Review: Nokia N78 Review Part 3 - Software and Conclusions
In the last part of our N78 review we cover N-Gage, Web, GPS applications and general software. There's also a brief look at some of the additions and improvement from S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2. See also Part 1 (hardware, design and connectivity) and Part 2 (multimedia software).
Version Reviewed: 10.136
The N78 will be an N-Gage compatible handset. However, at the time of writing, the N-Gage client was not available for any S60 3.2 device. A release is expected sometime in the next few months and will be integrated into a future firmware update. It is unfortunate that N-Gage support is not available out of the box because it severely limits the number of people likely to try Nokia's new gaming service.
We'll update this review once N-Gage support has been released. Incidentally the technical reason for this is probably down to the OS. N-Gage uses Symbian PIPS. Although this has been ported to OS 9.3, it appears it may have some stability problems with N-Gage.
Nokia Maps and GPS
The N78 is currently shipping with version 1.2 of Nokia Maps. The current version, Nokia Maps 2.0, will be added in a later firmware update, although you can download and install it manually from the Nokia Maps web site. However, it is currently not as stable as Maps 1.2 and we would recommend you wait another month or two before upgrading.
The N78 comes with 3 months of free navigation as a taster for people to experience the real time functionality. Maps for your country are pre-loaded on the memory card that ships with the device. This will significantly cut down the amount of data that Nokia Maps uses (and is something everyone, whatver Nokia phone they use, should take advantage of - by using Nokia's free Map Loader utility).
The N78's GPS aerial is located at the top of the device, the optimum position for receiving signals. The N78 comes pre-configured to use assisted-GPS. This significantly cuts down the lock on times and most of the time you should get a location fix in less than 10 seconds.
Aside from geotagging and Nokia Maps, the GPS can be used by third party programs. S60 has system level handling of the GPS so as many applications as you like can use the GPS at the same time. Some of our favourite GPS applications include Sports Tracker (available via Download!), Google Maps, and Viewranger.
The powerful S60 web browser is present on the N78. The main limitation for viewing web sites remains the screen size and, while Web generally does a good job rendering pages, it cannot do much to escape the fundamental limitations of physical size and screen resolution; devices with larger screens are always going to be at an advantage. Flash Lite 3 support means most embedded web videos should play in the browser, although they may stutter and can take a while to download. Another notable update is support for progressive downloads - this allows you to start listening to or watching a media download before the download is complete. There's also support for Nokia's Web Runtime widgets (WRT), but these have yet to really take off, so it doesn't bring many advantages for the end user yet.
YouTube and Weatherbug WRT widget
While Flash Lite and WRT are technically impressive, it is a shame that Web did not receive a bigger update in S60 3.2. It uses the same WebKit core as the earlier S60 devices and, with recent developments in the main WebKit trunk, it is starting to look a little outdated. Web remains impressive, but it is not the standout feature it was on the N73.
While not as glamorous as the imaging, video and audio software, the N78 has a complete S60 application suite for personal information management. Contacts, Calendar and Messaging are largely unchanged in S60 3.2. For a typical N78 user, they are more than capable, although power users may still find them limiting. There are also the usual system utilities for controlling various aspects of the phone.
Multimedia is clearly the main focus of the N78, but the basic business tools are available too. The phone ships with the usual email attachment handlers: Quickoffice (read-only version), Adobe PDF and Zip. There are also a number of helper utilities, all of which have been seen on earlier devices, including a WLAN wizard for detecting WiFi hot spots, Voice command for voice dialing and voice access to core phone functions, Speed dial, Settings wizard (email and access point setup), Search for on-device and Internet (Google, Yahoo Live) searching, and Message reader (text-to-speech reading of new messages).
We've already mentioned the benefits, in terms of application updates, that running S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 (S60 3.2) on the N78 brings in earlier parts of this review, but there's a lot we haven't mentioned. Nokia said the focus for S60 3.2 was improving usability and customisation. The most obvious example of this is the addition of a central softkey. This, for the most part, explicitly labels functionality that was already there, but should make things clearer to new users. Multi-tasking capabilities are made more obvious with the addition of an 'Open applications' item to the top of all Options menus. The task-switcher has also been redesigned, it now runs along the bottom, rather than the side of the screen, which means more application icons can be seen at once.
Other usability enhancements include the ability to automatically recognise and pair many Bluetooth devices (headsets, gateways, etc.) without the need to enter a pairing code. Email set up has been greatly improved, for well known services such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail you will only need to enter your email address and password - the phone will do the rest for you. The Settings application has been lightly re-organised, though it is still overwhelming in terms of the number of options, but it is arguably more logical that previous versions.
When you first start up the phone you will automatically be shown the Welcome application, which walks you through the basics of the phone in a video demo and offers to help up basic phone settings and email accounts. There's also easy access to the Switch application to aid moving from your old phone to the N78 (best when coming from another S60 phone). Perhaps most useful of all is the detailed Help application. You can access this directly, but almost all the default applications have a 'help' entry in all their options menus, which leads to the appropriate section of the Help application (i.e. it's context sensitive). With a phone as complex as the N78 there will, inevitably, be terminology or functions that are unclear, but in most cases using the Help application will clear things up. It may not go into great detail about how you use something, but it will, at least, explain what it is.
In terms of customisations, there is enhanced theme support and extra options for the Active Idle screen. Themes now supports transitions, which show animations as you move between screens. The UI on the N78 is speedy enough that you can switch near-instantly between screens and, as such, the transitions (which can last up to a second) could potentially slow you down. Fortunately, you can opt to turn the 'theme' effects off in Themes settings (Themes->General->Options-> Settings). Both the Menu view (application launcher) and Standby view (idle screen) have new layout options. For the menu view, 'horseshoe' and 'v-shaped' have been added to 'grid' and 'list'; for Standby view there is now 'vertical icon bar', in addition to 'basic' and 'horizontal icon bar'.
Also new are support for audio themes - these are collections of sounds that play around specific events. The events are divided into 6 categories (Call, Messaging, Calendar, Battery, Enhancement and Phone handling), each of which contain a number of events. For each event you can set the audio to be silent, to a specific audio file or as a text string (which is read out by the phone's text-to-voice engine). For example, you can set a text string for the full battery event to: 'Battery full. Please unplug me'. Also new is Call image which lets you set the default image that is displayed when the phone rings; this goes hand in hand with the improved caller display feature. Previous versions of S60 would display only a thumbnail image of an incoming caller (as set in Contacts), but this, where available, is now displayed full screen. A similarly useful tweak is the addition of timed profile support to Profiles - this lets you activate a profile (e.g. silent when in a meeting) for a certain amount of time; useful if you're the sort of person who forgets to switch the phone off silent mode and misses an important call as a result.
Other S60 3.2 changes are less apparent, but potentially just as important. These mainly revolve around some of the developer frameworks and APIs; a good example of this is the mapping and navigation framework which potentially allows third party developers to include map and navigation data from Nokia Maps in their own applications (e.g. this is how the 'Show on map' function works in Nokia Photos). There's also much improved JME (Java) support with a new run-time engine, support for MIDP 2.1, Mobile Service Architecture (JSR 248) and eSWT (S60 UI widgets in Java). As a result, better JME application performance and more features are available to developers.
S60 3rd Edition Feature 2 is a bigger update than is immediately apparent and while, in this brief section, we have touched on most of the major changes, we have not covered everything. We'll be revisiting S60 3.2's improvements in more detail in a separate feature at a later date.
In terms of capabilities, there's not that much separating the N78 from higher ranked Nseries devices. Most of the differentiation comes in the grading of the hardware specification (e.g. bigger screen, higher resolution camera) rather than the presence or absence of functionality. This functional equality means, in my opinion, that the N78 represents the best value for money in the Nseries range. It is not quite that simple, since a comparison at current prices shows the N78 to be relatively expensive. However, this is because it is a new device - prices fall over time. If you're buying now then you may want to carefully consider devices like the N95 classic and N82, which are at a similar or slightly cheaper price point than the N78. With that said, I do think the software advances in S60 3.2 make the N78 a significantly better phone - whether that outweighs the extras that the N82 offers in hardware terms (TV-Out, better camera and different style) is a personal decision. If you're buying in a few months time then you'll have an easier decision to make as the N78 will be yesterday's device, with a price point to match.
Looking back, we can see how far Nseries has come since its launch 3 years ago. You can draw a direct family tree from the N70 through the N73 to the N78. The N70 had a fixed focus 2 megapixel camera as its key feature. The N73 added a higher resolution screen and auto-focus to the camera. The N78 adds WiFi and GPS hardware. More importantly, the software has also been evolving. The N70 and the N73 introduced the idea of a multimedia phone, but it is in the N78 that the vision has been most fully realised. It is an impressive achievement and there really is an amazing amount of capability in this small device.
A large part of the story of Nseries has been about building phones that are multimedia powerhouses, phones that have sought to converge a number of devices into a single package. With Nokia dominating the converged device market and 10 million Nseries devices sold in the last quarter alone, the strategy has been successful. More telling is the fact that the multimedia features pushed by the early Nseries devices are now considered standard even in feature phones. There is still much work to be done and, while some of it is around improved hardware and features, much of it is in making such devices more accessible to a wider number of people.
The N78 represent the latest evolution of the Nseries story; there is an implicit acknowledgement that, while it should be possible to do everything on the device itself, it also needs to be capable of interacting with both a PC and web world. Early Nseries devices were isolated from the wider digital ecosystem, whereas the N78 feels more like part of a wider network. Furthermore, the N78 also moves away from the idea of convergence driven purely by hardware. Services in the Ovi Suite - Nokia Maps, Nokia Music Store, Share Online and N-Gage - illustrate that, while enabled by hardware, the future is more about the accompanying software and services.
In part 1 of this review we mentioned there was some movement in the battery cover. For new units this has now been fixed and the vast majority of N78's do not have this problem. If yours does then it is because it is a unit from early in the production run.
This review is based on the initial firmware (10.136). The N78 has received several firmware updates during the review period - improvements include sensitivity changes to the Navi-wheel, Bluetooth stability, GPS optimizations and various bug fixes. Some of the firmware updates are being provided over the air via the Device manager application (i.e. without the need to tether to a PC).
Rafe Blandford, All About Symbian
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at