Are the 2010 Symbian smartphones about to be obsolete? (That'll be a NO)

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The smartphone world moves, as they say, at a frantic pace. What is cutting edge one month is replaced six (or even three) months later. Making rather a mockery of typical 18 and 24 month phone contracts, but that's another rant for another day. More to the point, we've had a number of new Symbian handsets announced and then made available in the last few months (Nokia 603, 700, 701), all running Symbian Belle. Where on earth does this leave the original Symbian^3 handsets from 2010? On the shelf? Not likely....

What I find fascinating is that the recent handsets (Nokia 500, Nokia 603, Nokia 700, Nokia 701) don't really replace the existing ones, launched over a year ago - they supplement the range on the whole. At least, there's no attempt to replace:

  • the N8 (superlative camera, dual charging)
  • the E7 (hybrid qwerty slider, 4" display)
  • the E6 (qwerty candybar, BP-4L-compatible)

And even (arguably) the X7 (4" display, fancy styling).

Now the C6-01 is arguably superceded by the 603 and/or the 700, and the 701 is very much an updated C7, so there's an element of replacement going on, but the big three above haven't been touched. 

Is this because all three didn't sell very well? Definitely not - we know the N8 sold by the bucket load, for example. Surely the reason is that there's no need to hurry to replace the N8, E7 and E6 because the devices are still doing what they're supposed to do? With the updates to Symbian Anna (now rolled out to all corners of the globe, I'm informed - cue complaints from product codes that have been forgotten by Nokia!), with the Anna service pack, and with updates to Social and Maps and Web and the Store client, these older phones (including the C6-01 and C7) have been kept surprisingly up to date.

We hear that all the 2010 Symbian^3 handsets will get Symbian Belle as an update in the coming month(s) and we've covered what's included in this major OS update already. Looking at the editorial Nokia 700, I see it has 512MB of RAM under the hood and has just over 300MB of free RAM after booting, implying that Symbian Belle is demanding just over 200MB. Now transplant this into the N8 generation of devices, all with 256MB of RAM, and you arrive at the clearly untenable figure of 50MB or so of RAM after booting.

It's obvious that part of the delay in releasing Symbian Belle for these slightly older devices is optimising the OS to run in slightly less RAM. Reports have come in of Belle on the N8 booting with around 120MB of free RAM - a good 40MB less than Symbian^3 and a good 25MB less than Symbian Anna.

N8 with Belle at Nokia World

All the Symbian^3 handsets were shown off with Belle at Nokia World - surely the update can't be far away?

Given that the larger games on Symbian can demand up to 100MB of RAM, I suspect that some optimisations will also be needed by some game developers, but general applications, including Web browsing and multimedia functions should be fine. Symbian is relatively efficient in its use of RAM and 120MB free after booting is enough for day to day use.

Processor speeds also crept up with the release of the Nokia 700, 701, 603 and 500, all of which came with a 1GHz chip under the hood. Chip speed isn't as crucial as RAM on any computer, whether a desktop, tablet or a phone, but it does give an extra speed boost to the newer devices.

And so we come to the situation that we'll have an N8, a E7 and an E6, all running Symbian Belle, but with 120MB of free RAM (rather than 300MB) and 680MHz processors (rather than 1GHz). All of which isn't necessarily a problem. Certainly, those who have tried Symbian Belle on the X7, N8 and E7 (at Nokia World, for example) report really smooth operation, comparable to the native Belle 700 and 701.

I'd argue that the N8 and E7 in particular, with their particular unique selling points in hardware and given their age, meaning fairly low second hand prices, will offer astounding value for money at the end of 2011. The N8 will average around £160 on eBay by Christmas, meaning that this sum of money will get you what is still the best camera-toting smartphone in the world - with the very latest Symbian OS, Belle, and all its UI improvements. 

In similar fashion, the E7 will be less than £200 on eBay and with Belle hopefully fixing many of the little niggles (cough - Wi-fi disconnects) that many of us have had with this mini-laptop form factor, it'll also offer cracking value for money.

And I'd like, in particular, to also highlight the unsung beauty of the Symbian^3 range, the mirror-finish C7. Although lacking the N8's camera, it does add a genuine user-replaceable battery and NFC, the latter hopefully being made fully functional  (up to Nokia 700 standards) by Symbian Belle. Plus it has the N8's dual charging, FM transmitter and many of the other internal gadgets. Yes, the Nokia 701 is the newer, replacement model, adding the 1GHz processor and extra RAM, but the 701 isn't being sold in all markets and, where it is, is almost twice the current second hand price of the existing C7, which can often be picked up for as little as £120.

So, let's get this straight.

We'll have the C7, a 3.5" AMOLED-screened, graphics accelerated, NFC-equipped, FM transmitting, USB-on-the-go and microSD-enabled, 8 megapixel, 720p-shooting smartphone running Symbian Belle, it may still even be in warranty and you'll be picking it up for around a quarter of the price of the latest Android flagship (that probably doesn't have half these gadgets)? Stunning.

C7 on the stand

A Belle-running C7 on the stand at Nokia World being given a good fingerprint wipe by the staff. TLC, eh?

Talking of Android, there was a lot of talk about Nokia turning to this OS just over a year ago - it never happened (and for good reasons), but Symbian Belle's UI does have a lot of nods to Android (notification pane, multi-size widgets, flat applications menu, lock screen messages, etc.), meaning that you really can 'have your cake and eat it'. You get the Nokia hardware, compatibility with all the Symbian apps you love and yet most of the good bits from Android's multi-touch interface. What's not to like?

Belle on the N8, C7, etc. Bargains, bargains, all made possible by Nokia's OS admirable upgrade policy. There are many reasons to dislike Nokia, but also many to like it, and OS upgrades are generally one such (network variant update problems notwithstanding).

I'm excited by the fact that my personal N8, E7 and C7 are all going to be given a whole new lease of life. I'm a bit apprehensive, after years of S60 5th Edition, Symbian^3 and Anna, about getting used to the tweaked UI in Belle, but I do feel the changes will be very worthwhile in the long run. What about you?

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 3rd November 2011