Software, Camera

The Nokia X is running a forked AOSP version of Android 4.1, complete with a custom Nokia skin and enhancements that make this device very different to use than regular Android handsets.

The homescreen layout is very reminiscent of Windows Phone. Nokia has removed standard widgets and the app drawer in favor of a single homescreen which has all of your apps inside square tiles. Like with Windows Phone you can resize these tiles, and there’s also the ability to change the color of the tiles. You can also add in a selection of custom square widgets which act in a similar way to tiles, like a gallery widget or a clock.

One of Nokia’s marquee features for the X is Fastlane, a feature which can be accessed by swiping left-to-right on the homescreen. Fastlane is a combination of the Android notification pane and the recent apps window, showing everything in a chronological stream. It’s an interesting take on both aspects of Android that can be useful, and is probably my favorite aspect of the Nokia X software stack.

Replacing the notification pane when you swipe down from the top of the display is a selection of quick toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, sound and mobile data. If you’ve used Android before, it can take a while to adjust from accessing notifications in this pull down menu to using the Fastlane, but I do like what Nokia has done.

My only gripe with the Fastlane would be that you can’t access notifications from inside apps any more, instead you have to head back to the homescreen and then swipe to access the Fastlane. That said, notifications are displayed on the lockscreen, which makes it easy to see what’s been going on from the moment you turn the display on.

The whole point of Nokia forking Android is to remove Google Mobile Services (GMS) and replace it with Microsoft’s counterparts. There’s no Google Maps on the handset, instead there’s Here Maps. No Gmail, instead there’s a standard email setup. No Google Play Store, replaced by Nokia Apps. And most strangely, no option to sync Google contacts and calendars.

Google and Microsoft haven’t been the best of friends on the mobile front, but on Android and Windows Phone, it’s possible to sync Microsoft and Google accounts respectively. On the Nokia X though, it’s the Microsoft way or nothing. So for someone like me, who uses Google for contact and calendar syncing, not having this feature in a smartphone is a deal-breaker.

Nokia Apps, the store for installing other applications, is another disappointing aspect of the Nokia X. While the store does have many basic apps, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Skype and several others, it lacks the full selection of apps compatible with Android, which you’d get if the Nokia X had the Google Play Store (and GMS).

It seems like Nokia even admits that the selection of apps is poor, because right on the home screen of Nokia Apps is section called “Other App Stores”, which allows you to download other stores like SlideME and 1mobile. Obviously these stores have a much greater selection, but it still doesn’t match the Play Store, and several apps in the store are incompatible with the Nokia X because they require critical GMS components.

The standard applications found on the Nokia X, like People, Messaging, Internet, Music and Gallery, aren’t anything to get excited about, but they get the job done. In most respects the apps are simple re-skins of the AOSP, and contain feature sets you’d expect for an entry-level smartphone.

Finally, the Nokia X’s keyboard is perfectly acceptable, and comes with a Swype-like feature for ease of use. Occasionally the keyboard can be laggy to use in a standard typing fashion, although this can be put down to the X’s atrocious performance rather than an issue with the implementation of the keyboard itself.

Camera

Another area of the Nokia X that’s hugely disappointing is the camera. Nokia chose to use what could possibly be the worst smartphone camera I’ve used in years, even on low-end devices, that in many conditions is too horrible to use.

The camera sensor is a very mediocre 3.15-megapixel Samsung S5K5CA 1/5” CMOS with 1.4µm pixels, paired with an f/2.8 lens, and without autofocus or an LED flash. That’s right, this handset’s camera doesn’t have autofocus! A critical camera feature that has been included in practically every smartphone, high-end or low-end, since the dawn of Android in 2007. Insanity!

The fixed focus camera lens means that if you’re attempting to photograph a subject closer than half a meter or so, it’ll be out of focus. You can forget photographing food, or anything macro, because the lack of autofocus is too restrictive.

The 1/5” CMOS sensor is quite terrible in terms of the quality it delivers. Taking a look at full resolution images reveals a high level of artefacts and post-processing quality reduction, which causes a loss of detail in the edges of objects. Downscaling the images to 1080p still shows these artefacts, making it hard to get a good looking image from the Nokia X, even in the best of conditions.

Even if the sensor had a greater level of detail, white balance and color saturation would let it down. Images taken with the Nokia X look bland and uninteresting, despite the scene captured often being bright and sunny.

In poor conditions, the Nokia X really struggles. The f/2.8 lens combined with a poor sensor, despite the 1.4 micron pixels, makes shooting in low light conditions a complete pain. Images taken indoors are often blurry, very grainy and – in the poorest of conditions – so dark you can’t actually see what’s going on.

All of these issues are compounded by a camera preview that is displayed at under 20 frames per second. In strong lighting you get a reasonably responsive preview, but moving indoors or into a poorly lit area and the camera preview becomes a blurry mess. How you’re supposed to see what you’re taking a photo of is beyond me.

Capping it all off is 480p video recording at 30 frames per second. Quality from these videos is just as good as you’d expect from the stills: mediocre at best.