Phone of the Year

As always, there’s a lot left unsaid here regarding mobile phones.

Last year I picked up a Nokia 6210 for my vacation, and spent quite a good while using it throughout the rest of the year (up until I needed to use a BlackBerry again, with a brief upgrade to an E51).

This year, I have an iPhone 3G, which I have used pretty much uninterruptedly since July. And this is construed by many people as a Mac site, so it naturally follows that it should be the phone of the year, right?

Well, not really. Because, you see, I’ve been using two Nokia devices since early this year that have struck my fancy, and that cater to two distinct segments.

The first (and arguably the better if you don’t care much about e-mail and believe the megapixel hype) is the Nokia 6220 Classic. Despite a plasticky feeling and the usual cluttered and confusing S60 UI (no, Nokia hasn’t fixed those five things yet), the camera is pretty good (if still too slow to start up), and it is a very nice weekend phone – good battery life, ability to record short videos, decent GPS, etc.

Just don’t expect it to be very good at messaging (it will run Mail for Exchange, but the native mail client still doesn’t make good use of screen space) or to be speedy – it’s Nokia’s attempt at squeezing N95-grade functionality into a smaller form factor, and it carries over some of the slowness and compounds it with irritating (and slow) graphical transitions.

The second is the E71, which, feature-wise, I consider to be the second-best business phone currently available short of the Blackberry, which still bests anything else if you need Exchange integration as much as I do.

The calendar is pretty good (somewhat cluttered and hard to navigate in some views, but functional and responsive), the browser is passable (even though I found myself using Opera Mini for most things pretty quickly) and the camera does auto-focus (somewhat badly at times, but better than nothing).

But, for a Nokia, it’s pretty fast. Some people think it’s better1 than the iPhone, and I would agree with it being a better phone than the iPhone, but don’t think they have a leg to stand on in terms of browser and e-mail functionality.

The thing is, I don’t really think of the iPhone as a mere phone. I won’t wax lyrical about it like John Gruber did (it’s not that life-changing for me, merely better than the things I used before), but the iPhone is, for me, a pocket computer that just happens to make calls and have ubiquitous Internet connectivity.

As such, being able to do a gazillion different things on it that are not commonly possible on a “normal” mobile phone is, well, not unexpected at all.

A phone (for me at least) is something that excels at making calls and reaching out to people with the least bit of fuss – and the iPhone, with its rather pedestrian phone applet, utter lack of basic functionality like voice dialling and hands free operation2, simply isn’t good enough.

The E71, on the other hand, is an excellent phone. It is a passable Internet device, a poor media player, and a rather pedestrian e-mail client3, but it has none of the annoying limitations of the iPhone (as a phone, of course) and doesn’t get in the way of talking to people – whereas I have more than occasional trouble placing and answering calls on an iPhone due to its fiddly phone applet, the E71 just works.

It isn’t that user-friendly and will never be as flexible as the iPhone as a platform (even though it multitasks properly), but for 99% of the people out there, it will likely be a lot more satisfying to use as a phone.

So if I had to pick one phone to recommend this year, it would certainly be the E71 – it is, as far as I’m concerned, the best device Nokia has produced yet (better than the E90 in everything from usability to build quality), as well as surely better than the vast majority of the phones that I know will be available before Xmas.

And I’m glad to see that the E63 will bring some of its features to a lower (and arguably more sensible) price point.

I also think that S60 is an evolutionary dead end and that if Nokia wants to compete with Apple on usability, they’re going to have to toss everything out the window (including some prejudices) and start again from scratch.

It may seem like a strange thing to say, but truth be told that Symbian was once a much simpler and better OS. Over the years, they kind of lost it.

But that’s another story – and it doesn’t mean the E71 isn’t good enough right now4.

1 Ironically, they do so and simultaneously confess to not owning one or trying it out extensively, basing their comparisons on trying out the devices over less than adequate time (in my case, I actually use the things more than six months – and sometimes much more if I consider prototypes). Hey, that’s the kind of ridicule that idealistic, unfounded “highway blogging” exposes you to.

2 I will never, ever, be able to understand why proper Bluetooth audio services and car integration aren’t present. And I don’t even drive to work.

3 Update: I actually forgot about it being an almost stupefyingly bad cameraphone due to the idiotic “feature” that requires that you hold “T” to focus instead of having proper auto-focus (as we had the opportunity to demonstrate to John Dvorak over dinner.)

4 It just means they’re both playing in different ballparks. If you want more than a phone, the iPhone is the best personal electronics device money can buy right now. But the vast majority of people don’t need (or can’t afford) what it does.

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