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Monday, July 21, 2008

Thoughts on smartphone usage - Nokia E71

This is a personal post, based on my own recent experiences, as I've been playing around with a Nokia E71 for the last month or so. (Disclosure: the device was a freebie given away at a press conference, but the timing was spot-on as I needed a new data-type phone anyway).

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm not hugely enthusiastic about smartphones as a personal user of mobile devices. I'm not especially interested in "discovering" things, I don't think that "content" is particularly important, and I'm certainly not bothered about wasting my life finding & downloading software to use on my phone. That said, from time to time I need to use various apps from a work perspective - trying out VoIP clients and a few other bits & pieces, for example. I'm also trying to force myself to use some of the more Web 2.0 things, but frankly it's still 95% professional interest to see if they work, rather than actually personally wanting them.

On the other hand, I do browse the web & email on mobile devices quite a lot, so having a convenient & fast mobile Internet device of some description is definitely a must, at least during "working hours". And I do mean browse, not "find" or do "local" stuff - I want to occasionally use Google, check up on a couple of web forums, download & read my normal RSS feeds, visit restaurant websites and so on. But when I'm "off duty" at evenings/weekends, having something with a decent camera, phonebook & SMS user experience is much more important than Internet access.

So for various reasons, I tend to prefer having 2 devices - one phone-type thing (I also have a new SonyEricsson C902) which is my main voice+personal device, and one web-type thing for times when I might actually need mobile Internet access & am not sitting with my laptop.

So - the E71. Physically, it looks & feels like a quality device - slim, quite weighty, metal rather than plastic, decent form factor with a QWERTY but not too brick-like. I'd say it's much cooler than most Blackberries & Windows devices and comments from other "business gadget" users tend to concur. Conversely, most "normobs" still look at it as a bland corporate device, at least in the UK, where any mobile with a QWERTY marks you out as a middle-aged boring worker-bee drone.

One side-effect of the metal casing is that it gets noticeably warm when using apps that use the radio a lot - which gives a good tactile warning of impending battery exhaustion.

Some thoughts on various of the features, apps (and the OS) that are native on the device or that I've subsequently installed:

- Browser (Webkit) is good, if a little slow at times (I think this is the software but could also be the network, especially the wake-up time from idle mode on HSDPA). Renders most normal web pages quite well, plus some Ajax-type things too. It's certainly useable for "the real web", although it's frustrating enough at times that I certainly wouldn't want it as my primary means to get online. At home, I'll still tend to fire up my laptop instead.
- Email client - not great. Doesn't handle HTML emails or attachments in a particularly intuitive way, and it's a bit annoying the way it displays headers & the like. That said, my experience is rather stifled by the difficulty I've had in setting up outbound email via 3's network - I can't get them to send via with a disruptive-analysis.com email address because of some POP3 config weirdness.
- Connection Manager - pretty awful. I can't seem to get it to have complex default rules - in particular I'd like to set it to "Use my home WiFi if it's available, otherwise use the 3 mobile APN". I suspect something like a DeviceScape or other 3rd-party CM client would fix this, but I haven't wanted to take the time to download & try and set it up yet.
- WiFi - This has improved immensely compared with my previous experiences of dual-mode phones. Very very quick to identify WiFi APs and authenticate, and doesn't seem to chew up battery anywhere near as much as it used to a year or so back. This goes to show what optimisations can do when handset & chipset companies put their minds to it. Let's hope the same happens with Femtocell-optimised phones, although I still seem to be the only person shouting about that particular issue!
- Widsets (Nokia's Widget platform). I'm using this as a sort of RSS reader at the moment. It's OK, but a bit frustrating. It's obviously intended as some sort of future advertising platform, but that gets in the way of the stuff I want to read. It's also very slow to download stuff, even over HSDPA (text appears in chunks slower than I can read them, so I find myself waiting), doesn't seem to include embedded links in the blogs I typically use, and turns the phone in to a portable toaster if I leave it running in the background. I have to say that I'm really not a great believer on widgets on either PC or phone, and this does nothing to dispell the view. If I wasn't such as lazy user of devices I'd go & "discover" a better way to get RSS feeds, but I can't be bothered & will just put up with the pain for now.
- Voice & SMS. Don't know, haven't used them at all
- Camera - pretty dreadful to be honest, despite being billed as a 3MP device. I suspect I may have a pre-release version of the software, because it does some really weird things to colours, especially in dim light. I know that Nokia has some excellent cameras on its N-series phones, so I'm guessing this is an anomaly.
- Fring & Truphone. Unfortunately, neither of these had E71-optimised VoIP clients when I looked a couple of weeks ago. I'll check back at another point.
- Yahoo Go! Almost exactly a year ago, I gave the big Y! a hard kicking over its mobile capabilities. The good news is that the current version of Y! Go is a bit better. The bad news is that it's still pretty awful. There's this awful rotating-carousel of icons/services/widgets, most of which are useless & non-deletable (how can I get rid of the Sports & Entertainment widgets? And I don't want Flickr. And I can't add Y! Messenger or My Yahoo). At least the email inbox actually refreshes itself, unlike my experience from a year ago. Although reading a mail on the device doesn't change the read/unread status on my PC. Overall it's far too much of an attempt to be an all-round on device portal, which I don't want or need.
- Nokia Maps - OK but a bit fiddly, and keeps trying to sell me add on services. Scrolls too slowly too - needs some work on the user interface. So instead, I use...
- Google Maps - I'm fast moving to the view that G Maps is the one application I'd be prepared to swallow my pride about downloads, and put on any device, work or personal, as long as I had a flatrate data plan. It just works, even without GPS switched on. It gives me a great map of where I am by using Cell ID - I don't need turn by turn directions, just an electronic equivalent of an A-Z atlas. (Note: I'm almost always walking when I need directions, not driving - I don't need SatNav in the car given my travel patterns).

One question which I'm sure will crop up is "Why don't you use an Apple iPhone or a BlackBerry instead?". The main reason is this: The Nokia is a "vanilla" device. It's not provided with an operator subscription at all, nor any customisations or lock-downs. While this has proved a bit of a negative because of my email hassles, it's completely outweighed by the fact that I'm free to choose whichever service provider & method of billing I like.

In my case, I'm using a prepay SIM from 3, which enables me to get flatrate data for £5 per month. I don't use the thing for voice or SMS, so that's all I'm paying. $10 / Euro7 per month for full HSDPA mobile web browsing & the ability to mess around with assorted other applications. No blocking of VoIP or anything else, just a pure pipe. Bargain. None of the other UK operators (I think) permit a similar deal - certainly not on an iPhone or BlackBerry.

Overall - it's very useful as a mobile Web device, but I'm still left cold by most mobile applications, with the honourable exception of Google Maps. And for a QWERTY device, it's aesthetically pleasing. Yes, an iPhone would be better, but it's certainly not worth the extra cash & carrier lock-in. For the growing % of users who want to disaggregate device purchase from access subscription, Nokia "gets it" more than most of its peers.

That said, I'm still not sure I'd really want to pay the £355 that it retails at - I'd much rather lose some of the "smartness" and just have a simpler £100-150 data-only tablet-type device made up of HSPA chipset + screen + browser + battery. There's so much unnecessary software in the thing that must add to the bill of materials & time/cost of testing and integration.


vinnie said...

Dean, if you needed turn by turn, Google Maps can actually mislead by a wide margin without GPS - see below


Dean Bubley said...

Hi Vinnie

Sure, but my personal use doesn't need turn-by-turn. Usually, I'm on foot somewhere in London & just need to know the layout of a couple of local streets. It's a direct replacement for an A-Z map.

Other users probably need more turn-by-turn driving directions, but generally I need that once a month or less. Would be different if I was a cab driver or a delivery guy.



vinnie said...

Dean, it would be fine for that...

for a moment I was excited about the fact that I could use Google Maps when I do drive in Europe and not have to carry SD cards with local maps, then the thought of paying roaming data charges for the maps download hit me...

more reason to walk and take trains in UK and Europe :)

Anonymous said...

Dean, you don't need to use Widsets for RSS.

Check out the Web Feeds folder in the Browser bookmarks. Clicking on RSS links should add things directly to this folder, after which you can automatically or manually update feeds.

Anonymous said...

good review and comments on the downside of too much software being loaded.
But just how good is the network coverage with 3?