It was a bit of a shocker when Nokia announced its own Android fork at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this February. The Finnish company had long been rumored to have an Android device in the works, although with its upcoming acquisition by Microsoft, the chances of Nokia actually launching an Android product were thought to be slim. However, Nokia seems to have found the sweet spot with Nokia X, which has Android Open Source Project (AOSP) underpinnings, but with the Google Mobile Services part not included.
Nokia X is likely to attract users from markets where Nokia still has a dominant presence, at least in feature phones. As for Android fans, the Nokia X is likely to pique the interest of those who are curious enough about having a device that offers a mix of Android and Microsoft. Nokia is hoping that the platform will be a gateway to Microsoft services, although for me, my personal interest comes from whether the device can be tweaked or hacked to give the user a pure Android experience.
Nokia has released the Nokia X in some countries, notably in Malaysia, India and the Philippines, among others, where it retails close to the announced EUR 89 (US$ 122) at MWC. Nokia lent us a red Nokia X variant, and I would like to share my initial impressions.
“Damn Great Hardware”
A review of a Nokia device will not be complete without praising Nokia for its “damn great hardware” and how its products often come with a certain design elegance and build quality. Even as Nokia has been fast overtaken by other brands in the smartphone scene in terms of market success, the build quality of its devices is always worth a mention. The same treatment has been given the Nokia X.
Holding the phone in your hand, you would notice the heft and solid build — no creaks and squeaks here. Even the construction of the back cover makes the phone sturdy. Instead of simply being a removable lid, the entire cover serves as the phone’s bumper, covering the entire rear, top, sides and bottom of the phone — it’s even made out of a rubberized surface to prevent slips. Yes, the chassis is made out of plastic, but there’s nothing flimsy about the Nokia X, unlike certain plastic-made flagship devices from other brands.
The buttons are well-placed — all lined up at the right side of the phone, with the volume keys at the top and the power/lock buton about one thirds into the middle of the device — all easily accessible from your right thumb or left fore- and middle-finger, depending on which hand you use. With its flat edges, the Nokia X can actually stand unsupported on its side, bottom or top on a flat surface.
Inside the back cover, we can find two micro-SIM slots and a microSD slot, which should provide for adequate expansion options. The 1,500 mAh battery is removable.
Build quality aside, however, the same may not be said for Nokia’s choice of specs and components. 512 MB of RAM, 4 GB of ROM, a 1 GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and a 4-inch 800×480 pixel screen are not exactly stellar specifications. The phone does not even have a flash to augment its 3-megapixel rear camera. And given that the phone is supposedly targeted at a generation growing up with the term “selfie” in their every day vocabulary, it’s a wonder why Nokia chose not to include a front-facing camera on the X series.
Android Apps (most of ’em, anyway)
Being incompatible with Google Mobile Services, Nokia X does not come with the Google Play Store. There’s actually little incentive for Nokia to ship Play Store with the Nokia X because this will strip the company of its control over monetization and app approvals. Rather, Nokia ships the device with its own Nokia X store, where both converted and non-converted Android apps are distributed.
Nokia has actually shipped the device with some apps and games, although unlike other Android device manufacturers that ship bloatware as part of the system apps, Nokia’s inclusions can be easily uninstalled.
According to Nokia, 75 percent of Android apps are already compatible with the Nokia X, but those that rely on incompatible APIs (namely Google’s in-app payment API, notification API and location API) will need to be converted. The company even offers a drag-and-drop tool that helps developers determine if their apps are compatible simply by uploading their .APK packages.
For someone used to the Google Play Store, however, the Nokia X Store will come with a learning curve. The choices are, at this time, still limited. You can still side-load apps downloaded from other sources, though. It actually helps if you already have another Android device — you can simply use an APK Extractor app and move your APKs over to the Nokia X via Bluetooth or other file transfer method.
Logging into the Nokia X Store is a breeze, though. You can either sign up for a Nokia account. Or, if you’re already a Facebook user, you can simply tap the Facebook icon at login, and you can gain access through your OpenID via your Facebook account.
As earlier mentioned, the Nokia X is a bit lacking when it comes to specifications, and this trickles down to its multimedia capabilities. The rear and only camera takes 3 megapixel shots, and comes with fixed focus. Sorry, no chance to get a good macro shot or interesting depth-of-field effects here.
And because there is no front-facing camera, users won’t be able to enjoy video-conferencing with Skype or any similar app. It’s quite concerning, given that both Apple and Google have heavily marketed their video-chatting apps FaceTime and Hangouts, respectively. Microsoft-owned Skype could have likewise expected a big boost, if the Nokia X came with a front-facing camera.
Still, the Nokia X comes with a built-in FM radio and a music player app, which should be enough for anyone looking to while the time during their daily commute listening to radio or MP3 files.
Nokia X heavily borrows from Microsoft’s own Metro tiled interface in its home screen. While the system doesn’t make fuller use of live tiles like with Windows Phone, the concept is clearly there, with tiles that automatically display the number of unread messages and missed calls, or the date today, as well as recent items in the gallery.
The design differs much from the usual widgets-and-icons interface amongst Android devices. There’s no app drawer, because everything resides as a tile on the home page, although you can customize this with folders. Users can easily install another Android launcher, however, and actually have a choice amongst the more popular out there, including Nova Launcher, ADW and Go Launcher.
Being a dual-SIM device, users can receive calls and SMS messages on either number, and the Nokia X will provide an indicator where the message or call was received with. But it’s the sending and calling part that makes it interesting. Most other dual-SIM implementations of Android require special apps that support multiple SIM cards, or the user will have to dig deep into the mobile network settings to decide.
Nokia’s interface for switching SIM cards is as easy as swiping down to bring up the toggle ribbon. Simply tap on either SIM icons to switch to that one for your subsequent calls and SMSes. This system simplifies the dual-SIM process for users — you have quick access to your choice of active numbers.
Nokia has also introduced its “Fastlane” concept to this Android fork as its way of providing access to notifications and app switching. Fastlane arranges notifications and opened apps in a reverse-chronological order, which presents all the updates, apps and interactions you have made in a single, scrolling view. This can be accessed either by tapping on the single “back” capacitive button on the phone, or by simply swiping left or right from the home screen view.
This re-envisioning of unified notifications is not necessarily original, although I can credit Nokia for putting in a new twist to app switching.
It’s only been a few days since I started using the Nokia X as my daily driver, and therefore it’s too early to give a judgement on how it fares, especially compared with its contemporaries. At this point, the main argument would be whether the Nokia X is a good buy given its limitations.
I would expect a $122 phone to offer a little bit more than basic entry-level functionalities. The phone should enable the user to connect and communicate. The Nokia X does just that. The lack of a front camera severely restricts richer communication (particularly video-conferencing), however. Given this, it might be a challenge to compete against other brand offerings, such as the $130 Xiaomi RedMi Note, or even the Moto G, which sells for $179 unlocked and off-contract.
Also, for someone used to having all sorts of Google apps and services on my device, living without Maps, Gmail and Play Store has been a big adjustment. I think, however, that Nokia should at least enable users to install some Google apps that might be essential to their communication needs. Even iOS has dedicated apps for Gmail and Google Maps, for instance. Even if Nokia X allowed access to Gmail through its email app, it’s just not the same.
Still, $122 gets you a sturdy, well-designed device that offers decent performance on the entry-level. It’s great as a first smartphone or as a device you can entrust younger users with, without having to worry that the phone will break apart. For enthusiasts, it also offers the promise of flexibility — the Nokia X has actually been rooted and loaded with Google Play and Google services. It’s not likely to outsell Samsung devices, but it will be a good for smartphone buyers to have the Nokia X — and its upcoming siblings, the X+ and XL — as options.