Produced in six bright colors, the small, electric Nokia Asha 501 practically leaps off the shelf. Nokia is hoping to corner the entry-level smartphone market with its unlocked Asha line, which ranges from bare-bones QWERTY phones to the tiny touch-screen 501 model.
The Asha 501 fits the bill of compact and budget-friendly feature phone that does what it sets out to do, although the trade-off between cost and hardware quality shows, especially in the screen and camera departments.
Designed for emerging markets, the $99 Asha 501 will be easier to find in India, Latin America, and the Middle East. It launched June 2013 in parts of Europe, and will branch to the U.K. and other markets later. The Asha line isn't designed to sell in North America, so don't expect it to make its way to American carriers.
Design and build
One of the phone's most prominent features is its neon-bright colored back cover. I tested the electric red-orange model, but it also comes in loud green, yellow, and blue tones, and a more subdued black and white. The phone's polycarbonate matte finish doesn't pick up fingerprints and feels soft and smooth, but not slippery.
The next thing you'll notice about the Asha 501 is that it's tiny. Its squarish, compact design and rounded corners make the the device easy to slip into tight pants pockets or fit in small bag, so you can tote it with you everywhere. Since it's so small and light, you can comfortably sit on it, too.
Roughly the size of a deck of cards, this 501's straight sides and a flat back help make it comfortable to hold and grab. It also feels comfortable up at the ear.
Just in case you're wondering, the Asha 501 measures 3.9 inches tall by 2.9 inches wide and is 0.47 inch thick (99mm x 58mm x 12mm) and weighs just 3.4 ounces (98 grams).
A small phone, the 501 comes with an even smaller screen: a tiny 3-inch QVGA 320x240-pixel resolution display with a 133 pixels per inch ppi and support for 262,000 colors. The screen leaves a lot to be desired, and looks dim even at full brightness. Colors are also subdued. In full sunlight, the sun's bright rays and reflection makes the display hard to read.
Unfortunately, the 501's screen is also unresponsive at times, especially when I was trying to slide the lock screen icon to unlock the phone. Sometimes I had to try a couple of times to make that work. Even though it's a budget phone, I was still hoping for a brighter screen and more touch sensitivity.
Although I have petite fingers, I also had some trouble typing on the virtual keyboard without making a lot of mistakes and tapping small targets, like a link on a website.
The rest of the controls are predictably straightforward. There's a slim volume rocker and petite power/lock button on the right spine. Both are slightly raised from the surface and easy to press, but because the lock and volume-down buttons are so close together, it's easy to push the wrong one when you're in the middle of a call.
On the top edge, you'll find a headphone jack, and both a Micro-USB port and a proprietary charging port. Nokia says it included the two charging ports to give customers more options to power the phone, but it's strange that Nokia didn't just pick one port, the standard one. You can, of course, also use the USB port to transfer files from your phone to a computer.
Below the screen is a single button that's easy to find and press when you're not looking at the phone. Press it once, and it will go back one step or page in an app. Hold it down, and it will exit the current app. It's easy to tap the button to go back one step, though you have to hold it down for several seconds to close an app, which I didn't like.
Behind the colorful back cover are the battery, SIM card slot, and SD card slot hidden on the side amidst the black material. The 501 comes with 128MB of internal memory, plus a 4GB microSD card to get you started (but the phone will take up to 32GB in external storage).
Removing the back cover can be a struggle, since it wraps all the way around the sides of the device and there are no notches to pry the phone body and cover apart. It helps to hold the left and right sides of the phone while you separate the two pieces of the phone.
The 501's only speaker is also tucked behind the back cover. Audio sounds clear and loud enough at the highest volumes to hear, even outside.
OS and features
The 501 runs Nokia's Asha 1.0 operating system, which looks different than Nokia's older Symbian OS, though you'll recognize the rounded app icons.
To unlock the phone, press the side lock button and swipe left or right on the lock screen, where you'll see the time and date, plus notifications from text messages and missed calls, among others. You can swipe them away from the lock screen, or tap them to go straight to the corresponding app.
The Asha 501 has only two home screens; one with all of your apps and another named Fastlane, which shows reminders, notifications, and an activity log of recently opened apps and other phone activity.
In this Fastlane home screen, you can quickly open recent apps or respond to notifications. Calendar events stay pinned to the top of Fastlane, but you can dismiss everything else at once by tapping and holding anywhere on the screen.
If you swipe from the edge of the phone body (not just the display) toward the screen in either direction, the phone will go back to the home screen from any app. I occasionally accidentally swiped back to the home screen instead of swiping around in an app, which was annoying.
Similar to Android, you can swipe down from the top of the screen anywhere in the phone to show a notifications bar and controls to toggle Wi-Fi, data, sound, and Bluetooth.
The Asha 501 comes stocked with name-brand apps Facebook, Twitter, and The Weather Channel, plus essential tools such as a clock, a calendar, a music player, a voice recorder, and a file manager. If you want even more apps, head over to the Nokia app store, which stocks several popular titles, including Foursquare, Nokia's Here Maps, ESPN, and LinkedIn.