The Nokia Asha 501 is an entry level smartphone running the new Asha platform – a new polished and developer-friendly OS with a similar UI to MeeGo on the Nokia N9, and featuring technology from Smarterphone, a software company acquired by Nokia in 2012. I had been excited at the prospects that the Asha 501 offered since its announcement. The question was, would it deliver in real life usage? I have spent the last week using the 501, and think I can now tell fairly well whether it does or does not.
Let me walk you through the Nokia Asha 501. For starters, here is a quick glance at its strengths and weaknesses:
– DualSIM, Dual Standby
– Well built and very attractive
– Very good swipe-based MeeGo-based user interface
– Smooth performance
– Very good audio
– Data compression for web browsing
– Superb battery life
– USB Mass storage & File Manager
– Bluetooth 3.0
– Camera suite & image editor
– Extensive 3rd party apps in the Nokia Store
– No text copy-and-paste
– No contacts/calendar synchronisation
– No 3G
– No WiFi hotspot/internet sharing
– No built-in PDF/Office documents reader
From the above quick list, you should have an idea of whether the Asha 501 is for you or not. The 501 has most features that people need in a smartphone, a very nice user interface, and the most awesome battery life. But then, it lacks a number of things that geeks and power users cannot do without.
Geeks are going to turn up their noses at the Asha 501. Techies are going to complain about the lack of certain features. Despite that, the Asha 501 is an impressive entry-level smartphone that non-techies will love and buy. It is compact and handy, keeps you connected and the battery life is a dream. If you are a techie on the look out for the highest specs and for a phone that you can tweak to no end, just walk away now. This phone cannot satisfy you.
The 501 is compact. It fits into almost any pockets but the tiniest. It is also well built and feels like it will last and last. The physical shell is a testament to Nokia’s legendary prowess with hardware. I mentioned that the Asha 501 is compact. Think of a 3-inch display. yes; that compact. It is very comfortable in the hand and one-handed use is the finest that I have experienced in a long time.
User Interface: Swipe
If you have used the Nokia N9, then you are familiar with the Swipe user interface that it introduced. Swipe was hailed and praised by almost every reviewer, and is still referred to by many today with nostalgia. Well, out of the ashes of MeeGo on the N9 have risen the user interface of the Asha 501.
The interface has two parts –
– Fastlane, which displays all your most recent activity in a vertical graphical list. Every thing. Calls. SMS. Apps. Everything. Fastlane also supports social integration with Facebook and Twitter, allowing you to post directly to those networks from within Fastlane.
– Home, which is a traditional application launcher. This is where all app icons are found. You launch any app installed on the phone from here.
Navigation is done by swiping horizontally to switch between Fastlane and the apps menu. There is a Back key that can be used to return to previous steps. It isn’t needed for navigation at all though, as the Swipe UI works fine without the key. The Back key comes in handy for going back inside apps, e.g. while web browsing.
There is a drop-down menu similar to what obtains on Android. This provides quick access to WiFi, Bluetooth, GPRS/EDGE, and Audio toggles. It also shows your active SIM cards and networks, as well as displays notifications.
The Asha 501 is a dualSIM mobile supporting the microSIM standard. Both SIMs are active. One SIM slot is behind the battery, and the second one is a side slot, and is hot-swappable. that means you can remove the secondary SIm without having to shut down the phone. There is a microSD card slot too in the side. micro-USB port: check. 3.5mm audio slot: check. Old school pin charger: check. But don’t worry; it also charges via microUSB.
The 501’s display works well in sunlight making it a phone you enjoy using when out and about.
Typing on the Asha’s 3-inch display is a mostly pleasant experience. The keyboard seems to be well designed to make the best of the small display. Why? Even with my big fingers, I am able to type fairly comfortably on it. Of course, the keyboard look and feel is reminiscent of what obtains on the Nokia N9.
3rd Party Apps
The Nokia Store offers lots of 3rd party apps and games for the 501. Some popular ones are there, and some are missing. Many titles are free. Some of you have asked if WhatsApp is available for this device. Unfortunately, not yet. Nokia says it is on the way. Older Asha phones are supported, but the new platform isn’t yet. The built-in apps are after the likeness of MeeGo on the N9.
The Asha 501 provides up to 40 free EA games available to download (my kids love this part of the phone).
Internet and Email
The Asha 501’s network data support is for GPRS/EDGE only. That may sound disappointing, but here is the thing: the 501 seems to be well optimised for this and has maintained very stable internet connections for the over a week that I have used it as my primary smartphone. Whether it is web browsing, tweeting or facebooking, this phone has maintained one of the most stable 2G internet connections that I have ever encountered on mobile. Using 2G on most other platforms – Android and Windows Phone inclusive – is a pain in the neck and in the behind. Here, the Asha makes it clear that it was designed to handle it.
But it doesn’t end there, there is a Wifi radio here, so if you have access to a WiFi hotspot, you can enjoy broadband internet on the 501 still.
Web browsing here is smooth. There is server-side compression (official claims of up to 90% compression) built into the Nokia Xpress browser to help speed up your browsing, as well as keep your internet costs low. The browser supports tabs too. Email support on the 501 is wide. You can setup Google, Yahoo, IMAP and POP. Unfortunately, there is no sign of Mail for Exchange here, so forget about synchronisation of contacts and calendars. However, the older Asha devices recently received a software update that added Mail for Exchange. One can only hope that Nokia pushes out such an update for the new Asha platform too.
I setup a Google email account and an IMAP account. Both work very well. However, this is one area where the 501 lets down a bit. When a mail arrives and you open it, it is slow in downloading and displaying the full email.
There is no WiFi hotspot or internet sharing ability here.
Organizer and Office features
There is no built-in Office suite, but there is at least one 3rd party app that lets you read Word documents (docx only). Called My Pocket Office, it uses the built-in file system to open existing Office documents with the docx. It also allows you to bookmark files for easy repeat access. Heavier files are slow to load though, but do note that the app is in BETA state.
There is a nice calendar, file manager, calculator and notes. There is also a built-in file manager and support for USB mass storage. The latter means that you can use the Asha 501 like a USB flash drive: plug into a PC to copy or move files.
Audio quality and volume are quite good on the 501. I find them comparable to what obtains on the Lumia 720. That is based on what I heard in comparing them and not on any scientific tests. There is a Stereo FM radio that is really nice to use. The user interface is really cool.
Video playback is nice, but limited by the 240 x 320 pixel display. Codec support covers 3GP and MP4, but not MPEG-4 files.
It is only a 3.2 megapixel shooter, and there is no flash light. There is no hardware shutter button either. Still it is an easy-to-use camera and manages to produce some very decent shots. There is also a built-in photo editor, as well as a pre-installed camera suite, Camera5in1 MIDLET Suite. The Asha 501 is not bad in low-light situations. Apparently, Nokia is making low-light camera photography available across its range of mobiles. Below are two shots of the same low-light scene using the Lumia 920 (above) and Asha501 (below). While the difference is noticeable, the Asha 501 acquits itself creditably.
The 501 is powered by a 1GHz Processor. You might be tempted to hiss at the 64 MB RAM, but in use, the UI is smooth, with some slight lag when running the heaviest of tasks at times. I have played Need For Speed Shift on the 501, and it was a smooth experience. Ultimately, this looks like a platform that has been well optimised for low power use.
People have asked me if the Asha 501 multitasks. I do not know for sure. I do know that if I swipe away from say the browser to go do one or two things and then tap the browser icon again, it loads instantly and is on the page that I left it. If I return to the browser after a long time, however, it loads from scratch. Is that multitasking or some form of pseudo multitasking? I don’t know. The specs sheet don’t say, but the experience is good. Perhaps some apps are enabled to multitask, and others are not? The Twitter app, for example, seems to load from scratch every time.
Simply put, this is the smartphone of my dreams, battery-wise. The battery just keeps going on. After 18 hours of an always-on Wi-Fi connection, over an hour of calls, intermittent music playback, Tweeting, Facebook updates, and more, the battery was still at over 55%. If you are going to be away from a charging point for a long time, this is the smartphone that you want to be carrying on you. End of.
The Nokia Asha 501 is something of a marvel. It is not the power user’s smartphone, and it wasn’t designed to be. This seems to me to be a good attempt at the modern smartphone for emerging markets. It keeps the user connected and lasts between charges. Yet, there is no text copy-and-paste anywhere, and multitasking isn’t clear. Nokia also needs to add Mail for Exchange support, so users can synchronise their contacts and calendars easily. Software updates for the Asha 501 are OTA and require no PC, which sounds like a good thing to me.
Do I recommend this phone? Yes; but not for everyone. Personally, I experienced withdrawal symptoms when after completing my review I pulled out my SIM and put it back in the more capable Lumia. Shock! Horror! Was it the compact form or the MeeGo-like user interface that I fell in love with long ago? Or was it a combination of the two? I think that it is the combination. Anyway, after a few hours, I had my microSIM back inside the Asha 501. The ghost of MeeGo still haunts me. If I can get rehabilitated, hopefully, I can pick up my Lumia again. I miss Mail for Exchange (I had to import my contacts via a PC connection). I don’t miss much else because I have a 5-inch phablet that handles more advanced tasks. As an advanced user, no; I would not be able to use the Asha 501 as an only smartphone. But with a phablet/tablet in tow, its just perfect. Meanwhile, I hope that I do not get weary waiting for the addition of Mail for Exchange.
The Asha 501 is not for everyone. But my kids want one each. My wife likes it too and made an attempt to manipulate this unit off me. Youngsters and people owning a smartphone for the first time will love it. Some MeeGo/Swipe addicts will too. People who want a smartphone that keeps them connected but whose battery lasts and lasts will want one. People who love compact and stylish will give it a look too. People who need a backup smartphone will perhaps be interested too. One thing is for sure: no-one is taking this unit off me.
Mo Rating: 7.5/10. The lack of Mail for Exchange (for Contacts & Calendar synchronisation) is the reason why I am not scoring the Asha 501 an 8 or 8.5. The omission of that in a smartphone is just unpardonable.