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Symbian Underground January 7, 2009

Posted by CK in Mobility, Software.
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Of all sites Symbian, Symbian Underground is the most interesting and most informative. Highly recommended if you own a Symbian-based device.

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S60/E71: Setting the record straight January 6, 2009

Posted by CK in Mobility, Productivity, Software.
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In my previous post I ranted about the Nokia E71 and its operating system, S60. Although I’m still not happy, but I realised I was unfair in some points.

Starting new applications, calling people quickly and the menu: This phone offers voice commands on steroids, as I found out. Just press a key (or the key on your bluetooth headset) and talk. No training, no configuration, it just calls the person whose name you say. Even if it’s in the phone catalogue *in Greek*. Quite impressive. Also, new apps can be started with one of the various shells circulating around. I am currently evaluating Handy Shell and it looks quite ok.

Choosing a specific WiFi access spot for all operations is not possible (or I still haven’t found out how), but it’s not needed either. If you’re constantly on the move, it makes sense to be given the option. So that’s ok.

The keyboard: It seems that everyone’s getting it wrong, even the ones who used to get it right. I don’t know why, if it’s done once it should be done always, right?

Contacts: They *can* be categorised. Contact groups exist, but they are buried in the list of contacts themselves. Not too intuitive, but having good search functionality makes up for it: I can search using latin characters and the Greek contact names come up based on the mapping of QWERTY to Greek letters.

The one, single problem that does exist, cannot be overcome and raises a wall for me, is the lack of TODO categories. I think I will sell the phone for this reason only. How on earth is that possible on a phone like this in 2009?

[E71|S60] disappointment January 3, 2009

Posted by CK in Mobility, Productivity, Software.
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For the last three years, I’ve been living with a Palm Treo 650 in my hands. I was a loyal PalmOS user already for 7 years when I bought it, so I knew what I was getting, more or less. As a matter of fact I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was getting more than I thought. The Treo 650 was a rock-solid device with a perfect, sensible interface. I could handle it in one hand as I was walking or even driving, when in need to make that urgent phone call without looking at the phone but just clicking on a button or two. Granted, there was no WiFi, GPS or other such recent goodies, but I’ve been using it happily until a few days ago. My only regret was the looks; it was fat and ugly-ish, with that big external antenna. Almost an embarrassment these days. So I thought it was time I move forward, time to buy a new smartphone. My requirements where:

  1. Embedded hardware keyboard
  2. If possible, monoblock (i.e. no slide-out)
  3. WiFi
  4. GPS
  5. 3G
  6. Decent camera (anything more than VGA is fine)
  7. Doing video
  8. Using an OS with proven record
  9. Possible to sync with MacOS addressbook/calendar etc
  10. Costing less than an arm and a leg (i.e. not what I had paid for that Treo).

On top of this:

  • I wanted to avoid Windows Mobile if possible. I know they are better than they used to be, but I’m still biased.
  • I was sceptical about going for PalmOS again. PalmOS has not seen major innovation (like it used to) for many, many years now; only bug-fixing releases. On the same time, interfaces have gone a long way forward (see: iPhone) and PalmOS is stuck to how it looked in 2003 or so.
  • I can live with the slide-out keyboard of G1, but Android is still in its infancy and I’ve learned to avoid first releases of anything.
  • RIM Blackberries are popular in the US but from what I saw the add-on software options (from ISVs) are limited. I need something that can be heavily extended.
  • Finally, there are a few non-mainstream phones running Linux variants, but as I have also learned the hard way, you have to stick with mainstream in such cases if you want to get enough software to customise your phone to your exact liking.

So, at the end of the day, my only option was the Nokia E71 running S60. I had never used a Symbian phone before, although I was the owner of a Psion Revo (that’s how I found out about the “abundance of applications” principle, back then SymbianOS was nothing close to mainstream although the 5MX was considered a business-man’s dream). I thought, however, that right now Symbian is running on most of the smartphones out there (something like 50% according to a study I read recently and have no quotation for :)). Therefore, it should be great and do everything, right?

No.

I paid those sweet hundreds of euros, went back home and started playing with it. I knew I was not getting a touch-screen and was willing to accept it, assuming that S60 provides smart ways to avoid too many keystrokes. Gravely wrong. So here’s a list of what frustrates me, and please, let me know if I’m wrong on something (the manual doesn’t shed any light on these):

  • Doing pretty much anything on this phone means I have to hit a number of keys. I am looking for a way to assign phones I call too often, to keys. I could be missing something, but something tells me it cannot be done — I have to start writing the name. With accented Greek letters, this means pain most of the time. This is just an example though; the 10 shortcuts to common applications offered by the two start-up screens (“business” and “personal”) are just not enough. You have click your way through to the application you’re looking for, somewhere in the menu(s).
  • The menu is completely unintuitive. I was always listening to raving reports about the Nokia menus — well, someone has to use a PalmOS phone for a few days. Ok, this is a feature-rich device and of course there’s many settings and options to set, but still, how come I could do everything quickly and easily on the Treo from Day #1, but now I have to search through countless menu directories? It just doesn’t work for me.
  • Data plans are expensive. if I am near a WiFi spot, I want to use *that* access point for *all* operations in need of internet connectivity. This is not possible; there’s a lot of incoherence and different applications have a different understanding about the facility they should use. In the web browser you can set it uniquely (i.e. can’t say “I want to use WiFi, any of them”, but must select a specific wireless network, which means to change every time you change location). In other applications you can’t even choose, it just goes ahead to use the phone’s data packet relay. You can’t even set a preference in the relevant list of data network access points, which could be used by the OS and all applications.
  • The keyboard. Oh, the keyboard. I kept reading and reading how with the E71 keyboard Nokia got it exactly right, and how perfect it is although so small. People, just grab a Treo and right a short message or something, before you write that review. I won’t spend more bytes on this one.
  • The agenda. This is supposed to be a business phone, for crying out loud. The PIM functionality is laughable, in comparison to the one from PalmOS. I cannot set categories for meetings and TODOs (there’s also “reminders” and “anniversaries”, but that’s not useful). I have spent time and money to create a classification system on my desktop, and one of my primary reasons to change my mobile organiser (i.e. the phone) was to reflect this accurately from the desktop. I am now sorry to realise that PalmOS is better at it, and really sorry that I didn’t do my research but only assumed it would be possible on S60. Having a really long list of TODOs and seeing them all, independent if I’m out and about shopping or in my office shooting down business tasks, is just not helpful. Also, I need to categorise contacts. How is it useful to have a huge list (amounting to the hundreds) and not be able to break it down to pieces somehow?
  • There’s many more, but I’ll close the list with something that bothered me in Missing Sync for Symbian, which I bought to sync with the Mac. I was using the same product for PalmOS and was extremely happy with it. When syncing your calendar, there’s an option to select how much time in the past and future to take into account. I was surprised to find out that using 6m in the past and 6m in the future fails, because “the phone’s memory gets full” in the process. This is a top-notch device, how is it possible that it fills up with a few recurrent concalls and some trip dates? I assume that Missing Sync for Symbian treats recurrent events as distinct events, wasting bytes. But this is only my uneducated assumption.

This post got much longer than I intended to. I now have to start looking for a solution to my TODO categorisation problem. Something tells me it is not possible even with add-on software.