Review: Belle Feature Pack 1 on the Nokia 701
A few days ago, I covered impressions of the Nokia 701 in comparison to the heavyweight from the initial Symbian^3 line-up, the N8. You may also remember that, I did formal review parts on the 701 before, in review part 1 and review part 2, but since then the device has received a big Feature Pack 1 update, including a processor speed bump, so it's high time to refresh our memories and to look in detail about what's changed and what's new.
Summarising the first two review parts, we're looking at the Nokia 701 being the fastest and most powerful Symbian smartphone available (until the 808 arrives), with decent specifications (processor, GPU and RAM) in the C7's lovely curved form factor, with ClearBlack Display polarisers, dual charging, FM transmitter and NFC being just some of the highlights.
Possible downsides for some potential buyers include a 'mere' TFT screen (albeit very bright) and at 3.5", smallish in this day and age, together with the use of an EDoF camera (albeit '2nd generation, with improved range and results).
On balance though, the 701 creates a very positive impression in terms of performance and feel. It first shipped with Nokia Symbian Belle (along with the tiny and possibly disappointing 700 and the budget 603), but we've recently had the rollout of Belle Feature Pack 1 and this does add a number of changes, improvements and even concerns, over and above the Belle OS that the 701 was reviewed with.
Although I won't go into every change in the new OS version, I'd like to highlight 8 areas that are worthy of note in keeping the Nokia 701 moving on.
Clock speed increase
The FP1 software update increases the clock speed of the Nokia 701's processor from 1GHz to 1.3GHz, not as significant a change as you might expect given that much of Symbian OS and its UI were designed around slower processors - the 701 was already pretty nippy. However, I did notice a difference for tasks where Symbian is usually slow - opening rich emails, rendering web pages (including the multitude of WRT pages in Nokia Social) and starting games.
From a cross platform point of view, it also means that the 701 is 'seen' to keep up with the competition, devices like the Nokia Lumia 800 or Sony Xperia Ray, for example. While the increased clock speed will in theory use some extra energy and thus reduce battery life, the impact in practice is negligible, in part because things now happen quicker and so the screen can be on for a shorter time in order to complete your task. Plus Symbian OS is very good at only running up the processor when it really needs to. So battery consumption isn't a problem.
I was worried that some games might be affected by the clock speed change, but I tested half a dozen of my favourites and saw no issues other than faster initial loading and faster level transitions.
Flash video fixed
The biggest single bug reported in Belle was that Flash was broken, with the main symptom being that a lot of Flash video content wouldn't play in the browser or standalone (e.g. via .flv files). This was fixed in FP1, I've been able to play high quality Flash video streams in web pages and also even my highest bitrate .flv files now play perfectly from File manager.
In all, there are over 30 widgets to choose from in a virgin Belle FP1 device now, up from only a dozen or so under Symbian Anna/Belle, so there's plenty of customisation possible, especially considering the range of sizes involved and the number of possible positions for each within the 'fine' widget grid on each homescreen. An additional 10 or so widgets become available once you've gone through Sw_update and similar, to install latest versions of Maps and Social.
Of the new widgets, I'd like to pick out:
- The rather lovely 'Clock mechanical', complete with animations
- 'Images' (a random selection of six of your latest captured photos, all thumbnailed)
- 'Music player small' - the large one under vanilla Belle took up two vertical slots on a homescreen , this new slimline affair takes up half the room and yet fulfills the same function
- 'Offline on/off', 'Play via Radio on/off', '3G on/off', 'NFC on/off', just some of several toggles that are far more convenient to use here than to go hunting in Settings
- 'Bookmark', putting a thumbnail of a particular web site front and centre - tapping it obviously opens up Web and goes to the page.
- 'Weather, forecast', as it sounds, this is now part of the formal Maps Suite that you're prompted to download in SW_update here, also available now for vanilla Belle devices, of course.
- 'Social', 'Twitter' and 'Facebook', part of Nokia Social Networking 1.5, again a suggested install by Nokia, and extending what was possible under Social 1.3 and 1.4.
Multitasking and UI
The multi-tasking view (long press on the home key) has been updated for Belle FP1 - the "live" screenshots used to represent each application are now free floating (not contained in a box) over your homescreen default wallpaper and, rather than being square crops, are now rectangular, showing the full screen image. The "live" screenshots aren't really live, but do give an accurate glimpse at where you left the appropriate application. The fuller screen images are a definite step forwards - back in the days of S60, we had just a list of app icons to pick from when app-switching - we've finally arrived at the point where we can see, not only what's running, but the approximate state of each application.
The default menu style has been modified; the menu list sits in a box with rounded corners and the menu item text is no longer in bold. This does sometimes lead to a clash in on-screen presentation, where it's possible to go from an application screen of large, bold fonts to a spindly, somewhat feeble, set of fonts in the options menu. In addition, the "Cancel" button previously placed at the bottom of all menus has been removed, which does take some getting used to. After a while, you learn to simply tap outside the menu box to dismiss it, but I do wonder whether this was a UI change too far for new users.
The pull down notifications menu has been updated and improved. It is now divided between activities (e.g. WiFi, Bluetooth, Mobile network, NFC) and notifications (missed calls, text messages and other alerts). The advantage of this is that true notifications now sit together and are located above activity (status) information, a more logical layout. A button to clear all notifications with a single tap has also been added to the panel. Unfortunately, notifications for incoming email are still not included in the panel, since the Nokia email application is still not yet fully integrated back into the OS - users will have to continue to rely on homescreen widgets for this functionality.
It's fair to say that the Symbian notifications pane is somewhat less functional than that in Android (and arguably iOS), but it's still usable and a good way to get to system wide connectivity and communications status and settings.
Mobile data tracker
Shown above was a 'Mobile data tracker' widget - this sub-system is new for Belle FP1 and is a useful way of keeping track of your cellular data usage. Most of us are on a tariff with a cap on our data use - usually, with an extortionate rate per MB if exceeded. With Mobile data tracker in FP1, a count is kept of all MB in or out and there's a warning given (or, optionally, a complete cut-off) when you hit the limit. The settings are flexible, as shown below, and you can change when your billing month starts/ends, following which the counter is cleared.
The system isn't as pretty as that in Android 4 - there are no charts, for example, but it's very functional and works well.
The Web (browser) application is updated to version 8.2 (from v7.4 in vanilla Nokia Belle). The main improvements are better support for HTML 5, but there are a number of significant UI tweaks - the icon-based menu has been replaced by a minimalist textual menu and history is now accessed through the star (favourites) icon, which along with the traditional bookmarks / favourites list, also houses a 'most visited sites' thumbnail view, in a tab panel. These changes streamline the user interface, making it easier and faster to get to core functionality.
The new version of Web scores 226 (plus 9 bonus points) on the HTML 5 Test website; this compares with 164 points (plus 7 bonus points) for Nokia Belle (Browser 7.4) and 101 points (no bonus points) for Symbian Anna (Browser 7.2). The standard browser in Android 4.0 scores 273 points, Android 2.2 scores 189 points, iOS 5.1 scores 324 points, iOS 4.2 scores 227 points, but the mobile champion for HTML 5 is Opera Mobile 12 with a score of 369 points (plus 11 bonus points). In practice, this means Nokia Belle Feature Pack 1's browser HTML 5 capabilities are broadly equivalent to those of its competitors 6 months ago. For a browser that's recently been considered behind the times, that's a very impressive result.
Overall browser speed and performance has also been improved, thanks to both software optimisations and the increased clock speed of the processor. The 30% boost in processor speed (on the 701 and 700) is at its most noticeable when loading and rendering "heavy" web pages, although in many cases the data connection speed/performance will remain the bottleneck factor. The full Engadget site, for example, often quoted as an example of a multi-Megabyte 'heavy' page, was able to be scrolled around after fifteen seconds, even while images were still loading. The most bloated of sites are still a no-go though - I gave up on ign.com (3MB), which was still unresponsive after a minute of loading.
Dolby Headphone and Dolby Digital Plus
Dolby Headphone / Dolby Digital Plus functionality provide an 'enhanced' audio experience when using headphones. For content that has been encoded with Dolby Digital Plus audio, playback is transformed into a 'personal surround sound experience'. For non-DD+-encoded content (e.g. standard MP3/AAC music), the effect is akin to stereo widening with a little EQ tweaking - not unpleasant, but also not worth bothering with unless you're unhappy with the standard music mix.
The difference for DD+-encoded content is more noticeable and for most listeners will count as a significant improvement (especially when watching movies). Dolby-encoded content can be downloaded through the Nokia Trailers application (as shown below) and, in due course, via the third party Voddler video-on-demand service.
Omissions and problems
This isn't intended to be a definitive list of changes and issues, but the following are all worth noting:
- Calendar's Week view has gone, simplifying the 'Views' icon pick list, but doubtless annoying those who found Week view useful
- Profiles seem a little deprecated in Belle FP1 - pressing the 701's power button doesn't now bring up a full list of profiles - instead of the list there are just options for 'Silent', 'Turn offline mode on' and 'Turn power saving on', plus 'Lock phone' and 'Turn off' - to change profiles in a more refined way you'll have to use the 'Profiles' widget or the appropriate 'Setting'.
- It seems that there are still some issues with video streaming over wi-fi in Belle FP1 - I tried around 20 YouTube videos (via the official m.youtube.com page) and 4 of them exhibited random lock-ups of playback (stuck on 'Loading'), requiring the video to be restarted. In line with the longstanding (though now fixed) Flash video bug, I can't help but wonder if the developers at Nokia/Accenture ever watch much video on their phones - it's certainly an area that remains problematic.
- There's now no scroll bar in the main application launcher, so it's a bit of a pain swiping up and down quickly, for example when rearranging the order of icons. Power users will still want to spend the time creating folders and doing a little organisation - I ended up with 'Rarely used', 'Games' and 'Things to review', in addition to the main root folder of commonly used applications.
- There are one or two minor (third party) application compatibility issues, whereby apps crash under Belle FP1 - I won't name names, but if you spot such behaviour, please contact the developer to get the issue looked at.
In summary, Belle FP1 is a must-install on the Nokia 701 (or 700 / 603), with the highlights being the better performance all round, the better web browser and the much larger array of homescreen widgets. But, as usual with any mobile OS update, there are always a few caveats to bear in mind as well.
Technical Note: Nokia Belle Feature 1 = Symbian Carla
We've had a number of our readers ask about what happened to Symbian Carla, the software update that was scheduled to follow Symbian Belle. Nokia Belle Feature Pack 1 is Symbian Carla. The named releases of Symbian (Anna, Belle, Carla etc.) originated as internal code names, which, rather unusually, were also used to describe the public release. When Nokia rebranded to Symbian Belle to Nokia Belle it decided to discontinue this process and switch back to the previous nomenclature of Feature Packs.
As you might expect this means that Donna, a software update due to be delivered later this year, will be referred to as Nokia Belle Feature Pack 2. The FP2 update is expected to consist of incremental improvements, rather than any major changes (e.g. updated browser, new widgets, updates for a few applications, bug fixes).