As you may have figured out from my previous blog post, I am in the money now thanks to the summer internship gig I did in Singapore. Now that I’m in Taipei city – home to HTC among other technology firms – with a healthy bank balance I feel sorely tempted to buy a new phone. Should I buy one?
I currently own a Nokia 5630 XpressMusic. It’s a candy-bar Symbian Series 60 3rd Edition phone that’s little known outside of Europe and in a long line of Nokia phones that the company itself seems to have forgotten. When I was looking into buying a new phone, I was considering getting either this or Nokia 5530 / 5230 (Comprende Nair owns one). Back then though, Symbian Series 60 5th Edition wasn’t mature enough, and the 5630 comes with WiFi support; the 5230 didn’t have that but it had GPS support instead that the 5630 didn’t. Typical Nokia to cripple the phone in one way or another.
Over the year that I have been using this phone, I have come to realise that WiFi is next to worthless because the browser crashes whenever trying to open the menu while browsing – which is as big a bug as it gets (although a ‘recent’ update has helped with this). Technically it has a Webkit-based browser like Mobile Safari or the Android browser too but its standards support is much worse and page rendering slower. I only ever use the built-in browser when I’m downloading apps. Here’s where Nokia (until recently) annoyed by forcing you to sign in before allowing you download any map fro the Ovi Store.
I’m forced to use 3G instead of the WiFi, as the latter clearly doesn’t work for me. The downside is that the WiFi radio on most devices uses much less power (in the order of ~100mW) compared to the 3G radio that much more power-hungry (in the order of ~1.5W). Leaving WiFi scanning on all day will deplete battery perceptibly but for data transfer WiFi is far more energy-efficient than 3G. This disparity in power consumption is partly due to the fact that with 3G your cellphone often has to make contact with a base tower further away than required for WiFi. The Nokia 5630 has an 860mAh battery – woefully less for 3G browsing usage, and lasts less than five hours moderate to heavy usage. When I’m travelling and don’t have easy access to a charging station, my phone turns into a useless brick I have to carry around. (Recently, I switched off my phone’s 3G antenna and battery life has shot up dramatically as a consequence.)
I’m a heavy texter too – I prefer texting to calling – and with Twitter / Facebook / email thrown into the mix I type a lot on my phones. My previous cellphone was a touchscreen phone that required a stylus to enter text and so I’m grateful to find a physical keypad on this phone. I’m good enough with T9 to be able to type without looking at the keypad. I’d prefer a QWERTY keyboard though, only to save myself the hassle of choosing alternatives for particular key sequence.
Media playback on the phone isn’t bad at all. The music player is good as they come, and the dedicated music buttons help. At one time this was actually useful for me as I used to maintain a music collection but now I almost exclusively use Spotify for listening to music. I pay for the Spotify Unlimited account that costs £5 per month, though it doesn’t allow me to stream / store offline to mobile (that costs an additional £5 per month). I wouldn’t mind paying the extra subscription fee but if I did start using my phone as a music player in addition to my browsing device, it’s battery is going to last me even less on a single charge.
People often say that Nokia makes good camera phones – especially the ones that it fits with Carl Zeiss lenses. Nokia, at least one point of time, certainly sold the highest number of digital cameras once you start considering smartphones as digital cameras too. The Nokia 5630 comes with 3.15 megapixel camera with LED flash (and an additional front-facing VGA camera for video calls) with the ability to stitch together panorama photos too. Sounds good, doesn’t it? In my experience though, every single Nokia phone that I have seen has been plagued with poor colour reproduction when used to take pictures not in bright sunlight. Anything other lighting condition results in harsh metallic toned images. Performance in low light conditions is next to useless because of noise in pictures taken, even with the pitiful LED flash.
I’m well-aware of the technical challenges. It’s not easy to make camera sensors that small of good enough quality and expect them to perform in a range of conditions. That’s okay. But the way Nokia and many other manufacturers market is that this one device can replace your music player, your digital camera, your PDA. When it performs bad to just average, it’s disappointing because it doesn’t meet the expectations it has set. Many iPhones and Android users will tell you happily though how they don’t have to think twice about whether they need to grab a digital camera when heading out for a trip, and they’ll be quite right. Here I am as a Nokia user who has to think through whether my phone’s camera will suffice to take pictures at events I’m attending. Even goddamned Blackberry phones take better night pictures than my Nokia phone does and that was the company everyone laughed at for not being able to do multimedia well!
I’ll give an example of how deceptive Nokia’s marketing is. Around the launch of Nokia N8, they released this promotional video, ostensibly to show off the high quality video recording capabilities of the phone. (They also released another video starring Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire and Pamela Anderson.)
When you see the video, it’s a bit hard to believe a phone camera could achieve such quality. And you’ll be right too. Nokia had the balls to upload a behind-the-scenes video clearly showing that they used professional-grade cameras and sound recording equipment to shoot the ad.
If the phone itself wasn’t used to shoot the ad, then what’s the point? Nokia isn’t in the business of foosball tables after all, is it. It’s in the business of selling phones and an ad claiming it’s phone had a good camera couldn’t be shot with said phone simply because it isn’t as good as it claims!
I’m quite impressed by the quality of the camera on the iPhone 3GS / iPhone 4 especially its performance at night and in filming video. If I record a video on the 5630, I get videos with random tearing and jitter in images. Solving it is supposedly easy – “just do a hard reset of the phone” – and this is the advice you always get from Nokia and its users as if it’s expected to solve everything. Why should I be the one who has to suffer though for mistakes that Nokia has made? I was recently – a week or two ago – prompted that a stability update was available for my phone…which was released two years ago! I had specifically and manually checked for updates and yet I never received a notification for it – neither from Ovi Suite nor on the phone itself. 5630 supposedly can do firmware upgrades over-the-air, so I want to know why I forced to tether the phone for the update.
Speaking of the camera, what particularly hurts is the lack of options to be able to share pictures on the move. Network effects come into play here. The only easy upload option is to send it to Nokia Ovi Share, but I don’t want to send it to that! I want to share directly to Facebook (and enjoy all the privacy options it provides me) or directly on Yfrog (where I post my Twitter picture updates to) because that’s where all my friends whom I want to share an update are. I could upload to Facebook via email / MMS, but I don’t feel like doing that because of the many steps involved. I certainly don’t want to say that I’m too involved in documenting an event to be able to live the moment and enjoy it fully. Still, there are times when I come across something funny or where a picture can provide much better context (worth a thousand words, etc) to what I want to share. Click picture, wait to go back home to upload it, forget to, finally get around to it weeks later – that completely kills the moment.
You know where this is going. Until a couple of years ago, the feature a cellphone came bundled with made or broke the decision whether you would buy it or not. In 2011, it’s all about the app ecosystem the phone supports. It doesn’t matter whether your phone can toast bread or allow you to upload pictures on the move; it matters more whether “there’s an app for that”. I want to act all hipster and upload pictures of Starbucks coffee cups to Instagram. I want to be able to check-in to Foursquare using the app (which crashes as soon as I started it on my Symbian phone) rather than using the shitty mobile website Foursquare has.
I am not the only one complaining. Long-time Symbian evangelist blog Symbian Guru shut down last year because the editors got fed up of the random bugs, poor integration with hardware, and complete disinterest in part of developers to build apps for the platform. What they speak there is something that many Nokia users will nod in agreement to. Stephen Elop understands that the game is all about platforms and apps now, and I like his bold decision to go with Windows Phone 7 platform so as not to have Nokia end up as ‘yet another’ Android. Symbian fans just don’t get this and keep on going on and on about how it could be made better, how Meego could be a reasonable alternative, how Symbian has rock-solid power management features and back in the day, we spent hours optimising. Old-timers can rant but nobody fucking cares as long as they can play Fruit Ninja, you see. Nokia phones are built like a fucking rock, and given the state of the Ovi App Store, have the functionality of one too.
And yet. And yet…
I cannot complain that my Nokia 5630 has served me well. I have dropped it, manhandled it, gotten in wet due to rains when travelling, browsed on it when eating lunch/dinner – keypad all greasy and then wiped it off easily, put it into pockets with keys and other sharp objects that could scratch it…and every single time it has shown me the Nokia ‘Connecting People’ logo the next day. Gorilla Glass or no, it’s a level of abuse I do not expect an iPhone, Android, or Windows Phone to put up with.
Then there’s the inexorable march towards large touchscreen phones. I can’t help but think that this form factor is not necessarily the best for everyone, and the world has a lot to lose with companies such as Nokia exiting the market for other form factor smartphones (or Blackberry struggling to keep traction). Then again, my dad currently uses a Samsung Bada OS ‘smart feature-phone’ which I thought he wouldn’t like at all; turns out he does and he finds it more intuitive to use.
Am I being a spoilt brat who just wants the latest toy to play with? Or do I genuinely need to get a new phone that is a better fit for my usage pattern? I only have a few days to decide…
I have a thang for ‘underdog’ cellphones ever since I have owned a personal cellphone. Due to ‘circumstances’ I have barely held on to each phone for more than a year. I wanted to document my journey through the cellphones I have gone through in past few years.
To this day I’m proud of the fact that I bought my first cellphone with my own finances and not demanding my parents for one. (You see, the quizzing business is a lucrative one.) My first phone was a Nokia 3220, a cute little number – I am as embarrassed as the next guy in describing it this way, though describing it as anything else would not do justice to it nor would be truthful – that died a sad, slow death as even Nokia ignored it.
Not even an advertisement showcasing the glory of its 8-bit retro polyphonic ringtones could save the Nokia 3220
Those were the days when Nokia 7650 was the thing in the cellphone market – period – and yet I went gorilla shit over the 3220 with its synchronised flashing lights. I was an early adopter of the phone too, buying it not long after it was launched. The design and the funky lights – oh the lights – made me forgive everything about this phone that was bad: the VGA camera, the 5 MB of shared memory with no room for expansion, no Bluetooth. In the end, while the 3220 died a slow death in the market because it was caught in the awkward position of not being sober enough for adults and too cartoonish for hip youngsters, my own model of the phone died due to water-logging from sweat.
Burned by the poor multimedia experience on 3220 (memory, memory, memory) I started looking for a phone that could ‘do multimedia’ better. I did not like the bulk of the classic iPod and the iPod Nano offerings back then hadn’t matured enough to my liking, so preferably a phone that could double up as my music player. This is when I chanced upon an ad in the newspaper for the LG KG300 ‘Dynamite’ series phone.
This promotional video bundled with every LG KG300 was pretty much the high point of the phone
On paper (literally, in that newspaper ad), LG KG300 appeared perfect for me. It had a 2 megapixel camera (that, on usage, turned out to be not bad at all), a music player that the ad claimed had ‘a graphic equalizer’, and expandable storage – perhaps not major differentiator from other phones, objectively speaking. In short, it appeared to be much better than what I had been putting up with so far. Alas, the actual phone was a far cry from the promotional material. On the surface, the Dynamite series looks good but dig deeper and you’ll find niggling user experience issues: within a Java application (Opera Mini for instance), you could not use T9 predictive text, there were parts of the interface where user prompts were in ‘Engrish‘, the video player couldn’t play Mp4 videos (as it promised) without a time-consuming conversion process that you need to find third-party software for as the bundled phone suite didn’t have that function, and (the biggest deception of all) the phone didn’t actually have a graphic equalizer – it had a couple of preset equalization for which it played back a fixed ‘graphic equalizer’ animation. The way T9 was implemented in the text message composer was particularly annoying too as it didn’t show you a list of possible options, sometimes forcing you to cycle through the whole list again in case you accidentally skipped it.
Within a year, I was bored with my LG phone and wanted to move on. I set my sights next on the Motorola ROKR E6e (E6’e’ variant was a minor upgrade that added support for EDGE). The main attraction for me was that this was a Linux phone with a vibrant community was coming up with hacks to extend its functionality. Back in the day when app stores weren’t big. custom modifications such as this were the thing. This was the first phone I owned that offered multitasking capability. ROKR E6e came bundled with a PDF and Office documents viewer, a robust email client, and handwriting recognition. Yet, the handwriting recognition was letter-by-letter, which broke the flow of writing text. More often than not I ended up using the on-screen QWERTY keyboard instead. Although technically you use the touchscreen with your fingers, the small (QWERTY) keyboard size forced you to use the bundled stylus instead. The browser – Opera Mobile – was actually quite good. The camera however didn’t work as well; the problem with it was that it took a picture as soon as shutter button was depressed. On a phone doing this causes your hand to shake, thus resulting in blurry images. Many people who had this phone complained but nobody seems to have listened. There were other niggles such as the screen used to take a noticeable time to refresh the screen when scrolling, causing a jittery scrolling display.
Motorola’s advertising in India pushed the music features of ROKR E6
Still, as far as phones went this cheap model offered features many higher end smartphones in the day offered. Certainly it put up with more abuse than other phones would have been able to handle; try dropping an iPhone down a couple of flights of stairs and tell me whether it survives intact. My ROKR E6 became useless for me though when the hardware lock for the touchscreen broke. Yes, there was a ‘soft’ touchscreen lock too, but the same screen also put a dial pad and a switch off button that caused random phone calls to friends or sudden shutdowns when I carried it in my pocket. I was in the UK when this happened and as the phone was never launched there, I was informed by Motorola that the only way to repair it would be submit it for repairs and wait while they shipped the phone to China and back for repair. I would have to wait for two months to get my repaired phone back! I could not live without one for so long, and I started looking for a new phone.
That’s when I decided to buy my current Nokia 5630. There was drama associated as usual with this purchase too, as Royal Mail lost the first shipment of the phone that I ordered online. I had to wait over a month for the package to be officially lost as declared before I got a refund and ordered a second time online.
You’ve read the rest of the story above.