Hands on: Nokia X

Nokia has finally announced an Android phone, but Microsoft has removed all that Google nonsense from the OS, and replaced it with its own. However, even though there’s no Google Play store, the Nokia X family are still Android phones at heart.

mwc-2014In Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman, the character played by Bill Murray, describes the coming supernatural apocalypse as “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” While I’m glad to report I didn’t witness any human sacrifice during Nokia’s MWC 2014 press conference, there was a definite air of chaos and hysteria which brought Venkman’s words to mind. Why? Nokia has released an Android phone.

Or rather, Nokia has announced three Android phones, designed to help push Microsoft’s services such as Outlook and Skype into new markets, while offering the convenience and choice of apps available for Google’s OS. The Nokia X is the baby of the trio, with a 4-inch screen and a 3-megapixel camera, while the Nokia X+ gets a 4GB MicroSD card and 768MB of RAM against the Nokia X’s 512MB. However, it’s the big, friendly Nokia XL which is our pick of the bunch. It has a 5-inch, 480 x 800 pixel screen, a 5-megapixel camera, and a 2-megapixel selfie cam. All three have a 1GHz dual-core processor inside. The OS? It’s Android, but not as we know it.

No, it’s not a misprint, a mistake, or speculation. It’s here, a Nokia phone running the OS many wish the firm had adopted several years ago. However, while at its core the OS is Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, it looks nothing like it. It’s not covered in a simple skin or custom launcher either, it’s a complete reworking, right down to Nokia installing its own APIs. Visually, it’s a cross between Windows Phone and Nokia’s Series 40 software seen on its Asha range. Oh, and the Nokia X family won’t replace the Asha phones, but exist alongside them.

No, it’s not a misprint, a mistake, or speculation, a Nokia-made Android phone really is here.

The main screen is a vertically scrolling list of icons to access your usual phone features, plus all your apps. Swipe to the right, and you’ll see Fastlane, which is a list of all recently used apps, along with notifications. Swipe from the top of the screen down and you’ll find connectivity controls. That’s about it, swipe to the right again and you’re back to the home screen, it’s that simple.

The Nokia’s X’s two-screen system is very easy to manage and customize – tiles can be resized and shifted around, just like Windows Phone – and perfect for smartphone newbies and experienced users alike.

Nokia’s interpretation of Android isn’t pretty. It’s blocky, awkward looking, and a bit messy. Remember, Nokia (and Microsoft of course) doesn’t want you to enjoy using Android too much, and would rather you purchased a Lumia if you care about that sort of thing. It’s not without flourishes though, and seeing tiles spin around in a whirlwind while you move them around is cool.

Remember, The X makes do with 512MB of RAM, but the OS mostly zips along, without drastic stutters or slowdown, exception in a few places. It flows very well, probably thanks to its simplicity, and is a fun, friendly experience.

Let’s talk about apps. Nokia says a very high percentage of Android apps available will work on the Nokia X, but there are a few provisos here. There’s no Google Play access, and most Google apps won’t work due to Nokia’s API alterations. Big third-party stores can be loaded though, such as Amazon and Yandex, so you won’t be left wanting when it comes to apps. Instead of Gmail, Search, Google Maps and Hangouts, the Nokia X has Outlook, Bing, Here Maps, and Skype. Former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said although the Nokia X is built on Android and uses Android apps, it’s a showcase for Microsoft’s services, and designed to encourage people to use them.

Big third-party stores, such as Amazon and Yandex, can be accessed, so you won’t be left wanting when it comes to apps.

The phone itself is a gem. The polycarbonate rear uses a similar color process to several Lumia models, and scratches just reveal more color rather than a nasty white plastic. It feels very hardwearing, so you’ll have to be careless to damage it too badly. The glass screen is slightly raised above the body shell, like some Lumia’s, and the body is grippy, tactile, and feels far more expensive than the phone’s actual price tag. The colors look brilliant too, especially the green, something I never expected to say.

Nokia’s X phones aren’t our dream Android devices made by the Finnish firm. They’re something different. Yes, there’s some corporate shenanigans behind them, but that’s to be expected. As phones though, particularly the big Nokia XL, there is a lot to like. At $150 or less they compete favourably against the Moto G, and the simplified interface will appeal a lot of people. Ignoring the still confusing business and strategic elements to the Nokia X’s announcements, we can’t help but wish Nokia had done this years ago.

Highs

  • Android operating system
  • Low price
  • Simple, easy to use interface
  • Access to Android apps and associated stores
  • Excellent build quality

Lows

  • It’s not the prettiest interface
  • No Google apps for you
  • Google Play won’t work
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