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printed September 18, 2014
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Hands On with Nokia X

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Feb 24, 2014, 5:18 AM   by Rich Brome

The rumors seemed surreal: an Android phone from Nokia?! Well it's real, and it's part of Nokia's aggressive strategy at the lower end of the market. With a unique blend of slick Lumia design, Android software, Microsoft services, Asha features, and a very low price, Nokia has created something that feels altogether new. Read on for our first hands-on impressions.

Nokia already has a strong lineup of phones for the lower end of the market, from its super-affordable Asha touch-screen phones to its relatively affordable Lumias running Windows Phone. But that's not enough for Nokia, which has always tied its fortunes to well-designed phones cheap enough to move in huge volumes in developing markets. Now that the entire world wants smartphones, they needed more than Asha, and Windows Phone apparently wasn't getting cheap enough, fast enough, for Nokia.

 

Nokia X

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Enter Nokia X, a new series that slots directly in-between Asha and Lumia in terms of pricing. While Nokia will continue to introduce cheaper Lumias, they intend to keep all three lineups, with X being cheaper than Lumia, and Asha, cheaper still. (And below that, they continue to offer non-touch feature phones at prices that seem like rounding errors.)

So Nokia X is an Android phone, like Moto X, right? Wrong. Calling these "Android phones" is not exactly correct. They're based on the AOSP (Android Open Source Project,) which is the core Android OS minus everything Google. In that respect, the Nokia X a bit like Amazon's Kindle Fire. In fact, Nokia has gone to great pains to give it their own unique interface and put Microsoft services everywhere you'd normally find Google. So you'll find HERE Maps instead of Google Maps, etc.

Without any Google services, there's no Play Store. The Nokia X does run standard Android apps, but Nokia has created their own app store where you can download both free and paid apps. It supports carrier billing and even in-app purchases (existing Android apps may need to be tweaked to work with this feature, though.) You can also side-load Android apps onto the device yourself.

The interface a complete mash-up of Windows Phone and Asha. Almost none of it reminds me of Android, frankly. The home screen is most like Windows Phone, with re-sizeable tiles. The home screen scrolls up and down continuously, like Windows Phone. Nokia apps are brightly-colored tiles with a white icon, again just like Windows Phone. You can drag-and-drop icons to re-arrange them, and create folders. Making a tile bigger turns some tiles into live tiles, if you will. For example, the gallery app shows the last photo taken when its icon it made large. However all of your apps live on the home screen; there's no separate app list like there is with Android and Windows Phone.

Downloaded apps show their usual Android icon over a blue square. The home screen does support standard Android widgets, which can be dragged anywhere among your app tiles, re-flowing the whole list.

 

Nokia X Interface

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Swiping sideways reveals "Fast Lane" a recent-stuff feature borrowed from the Asha interface. It shows missed calls, new messages, recent apps. This is where your notifications live, instead of in a drop-down shade. There is a drop-down shade, but it's strictly for quick access to things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth controls.

There is just one button below the display: a back button. If you press and hold it, it doubles as a home button. In other words, press it briefly to go back one screen, or a long press takes you all the way "back" to home. In place of a menu button, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to summon a contextual options menu.

The lock screen can show notifications, and swiping on one takes you right that full message in the appropriate app.

The software looks pretty and works well. Everything is slick and smooth. If you care about frame rates, you'll notice slight jitters here and there. There's certainly no graphics powerhouse under the hood, but then again this is designed to be one of the cheapest Android phones on the market. (They have an unnamed Qualcomm chip inside. I'd guess Snapdragon 200 series.)

The hardware is classic Nokia. The X series is quite blocky, with relatively sharp corners, but the soft plastic and small size keeps them comfy in your hand. The unibody polycarbonate feels solid as a rock (yet it's quite light.) The soft texture looks and feels great. The side buttons (volume and lock) are perfect. Otherwise there's just the audio jack on top and micro-USB port on the bottom.

 

Nokia XL

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

The X and X+ differ only in the X+ have a memory card slot. The XL has a larger display (5" instead of 4") and bumped camera specs, but looks the same, size aside. The displays don't hold a candle to better displays of today. Resolution and viewing angle are not ideal. But they are leagues better than the displays on most Android phones at this price point (about 100 Euros.)

In all, I'm impressed. People look to Nokia for quality and value, and these phones deliver in spades. Android app compatibility is a big selling point. The unique, slick, colorful design - in both hardware and software - will stand out on store shelves. The X series feels like it could be the start of Nokia's bounce-back after stumbling so hard with smartphones in recent years. It will be interesting to see what happens once Microsoft completes its acquisition of the company.

Here's a quick video tour of the interface:

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