There's been a lot of debate in the tech world about Nokia's decision to stick with the S40 operating system after it joined hands with Microsoft. Granted, the company did have a wave of average handsets which didn't really make the cut for smartphones. However, Nokia recently re-launched its S40 platform with the Asha range of phones. Branded as feature phones, the Asha range has the look and feel of a smartphone without really ticking all the boxes. The most premium of all the Asha phones is the Asha 303. This full QWERTY-touchscreen phone has a 1GHz processor, and promises to be the mother of all feature phones. Recently launched in India, here's what you can expect from the Asha 303.
Resembling the E6 in more ways than one, the Asha 303 sports a 2.6-inch capacitive touchscreen and slightly compressed QWERTY keypad. Although looks-wise it isn't as slim and premium as the E6 (which resembled the BlackBerry Bold 9900), it still manages to look relatively classy with its smooth plastic finish and brushed-metal back cover. The touchscreen is positioned about a millimetre above the keypad giving the impression of a QWERTY slider like the BlackBerry Torch.
Below the touchscreen are a row of physical buttons for Call and End and two shortcuts for bringing up Messaging and the Music Player. The buttons and the keyboard are backlit.
There's not much choice in the available ports: on the top you get a 3.5 mm headphone jack, a mini USB port for data transfers and the standard Nokia thinpin charging slot. The right side holds a volume rocker switch and screen lock button. The back panel is quite plain with the exception of a 3.2-meg camera (no flash though) and a dotted speaker grille at the bottom.
Previous S40 users will be in for a pleasant surprise: Nokia has redesigned the interface to mimic Nokia Belle, with similar dedicated icons and widgets. There's only a single homescreen but that can be customised with widgets and icons of your choice. There's also a new swipe gesture which can be customised to bring up apps of your choice. So on my review unit a swipe right brought up the messaging menu and a swipe left opened the camera. Under the homescreen are three touch buttons for a shortcut menu, the main menu and contacts.
The touchscreen is quite smooth and meets your finger with a slight haptic feedback. However it's not always responsive and I found that on occasion I did have to use a bit more pressure than I normally would need on a touchscreen. Given the fact that this is a QWERTY device too though, this can be forgiven.
The keys are a bit smaller than usual and might feel a bit cramped for those with big hands. Overall I found it quite comfortable to type on, although the keys do require a bit of a hard press.
Media and apps
The USP of the Nokia Asha 303 is the fact that it comes pre-loaded with the most commonly used smartphone apps. So you have WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Email already installed on the phone. While WhatsApp has a slightly different user interface than what's normally seen on S40 phones, social networking comes integrated under Social. Similar to the Ovi Social app seen on the E6, on the Asha 303 you can configure Facebook, Twitter and Orkut (although only one of each account). The app, like before, is a bit slow and doesn't do the job of automatic updates too well. I tried it on a GPRS and high-speed Wi-Fi connection, and it lagged on bot. You don't get alerts of new notifications, although there is a widget you can add on the homescreen. Again, here you can only configure one social networking account and the refresh rate is quite slow.
Nokia had mentioned that the phone would support Mail for Exchange, their push mail service, but it looks like that feature will be delayed until the second quarter of this year. However there is still a Mail app which lets you configure any email account. You won't get push mail notifications but it works quite well if you refresh it manually every once in a while.
Apart from these apps, there's a built-in Music Player and FM Radio, along with a bunch of apps and games. I tried playing Angry Birds Worms 2011 Armageddon on the phone but the small size of the touchscreen and the inability to pinch/tap to zoom made it quite difficult. Zenga TV is another pre-installed app which allows you to stream live TV. I managed to stream MTV without buffering on 2G speeds, although the images did appear very pixelated and volume levels were low. The Nokia Browser is vastly improved with an integrated search/address bar.
The 3.2-meg fixed focus camera is pretty decent, and offers a bunch of frames and effects. It works quite well in low-light too and is probably one of the better feature phone cameras I've used. There's also the option of VGA video recording at 15fps.
The Asha 303 does have a 1GHz processor, but it is a shame that S40 does not support multi-tasking yet, so you don't really feel the benefits.There were no network issues with the Asha 303 and call quality was crisp and clear, though lacking slightly in loudness.Battery life unfortunately mimics smartphone standards. I got a little less than 24 hours of juice with Social, Mail and WhatsApp connected, in addition to calls and texts.
With great looks, an improved user interface and integrated social networking, the Asha 303 looks like the best feature phone out there. And in my opinion, the attractive pricing makes it trump budget smartphones too.
Love: Improved S40 interface, great selection of apps
Hate: Average battery life, no multitasking