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MWC 2014: Nokia unleashes the Nokia X - a stunningly cheap high-spec Android phone

After countless leaks and months of speculation, Nokia finally took the wraps off of its latest project — the Nokia X - at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2014 in Barcelona. And true to all the rumours, the X eschews Nokia's cozy relationship with Windows Phone 8, in favour of a highly modified Android base.

This is not simply a Lumia phone running Android, though, and expectations should be tempered as the Nokia X is a play at emerging markets and first-time smartphone users. Read on for our first impressions of the Nokia X.

Calling the Nokia X an Android device doesn't tell the whole story. Nokia built the X software up from the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP), but it'll be completely unrecognizable as Android as it's popularly known.

A more accurate description would be somewhere between Nokia's Asha line and low-end Windows Phone line, mimicking the tile-based look of the latter, but integrating some of the user-friendly features from the former. Think of it as a stepping stone for first-time smartphone users that gets them part of the way towards the company's Lumia line.

There's nothing all that notable about the 4in Nokia X from a features perspective. It's decidedly low end with a VGA display and modest 1GHz Qualcomm processor. It felt a touch slow in person, but that's to be expected here.

The most interesting part of the X is its in-your-face color options, which can be swapped out thanks to the replaceable back plate. It will come pre-loaded with apps and games like Vine, Facebook, BBM, Skype, Fruit Ninja, and more.

The Nokia X will start at €89 (£74) without any contract obligations.

Nokia's true intentions are pretty transparent and go hand in hand with the recent Microsoft-Nokia acquisition, which the company expects to be finalised in the very near future. The Nokia X runs on AOSP, but it's completely tied to Microsoft services like Bing search, Outlook email, and OneDrive cloud storage. Nokia expects a huge growth in smartphone users in emerging markets, and the Nokia X offers an opportunity to get Microsoft's hooks into this untapped demographic.

But why AOSP base over Windows Phone? That much wasn't as clear, but it seemed to boil down to apps, flexibility, and costs. Nokia X users will have access to hundreds of thousands of Android apps, which the company says will work with the X without any modification. It almost seemed like a tacit acknowledgement of the shortcomings of Windows Phone apps.

Nokia also highlighted its app payment system, which will integrate with carrier billing services worldwide—a big deal in emerging markets where international credit cards are far from ubiquitous.

On the software side, going with AOSP allowed Nokia to carry over the "fastlane" feature from Asha phones. You can think of fastlane as an adaptive second home screen and notification hub all rolled into one. It shows upcoming events at the top, current notifications below, and a river of recently used apps or services.

That wouldn't have been possible with Windows Phone, and it's something Nokia says its Asha users responded well to. In many ways, the X should be thought of as a step up from Asha phones, rather than a step down from Lumia phones.

All told, the Nokia X looks to be a solid entryway into the world of touch-screen smartphones. More importantly, for Nokia and Microsoft, it ties new users into the Microsoft ecosystem of cloud based services, which could prove invaluable down the line when those first smartphone users are ready to upgrade to full-featured devices.

For all the releases, updates, and some beautiful photos of the latest gadgets, check out our live coverage of all the action from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.