Nokia Asha 503
9th Jan 2014 | 17:03
A bargain handset that is full of features, but not that smart
The Nokia Asha 503 is the latest handset in a series of low-cost, feature-packed devices from the Microsoft-owned company.
The Asha 503 is a slightly upgraded version of the Asha 501, with an improved camera and better social integration as default.
Picking up the Nokia Asha 503 SIM-free will set you back about £100. However if you sign up to a pay-as-you-go deal, you should be able to get the 503 for under £80 - an absolute bargain.
The downside is the tiny 3-inch screen on 503 feels minute when compared to the likes of the 4.7-inch display you get from the Nokia Lumia 625.
What the Asha 503 lacks in screen size is made up for with solid battery life and it offers most of the features you'd expect from a modern smartphone. Running on Nokia's Asha software platform 1.2, the 503 is smooth to operate without much lag. The operating system is very basic, but that does mean it's easy to use.
The Asha 503 runs on Nokia's Asha software platform, which has replaced the MeeGo software Nokia was developing before it was bought by Microsoft. The Asha OS is a stripped back version of MeeGo, but also an upgrade from the Symbian OS which had been used by other Nokia devices for years.
Within the Asha 503 a 4GB microSD card is included, but that can be upgraded to a maximum of 32GB for all your files and apps.
The phone comes with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, and a 1200mAh battery which boasts an incredible 35 days of standby time. However, maximum talk time over 3G is a rather average 4.5 hours, and don't expect 4G or even GPS support here.
Measuring only 102.6 x 60.6 x 12.7mm, and weighs in at 110g, what the device lacks in height is certainly made up for in thickness, but it feels comfortable, sturdy and well built in the hand.
Any fragile parts or features have been eliminated from the 503's design, and like older handsets from Nokia - for example the Nokia 5110 - the 503 feels durable.
It is likely that this device could be dropped hundreds of times without breaking it due to its thick and durable plastic case. However, that's unlikely to happen because the 503 fits so snugly in one hand you'll rarely feel it slip.
Around the edge of the Asha 503 you will find the volume controls and the power button to the right, the headphone socket and charging/data port along the top and an opening for the microphone at the bottom. There is also touch operated button under the screen, which provides the back feature.
The colourful rear cover is removable, allowing for replacement or customisation. Nokia has provided the Asha 503 in a handful of colours, including yellow, black, green, red, and blue
Each case has a clear plastic layer that covers the rear, this is what noticeably makes the 503 instantly different from its 501 version. Presumably, this is for added protection, but the corners are quite sharp and the extra clear plastic makes the device unnecessarily bulky.
The protection also extends to the screen which is covered in Gorilla Glass to ensure extra durability.
The 503's screen is far from high definition with only 134 pixels per inch, which gives an obviously pixelated image when compared to any mid-to-high end device.
The viewing experience is less enjoyable as a result, but once you get used to the three-inch display, you start to realise that this weakness gives the Asha 503 strengths in other departments.
The Asha Operating System on the 503 is a stripped back and raw version of the now deceased MeeGo platform the Nokia N9 used. Nokia decided to bin the project they had created with Intel after they had "lost faith" in the product.
The homepage on the Asha 503 consists of a vertically scrolling page of the apps. By default there is access to all the stock apps along with any extra apps installed.
As with other platforms, if an app has any notifications, a number will appear in the corner of the app to tell you how many there are.
You can't take screenshots on Asha OS, so I had to resort to photographing the screen, and unfortunately you can't create folders either. Icons have to be dragged and dropped into new positions.
Pressing the back button from the home screen or swiping left or right will reveal your Fastlane, which displays a stream of data showing everything you have done on the device.
This includes opened apps, recent calls, Facebook and Twitter updates, calendar entries, and much more content which can be customised in the settings app.
Pulling down the screen refreshes the page giving you the latest data, social information and a timeline split into different days. There is some basic native Facebook and Twitter support, which is integrated in such a way that it feels like part of the device.
There is also support in the email app for Gmail, Outlook (Hotmail) and Yahoo accounts. This integration is very limited but it is remarkably easy to set up and add an email account on the 503.
A simple swipe left or right from the edge of the display will return you to the home screen, a great idea that's slightly flawed in practice. Many features in apps require a swiping motion, and sometimes a swipe can drop you onto the home screen without you wanting it to, which can be frustrating.
Swiping down from the top reveals a very basic notification/control panel. Here you are able to toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile data and silent mode.
Alongside these buttons, the Asha 503 also displays a preview of received texts or missed calls, along with the name of the Wi-Fi network and any Bluetooth devices you are connected to.
Theme support is not an option for the Asha 503, so you will have to make do with the icons available. Fortunately, these are inoffensive. You can customise the wallpaper on the lock screen and the homepage, and as always there is a long list of ringtones to choose from.
It is worth noting that you will have the option to choose one of your personal photos as wallpaper for the lock screen, but the homepage wallpaper is restricted to one of the 12 preset images already stored on the device.
There is a nice tactile feedback vibration when the back button is pressed, or when certain tasks are performed such as opening an app.
Nokia has introduced the 'double tap to wake' feature, which is present on several of the Nokia Lumia series devices, as well as the LG G2.
The feature is stated to use more battery life but is an enjoyable and intuitive way to wake the device. I found I had to tap the device quite hard, as two gentle taps would not get the job done.
Overall the device is responsive quick and easy to use, although it is rather basic. It's capable of performing most functions you'd expect from a smartphone, albeit a scaled back version, but developers have been creative with the amount of space on offer on the 3-inch screen.
Contacts, calling and messaging
The Asha 503 makes it really simple to add, find, call and message contacts. The obvious contacts icon is at the top of your apps list by default, and is used to access all contacts stored on the 503.
When you first open the contacts app, the Asha 503 will ask you how you would like to import your contacts. You will be given the option to import your contacts from either your SIM, your microSD card or from another device.
Once set up, all your contacts will appear in a list. The Asha 503 displays a picture for each contact, and if there is not one available the image will default to the initials of the contact.
The ability to add accounts to your contact list should make the whole process very easy. Once in Contacts, swipe up from the bottom to reveal the menu. From here, tap accounts to see a which ones are enabled, and which ones you can add to the 503.
The big two - Facebook and Twitter - are in the main list, but clicking More Accounts will provide you with a further 13 options for some of the more obscure services supported by the device, including Tpad, Mondo Talk, Friend Caller and Nimbuzz Out, along with many others.
Making calls on the Asha 503 is again really simple. Tapping the phone icon from the home screen on the 503 opens up a dial pad which should be familiar if you have ever used a smartphone. Along the bottom of the screen are two icons, one to connect the call for the number you have inputted, and one to open up contacts list - from here you can select the desired recipient of your call.
Before a number is input the call icon is displayed with two arrows, if this is tapped the Asha 503 will open up the call log giving you the option to call a previously dialled number, or return a call you have received or missed in the past.
There is a Recent section which is available by tapping the downwards arrow in the top right hand corner of the screen. Also, the call log has its own icon on the home page for easy access, with the exact same layout and functions available.
The contact icon under the dial pad changes once a number has started to be tapped in, giving you the option to update a contact or create a new one.
This change can be slightly frustrating if you have started to input the number and decide you want to load it from the contacts list, as it prompts the user to save half the telephone number you have entered. As long as you know how the Asha 503 will react in these different scenarios, you should'nt have a problem getting used to it.
Once your conversation has started, you will have access to all the features you would expect from a smartphone: New Call, Hold, Mute and so on. Speakerphone works perfectly on this little device, although the volume does not get very high so it is best to use this feature in a quiet space.
I tried making a call using headphones with a built-in microphone, but to no avail. So I tried another set of earphones, and unfortunately had the same result. The 503 refused to work with any headphones with a microphone, even to just play music. This is not very reassuring, as you would expect this very basic feature would be supported, but sadly it does not seem to be the case.
The Asha 503 packs a punch when it comes to messaging. As well as the default messaging client Nokia has preinstalled a handful of chat clients: WhatsApp, Line, Chat, eBuddy, and WeChat. Facebook and Twitter are also preinstalled, and although they are not exclusively messaging apps, they provide a gateway to chat with friends.
Let's start with the default messaging app on the Asha 503. Once opened, the first screen you see is a list of all the previous messages sent or received on the device. There is a large + icon at the bottom of this screen which is used to start a new message with a contact. Tapping this will bring up a basic screen where you can add a recipient and type your message.
After you begin typing you message the option to add an attachment or insert an emoji will appear along the bottom of the message. The option to add images, video and audio are all present so you will easily be able to share your files with friends.
The keyboard on the Asha 503 is spread over two pages with a tab to switch between letters and symbols, and is actually quite easy to use. Surprisingly, it is not as fiddly as you may expect on a 3-inch screen, although if your thumbs are slightly on the larger side you'll likely to get frustrated very quickly.
When you start to type a word on the Asha 503 a list of suggestions will appear above the keyboard. The list of predicted words is also quite long - you swipe horizontally on the list to find more suggestions the 503 thinks could be right.
Swipe upwards from the bottom while in a message to reveal the message settings. There's an option to toggle on or off the prediction and spell check features, along with a button to add or remove keyboards in different languages.
Setting up an email account on the Asha 503 is really easy if you use one of the popular services such as Google, Yahoo or Outlook. Simply enter your email address and password and you are good to go.
The Asha 503 email support is basic, but all of the needed features were present, although the 503 only supports text emails and not HTML formatted messages. This is a real downside, as many emails were not displayed as intended, which meant that it was difficult or impossible to find the information I was looking for in the inbox.
WhatsApp has over 400 million users and makes it easy to find the people you know. The app will scan your contact list to find people who have also signed up to the service on their device. No usernames are required here to find your chums, as the mobile number you would normally contact them on becomes their WhatsApp ID. WhatsApp is supported on most platforms and is available on most handsets too.
The browsing experience on the Nokia Asha 503 is not fantastic. The tiny screen hinders any full-page websites, but as long as the site supports a mobile version browsing is smooth. The user interface is snappy without much lag, but pages were not the quickest to load even when using a strong Wi-Fi connection.
There is only one browser available for this device, and it is Nokia's own default one. Searching the store for an alternative is pointless. The browser has everything you need but those little extras the likes of Chrome or Safari can provide - like remembering your login information - are non existent.
When you open up the Internet app the search bar is along the bottom of the screen and a page appears with a grid of the browsers options. They are basically groups of bookmarks and they are separated into Featured, Entertainment, Apps, News, Social, Information, Sport, Mail, and Downloads.
Each section has several site suggestions, so you should not be stuck for finding content straight away. It's hard to get excited about a page of bookmarks, but it is customisable and you have the option to add sites to the list.
The search bar is simple but effective, and on its right hand side is the much-needed refresh icon. On the left hand side, the window icon will load up your open pages, with a maximum of six allowed at any one time.
Swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen to reveal a menu of options. Here you will be able to find tabs for Recent, Favourites, Downloads, Web Apps, Feedback, More. There is nothing revolutionary here but the basics are catered for.
Overall, the Asha 503 will enable you to do all the basics, but there is a serious lack of features that users of higher-end devices will notice are missing.
There is no online syncing of pages with other devices because the Nokia Asha 503 only supports the default browser. Zooming in and out of pages is also not intuitive, as the pinching gesture found on most other modern smartphones isn't used here.
You probably won't be surprised to hear that the device doesn't support Flash, although there are not many devices on the market that do support the dying platform. The screen won't allow you to fully immerse yourself in whatever you are viewing thanks to the low resolution and its small size.
Camera & Video
The single rear camera on the Nokia Asha 503 has a 5MP sensor, and that's your lot as there's no front-facing camera. Seeing as there is no support for video calls on the 503, it would have been mostly redundant anyway.
The camera can be accessed from the lock screen by swiping upwards from the bottom of the screen, and like all devices it has also got its own icon on the home screen.
On paper, the camera looks to be one of the lead features of the 503. In reality, it's a letdown.
Using the 503's camera is really easy - open up the app, point it at your subject and tap the screen to take the photo. You can use the volume buttons to zoom the camera in and out, but there is no dedicated button to start and stop video recording.
Unfortunately you can't set the focus, aperture or exposure of the picture either, so you just have to hope the Asha 503 is focusing on what you want and will take a decent picture.
There are a few manually-controlled settings. To access these, press and hold the screen with one finger. A menu will pop up where you can set the flash, timer, white balance, effects, shutter sounds and photo resolution.
When you first get your hands on the Asha 503, a lot of these settings will be set to automatic. And that's probably how they should be left, as the photo resolution is set to the highest quality (2592 x 1944), the shutter sounds are off.
White balance on the Asha 503 can be a bit hit and miss. When testing the device in daylight some of my pictures came out with a green/blue tint. The 503 seems to have an automatic response to indoor lighting which is applied with erratic results, leading to unbalanced colours in the images.
The flash is extremely bright, but still has problems illuminating a medium-sized room. As long as you're close enough to your subject you should get a decent image, although I found that the picture was either too washed out or too dull.
For a device of this price range you probably won't be surprised to hear that the colours were not totally natural when using the flash. The flash is essential in low light though, as the Asha 503 really struggles to take pictures in these conditions.
The camera times out after around 15-20 seconds to save battery power. Make sure you are on the ball and have time to wake the device before taking the perfect photo or you might miss the opportunity.
There are three effects built into the camera app: black and white, sepia, and negative. You can preview these effects so you know what to expect from the finished product. They are basic, but fun and can add a little something special to average images.
The video functions on the Asha 503 are accessed by swiping the screen from the camera window. This is a bit fiddly to access - it's easy to inadvertently find yourself at the home page by accidentally swiping from the edge of the screen.
Once you have navigated there the same basic functions apply - tap to record, tap to stop, and the zooming controls are still accessible via the volume buttons. The video quality in low light is passable, but not great.
Combining the amount of blur the camera produces from the slightest movement, and the fact that there does not seem to be any image stabilisation, the Asha 503 produces footage far from high definition quality.
The same settings window can be brought up on the Asha 503 and the effects can also be used while recording. This is a nice feature, but it won't help your footage in low light conditions. The LED flash would, but for some reason there is no option to use the light from the LED while in video mode.
There is only one music playing option on the Asha 503, it only supports MP3 and ACC formats, and there are not any others available in the app store. When the app opens up it lists the different ways you can filter your music. Songs, Artists, Albums, and Playlists are displayed, with an option having to be picked before you are able to view your music.
At first, along the top there is a pointless multi-coloured banner, but over time this will start to be replaced by the artwork from recently played songs, quite a nice feature but only encourages you to play the same songs over and over again.
Using these filters to help narrow down the desired track is a great start, but to be more precise you can use the search bar which is found when you swipe downwards on the screen, the search will look at all elements in the track so you can search for the Artist, Track Name, or Album.
The playlist function will group the music by Favourites, Most Played, Recently Added and Recently Played. You also can create your own playlist and add your favourite songs to listen to whenever you desire.
Even when the phone is locked the ability to control your music is there, not only with the obvious volume control buttons on the side of the 503 but from the lock screen.
After you have woken the device you get the track information along with a few basic controls - rewind, play and forward.
As mentioned previously, the Asha 503 flatly refuses to work with headphones that have a built in microphone - even to play music. This is not a great feature of the device, and potential buyers should be aware.
Songs can be added the Asha 503 via the micro USB cable or Bluetooth. You'll need a computer to send the songs from as there isn't a store to purchase and download music from, although if an audio track is available to download online, you will be able to save the file on the SD card from the Internet app.
The built in video app on the Asha 503 is rather basic, but manages to do the job - at least if the video is a MP4 or 3GP file, as these are the only formats supported.
The Video app opens with an alphabetical list of all the available files, although you are able to filter by your favourites. Press and hold a video to add it to the favourites or look at the footage's details.
Operating the video app is very simple, tap the screen to start or stop, and use the timeline to scrub thought the footage to find the spot you are looking for. While watching a video, swipe up from the bottom to access the Add to Favourite feature or delete the file.
The overall experience of using the Asha 503 for video was generally a let down. It's really basic, fiddly to use and doesn't support enough file formats to get excited about anything in this department.
The small screen and low pixel density do not allow for great viewing, it is not enjoyable or comfortable. If you have a MP4 you really want to watch and the only device available is the Asha 503, I'd still wait until you could use a better screen.
Nokia has included an FM radio on the Asha 503. So many modern handsets do not include FM radios, but Nokia had this feature on its devices before smartphones were available and have decided to keep it despite the recent shift towards digital.
You'll need headphones, again without a built in microphone to activate the app. The headphones act as an ariel and are necessary for the app to function.
Once set up the basic functions of the app make it easy to use, the on/off button is in the middle of a dial which is used to scroll through the frequencies to find the desired station.
Alternatively, you can use the arrow button to flick though stations with a strong signal. Once a station is found, it can be added to the favourites list, which can be called up at any time from the star and lines icon at the bottom right of the screen.
The images captured or downloaded onto the Asha 503 are viewable via the Gallery app. The images are listed three in a row in a vertically scrolling grid, and organised in chronological order.
Along the bottom there are two tabs - one is the mode that the apps open into, and the other organises your recorded images and videos into four groups; Captured, Favourites, Modified and Received.
Each is group is self explanatory, and I found myself navigating to the modified album the most to find the photos I had made tweaks to.
When viewing an image you will get all the details of the photo along the top of the screen, and along the bottom you will find; Edit, Share, Delete and a dedicated Facebook button to instantly share your snaps.
The edit function allows you to rotate, flip, crop, add effects or change the lighting and contrast. Lighting and contrast will bring up two sliders at the bottom of the image to allow for adjustments.
There is not a lot of complex image processing going on in the 503, and the finished product is a bit hit and miss. It's a great little feature though, if you want to quickly lighten or darken an image.
The effects panel from the adjustments list has a few more effects to choose from compared to the Camera app. The Post Effects page has nine different settings, including blur, high contrast and vignette. The effects seem to look better when they are added after the photo has been taken.
The picture editing software is arguably better than the camera itself. The built in tools are comparable to the default ones built into many Android handsets, and should allow you enough options to do the basics.
If you would like to download an alternative app for your picture editing, you won't be able to unfortunately - as there are no alternatives available in the Nokia app store.
Example photo gallery
Battery life and apps
Battery life on the Asha 503 is pretty amazing. In the power consumption heavy world we live in, the quoted "35 days maximum standby time" appears to be nothing short of a miracle. The more realistic "4.5 hours maximum talk time (3G)" seems to be a better representation of the 503's battery life.
As a device predominately aimed at emerging markets where access to electricity could be limited, the time between full charges might not be a regular occurrence. The Nokia Asha 503 has hit the nail on the head, and touts the power consumption as one of the main features of the device.
After making and receiving 2.5 hours of calls with the device 50% of the battery remained, so that figure of 4.5 hours of talk time looks to be spot on. If used sparingly I can imagine that this device could last about seven days on one charge.
The battery is thin and light, but this has not helped keep the device slender. Measuring in at 12.7mm thick it is far from discreet when residing in your pocket; not enough to be a hindrance, but enough to notice that you are carrying it around. When compared to other devices in the same price range, the Nokia is a bit on the chunky side.
There is not a battery saving setting or app, nor is there an app management feature, as both are not really needed. Only one app can open up at a time on the Asha 503 and the device is always trying to use the least possible amount of energy.
The Asha 503 does not really support maps or navigation. The exclusion of any GPS chip seems to be another power saving tactic from Nokia, but the lack of this hardware really makes the 503 feel like it is from a different generation. I've come to expect a mapping feature as standard on smartphones.
There is an app in the store called Full Maps, but it does a rather pathetic job. My location was narrowed down to the whole of London, and any address/postcode searched for in the app returned a very small image of the location without any instruction as to how to navigate there.
Nokia has included an app called Nokia Nearby, which does an average job of locating restaurants, entertainment and transport links near your vicinity. But again without instructions for how to find your way to the desired location the feature seems flawed and mostly pointless.
Once a topic has been chosen - e.g., Eat and Drink - the app will not allow you to navigate back to the topics list, leaving you the only option of quitting the app and reopening it to try a different search.
Basic features such as alarms, clock, calculator and calendar are among the pre-installed apps. Also included is a file browser, which is really useful especially if you utilise the maximum 32GB of external storage the Asha 503 is capable of handling.
However, there are no other useful apps apart from Recorder, a voice memo app that enables you to quickly record important information. Even though this is useful, it is not likely to be regularly used so a trip to the app store is required.
Upon arriving at the store you may be disappointed with the options available. Major apps found on other platforms such as Dropbox, PayPal, BBC News or Skype are nowhere to be seen.
You may be able to find an alternative for the app you are looking for, but nine times out of ten you will have to give up your search.
There are, however, loads of games - and the list includes big names like Assassins Creed, Plants vs Zombies and The Sims 3. Don't expect them to be the full editions though. The app only features 2D games because of the lack of internal processing power.
And there's a rather unpleasant pricing structure at work too. Games like FIFA 13 offer you the chance to experience the game without any charge for three minutes, or use once for £1, rent for the day for £2 or buy for £5. Considering the app is free on other platforms with in-app purchases to unlock new features, a cut down version of the game for £5 is extremely pricey.
The Asha 503 makes does not allow for easy organisation of your apps. You can hold down on an icon until the apps start to wiggle, then drag and drop the app wherever you please. You won't be able to tidy things up by grouping together apps and creating folders though, so you'll find yourself scrolling up and down the list to find the app you are looking for.
Hands on gallery
The Nokia Asha 503 finds itself in the low end price range, and the performance it delivers correlates with that. With a 3-inch display in a small but chunky frame the Asha 503 will not likely win any awards for its design.
The 5MP camera is of a higher spec than other competition in its price range, although it definitely looks better on paper compared to the reality of shooting with it. Compared to other competitors devices like the Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 or the Huawei Ascend Y300 the images from the Nokia tend to be much lower quality.
The Nokia Asha 503 will run for several days without needing to be charged. A great feature if you need to be away from a power outlet for long periods of time.
Despite its poor quality, the camera is one of the plus points on the Asha 503. There are a lot of great editing effects, but these may be wasted if the photo you are applying them to is out of focus or not properly exposed.
The phone is certainly easy to use. It's one of those devices that you can pick up and know exactly how to operate it without any instructions. It's so simple that old or young, experienced or inexperienced, users should be able to navigate around stress free.
There are lots of bundled messaging apps on the Asha 503, so you should be able to communicate with everyone you need to for free - if you have a Wi-Fi connection - otherwise you may be shocked when your next phone bill gets delivered.
The tiny screen with its low pixel density leaves a lot to be desired, pixelating the interface and providing poor viewing angles. Watching video on the Asha 503 is difficult, as the controls are basic and you find you have to squint at the screen.
Without GPS you will find the 503 absolutely useless for searching locally, navigation or directions. Although what the device lacks in GPS it makes up for in battery life.
The store you're expected to download apps from is also very limited. There are not very many apps, even from the established big companies, and there are not always alternatives for what's missing.
Nokia has managed to design and produce a solid device for under £100, and for the price it's hard to complain about the problems. The bulky frame can be taken one of two ways. Either you think it feels rugged and durable, or chunky and a waste of space.
The Asha 503 certainly feels well built and sturdy, although the cheap plastic rear case does not do itself any favours in terms of premium quality.
The rear of the device is replaceable, which is a plus although the case is so thick that it is unlikely to ever break anyway. The option to customise the 503 with your own favourite colour should appeal to style conscious users.
The 503 is lacking in up to date technology, there's no NFC or 4G, but this should not be a surprise from a device that does not even support GPS. For the price and the market it's aimed at though the Asha 503 is a reasonable compromise, but I'd recommend spending a little extra cash on a Moto G or Lumia 520.
First reviewed: January 2014