You see, I have been using Symbian phones quite a bit of late, and the overall experience has become less than satisfactory. Besides the E61, I recently spent a few weeks using a N80, Nokia's top consumer phone (if you disregard the Transformer-like monstrosities they have been pushing out, and which I would never consider using), as well as an N73.
As many people know by now, I've become sort of a SonyEricsson fan - and I mean the EMP devices, not the UIQ ones like the M600i. The SonyEricsson mainstream UI has become very slick and easy to use, and the underlying platform is a no-frills environment that, despite lacking Symbian's sophistication, includes a bunch of sensibly designed and useful applets, plus one of the best Java runtimes around.
With that in mind, feel free to accuse me of being biased, a Luddite or a Zealot (or, for that added ego-trip feeling, all three). I'm used to having my points about keeping technology simple (and usable) misinterpreted, so there's nothing to hold me back from writing exactly what I think about the Series 60 platform and the way it has evolved since the heyday of the 7650.
Let's get started, then.
A lot of people have noticed that Nokia has been beating back the "smartphone" moniker and calling their new devices "multimedia computers".
Which feels about right, since the phones are now becoming as slow and pokey as an "ordinary" computer. And, like ordinary computers, they crash, and have out of memory errors even when I made a point of saving everything I could to a memory card.
My main complaint about the N80 (which applies to the other Nokia devices I used this year) is that it's slow. Having a multi-tasking phone with a propensity for leaving tasks running in the background is nice when you keep switching between a very small subset of them, but the whole thing ground to a halt every once in a while.
This would be OK if I was running a bunch of extra stuff, but in my case, running only the base applications, the whole thing soon got to a point that made it hard to find contacts and even take calls - to an extent where I tried to make sure whatever I was using was the only thing running and still had to endure the occasional progress bar (or a crash, which was all the more surprising since I had never had the Contacts applet go belly up on me before).
Plus there were the usual Series 60 quirks:
- Despite this being the unpteenth generation of Series 60 devices and my having a sizable memory card, I kept getting "Out of memory" messages.
- Doing trivial configuration changes (such as changing the phone language or switching from GSM to UMTS) still implies a full restart.
- The camera application doesn't go away on its own (and switching from it to the Gallery is a surefire way to make sure you can't do anything else with the phone until you close both).
- Some applications just don't die, and odd things crop up in the task list (my personal favorite is the "blinkingled" task, which I gleefully kill whenever I can).
- Java MIDP applets mostly work (there is always something wrong on any phone, so I'll give Nokia a break), but they seem to take a good while to start when compared to my K610i - which is an admittedly inferior phone in many regards.
- The internal filesystem is a maze of twisty little passages, all alike (and I'm willing to bet you can easily trip up the built-in applications by using the File Manager).
So as far as the OS goes, there's certainly a lot to be done still. Me, I'd probably stop being so stingy in the amount of built-in RAM.
Like "ordinary" computers, the Series 60 devices have become extremely complex, to an extent where the once-friendly icon-based menus are now being stressed to a sort of cognitive breaking point by the sheer amount of applications and configuration settings.
Want to activate Bluetooth? Sure thing, there's the usual "Connectivity" folder, which now has nine items. Want to change a non-obvious preference? Fell free to hunt through at least three different "folders" for it (extra brownie points if you can disable the automatic SMS messages the phone sends to people who get a busy signal using a blindfold).
And don't get me started on the connection profiles, or the way you now have two browsers (Web and Services) in two different locations.
So I have to wonder precisely how much of these wonderful features actually get used - or, worse still, how many of the basic ones are truly usable. Sure, it is still easy to send an SMS or MMS from a Series 60, and (once you figure out where it's gone) the call log is still easy to use and navigate, and their calendar is still one of the best.
But I find it telling that (in particular) the N80 includes a new "multimedia" key that causes a fancy (but ultimately useless) 4-way menu to appear - it smacks of utter confusion as to what the user interface flows ought to be, since you now have four ways to invoke applications:
- You can bind them to the idle screen soft keys.
- You can add them to the "active" menu on the idle screen (which now looks like a Pocket PC "Today" screen, with a row of application icons, a list of upcoming events, etc.).
- You can invoke the main menu by pressing the application key (or switch to a running application, which should probably count as yet another option).
- And, finally, you can assign four applications to the menu invoked by the new key.
Yes, it's nice to have options and configurability, but as the iPod has taught us, it's best to have one consistent way to do things than multiple confusing approaches.
The Mac Angle
Once I got an N80, I obviously needed a way to import my contacts onto it - and the Nokia Windows software (the bane of helpdesk staff anywhere, and renowned by the amount of things it installs on your machine and its odd notions regarding ownership of your PC's data ports) wasn't it.
Since the N80 isn't yet officially supported by iSync and I have never gotten around to figure out iSync 2.3 (some day, I tell myself, some day...), I went and grabbed the mactomster plugin, which worked OK once I disabled calendar sync (for some reason my N80 didn't like that and kept aborting the sync with a system error).
One minor note: the instructions are in German, and they state that you should drop the plugin inside your iSync application bundle. This is a big no-no - put the .phoneplugin inside a PhonePlugins folder inside your user Library folder.
There were two things I noticed about importing my contacts: The first is that the phone imported contact pictures just fine, taking advantage of the N80's improved resolution, but with a white outline that seemed like a resampling glitch of some sort. This may be attributed to the plugin I used, but as far as I could tell from inspecting it it used the same settings as the standard Apple support for comparable phones.
The second is that it synthesized voice tags from the text, which was an extremely welcome surprise.
The third was that if you leave the Contacts applet running while doing a sync, it will lock up and require you to kill it.
Also, Nokia Collector (which can talk to pretty much all my non-Nokia phones) choked on it (dumps show an inordinate amount of folder enumerations, probably due to the way the internal filesystem is structured), and the once-stellar Nokia Bluetooth OBEX implementation failed, time and again, to transfer more than a single file in a row to my iMac.
Remember the bit above about the powerful OS these things have? Never mind.
The new browser (which I've been watching evolve through generations of Series 60 devices and several firmware releases) is likely to be the nicest thing on all the new Series 60 devices. Although my fingers are now hard-wired for the Opera mini shortcuts, using the Web browser (again, not the Services one, which still chokes on fancy HTTP tricks) was mostly a pleasure, until I hit my sixth or seventh page in a row and started getting "Out of memory" messages (at which point you'll wonder just how useful the snazzy visual history really is, and how much memory it actually uses).
Still, Web was a pleasure to use in all the new Series 60 devices largely due to the 352x416 (or larger) displays and sensible display zooming options (again, the default fonts are extremely readable, very well antialiased, but too big).
The thing is, it eats into your battery life like crazy.
Even without using the built-in Wi-Fi (which, incidentally, is tweakable in terms of power output, provided - again - that you can find the settings for that), the N80 and the N73 seldom lasted a day when used for casual web browsing - i.e., my daily commute and occasional searches, which my 8707v and K610i can handle with ease for two days.
As to the E61, I found it to be a less-than-stellar e-mail client. Yes, it supports Exchange ActiveSync and Blackberry push e-mail services (as well as a few others bundled in for that extra "gee, we have lotsa bullets" Marketing feel), but the e-mail application itself has not evolved to do justice to either those services' advanced functionality or to the E61's screen.
Screen usage is, in general, one of the weak points of many manufacturers' UIs - with the notable exception of the Blackberry's sparse, but extremely functional UI, which ditches pretty graphics and widgets in favor of content readability.
My loathing of the way SonyEricsson keeps wasting a third of screen real estate on title bars and soft keys is legendary, but it does not even come close to the way I detest the Series 60's e-mail client, which wastes acres of it via a poor default font choice and a rather airy message headers section - both of which take up slightly over half of the screen height and force you to scroll to read even the shortest of messages.
Scrolling is, by the way, one of the E61's weak points. The joystick is uncomfortable to use, and its functionality does not even come close to the Blackberry's side wheel (which they have regretfully done away with in their latest model - more on that in a few weeks).
Unless your thumb can reach over to the left side of the device to hit the relevant soft key, the E61 requires you to use it with both hands to perform the most trivial UI interactions (which includes invoking menus - a biggie when it comes to actual usability).
Using one for a few weeks, I got the impression that Nokia simply scaled up the Series 60 client with a full keyboard input method and left it at that. Address lookups, filing messages, and all other things that you can do one-handedly on the current Blackberry devices, felt like an afterthought or hasty grafts.
As an example, $DIVINITY help you if your Exchange administrator sets proper security policies and forces you to lock down your device with a password - it's very hard to unlock the device at times, since it requires the use of a soft key and the QWERTY keyboard (which, oddly enough, sometimes locks into numeric mode).
Yes, the current Series 60 devices are, indeed, "multimedia computers". But despite Nokia's engineering brilliance in shoehorning this much functionality into a mobile phone, their UI is stretched thin to the point where I keep wondering if they aren't missing the point themselves made years back when they kicked off the Series 60 platform - mobile phones are a rising computing platform that has infinite potential in terms of applications, and their limited keyboards and screens need a simple, intuitive UI.
I hope they keep looking for it.