Nokia’s Asha series of devices was developed to be the bridge between its Lumia smartphones and its lower end feature phones. Previously, these Asha devices were powered by a branch of the now-dead Symbian platform called S40, but the Asha 501 runs on a totally new operating system. Called the Asha Platform 1.0, it aims to bring even more smartphone-like capabilities into ever-lower price points. In an age where cheap Android phones continue to have no competition despite their less-than-stellar user experience, can this quirky RM299 phone stand up against the not-so-mighty droids and offer consumers proper value for money on top of its unique user experience ? Launched in Malaysia back in June, the Asha 501 takes after the Fabula design language that is now synonymous with Nokia’s Lumia smartphones. The matte polycarbonate body also bears the hallmark of a classic Nokia device: it is tough and resistant to smudges and fingerprints. Harking back to Nokia’s heritage once more, the Asha 501 also feature removable back covers. This, together with the five available colour options for the Asha 501, allows users to easily customise the look of their devices. Right off the bat, it is obvious that the Asha 501 is a budget device.
Despite the well-built outer chassis, the internal hardware is very much what you’d expect for a device of this price. Nokia doesn’t even disclose the processor running on this phone, for starters. Otherwise, there’s 128MB of storage and 64MB of RAM. To circumvent the storage issue, the Asha 501 supports up to 32GB microSD cards, and a 4GB unit is bundled with every device. In front, there’s a tiny 3-inch TFT display with a resolution of 320 x 240 for a pixel density of only 133ppi. However, Nokia used a capacitative screen for the Asha 501, an upgrade from the resistive touch screens from previous Ashas. Round the back, the Asha 501 sports a 3.2MP fixed focus rear camera and no flash. Near the bottom of the device is the speakers, which is cleverly hidden beneath the non-removable part of the back cover. Connectivity-wise, the dual SIM Asha 501 supports both SIM cards to be active simultaneously, but only up to 2G speeds at any given time. However, there is WiFi, which does come in very handy. On top of that, it is also interesting to note that the Asha 501 uses both a proprietary as well as microUSB ports for charging. The Asha 501 runs on the new Asha Platform 1.0, which as we noted back at the launch, looks very similar to the MeeGo-Harmattan mobile operating system.
The UI inherits plenty of the gesture-based interface on the Nokia N9, such as the edge-swipe to exit an app. Of course, Nokia has worked hard to implement other MeeGo-inspired interactions, such as the Glance Screen and the double tap to wake features into their current Lumia smartphones with the Amber update on Windows Phone 8. Surprisingly, these two features also made their way to the Asha 501 as well. The Glance Screen feature is one of the most underappreciated aspects of a smartphone. With Glance Screen enabled, the screen enters an always on, low-power mode, displaying the time and any notifications that the phone receives. That way, users need not constantly reach for and wake their phones just to check the time, or any notifications. In addition, when there is any notification, users can immediately launch the app from the lockscreen by swiping the notification a la iOS. Surprisingly, the Asha 501 has plenty of built-in functionality previously only found in smartphones. There’s an email client supporting various popular providers from Gmail to Hotmail, very basic variants of Facebook and Twitter, calendar app, and the Nokia Xpress Internet browser, which compresses up to 90% of data. Finally, there is Fastlane. As described in the video above, Fastlane is the new home screen for the Asha Platform 1.0. It allows users plenty of customisation options to suit their needs.
For example, users can set their Fastlane to pull status updates from Facebook and Twitter, or just leave Fastlane for quick access to notifications, reminders as well as frequently-used apps. Pulling Fastlane to the top also reveals future reminders, which can be particularly useful. Oh, and not to forget, there’s even an app store for the Asha 501. There users can find plenty of useful apps, such as the HERE Maps app, WeChat and many Java-based games. Every Asha 501 purchase also comes with 40 free game titles for the Asha 501 from EA. Nokia’s claim that the Asha 501 had a battery life that lasts seven days on standby is certainly bold. With WiFi on and having my email and Facebook accounts logged in, the Asha 501 managed an impressive standby time of about five to six days. Granted, the phone saw very light usage, but the 1200mAh battery does go the distance when left on standby for prolonged periods. The 3-inch 320 x 240 display is certainly nothing to shout about, but the Asha 501’s screen gets the job done. The screen does get rather weird sometimes when an object looming over the device registered as a double-tap, hence waking the phone unnecessarily. Also, the small screen size also meant everything on the screen is small. Texts may be easy to read since font sizes are large, but the on-screen QWERTY keyboard is close to a nightmare when used for extended periods.
For such a small phone, audio on the Asha 501 is surprisingly loud. Granted, it will not produce sounds of the highest quality, as they break when hitting slightly high notes, but for a budget device the audio output on the Asha 501 is a pleasant surprise. The Asha 501 has a fixed focus 3.2MP rear camera with no flash. Suffice to say, pictures taken on the Asha 501 will not be the best looking ones you’ll see. On the other hand, for such a basic camera, the app actually possesses quite a few options in the camera settings. Users can tweak white balance, image size and even add effects before images are taken. Given the limited 2G speeds and basic functionalities, the Asha 501 is simply not feasible to be a daily driver for power users. However, I see the Asha 501 as a very interesting prospect for those looking for a secondary or backup phone. At RM299, this tiny device can be left in the bag or at home for emergencies, or even used as a substitute phone at events such as concerts, where the risk of getting pickpocketed is high. In addition, the very low price point also makes the Asha 501 a suitable candidate as a first phone for younger kids. The classic Nokia hardware should ensure it will survive the hard knocks that usually happens with children, and the smartphone-like functionality would help ease the transition into a proper smartphone in the future.