Nokia XL Hands-On: Get Forked

So Nokia has an Android phone. No, no, calm down. It isn’t all that. At all. We’ve been hands on with the Nokia XL, and we were left scratching our heads as to why it exists.

The Nokia XL is the grown-up of the Nokia X Android family. It has a 1GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, 3G capabilities, a 5-inch WVGA (800×400) screen, dual SIM slots and a hybrid version of Android and Windows Phone, complete with the Nokia Fast Lane UI originally found on Nokia’s affordable Asha phones.

Nokia’s Fast Lane experience is basically a chronological timeline of your activity. If you downloaded an app in the morning, took an photo in the afternoon, sent a few messages in the evening, you’d be able to browse through those with just one swipe on the home screen.

When not in Fast Lane, you live in a UI incredible reminiscent of the Windows Phone 7 experience, just with a few widgets here and there. It has a very “my first Lumia” feel to it, really. Windows Phone tiles meet up with Android widgets in a decidedly average looking way, almost like the two are fighting each other when it comes to design.

Many people have asked whether or not the Nokia X, X+ and XL are really Android. We’re here to tell you, yes: they really are. Mostly.

You see, the Nokia X family runs on the Android Open Source Project, or AOSP. The AOSP is the original version of Android that continues to live on as Google-operated open source software. The version of Android Nokia has managed to score itself on the XL at least is 4.1.2 Jelly Bean.

Google has been contributing less and less of its new software into the AOSP lately, after realising that it needs to protect what makes bespoke Android handsets special. Read this excellent article on the AOSP from Ars Technica for more on that. As a result, you’re left with just a rudimentary form of Android: one which prohibits access to Google’s APIs, which is what makes most Android apps special. Nokia X phones can’t use apps that offer in-app purchases or connect to the Maps API, for example.

This means that only 75 per cent of Android apps work on the Nokia X family, including the Nokia XL. But the troubles don’t stop there: you’re in for a few issues when you want to install normal Google apps onto the Nokia XL. Google won’t allow the Play Store to be sideloaded onto the Nokia XL, which means you have to go hunting around for the .APK files online, and that can be a decidedly dodgy experience at times.

Nokia and Microsoft are working with devs to move apps over to the platform, but it serves to fragment an already fragmented ecosystem, and create more developer outreach work for a company already struggling to get critical mass on its primary, money-spinning Lumia devices.

It’s ok that it doesn’t really have what it takes to cut the mustard in the tough Australian market: it’s actually meant for emerging markets. Countries that are on the precipice of making the transition from feature phones to smartphones. Nokia, LG, ZTE and Alcatel-Lucent are all fighting for those emerging dollars.

What we wanted to see was whether or not Nokia’s forked Android version with its Fast Lane, Asha-style UI could cut it if thrown at a better device. At this stage, it doesn’t look like it. Not unless you’re the sort of person savvy at side-loading apps.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on Nokia’s X range to see if it gets a handset for developed markets also.

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