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Nokia Asha 501 is colorful, cheap but not for the U.S.

Nokia Asha 501

The Nokia Asha 501 is part of Nokia’s budget range of phones, aimed at emerging markets like India and Latin America. It’ll land in the UK in Q3 this year, with wider European availability from June. Nokia has said that it won’t be shipping to North America any time soon — if ever.

It has a low-resolution capacitive touch screen and uses only 2G data networks, but it has a fun, vibrant, plastic design and a supercheap price tag of $99.

If you’ve spent time with any of Nokia’s recent phones, the 501 will be quite familiar. It’s got a one-piece, polycarbonate back that’s very reminiscent of the Lumia 520. The back panel is made from one single sheet of material — the only seam you’ll find on the phone is around the edge of the screen.

That helps make it feel very solid and secure. I wasn’t able to put it through CNET’s usual brutal set of stress tests, but it certainly felt like it could take a knock or two. If it does start to show some wear and tear, you can always swap the back panel for a fresh one.

It’s available in a rainbow of garish colours to suit your mood or, more likely, your outfit. Its back has a much more angular design than the Lumia phones, which gives it more of a toy-like appearance. It’s still comfortable to hold though, as its 3-inch screen doesn’t require you to stretch your palms.

The display has a 320×240-pixel resolution which, compared to the Full HD smart phones around, is pretty poor. You really can’t expect that sort of quality for such a low-end price, though. Icons and larger text are all perfectly readable. It’s not particularly bright, nor does it have great colors, but again, it does the job adequately for the money.

Software and features
The Asha 501 runs on Nokia’s own Asha software rather than the swanky Windows Phone 8 software you’ll find on the more premium Lumia line. It looks fairly simple and has a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve, but it won’t appeal to those users who are accustomed to a more refined smartphone experience.

The lock screen can display notifications — SMS messages, missed calls, and so on — that you can either swipe away and ignore, or tap to deal with them immediately. Unlock the phone and you’ll be taken to a grid of app icons, similar to what you’d expect to see in iOS. Swipe to either side of the apps and you’ll see a scrolling activity log displaying recent apps, activities, and recently called contacts.

It’s pretty easy to operate so the technophobes among you shouldn’t be scared off , but it doesn’t have the sort of slick multitasking features crucial to a top-end smartphone. It doesn’t have a well-stocked app store either, although some essentials like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Plants Vs. Zombies are available.

It’s probably not going to be a huge issue that a lot of data-hungry apps aren’t available, as the Asha 501 uses only 2G networks. You won’t be able to make use of faster 3G data, and lightning-fast 4G speeds will only be a fevered dream for 501 owners. Sending a quick Tweet should be doable, but don’t try and attach photos or videos unless you want to wait. Nokia explained that 2G networks are still the most commonly used in countries such as India where the 501 is aimed, so it’s perhaps not as big a deal as it first seems.

Storage comes in the form of a 4GB SD card, which you can swap out for a bigger one if you like. It’ll also be available in either a single- or dual-SIM version should you want to keep two SIM cards on board for easier data roaming. Nokia wouldn’t say what processor is part of the package — we know it’s not going to be anything impressive — but it seemed reasonably capable of providing smooth navigation through the OS.

With its low-end specs, down-market price, and 2G connectivity, the Nokia Asha 501 really isn’t aimed at those of you who crave the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One. Instead, it’s aimed squarely at developing markets like India and Latin America. It’s cheap price and sturdy build quality might make it a reasonable option to pick up as an emergency festival phone, though.