Nokia Asha 501 review:

A tiny, colorful phone with budget specs

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.

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The Asha 501's main home screen shows off the phone's apps. Josh Miller/CNET

To browse the Web, the device comes with a custom Nokia browser named Nokia Xpress. It supports multiple tabs and comes with bookmarks for social, email, entertainment, and news sites. The phone loaded common mobile-optimized sites quickly, but full desktop sites took a bit longer. Desktop sites fit into the entire screen, and you can tap to zoom in. The browser does not support Flash, meaning Flash videos found on many sites won't load and it might be tough to get around Flash-heavy sites.

In order to keep data costs down and speeds up, images are compressed and are low-quality by default. You can bump up the resolution in the browser settings if you'd really like.

You'll also find an FM Radio in this phone, a feature that's becoming more scarce these days. It works well and can even identify radio station names and display them at the top of the radio app. You must use headphones to listen to the radio.

The phone has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, but no NFC, but Bluetooth does let you share photos and video with other Bluetooth-enabled devices through a feature called Slam. Once you select the file you want to share and tap "Slam via Bluetooth," you can either knock the two devices together or just move them close to each other and the file will get automatically pushed to the other device.

You can also tap "other devices" to manually send files to other Bluetooth-enabled devices. The phone had no problems sending photos and video to my Samsung Note 2 with Slam, but I wasn't able to share anything to my Bluetooth-enabled laptop no matter what I did.

Camera and video
The Asha's 3-megapixel camera is nothing special. It's missing the Carl Zeiss lens that Nokia has become known for, but for a low-cost phone, I didn't expect it. There is a digital 3x zoom, but no flash or manual focus. The camera includes white balance settings, a self-timer, and four color tone modes: regular, greyscale, sepia, and negative.

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A studio test shot from the Nokia Asha 501. Notice the green shading in the middle of the shot. Josh Miller/CNET

In our studio test (shown above), the photo was bright, but colors looked off, the picture was grainy, and there was green shading in the middle of the shot. The camera has a hard time focusing on details, especially for up-close indoor and low-light shots.

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An outdoor photo taken with the Asha 501. The photo turned out sharper than indoor shots taken with the camera. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Outside pictures had sharp detail, but looked washed out in places. There's no flash on the 501, so you'll need to make sure there's abundant indoor light.

You can compare some smartphones' image performance in our periodically updated gallery of studio shots.

On to video, the 501 captures QVGA 320x240 video at 15 frames per second. There is no zoom and the camera will only record in landscape mode, but you can use the same color modes and white balance settings that are available in the still camera.

The camera's low megapixel count means that videos come out grainy and choppy, even when played on a computer, though audio sounds clear.

Call quality
I tested the unlocked Asha 501 (GSM 900/1800) on AT&T's network in San Francisco. Call quality was a mixed bag, especially comparing calls placed outside versus inside.

On a call to another cell phone, I could hear the other person clearly and without static, and she said I sounded just as clear. The call sounded only slightly worse than it would be on my Galaxy Note 2.

Nokia Asha 501 call quality sample Listen now:

It was a different story on a call to a landline from a courtyard next to a busy street. The person on the other end said my voice sounded clear, but she could hear a lot of background noise when I used the handset speaker and speakerphone. Even at the highest volume level, I had trouble hearing the person's voice on my end from both the handset speaker and on speakerphone. Her voice wasn't always clear and there was occasional static.

Keep in mind that I was using an unlocked phone that isn't optimized for a network, and that call quality might sound better (or worse) where you are, depending on factors like your proximity to the closest cell tower.

Nokia isn't disclosing the processor inside the Asha 501, but we know that it has 64MB of RAM. For a budget phone, it's no surprise that the phone isn't lightning-fast. That said, it's not particularly slow either. Apps take several seconds to launch, but moving through menus is actually snappy.

The Asha 501 has a removable 1,200 mAh battery that promises 48 days of standby time and 17 hours of 2G talk time, and can continuously play music for just over two days straight. Yes, you read that right, 48 days of standby time.

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With the back cover off, you can get to the removable battery. Josh Miller/CNET

During our battery drain test, the phone lasted 22.45 hours for continuous talk-time. I did notice that the battery drained very slowly during testing. I left it on overnight and by the next morning, the battery was still around 80 percent full.

Download LinkedIn (793KB) 55.7 seconds
Load up LinkedIn app 6 seconds
CNET mobile site load 3.8 seconds desktop site load 9.1 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 21 seconds
Camera boot time 2.2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.7 seconds

The Asha 501 uses 2G network speeds only, but I found that it loaded mobile-optimized Web pages fairly quickly. There are two versions of the Asha 501; one with a dual SIM and one without. The dual SIM gives you more flexibility to use the phone while traveling. We tested the single-SIM model.

Final thoughts
Despite its low-end specs, the Nokia Asha 501 performs remarkably well for a budget feature phone of this type. It has a fun, cute design, a sturdy build, and a functional OS straightforward enough that even people who shy away from technology could learn to use it quickly.

The Asha 501 is not a premium device by any stretch, but it's not supposed to compete on that scale. For a device designed to cover the basics at a low entry cost, it has just enough power, apps, and style to be appealing, though it certainly isn't what you would call an impressive phone.

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