Nokia gave its Series 40 operating system a massive overhaul for the Asha 501 earlier this year. It was a much-needed refresh for the platform, which Nokia is hoping to drive forward with three new devices: the Asha 500, 502 and 503.

These low-cost handsets, which bridge the gap between feature phones and smartphones, are aimed at the emerging markets where Nokia is traditionally strong. None of them will dazzle you with bleeding-edge specs, but for the money-conscious consumer Nokia has a built a fresh, intriguing line-up.

With budget Android handsets flooding international markets, does this latest trio do enough to justify their existence? We went hands-on with all three at Nokia World in Abu Dhabi to give you our first impressions:

Gallery: Asha 500:

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Gallery: Asha 502

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Gallery: Asha 503

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First impressions:

The Asha 501 took me by surprise. Its tiny size and the simplicity of the design stood out in a rising tide of large-screen, uninspired high-end smartphones. In contrast, the Asha 501 felt refreshing, jovial and care-free.

The Asha 500, 502 and 503 (which look almost identical) continue this lollipop-inspired aesthetic with a new ‘crystal-clear’ case that wraps around the handset’s exterior. It’s certainly different, but reminds me of the infuriating security packaging you often find wrapped around expensive consumer electronics. Unique, but hardly an improvement over the Asha 501.

The new ‘Asha Platform’ – which is how Nokia describes its revamped Series 40 operating system – has been tweaked once again with some shortcuts for the camera and sharing to social networks. The software is slow and a bit primitive at times, but it does an admirable job of imitating a fully fledged smartphone UI.  Series 40 still doesn’t support multitasking, but Nokia continues to sidestep the problem with Fastlane. This secondary screen is triggered with a horizontal swipe while on the home screen and shows the user’s most recent activity in chronological order. Hardly revolutionary, but still compelling second-time around.

Camera tests are difficult at a trade show, but the 5-megapixel rear-facing snapper on the Asha 503 seemed like a notable improvement over the Asha 501. That’s not a hard title to accrue – the Asha 501 was fitted with a rubbish camera – but it’ll be interesting to see how the Asha 503 and its compatriots compare in the field.

All three are priced competitively: the Asha 500 will be available for $69, the Asha 502 for $89 and the Asha 503 for $99. Despite the growing number of cheap Android handsets, consumers in emerging markets – or anyone that wants to take their first step beyond feature phones – should still find a lot to admire here.