Reviews

Nokia Asha 501 Review: A New Hope? Nope!

"The Nokia Asha 501 does not support WhatsApp. The End."

That's the TL;DR version of this review. Jokes aside, the Asha 501 is Nokia's big hope for markets like India - CEO Stephen Elop even made a visit here to launch it. Its aimed squarely at people who find smartphones too complex, but still want something that offers the features of a smart device. Even the price point is kept quite low at Rs. 4,999. Sadly, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by it.

What Is It?

The Nokia Asha 501 is a compact phone with a tiny 3-inch touchscreen. In terms of hardware, there's not much to boast of. The company hasn't revealed the processor it runs on, and the phone uses only 64MB RAM and 128MB internal memory, that is expandable via a microSD card (the box pack includes a 4GB card). Connectivity on the Dual-SIM (GSM+GSM) phone is restricted to Wi-Fi and EDGE, and the camera is a simple 3-megapixel affair. The 1200mAh battery might seem insufficient on paper, but it packs quite a lot of juice. And Nokia has come up with a new operating system that's a cross between the old faithful S40 and the short-lived Linux JV with Intel called MeeGo - think of it as S40 on steroids.



Who Is It For?

The Asha 501 is for those who want a cute touchscreen phone with long battery life and don't really care about any smart features like email, social networking, instant messaging, multimedia, apps or games. If any of those smart features matter to you, look elsewhere.

Design

It's cute! Really, you see the phone from a distance and you are compelled to want to pinch its non-existent cheeks. The bright
coloured shell around the touchscreen draws your eyes and screams, "Play with me." It's reminiscent of the Lumia 620 and Lumia 520.

Get your hands on it, though, and there's a problem. It feels like low-grade plastic. When you press on the sides of the touchscreen, you can feel it slightly recess into the cover - not pleasant at most times and especially annoying when playing a game and you press the part hard.

That said, the phone is built to last. There was a time everyone swore by Nokia's build quality because no matter how many punches a handset took, it would show up to work the next day. Except for the touchscreen, the Asha 501 inspires the same confidence. In fact, I accidentally dropped it face down and there wasn't even a scratch. But the screen isn't scratch-proof, so don't do that often!

There's no "Home" button here, instead you get a physical 'Back' key. That's understandable since the phone doesn't support multi-tasking at all, running only one app at a time.

Using It

If you've grown up around Nokia phones, you'll instantly like the Asha 501. There's a sense of familiarity and comfort to the new Nokia Asha Smartphone Platform 1.0 operating system that warms the cockles of the hearts of jaded reviewers. This is the Nokia we all know and love.

And yet, there's something more: the Fastlane. The homescreen is basically two panes -- one with all the apps arranged in a grid, and the second with a log of your recent activities, broken down by day. This second screen, called Fastlane, is quite a cool addition. On a day when I called the same person several times and was involved in an SMS conversation with two people, it ended up being quite the time saver.


The regular apps screen, though, is an eyesore. The low resolution of the screen makes for icons with horrible, jagged edges and poor colours.

Much like other smartphones, the notification bar at the top of the phone can be pulled down to toggle settings like Bluetooth, Silent Mode, Sync and Wi-Fi. And of course, you get a one-glance look at the time, network, battery and other things that need your attention.

In fact, there's a nifty 'glance screen' when the screen's switched off, which displays the time in big, bold letters on a black background, saving you the trouble of switching the screen on. It's a small addition but a really nice feature that I hope others would emulate.

But for all its looks, the Asha 501's operating system is severely limited in almost every aspect. The lack of multi-tasking can get really annoying. You will be listening to music -- one of the few things that works in the background - but starting any app with any sound will stop the track. It's a problem that I had also encountered on the Lumia smartphones.

Plus, you never "move away" from an app, you exit it entirely. It won't ever remember the last position you were at in any app -- a nightmare scenario if you were typing a long email and went to another app when prompted by a notification.

There is no background sync for any of the apps, so emails don't get pushed properly to the phone and you don't know if a friend has tagged you on Facebook or messaged you on Twitter. Also, you can forget about accessing email attachments on this phone - not only can't you open individual files in an email with multiple attachments, you will also always keep getting an "insufficient memory" error for most files.



The back button of the phone also has inconsistent behaviour with some apps. 'Back' is meant to always take you to the previous screen; hold it down and it takes you directly to the homescreen. But with third-party apps, like Facebook, that wasn't the case. The Back button will take you all the way to the app's main screen, but stops there.

And the lesser said about the inadequately stocked app store, the better. I've already made my sentiments known about the lack of WhatsApp, and the scene doesn't get any better for other apps and games.

Overall, the feeling you get is of an operating system that wants to offer simplified forms of features available in smartphones, but fails at the task.

The Best Part

If what matters the most to you is great battery life, then the Asha 501 is a solid contender for that reason alone. Of course, not having sync or 3G goes a long way to help this cause, but even then, I got around 30 hours of battery life on a single charge, which is more than sufficient for most users. If you aren't going to check social networks and play games, you can expect it to go even longer.

Tragic Flaw

I have already harped on about the limiting OS but that really is the main reason that stops me from ever being able to recommend this phone. No Google contact sync, no email push, no email attachments, no WhatsApp, no good games, poor social networking... the list of missing features just goes on. There's a lot of talk about this being a phone for someone who doesn't care about smartphone features or is looking for a step up from a basic feature phone. But can you imagine spending 5,000 rupees of your hard-earned money on a phone - even if it's for your tech-challenged parent - and not be able to watch a simple YouTube video? There's a difference between limiting a phone's features to make it more accessible to luddites and crippling a handset - the Asha 501, unfortunately, is mostly guilty of the latter.


Test Notes

-The screen is bright and has great viewing angles. It's a bit saturated but not enough to complain about. The low resolution is a bummer though.

-The keyboard is a winner. I rarely made mistakes even while typing fast and the autocorrect dictionary usually got it right. With practice, you'll be as good and fast on this as any other smartphone keyboard.

-The camera is great if all you do is click stationary objects in bright sunlight. For any other use, forget about it.

-WhatsApp is missing, but there are other messaging apps like WeChat already available. So I decided to count my contacts on both to get a fair metric of their usage. On WeChat, I had 31 contacts. On WhatsApp, I had 40 contacts starting with the letter A, so I stopped counting. Case dismissed. (Nokia says that WhatsApp is coming to the phone soon, but I'm not holding my breath)

-The preinstalled Facebook app looks like it was made back in the early 2000s, before Facebook even existed. It's the same interface you'll find on S40 otherwise, but the outdated and clunky design is highlighted even more when using it on a modern touchscreen device.

-Google contact sync doesn't work, but Facebook contacts do show up in the phone book. The lack of Google contacts can be a deal-breaker for those who use Gmail as their main email and contact service.

-The phone has a good antenna with the signal bars holding up in areas notorious for bad network coverage.

-Bluetooth doesn't support A2DP, so forget about stereo music on your headphones or speakers.

-Music quality is poor. The packaged red earphones look trendy but fail to deliver on sound quality, sounding tinny and throwing in the towel at high volumes.

-Videos are supported only up to VGA resolution, in 3GP, MP4 and AVI formats. And oh god, you still have to put up with that audio when you do so. If you want to torture someone, make them watch The Avengers on the Asha 501 with its fancy special effects and huge explosions.

-YouTube videos don't work at all. At all.



-The browser is the saving grace and is the best I have seen on non-smart operating systems. It compresses pages to use lesser data and speed up the browsing - and I'm happy to report it lives up to the latter claim.

-You can't open email attachments individually, or attachments over 300KB. And the limit might be lower still - the only file I opened successfully was a 96KB one.

-There's no GPS but A-GPS was satisfactory on the phone and Nokia's HERE maps are great to use in India.

-Gaming on the Asha 501 is a joke. You'll get excited to see a title like Asphalt on your phone, till you start it and realise it's a half-assed game that looks and sounds worse than the racing games you played on your original NES back in the 80s. There's "retro-cool" and then there's "oh god, my eyes!"


Should I Buy It?

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there's a very specific niche that the Nokia Asha 501 is good for. If you are someone who is going to do nothing other than make phone calls and text messaging and needs good battery life, then the Asha 501 is a good-looking device to flaunt - especially when you want people to think you don't use an old fuddy-duddy's phone. You also have to be someone who wants a touchscreen and not a keyboard - because there are plenty of options with physical keyboards that offer the same features, even from Nokia themselves.

At Rs. 5,000, there are way too many other options that make much more sense than the Nokia Asha 501 and its crippled operating system. You have phones like the Intex Cloud X3 for even cheaper at Rs. 3,790 that rock a dual-core processor (but lack a good screen) and run Android Jelly Bean out of the box. There's no dearth of good, cheap Android phones from Indian manufacturers like Micromax, Lava, Karbonn and others. For the same price as the Asha, you can even pick up the Samsung Galaxy Y Duos Lite or the Samsung Galaxy Star.

But the nail in the coffin for the Asha 501 is the recent price cut to the Nokia Lumia 510. Available for Rs. 6,100 at Amazon India, the Windows Phone 7.8 device offers way, way, way more value for your money for a negligible difference in price. The operating system is also easier for first-time smartphone users than Android and is much more robust than the Asha 501. Unless some extenuating financial circumstances are preventing you from spending that extra amount, you would be a fool to buy the Asha 501 over the Lumia 510, which has a better screen, camera, performance, operating system, app ecosystem, navigation, sound quality, multimedia support. It does the feature phone parts perfectly and keeps them simple, while offering the benefits of a smartphone if you need them; what's not to like? And it definitely offers more bang for your buck than the Indian Android smartphones when you factor in Nokia's stellar after-sales support.

Nokia Asha 501 Specs:
OS: Nokia Asha Smartphone Platform 1.0
Network: Dual-SIM (GSM+GSM)
CPU: N/A
Screen: 3-inch 320x240 with 2-finger multitouch (133 ppi)
RAM: 64MB
Storage: 128MB internal, microSD up to 32GB (4GB included)
Camera: 3MP rear camera, QVGA video
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, EDGE, Bluetooth 3.0, microUSB
Battery: 1200mAh Li-Ion
Dimensions: 99.2 x 58 x 12.1 mm
Weight: 98 gms
Price: Rs. 4,999

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