Can you be cheap and smart at the same time? Nokia says yes, and the refreshed and expanded Asha range is the result, the new 500, 502, and 503. Following in the dainty footsteps of the surprisingly well-received Asha 501 back in July, the trio of MeeGo-inspired handsets aren't going to squash Nokia's Lumia line-up, but they will be the company's most advanced devices once it sells its true smartphone business to Microsoft. Read on for some first impressions.
We're used to cheap phones being, well, bland or even ugly. The Asha siblings buck that trend considerably: they may all be under $100, pre-subsidy, but none of the three feels actually cheap. That's in no small part down to the very distinctive design.
The Asha 501 was a solid nugget of color, the connection to Nokia's Lumia range clear from the bright CMYK shells. The Asha 500, 502, and 503 build on that by embedding the colored plastic in a clear outer husk. It looks a little like they're trapped in ice, and it leaves them glistening and shining like juicy little cellular Jolly Ranchers.
Feature-wise, these aren't going to compete even with cheap Android phones, but Nokia's Asha OS does have its appeal. The homescreen system, echoing MeeGo, is split into a traditional app launcher and the "Fastlane", which shows not only the most recent activities, messaging, multimedia, and apps, but allows you to interact with them. So, you can reply to messages directly from there, or control music playback without having to open up the music app.
It's a very intuitive system, and it's part of the reason we were so disappointed when the Asha 501 launched without anything faster than 2G and WiFi. Both the 500 and 502 are still 2G devices, but the Asha 503 steps up to 3.5G and could make for an ideal entry-level smartphone for less demanding users or tech-shy parents.
It could also be a great festival phone, with the $99 sticker price (before any sort of subsidy) a fraction of what you'd usually pay for a "normal" smartphone. All three will go on sale in different combinations of Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East from Q4 2013.
Nokia Asha 500
Nokia Asha 502
Nokia Asha 503