IntroductionNokia's Asha range represents perhaps the last stand of traditional feature phones against the seemingly endless onslaught of low-cost Android smartphones. The Asha 309 is the successor to the Nokia Asha 306 that we reviewed in the middle of last year. Outwardly it looks very similar, although it comes with double the RAM of the original to help speed it up its Series 40 operating system a bit, and also sports a much more responsive capacitive touchscreen. You can buy it SIM free for around £100, but is it worth it or would potential buyers be better off just going down the budget Android route instead?
The Asha 309 is much dinkier than most other touchscreen phones on the market. It measures just 52mm wide, and the battery cover on the rear is nicely rounded so even if you've got smaller hands, it's going to feel very comfortable to hold. However, there are big gaps between the screen and the top and bottom edges of the phone, so it's not much shorter than a lot of budget Android phones that have roomier 3.5inch screens.
Nokia Asha 309 - Design
The bezel around the display has a traditional glossy black finish, but Nokia has used a dark chrome effect on the end-plates at the top and bottom of the phone. The Asha 309 does feel quite solid, but it also looks a bit plastiky and its design, although not unappealing, isn't going to turn heads either.
The two call control buttons beneath the screen look like touch buttons, but actually turn out to be old fashioned push buttons that are just covered with a flexible membrane. Apart form these two buttons, the only other controls are the volume rocker switch and the lock button, both of which are located on the right-hand side. The lock button is positioned towards the bottom of the _phone_ too, making it awkward to get at when you're holding the handset in the normal way. At the top there's a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and next to this is the microUSB port. Hidden behind a flap on the left-hand side you'll find the microSD card slot, which is very welcome given the phone's paltry amount of internal storage space.
Nokia Asha 309 - ScreenThe older Nokia Asha 306 used a resistive touchscreen display which wasn't very responsive. Thankfully Nokia has made the wise decision to update the display for the Asha 309 by using a capacitive display that's much zippier at responding to finger presses, helping to make the whole experience of using the _phone_ a bit more immediate and less frustrating.
However, the display is still a weakness. The problem is not only that – at 3-inches – it's small, but also that it has a very low resolution of just 240x400 pixels, whereas most of today's budget Android phones have larger 3.2 or 3.5 inch screens with higher resolutions. As a result, web browsing on the Asha 309 just isn’t all that much fun; viewing webpages feels a bit like trying to scan a room by peering through a keyhole.
Viewing angles aren’t particularly wide either, so colours wash out when you tilt the phone up or down by too extreme an angle, although they're not as bad as on some other budget handsets we’ve used. The display is reasonably bright too, and remains pretty readable outdoors under direct sunlight.
Nokia Asha 309 - Interface and UsabilityThe Nokia Asha 309 is built around Nokia's aging Series 40 operating system. This falls kind of half way between a feature phone OS and a full-blown smartphone OS. Nokia has gradually added features and extra functionality to Series 40 over the years and the result is that much of it now looks a bit like an 'Android-lite' OS.
The simple lock screen displays the time and date as well as the network you're connected to and the battery level. You can swipe this left or right to unlock the phone and get to your homescreens, of which there are three. The central one is essentially an app drawer and shows a scrollable 3x4 grid of icons for your various apps, features and settings. From here you can scroll right to get at the phone's dialler or scroll left to access your shortcuts. You can also replace the dialler screen with the music player or radio app if you want.
There's a pull-down notifications tab at the top with quick switches for turning settings such as mobile data, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on or off. You can also access the dialler, music player and SMS app directly from here.
The menus feel pretty responsive and the scrolling in the apps menu is fast and reasonably smooth. Navigating your way around the rest of the menu system is also pretty intuitive, as you open an app or menu just by tapping on it and exit from it by either hitting the on-screen back button or tapping the phone's call hang-up key.
That said, the OS also feels very basic as it lacks stuff like live tiles or widgets and it doesn't support multitasking for apps. Useful features such as cut and paste are also noticeably absent.
Nokia Asha 309 - Calling Browser
The Asha 309's dialler and contacts book might not be as complicated as what you get on some smartphones, but they're still reasonably feature rich and, crucially, easy to use. You can save pictures alongside contacts to make it easier to quickly locate the people you want to call in the contacts book. The contacts book also lets you SMS or email people directly from their contacts card and you can even forward contacts cards via SMS or Bluetooth.
The phone gets a qualified thumbs up from us in terms of call quality. It generally retains a strong signal in places where we've seen some of the cheaper Android smartphones struggle, and while the ear piece isn’t exactly ear splittingly loud, it's got enough volume on tap to allow you to pretty comfortably carry on a call when there's a lot of noise around you, such as on a busy street. The mic is only so-so though, as on a few occasions callers reported that it sounded a little bit muffled.
Nokia Asha 309 - BrowserThe browser is the phone's major weakness. It's seems to be a proxy browser, using an intermediate server to format and compress the pages in order to speed up browsing over the slower 2.5G connection. However, this leaves you with only two levels of zoom – fully zoomed out where you can't read any text on a page, but can view the layout, and fully zoomed in, where you can read the text, but often haven't much of a clue where you are on the page. The browser also feels very quite sluggish at times, and overall it delivers a pretty poor browsing experience compared to what you get on even the mediocre budget Android devices.
Nokia Asha 309 - CameraWith its lowly 2-megapixel sensor the Asha 309's built-in camera is like a throw back to a different era. It's not much of a surprise then to find that it also lacks basic shooting features such as an LED flash and autofocus.
That said, the camera app is actually pretty good, with plenty of settings that you can tweak. For example, you can adjust it for different lighting conditions, including daylight, and standard and fluorescent light bulbs. It also lets you overlay a grid on the viewfinder to help you frame shots, and there are some simple filters you can apply for sepia, negative, and greyscale effects.
None of this hides the fact that the camera produces very weak photos though. Colours are either washed out or over-saturated, focus isn’t all that sharp and detail levels are pretty woeful. The camera has a video mode too, but again this produces poor results. The highest resolution you can shoot at is an embarrassingly low 176 x 144 pixels at just 13 frames per second.
Nokia Asha 309 - Apps and MultimediaThe Asha 309 only offers 128MB of built-in memory for storing your own files with, although that's actually double what was available on the older Asha 306. Thankfully though, there's the option to expand memory via microSD card, and Nokia even bundles a 2GB microSD card with the phone to get you started. Should you require more then the handset can accept cards of up to 32GB in size, potentially giving you plenty of room for storing music and video files.
The video player isn’t too bad as it'll play standard definition MP4 files as well as those in 3GP mobile format. The phone's music player also does a decent job of handling your library of tunes. It shows album art while tracks are playing, you can create playlists on the go, and it includes repeat and shuffle play modes as well as a number of equaliser presets. The plasticky headphones that come with the handset are rubbish and lack bass though. Hook up a decent set and you'll find the sound quality isn’t bad, with a reasonably clean and hiss free output.
You get 40 EA downloadable games as part of the deal with this phone, but the games are all old-style Java titles, so they're not a patch on what you can download on Android handsets from the Play store for free, for example. Nokia has also preloaded a number of apps including one for Facebook. However, it can be torturously slow to load and seemed a bit buggy when we used it. Overall, on the multimedia and apps front, this handset just can’t compete with Android competition like the ZTE Blade III.
Nokia Asha 309 - ConnectivityThe Asha 309 comes with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 connectivity built in. The latter supports higher transfer speeds than the old Bluetooth 2.1 standard, although this isn’t actually a huge benefits on a handset like this. It's more likely to have been included here simply because it simply part of the Wi-Fi chip implementation (Bluetooth V3.0 switches to the Wi-Fi radio for high speed transfers).
Sadly GPS is not provided, so the onboard maps app can only uses cell tower triangulation to roughly work out your location, and this isn’t always terribly accurate.
The biggest problem with the phone, though, is that it doesn't support 3G. Granted, the Asha 309 isn’t exactly great for browsing anyway due to its poor web browser and low-res display, however the lack of 3G support means that when you're out of range of a Wi-Fi connection social media apps, such as Facebook are tortuously slow to use. Given that the Asha is primarily aimed at younger folk this issue is pretty much a deal breaker.
Nokia Asha 309 - Battery LifeThe phone's lack of 3G, slower processor and small screen does at least mean that it has much better battery life than most smartphones. Nokia quotes a talk time of 17 hours and a standby time of 1008 hours. In real-world use, we found the Asha 309's battery life to be very impressive. It will happily keep chugging away for around two and a half days with reasonably heavy usage before gasping for a re-juice. The phone has an old-style Nokia micro port as well as a microUSB port and both of these can be used for charging, although the charger that Nokia includes is a standard microUSB mode.
VerdictThe Nokia Asha 309 finds itself between a rock and hard place; on the one hand it's not cheap enough to tempt non-technical users away from traditional candy-bar phones, and on the other, it's not powerful enough to punch it out with heavy-weight, low-cost Android phones. Unless you really, really need a touchscreen phone with long battery life, there's pretty much no reason to choose the Asha 309 over a budget Android phone such as the stunning ZTE Blade III.
The colours are very wayward in this shot and details are smudged.
Colours are more accurate here, but parts of the image are over exposed.
There's no LED, so indoor shots in low light look very noisy.