Nokia Asha 501: Can strong design win emerging markets?

Nokia's Asha 501 may have been met with a surprising degree of positivity for a budget smartphone, its $99 price tag and distinctive design undoubtedly helping critics overlook its rough edges, but it nonetheless faces strong competition from budget Android devices in emerging markets. The first of the new Asha Touch series, building on a revamped platform using elements of S40 and Nokia-acquired Smarterphone OS, the Asha 501 is distinctive arguably not because of its specifications – which are relatively mundane – but because Nokia has given the aesthetics of the handset the same degree of consideration it would its high-end Lumia Windows Phones.

The argument, as Nokia puts it, is that just because a phone may be cheap – or a shopper have only a small budget – that doesn't mean there is less of a concern for design. Conversely, the assumption that hardware is the be-all and end-all of buying decisions is an erroneous one, Nokia's User Experience Design VP Peter Skillman told us, with the theoretical budget potential users have in mind not solely being monopolized by what gets listed in the tech specs.

That's certainly the way Nokia's focus groups apparently lean, with the company claiming to have constructed this first of the new Asha touch range according to the sum of their demands. Nokia took its designers on a world tour, the company says, to focus on more than just building to a budget.

Making of the Nokia Asha 501:

The Asha 501 faces strong competition, on paper at least, from cheap handsets predominantly running Android. They're widely available in India, China, and other countries Nokia is targeting with Asha, and for the same equivalent of $100 (or less), often with larger displays but still offering things like dual-SIM support and expandable memory.

What they don't have, generally, is the same emphasis on design, and that may be Nokia's wild-card. In a world of black, featureless slabs, the Asha's near-lurid colors are not only attention-grabbing but memorable. That's even if users eventually opt for the more sober white or black casings – which can, of course, be interchanged with other finishes.

The effort to tailor device to audience has another advantage. Android may run the gamut from bargain device to high-end flagship, but the user-experience on lower-powered phones (i.e. cheap ones) can leave plenty to be desired. In contrast, the carefully optimization Asha platform on the 501 doesn't feel like the shabby cousin left languishing with an underpowered processor. Apps are swift; screen transitions lag-free.

The benefits of that could take a little explaining, and would probably require some hands-on time before they became clear, but if Nokia's color schemes can get potential customers in the door and picking the Asha 501 up, that challenge gets a little easier. There's more on the Asha 501 in our full hands-on.

Nokia Asha 501 hands-on: