It’s official: the Nokia X Android phone is here. Microsoft might be buying Nokia’s phone business shortly, but the Finnish smartphone maker is still pushing ahead with the launch of three Android-powered handsets today. The Verge first revealed details about Nokia’s plans in December, and the company is now ready to talk specifics about the X, the X+, and the XL. As expected, all three combine Lumia-style design with low-cost hardware aimed at the masses, from a large 5-inch screen on the 109-Euro XL to the 4-inch display on the 99-Euro X+. The X will be released for just €89 in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, and a few other global locations, but it won’t be making its way to North America, Japan, Korea, or Western European countries. These aren’t competitors to Samsung’s Galaxy S4 or Apple’s iPhone 5S, and there are certainly no surprising hardware additions like a 41-megapixel camera or a giant 6-inch display. Instead, the standout feature of the Nokia X lineup is the software that powers it: Android.
Nokia may have pledged allegiance to Microsoft’s Windows Phone software, but that hasn’t stopped the company from experimenting with Android. The X introduces a new “forked” version of Android that’s akin to what Amazon does with its Kindle Fire line. Nokia is effectively taking the open-source elements of Android and then bolting on its own services, a Windows Phone-like UI, and yet another Android app store. The downside to this is that the Nokia X devices won’t have access to Google’s Play store or Google-specific apps like Gmail, Chrome, Maps, and others. However, Android apps will run on the devices with only limited changes required by developers. Nokia is creating its own store where it will curate “hundreds of thousands” of apps. Third-party stores will also be integrated into the Nokia Store, providing other sources for Android apps. The Nokia X will also support sideloading, just as Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets do.
If you put the Nokia X side-by-side with the company’s Lumia 520 handset it might be hard to tell them apart. The same striking colors and design are available on both, and they each use the same 4-inch display. Nokia isn’t going for the high-end with the X at all, and the company has clearly trimmed its hardware specifications as much as possible to ensure the phone is low-cost but still usable. There are just 4GB of storage with 512MB of RAM, but microSD cards will be supported to help boost the tiny amount of storage available. The Nokia X+, identical in appearance to the X, also boosts both the storage and memory. Apart from the internal storage and dual-SIM support, the Nokia X only really differs from the Lumia 520 on the outside, with a lack of Windows Phone’s three capacitive buttons and a slight camera change.
Nokia’s XL takes a slightly different approach, with a 5-inch display and a combination of a 5-megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel front-facing one. Nokia is positioning the XL as “great for Skype, while the X and X+ both ship with just a 3-megapixel fixed focus camera. All three have just a single capacitive button for navigation. You hit the button once to go back and hold it down to return to the home screen. Software customizations on the home screen and across the OS are where the X line gets interesting, or, perhaps, confusing. Nokia has created a Windows Phone-like tiled home screen that looks like a blatant rip of Microsoft’s own UI. All installed apps will be displayed here instead of a separate app drawer, and you can even alter the tile sizes to be medium or large. They’re not as live as Windows Phone’s versions or Android widgets, but apps like the calendar will display the date as you’d expect. You can also display widgets from installed apps on the home screen.
Swiping across reveals the Fastlane feature, an option that makes its way over from Nokia’s line of Asha handsets. Fastlane is a mixture of notifications and recent activity combined into a stream. Favorite contacts, recent pictures, and any app notifications will all be listed in a single UI, with options to pull down and peer into future calendar appointments.
Using the X software can be quite frustrating, however, as the entire interface is prone to slow response and a lot of lag. Closing or switching between apps on the X takes far longer than other, even entry-level, smartphones, and browsing the web will quickly test your patience. The third-party apps we saw on the X, such as Facebook, looked as they do on other Android smartphones, but they too suffered from poor performance. Nokia’s choice to combine the functions of home and back into the single back button is confusing, and it’s difficult to predict exactly where in the interface the button will take you when you press it.
Part of the reason for the laggy interface and apps could be related to the low specifications of the X family, but it’s more likely related to the Android version in use on these devices. Windows Phone runs well on the almost identical Lumia 520 hardware, but Nokia has opted for Android 4.1.2 on the X series. This particular Jelly Bean version of Android was released back in October 2012 and doesn’t include the more recent Android 4.4 changes that are optimized for lower-end, low-memory devices. KitKat uses 16 percent less memory than Jelly Bean, so things like task switching and app resuming would likely be improved if Nokia had opted to fork the latest Android version. The use of such an old version of Android indicates just how long Nokia has been working on the X, though.
The real question around the X family is simple: why? Nokia says its X Android phone is just the first of many, a whole line of X phones that are designed to combine the flexibility of Android apps and services from Microsoft and Nokia. Additional members of the X line are supposed to be coming this year, assuming Microsoft doesn’t kill the project once the company fully acquires Nokia in the coming weeks. Some of the answers for why such devices are coming to market at this stage are clearly present in the apps that Nokia is bundling with the X. MixRadio, Here Maps, OneDrive, Outlook, and Skype will all be preinstalled, and Bing is the default search engine on the X. While it might seem obvious that Microsoft wouldn’t want its closest mobile partner to go Android, Nokia appears to be positioning the X as a method to draw people to Microsoft’s cloud services. The bundling of key apps instead of the usual Google equivalents is a clear method to push the masses towards Microsoft’s ecosystem.
Nokia’s announcement comes less than a day after Microsoft unveiled hardware improvements for its upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update that are specifically designed for low-cost devices like the X. Microsoft is chasing after Android and it will soon have its own flavor to either push ahead with or kill. The Nokia X just feels like an experimental project created by a team of determined engineers who wanted to see this phone on shelves. It has all the hallmarks of Nokia’s approach with the N9: a phone that felt like it was released merely because of the amount of effort that went into developing it. It’s going to face the same problems Amazon experiences with out-of-date Android apps in its own store, and the delay between new apps arriving and filtering down to these non-Google stores. For Microsoft, who will acquire Nokia’s phone business in a matter of weeks, the use of Android is questionable.
At a press event yesterday, Joe Belfiore — who runs a team focused on PCs, phones, and tablets at Microsoft — said the software maker has a “terrific” relationship with Nokia when questioned about the X announcement. “What they do as a company is what they do,” said Belfiore. “Certainly they’ll do some things that we’re excited about, and some things that we may be less excited about.” Microsoft’s reaction in the coming weeks and months will reveal exactly how excited the company is about Nokia’s X project, but until then these Android phones are still a puzzling result of what Nokia has always done best: experiment.