps while the Nokia only managed 167Mbps. It should be stressed that these tests were conducted in the same location but not simultaneously, so not too much should be inferred from this. For example, the OPPO also returned the lowest uplink speed during one test.

Nevertheless, looking at the results from our OpenSignal tests, the Nokia did not exceed 300Mbps while both the OPPO and realme achieved more than 300Mbps, with OPPO hitting the fastest speed of 346Mbps. So, while we are not claiming that these tests were in any way particularly scientific, they do illustrate a range of performance achievable in the real world. And during these particular tests, the OPPO smartphone performed best.

Something we have noticed with both the OPPO and the realme, is a tendency for the phone to report it is connected to 5G when it was only in 4G coverage. While we have not been able to confirm the pattern, it appears to show 4G connectivity until it gets a whiff of the 5G NR, at which point the signal indicator changes to show 5G. However, even when the device reverts to the 4G network it continues to report a 5G signal. This may be a peculiarity of the Color OS that both OPPO and realme use, or it could be something else. It nevertheless creates a false promise, which leads to elevated expectations for data speeds that are not matched by reality. See the screenshot below. We think this is a serious deficiency that OPPO (and realme) should address urgently. Operators will likely not approve of devices that erroneously report network type.

Display – LCD Struggles Against OLED

Placed side-by-side, the Nokia is noticeably bigger than both the other phones. It features a 6.81-inch IPS LCD display, although, with the lowest screen-to-body ratio, its slightly bigger bezels don’t help. The realme is the most compact thanks to its 6.44-inch AMOLED display, however it is quite heavy at 205g, but still over 20g lighter than the hefty Nokia. By comparison, the OPPO is startlingly light at just 172g, but it still packs a 6.55-inch AMOLED display. Part of the weight difference is in the battery, of which more later.

Looked at in isolation, the Nokia’s display is quite good. It’s big, bright and, at 1080p, offers good levels of detail. The viewing angles, though, are noticeably compromised and the backlight levels seem a little patchy. Nothing dramatic, but around the punch hole for the front camera, there is a slight shadow.

Where the display on the Nokia is deficient though is the refresh rate. At 60Hz it is noticeably less smooth when scrolling compared to either of the other two, both of which offer 90Hz refresh rates on their AMOLED displays. We can’t be sure if the low refresh rate is responsible for the lack of smoothness while scrolling though; for example, playing fast-moving games on the Nokia works just fine.

Camera – All Good, But Only One Winner

For the camera tests, we have concentrated on the Oppo and the Nokia. The Nokia 8.3 has a 64MP main camera with an f/1.9 aperture, a 1/1.72-inch sensor, 0.8µm pixel size, and phase detection autofocus (PDAF). Its ultrawide camera is an auto-focusing 12MP sensor, with f/2.2 aperture, 120-degree field-of-view (fov), with a 1/2.43-inch sensor, 1.4µm pixel size. It also sports a 2MP macro lens and a 2 MP depth sensor. The camera array is co-branded with ZEISS. Its front camera is a single 24 MP, f/2.0 aperture, 1/2.8-inch sensor, 0.9µm pixel size in a punch hole.

The Oppo has a 48MP main camera module with an f/1.7 aperture, with a 26mm focal length, 1/2.0-inch, 0.8µm pixel size, PDAF, and laser AF with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). A 13 MP, f/2.4 aperture, 52mm telephoto with a 1/3.4-inch sensor, 1.0µm pixel size, PDAF, 2x optical zoom. Its ultrawide camera has identical paper specs to the Nokia. Its selfie camera is a single 32 MP 1/2.8-inch sensor, with a slightly smaller f/2.4 aperture and 0.8µm pixels.

The following test shots were conducted at the same time with almost identical lighting conditions. These are not full, scientific camera tests, but designed to give a flavor of what average users can expect in every day, use. I was not able to persuade any human family members to act as portrait subjects, so I used my dog, Evie, who did not complain.

All the shots are as they came out of the camera, with no post-processing or filters or have been applied. The first is a still-life taken indoors in natural daylight.

The Nokia 8.3 (top) does a reasonable job. The colors are good but, on closer inspection, its aggressive use of a narrow field of focus means detail is lost on items further back in the frame. The OPPO (below) retains more detail, although it looks slightly over-exposed compared to the Nokia, it feels truer to the way it looked to the eye.

Here the Nokia 8.3 again shows its aggressive narrowing of the depth of field of focus. The AI correctly identified the subject as a dog and has focused on Evie’s eye. A fair amount of detail has been retained on her face, but there is also noise around her ear and noticeably so in the reflections on the window in the background. The color has a bluish cast. The OPPO has retained excellent detail of the subject and the overall colors are more faithfully captured.

The Nokia’s blueish cast is again visible in this outdoor close-up. Also, the resolution of the petals on, especially, the distant flowers, looks a little unnatural.

The OPPO keeps a more realistic color balance – especially of the greens. But it also struggles with edge resolution. Overall it does a better job.

In this shot of Aphrodite, the Nokia retains more detail of the moss, but the bluish cast is again very evident compared to the OPPO which again does a better job of faithfully capturing colors.

The next pair of pictures are with the macro mode enabled. A honeybee happened to arrive, surprisingly given it is mid-February, and made a good subject for the Nokia 8.3. The Nokia manages just about okay, but the peripheral parts of the shot are poorly rendered, and the exposure is not optimal.

Even though the OPPO missed the bee, it displays much better color capture in the flower stems and gives a more pleasing result overall.

The selfie shots were taken in slightly darker conditions than the other shots. Both phones do a reasonable job but the Nokia’s bluish color bias remains in evidence. The Oppo applies some ‘beauty’ filtering off-the-bat. This can be turned off in settings.

Audio: dual speakers a necessity

The Nokia has a single, bottom-firing speaker. Its positioning means it is often covered by a hand, for example when playing a game, or holding the phone in landscape mode when watching a streaming video. The Nokia does, however, retain a 3.5mm audio jack plug, which is an increasingly rare feature. Wired headphones also provide an antenna for the included FM radio, which is absent from the other phones on test.

Both the OPPO and realme have stereo speakers and are noticeably better at projecting sound and do not suffer from the same problem of a hand covering the speaker.

To compare replaying music through headphones, we used Bose QC35 headphones and played a range of music streamed from Spotify on the highest quality playback settings.

Overall, both the OPPO and realme offer a richer tone and ‘larger’ sound stage with more separation. This is likely due to both incorporating Dolby Atmos that also allows for a much greater range of adjustability compared to the Nokia.

When moving the listening to the Nokia, there was a slight drop in tonal range and the sound was more central. The differences were marginal though, so if listened to in isolation the quality was generally good across all the test subjects.

Battery and Charging – More Than Milli-Ampere Hours

The Nokia’s 4500mAh battery is the largest of the three and subjectively it feels like it lasts slightly longer. The OPPO’s is the smallest at 4000mAh – which helps it achieve its slim profile and light weight. However, we were caught out a few times almost draining the battery in a day and this with relatively modest use. Were we able to conduct normal usage testing with a good proportion of mobile use and a mix of applications, we think that it may be necessary to keep a charger handy to top-up during the day. This is not the case with the realme, which proved frugal with its battery and reliably lasted for day even with intensive use.

Recharging is a good experience with the provided chargers with both the OPPO and realme; they both use the same fast-charging system, though with differing brand names. OPPO calls it SuperVOOC 2.0, while realme opts for SuperDart Flash charge. However, they both use the same 65W recharge system that enables zero to 100% in around 35 minutes and 60% in around 15 minutes.

Nokia claims to offer fast charging, but it offers a relatively puny 18W charging capability, but we have confidence the Nokia will last a day, so may have a less urgent need for rapid charging.

None offer wireless charging.

Operating Systems – is Pure Android Better..?

Nokia proudly uses a pure Android set-up. It is a little vanilla if you are used to the frills afforded by the skins most OEMs apply. One aspect I am not keen on, for example, is how the Photo Gallery is incorporated into Google Photos. However, it is easy enough to select a view that filters only the pictures on the device.

Both the OPPO and realme use versions of Oppo’s ColorOS, though realme calls it realme UI. Functionally it’s almost identical. It works well on both devices, although we did experience some minor freezing with the Oppo, it seemed to clear spontaneously within a short time. ColorOS is clean and nicely designed. Overall, it feels sharper than the vanilla Android in the Nokia and seems to offer more options for personalization.

Conclusions – Great Value Mid-Rangers, But None are Perfect

Although we tested these phones back-to-back, there is a big price difference between the Nokia and the Oppo. At $475, the Nokia feels like good value for money right now – the OS is clean, the design good and battery life ample. Looked at in isolation, it’s big, bright display makes consuming content a pleasure. But if you can find a bit more cash to spare, the Oppo’s beautiful OLED display and excellent camera system, all wrapped in a remarkably light and slickly-designed package, stands a notch above the Nokia. But, given the price differential, so it should.

The realme is a powerful phone, but its looks are understated to the point of anonymity. It’s overall fine, but unremarkable.

However, the one thing though that concerns us most about both the Oppo, and realme, is their reporting being connected to a 5G network when they are actually only on 4G – something that must be addressed in future software upgrades.

Also Read: Strategic Reviews and Insights on The Latest Smartphones

Peter has 27 years experience in the mobile industry with extensive experience in market analysis and corporate development. Most recently Peter was Global Head of Market and Competitive Intelligence at Nokia. Here he headed a team responsible for analyzing and quantifying the industry. Prior to Nokia, Peter was an equity analyst at SoundView Technology Group. And before that he was VP and Chief Analyst of mobile and wireless research at Gartner. Peter’s early years in the industry were spent with NEC and Panasonic.

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