a week in wireless

Back to the future

The Informer has an admission to make. As a long-time user of the Symbian S60 operating system, he’s grown accustomed to downloading all sorts of applications and hacking his various devices to better suit his nefarious ends. In fact, a book on the arcane delights of Mobile Python has been propping his monitor up since he got his Nokia N95. But neither of these revelations is what he wants to get off his chest.

Nope. Over the Christmas holidays the Informer succumbed to the hype and got himself an iPhone. There, said it. Let he who is without an iPhone cast the first stone. But after a few days of thorough testing, which consisted largely of playing Crash Bandicoot Karting and Virtual Pool, something strange happened. The novelty wore off.

Admittedly, the Informer is still very pleased with his purchase. It’s considerably lighter on the pocket than his previous phone, if not the wallet, and now that it’s got some useful apps installed it does just as good a job as his trusty N95 ever did. But it’s far from perfect.

So it was with a certain trepidation and a dash of nostalgia that the Informer recently ripped open the packaging containing a test unit of the 5800 XpressMusic phone from Nokia, also known by the less formal moniker of the ‘Tube’. Would the Nordic firm’s first touchscreen device, sporting the very latest S60 5th Edition software, be enough to lure the Informer back to the Finnish fold?

As soon as the box was open it was obvious the Tube had an uphill struggle, because it would be largely impossible not to draw comparisons between the handset world’s reigning sovereign and the disruptive new pretender. For a start, Nokia is in dire need of a brand refresh. Whereas the Apple experience is successfully cool and futuristic, the Tube is straight out of the 1980s.

Now the Informer’s not so out of touch with popular culture that he doesn’t know there’s an 80s revival going on. But a cultural revival is typically a nostalgic nod to the good stuff, while ignoring the bad. Think Rubik’s Cubes but not bubble perms.

The device itself wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of Michael Knight, but it is solidly built and has a respectable specs list, boasting HSDPA connectivity, GPS, 8GB memory, a 3.5mm jack and surround sound stereo speakers as well as a 3.2 megapixel camera and a full VGA, 3.2″ widescreen display, with a 16 by 9 aspect ratio and 30 frames-per-second playback.

Nokia’s first attempt at a full touchscreen interface is commendable. It’s not quite the same feel as the iPhone which uses the body’s electrical charge to make for a ‘light touch’ experience, so a good press is required, but it’s not at all clunky like say, the BlackBerry Storm. The OS is stylus friendly as well, which is good news for the fat-fingered.

To use, S60 5E is very stable, but it’s not as radical an overhaul as the Informer had hoped. The UI still seems to have that flat, limited colour palette, and for all the world feels a bit like the old Sony Ericsson P900. In fact, the Informer’s chums at Ovum reckon some components of UIQ have made it into S60 5E. The menu system hasn’t much evolved, and still requires lots of drilling down to get anywhere, whereas part of the iPhone’s success story is that you’re never more than a click or two away from the goodies or the home screen.

With the favourable response the Apple App Store and Android Marketplace have received, it’s tempting to say the Nokia Download feature doesn’t cut it anymore for showcasing apps. So if the Finn’s got any sense, it’s already planning to update this feature in Ovi. In fact, it’s the future iterations of Symbian that will be the ones to watch, with the forthcoming N97 a potential game changer.

Overall the Tube is a solid, if boring, demonstration of the future potential for the S60 platform, but right now it’s not enough to tempt the Informer away from the charm of his iconic Apple gadget.


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