Concluding the N86 experiment

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I'm not the only crazy N86 fan, it seems - the much respected Alvin Wong has been running a two week experiment using this three year old T9-based phone (the last great N95-style dual-slide smartphone) as his only device. No touchscreens, no qwerty keypads (physical or otherwise), no 2012 cloud computing (out of the box, at least). He took the experiment very seriously and has produced a number of extensive reports, some of which are quoted and linked below. 

Of particular note is that the experiment didn't reach the full two weeks because, despite warnings from this very site, Alvin used a micro-SIM adapter in the N86's slot and errr.... broke the little contact pins. The repair lasted long enough to make the experiment worth doing though, thankfully.

Here's Alvin's launch article on the N86 experiment (previously linked here on AAS).

Then, in chronological order, we have:

Two weeks with the N86 – Day 3, in which Alvin got reacquainted with the N86's still stunning camera:

N86 sample photo

There are so many things that Nokia got right with the N86 from a hardware design standpoint. First and foremost, the N86 is solidly built and still feels very much like it just came out of the box for the 1st time despite being three years old. Previous N95/N95 8GB/N85 owners will recall how build quality wasn’t really a strong point of those earlier dual sliders, but the N86 still feels like a top-end smartphone today. The sliding mechanism is still as tight as ever, the lens is pristine, the battery cover fits tightly without any creaks and none of the buttons feel abnormally loose. And the glass front looks and feels perfect.

I really like the physical size of the N86 not only because it fits really comfortably in my hand but also because it actually feels like a phone when I hold it up to my face, as opposed to almost every modern smartphone available today. What I love, however, is the experience of taking photos with the N86.The N86′s camera is still stunning even by today’s standardsThis is the first time in a really long time that I’ve felt like I actually want to take photos with a phone, simply because what the N86′s camera produces is never disappointing and the physical lens cover (another feature that’s pretty much non-existent on smartphones today) means it actually feels like a camera. I can start shooting with the N86 very quickly from standby, and it’s really refreshing to be able to trust that a smartphone camera will capture a more-than-acceptable shot even when all the settings are left on auto. I’ve actually put up a gallery of photos shot with the N86 on my Google+ page; it’s clear that the N86′s camera is still stunning even by today’s standards.

Four days on, we got Two weeks with the N86 – Day 7, in which the honeymoon period seems to be over and he's starting to miss things from the 2012 smartphone world:

I’ve spent an entire week with my Nokia N86 and I think it’s safe to say that the honeymoon period is over.... The N86 definitely isn’t the most stable smartphone in the world, and the software instability has definitely put a negative spin on my experience. In the past week, I have encountered several spontaneous reboots, Gravity force-quitting without warning (sometimes in the middle of composing a tweet), several instances of apps freezing up and frequent skipping during music playback, especially when I’ve got Gravity or Opera Mini running at the same time as the music player. Of course, I’ve already loaded the latest (and last) firmware version released for the N86, and it’s definitely less stable than the still-in-development CyanogenMod 9 ROM running on my Xperia Mini Pro.

I’ve begun to lament the absence of other apps that I depend on that are available on Android. Evernote is a big one; it’s a wrench to be pretty much unable to access my notes from the N86 because the Evernote mobile site is so horrible. Ditto for my inability to view anything I’ve saved on Pocket (formerly Read It Later) – I’ve found the service very useful for saving an article on my laptop before heading out so that I can continue reading it on my phone on the train and I simply can’t do this with the N86. I’ve also been pining for a proper Google Reader experience – Gravity supports Google Reader but it doesn’t support it particularly well. The fonts are too tiny and not all unread items in a feed are loaded at a time, which doesn’t help if I’m trying to triage my subscribed feeds quickly.

As I cross into the 2nd and final week of this N86 experiment, I think it’s worth mentioning that if I had to use this Nokia N86 for an entire year, if I had no other option, I probably could live with it just fine. We, as human beings, are highly adaptable, and although using nothing but the N86 as my everyday smartphone has been challenging in some areas, the key is in getting used to how it is. Yes, it has a small display. Yes, it has a numeric keypad that’s really not suited for entering large amounts of text. Yes, the software it runs can get really cranky. But there’s nothing about the N86 that I couldn’t live with if I had to. I’ve even adapted to the lack of proper notifications by observing vibration patterns to determine what’s just come in.

These days, we all love to complain about the smallest flaws on smartphones, like how non-standard icon shapes on Android makes the user interface look less elegant compared to iOS. Using the N86 has helped me appreciate how complex today’s smartphone platforms are, how much work goes into developing user experiences and how far we’ve come since S60 was cool. It’s amazing.

N86 from the rear

Finally, we have Alvin's 'piece de resistance', 'The N86 and me', a veritable treatise on the pros and cons of a mid 2000's smartphone OS versus the operating systems and interfaces of today:

The biggest difference between the smartphones of old, such as those running Symbian or Windows Mobile, and the smartphones of today lies in the prioritization of hardware quality and design versus software, user interface design and user experience. There is zero sense of fluidity or smoothness in S60v3 running on the N86, while modern smartphones like Windows Phone 7 have been built around fluidity and smoothness. Yet, in the past, buying a smartphone meant you were guaranteed top-shelf hardware components and nifty hardware features.

The N86, for example, still has an amazing 8-megapixel camera even by today’s standards. Its stereo loudspeakers sound better than any modern smartphone I’ve ever owned or reviewed. It had cutting-edge (at the time) display technology, a flip-out kickstand, hardware media controls and an FM transmitter. But S60v3 on the N86 is a complete bodge prone to spontaneous reboots, freezes and general weirdness. And in terms of usability, one has to wonder how an average N86 user even managed to figure out the menu structure or customize the homescreen. The settings menus on the phone are literally scattered everywhere.

On the other hand, any modern smartphone – take the Sony Xperia S, for example, provide an excellent and seamless user experience supported by a rich ecosystem of apps and services. Even a platform like Android, which is often criticized as being messy and complicated, is far more user-friendly than S60 ever was. Getting around the Android user interface is painless for most, the phone remains stable and problem-free in everyday use and there is a wealth of apps available for the platform. Yet, corners have been cut on the hardware; build quality isn’t great on the Xperia S, the loudspeaker is mediocre at best, and the 12 megapixel camera is hampered by an overly-small image sensor. But despite these flaws, the Xperia S is still considered one of the better high-end Android devices available at the moment, given how certain rivals competing in the same price bracket are encased in cheap glossy plastic, have Pentile displays or a worse camera. The only aspect of the hardware where manufacturers aren’t skimping on is the internals.

...Every smartphone platform developed post-iOS is built first and foremost with the web in mind. That’s how big the paradigm shift has been. It’s not even about touchscreens and user interfaces, it’s about how iOS, Android, Windows Phone and webOS are designed around the Internet. Social networking, online sharing, cloud storage, streaming media, desktop-class web browsing, downloadable games, email, instant messaging, background sync, integration with web services – all these aspects of modern smartphone platforms take priority over being able to dial a number straight from the homescreen, being able to sync data with Microsoft Outlook, supporting the greatest number of video codecs or making efficient use of limited hardware and data allotments. Symbian quickly became unappealing to the average consumer simply because it hadn’t evolved to keep up with the web-focused capabilities of post-iOS smartphone platforms.

In addition to some of the quotes above, Alvin also complained several times about random disconnections - although it's possible these were down to the OS, I might also point the finger at the dodgy SIM slot pin repair here. I guess we'll never know for sure!

Steve, AAS, 16 May 2012

Source / Credit: Unleash The Phones