For a company now under Microsoft's rule, Nokia has serious grit. The phone maker announced an Android phone called the X just two months before completing its merger with Microsoft. Even more intriguing is the fact that this is no run-of-the-mill Android device: The X comes with a Windows Phone-like launcher, offers Microsoft services and will be sold for around $120 in developing markets. While it may not be a powerful smartphone, it has many unique qualities that help it stand out from the low-end crowd. What's it like, and should Microsoft invest in its success?
The X doesn't stray from Nokia's signature design language. In fact, if I were to briefly see it in the wild (not knowing what it was), I'd easily confuse it for an Asha 500-series device. Just like the Ashas, the X has square corners, straight edges, a large bezel and a removable plastic back cover with a matte finish, although it lacks the transparent casing of the Ashas. My review unit is a white, dual-SIM Nokia X, but it also comes in black, blue, yellow, red and green.
Everything about the X looks and feels simple. A volume rocker and power button grace the right side, while a micro-USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack are located on the bottom and top, respectively. Keeping with Nokia's usual style, the left edge remains devoid of any buttons. And just like the Asha 503, the front of the X features only a capacitive back button and earpiece. It lacks a front-facing camera, and when you flip the phone over, you'll notice a rear 3.2-megapixel camera with no LED flash.
Fortunately, I had no problem holding the 4-inch, 10.4mm-thick device, although these days, such a handset is considered quite small. If you're coming from an Asha or older 3.5-inch iPhone, you'll likely appreciate the size of the device; just to put things in perspective, it's 5mm wider and 1mm thicker than the iPhone 4s. Nokia will come out with a 5-inch version of the device known as the XL in the near future, so hang tight for a little longer if you'd rather go with something bigger.
Because it's an inexpensive handset (it starts at $123 USD), the X was never intended to be a lavish device. It exists primarily to bring a modern smartphone OS to developing markets at a lower cost, so the specs are about as minimal as you can get these days. It comes with a low-power processor, WVGA display, limited internal storage (1.2GB user-accessible), small battery and so on. In other words, it's ideal as someone's first smartphone.
The X uses a 4-inch IPS LCD panel with WVGA (800 x 480) resolution. At a pixel density of 233 pixels per inch, the display is reasonable compared to other Android phones sold at around the same price. As expected from this kind of screen, the viewing angles are decent and whites are bright, but unfortunately, colors are unsaturated and there's a lot of light unnecessarily bleeding out from the sides of the display. Those rough patches aside, the screen is actually pretty good for such an inexpensive device.
For connectivity, the X is a basic, entry-level 3G device suited for developing markets, though it sports a limited number of frequencies. It comes with quad-band GSM/EDGE and dual-band (900/2100) HSPA, which maxes out at 7.2 Mbps down and 5.76 Mbps up. You'll also get WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0 and GPS.
The one area of the X that should appeal to both power users and first-time smartphone buyers alike is the firmware. In short, it's unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Since the X is positioned between Nokia's Lumia series and the Asha lineup, it's not surprising that it uses a proprietary interface that takes elements from both devices, even though it technically runs on Android AOSP (version 4.1.2, to be exact). This means you can still use most apps, widgets and launchers supported on the platform, but just like on many Chinese devices running Android, you won't have access to Google Play Services like Gmail, Contacts, Calendar and so on.
Nokia's Android launcher
The default launcher on the X is tile-based, much like Windows Phone. The tiles can even be resized -- two different options are available -- and you can change the color of each one to fit your own way of organizing the phone. There's enough space for three small tiles, or one large and one small tile, if you prefer. However, this system differs from Windows Phone in that Live Tiles aren't supported, so most tiles don't change at all when you make them larger (only specific ones, such as the gallery, add more functionality to the tile when enlarged).
You won't have access to a standard Android app tray, but you can create folders if you like to download a bunch of apps. This action is done by long-pressing any tile, which also allows you to move apps around and add widgets at your leisure.
There are plenty of other gestures that you'll need to learn as well. Tugging down on the launcher brings up a search bar (think Spotlight for iOS 7). Swiping down from the top opens up a type of quick-settings menu, which shows toggle switches for connectivity and music, as well as a list of devices or networks you're connected to. There's also a shortcut to your settings. Swiping up from the bottom reveals a menu that corresponds with whatever app you're using.
Finally, a swipe to either the left or right brings up the Fastlane. This is a feature carried over from Asha (you can even trace its roots back to MeeGo), and it serves as Nokia's version of the notification menu. It shows recently opened apps, notifications, alarms and your current music selection. Some alerts, such as texts and calls, are actionable, so you can respond to them within Fastlane itself; if you want to clear out your alerts, you can do it individually or all at once. You can also customize the list so unwanted items are filtered out. (Pro tip: Tapping the back button from the home screen will take you to Fastlane as well.)
There's also a special lock screen that shows your recent notifications. Swipe left on an individual alert to remove it, or swipe right to jump directly into that app. You can also swipe up from the bottom to clear them all out, if you don't want several notifications taking up all your screen space.
Just like on Nokia's latest Lumia devices, the X features a Glance screen that lets you view the date, time and symbols for each type of notification awaiting you. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Additionally, you can double-tap on the screen to wake it, but I couldn't get this to work very consistently. Unlike most Android devices, which offer reasonable multitasking options, the X is much more restrictive. You can only get to the Fastlane from the home screen, which means you can't multitask without exiting your current app completely.
Nokia doesn't bombard you with Microsoft services, but it does make them more readily available than, say, their Google equivalents. Skype is preloaded, but you can also get OneDrive and Outlook in the Nokia Store. Curiously, it almost feels like the company wants to avoid looking like it's blatantly pushing Microsoft products, even though that's exactly what it's trying to do.
That doesn't mean Nokia's avoided bloatware altogether, however. You'll still get too many preloaded apps: Opera browser, WeChat, Viber, BBM, Nokia MixRadio, Here Maps and 10 games. Many of them can be uninstalled, aside from the Nokia-branded offerings. Most core apps -- dialer, messaging, calendar, camera, alarms, internet, music and email, for instance -- were made by Nokia, and are thoughtfully designed. (I especially like the alarm, which was inspired by the MeeGo-based N9.) Even the keyboard has a Nokia flair that offers neat swiping gestures.
Using Android on the X
The best part is: If you don't like Nokia's interface, no sweat -- just download a new launcher and use that as your default instead. I tried a few and each one made it feel like I was using a real Android device, but there are still some catches you should be aware of. Most importantly, Google Play Services aren't allowed on the X (without rooting, at least). This means you don't have the full suite of the company's services: Play Store, Music, Games, Calendar, Voice, Google+, Contacts -- the list goes on. Primarily, this is because Nokia wants to focus on selling Microsoft's offerings instead, including Skype, Outlook, OneDrive and so on. This is actually a good idea on Nokia's part, when you consider the first-time smartphone buyer (or anyone else who hasn't been fallen under Google's spell): If Windows Phone is too expensive, at least the X is a cheaper option that introduces users to Microsoft's ecosystem in a roundabout way. In theory, once consumers are able to buy fancier phones, they'd be more inclined to give WP a closer look because they're already tied into Microsoft services.
This kind of setup is enough to confuse most users. Along with this mix of Microsoft services, Windows Phone and Asha, the X is, at its core, an Android device. Thus, it supports most Android apps, but the means of obtaining those apps are not as cut and dry as they should be. The Nokia Store is the official place to go, but it doesn't offer the same library as the Play Store. Instead, Nokia curates apps: It invites developers to add lines of code that make their apps compatible with Nokia's special UI, and then submit their apps and wait for its approval. It's quite the process, and judging by the limited number of available apps in the Store, it seems that a lot of developers haven't bothered with it yet.
So what happens if the app you really want isn't in the Nokia Store? To Nokia's credit, the company's made it possible to download or sideload any app you want -- though it isn't easy. If you can't find the app you want in the Nokia Store, it suggests a list of third-party app stores for you to check out. Currently, it lists SlideME, Aptoide, 1Market and Yandex as options, and, by using this method, I was able to get the app I wanted around 95 percent of the time. Of the numerous searches I conducted, only a small handful produced no results. The problem is that it takes much longer to find the app you want (if you find it at all), and you have to go into individual stores if you're looking for an update. Lastly, you can load any APK file onto the phone via microSD and internet links, though you won't get updates unless you manually sideload them.
There isn't much to say about the fixed-focus 3.2MP camera. The pictures aren't fantastic (especially for Nokia), but it's not fair to hold such an inexpensive phone to standards set by fancier devices. Since the X is intended for many first-time smartphone users on a limited budget, this camera will fit their needs quite well. It's got a 1/5-inch sensor size and f/2.8 aperture lens, and Nokia even throws in a few manual settings to sweeten the deal, including ISO, white balance, exposure, sharpness and face detection.
Predictably, you're not going to get great images at night. The phone simply doesn't have the right specs to do low-light shots any justice. That said, the photos I took during the day actually looked about as good as one would expect from a camera like this; while the limited dynamic range and lack of autofocus make it difficult to have an enjoyable experience, I came away impressed by the color reproduction.
Performance and battery life
At such a low price point, the expectations for a phone's performance differ from that of a midrange or flagship model. The X comes with a 1GHz dual-core Cortex-A5 Snapdragon S4 Play, an Adreno 203 GPU and 512MB RAM (the X+ and XL will come with 768MB). In plain English, this means it's good enough to handle most basic phone functions, but it's geared toward first-time smartphone users and developing markets, and isn't meant to keep up with high-end, quad-core smartphones.
Looking at it from that point of view, I wanted to see a phone that's usable, responsive and consistent. I didn't expect it to make computations incredibly fast, nor did I need it to load games like Asphalt 8 on a dime. Still, it had to support all of the core apps and a few extras without crippling the user experience.
With these criteria in mind, the X has its share of good and bad traits. The mesh of various UI elements from different platforms will drive an Android aficionado nuts, but the X is also designed to keep things simple. As long as the user isn't venturing too far into the weeds (sideloading apps, for instance), it'll be easy enough for someone to figure their way around the phone. And while it may be a bit confusing for some, the learning curve and user experience are more reasonable than an Asha phone. In fact, as time goes by and the price of the X goes down, I wouldn't be surprised to see this series completely replace the Asha lineup.
However, it isn't a very responsive device. I noticed a lot of delays between my touch and the screen indicating that I'd done anything. There were plenty of times in which I had to repeat gestures over and over until it finally figured out what I wanted it to do. And at least a couple times a day, I long-pressed the back button to go to the home screen, only to be greeted by a lengthy pause and "please wait" message. I also noticed that the screen would randomly flash on and back off again, and it sometimes turned on in my pocket without being prompted (this caused frequent redials and misfiring emails to people I rarely talk to anymore). At times, notifications showed up later than they should have, and occasionally they didn't even show up at all.
Because of all this, I can't say that the X has consistency. Too often, I'd repeat the same action only to get different results. A handset that has a mind of its own isn't something I can tolerate in any phone, regardless of how much it costs. In addition, it was often a pain to get even the most basic services set up on the X.
Call quality is mediocre at best, as most of my conversations have been full of static and the other end of the line is typically muffled. Additionally, my experience connecting the X to Bluetooth devices was inconsistent. On the other hand, the meager 1,500mAh battery lasted longer in regular smartphone use than I would've expected, although processor-heavy tasks did worse. After a day of moderate use, my review unit still had 30 percent leftover, and light phone users should be able to squeeze out at least two or three days, if not more. The phone didn't fare well in our endless-video rundown test, making it only four hours before dying; in the X's case, this isn't so much an indicator of a horrible battery as it is the inability of the processor to handle such activities efficiently.
Pricing will vary depending on region, but the X officially retails for around $120. It's positioned between the higher-end Lumias and lower-end Ashas, although, as I mentioned earlier, I wouldn't be surprised to see the X make the Asha lineup irrelevant if it drops in price in the next couple years. Its current cost, however, is about the same as the Samsung Galaxy Star Pro, a comparable device with similar specs. The X has 3G support and a better camera, but it also has a confusing ecosystem based on Microsoft services; the Star Pro, on the other hand, has full access to Google services and features a more familiar TouchWiz interface. It's also uncertain what kind of support Nokia will offer the X now that it's officially under Microsoft's wings, so it may make more sense to go with something like the Star Pro, which has a more robust ecosystem.
Microsoft's in a pickle. On one hand, its brand-new acquisition just came out with a product running its competitor's OS; on the other, that same product might be key to gaining mindshare in developing markets, which is one of the bloodiest battlefields in mobile right now. It's hard to feel confident in the X's future because Microsoft may choose not to invest in the series, focusing resources on cheaper Windows Phones instead. Because of this uncertainty, the X needs to be an absolutely stunning device and a fantastic value if I'm going to recommend it -- and unfortunately, it's not.
For its cost, it has respectable features and solid hardware, but it doesn't have enough redeeming qualities to help it pull ahead of its competition. The specs are comparable to a sub-$150 Android smartphone. However, the ecosystem is more confusing and the performance doesn't quite meet my expectations for a budget device. Plus, who knows how long Microsoft will keep it around and update it? Nokia's still a trusted brand, and it'll get a lot of interest in developing markets regardless of the competition, but I was ultimately too frustrated to recommend this over other similarly priced models.
The X works better as a possible Asha replacement than a full-on smartphone experience, and perhaps that will happen in the next year or two. I'm more confident in the performance of low-end Windows Phones like the Lumia 520 than I am in comparable Androids, and a dual-SIM Lumia in this price range would be a much more compelling deal.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.