Saturday, February 1, 2014

Nokia Asha 503 review: Zingy exterior, sluggish interior

The good: Nokia's Asha 503 has a sturdy, eye-catching design that's entirely pocketable and easy to use one-handed. It's Wi-Fi capable, packs in a camera flash, and won't break the bank.
The bad: Poor screen quality on the Asha 503 makes reading the display unpleasant. The camera's fixed-focused lens takes mediocre photos, and speakerphone volume is too low to be useful. Navigation is slow and jerky.
The bottom line: Its surprising design is the best thing about the Nokia Asha 503, but if you're looking for a traditional smartphone experience, its underperformance will only disappoint..

Think of Nokia's Asha 503 as a feature phone experience and you'll come closer to enjoying it for what it is: a delightfully square-edged handset with well-rounded, if clunky, capabilities. The phone's strengths include a well-thought out ice-cube design effect, Wi-Fi, and software features that will keep you connected. However, the plaudits stop there. The $99 unlocked global smartphone's low-quality, low-resolution screen, iffy call quality, fixed camera focus, and jerky navigation are markers of the 503's budget status, even as it's the most generously appointed among a trio that also includes the Asha 502 ($89) and Asha 500 ($69). (For reference, the Asha 503 tops the 502 with a stronger Gorilla Glass screen topper and 3.5G data speeds.)
The 503's wacky, colorful, frozen-in-ice design is its saving grace, however, and the main reason I'd recommend the phone at all. If you want an easy-to-use feature phone with a statement design, the 503 is an OK choice. But if it's a smooth, well-integrated budget smartphone experience you're after, skip over the 503 entirely in favor of an inexpensive Android or Windows Phone. Design and build
Well, it certainly has personality. Perfectly smooth with straight plastic edges and square corners, the Asha 503 stands upright on flat surfaces and looks like it's been frozen in a block of ice. The effect is most noticeable when peering down from above or catching an edge, a layer of clear plastic trapping the white, black, or eye-searing yellow, green, cyan, and red underneath.
At 4 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5-inch thick, it's far from wafer-slim, but doesn't come across as overly chunky. Instead, it feels reassuringly solid, with a slight curve on the back softening the phone's sharper edges. You can easily slide it into pockets, and it's comfortable in the hand and on the ear. Those straight sides make it particularly grippable. Its 3.9-ounce weight is about right, too.
Nokia's photogenic Asha 503 runs the company's alternative OS.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
I also really like using the volume rocker and power button, both situated on the phone's right spine. They rise from the surface and are easy to identify by feel. The 503's Micro-USB charging port and headset jack are up top, and peeking out from the back cover are the camera lens and LED flash.
You'll need to take off the back panel (from the bottom) to reveal the microSD card slot, but it's the battery that needs to go for you to get to the micro-SIM card tray.
Looking at the 503's face, you see a lot of black. The bezel is huge, far larger than necessary for the 3-inch QVGA LCD display -- with 320 x 240-pixel resolution -- that it frames. Highly reflective, the touch screen can be hard to read indoors. It helps when you increase the brightness, though that comes as a cost to battery life.
More importantly, the phone's low 134ppi pixel density and 262,000 color capacity (versus 16 million) are impossible to ignore. Text and images appear a little jagged around the edges, even without scrutinizing the screen. Graphically-rich sites such as CNET look like a caricature with the low-quality image setting you get by default, with highly pixelated edges, blotchy color, and aliases sprinkled across the screen like confetti. Better stick to the mobile sites, or increase the image quality, at the cost of downloading speed.
It isn't slim, but the straight sides mean this phone can stand up on its own. A slightly curved backing makes it comfy to hold.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
The phone's display quality is a concession to its price, but at least Nokia gives you the Glance screen for seeing the time from the lock screen, and the option to double-tap the display to wake it up (another slight battery drain).
A 3-inch display is a very tight fit for reading the screen, closing out tiny windows, and especially for typing on the five-row virtual QWERTY keyboard. I found myself pecking at the screen very precisely, which worked OK with my smaller-size fingers, but it still frustrated me. The phone offers predictive typing by default, but no autocapitalization or autopunctuation. If you want spell-check, you'll need to turn it on in Settings yourself.
OS and apps
The 503 runs Nokia's Asha software platform 1.1.1, which Nokia calls a smartphone OS. Without splitting too many hairs on the technicalities of what does or does not constitute a smartphone, I will just say that for anyone used to Android, Windows Phone, or iOS, the Asha OS feels like a blast from the past, more advanced feature phone than anything else. There's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0, which you can access from a swipe-down menu at the top of the screen.
Navigation couldn't be easier from the single button -- a Back button -- beneath the display. After that, you swipe across two home screens: one holds your icons and the other shows an overview of your social stream and activities.
Pop off the back cover to get to the microSD card slot.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
There are a fair number of apps with Asha, and a store where you can browse through more titles. The phones comes with text, of course, as well as a music player, Facebook, Twitter, and What's App, plus e-mail support for a number of protocols. There's a calendar, a calculator, a note app, a voice recorder, and an FM radio. You can manage files, access games, chat, and check the weather. Nokia preloads almost a dozen game trials that'll let you play for 3 minutes before promoting you to buy.

The tabbed Nokia browser compresses page data to help save money (if you pay by data load) and time, since this is a 3G phone. However, it crashed on me several times during testing while I was trying to connect to CNET's authenticated Wi-Fi network. I did also increase image quality from Low to Medium.
Since you'll want to rely on the Asha 503 mainly for calls, let's chat about the phone book. You can import contacts from your SIM card, microSD card, or another device. The address book fields look limited at first glance to the photo ID, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and a birthdate. In the menu, though, you can add any number of other fields, including a custom ringtone, address, anniversary, and other details. Being able to add contacts from other accounts, like Facebook, Twitter, and a boatload of VoIP services (Tpad, Nimbuzz, Phone.com, and MondoTalk, to name a few) is a nice touch.
Camera and video
Some of Nokia's 5-megapixel phone cameras do a great job capturing usable images. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. It doesn't help that the Asha 503 has a fixed flash, which means that you're going to have to judge for yourself on the small screen if the photo is in focus. It also means you won't be able to shoot moving objects well, such as people on the go or squirmy pets or children. If the bright sun is in your eyes, good luck determining the focus.
The 5-megapixel camera has a fixed-focus lens.
(Credit: Fathi Rahman/AFFY)
Even when you manage to get a photo just right, the 503's camera produces fairly grainy images, though with decent color reproduction. Strangely, the automatic flash went off while I was shooting outdoors, but didn't during at least one indoor shot. You will be able to adjust presets for white balance, add some effects, set a timer, and select photo resolution.
Video options are mostly the same, though your highest resolution here is VGA (640x480 pixels), and videos are set to 480x320 by default. There's also a slower recording frame rate, 19 frames per second versus 30 for most high-end smartphones. The difference shows, with the 503's videos comprised of fractured images of muted color quality, image blur when movement is involved, and a bit of a recording delay.
This indoor shot was my favorite of the bunch. The statue's paint job helps details look sharp. Click to enlarge.
(Credit: Fathi Rahman/AFFY)
With a fixed focus lens and slow processor, there was almost no way I was going to catch this sexagenarian's purple hair streak as she walked by.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
You'll need a good eye to determine where the focus will drop. Click to enlarge.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
Strangely, the flash, which I set to automatic mode, went off in this bright outdoor scene. Click to enlarge.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)
Behavior was all over the map in this typical studio shot. Exposure was fine here, but the same image looked yellow in a photo taken with identical settings.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Under the hood
While Nokia won't share specifics about the processor's strength and speed, it is evidently low-powered. Slight delays mark almost every engagement, from swiping away from the lock screen, to waiting for apps to load and even switching orientation. When using the Asha 503, patience is a virtue. Battery life will depend on how you use your phone. The 1,200mAh battery capacity is on the lower end of the scale, and has a rated talk time of only 4.5 hours over 3G (12 hours over 2G,) and a standby time of 35 days.
Storage space is minuscule, which is why the phone comes with a 4GB card preinstalled. You can bump that out to 32GB for your photos and video.
Call quality
I tested the unlocked 503's call quality in San Francisco using AT&T's GSM network (850/900/1800/1900 MHz bands; it's also compatible with WCDMA 900/2100 MHz.) My main calling partner's voice sounded warm and largely natural above a soft, persistent crackle. The white noise was a little distracting, but volume was strong with plenty of room to turn it up in noisy environments. On his end, my tester said I sounded nicely loud, but a little unreal, like some of the higher frequencies in my voice were being mushed down or cut off completely. He also volunteered that it sounded like a cheap handset.
Asha 503 call quality sample Listen now:

The speakerphone sounded quiet, muted, and distant when I held the phone at hip level. It also imbued my caller's voice with a halo of fuzziness. On his end, my partner said that speakerphone sometimes cut off part of my syllables, and also muted my already unnatural-sounding voice.
Final thoughts
Nokia sells its Asha 503 in select global markets, for a range of prices that equates to about $99 in US dollars. The phone's unique, attractive design is a definite draw, and there are enough software features to satisfy someone who's looking for some light Internet browsing and social media involvement. It does check a fair number of boxes for a budget handset -- like Wi-Fi, an e-mail client, and FM radio -- but I can't recommend it for its performance.

What You'll Pay

See manufacturer website for availability.
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