Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is just getting started, but Nokia is already making waves with its Nokia X smartphone. Unlike many of the big, showy smartphones being announced, the Nokia X is notable for being just the opposite – a 4-inch, super-low-cost smartphone – that runs on Google’s Android operating system.
I know, Nokia and Android don’t exactly mix. Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia’s device business is expected to close this quarter, and until recently, no one would’ve expected Nokia to introduce anything other than a Windows Phone device. But if you’ve been following the rumors about an Android-based Nokia phone that have been swirling over the last few months, it turns out they were mostly true.
I had a chance to sit down with executives from Nokia ahead of the show and ask about the company’s decision to go with Android instead of Windows Phone, but first, some details about the phone itself.
Low-end parts with a high-end finish
The Nokia X is a 4-inch device with an 800 x 480 display that’s powered by a 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8225 processor. It features just 4GB of internal storage, though a microSD slot supports cards up to 32GB. There’s a 3-megapixel camera on the back of the phone and a 1,500mAh battery inside. It also supports dual-SIM cards on 2G and 2G networks. From the spec sheet alone, it’s a low-end Android phone that would rival a device from 2011.
Physically, however, the Nokia X transcends the bargain bin feel of many low-cost smartphones with a design reminiscent of Nokia’s high-end Lumia brand. The phone is fully covered in a sturdy polycarbonate casing that you can snap off and change for another color. At just over 0.40 inches thick the phone is a little on the bulky side, but its build materials and screen size make it comfortable to hold. There is just one capacitive touch button beneath the phone’s display. The only other controls are physical volume and power keys on the right side of the device.
Android with a twist of Windows
The Nokia X is powered by Google’s Android Open Source Project (version 4.1.2, to be exact). But it runs on Android in the same sense that Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets do. Meaning: You won’t find much that actually looks like Android here. The keyboard is a dead giveaway, but just about everything else I saw has been skinned by Nokia to look like a cross between its Asha OS and Windows Phone.
For instance, there are two home screens: A tile-based screen reminiscent of Windows Phone and a Fastlane screen like you’ll find on Asha. More than anything else, these home screens exemplify what Nokia hopes to achieve with the Nokia X – it’s a stepping stone for users that are in between an Asha-based feature phone but not yet ready for a more expensive Windows device.
Unlike most Android phones, the Nokia X comes preloaded with Nokia and Microsoft-specific apps and services. That means there’s no Google Play app store. But rest assured, the Nokia X runs Android apps.
The phone comes preloaded with the Nokia Store, and Nokia promises hundreds of thousands of Android apps at launch. I was able to spot some popular titles such as Angry Birds, BlackBerry Messenger and Plants Vs. Zombies available in the store before it officially goes live. There is also a dedicated section where you can download additional Android app stores like Mobango, SlideMe and Yandex. You can also sideload apps onto the phone without a problem if you have the APK file and enable this function.
Nokia claims the majority of existing Android apps will work on the Nokia X without the need for modification. For those that do need some tinkering – like changing the in-app payment system to use Nokia’s In-App Payments – developers needn’t make any changes to the actual APK. Nokia claims that so far it has only taken developers 8 hours on average to make any necessary changes.
The phone also comes preloaded with a number of other Nokia and Microsoft-branded apps, such as Skype for video calling, and Nokia’s Here Maps, which use the phone’s built-in GPS.
So why the decision to use Android instead of Windows Phone, especially with Microsoft set to acquire Nokia within the coming weeks? There are a number of reasons.
According to Nokia’s vice president of product marketing Jussi Nevanlinna, consumer choice is a big reason: “We want multiple product lines to take multiple shares in the market.”
Amit Patel, Nokia’s vice president of developer relations, echoed this sentiment. “The competitive landscape is such that many vendors are offering more than one choice,” he said.
Nokia also recognizes that most smartphone users want apps, and right now Android offers a lot more of them than Windows Phone does. And Nokia can use Android apps to its advantage as customers use the company’s own in-app payments system. Nokia works with over 160 mobile operators in 60 markets for billing. In markets where the Nokia X will be sold, many people do not have credit cards, so Nokia thinks its mobile billing agreements with carriers in these areas will be a great asset.
To me, the biggest advantage here is Android’s malleability. Using Android allows Nokia to create an OS that’s essentially a bridge between its feature phones and higher-end Windows smartphones.
I did spot one potential caveat right off the bat, though: Using the Nokia X feels slow. The heavily modified version of Android is not nearly as graceful as the always-swift Windows Phone OS. Apps took a noticeable amount of time to open and screen transitions weren’t quite smooth.
That said, comparing the Nokia X to a high-end smartphone isn’t really fair. As a step up from an Asha, it should feel just fine.
The main selling point for the Nokia X – outside of the Android apps – is its price. The Nokia X will sell for €89 (or roughly $122). That’s a pretty solid price for an entry-level smartphone, though it’s worth noting that the excellent Moto G can be had for $179 (and as little as $99 in some instances.) And Nokia’s own, Windows-based Lumia 521 can be purchased for $99 or less. Both phones boast superior features to the Nokia X, and you get your pick of pure Android or Windows Phone. All things considered, I feel like the Nokia X can afford to be cheaper.
But buying the Nokia X won’t be a decision U.S. users will have to make, as the phone isn’t intended for a North American release (the phone will also not come out in Korea or Japan). The Nokia X will be available in the first week of March in an otherwise global release, with a focus on developing regions.