Wi-Fi on the 9300i - the Emperors New Clothes?

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As part of research for PDA Essentials, I've been doing some serious testing. And there's one aspect of the new Nokia 9300i smartphone that doesn't come up to scratch. Unfortunately, it's the aspect for which the 'i' version was created...

Now, don't get me wrong, Nokia. I love some of your latest designs (especially the N70, E61, E70 and so on). But I'm not going to sit down and be quiet about something which, essentially, isn't working at all. And, in this case, it's not entirely Nokia's fault but also partly that of the world at large. Let me explain...

You'll remember the Web as it was in 1996, ten years ago. Basic HTML pages, rarely more than 30K or so, simple JPG and GIF graphics, and that's all. Really easy to decode and render, even for the STNC browser on the Psion Series 5 and (eventually) for Opera, also on the Psion. Fast forward a few years to the turn of the century, when pages were starting to get more complex, with a little javascript and Flash here and there. Nokia used a rewrite of the STNC browser for the original 9210 Communicator and then got Opera to write a simplified version of its mobile version for the 9210i. And, for the Web at the time, it was perfectly sufficient, especially because Internet connections were still limited to 9.6kbps, so the bottleneck in web performance was the connection itself, by quite some margin.

Now, GPRS arrived on Series 80 with the Nokia 9500 in 2004 and then the 9300 in 2005, with pages now arriving at up to 50kbps. This is still within the scope of the modest 150MHz processor, though the bottleneck in performance was no longer just the connection itself. However, another factor was starting to take its toll.

More and more homes and offices were now starting to be wired up to broadband and page designers were taking full advantage of this fact. For many people in 2006, the Web is the host of the things they do, not their local desktop processors. From blogs to banking to auction sites to shopping to webmail to the Content Management System in which I'm typing this very article, there's a huge expectation placed on the ability to work via the Web. Take eBay, a good example of a modern, interactive killer site. A single search results page is now the best part of half a Megabyte, meaning a long, long wait over GPRS. Wi-Fi seemed the solution and that's why it was retrofitted to Nokia's Series 80 new baby, to create the 2006 9300i.

But, and you can see where I'm going with this, the bottleneck in browsing real world web sites is no longer the connection. Over Wi-Fi, the 9300i hardware is quite capable of sucking these 2006 broadband-designed pages down at 300 to 400kbps. But the smartphone's processor simply can't keep up, and it's not helped by the browser itself essentially dating from 2002 or before. The end result is that the user will confidently dial up eBay or their webmail host or CNN and then be incredibly frustrated by the lengthy delay before anything happens on-screen. In eBay's case, the device simply wasn't useable and I found myself tearing my hair out and looking enviously at a review Windows Mobile Communicator, a rebadged HTC Universal with a 500 (or so) MHz processor and far more modern browser, and which rendered eBay's pages in fairly straightforward fashion over the same Wi-Fi link.

So, let's get this straight. The Nokia 9500 had Wi-Fi in late 2004 and it the processor and browser were creaking at the seams even then (partly explaining why I advocate sticking to the mobile web whenever possible). The 9300 arrives eight months later, giving many of the benefits of the 9500 -but not all- in much smaller and slimmer form factor. But if you're going to add a single 9500 feature to the smaller sister device, why choose the one that's working less and less well as time goes on?

Despite being one of Series 80's biggest fans (the 9500/9300 range are still the closest thing to a colour/connect Psion palmtop that you can get these days), I feel a little like the kid shouting 'Look at the king, the king is in the altogether!'. The fact is that browsing over Wi-Fi on the Nokia 9300i is slow, frustrating and sometimes even unusable, no matter what the marketing blurb says.

Now, if you're buying the 9300i for its third party push email facilities and Wi-Fi is just part of the whole company email sync thing, then fine. But don't be under any illusions that you're going to be using the Wi-Fi networking to surf the Web at super-high speed.