The sadly flawed Symbian world top-end line-up

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In this feature, I've been taking a long hard look at the top-end smartphones in the Symbian powered world over the last three years, pointing out their flaws and frailties, and - where appropriate - pointing out what should have been done to fix things up. Yes, Symbian has been cracking along at record momentum in the mid-tier, with Nokia trouncing the iPhones, Blackberries and Android phones in terms of raw unit sales, but as many others have pointed out, Symbian's partners have been scoring rather a lot of own goals in recent times. And what of the 2010 Symbian^3 crop - will these suffer a similar fate?

Nokia N97 mini with underspecced battery

A recurring theme in tech podcasts, especially those in which I'm involved, is to sadly bring up the essential truth that there's no such thing as a perfect smartphone - yet. Whether looking in the wider phone world or whether looking just within the Symbian ecosystem, every model seems to have compromises that go beyond what you'd expect given the form factor. Now, there are often reasons given why such and such a model lacks such and such a feature - usually down to bill-of-materials and cost (fair enough, in the lower tiers of the smartphone world), but sometimes also down to simple marketing - even to the point where a particular feature would have been 'confusing' to the target market. Add in my pet reason - that the designers simply failed to come and ask me what I thought really think about what their product might be used for(!)

Ultimately, this abundance of flawed flagships and mediocre mid-tier mobile provides huge material for discussion and, to a certain extent, keeps pundits like me in a job. But I thought it might be instructive to look at some of the biggest design mistakes in the standard bearers (I'll excuse limitations in the budget models, for obvious reasons) in the Symbian world in the last three years and see if anything can be learned.

Not least because we should then ponder whether the upcoming flagships like the Nokia N8 might be able to buck the trend by avoiding the mistakes of their forebearers.

Phone   Design flaws
Nokia E71  E71
  • 2.5mm audio out port requires and adapter for almost everything
  • Very poor camera
Samsung i8510 (INNOV8)  i8510
  • TFT screen hard to see in sunlight - inexcusable for a non-touch smartphone
  • Almost non-existent firmware support and development
Samsung i8910 HD (Omnia HD)  Omnia HD
  • Poor firmware support and development (official firmware stopped last year, leaving the device almost unusable)
  • OLED screen hard to see in sunlight
  • Poor camera flash (single LED)
Nokia E75  E75
  • Battery capacity (1000mAh) on the small side for a mission-critical communicator
  • 2.4" screen looking small, even in this form factor, in 2010
  • Firmware updates stopped too soon, Ovi Maps with free navigation inexplicably Missing in Action
Sony Ericsson Satio  Satio
  • Poor build quality and choice of materials
  • Poor firmware support 
  • Three different UIs on the one phone confused everyone
  • Resistive touchscreen, becoming a liability in due course (see this for explanation)
  • Battery capacity (1000mAh) way too small for a 3.5" screened flagship
Sony Ericsson Vivaz and Vivaz Pro  Vivaz
  • Three different UIs on the one phone confused everyone
  • Super-exposed camera glass
  • No camera flash
  • TFT screen hard to see in sunlight
  • Poor build quality and choice of materials
  • Resistive touchscreen, becoming a liability in due course (see this for explanation)
Nokia N86   N86
  • Tinny speakers
  • Firmware development stopped while there were still FP2 issues
  • OLED screen hard to see in sunlight
  • Having only dual-LED for flash rankled with the high end camera specification
Nokia N97 N97 
  • Insufficient RAM for S60 5th Edition on a power user smartphone
  • Insufficient flash memory for disk C: - with modern runtime patches, users are in critical trouble far too quickly
  • Badly shielded, under-sized GPS antenna
  • Badly fitting camera protective sliding shutter which scratched the glass it was supposed to protect
  • Tinny speakers
  • Resistive touchscreen, becoming a liability in due course (see this for explanation)
Nokia N97 mini  N97
  • Undersized battery (1200mAh) for such a flagship smartphone - in typical use, this always disappoints on a power-hungry touch-driven phone
  • Insufficient RAM for S60 5th Edition on a power user smartphone
  • Tinny speakers
  • TFT screen hard to see in sunlight
  • Resistive touchscreen, becoming a liability in due course (see this for explanation)
Nokia E72  E72 
  • Poorly latched battery cover, E71 dual latches were a far better design
  • The optical navi key is universally hated - a failed experiment
  • Insufficient RAM (44MB free after booting), it's far too easy to run out
  • 2.4" screen looks small, even for this form factor, in 2010. A 2.6" display would have been far better
Nokia X6  X6 
  • Poor build quality of back and sides
  • 3.2" screen could have been larger within the same form factor, the current display makes text input on the virtual qwerty keyboard almost impossible, given that there are no writing aids in software
  • TFT screen hard to see in sunlight 
  • Insufficient RAM (43MB free after booting), it's far too easy to run out

There are some pretty fundamental issues in the high end devices above, to be honest, some of which should have been caught by even a cursory examination by anyone with their head screwed on straight. The plain TFT screen on the Samsung INNOV8, for example - presumably the sun never comes out in Korea? The lack of RAM on the N97 was understandable at least, in that the OS requirements were underestimated - but then why the heck was more RAM not engineered in for the N97 mini and X6, coming up to a year later, ditto the E72, which didn't even have the excuse of having a large touchscreen? The tinny speakers on the N97 and N97 mini when far better units were easily available in other Nokia phones. No camera flash on the Vivaz phones - really? Stopping firmware development on the N86 and E75 before either was really bug-free - disappointing, to say the least.

Many a blogger piece has been written about combining some of the best bits from different Symbian phones into the one handset, so I won't rehash old ground. But it does rather seem as if Nokia and other Symbian partners have gone out of their way to shoot themselves in the foot, time after time - not one of the above is remotely close to being perfectly conceived (never mind implemented).

N8 Browser

And so we come to the Nokia N8, now imminent - how does it fare in terms of addressing all the design flaws mentioned above?

  • The display's second generation OLED,  so visibility outdoors should be improved from (e.g.) the Samsung i8910 HD
  • The display measures a full 3.5" and there are writing aids on the virtual keyboard
  • There's a full 256MB of RAM, which should equate to about 150MB after booting, so no worries there. Similarly, the internal disk is now 512MB (minus the OS image - Z:), equating to about 300MB free for user files and OS system use. Again, plenty of overhead.
  • Build quality issues should be a non starter, since this is an aluminium shell with Gorilla glass (or equivalent) on the front - and no moving parts.
  • Camera flash worries are alleviated by having a proper Xenon unit, as on the N82
  • Battery cover fit isn't an issue, since the battery's not supposed to be user-replaceable anyway - the end cap is screwed in place
  • The touchscreen, as on the X6 and i8910 HD, is capacitive, which will banish issues of touchscreen response speed - and also hopefully of scratched resistive layers
  • There's only one speaker, but it's loud  - in my brief play with the N8, it seemed equivalent to that in the Nokia E75 - loud enough and well balanced

N8 keyboard

So a bunch of design worries alleviated there, then. Three remain though, on the N8 at least. The battery's only 1200mAh (and non-replaceable, remember, so you can't carry a spare) - with the N8's intended heavy multimedia use, this is going to struggle. Expect sales of Proporta's excellent mobile chargers to rise....

Secondly, the camera glass, critical to the N8's core function, is now fully exposed. Nokia say that this is specially toughened, but of course time will tell, out in the harsh real world. And thirdly the speaker's flush on the back, meaning that it'll be muted whenever the N8 is placed on many surfaces.

My daughter says I 'worry too much'. Possibly. But many of my worries over Symbian-powered flagships above have all come to pass. Certainly the N8 looks like it's got most potential problems licked and I remain more optimistic about this than about any other phone of the last 12 months.

Nokia N8 camera cluster

Nokia has spoken of a whole family of Symbian^3 phones, selling up to 50 million of the things over the next year or so. We can expect a QWERTY hybrid device and a budget version of the N8 at the very least - let's hope the design teams have learnt from the lessons of the last few years and avoided as many gotchas as the N8 seemingly has!

Steve Litchfield, AAS, 28 July 2010