updated 06:15 pm EST, Mon February 27, 2012
We take on Nokia's latest Asha models
Nokia at its special event at Mobile World Congress on Monday paid a large part of its time focusing on a new wave of S40 phones: the Asha 202, Asha 203, and Asha 302. We got to look at all three shortly after, and had a look at the importance of designer phones to much of the world: a messaging phone in Mumbai is as vital as an iPhone in New York. Continue on for a hands-on underscoring the importance of quality phones for everyone.
The highlight of the pack was the Asha 302, a BlackBerry-style messaging phone that Nokia told us was for "aspirational" buyers, often those wanting to get into more than calling and texting for the first time but who are new to the idea. With that in mind, the 302 reflects it: it has a surprisingly nice metal (if partial) back and an overall tight construction. The keyboard was good, though not necessarily spectacular: it reminded us of the better days of the E71.
Interface-wise, it's still S40 and has some quirks we're not fans of, such as by default needing to use "Go To" to reach the web instead of a home screen shortcut. Don't expect miracles from the browser, either, although the 302 has a clever trick: it supports web apps that it can treat equally as native apps, so you get a transparent experience.
A first for the Asha line is Exchange support: the 302 is now one of the cheapest phones that can get push e-mail, calendars, and contacts from a typical workplace server. While the interface we saw was still mostly stripped down, it could set up and change meeting schedules, among others. This is intended to truly stand in for a smartphone; the 1GHz processor helps that, since the OS was very responsive for us.
Other than S40's own flaws, the only real issue was having a 3.2-megapixel fixed-focus camera, although at the 95 euros ($127) off-contract asking price, we wouldn't expect more. It should be shipping soon, if not now, and it promises to be a big deal for those for whom the phone could be a ticket to a better job.
The Asha 202 and 203 are different breeds; they're shaped like traditional basic feature phones, but have relatively large 2.4-inch touchscreens. Much of S40 is adapted to the layout. We found this a bit simpler, although the extra force needed on the resistive touchscreen wasn't. We don't want to be quick to judge, as Nokia is getting down to the lowest prices possible, but be prepared to use some force.
Either is comfortable to hold and looks good for the price, especially considering that the Asha 202 has dual SIM slots to manage dual phone plans. We do wish Nokia had a clearer back button; it's a bit of a disjunction to go from touching the screen to having to use the call end button.
Still, at 60 euros without a contract, or just $80, it's still one of the most advanced devices of its kind. Most sub-$100 Nokia phones don't even get touchscreens, so for many in the developing world, this is introducing them into a world they'd never had a choice to encounter. The first batches should be in stores in the spring.