Monday, April 25, 2011

[N8 REVIEW] Part 7-(1) : Symbian^3 and software integration !

Posted on 01:14 by SlipKoRnSaad

Hello folks,

It has been a long time since my last update for N8's review due to lack of time and i wanted to give the device a chance with the long awaited 50+ enhancement firmware update (PR 2.0 or more recently Anna) revealed by Nokia sometime ago by Senior Manager Gunther Kottzieper (at the International Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing) as coming by the First Quarter 2011 (From 1st January 2011 to 31st March 2011 right?), the second and third quarter will bring “a new look and feel for the UI". The fourth quarter will introduce more powerful CPU and graphics processors...but, it seems we'll wait longer than expected as usual with Nokia, the 1st quarter "big" update turned out to be a 2nd quarter one...according to some connected people, the update won't be live for current S^3 devices till July 2011 ! But back to that later on...

Ps : It seems that Nokia has never said that PR2.0 update would include all of those 50+ new features and updates. They said that those 50+ updates and new features will be available during this year. It was not said that PR2.0 would include those all...

In this 7th part of review, i won't follow my classical way to review an OS (describing in details each function and feature) but it'll be turned to a critical point of view of what i like and don't about some specific symbian^3 features i use in daily basis and how far different parts and applications are tightly -or not- connected with the OS inspired by my Maemo 5, IOS and WebOS use...sorry no android experience here for now :)

Yes Symbian does have a lot of functionality out-of-the-box, but just how well do they work, especially on the N8 i'm reviewing here?

Let's me make some points clear first, there is nothing wrong with the core OS in Symbian. It is much better than Android or iOS or WP, tested for ten years and it is secure. Its UI had been designed to button phones and converted to touch screen without re-design (as done with PalmOS --> WebOS).

In a user experience perspective, this has been the main problem, the UI (not the OS itself).

To this day, Symbian benefits from better battery life and lower hardware requirements than its competitors with similar features, this is for example the main reason i won't go Android anytime soon ! For me and the majority of you, Symbian is, arguably, the best phone Operating System there has ever been, and the original standard bearer for the smartphone concept.

While I wouldn't say that S^3 is slow, several times I've had to wait for the OS to catch up while I did several actions at the same time. Maybe it is the relatively slow CPU ! It's relatively stable especially when a lot of applications are turning in the background, the large amount of memory (256MB) seems to have done loads more good than I previously thought, but i cannot keep it for more than 3 days without reboot it, otherwise it'll have a lot of freezes and N900 (you'll read a lot of "with my N900" here because it's a good benchmarking device) can still run normally more than 1 week without reboot it !

And the thing is that Nokia tried (hard?) to make the user experience as smooth as they can since the 5800 (symbian^1 or more commonly S60 V5), and their attempts were successful in some way and were a "race against the time" and unsuccessful against the competition if we took a macro vision, but if we look at S^3 more closely, we'll notice a small things and tweaks that make it a significant upgrade and more "user friendly" when compared to S^1 but not a huge step closer to Maemo or IOS.

Anyway, it's not that bad because there are interesting UX related improvements we are getting in Symbian^3 like :

- Support for multiple home screens : I really like to have multiple desktops on my smartphone like my N900. With the amount of widgets, bookmarks and shortcuts I like to use, single homescreen is just not enough like it was the case with the N97. This should help to solve that problem on Symbian phones. for now 3 desktops can be allowed, in symbian Anna the number will increase to 4, however, there's a small hack that allows to go up to 6 desktops (like in the Nokia E6).

- Support for for multi-touch and capacitive touchscreen displays : Even if the multi-touch algorithm isn't as smooth as the one found on IOS, Android or WebOS, and Nokia was really too late to bring this to the table (3 years behind Apple, and almost 2 years behind Android...)

- 3x faster UI performance : scrolling increased from 15 to 60 fps (in most areas) thanks to the GPU which handles all graphic related tasks...but the the main beefs I had with Symbian^1 handset (5800), is those slow responses and lag I get when performing certain operations are still there and i guess it's due to the "slow" CPU clock...

- Significantly reduced clutter, user prompts and single tap navigation : The usage and navigation complexity on Symbian devices is one of the most frustrating things i suffered from, even if i've never compared it to IOS or other OSs when i had the 5800, thanks god this was addressed and the navigation is a bit more "logical".

- Tap-And-Hold : In addition, one tap and you will select an item, and a tap'n'hold (appeared first on UIQ then on maemo, then Android)  pops up a secondary menu of things you could do with that entry and i have to admit that it gives the user experience a lot of cool air and in my opinion this is a convenient way to interact with the device.

Each of those improvements individually promise to make Symbian^3 phones, better and more interesting compared with S^1 but just in line (or catch up with competitors...)

Other interesting features for Symbian^3 we find also the HDMI output support, HD video (support for files over 2GB), QT 4.6 integration, NFC, support for CalDAV in single and multiple calendars (SUN)

But the point isn't what features S^3 does bring or support but simply how simple and smooth it'll allow me to reach or execute the task i'll ask for (make a call, send an SMS, take a photo, browse and share my media files, keep in touch with my friends through various social networks) in an integrated common sense way.

Smart dial

The call button on the homescreen leads to the dialer, which includes a T9 search ability, practically replacing the need for the manual access to the Contacts app when you need to call someone. Just type in the name you're looking for and all matches appear in a scrollable list.

A single tap on one of the matches automatically calls that person.

A long tap allows you to access to details of the contact.

Like on Maemo5 (N900) the search algorithm is more accurate than IOS for eg, and it makes you able to search contacts, make a call, send sms etc. in a very fast way, that how a feature should be implemented : tight integration with the core system/OS, fast, reliable, and lets you do what do you want to do, quickly and in common sense way !


The contacts app has everything you may need from it. What i like about it is the ability to edit details of a contact on the go, in fact, when you select a contact, there're two tabs, the first one is the "main" view of the contact which contains the avatar (when tapping on the picture, you can delete it or change it), the name, the nickname, the job, the company, dedicated social networks status bar to immediately displays the latest events from facebook or twitter (but you have to install Nokia social network first, which is a joke for the time being), Calling number, texting number, email address, chat address, video call number and the postal address (linked with OVI Maps) you can setup default phone numbers and email addresses as usual...

The second tab, allows you to access other hidden details or simply edit on single tap the existing ones or add a new details, nice touch, but i've a mixed feelings about the way the implementation was done, all i can say is that is does the job well for basic use but you can't dream about a tight social integration as with Maemo5, just forget about it's an amateur job they're doing here with all my respect to Nokia's symbian engineers (you can ask for some help from Maemo/MeeGo team) :)

The contacts app includes a grouping feature so you can group your contacts accordingly, i stress up this feature because in the so called "modern smartphones" i can't find it out of the box, oh, wait ! There's an applet for that.. :-P

The favorite contact can be added to the homescreen trough the Favorites widget, and as it enables you to make a call, send sms, email, video call etc. quickly than other ways, let me give an example : To send an sms i have actually 4 ways to do it :

- The classical way : Enter Menu --> Select Messaging Application --> New Message --> Select Contact "Papa" --> Validate = 9sec (if we place a new message shortcut in the home screen nothing change)

- Select Contact application from the smart dial Menu --> search for "papa" --> Select it --> New Message) = 13sec (if we place a shortcut on the homescreen, the task will be performed in 9sec)

- Select Smart Dial --> Search for "papa" --> Hold click --> Enter contact --> New Message) = 10sec

- Tap on "papa" shortcut on the widget --> New Message = 7sec but the deal is that when a task is done with your favorite contact (call, sms, email etc.) the contact application closes it and the system doesn't run it in the background so every time you'll want to access your favorite contact, it reopens from the scratch ! If we make a little test and let the favorite contact run in the background we'll gain 2sec performing the same task, so in this case = 5sec ! And believe me, when you're in a hurry or walking in the street, 7sec is like a minute !

The sad news is that even with symbian Anna, it seems that this is not "fixed" yet...this is the most used feature on daily use basis for me, my N900 allows me to perform the same task in 3sec !

What drives me crazy is the search keyboard in contact application, especially the arrows keys :

I hate the way all the letter picks move around, forcing you to completely stop after every screen tap to see where the next letter you want has moved to, a T9 keyboard as in the smart-dialing applet would be very much interesting and a less time consuming in my opinion...don't know if this was addressed in Anna update...

Merge Contacts :

And the last thing i'll highlight in the contact part is that you can merge two contacts so duplicate entries will be merged into one so that only one contact with all the info remains (only two, my N900 allows me to merge multiple contacts) but this feature needs more attention and there's a lot of room for improvement, for example on the N900 i can merge intelligently two or more contact based on the name, nickname, email etc. and suggestions are popup out automatically on the N8 i have no choice but to select manually which contact is duplicated...

Communication log

The classical summarized call log is available when pressing the green call key and it is split into 3 tabs, missed calls, received calls and outgoing calls. It would have been practical however to have them all in one screen and then have have an option to filter by type (you can always access the detailed call log from the main menu...)

For an unknown reason, there is no support for avatars in the call/communication log...


Email client was removed and Conversations was added (à la iPhone) which is a very nice feature, allowing you to view your SMS history with anyone as a chat dialog and of course conversation are ordered by sender and date/time :

When accessing to a conversation you get the sent and received messages/MMS with the defined contact :

But if you want to forward, delete, copy or resend a precise part of conversation you have to click on that part and then you have the old classical messaging view that enables you to do that "simple" task :

Why not implement the Tap-And-Hold feature in this part of the messaging application as on the N900?
Another useless UX implementation is the presence of the usual Inbox, Sent, Drafts and Outbox folders, those has "disappeared" in the N900 in the favor of conversation view/management and still i managed to see my drafts and outbox, please Nokia just remove it and let the conversation implementation manage all that.

One annoying thing (especially when you use other OS's and the see the joyful of some small details) that was fixed in upcoming Anna update is the implementation of split-keyboard and once you enter a specific conversation, it pops up and the conversation remains still viewable (à la iPhone) but it is not fully implemented ( look at 1min00sec) For Dialogs with text input you still need that extra click on text field to get the virtual full screen keyboard, then to validate the typed text on the virtual keyboard screen, and again on the Dialog by pressing OK...

Another thing that was implemented in the upcoming Anna update is the QWERTY portrait keyboard (à la iPhone), this not a must have feature for me, dunno what all the big fuss about portrait qwerty is! Because T9 is a way much better and perfect for single hand use but i think (from my experience with IOS) QWERTY keyboard will make things a lot easier when writing texts in my local language, good to know that Nokia will offer the possibility to choose between the two types of keyboards ! :)

Another little frustrating thing is when you scroll a conversation, you're actually scrolling a "bloc" of limited number of sent and received messages, and then you've to tap on "show oldest messages" to continue scrolling, it's purely a good way for the system to manage available resources so it won't load all messages at once, but in demand, it's all good but it adds an extra useless step again, instead i wish we had an automatic load of other blocs like the way Gravity or Twitbird load tweets :)

Home screen 

One of the most interesting symbian^3 features is with no doubt ability to have multiple homescreens boosted by widgets and shortcuts to make the user experience more comfortable and help to make a lot of services, features and tasks more quickly accessible !

The interesting part is you can enable or disable each home screen ! Also you can define a wallpaper for each one ! (no panoramic wallpaper support yet)

Some frustrations when compared with the N900 for example is that widget can be moved around, but not between home screens, in addition, most of these widgets suffer from a lack of screen estate as they can only occupy a small rectangle, the email, messaging, RSS & even Gravity's twitter widget can only display 3 lines of text, so 2 lines of readable informations !

Why not implementing widgets which can occupy multiple slots which could impart much more valuable information to the user (Email, Messages, Calendar entries, Social networks, RSS Feeds etc.)

The only widget i want really to be fixed is the "favorite contacts" one and the way it manages a contact ^^

Task Manager

The new Task Manager hides Symbian’s superior multitasking capabilities by showing only 1,5 apps at a time (2,5 in landscape mode) and this is really ridiculous (it reminds me of WebOS) !

I mean, my damn old Samsung Omnia HD (a symbian^1 device) was equipped by a 3D live task manager and a grid live task manager (like on the N900) :

Common, it's not a rocket science !

In symbian^3 Unlike the Maemo one, these are no live thumbnails, but screenshots taken at the time of switching ! If you're running loads of apps, switching between them isn't fun when you have to scroll through the thumbnails.

Thankfully, the way the thumbnails re-arrange themselves to last switched does help in multitasking.

No dreams here, and yes don't expect to be able to close an app by swiping it off of the screen like on WebOS !

Web Browser

Simply, i don't use it, sorry i have a lot to say here but i'll summarize my opinion and say all of the horror stories involving the Symbian browser are indeed true.

Camera UI

You see, i'm getting upset now, so i'll end this post ! Stay tuned for the part two where i'll talk about overall system integration and how this makes me mad every time i use N8 for simple tasks and daily use !

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