Nokia Review - Smartphone Round Robin | webOS Nation

Nokia Review - Smartphone Round Robin 6

by Dieter Bohn Sat, 26 Dec 2009 7:50 pm EST

In some ways, Palm and Nokia might be polar opposite companies: one is a perennial underdog who has mainly seen modest success in the US market, the other is a global giant who sells more phones than most anybody yet can't see to gain any traction in the US. Then again, I also see the companies as very similar: both were pioneers in the smartphone space and are facing difficult times ahead, both appear to be betting the farm on new and untested Linux-based operating systems, both have straight-up loyal (if not fanatical) groups of users pulling for them. Heck, I even picked Nokia as the company I'd like to see buy Palm if Palm were for sale (they're not).

All this has been in the back of my mind this week as I mulled over my time with the Nokia N97 Mini and the Nokia N900. I also need to thank the generous and kind Nokia Experts commenters, who have been super-helpful in getting me to look at Nokia phones in a different light.

So let's do this: Round Robin Round Two!

Two Platforms, Twice the Fun?

There are two major Nokia Smartphone operating systems today: S60 5th edition and Maemo (based on Linux). There's also Series 40 which is basically used on feature phones. With S60, near as I can tell there's basically a variant for every phone that Nokia releases with slightly different on-board software depending on which apps Nokia is focusing on, the capabilities of the hardware (touchscreen, keyboard, etc), and the phase of the moon on release day.

Ok, that last is a little unfair and to be honest, I'm not one to be afraid of what looks like a fragmented platform. I still use Windows Mobile from time to time, so disparate software packages and capabilities is nothing new to me. It's simply a philosophical decision Nokia has made: opting for choice over a unified platform. It means (presumably) that Nokia is able to release phones more quickly, but it becomes important for you as the consumer to do your research before buying.

Matthew Miller brought two phones to the Round Robin: The S60-based Nokia N97 Mini and the Maemo-based Nokia N900. Both are currently the flagships for Nokia, though I will note that a lot of US-based users will want to take a long look at the Nokia E72, which is a QWERTY-keyboard S60 phone. Media-centric users may want to consider the Nokia N86, which features a great 8 megapixel camera. See what I mean about choice?

S60 and N97 Mini

I had a chance to look at the Nokia N97 at Mobile World Congress and came away unsure of what I thought. For one - the hardware seemed pretty shoddy, but at a big show like that you always have to assume that the show floor devices take a beating. Turns out that there were a lot of people unhappy with the N97 hardware. Nokia was paying attention, though, and rather quickly turned out the Nokia N97 Mini, which resolved many of the original's issues.

The N97 Mini is a tall, narrow horizontal-slider. It feels quite good in the hand, takes very good pictures, and the keyboard is easy to type on - mostly. On both the N97 Mini and the N900, Nokia decided to go with a three row keyboard instead of 4 or 5, which means that space is at a minimum and the spacebar gets shifted over to the right quite a bit. In practice I do think it wouldn't be too difficult to get used to (Matthew Miller says it's not so bad), but if you're a stickler for these things it can be annoying. On the other hand, the three-row keyboard does keep the N97 Mini very narrow, so it feels better in the hand than any other horizontal slider I've used.

So the hardware is pretty good on the N97 Mini with just a couple of exceptions: Nokia cut back on the RAM on the device so multitasking is a bit more limited than it could be and it has a resistive touchscreen. Like RIM did with the BlackBerry Storm and Storm2, Nokia has retrofitted its OS for touchscreen support and it definitely shows in places. Don't get me wrong, Nokia has managed to make this resistive screen fairly responsive, but there are still times when you can tell that the OS wasn't designed with touch in mind at the start.

Like Windows Mobile, S60 5th edition follows a "Home Screen / App Screen" basic UI metaphor. What that means is that your Home Screen is 'active,' it can show you all sorts of information on a single screen - something I love and miss a bit with webOS. On the N97 and N97 Mini, Nokia switched away from a fairly basic home screen to a widget-based homescreen. You can choose which widgets you want, move them around, and tap on them to launch the 'full' version of the app or widget.

In terms of capabilities and apps, the N97 Mini will cover all your bases. The app situation on S60 is a little scattered, primarily because of the above-mentioned confusion about the different versions and types of apps available on each flavor of S60. Still, you've got Ovi Maps for Turn-by-Turn directions (both a subscription component and a free component), push email from any account, a pretty solid webkit-based web browser, and so on. Nokia has always done a good job with media creation (photos, videos, and the like) and the N97 Mini is no exception.

Overall, I still find S60 to be a little 'foreign.' Most of that is simple unfamiliarity, but there's also the feeling that S60 is part of a vast ecosystem and usage philosophy that is less accessible and more self-referential than most, if that makes any kind of sense.

My touchstone example for this was from my time using the Nokia E71 - the OS would constantly give me pop-up messages every time I tried to access data asking me whether to use WiFi or 3G data. You could set individual apps to default to one or the other, but it was a weird issue. I understood then and understand now that there is a very good reason for these pop-ups, data costs in Europe, especially then, were much higher than the unlimited plans that are the default here in the US. I also understand that Nokia has made choosing your data method much less intrusive now. However what's instructive is that S60 seems to be built to solve problems that I don't necessarily have. There's definitely a "Nokia" way of doing things that works for most of the rest of the planet but presents Nokia-specific situations and solutions that don't seem clear to me.

Here's another way to explain what I mean: patches on webOS. I recently installed a patch that hides the battery percentage meter from the upper-right menu. To a heavy webOS user, I can just say "I installed zhzyg's No Battery Level patch, cool eh?" For a non-webOS users, it's a different story. The patch is a webOS-specific fix for a webOS-specific issue and describing why it's useful to me requires an entire backstory about what that menu is, how I use it, and why another patch makes it unnecessary to have that battery information there. S60 feels like it's chock-full of specific ways of doing things that are the result of years of refinement for people who have been using S60 for a long time. That issue gets compounded by the fact that Nokia has added features to S60 with virtually every smartphone they've released.

Does S60 need a complete revamp? Does it need to be scrapped and replaced like PalmOS was? Opinions are mixed, but right now Nokia has a multi-pronged approach. More on that below, but for now let's take a look at one of the other prongs: Maemo.

Maemo and the N900

The Maemo-running Nokia N900 essentially a tablet PC shrunk down into a form factor that's (almost) phone-sized. Where S60 5th edition was built up from simpler roots with years of refinements and features, Maemo starts on the high end and 'comes down' to fit into your pocket.

Physically, the N900 is fairly imposing, a slightly rounded block of powerful electronics. Packed in there is Tri-Band GSM, an 800x480 resistive touchscreen, sensors galore, 32 gigs of internal storage, Wifi, Bluetooth, a 5 megapixel camera, GPS, and a 600 MHz ARM Cortex A8 processor. Since it's essentially a shrunken-down internet tablet, it's actually quite impressive how small Nokia was able to make the entire package, but the skinny-jeans set isn't likely to take a shine to it regardless.

The operating system is another dead-giveaway for the N900's roots, doesn't feel much like a smartphone at all when you use it. Except when in phone mode, the N900 is designed to work entirely in landscape. Getting around the OS works by jumping between a set of widget-based home screens, a task manager, and an app launcher. Switching between those three modes happens primarily by tapping the upper-righthand corner. Nokia made the decision to minimize the "chrome" around apps, which is to say there isn't a static top or bottom bar on many screens to show you signal strength, a home button, and so on. Once you get the hang of it, it's not bad, but it's still a bit odd.

This "phone second" description of the N900 isn't entirely accurate, though. You can set it to jump to the phone app when you rotate the phone into portrait, which is neat. Even better, the tablet-power of the N900 really shines through when it comes to telephony. The N900 doesn't consider the standard "phone" to be the only - or even the preferred - method of voice communication. Instead, the phone app supports standard calls and several VOIP options such as Skype, Jabber, standard SIP, and Google talk all equally. Very cool.

Also very cool, the N900 is one of the few phones not running a Webkit-based browser. Normally (as with BlackBerry and Windows Mobile), this is cause for derision, but with the N900 we have a Mozilla-based browser like Firefox on your desktop. The result is that you can throw all sorts of websites (including those with a lot of Flash) at the N900 and it handles them quite well.

The end result is a phone that appeals to the power user and the geek in me, but still feels a little to unpolished and unwieldy for day-to-day use. Watch this space, though, because the N900 appears to only be a few UI refinements and square-inches away from being a really compelling phone instead of a geeky-cool tablet that doubles as a phone.

Wrapping up

I intended to include a section here that really and truly explains why Nokia smartphone haven't taken off in the US market, but the more I think about it the less I feel like it's the mystery I've always thought it was. In Nokia you have a company that isn't willing to cave to US Carrier restrictions - if only because they want to keep all the service subscription fees to themselves - and can't push carriers around like Apple did. The results is that you get a set of phones that are very cool, but very expensive to buy in the US. Add in some of the 'foreignness' I mentioned in the S60 section above and you siphon away what might otherwise be consumer demand for phones that aren't officially subsidized by carriers.

Nokia has two smartphone operating systems now and as near as I can tell from their recent announcements, intelligent predictions from Matthew, and screenshots of upcoming Nokia releases, they fully intend to keep both around for the foreseeable future. What does that mean to somebody who's looking to use the most popular smartphone platform on the planet? I wish I could say for sure, but my hunch is that the picture will be clearer in a few months as we see the next Symbian phones arrive.

What would a webOS user gain by going Nokia? I'd like to say Nokia's Ovi services are worth switching for, but I don't see that yet. Nokia does have a better stable of apps than webOS does right now, but frankly given how long the platform has been around it's not that big of a lead. There's definitely more hardware choice - most of it with sturdier and sexier design than what's available for webOS right now.

What would a webOS user lose? I think a healthy dose of elegance in the overall UI of the phone, for one. For another, I think that as perilous as Palm's future looks, I'd rather have that than deal with the confusing outlook for Nokia's phones. I also like that Palm appears to be on track to have the same version of webOS available on all of their phones, whereas Nokia seems to have as many versions of Symbian as they do different kinds of smartphones -- and that's a big, big number.

There you have it: Nokia is making really cool phones with great hardware and decent software that very few people in the US seem to notice. Nokia looks to continue to refine S60 into Symbian^3 and beyond while also continuing to release high-end table/phone hybrids. The good news is that this long-term confusion doesn't really matter when you're picking up a Nokia phone because most of their phones aren't on the exact same operating system anyway and so the long-term outlook doesn't really affect the phone you've purchased. That's also the bad news.