nokia x hands on 02This morning, the world has had confirmation from Nokia that the rumors were true: Nokia has launched a couple of Android devices – but not the ordinary kind. Nokia wants to use Android to grow faster in emerging markets, but they are not using the typical Android distribution backed by the licensed modules from Google like the Google Play Market, Gmail etc. Instead, Nokia will promote Microsoft Cloud Services, and of course, its own. I’ve had some hands-on time with the devices, and here’s how things look like thus far, and keep in mind that these are mid-range phones, so everything is relative to the fact that they are very affordable ($125 Nokia X, $135 Nokia X+, $150 Nokia XL):

Industrial Design

nokia x hands on 05From the outside, the Nokia X, X+ and XL definitely have a Nokia family trait. They are made of durable plastic (not as nice as the Lumia line tough), and share a similar design language. As you have seen on the photos, the colors are quite vivid which has become a Nokia signature to the point that when Apple released the iPhone 5C, many people called them copycats even though iPods have been colored for a while. Note that X and X+ are similar in appearance and only the internal specs change.

In any case, the Nokia X is quite small by Android standards. It is also relatively thick, but overall, it felt pretty good in the hand, and was fairly agreeable to handle. The Nokia XL is larger of course, but was bigger than I thought it would be for a 5” phone. The difference between the X and XL is obvious enough to justify building two handsets to cater different crowds. Since this is aimed at the mid-range, the XL could be not only targeted at big screen lovers, but also people who don’t see very well. Not everyone can afford a Note 3 or LG Flex, so having more options won’t hurt, especially when the price is so low.

If you have been shopping in the sub-$150 price range, you have probably noticed that the overall quality is rarely there, so Nokia has a good opportunity to differentiate.

nokia xl hands on 03

The X-Series is definitely not on par with the Lumia Series, and Nokia has been very candid about it, so no surprise there. If you already thought that the Lumia phones were too plastic, then this may not be for you. On the other hand, if someone is looking for a fun handset that does not fear scratches or occasional drops, then check those out.

Display

nokia xl hands on 08In both instances, I found the displays to be pretty decent for this price level. Black were OK, and colors were fine – not great like the LG G2, but I don’t think that you will find much better in that space. The display is one of the most expensive component of a phone, and I think that Nokia did a good job with its sourcing here.

Software

This is the most interesting, but also the hardest part to judge without hindsight. I was able to play around with the user interface, but without really using it, I can’t yet tell if it is productive or not. On the surface, it looks more like Windows than Android. At the very least, this means that Android users will have to adapt and learn, but so are Windows Phone users. I like Windows Phone quite a bit, and I didn’t find my marks immediately on the Nokia X.

It’s important to understand a couple of things: Nokia uses the Open Source version of Android (4.1 for now), but the Android that we all see and know in most handset is in fact a combination of Open-source and closed source from Google, and the closed source part has become more and more important to make Android what it is. For example, Google Play, Google Maps, Gmail and many other things are closed-source and must be licensed.

This is not what people expected when they dreamt about an Nokia Android phone, and whether it will work or not is not clear. On one hand it may just work, but I think that most people’s reaction to this (including me) is: why not just use Android? The probable answer is Politics. Since Nokia will soon belong to Microsoft, Nokia needed to create a product that won’t be “canned” when the merger is complete, and building something like what was demonstrated today seemed to be the best way to do that. But best for who? Nokia, Microsoft or users? Only time will tell if this can make everyone happy. At the moment, the answer is not obvious.

Questions remains about the availability of apps as well. The good news is that apps won’t run under some sort of emulation like they did on Blackberry, so if they run, they should run like they would on a regular Android handset. Now, many app stores require developers to make some small modifications to be compatible with in-app purchases etc, and there is a good chance that the Nokia Android App store will only be a subset of the Google Play store. By what margin remains to be seen. So far, Amazon has done well enough with its own store, so it may equally work for Nokia.

Conclusion

At the moment, the Nokia X and XL are designed to address emerging markets, so I’m not sure if US users will have to face tough decisions or not. It would be only fair to give Nokia a full chance to make its case, but there are a lot of questions left. As hardware pieces, both phones are quite decent in their market. However, I have a feeling that the Lumia line of product will be more interesting to many users in the west.

I appreciate the high-level idea of using Android to accelerate Nokia’s growth, and Nokia is right to spend a lot of energy on the mid-range market: its grow will be 400% higher than the high-end segment in the coming years. However, the devil is in the details and we will have to see how good the Nokia Android UI really is, and how fast Nokia can react to user feedback.

Filed in Cellphones. Read more about MWC, MWC 2014 and Nokia.

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