In February last year, Nokia dropped a bombshell on the mobile world: its new CEO, Stephen Elop, stood on stage in London with Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer to announce that it would begin to make Windows Phone devices. That was a remarkable about-turn for Nokia, but it also spelt the end for Symbian, the operating system it had used on its smartphones for years. Or rather, the beginning of the end: Nokia may have already outsourced Symbian updates and operation, but it’s still pumping out Symbian handsets for a little while longer. The Nokia 500 is one of the last phones the company had on the drawing board before the Microsoft agreement was announced. With a 3.2-inch touchscreen and 1GHz processor, it’s meant to be the cheap smartphone that does more than users expect but it’s up against tough rivals, not to mention its very own Lumia 710, featuring Windows Phone 7.5.
This is a phone from a time before Nokia started to get its act together. While the Lumia 800 and 710 are class acts, the Nokia 500 design harks back to a several smartphone oddities, the ‘plastic paperweight’ Nokia 5800 XpressMusic and the oddly arced Nokia X6. At just 53.8mm wide, it’s remarkably narrow, but the Nokia 500 loses all claim to allure with its bulky 14.1mm profile. By comparison, many new top end smartphones are less than 9mm thick. It looks cheap too, with a thin strip below the screen providing the call, reject and menu buttons, but it is at least reassuringly solid, with everything else aligned sensibly along the top including the charging port, micro USB port and headphone jack. You won’t find much around the back – just an average 5MP camera without a flash. The plastic back panel is smudgy, but can be replaced: you get three different colours in the box: blue, black and red, in line with the Nokia Lumia 710 case options.
Adding to the budget feeling is the rather disappointing display. It’s reasonably sharp at 360 x 640, and does support pinch to zoom multi-touch gestures in maps and the browser, but it’s deeply recessed which feels odd in use. What’s strange is that despite the bulk of the Nokia 500, the battery inside is so small: just 1110mAh. Symbian is relatively power sipping, and you can still get two days of use on a charge, but it does feel like a throwback to the bad old days of inexplicable Nokia design decisions.
There’s a good reason Stephen Elop was keen to switch to Windows Phone so quickly: there’s no saving Symbian, a relic of an OS from a time before Apple showed everyone how user friendly mobiles could be with the iPhone. It’s ugly. It’s slow, even with a 1GHz CPU powering it. There are more pop-up boxes than on a spam website. It’s needlessly complicated. What’s perhaps most unforgivable, however, is the awful keyboard. For years, Nokia insisted on using a virtual 0-9 numberpad for texting on its touchscreen phones. On the Nokia 500, you get a full QWERTY at last, but it’s so thin, so narrow, it’s extremely hard to use.
The one positive Nokia invention embedded on the Nokia 500 is Nokia Maps. It can drop a pin in your location using GPS, but it can also deliver voice turn by turn navigation directions worldwide, essentially acting as a free satnav. For drivers, it’s a wonderful extra, although Android phones can now do the same thing for free too. Can anything fix the Nokia 500? The good news is that an update is rolling out very soon. Called ‘Belle’, it’s a hefty update that enhances navigation, introducing much needed features such as a speedier homescreen and a pull-down notification menu. Timing is dependent on location and network however, and at the time of writing it had not been made available for our review unit. Ultimately, that leaves us begging the question: if you can get all this in a chunky, slow, £150 Nokia phone, or a zippy, thin Android phone for half the price, why would you consider the Nokia 500?
Even if low price Android alternatives and Nokia’s Windows Phone debutantes didn’t exist, the Nokia 500 would still be a poor buy. With a tiny screen and old fashioned OS, the Nokia 500 fails from the very start.