Having spent time last week with Nokia’s giant Lumia 1520, this week I’ve been getting to know something at the opposite end of the spectrum from Nokia, the Asha 503. This is a tiny handset – and it reminds me very much of the Xperia X10 mini, a phone released when Sony was Sony Ericsson about this time of year in 2010. Aaah, how times flies!
Now, the Nokia Asha 503 is a low cost handset – it can be yours for £70 sim-free. It comes in a dual-sim version but not for UK markets – and indeed the Asha range in general is intended primarily for emerging markets rather than for established ones like ours.
For the asking price you can get an Android toting handset like the somewhat old Samsung Galaxy Mini 2, or a refurbished phone that someone is selling on as they are upgrading, but of course you’ll be looking very much at the low-end of Android. You’d have to double your spend to get what I reckon is the best low cost Android handset of the moment, the Motorola Moto G.
I’ve already mentioned that this is a dinky phone. It measures 102.6 x 60.6mm tall and wide – it looks a bit lost even in my rather dainty little hands. The design is a bit weird, too – it’s a thick phone at 12.7mm and there’s a transparent edging all the way around which encases rounded corners into a more squared-off chassis.
It is the backplate that provides the clear plastic edging as it hugs the four sides of this phone providing an extremely hard-wearing cage for the inner workings. The clear plastic layer extends into the back, making for a rather shiny, non-grippy finish.
You can buy different coloured backplates, but rather boringly I was sent a black one. However, they come in the lurid and bright colours that we’re used to seeing on the Lumia range (check out the image below).
The build might be quirky, but this is a very tough handset and the kind of phone that ought to survive in a younger child’s schoolbag – and compete for space in the same child’s pockets with all the other detritus that lurks within.
There’s a single arrow below the screen which is a touch-sensitive back button, and there are physical buttons on the right edge for locking the screen and for volume control.
You will have spotted, no doubt, that the screen looks a bit lost in this handset. It measures just 3in across diagonal corners. That is, of course, small by today’s standards, but Nokia does it no favours by surrounding it with a huge bezel that gives the impression that it’s even smaller than it really is.
The screen only manages to deliver 320 x 240 pixels. If you are interested in web browsing then you might like to hear that Wi-Fi is built in, but really, whether you are using the mobile network or Wi-Fi to access sites, browsing is something of a pain in such a small viewing area. The same goes for any text or graphics-heavy activity. And even the text you can see tends to be fuzzy.
There are other ways in which the capabilities of this handset are compromised. Of course you can’t expect 4G or NFC support, but there’s no GPS either. The processor doesn’t exactly fly. I’ve no idea what processor Nokia has used as the company has not divulged this information – nor does it tell us how much RAM is assisting the processor. What I can tell you, however, is that this phone is slow. I could move around the main user interface reasonably quickly, but when it comes to running apps it’s something of a waiting game. The Facebook app has the equivalent of a progress bar to watch while it is opening – I gave up waiting. In everyday use this could be a frustrating phone to work with.
There’s no official indication of how much internal storage you get, either, but there is microSD card support and you get a 4GB card with the handset. You can use this to store music, although the Asha’s sound quality is very tinny, and the provided headset doesn’t do a great deal to improve things. Nor did my review handset, which looked like nobody had touched it before me, come with any covers for the earbuds. The one saving grace for fans of using their handset to play music is that the microSD card is hot swappable, as its bay is on the edge of the phone under the backplate rather than under the battery like the micro-sim.
So, what about the software side? The proprietary OS used here means of course that you don’t have access to anything like the apps library that Android or iOS boasts. That said, there is a little store you can visit if you want to download apps, but really, if you have any inkling at all that you might want to explore the world of apps then don’t pick this phone.
What looks like a shedload of pre-installed games turns out to be nothing of the kind. Instead you get a very short try-before-you-buy experience, with games typically being expensive. Bejeweled, Ridge Racer, FIFA 13, Plants vs Zombies (and more) are all £5 (or £2 to rent for a day), for example. GT Racer was a demo I could play for a massively generous 180 seconds without any charge.
There’s a 5 megapixel main camera which takes acceptable shots – you could share them on Facebook without feeling too embarrassed about the quality.
The Nokia Asha software platform 1.1 is pretty familiar to look at and to use. It has been developed in part from the old Symbian OS and incorporates conventions which draw on what’s popular in other mobile operating systems.
You can swipe left or right from the apps view to see what the handset calls Fastlane – a personalised home screen which can show recent apps, social media feeds, music playback controls and the like. Within apps there’s a menu you can drag up from the bottom of the screen. Swiping down from the top of the screen brings up notifications such as incoming messages and shortcuts to things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
You can wake the handset up with a double tap of the lock screen – something which is rather nice to see as this is an “up and coming” feature in some Android handsets such as the LG G2. But I had to bash the screen pretty hard to get my double taps to register.
Nokia quotes 35 days of standby time from the 1,200mAh battery and 4.5 hours of talk time on 3G. I did get more than a day from a battery charge, but then I was not able or willing to use the phone for many of the tasks I undertake every day – plenty of web browsing, mobile email, a bit of GPS and so on. For the most part it just sat in my pocket and got used for the odd voice call and text message.
The Nokia Asha 503 might call itself a smartphone, but it isn’t that smart. Its proprietary OS means its app add-ons are minimal – and what you can get seems expensive. It lacks internal storage, has a poor speaker and design-wise its small screen is dwarfed in a clunky chassis. You can use it for voice calls and for SMS – and the small keyboard is remarkably efficient and accurate – so it might have a place as a phone for very young children, or as a standby handset.
Manufacturer and Model
Nokia Asha 503
3in, 320 x 240 pixels
102.6 x 12.7 x 60.6mm (WxDxH)
Nokia Asha software platform 1.1