Right up until Android smartphones arrived, Nokia was one of the most desired brands for mobile phones in our country. Choosing to distance themselves from Android, they stuck with their Symbian operating system and worked simultaneously on the Meego platform. When that didnt pan out as planned they left it and adopted Windows Phone as the main operating system for most of their flagship devices. This proved to be a good move as is evident with the success of their Lumia series. Nokia, though, hasn't forgotten about those who are on a tight budget and has kept the Asha series alive, giving it a facelift to now look like the flagship Lumias. We have the Asha 501 for review today so lets see if it lives up to the value for money segment.
1 GHz processor with 64 MB RAM and 128 MB onboard storage
Design and build
The Asha 501 looks pretty similar to the Lumia series smartphones and has a rugged build with a very firm chassis. The phone looks like it has a unibody case, but actually the rear panel fits firmly and flushes well with the front panel. The looks are appealing—thanks to the all-black front panel and the bright and colorful exchangeable rear panel. The device is available in around six colors ranging from black, white, red, green, blue and yellow. The front panel is a capacitive touch panel with a scratch resistant coating. Towards the top lies the earpiece and the bottom features a single protruding physical back button. The rest of the controls are all included in the user interface itself and are swipe-based. The right side sports the power/standby button and the volume rocker which is pretty big in size and has good tactile feedback. The top features the micro USB PC interface, a headphone jack and a fine pin charger port. The micro USB port also supports charging so you don’t need to tag along your travel charger.
Power and volume buttons on the right, headphones and micro USB connect on the top
Moving on, the rear panel sports the main camera, but there is no flash to support night shots. Towards the bottom (on the rear panel) is a small nub that rests on the speaker. Pushing the nub downwards releases the phone from the rear panel under which lies the battery compartment and a one micro SIM slot. Towards the right are two slots—one for the micro SD memory card and the other for the second micro SIM module. The two are hot-swappable which means you can keep the phone operational while replacing the respective cards.
1200 mAh battery, two micro SIM slots, micro SD card slot on the side
The overall build quality of the Asha 501 looks pretty rugged with a matt-finished exterior for the rear panel to protect it from scratches and fingerprints. The phone is 99.2 mm tall, 58 mm wide, 12.1mm thick and just 91 g. Though tiny enough to fit your plam, the phone is pretty comfortable to use. Bundled along with the phone is a travel charger and a pair of headphones.
Nokia Asha software platform v1.0 operating system
The Asha 501 is a dual SIM GSM feature phone with GPRS and EDGE support for mobile Internet. Sadly, it does not feature 3G support, but that would be too much to expect on a phone with this price tag. The phone runs on the Nokia Asha software platform v1.0 with most features similar to the smartphone category. It sports a 3-inch capacitive TFT display with a resolution of 240 x 320 pixels and two-fingered multi-touch capability. The internal hardware comprises of a 1 GHz processor, 128 MB of storage and 64 MB of RAM. The 128 MB storage is basically for installing apps and user data needs to be stored on the SD card. Good enough, Nokia supplies a 4 GB micro SD card bundled with the product and you will find it already inserted into the slot, ready for use.
Preinstalled apps for social networking and entertainment
Connectivity options apart from GPRS and EDGE are Wi-Fi b/g, Bluetooth v3.0 with EDR and a micro USB 2.0 PC interface. The main camera has a 3.15 MP sensor with a video recording capability of QVGA @15 fps. Accelerometer and proximity sensors are included along with the quintessential FM radio. Lastly, the 501 is fuelled by a 1200 mAh battery, which is slated to give you a talk time of almost 17 hours and a whopping standby time of 624 hours which is almost a month (26 days).
User interface and performance
Nokia has done a great job in offering a near-smartphone experience for those on a budget. The manufacturer has gotten rid of the standard hardware buttons for call and standby and has simply replaced them with a single function physical back button. Well the button pretty much solves the entire purpose as the user interface is swipe-based and you won’t need any other buttons to get around using the phone. This design tweak not only makes the phone easier to use, but also gives the device a more modern facelift.
The user interface comprises of only two home screens—one is the app drawer and the other is called Fastlane. While the app drawer does not need any explanation, the Fastlane is a single page homescreen which keeps a list of all your social networking feed updates, tracks what’s coming up and whats happening now and lastly remembers the recently launched apps and stuff. All this is on a single vertically scrollable screen so you can get around to your favourite apps in a flick. You can simply flick or swipe from either side of the screen to get back to the home screens from any application which makes switching between applications to answer calls, reply to messages etc. a very simple and quick task.
Dialer, music app, email client
Another trick up its sleeve is the method of pulling the phone out of standby. After enabling the option from the settings, you can simply double-tab the screen when in standby mode to start up the phone and then swipe the lock screen to get in. This completely eliminates the need to even touch the standby/power button on the right of the phone. Yes, we know what you might want to ask—will the phone come out of standby when in the pocket? Well, no! The double tap gesture is pretty intelligent and will work only after an accurate tapping speed is provided which the user will eventually learn within a few minutes of using it.
Facetime homescreen where all recent activities reside
The user interface is similar to the older Asha touch series with rounded icons and scrolling wallpaper. The Finnish manufacturer has done a good job in packing a swift interface on limited hardware. Though there is a tad delay in response while swiping and scrolling, it is not very noticeable and doesn't hamper the using experience. The app drawer has a bunch of apps preinstalled for use which include Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare and a few games such as Bejeweled 3, Plants vs Zombies and a few others. A built-in app store helps you create a Nokia account and install more apps from the store. Nokia has also done a good job with the onscreen keyboard. The keys are very responsive and surprisingly accurate in both landscape as well as portrait modes. Accounts can be added for Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail, Nokia Mail, Yahoo! mail, Twitter and other POP3 based email services.
Moving on, the user interface comprises of the notification area/bar which can be swiped down from the top. The status bar includes quick toggle switches for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Sync and muting the sound with an additional space for the information on the wireless connection, SIM card, network status and time. Some apps that have other menu options are listed in the bottom status bar which can be swiped upwards from the bottom of the screen if available.
Toggle switches on the notification bar, other settings
Lastly, the app drawer is vertically scrollable. Usually, the app icons are by order of installed apps with the newer ones adding up to the bottom. The icons can be rearranged according to your choice by simply tapping and holding on the desired icon and then moving them around to the area you want them to be in.
Display and media
The 3-inch TFT display is surprisingly good enough for a phone of this calibre. We found the viewing angle to be good enough with no inverted colours and negative images when viewed from different angles. There is a very slight colour fading that is witnessed, but it does not spoil the viewing pleasure. We played a few video files with different formats to check if the internal hardware can handle it. We found that though regular DivX files can be played, the quality of the video is affected because of the codecs involved. The best option is to use a third-party video encoder and transcode your videos into the correct resolution for the phone. Transcoded videos run well and smooth and the display quality is pretty good too. The built-in video player has a very minimalistic and simple display with just a scrubber and a play/pause option. Watching videos might not be totally recommended, but the device is good enough for casual short time entertainment on the small low-res display screen.
Media player with minimal controls
The music player has a simple and straightforward interface with sections for songs, artists, albums and playlists that are featured as usual. The audio volume from the onboard speaker is pretty loud and clear, but is a bit shrill. The bundled earphones/earbuds are red in colour and sport a decent build quality. We did find that the earbuds don’t snugly fit in the ear and tend to get displaced if you tug the wires a bit. The audio quality is good enough and spews out a well balanced level of highs and bass, but the mids are a bit too high. We would recommend switching to a better pair of earphones if you prefer to enjoy good audio quality. There is no equaliser option or audio presets where you can tweak the audio quality to your preference.
The camera settings
Though the minimal camera resolution found on most entry-level devices these days are at least a 5MP, a 3.15 MP sensor is featured here. The camera UI has a very simple interface. Present on the screen are icons/buttons for shoot, scene and video/still toggle. A simple tap on the display brings up the hidden options such as zoom, shutter sound, white balance and timer icons. Tapping any icon takes you to the camera settings where you can adjust settings for the timer, white balance, picture effects, camera shutter sounds and photo resolution which ranges between VGA, 1MP, 2MP and 3MP. The camera is a fixed focus type with no LED flash for night shots. The images shot by the camera are decent and useable to quite an extent. Not that you can use them to print photos or alike, the images are good enough for casual everyday quick shots and social feeds. Images do not sport any fine details (you cannot expect it either), but they are pretty sharp and clear with a good balance of colours. We did find bright areas slightly overexposed in broad daylight. Indoor shots, provided you have a decent ambient light, are also good enough. Night shots or images captured in low-light areas are almost useless.
Outdoor shots are decent with fixed focus
The 1200 mAh battery powering the Nokia Asha 501 seems sufficient for a phone of this size and the meagre hardware that it runs on. As per the manufacturer, you can easily sustain the battery life of up to 26 days when in standby mode, talk for almost 17 hours at a stretch or play almost 57 hours of continuous music on a full charge.
Indoor shots are good too.
Verdict and Price in India
The Nokia Asha 501 is a wonderfully refreshed phone with a design borrowed from the looks of the popular Lumia lineup. With a snappy 1 GHz processor onboard, a fresh new Nokia Asha Smartphone OS, Wi-Fi and GPRS/EDGE connectivity, 4 GB bundled storage, a decent camera performance and an extraordinary battery life, the new Asha offers a near-smartphone experience for the budget entry-level smartphone user. The Asha 501 is available for an MRP of Rs 5,999 and can be obtained for as much as Rs 4,899 in retail outlets and online stores. At this price, we feel it is a steal and a great option for those considering a new phone with smartphone-like features or those opting for a secondary feature-rich phone. Yes, there are Android smartphones available as well in this price range but don't expect a very pleasant experience. The only major limiting factor of the 501 is lack of some popular apps like Whatsapp, which we're sure should be rectified soon. If you're looking for a smartphone in the same family and don't mind spending a bit more, we would recommend opting for the Lumia 520 for its smooth functionality and striking looks.