At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, Nokia officially unveiled its Nokia X series, which runs a forked version of Android. This move was met with both, optimism and skepticism. It was seen as a means for Nokia to attract the growing population of Android users and developers. However, there was worry about the longevity of the Nokia X platform — which is based on the Android Open Source Project — in particular once Microsoft finalises its acquisition of Nokia’s mobile division.
Still, Nokia’s strategy seems to be to provide an affordable mid-range device as a gateway to Microsoft services, which is geared toward attracting users enough to graduate or move up to more premium offerings in its Nokia/Windows Phone ecosystem. Thus, the Android and Microsoft mix seems to be a good one.
Nokia X is already available in several markets, with Malaysia, India and the Philippines among the earlier release countries. I have had the chance to get my hands on the base X model, which retails for PhP 5,990 in the Philippines, RM 399 in Malaysia, INR 8,600 in India — close to the announced retail price of EUR 89 (US$122). Specs-wise, the Nokia X is nothing spectacular, but for this price, it’s a viable contender against other similarly-priced mid-range or low-end offerings from other brands.
I’ll be writing about my experience with Nokia X after I put this handy little device on a road test as my daily driver. Meanwhile, here are five reasons why I think the Nokia X is worth a look, both for fans and enthusiasts of the Android platform and those just starting to explore smartphones alike.
1. Competitive price
As earlier mentioned, the price point is one of the main selling factors of Nokia X. The device is, after all, targeted at emerging markets, where the usual price range for decent entry-level smartphones has fallen to the US$50 to US$100 range. While the Nokia X is an outlier, priced higher than the usual no-brand device, it’s well within range of the likes of the LG Optimus L5 II, Lenovo A516, Sony Xperia E Dual, Samsung Galaxy Star Plus Dual and offerings from local brands like Cherry Mobile, O+, MyPhone, Karbon and Micromax.
2. Nokia makes “damn great hardware”
Even as Nokia has fast been overtaken by Apple, Samsung and other brands in smartphone sales, the quality of the brand’s components and build have been met with praise, especially with its flagship Lumia line. The Nokia X seems to inherit these traits, as the device feels solid and well-designed. Even with its plastic chassis and rubberised plastic back, it feels more premium than even flagship devices from other brands.
3. Offline navigation with Nokia Here
Waze was one of the big hits of 2013, especially after Google’s acquisition of the Tel Aviv-based startup. Waze still requires an active data connection in order to get routing and traffic data, however. Nokia’s Here maps have all the routing data on the device itself, so users can navigate even while offline, which is often the case in emerging markets, where pervasive data connections are not yet the norm.
4. Android apps — hundreds of thousands of them
A mobile platform is only as good as the ecosystem that supports it. According to Nokia, the X series can run 75 per cent of Android apps available. Although it does not support the Google Play Store, users can install apps by side-loading through .APK installer. Nokia X essentially contains the open-source part of Android, but without the Google services layer that comes with most Android devices. This means users can install just about any Android app that does not require these services and APIs. Still, most Android apps should run without the need for modification. Nokia has also been fast at work with populating its own Nokia Store with apps.
In fact, this is just part of a bigger trend. Other platforms like BlackBerry are also now supporting Android apps. Other manufacturers, like Xiaomi, Jolla and Amazon have chosen to “fork” Android, just like what Nokia is now doing.
5. It’s hackable
There are a few key ingredients to a phone being a hit among the enthusiast community. First, it should be open enough to be tweaked with rooting procedures and custom ROMs. Second, it should be accessible enough — read: cheap — that making a mistake will not leave you with a thousand dollar paperweight. Third, it should have a wide enough user base that the community members can easily support each other and reference each other’s work. The more popular custom Android-based ROMs like Cyanogenmod, Carbon and Android Open Kang Project have considerable followings, and yet these mostly focus on certain devices that are widely available on a global scale. These can be “hero” devices with flagship specs, or even lower-end devices that have mass appeal.
In fact, even before the Nokia X became available in the market, developer releases were already rooted and loaded with Google Play Store, as proof-of-concept. It’s likely that users who like Nokia’s hardware, but prefer a different user experience might go for the same tweaks.
Nokia X is not the best phone out there, in terms of specs, performance and battery life. But for those who had wished that Nokia made the move to Android instead of Windows Phone in 2011, this is as good as it gets. Nokia X symbolises an opportunity for Nokia — and, by extension, Microsoft — to regain lost ground among mobile users in the grassroots. It’s somewhat of a pivot for Nokia, and the company is likely to build on this Microsoft-plus-Android strategy further.