Nokia Asha 503 review: Zingy exterior, sluggish interior

The tabbed Nokia browser compresses page data to help save money (if you pay by data load) and time, since this is a 3G phone. However, it crashed on me several times during testing while I was trying to connect to CNET's authenticated Wi-Fi network. I did also increase image quality from Low to Medium.

Since you'll want to rely on the Asha 503 mainly for calls, let's chat about the phone book. You can import contacts from your SIM card, microSD card, or another device. The address book fields look limited at first glance to the photo ID, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and a birthdate. In the menu, though, you can add any number of other fields, including a custom ringtone, address, anniversary, and other details. Being able to add contacts from other accounts, like Facebook, Twitter, and a boatload of VoIP services (Tpad, Nimbuzz,, and MondoTalk, to name a few) is a nice touch.

Camera and video
Some of Nokia's 5-megapixel phone cameras do a great job capturing usable images. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. It doesn't help that the Asha 503 has a fixed flash, which means that you're going to have to judge for yourself on the small screen if the photo is in focus. It also means you won't be able to shoot moving objects well, such as people on the go or squirmy pets or children. If the bright sun is in your eyes, good luck determining the focus.

The 5-megapixel camera has a fixed-focus lens. Josh Miller/CNET

Even when you manage to get a photo just right, the 503's camera produces fairly grainy images, though with decent color reproduction. Strangely, the automatic flash went off while I was shooting outdoors, but didn't during at least one indoor shot. You will be able to adjust presets for white balance, add some effects, set a timer, and select photo resolution.

Video options are mostly the same, though your highest resolution here is VGA (640x480 pixels), and videos are set to 480x320 by default. There's also a slower recording frame rate, 19 frames per second versus 30 for most high-end smartphones. The difference shows, with the 503's videos comprised of fractured images of muted color quality, image blur when movement is involved, and a bit of a recording delay.

This indoor shot was my favorite of the bunch. The statue's paint job helps details look sharp. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
With a fixed focus lens and slow processor, there was almost no way I was going to catch this sexagenarian's purple hair streak as she walked by. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
You'll need a good eye to determine where the focus will drop. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Strangely, the flash, which I set to automatic mode, went off in this bright outdoor scene. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Behavior was all over the map in this typical studio shot. Exposure was fine here, but the same image looked yellow in a photo taken with identical settings. Josh Miller/CNET

Under the hood

While Nokia won't share specifics about the processor's strength and speed, it is evidently low-powered. Slight delays mark almost every engagement, from swiping away from the lock screen, to waiting for apps to load and even switching orientation. When using the Asha 503, patience is a virtue.

Battery life will depend on how you use your phone. The 1,200mAh battery capacity is on the lower end of the scale, and has a rated talk time of only 4.5 hours over 3G (12 hours over 2G,) and a standby time of 35 days. During our drain test for continuous talk time, the battery lasted an impressive 14 hours and 37 minutes.

Storage space is minuscule, which is why the phone comes with a 4GB card preinstalled. You can bump that out to 32GB for your photos and video.

Call quality

I tested the unlocked 503's call quality in San Francisco using AT&T's GSM network (850/900/1800/1900 MHz bands; it's also compatible with WCDMA 900/2100 MHz.)

My main calling partner's voice sounded warm and largely natural above a soft, persistent crackle. The white noise was a little distracting, but volume was strong with plenty of room to turn it up in noisy environments. On his end, my tester said I sounded nicely loud, but a little unreal, like some of the higher frequencies in my voice were being mushed down or cut off completely. He also volunteered that it sounded like a cheap handset.

Asha 503 call quality sample Listen now:

The speakerphone sounded quiet, muted, and distant when I held the phone at hip level. It also imbued my caller's voice with a halo of fuzziness. On his end, my partner said that speakerphone sometimes cut off part of my syllables, and also muted my already unnatural-sounding voice.

Final thoughts

Nokia sells its Asha 503 in select global markets, for a range of prices that equates to about $99 in US dollars. The phone's unique, attractive design is a definite draw, and there are enough software features to satisfy someone who's looking for some light Internet browsing and social media involvement. It does check a fair number of boxes for a budget handset -- like Wi-Fi, an e-mail client, and FM radio -- but I can't recommend it for its performance.

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