A lot of people have been dreaming of a Nokia phone running Android. But why? There are a lot of great Android phones on the market, so why do people get excited at the idea of Nokia joining in on the party? Part of it must come down to an historic love for the Nokia brand. Many people's first phone was a Nokia - including mine - and just that brand name evokes a bit of excitement. Some of this desire comes from the sheer quality of Nokia devices in the past few years. Everything from the Lumia 800 to the latest Lumia 1520 is a quality product. Nokia know how to make great hardware and people want it. Perhaps the biggest draw though is the thought of a product like a Lumia 1020 running Android. Just imagine that camera but with the flexibility and power of Android. At least that is what we are told.
If you are one of these consumers, if you want a Nokia smartphone, you can just go out and buy one of their Lumia devices and it doesn't really matter which one, they are all pretty great. People are not doing this though which suggests to me that Windows Phone is the problem. Well, if you fall into this camp, I am excited to say that Nokia have now released a phone running Android. And it comes in green. If you are using a high end Android device and are thrilled by this news, I suggest you stop reading right now, keep that smile on your face and go have a nice cup of tea.
What's the story then?
Well, you made it this far and are still curious. Lets get a few numbers out of the way first, just in case you want to change your mind... The Nokia X costs €89 - probably around £75 in the UK. It runs Android 4.1.2. It has a 3.15 megapixel fixed focus camera. It only has 512Mb of RAM and 4Gb of internal storage. It runs on a dual core Snapdragon S4 Play SoC in dual core 1Ghz guise. If you are a seasoned phone watcher, your nose might be turned up by these numbers, but what does it all mean for Nokia and how does it all pan out?
When the X was announced back at MWC in Barcelona in February, Stephen Elop said that the strategy for the X was "the next billion". What he was saying is that smartphones are getting quite close to saturation in the developed western world and the Nokia X was targeted at emerging markets. He went on to explain that for many people, a smartphone will be their first and only computing device and he wanted their first online account to be a Microsoft account. This makes a lot of sense given that Microsoft and Nokia are on the verge of merging together of course. He also said that the Nokia X range would be a feeder device for people into the Lumia range. You have your first, super cheap smartphone from Nokia and upgrade to something with a bit more oomph in the guise of a Nokia Lumia.
Lets take a look at each of these claims and see how Nokia has done. First of all, will the next billion users be using the Nokia X to sign up for a Microsoft account? Nokia make a good start on this aim as the Nokia X does not include the Google services that run on top of Android. This probably needs a little explaining.
Android as we know it from mainstream devices available in Europe and North America among other places is essentially made up of at least two parts. Firstly, there is the Android Open Source Project component. This is a free to use, open source piece of software that Google maintains which forms the base of Android. It contains the core libraries for Android, some location API's and a set of basic apps for messaging and mail, a dialler and contacts, a basic launcher and a few other goodies mainly for capturing and playing back media. If you install a basic AOSP build onto a phone, you will have a working phone, but there will be no Google Play Store. And no other Google apps.
The second part of Android as we tend to think of it are the Google apps. These are closed source, Google owned apps that you need Google's permission to include on a phone. In order to get a licence from Google to supply these apps, your phone needs to be certified by Google which means meeting some minimum standards largely focused on the way you present your software. For instance, the Google Play Store needs to be available as a shortcut on the home screen when the user first turns on the phone.
What Nokia have done is take the AOSP, the free part of Android and not got Google to certify it but instead put their own user interface on top of this basic Android build and replaced the Google services with Nokia ones. There is the Nokia Store and there are Nokia HERE Maps for instance instead of the Google Play Store and Google Maps.
So, you are not asked to create a Google account to use the X and in fact you do not need a Google account. Amazingly, you do not need any sort of account with any services at all to use the X. Even without a Nokia account, you can download free apps from the Nokia Store. This makes the phone very easy to get started with. Strangely, there is absolutely nothing on the X that tries to convince you to open a Microsoft account either. There are no pre-installed Microsoft services, even Skype has to be loaded from the store though you do get some competing services such as BBM weirdly. So Nokia are not pushing a Microsoft account on you at all. This is lovely from a users perspective but doesn't really tie in with what we were told at the launch of the X.
How about their other claim that this will feed people into the Lumia range? Well, I have grave doubts about this as well. Nokia have made it very easy for developers to move their apps into the Nokia Store and they even allow you to install other app stores from within theirs. You can also sideload apps very simply if you know how. This means that right now, a decent proportion of the enormous number of Android apps are within reach and soon I would expect many more to be able to be installed more simply.
If you use the Nokia X for a year or so with those Android apps available and then switch to the Windows Phone based Lumia range, what sort of experience will you have? Well, for starters you are going to find that some of the apps you use might well be totally unavailable for Windows Phone and many others will have a totally different user experience and often a more limited feature set. Then you will find that many of these apps are slower to load even though you have bought a more expensive device. You may well find that apps are not updating in the background as they do on Android. Sharing between apps works less effectively too. At that point you may well wonder if your shiny new Lumia phone was an upgrade at all!
What I hope you take away from these musings is that the Nokia X is not quite the device that Stephen Elop wanted us to believe. But this does not mean it is without merit. Far from it in fact.
The Nokia X may have issues leading you to a Microsoft account and then on to the Lumia range of Nokia devices, but there are no problems with it giving you a solid phone experience in and of itself. More importantly, whilst this is not trying to be a high end Nokia device, it is still a Nokia. This means that we have a supremely well built and very nicely designed phone.
Lets take a look at the device itself more closely. What I have here is the green model. Nokia calls it Bright Green and they are not wrong! It is a wonderful colour and I absolutely love it. It looks fantastic, especially in the sun. The material Nokia have used here is plastic, but it is Nokia plastic and that means it feels pretty good. In fact, I think the X has a more premium feel than many phones costing three times as much. It feels very solid but still has a slight softness to the plastics. There is no give in the phone as there often is with devices that use a fairly thin plastic as a shell as Nokia do here.
All the ports are cut perfectly with very smooth pleasing edges to them. This is way more attention to detail than the price point deserves and credit where it is due, Nokia know how to build a phone.
The front is dominated by a 4" WVGA (that is 800x480) LCD screen that appears to just be a standard TFT unit - no fancy IPS technology here. It is a very basic screen that has just enough pop to make it pleasing to use, indoors. It simply does not go bright enough for use outside and is very reflective which leads to some real issues in any sort of brighter light. Its touch responsive is good without being notable. Above the screen there is a proximity sensor as well as an ambient light sensor, but I didn't really bother with auto brightness, needing it on max almost all the time.
The left side is totally devoid of anything except wonderful green plastic though obviously the yellow model wont use green plastics!!
On the right are the power and volume buttons which have a nice clicky action and are very easy to find as they extrude from the body nicely.
The bottom is where you will find the standard microUSB charge and sync slot.
Up top is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.
The single mic on the X is hidden in the edging that surrounds the screen.
Inside, you will find a microSD card slot and the dual SIM slots. The SIM slots support dual standby - both can be active at the same time - but only slot 1 supports 3G.
The back of the X is a large slab of plastic with the Nokia logo in the middle. A simply integrated camera sits up top and there is no flash.
The hardware here is both unremarkable and yet absolutely remarkable. For a phone at this price point, it is quite amazing that we are getting such quality. Yes, it is a bit of a chubby device, but the back curves a little and it feels great in the hand.
This phone is not just about the hardware, it is also about the software. And it is a very interesting bit of software too. Based on Android 4.1.2 - a base version of Android released in mid 2010 - Nokia call this their Nokia X Software Platform. Lets get the basic problem out of the way first. The Nokia X Software Platform is slow. I have been very careful with my words here as I found the provided software worse than some of the apps available in the Nokia Store. This is a slow device running on very basic hardware. Compared to something like the HTC Desire 500 which runs on a quad core 1.2Ghz Snapdragon 200 SoC with the same amount of RAM and the same Android version, the X feels worse. The HTC at least feels like it is responding to you whereas sometimes the X leaves you hanging for many seconds. It is an odd experience to get on a smartphone these days.
The launcher on the X has a bit of Windows Phone about it. You get to organise your apps and Android widgets on the screen - there is no separate app tray - and each app icon is a sort of live tile which can show some information. Each of these tiles can be one of two sizes, small or large. The large ones take up the space of four small ones. As you tap and hold on a tile to move it around, other tiles sort of shimmy out of the way. It looks neat but the animations are a bit jerky. I actually really liked the layout it could provide, but it is a bit of a pain to set it all up.
Swiping either left or right from the home screen takes you to the Nokia Fastlane. This is a UI and a concept taken straight from the Nokia Asha line up. Here the fastlane shows you all of your notifications and gives you a chronological history of the things you have done with your device - in reality this is a list of apps you have opened, calls and texts. There is also a button for quickly sharing to a social network.
Pull down from the top and you get the notification drawer. At first this looks like Android, but actually this drawer does not keep your notifications for you. Instead, it has some quick toggles and a link to settings. Notifications are actually shown only as toast messages across the top of the display, disappearing into your Fastlane after a few seconds. Try as I might, I could not tap on one and get it to do anything either which seems like a weird omission.
Changing notifications and the notification drawer is just one standard Android thing that is now different. The Nokia X only has one button under the screen and it is a back button! Long press it to go home or just tap it to go back. Going back works like an Android back button, not a Windows Phone back button. There is no task switching button, you either re-launch an app from the home screen or find it in your Fastlane.
There is also no menu button on the X. Instead, when a menu is needed, a small icon with three horizontal lines appears at the bottom of the screen. Swiping up on those reveals the menu.
Many of the other parts of the Nokia X Software Platform are obviously Android but made to look different. For instance, the settings app is pure Android in how it looks. There is even a standard developer menu.
The email app is the stock AOSP email app but with the Nokia look and feel. It works reasonably well.
One area that is obviously different is the web browser which actually has a nice simple interface. It is very simple to change which search engine you are using and the browser renders pages well, if a little slowly.
I downloaded a wide range of apps from the Nokia Store. It is not totally bare - I was surprised at how many apps are in there - but still, much is missing. Everything I downloaded ran really well.
Some things I installed were a massive upgrade. I side-loaded Apex Launcher which completely changed the Nokia X. Suddenly it felt like a normal Android device and Apex was a lot faster than the stock launcher for me too. The keyboard the X comes with is pretty poor. I found it slow and laggy and a chore to type with even though it does do a decent job of correcting your typos. Luckily SwiftKey is available for free in the Nokia Store - go download that before trying anything else I would say.
Easily, the best parts of the software are the Nokia apps. Nokia MixRadio is a fantastic free music streaming app where you can start your own radio station based on some music genres you like or a favourite artist. Definitely something worth checking out.
Nokia HERE Maps can compete with and often better any other mapping solution out there. You can even download maps for offline use which is very useful in places where mobile data is patchy or expensive. With the X, you get a licence for one countries maps to be stored offline with no obvious way to upgrade right now. The GPS and mapping works really well though and is a very useful addition.
Above all else, the Nokia X is a phone. And it is actually a very good phone. Calls were loud and clear. It has a very loud speaker which works very well as a speaker phone. It has amazing cellular signal reception, consistently holding on to weak signal better than anything else I have used for some time. Messaging is handled by what appears to be a skinned version of the AOSP messaging app and works fine.
The battery is a weakness though. The Nokia X comes with a 1500mAh unit which should be fine for a device of this size. The X has fairly low standby battery drain, even with two SIM cards installed. But the battery percentage plummets alarmingly when it is used. I was able to drain it in 2 hours of continuous use just browsing the web, reading some Twitter and Facebook and taking a few pictures. That was from a full charge as well. Not very good! For most lighter users of the phone, it will get you through a day, but only just! To compound the endurance problem, it charges very slowly.
Nokia have endowed the X with a 3.15 megapixel fixed focus camera. Now hold on, because things are not quite as bad as they might initially sound. Sure, you are not going to take pictures of text or fine detail unless you are at exactly the right distance from it, but it really is serviceable as a camera for sharing to social media. You will find a few snaps at the end of this section.
What is silly is how fully featured the user interface is! It is pretty straightforwards at first with a capture button and the ability to choose to take video or panoramas too. Open up the settings though and there are a myriad of options including setting your own ISO, choosing saturation, sharpness etc etc. I would ignore all of these and let the camera do its work and it will produce usable shots. It is just strange that Nokia made the interface so full of options.
I would also ignore the panorama mode which I found to be pretty bad. The video quality is ok for a FWVGA (854x480) resolution but that is not saying much.
Overall, the camera produces images with a nice colour balance, it copes with dynamic lighting better than expected and is reasonably fast to use. This is far from an imaging device, so I will leave it there.
Click on these camera samples for the full size untouched version.
So what does it all add up to?
At the end of the day, the Nokia X is a decent offering in its price range. I suspect it will be about £50 on PAYG when it comes to the UK later this year and at that price it is a much better offering than any feature phone including the Nokia Asha range. It is that which I believe Nokia targeted with the X, it needs to be a replacement for the Asha range.
Once the Microsoft purchase of Nokia is complete, will they keep an Android phone in their line-up? Who knows, but it is a risk if you are considering buying the X. If Microsoft keep it, I hope they will update the underlying AOSP version and get some Microsoft services pre-installed. It is a bit strange that you have to go hunting for stuff and would be more useful to be offered some services to help you get the most from the device, but I do like that you don't have to create any accounts for the X to work out of the box.
The other sticking point here is Nokia's Lumia 520. It can be had for as little as £60 right now and at that price the X cannot compete. The 520 is a better phone in every single way. It has a better camera, much better screen, better app store (at least for now) and will get the upgrade to Windows Phone 8.1. It is also a lot faster and has a better battery endurance.
If you are willing to stretch, then the Motorola Moto G can be had for around £100. The Moto G is also far superior than the X with a far far better screen, a better camera, much better battery life, an infinitely richer ecosystem and decent build quality too.
So where will the X end up? I think in developed markets, it may well end up unsold, but in the markets Nokia are really targeting, for "the next billion users", it represents a smartphone with great build quality at a low price. I still reckon any cheap Google Android device is a better bet from a total experience but Nokia have incredible brand loyalty and I can see the X doing very well.
There is no simple answer to the "should I buy one?" question. If this will be your first smartphone, it is an interesting option, but is a bit risky. If this is not your first smartphone, there is no compelling reason I can see to buy the X over a cheap Google Android device beyond the Nokia apps. I would definitely recommend a wait and see attitude to the X right now.
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