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Nokia Asha 501 review: A tiny, colorful phone with budget specs

The touch-screen featurephone Nokia Asha 501 is a good value at $99, but its low-quality screen and camera will turn off anyone who wants an impressive smartphone.

Sarah Mitroff Managing Editor
Sarah Mitroff is a Managing Editor for CNET, overseeing our health, fitness and wellness section. Throughout her career, she's written about mobile tech, consumer tech, business and startups for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.
Expertise Tech | Health | Lifestyle
Sarah Mitroff
9 min read

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.


Nokia Asha 501

The Good

The <b>Nokia Asha 501</b> is compact and easy to use. It comes in fun, bright colors.

The Bad

The low-resolution screen and 3-megapixel camera disappoint.

The Bottom Line

For $99, the Nokia Asha 501 is worth getting if you want a small, simple, colorful feature phone. However, U.S. denizens will have to buy it unlocked.

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.

The bright, budget Nokia Asha 501 (pictures)

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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.

The Nokia Asha 501 is bright, bright, bright. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

The Asha 501's screen looks dim and is hard to read in bright sunlight. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

The Asha 501 can slip easily into pockets. Josh Miller/CNET

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).

You must remove the 501's back cover to get to the microSD card. Josh Miller/CNET

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 lock screen shows the time and notifications. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
Chow.com 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.


Nokia Asha 501

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 5Performance 6