My fortnight affair with Nokia – a review of the N8

Nokia N8 handset

For the last two weeks, my HTC Desire has been off for repair, and Nokia very kindly sent me an N8 to try for two weeks, so I wasn’t stuck with the terrible handset T-Mobile gave me. The only condition…. this review.

So here it is the highs and lows of my first Nokia handset, from a user experience designer’s perspective.

I was impressed at first, the N8 offers some haptic feedback, which I think is very valuable when dealing with touchscreen interfaces, but in my opinion it’s too indiscriminate, as you get feedback for any action you perform, including scrolling. However the button feedback is very subtle and effective, with a down and up feedback, much better than other touch screen devices I’ve used.

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The handset itself ok, about the same size and weight as my HTC Desire, complete with audio jack, USB, camera and MicroSD expansion in a sealed unit like an iPhone. In addition it has a HDMI output, which makes more sense when you look at the camera on this handset.

The camera is pretty outstanding, it’s 12 megapixels and has a Carl Zeiss lense and includes a flash. The handset has a dedicated photo button, making it very easy to switch into camera mode. Although the case doesn’t offer a way to protect the lense cover, which is a shame, but would add bulk. The camera is so good that if that features heavily into your phone choice you should definitely consider this handset.

The problem for me came with the operating system, it does do a bunch of cool stuff, but Symbian is still feature rich at the cost of usability. Holding down call, allows you to open apps by voice, but you have to know what to call it, e.g. Internet got me nowhere, while it recognised Contacts and Calendar.

The biggest failing for me was the difficulty with which to get to applications. The desktop space, has multiple screens and is easy to customise, but you can only add widgets, not shortcuts to applications; an option called “shortcuts” just offering four pre-populated shortcuts and if these could be customised I couldn’t work out how. Instead accessing the apps requires I press the home button and navigate through a screen that looks like a slightly improved version of the old ‘mystery meat’ Symbian menu, to an application menu, where all the good stuff sits. It’s only saving grace is that it highlights which applications are open with a little green ‘o’ next to the icon in this menu, and that it is easier to close applications than in either IOS or Android.

It seems fair at this point to talk about the application ecosystem, Nokia has its own ecosystem called Ovi, in the same way Android has Google and the iPhone has iTunes and Mobile Me. You can buy apps and backup your contacts in the same way you can on any smartphone . The problem here is that with any smartphone the apps have a really important part to play. The usual suspects do make an appearance, so you can still play Angry Birds on your N8, but there will be less applications available for general consumption. The Ovi store works smoothly and is not unlike using Android’s marketplace, so it works well, but doesn’t offer anything new. A shame as I think the app stores are the areas that now really need reconsidering in terms of usability.

I did get frustrated when I couldn’t find the handset MAC address, so was unable to add it to my wireless network. Information like this can be well hidden, but it should be available somewhere, after a google I found out you need to put a code into the call screen, which for me is beyond obtuse.

The compact charger is a delight, much lighter and smaller than most, although why it isn’t a USB charger I don’t know.

Overall I did struggle with this handset a bit, but this may be largely because I’m already heavily invested into the Google ecosystem, so once I sync my phone with my Google account everything else comes to life. But I have no investment in Ovi and despite creating an account for this review, it’s unlikely I would ever use it in the same way – seamlessly across multiple platforms. I think that the hardware is pretty good, the camera especially is outstanding, but it needs an operating system that has been built from the ground up as a smartphone OS and Symbian still fails on that front.

Thanks to the great guys at WOMWorld Nokia for the loan of the phone, and credit should be given to Nokia for supporting a venture that engages with social media in a smart way. I expect this will be the first and last review I ever get to do thanks to Twitter, but it has been a great experience.

Android and HTC: The mobile power couple

I recently acquired a HTC Desire running Android 2.1 and it has significantly changed the way I use my mobile phone. The primary reason for this can easily be attributed to Android. I knew when selecting a new phone that the apps would make or break it.

So why not go with iPhone? Because HTC make the best hardware on the market.

HTC Desire

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Hardware vs Software

I have been a fan of HTC handsets for several years now, as they regularly push the hardware limits of mobile devices, squeezing in just that bit more functionality than their competitors; however more often than not the software was a letdown, not living up to the potential of the hardware, even in things as crucial using it as a phone.

Apple blew the market away; the hardware is not as groundbreaking, but it made sure that the OS fully supported the hardware functionality, concentrating on the usability of the product in a market that was saturated with terrible UI design.

Windows Mobile

A few months later Android launched.

Apps

The reason my mobile usage has changed is largely because of Marketplace. My old HTC Diamond, has amazing hardware, but runs Windows Mobile and the apps are sold in a more traditional software business model (as you might expect on a Microsoft platform) with a price tag to match. Apple created the AppStore, as a single point for all apps, accepting micropayments through iTunes.

Android has easy access via their Marketplace and also utilises a lot of the other successful Google applications like Gmail and Google Calendar, meaning for me it is taking the tools I’m already using and seamlessly putting them in my pocket. I could check my Gmail on my old Diamond, but it was pull not push and didn’t support HTML; now it is easier to use my phone than it is my PC.

Apps are purchased through Google Checkout with a 24 hour refund policy, so rather than enforcing heavy restrictions on the apps available as with iTunes, users can try and review apps without cost for 24 hours.

Widgets

Android has a desktop like space which you can customise with widgets, which means you don’t need to launch applications to get to useful information, such as your appointments, photos or if your train is on time.

HTC and Android

HTC have a history of taking off the rough edges of the OS interface with HTC Sense. This made my old HTC Diamond very usable and it hid a myriad of Microsoft’s sins behind smooth animation and gradient interface menus. With Android this work isn’t needed, allowing them to concentrate of creating some great looking apps and widgets; that means your phone is ready to run straight from the box, no need to go hunting through the Marketplace for Facebook or Twitter apps, just sync and go.

Development

Fragmentation has always made mobile development difficult and while neither platform is particularly easy to develop for, Apple have recently taken the step of excluding apps that have been compiled from Flash, which could reduce the number of developers with the necessary skills to create apps. Android is Open Source and Java based as opposed to Apple’s Objective C, and there is an increasing market of tools to help compile for your desired OS. Apple no longer has the largest market share, although the expected release in June of a new handset will most likely boost iPhone sales again.

The cost of submitting an app is considerably cheaper for Marketplace than it is any other platform, and the volume of apps is increasing as the Android adoption grows.

Handsets and Networks

Apple has at last allowed networks other than O2 sell the iPhone, but the hardware doesn’t change until Apple release new version. Android is available on many different handsets, so you can pick one that best suits your specific needs. HTC are constantly developing new handsets so you can always get the most cutting edge technology on the market.

2008 Technology Retrospective

This is a personal retrospective on technologies that had a significant impact on my life over the last 12 months, that is to say they are not necessarily new technologies, or even new to me, but the way that I use them has dramatically changed or had a significant impact that wasn't there before.

Podcast logo

Podcasts

In 2008 I've got into downloading and listening to podcasts. The main barrier to entry for me had been finding the quality content, but I found the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast interesting enough that I made the effort to download it regularly. After getting an iPod it became a great deal easier to find interesting and useful content thanks to the iTunes store and for all its flaws it offers a nice hands off way of maintaining my subscriptions. While Juice can offer the subscription management for other players, it lacks a resource to plug into as a way of finding interesting content. The whole thing is disappointingly hardware centric.

Impact:

It makes better use of my commute time, and offers an additional way to take in useful information that can be easier to multi task than keeping on top of my RSS reader. However it is still very much about finding the right content and for me that is mostly covered off by the Guardian Tech Weekly, TED talks and Channel Flip Games (sadly this website fails to acknowledge their female audience).

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Twitter

This one is another late one for me, although I registered over a year ago I didn't have enough friends using the service and I didn't know how to find the interesting conversations. Two things changed over the course of the year; my brother became very active and offered me friendly face of whom I could ask the stupid questions (Twitter is not newbie friendly). Secondly I attended the #foct08 conference that actively encouraged participation through Twitter, by simultaneously projecting a live Twitter stream, thus offering me a reason to twitter and contribute whilst also finding those much needed contacts and conversations that make Twitter so engaging.

Impact:

It has already had a rather profound influence, since some of my usual bloggersphere haunts have become Twitter contacts, enabling me to have a much more direct conversation with those individuals than blog comments normally afford. Because of the very linear and immediate nature of Twitter I often use it instead of my RSS reader, I then get a direct link to the site, rather than seeing the content in sub-par experience of a reader. It has definitely altered my surfing habits and I am still finding new ways of hunting down other interesting people to follow, hashtags, MrTweet and Twitter Grader are proving quite useful.It has to be said this also offers the ambient intimacy (kudos Leisa) that appealed about Facebook, which is now neglected in lieu of Twitter.

Gaming

I got a Wii for my birthday this year and this was really the introduction of third generation console gaming into my home. Although there is a lot written about how the Wii has attracted casual gamers, the really interesting thing for me is the new way you can interact with the console and the new sorts of games that are being developed as a result. The most interesting games in my mind take advantage of these new kinds of interactions, without this the Wii is a poor relative to the other consoles, even with Nintendo's development powerhouse behind it. The other thing I like that Nintendo did was to explore mixing play with other tasks we would don't traditionally associate with gaming, such as learning or exercise, but it is interesting since as kids we learn through play.

Impact:

There have been a couple of games that although released across platforms have created a specific Wii version that utilises the controller, for me this is essential and can be the deciding factor in buying a game I would of skipped over on another console. The types of games I play has widened too.

Mobile Internet

At last thanks to the iPod and my HTC touch the mobile internet is mostly usable. It's not ready to replace my laptop yet, but on those occasions when I want internet access and I don't have access to my PC it fills the gap and works well for most sites. It has been increasingly useful when at work with restricted internet access, I can use my phone to check my email and sites like Facebook.

Impact:

Closer to ubiquitous computing. I can feed my internet addiction almost anywhere 🙂