Speaking Engagements & Private Workshops - Get Dean Bubley to present or chair your event

Need an experienced, provocative & influential telecoms keynote speaker, moderator/chair or workshop facilitator?
To see recent presentations, and discuss Dean Bubley's appearance at a specific event, click here

Monday, June 15, 2009

Touchscreens and widgets - the promise vs reality on the Nokia N97

I'm a little wary of writing this post - I'm quite aware that opinions about specific devices are really subjective, based on your expectations, your own personal way of using phones, what you feel is important and so on. I'm also well aware that implementations vary, software and hardware gets updates, and all sorts of little contextual things make a difference, such as the precise configuration of a given service provider's network.

Also, I don't do "product reviews". Occasionally I'll play around with a device, which I might have bought with my own money, borrowed from a friend, or (as in this case) had sent to me for evaluation. I try and use them pretty much as I would "normally", albeit with a bit more inquisitiveness to see how some of the less usual features work. So for example, I tend not to read instruction manuals - I reckon most things should be intuitive.

I've been using Nokia's N97 for the last week or so. It is (I think) production-spec and not a prototype. The one I have is "vanilla" in both colour and configuration - ie it's not an operator-specific variant, just ex-factory with (I presume) a UK-specific bias as it came with a British-style plug.

And I'm sorry, but it is without doubt the most frustrating phone I have ever used. It's pretty rare that I swear at inanimate objects, but my language has been pretty fruity for the past few days. If you ever encounter either PM Gordon Brown or model Naomi Campbell with an N97 (both well-known as phone-throwers) I'd advise you to take cover.

Before I get a deluge of flames, I'd point out that I'm not a Nokia-hater. I've been using an E71 for months as my main web/email device and quite like it. It's not without faults, but it's a great piece of engineering and it's pretty predictable in the way it behaves, so I can work around the idiosyncracies.

The N97 is not predictable.

It's not a bad-looking device (although a bit chunky), and has a decent-enough QWERTY. It doesn't scream "tactile" and "design" in the way the E71 or iPhone does, but it's not as plasticky as some past smartphones either.

First, the touchscreen is pretty weak, and the software integration with the touchscreen is worse. It seems totally random whether a swipe makes things scroll or not, and with some apps you have to find some sort of "sweet spot" to do page-up/down. Possibly something to do with resistive vs. capacitative, but whatever, it's very poor compared to the iPhone. Sometimes there's lag (especially in the browser) so you tap again when you think nothing's happening - which then triggers two actions in a row when it finally wakes up. There's a separate stylus in the box (on a lanyard, not integrated into the body of the phone) which clearly seems to be an afterthought.

The first day I had it, I found the battery life to be abominable. Really. It ate two big 1500mAH batteries within 30 hours - with no use of video, voice or music. Since then it has seemed to be mostly OK, which is a relief, but I don't quite trust it yet. It may have been because I was on the edge of signal coverage at a conference, and it was flipping radio state all the time. It might have been because of widgets and automated "pull" email, or perhaps some background tasks or whatever. I didn't fiddle with the settings, so whatever happened was default mode. It felt quite warm at times, which suggested that something might have been going on, either keeping the radio alive or some sort of software loop using the processor. Either way, not impressive.

The orientation sensor and software integration is very patchy. Does an app (or the menu?) rotate when you go from portrait to landscape mode? Do you need to flip out the keyboard to trigger the landscape mode? Who knows, seems totally random. I found the "sensor settings" menu with "turning control", which made things a bit better, but again scrolling is often tricky and you need to open the keypad to get to the 4-way controller for fine-grained choice of links or menu items. Pity that on at least one app I tried, it didn't realise that the 4-way was therefore 90degrees different, so down/up got transposed as left/right on screen, confusingly.

Initially, I thought the home-screen widgets and applications were OK. But I've found them to be one of the biggest nightmares, especially the Facebook app. It seems to randomly log me out, or hang"Loading... please wait". Clicking on it does nothing. Or it gives other random & confusing error messages.

But the worst was yesterday - I was away over the weekend, and switched off the cellular radio, to avoid roaming charges, just using WiFi instead. I got back to the UK, and the Facebook widget on the homescreen repeatedly tried to connect to a WiFi point I'd used, giving confusing error messages and referring to the "options" menu and changing the connection settings. The Options menu on the homescreen doesn't have a settings tab. So I fired up the main Facebook app. No options menu at all. But an error message every 3 seconds, and repeated attempts to connect to the now-phantom WiFi. I deleted the homescreen widget, then went to the main WiFi connection config screen. No way to delete that AP, no way to turn WiFi off entirely. I ended up deleting the Facebook app, convinced it was bugged. Then I launched the browser - and once again, I get the WiFi SSID from a Budapest cafe, rather than the 3G network. Ah-hah! The browser does have an Options menu, and eventually I could change the connection preferences.

This is possibly a fatal flaw with the whole widget phenomenon - if they're using the browser "engine", they also use the browser's settings. Most people won't know this, or think to look. If something's awry with the browser, that also screws up all its associated widgets. I found myself glaring & swearing at the phone - apologies if you were on the Heathrow Express yesterday evening and saw my exasperation. And there seems to be no way to configure the homescreen to show 2 separate sets of email widgets, one from my work email and one from my personal address. (And the widgets are labelled "content" on the menu, ugh - as in "hide content" or "edit content". Horrible, horrible term used by nobody outside the industry, and inappropriate in this instance anyway).

When the widgets work OK, that's fine. But I found myself wanting to get rid of them all and just go back to a nice plain homescreen, with menus & softkeys that had no mention of "content".

Another inconsistency: the screen backlight turns off & the phone locks after a period. That's sort of OK, but you need to use an external hardware switch to turn it back on. It even seems to turn off while mid-task, eg downloading big web pages. You can't just tap/swipe it alive again, you need to use the switch. And about 20% of the time when it unlocks, backlight doesn't come back on, competely randomly. The keypad's live, but you can't see the screen.

Other things:
- The EMail client is atrocious - not just usual S60-bad, but with really poor integration with touchscreen. Flipping through emails is painful, especially ones with HTML which comes through as an attachment needing the browser to open. Poor use of screen resolution - all you can see without clicking on a message is "about 20 characters of sender & title, even in landscape mode
- Menu organisation is frustrating. Moving apps to the bottom of the list makes them disappear. Somewhere there's a sub-menu or page 2, but it seems completely unclear how I accidentally found it.
- It took me more than 5 minutes to find the settings menu & work out how to turn off the (default!) annoying keytones. And some apps seem to unilaterally switch them back on again.
- The radio reception is flaky. It's much worse than my E71 with the same SIM & network in any given location, often only giving me 3G rather than 3.5G.
- The camera sucks, surprisingly - I expected it to be really good, but it's worse than the not-particularly accomplished one in my SonyEricsson. Might be Version 1 software again, but I'm glad I had a proper camera with me for the weekend. No proper flash either, just LEDs, pretty dismal on a top-end phone. And when you zoom in on some photos, it goes to about 2x... then displays a black screen if you drill down further.

The Ovi store has been discussed elsewhere, so I won't comment further. I'm also guessing there's not many N97-tailored apps yet, so maybe the selection will get better. It needs to.

I could go on. Bottom line, there's a lot of good stuff in the device (32GB memory etc), but the screen & UI just don't work intuitively. Just too much is frustrating. Nokia should have spent less time & money on fripperies (FM transmitter - cool, but who cares?) and more on power management and a better touch experience.

It's a shame - I wanted to get a bit of a reaction from my iPhone-toting friends, especially as the 3G S is only an incremental upgrade rather than a complete redesign. But I'm putting the SIM back in the E71 instead, so they won't even get to see it.

I'm sure there's a bunch of other cool stuff in the phone (I saw apps from Qik, Joiku and others, although no Skype), but I can't suffer the basics of the phone to make an attempt to try them out.

One last point - it looks really geeky when it's opened, like the MDA Vario 3, with the flip-up screen and (for real!) the spec printed on the hinge when open. Having "3G HSDPA. USB 2.0. FM RDS" written on your handset's exterior reminds me of a Mercedes E-class I saw once, on which the owner had put a handmade "Air Conditioning" sticker next to the model number E320.

Sorry for this guys, as I know a lot of people must have put a lot of effort into building this - but Apple isn't going to have any sleepless nights unless there's a serious attempt at a Version 2.

1 comment:

Santosh Dornal said...

Very true. The phone design itself is bad. The resistive touch sucks. More over the processor and RAM of the device are bad too. Overall Nokia has broke my heart with this device.