Back in September, Nokia and Microsoft announced that they had agreed terms for the latter to purchase the former’s devices business, in a deal worth $7.2bn. It didn’t take long for the rumour mill to kick into action, with whispers that Nokia had been secretly developing an Android handset, and widespread speculation that this had effectively forced Microsoft to buy its Finnish hardware partner to protect its Windows Phone strategy.
Some suggested that this Android handset was simply created as a ‘side project’ of sorts, a technical exploration by Nokia employees destined to go no further than the company’s own development labs. But in the days, weeks and months that followed those early rumours, it has become clear that the device is much more than that.
Known by its development codename, ‘Normandy’ (as well as ‘Project N’ and ‘MView’ – a reference to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California), and predicted to be released as the ‘Nokia X’, the handset has been extensively detailed in a series of leaks. Here, we take a look at what has been revealed about Nokia’s first – and last – Android phone.
Design + display
Our first clear look at Normandy came at the end of November, when the ever-reliable and well-connected @evleaks revealed the first image of the device. Its styling was immediately familiar to anyone who has seen a Nokia Lumia handset, or one of the company’s Asha 500-series devices.
A real Asha. Or Lumia? The Nokia Normandy. pic.twitter.com/Q4jpPNte1l— @evleaks (@evleaks) November 25, 2013
The design appears reminiscent of the Lumia 625, albeit somewhat thicker, but the sole hardware button on the front of the device – a back button – is more Asha than Windows Phone.
The range of colours, too, revealed in a further image made available by @evleaks, is identical to the Asha 500-series; in addition to white and black variants, bright yellow, cyan, red and green models have been seen in leaked renders. Given the absence of external SIM slots, it seems likely that the entire rear cover can be removed from the device, allowing users to replace their covers with alternative colours.
As with the Asha 50x, the handset includes power and volume hardware buttons along the right edge, but without the familiar camera button found on Lumia devices.
The similarities to Asha are no accident. Nokia’s venture into Android territory was not conceived as a replacement for its Windows Phones, but rather as a means to replace the low-end Asha range with a more modern and capable OS. Asha handsets run an eponymous OS which Nokia describes as “a direct descendant” of the company’s ageing Series 40 platform.
Normandy would be the largest addition to Nokia’s low-end line-up, with a 4-inch display – a good deal bigger than the 3-inch screens offered on the Asha 50x. But in keeping with the budget-minded focus of the device, you won’t find 1080p resolution here – just a much more modest resolution of 800x480px.
OS + interface
Despite all of the talk of the Nokia X running Android, don’t expect to see a stock Android experience out of the box. Back in December, The Verge was the first to reveal Nokia’s plan to deliver a ‘forked’ variant of Android, eschewing the suite of Google Mobile Services, which includes the likes of Gmail, Google Maps and access to the Google Play store.
Our first glimpse of the OS came in early January - courtesy of @evleaks of course - with a trio of screenshots that showed a lockscreen with a vague hint of Windows Phone about it, along with broader design themes that are much closer to the Asha OS than WP. The universal status tray – the black bar across the top of the screen – is pure Asha in its design, right down to the dual-SIM status indicators at the top-left.
Unlike Nokia’s Lumia range, which uses the standard Segoe WP font family found in Windows Phone, Normandy’s UI employs the company’s own Nokia Pure typeface.
@evleaks did it again a week later with another leak that showed off Normandy’s homescreen for the first time, which immediately drew comparisons with Windows Phone thanks to the presence of large colourful tiles, rather than Asha’s grid of ‘squircle’ icons.
While these tiles evidently include basic counter capabilities, they do not appear to offer the same flexibility as Windows Phone’s Live Tiles, which can display a much broader range of information.
Check out the generic ‘Store’ icon too, rather than a link to the Google Play store. Just as Amazon did with its Kindle Fire tablets, Nokia’s forking of the OS allows the device to run Android apps, but those apps must be downloaded either from the company's own Nokia Store, or via third party stores. Android apps such as Opera and BBM have been seen in leaked screenshots from the Nokia X.
Leaked screens, such as the one in the image above, also show what appears to be a notification centre, including a log of most recently-run apps. Quick-actions are also available to deal with notifications, such as responding to a meeting invitation or returning a missed call.
Microsoft and Nokia services appear to be pre-loaded with the OS, including apps such as MixRadio, Here Maps and Skype. Pre-loaded apps appear to be those shown with brightly coloured tiles on the homescreen, whereas third-party apps seem to be represented with standard icons on a generic grey background.
It was none other than @evleaks who revealed the full list of key specs for Normandy a couple of days ago, and given his impeccable track record, we have no reason to doubt his information.
The spec sheet reflects the budget-friendly focus of this device, so if you were expecting a mighty, kick-ass flagship, you've clearly not been paying attention.
The handset will feature a dual-core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor with a modest 512MB of RAM. A 1500mAh battery is included, offering slightly more capacity than the one included with the Lumia 520.
Like the 520, there’s no fancy PureView imaging hardware onboard; Normandy has a basic 5MP camera, but no flash, and none of the renders leaked so far appear to show a front-facing camera either. The Android device also has to make do with half of the storage found in the 520, with just 4GB (much of which will likely be eaten up by the OS and pre-installed apps), but a microSD slot will allow users to expand this relatively cheaply.
Affordability is the primary focus here – Normandy is intended to slot in below Nokia’s more ‘premium’ Windows Phone range, and will primarily (or perhaps exclusively) target markets where low incomes are the norm. The inclusion of dual-SIM support is a critical feature for these markets, where it is common for a single handset to be shared by families.
Price and availability
Despite the extraordinary number of leaks in recent weeks, there still remain many unanswered questions about the Nokia X, and the most significant of these relate to price and availability.
Many expect the device to be unveiled at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in a few weeks’ time, but there is still much uncertainty about whether it will ever go on sale at all.
Given that Nokia can profitably sell its cheapest Windows Phone, the Lumia 520, for around $100 (ignoring the short-term $40/$50 promotional pricing that has occasionally been seen), Normandy will surely need to be considerably cheaper than this to justify its existence. After all, there is surely little point in committing substantial resources to launching an ‘affordable’ handset that will only undercut the existing Windows Phone range by a few dollars.
The specs of the device reflect its low-end focus – and remember too that the whole raison d’être of this handset is ostensibly to establish a more modern platform for the company’s cheapest Asha devices. Our best guess is that, if the handset is released, Nokia will price it aggressively to compete alongside Firefox OS devices, below $100. Priced any higher than this, it would surely overlap with the more established and better specified Lumia 52x, giving buyers little reason to choose an unproven device with an immature OS.
Market analysts IDC stated recently that the most significant driving factors behind the massive growth in the smartphone market – which saw global shipments exceed a billion in one year for the first time ever in 2013 – are increased demand for larger screens and lower-cost devices. With the X, Nokia could well position itself to satisfy demand on both fronts.
But will Microsoft allow Nokia to actually launch the device? Some, like The Verge’s Tom Warren, say they can’t imagine that Microsoft would want to let Nokia do so. Others, including distinguished and highly knowledgeable journalists like Mary Jo Foley, think that it might. To the believers, the fact that the underlying OS is Android is almost irrelevant – just as with Amazon’s Kindle fork of the OS, Normandy users would see an OS with a focus on Nokia branding and Microsoft services, with the whole Android aspect effectively taking a back seat.
The only thing that seems certain, though, is that - if the X does ever see the light of day - it won’t just be Nokia’s first Android phone; it will also be its last, and perhaps the last device the Finnish giant ever launches, before it hands off to Microsoft.
For a company that has never been afraid of doing things a bit differently, it would be one hell of a way to bow out.