This is the second of my unusual reviews of Nokia kit. This one is even of a mobile phone! So what’s unusual about it? It is a review of a phone that’s already obsolete even though it was released barely more than 6 months ago – the Nokia N8. It is obsolete because it is a Symbian phone and Nokia have abandoned Symbian as a smartphone platform, in favour of Windows Phone. At first I wasn’t sure there was a point in reviewing the N8 at all, but in the end I was sorry to see it go.

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Nokia BH-905iThis is the first of two slightly unusual reviews, both of Nokia kit kindly lent to me by WOMWorld/Nokia. Nokia is usually associated with mobile phones, and yet here I’m reviewing a pair of headphones. They are bluetooth headphones and they will operate as a wireless headset when paired with a phone, so it does make some sense. The most interesting thing about them, though, is that they have active noise cancellation. I’ve never tried noise cancelling headphones before so I was very curious to see how well the technology worked.

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Writing about web page http://www.nokia.co.uk/find-products/all-phones/nokia-n900

Nokia N900Once again the folks at WOMWorld have been kind enough to lend me a shiny new phone for a few weeks. This time it was the Nokia N900. I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this. When I tried out this device’s predecessor, the N810, almost two years ago I liked almost everything about it. The main issue was that it only had a WiFi connection and so much of its functionality disappeared when you were out of range of a wireless network. The N900 is a phone as well as in “internet tablet” and so doesn’t suffer from that problem. It should be the perfect device for me…

Of course, in the last two years things have moved on. In particular the iPhone, which all new smartphones are inevitably compared to, has changed people’s expectations of what such a device should provide. Has the N900 developed enough to keep pace? I’m pleased to say it has. There are a few shortcomings still, not all of them with the device itself, and those mean that I still prefer my iphone to the N900. It was close, though. I do think that for me this is the best N-series device I’ve used. And so to the details…

The N900 is a Maemo-based device. This is a Linux-dervied OS built by Nokia specifically for their “internat tablet” range, starting with the N700. The N900 has the latest version, Maemo 5. I really like this OS and the UI. It isn’t quite as intuitive as the iPhone but after just a few minutes I had found everything I needed without having to resort to the manual. And one of the major issues I have with all Symbian-based phones, the way they deal with network selection on a per-app basis, is dealt with nicely. The OS chooses the appropriate network connection (WiFi or cellular) and everything just uses it. Perfect. It did feel like the UI needed just a little more horsepower from the CPU, though. Inertial scrolling wasn’t quite as smooth as you’d like, and nor was opening windows. To be fair, though, the same is true of my iPhone 3G (but not the 3GS).

Running multiple apps worked flawlessly, and switching between them was straightforward. All apps continued running in the background and could provide notifications where appropriate – new IM conversations, emails, SMS, etc… I so wish the iPhone worked this way. That said, I once had to reboot the machine because a background app was causing it all sorts of grief. Speaking of apps, there’s a default link to the “Ovi Store” for downloading new apps but that just took me to a “coming soon” page. That was a bit of a disappointment. One of the expectations that the iPhone changed was the “app” ecosystem, and shipping without a working app store these days is not a good thing. Without an app store you could make an argument that this isn’t really a smartphone. The Palm Pre has a similar problem, but it at least has some useful apps in its app store…

I did have two surprising issues with the software on the phone. I couldn’t get it to sync to our Exchange server. This is apparently because we are running Exchange 2003, and that isn’t supported (yet) by Maemo 5. Apparently it will be supported in the next update. That makes the device useless to me, and presumably many others, until the update is released. Next, and possible more surprising, the N900 doesn’t support MMS! How can a device released in 2009 not let you send MMS messages? Yes, I know the iPhone didn’t either, and Apple were rightly criticised for it. It isn’t like Nokia don’t know how to do MMS – they’ve got one or two other devices that support it. I’ve not heard when MMS support is coming along.

The touchscreen is resistive, which is a bit of a shame. It is the best resistive touch screen I’ve used, though, and most of the time it worked as well as the capacitive screen on my iPhone. It doesn’t support multi-touch, of course. Most of the time that wasn’t an issue but when you need it there’s no real substitute. The camera is Nokia’s usual 5MP device with auto-focus, Carl-Zeiss lens and LED “flash”, and it does its usual very, good job. I’d be more than happy for this to be my “carry anywhere” camera, even for indoor and low light situations.

Back when I tried the N810 I was really looking forward to a device with a physical keyboard, but was quite disappointed by that one. I also didn’t really take to the one on the N97 I tried earlier this year. I suppose I was expecting the N900 keyboard to be the same, but it wasn’t. I can’t quite put my finger on what is different, but I did like the N900 keyboard a lot. It worked a lot better for me that the others. I think I still slightly prefer the on-screen keyboard on the iPhone, but then I’ve had almost 18 months of practice on that and I’m sure I’d like the N900 keyboard more as I got used to it.

As far as the device goes, then, pretty much everything is good. The keyboard and resistive touch screen work better than I expected, the OS and UI are good, the camera is excellent. The major problems with this device are actually not with the device! I’ve already mentioned the app store, or lack of one. The PC software for communicating with the phone is also a bit of a disappointment. Getting music onto the phone is just too hard. iTunes for the iPhone just works. Nokia’s PC Suite is too much of a pain. It does the job, but it is too awkward to use. Maybe when you get used to it it is fine, but these days you shouldn’t have to “get used to it”. More work needed here, Nokia.

So, in summary, the device is pretty good. Definitely the best N-series device I’ve use, at least for my purposes. There are a few surprising problems (Exchange support and MMS), though, and they need sorting out. As does the PC software. Linking the N900 to a PC to swap data should not be as hard as it is. Overall, though, this was the hardest device to send back. Somebody asked me if I’d have sent the iPhone back and kept the N900 if given the chance. For previous Nokia devices I’ve tested, the answer would always have been a resounding “No”. This was much, much closer. I still sent back the right device, but when the N910 (or whatever it is called) comes along I might just be tempted! Keep up the good work Nokia – you’re definitely getting there…

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Follow-up to Nokia N810 – initial impressions from Steve’s blog

I’ve had the device for a couple of weeks now. After the first week my main problems with the device were:

  • text input
  • the lack of offline PIM applications

I’ve specifically looked in more detail at both of those since then, and sadly not got great news.

Text input

There are four different methods of getting text into this device:

  • Handwriting
  • Small on-screen keyboard for use with the stylus
  • Large on-screen keyboard for use with thumbs (i.e. rest the device on the fingers of both hands and use two thumbs on the screen)
  • The slide-out keyboard

Handwriting is still unworkable for me, It is simply too slow. The slidey keyboard is much better, but still not as fast as I’d hoped. The small on-screen is no faster. The on-screen thumb keyboard is probably the fastest of the bunch, but is uses up a lot of the screen and so hides what you are typing into. Overall, I prefer the slide-out keyboard and use that most of the time.

I am disappointed, though. I guess I’ve been spoiled by a couple of previous devices. The keyboard on a Psion Series 3a I owned about 10 years ago was much better than this one. It was bigger, which helped, but that wasn’t the only reason it was better. The keys had a better feel. The keys on the N810 are a little too hard to press, and there just isn’t enough room above the top row.

And I’ve owned a couple of convertible laptop/tablet PCs and so used handwriting input in Windows XP Tablet edition and Windows Vista. I’m still astonished at how well that works. My handwriting is not great, but Windows seems to manage to make sense of it most of the time. Of course, it has more processor power to throw at the recognition task. But still, I find handwriting input under Windows very, very usable.

I’ve also used Palm devices and found Palm’s graffiti easy to learn and very quick. Ironically, one of the 3rd party apps you can install on the device is a PalmOS emulator. Naturally this supports graffiti text input which is for me faster than any of the native methods! I wonder if Nokia could manage to build graffiti into the standard product…:-)

So, I’m glad the N810 has the slide out keyboard. For me, that makes it a much more usable device than the N800. But I’m still disappointed.

Downloadable applications

There’s quite a nice application manager for installing 3rd party applications. I’ve had a lot of success putting games and a few other things on the machine. Just click on the download link from the relevant web page, open the file in Application Manager, and click “Install”. Quick and easy. And there seem to be quite a lot of applications out there.

I was specifically looking for PIM applications – calendar, ToDo list, address book. More specifically, applications that would work offline. Such things do exist for Linux systems. The GNU Palmtop Environment has these applications and more, and better still they can be synchronised with Outlook/Exchange. The main pieces of this suite have been ported to the Nokia platform, but sadly not the synchronisation components. So, GPE give me the offline functionality I need, but with no way of synchronising it with anything else. That’s a great shame. No doubt this will be ported in due course, but until then…

I was also looking for an app I could use for note-taking in meetings. The built-in notes application is pretty basic. It is essentially equivalent to Windows Notepad – i.e. just a text file editor. There’s no scope for hand-drawn content, nor any organisational functionality. There’s a 3rd party app that addresses both of these problems – maemopad+. Unfortunately, it didn’t come packed for an easy install, and I haven’t yet managed to find the right set of bits and pieces to install to make it all work. Disappointing again, because app sounds like exactly what I want. Maybe there’s be a properly packaged version of it soon?

So, mostly the support for 3rd party applications is pretty good, and there’s quite a variety of stuff out there. But, but everything I want is available yet, and not everything seems to be properly packaged yet. I guess these are relatively new devices and the development community hasn’t had enough chance to sort itself out. I’m sure these problems will resolve themselves over time, but until then the N810 doesn’t quite do it for me…

Summary

There’s a lot to like about this device. For casual web browsing it is hard to beat. Catching up with email or RSS feeds in odd 5-minute slots when you’re waiting for something else to happen saves me a lot of time, and this device does it well. It would be better with a bit more CPU grunt. I find Google Reader in particular to be a bit slow at times when popping up menus and similar. If I travelled a lot, being able to carry this device for checking email on the move and not have to bother with a laptop would be great. Despite the problems of text input, the N810 does this stuff very well. For sitting on the sofa & surfing during TV ad breaks, there’s nothing to beat it!

I have tried it with Google Documents and it coped very well with both documents and spreadsheets (didn’t try presentations).

It is less good at PIM-like tasks. To be fair, it isn’t designed for that, so maybe it is unfair to complain. But I don’t want to have to carry another device. That’s just silly! It is perfectly possible to put such functionality into the standard N810. Nokia take note… Or maybe I’m in the minority in wanting such functionality?

The media player works well enough, too. It isn’t an iPod, of course, but it plays music and video and makes it easy enough to find and manage. If my primary requirement was a music player I’d buy an iPod Touch, but as a secondary function of a PIM/browser device, I’m happy with what’s there.

Finally there’s the price. The N810 is too expensive for my tastes. The N800 is better, but without the slidey keyboard I wouldn’t buy it. Take the GPS functionality out of the N810 (I don’t want it, anyway) and call it an N805, reduce the price, and maybe I’d consider it. Assuming the PIM functionality was available, either built-in or from a 3rd party, of course.

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Follow-up to More handheld musings from Steve’s blog

I’ve had the N810 almost a week now, using it fairly intensively. To be honest, at the moment I can’t decide if I like it or not. I certainly have mixed feelings about it. Here are a few pros and cons:

Pros

The screen is very nice. Everything is of course quite small on an 800×480 screen with a 4” diagonal, but that doesn’t both me. I can cope with small text. And anything smaller would make some websites much harder to use. Google Reader is much less pleasant on a narrower screen.

The browser works really well. I’ve had a couple of unexplained crashes, where all browser windows would just disappear, but overall it works well and has coped with every site I’ve pointed it at. I’ve even let my daughter loose on it, playing some of her online games (dressing dolls, designing houses, etc.) and she’s not complained. Javascript, flash, etc. all present no problems. No Java though…

Battery life has been surprisingly good. I’ve left gmail and google reader open in background windows all day, both refreshing over WiFi every few minutes as usual, and the machine has still lasted all day and had plenty of power for a few hours of browsing in addition. But still, you should expect to charge once a day, and probably carry a charger with you just in case.

The media player works well, and the speakers are surprisingly loud and of fairly decent. Obviously they are small and so there’s not much bass, but they don’t sound tinny, and nor do they distort at high volumes. I was impressed.

The slidey keyboard is really nice. Easy to slide out and back in.

The front and back of the case are metal. Real metal, not shiny plastic. That makes it feel quite robust. Unfortunately, the metal does scratch (sorry, WOM World:-), and I’ve been quite careful with it.

This last week I’ve been trying to use the device as much as possible “out of the box”. I’ve installed a couple of apps, and the install process is pretty straightforward. There are a few web sites listing 3rd-party and Nokia-developed apps, and an application manager that makes installation and updating pretty simple. I plan to explore the available apps this week to see what’s out there – see a “con” below for one reason why…

Cons

Performance isn’t spectacular. Google sites can be quite hard on systems resources these days, Google Reader in particular. They can be quite slow on this device. That’s frustrating when part of the reason for having it is to use those odd 2- and 3-minute periods to catch up with stuff, or check email. And with a Reader window open for a few hours of catching up on RSS feeds, I’ve run out of memory occasionally and had to close down all browser windows to get going again.

The wasn’t quite enough CPU grunt to keep up with the BBC’s iPlayer, but I guess that’s not entirely surprising.

As with the N82, the USB cable doesn’t charge the device which is really, really annoying. Why not?

The device comes with a soft leather-like slip case. I’d prefer it to have a hard side to protect the screen, not just from damage but from unintended screen presses which in transit. You can lock the screen, but I haven’t always remembered and have occasionally taken it out of my pocket or bag to find it doing something unexpected…

Text input isn’t as good as I’d expected. I’m especially disappointed by the keyboard. A long, long time ago I used to own a Psion Series 3 and later a 3a, which looked like this:

It was very easy to thumb-type on that, and I suppose I was expecting the N810 keyboard to be similar. It just isn’t. I guess I’ll get better with practice but I find the keyboard slow to use. I’m especially frustrated by lack of space above the top row, before my thumbs knock against the screen.

But the keyboard is still a major advantage over the N800 and N770, though, because the other forms of input are worse! Handwriting recognition is painful and the onscreen keyboard isn’t much better. To be fair, you can train the handwriting recognition so it might get better with time, and I haven’t yet much used the onscreen “thumb keyboard”. I’ll have a better fell for both of those things by the end of the week.

Not having built-in offline PIM applications was more of a problem than I thought it would be. I have calendar information in my phone, but having to juggle multiple devices is just a pain. If I’ve got the N810 in my hands, I want my calendar there. Once the whole world is Wifi’d I can use Google Calendar, but right now that’s not an option. I could of course connect via my mobile phone, but that can get expensive very quickly. There are PIM apps out there that might do the job, and I’ll try them over the next few days, but it would be better if Nokia provided something…

GPS adds a lot to the cost, and I’m not interested in it. If Nokia produced an N800 with a slidey keyboard (an N805, perhaps!) that would be more interesting to me.

Summary

I’m actually impressed with how well the device works. What it does, it does well. It would benefit from a bit more CPU power, and a bit more RAM, but otherwise it does a good job. Unfortunately, at least out of the box, it isn’t quite the job I want doing! Built-in offline PIM applications, synch-able to Outlook, would make such a difference. Add that and I’d be sold…

So, now I’m off to see if they exist out there somewhere. One of the nice things about the device is that the openness of it means there’s a fair amount of software being developed for it, all/most available for free.

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Follow-up to Nokia N82 from Steve’s blog

The Nokia N82 has a GPS receiver built in. It comes with a typical SatNav application that shows you where you are, does route finding, has a Points of Interest database, etc. The usual stuff. There are a couple of differences from a regular SatNav, though:

  1. The route finding is only visual by default. You have to pay extra for a voice-prompt service, on a subscription basis I believe. I’m not sure I like that model much. As an in-car navigational aid it is pretty useless without voice prompts. To navigate on foot, though, in a strange city, it is perfect. Having such a facility always on your person “just in case” would be really useful. However, see below…
  2. The maps are downloadable. The phone comes with very little, and when you browse to a new location it downloads the maps it needs. It can do this over WiFi, which is good because the maps are going to be quite large and it would be expensive to ship them over GPRS (or 3G?). So, if you know you are going somewhere, you’ll want to browse there in advance to make sure you’ve got the maps. If you don’t know you’ll need it until you find yourself lost, then I’m afraid you’re stuck with downloading a few MB of maps. It seems to download in smallish chunks, which is either good or bad depending on your point of view. I’ve just gone browsing around Manchester, which I’ve never looked at before, and pulled down about 2MB of data. On the plus side, I guess this means you can get map updates for free…?

One interesting point is that the N82 managed to get a satellite lock while I was playing with it at home. That’s the only time I’ve ever had a GPS device find satellites while indoors. I was sitting near a window at the time, but still nothing else I’ve tried (Garmin handheld and SatNav devices) has done so well.

So, basic SatNav functionality works as you’d expect, but with a couple of potentially irritating quirks.

Now to the main reason I was sent this phone in the first place – Sports Tracker. This came pre-installed on the phone I was sent, but it is freely downloadable. It works with any phone with built-in GPS, and also with bluetooth GPS receivers. There’s a list of compatible devices on the website.

Sports Tracker uses the GPS receiver to record what it calls “workouts”. Basically this is what regular GPS receivers would call a tracklog. From this is calculates a bunch of statistics – max/min/ave speed, etc. and produces pretty graphs of speed against altitude and similar. All of this is done on the phone itself, which is quite neat. Additionally, it is linked to a web service and will upload the information to the web where you can add comments and share route. For example, here is my lunchtime cycle from yesterday. You can see the usual stats, plus the route overlaid on Google Maps so others can scroll around it and see where you went. You can download a KML file too, so you can put it in a GPS receiver to follow. I haven’t been able to find a way to import a route into Sports Tracker itself though, to allow me to follow somebody else’s route. That seems a bit of an oversight.

Then again, I’m not sure how well the device would work mounted on the handlebars. I don’t have a handlebar mount for it so I can’t be sure. Would it survive the vibration? It isn’t waterproof, so it wouldn’t survive being rained on. I’m not sure the phone is really designed for that sort of use. I’ve been carrying it in the back pocket of my jersey. But that could get it quite damp on a long/hard ride.

I like Sports Tracker. It combines a lot of the stuff I’ve tried to do on this blog – cycling stats, route maps, etc. – in a way that’s quite easy to use. There’s quite a lot of stuff missing though. I need cumulative statistics – miles per month/year, average speed per month/year, etc. If I could just record every journey with Sports Tracker, upload it to the web site, and have everything I need calculated for me (it has the necessary data after all) that would be great. But I’m going to have to record everything elsewhere too. Nokia could do worse that look at My Cycling Log for inspiration.

Overall, then, Sports Tracker is a good start but it needs more work, not on the phone-based app but on the companion web site. The phone itself would probably work well enough for running/walking activities, but I’m not sure how useful it is as a cycling aid. It doesn’t seem rugged enough. I’d be worried about shaking it to bits if it was handlebar mounted.

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Writing about web page http://www.nseries.com/products/n82/

I was contacted out of the blue a few weeks ago by somebody from the WOM World web site. They’d seen this blog and thought I might be interested in looking at the new Nokia N82 phone complete with “Sports Tracker” application. The N82 is one of the new Nokia phones with built-in GPS, and Sports Tracker uses this to record routes (or “workouts” as it calls them) and keep performance statistics about them – ave/max/min speed, altitude profile, etc. – and produce pretty graphs (on the phone) of speed against altitude and such-like. Anyway, I agreed and am now the temporary keeper of a Nokia N82. Sadly it has to go back soon!

The N82 is a Symbian-based phone, and does all the usual phone stuff (makes calls, sends texts:-). A few highlights:

  • Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g), bluetooth
  • Quad-band, 3G, etc, etc
  • 5MP camera, xenon flash, 30fps VGA video recording, video-out
  • Web browser, email, the usual Nokia PIM stuff
  • 2.4” QVGA screen with accelerometer to auto-rotate between landscape/portrait
  • Music player/video player/FM radio
  • 2GB SD card provided as standard
  • GPS receiver, mapping application/route finder

The main reason WOM World thought I might be interested in the phone is the Sports Tracker application, which uses the GPS receiver to record routes and provide stats like max/ave speed, graphs of speed against altitude, etc. It is linked to a web site, and you can transfer routes to share them with others.

I’ve had the phone for a couple of weeks now and I’ll post a review is two parts, first the general phone stuff and separately the GPS related stuff.

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