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Nokia Asha 501 hands-on: A compact phone that packs a punch at a tidy price

The Independent was the only UK press at Nokia’s New Delhi launch on Thursday. David Phelan goes hands-on

The first thing you notice when you pick up the Asha 501 is how good it feels.

Solid, substantial and with a highly tactile, slightly rubbery case. This case, easily popped off thanks to a button in the centre of the back of the phone, is one piece of material and comes in the familiar cyan and yellow colours Lumia phones sport, plus black and white. But now there are more colours – red and green – which are shockingly bright. You need to see them to believe how bright they are.

Next, spot the clock on the display when the phone’s in standby. It’s visible all the time, not just when you’ve touched the phone. At last, a phone that tells you the time when you glance at it.

And please note, this doesn’t damage battery life which is extraordinary. Nokia promises 17 hours talktime or 48 days (that’s right, not hours, days) standby time. You could leave your phone on for a month while you went on a cruise and still come back to find plenty of juice. This may not matter too much in the UK but in emerging markets where routine electricity supply is not guaranteed, this is a big deal.

You wake the screen with a double-tap – there’s no home button here – though you can press the power button instead. The screen is not high-resolution (at 131ppi it’s lower pixel density than the iPhone 3GS) but it doesn’t look bad.

This is not a big screen either – just 3ins – but it makes for a compact phone. Still, the advantage of creating an operating system from the ground up is that you can utilise the screen well. Menus sit offscreen waiting for you to swipe the display so they appear. It feels intuitive and intimate.

There’s a physical Back button at the bottom of the display, to take you step by step back through your previous actions. Want to get back to the app grid on the home screen? Just swipe. Another swipe takes you to what Nokia calls the Fast Lane, a clever record of everything you’ve done from tracks you’ve been playing to received texts. But this is a clever list: the recent track has a play button right there in the list so you can hear the track without having to launch the music player app.

Incidentally, that button on the back to remove the case has a slight gap around it which also functions as the phone’s speaker. Okay, but definitely not hi-fi standard.

The Fast Lane also has your calendar appointments, stored at the top of the display, a bit like BlackBerry’s fancy new OS. And it shows you what web pages you’ve been looking at recently.

This is a phone designed to keep you on top of data usage, something especially important in emerging markets. Launch the browser and a box in the corner tells you how many kb you’re downloading. Swipe the screen and a menu shows your latest data total.

It’s a highly enjoyable new OS that has a lot of potential, with details and features that are rich and well-considered.

Of course, there are not many apps, though, hey, it comes with 40 free EA games including Plants Vs Zombies. Not bad when the phone costs less than $100 or equivalent. Expect it to go on sale in the UK in June or soon after.

This is not an iPhone replacement and the corners that have been cut (no 4G, no 3G even, a lowly 3MP camera, no GPS) are many. But the OS is fluid and the phone is very fast and responsive. It’s an exciting first step in a new, basic phone series that packs a lot into a small package and low price.