Think of Nokia's Asha 503 as a feature phone experience and you'll come closer to enjoying it for what it is: a delightfully square-edged handset with well-rounded, if clunky, capabilities. The phone's strengths include a well-thought out ice-cube design effect, Wi-Fi, and software features that will keep you connected.
However, the plaudits stop there. The $99 unlocked global smartphone's low-quality, low-resolution screen, iffy call quality, fixed camera focus, and jerky navigation are markers of the 503's budget status, even as it's the most generously appointed among a trio that also includes the Asha 502 ($89) and Asha 500 ($69). (For reference, the Asha 503 tops the 502 with a stronger Gorilla Glass screen topper and 3.5G data speeds.)
The 503's wacky, colorful, frozen-in-ice design is its saving grace, however, and the main reason I'd recommend the phone at all. If you want an easy-to-use feature phone with a statement design, the 503 is an OK choice. But if it's a smooth, well-integrated budget smartphone experience you're after, skip over the 503 entirely in favor of an inexpensive Android or Windows Phone.
Design and build
Well, it certainly has personality. Perfectly smooth with straight plastic edges and square corners, the Asha 503 stands upright on flat surfaces and looks like it's been frozen in a block of ice. The effect is most noticeable when peering down from above or catching an edge, a layer of clear plastic trapping the white, black, or eye-searing yellow, green, cyan, and red underneath.
At 4 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5-inch thick, it's far from wafer-slim, but doesn't come across as overly chunky. Instead, it feels reassuringly solid, with a slight curve on the back softening the phone's sharper edges. You can easily slide it into pockets, and it's comfortable in the hand and on the ear. Those straight sides make it particularly grippable. Its 3.9-ounce weight is about right, too.
I also really like using the volume rocker and power button, both situated on the phone's right spine. They rise from the surface and are easy to identify by feel. The 503's Micro-USB charging port and headset jack are up top, and peeking out from the back cover are the camera lens and LED flash.
You'll need to take off the back panel (from the bottom) to reveal the microSD card slot, but it's the battery that needs to go for you to get to the micro-SIM card tray.
Looking at the 503's face, you see a lot of black. The bezel is huge, far larger than necessary for the 3-inch QVGA LCD display -- with 320 x 240-pixel resolution -- that it frames. Highly reflective, the touch screen can be hard to read indoors. It helps when you increase the brightness, though that comes as a cost to battery life.
More importantly, the phone's low 134ppi pixel density and 262,000 color capacity (versus 16 million) are impossible to ignore. Text and images appear a little jagged around the edges, even without scrutinizing the screen. Graphically-rich sites such as CNET look like a caricature with the low-quality image setting you get by default, with highly pixelated edges, blotchy color, and aliases sprinkled across the screen like confetti. Better stick to the mobile sites, or increase the image quality, at the cost of downloading speed.
The phone's display quality is a concession to its price, but at least Nokia gives you the Glance screen for seeing the time from the lock screen, and the option to double-tap the display to wake it up (another slight battery drain).
A 3-inch display is a very tight fit for reading the screen, closing out tiny windows, and especially for typing on the five-row virtual QWERTY keyboard. I found myself pecking at the screen very precisely, which worked OK with my smaller-size fingers, but it still frustrated me. The phone offers predictive typing by default, but no autocapitalization or autopunctuation. If you want spell-check, you'll need to turn it on in Settings yourself.
OS and apps
The 503 runs Nokia's Asha software platform 1.1.1, which Nokia calls a smartphone OS. Without splitting too many hairs on the technicalities of what does or does not constitute a smartphone, I will just say that for anyone used to Android, Windows Phone, or iOS, the Asha OS feels like a blast from the past, more advanced feature phone than anything else. There's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0, which you can access from a swipe-down menu at the top of the screen.
Navigation couldn't be easier from the single button -- a Back button -- beneath the display. After that, you swipe across two home screens: one holds your icons and the other shows an overview of your social stream and activities.
There are a fair number of apps with Asha, and a store where you can browse through more titles. The phones comes with text, of course, as well as a music player, Facebook, Twitter, and What's App, plus e-mail support for a number of protocols. There's a calendar, a calculator, a note app, a voice recorder, and an FM radio. You can manage files, access games, chat, and check the weather. Nokia preloads almost a dozen game trials that'll let you play for 3 minutes before promoting you to buy.