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5/9/2013
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Nokia Asha 501 Seeks Middle Ground

Nokia's new phone, $99 without contracts or subsidies, will compete with low-cost Android devices in emerging markets.

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Nokia Thursday announced the Asha 501, a touch-based device that it will sell in emerging markets where the company hopes to better compete with low-cost Android smartphones. The 501 runs a new platform that Nokia is calling the Nokia Asha Platform. Nokia refers to the Asha 501 as a smartphone, but some might disagree with that label.

The 501 is a compact phone that includes a full touchscreen and the polycarbonate design language for which Nokia's Lumia smartphones are known. The capacitive screen measures 3 inches across the diagonal and provides QVGA resolution. The 501 is limited to GSM-based networks and includes Wi-Fi but not 4G. It offers 4 GB of internal memory for things such as apps, which can be expanded to 32 GB with the use of microSD cards. Its 3.2-megapixel camera can also capture video. The device includes the typical allotment of ports and jacks, including microUSB for charging and data transfer, as well as a standard stereo headphone jack. It is small and light, at 3.9 x 2.28 x 0.47 inches and 3.45 ounces. Last, Nokia claims the Asha 501 provides 48 days of standby time and 17 hours of talk time.

These meager hardware specifications mean the Asha 501 will be inexpensive: $99 without contracts or subsidies, which is what Nokia needs in emerging markets. It will go on sale in 90 countries later this quarter.

[ Will Nokia's upcoming Windows Phone be the hero the company needs? Read more at Nokia Lumia 928: Elop's Last Hope? ]

As for the platform, Nokia has gussied up its Series 40 operating system (itself based on Java) with customizations carried over from Smarterphone, an acquisition Nokia made last year. Some of those customizations include what Nokia calls Fastlane, a swiping gesture that brings up the user's favorite set of apps, services and functions. This swiping gesture is available from anywhere within the user interface and includes the user's 50 most recent items or tasks. Nokia likens it to multitasking, or fast-app-switching.

Nokia also took pains to make sure the browser is up to snuff. The improved Xpress browser uses server-side compression to reduce the amount of data sent to the 501 over the network, an important feature to customers in emerging markets.

"The Asha platform is faster, more responsive and more flexible, too," said Nokia. "This means new features and functionalities can be anticipated with future updates. Developers will be able to create apps for the Nokia Asha 501 that will also be compatible with future Asha platform-based devices." As with smartphones, app compatibility is key. People don't want to buy devices that can't run a wide variety of apps.

Speaking of apps, Nokia says the 501 will include a handful of marquee apps out of the box, including Facebook, Twitter, The Weather Channel, and even some games, such as Big Little City and Real Football 2013.

Whether or not the Asha 501 will be enough to fend off widespread attacks from cheap Android smartphones remains to be seen.

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