- Lightweight, compact build
- Lacklustre apps and browser
The Nokia Asha 503 is the latest release from the Finnish company’s range of budget-priced feature phones.
The Asha 503 is not a cutting edge smartphone by any means, although it totes a respectable 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash, Facebook, WhatsApp, a web browser and demos of a handful of casual games.
But does everything feel crammed in on a 3-inch touchscreen or does size not matter? We’re now living in an age where a phone with a 4.3-inch display can comfortably be described as ‘compact’, mind.
While the small size and bright colours might prove popular with a younger crowd, others might have less fun. Let’s see exactly how the Nokia Asha 503 measures up.
Design: Bold, bright and shiny
Measuring 102.6×60.6×12.7mm, the Nokia doesn’t take up much pocket space at all – it’s a compact little thing and at 110.2 grams, so light.
On the right hand side sits a volume rocker and a power/standby key while up at the top there’s a micro USB port for charging and connectivity next to a 3.5mm headphone jack. There are no other mechanical controls on the phone. The only other input is a single Back softkey located bottom-centre.
Given that the primary feature of the Asha 503 is its 5-megapixel LED flash-assisted camera, we’d have liked to have seen a dedicated camera key here too.
There’s a microSD card slot hidden inside. While you’ll have to pop the battery cover off to get at it, you won’t need to take the battery itself out – always a plus.
Looks-wise, it’s an interesting mix. The smooth rounded corners of the front clash with the sharp edges of the back. The replaceable battery cover is actually composed of two elements, an opaque rounded soap dish that’s encased in an angular, transparent layer.
When the battery cover is clipped on, it creates the impression that the two layers are separate. It’s quite a cool effect.
Whatever you think of the Nokia Asha 503’s plastic edges and corners, there’s no disguising the fact that they reflect bright lights, hampering visibility.
Screen: Small, strong, but so so
The Nokia Asha 503’s screen measures 3.0-inches across and has a resolution of 320×240 (QVGA) and 134 ppi (pixels per inch). While that’s not exactly dazzling, especially by today’s standards it’s not hopeless – text looks remarkably sharp.
Pictures on the other hand, don’t. You really can’t appreciate just how good the Asha 503’s camera is until you get the photos off of the phone and onto another device.
The screen is covered by a layer of super-tough Corning Gorilla Glass, giving it a decent amount of protection.
In terms of responsiveness, the Asha 503 is pretty nippy. You can happily tap and swipe away on the Asha 503 and it’ll process your commands promptly. This gives the 3-inch screen a surprisingly non-claustrophobic feel.
Viewing angles are not particularly great and you’ll notice some rather obvious discolouration at extreme angles.
OS: You look familiar
Running a proprietary OS that borrows many elements from Symbian, the Asha 503 features rows of colourful icons for things like Facebook and WhatsApp as well as the camera, a recorder/dictation app and the settings. Everything is accessed through a single scrolling page. By pressing and holding on an icon, you can drag and drop them around the screen and arrange things how you like.
Swiping right reveals a daily history of all the apps and menus you’ve opened, letting you quickly jump back to whatever you were doing before. Pulling down from the top of the screen opens up a quick actions menu letting you toggle things like WiFi, Bluetooth, data and sound.
Camera: Picture it simply
The Nokia Asha 503’s camera app is rudimentary. Given that it’s the main feature of this feature phone we’d have liked to have seen a bit more work go into it. There’s no focus option and the absence of a physical shutter key means you have to tap the screen to take pictures.
This is fine, but if you want to change settings (white balance, flash, timer) you need to long press (hold down on the screen) until the menus appear. If you want to access the camcorder, you need to swipe on the screen from right to left.
In theory, these gesture-driven commands are fine. In practice, you sometimes find yourself accidentally taking a picture when all you wanted to do was open the settings, or ending up back on the home screen when all you wanted to do was record a video.
As we said before, the screen gives you a poor idea of how good (or bad) your photos are. You won’t know which ones are worth uploading to Facebook or keeping until you offload them and get them onto a device with a decent enough display. Once you see the photos for what they are, they’re not fantastic; while you get a lot of detail in well lit areas, there’s plenty of noise on the edges of objects.
Multimedia: Short on app support
The music player is simple and straightforward. Creating playlists is easy and it’s no trouble to thumb through to your favourite bands, albums and songs. When you’re playing music and you’ve got headphones in, media controls appear on the lock screen, allowing you to pause and skip tracks quickly. Sound quality is OK, but there’s no bass boost mode or audio enhancements available. Only MP3s and AACs are supported.
There’s a smattering of game demos pre-installed, letting you try before you buy. Unfortunately, most of them are torturously slow, making them impossible to love, or they’re in-app purchase farms, almost literally in the case of Gameloft’s Wonder Zoo.
Tower defense classic Plants vs Zombies is awkward and sluggish. Bejeweled on the Asha 503 is enjoyable, if you’re highly masochistic and/or insane. As if to add insult to injury, full versions of these games are priced at a quid for a single play £2 to rent or £5 for the full version. You can get much better games for £1, less than a pound or free on other mobile platforms.
To be fair, Pac-Man is actually pretty good fun and is the only game on here that won’t see you throwing the Asha 503 at the nearest wall.
Storage and connections: Expand, immediately
There’s no on-board storage to speak of on the Asha 503, so you’ll need to invest in a memory card if you want to save pictures and playlists. Luckily, the Asha 503 can handle 32GB microSD cards giving you ample room.
Connectivity-wise there’s WiFi, allowing you to save on your monthly data allowance by exploiting the ubiquitous free WiFi points available seemingly everywhere these days and Bluetooth for wireless file transfer. The mirco USB connection lets you connect to your laptop and transfer files like photos and MP3s.
Sadly there’s no GPS, making it hard to find your way around with the Asha 503. The Nokia Nearby app has been included and acts as a kind of Yellow Pages (remember them?) for nearby points of interest. It uses cellular data to work out your approximate location but it’s not very accurate. It’s a poor substitute for Nokia’s excellent HERE Maps seen on its Lumia range of phones.
Performance and battery: Power struggle
The Nokia Asha 503’s battery is solid. While you get 4.5 hours of talk time on paper, the official spec boasts an impressive 35 days of standby time. In the real world, the battery lasted long enough for us not to get through the day without having to scan for the nearest mains socket.
When it comes to basic mobile tasks, texting, calling and swiping through the menus the Asha 503 is impressive and slick. Typing is fast and mainly hassle-free thanks to the clever text predictions and the responsive screen.
While basic tasks are handled with aplomb, performance of apps and games varies. Facebook is a very basic and stripped down mobile version. It’s slow to load and lacks the option to tag people in photos or upload videos.
The web browser is awful. Pages take an ice age to load, even over WiFi, and it’s here that the limitations of the low-res 3-inch screen are really apparent. Image-heavy sites look the worst and the Asha 503 appears to physically struggle with the likes of BuzzFeed and other listicle sites. You can have up to six windows open at one time and save bookmarks and stuff but when things are this bad, what’s the point?
Verdict: Bye Asha, buy Lumia
The Nokia Asha 503 is a budget phone with a low resolution screen, a middling camera and a lacklustre browser. While the design both inside and out is eye-catching, it’s not enough to justify the price. When you consider that you can pick up a Nokia Lumia 520 – a far superior phone – for the same money (£90-£100), there’s no real argument in the Asha 503’s favour.
The Lumia 520 looks great, has a larger screen and is a joy to use – read our review of that phone instead. There’s some decent apps available including HERE Maps, a solid web browser and games that won’t make you want to tear your hair out.
The only edge the Asha 503 has over the Lumia 520 is that there’s an LED flash, but if you were that bothered about taking pictures you’d be prepared to shell out for something a little more premium like a Lumia 625 (£160) or a Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 (£180).
Any parents thinking of getting this one for their kids, don’t.