Review: Nokia N82 - part 2 - GPS, Applications and Performance
The second half of Rafe's in depth review of Nokia's imaging flagship, the N82. You can read the first part here.
GPS and Nokia Maps
The N82 is the second Nseries model after the N95 to get a built in GPS. Nokia have also considerably improved the implementation since the N95 launch by adding assisted GPS. The N82 also benefits from moving the GPS aerial from the bottom of the device to the top. The end result is excellent performance with lock on times from a cold start around 30-40 seconds in most cases and just a handful of seconds to reacquire the signal from a soft start. The phone also holds onto GPS signals much more reliably, be it in urban canyons or heavily vegetated areas.
The main built in application to take advantage of the GPS is Nokia Maps. This offers free mapping for 150 countries, with around 40 of these also offering routing. Maps can either be downloaded over the air or preloaded using Nokia Maps Loader. The preloading option is very worthwhile if you are roaming or do not have a flat rate data package as the size of downloads can quickly add up. A point of information (POI) database, divided into various categories, comes with the maps. The quality of the POIs varies by area; large urban areas are usually reasonably well catered for but do not expect comprehensive coverage. The search function is good with support for address (including postcode) and keyword based searches, and 'nearby' (nearest POI from a specified category). Custom locations (e.g. your house) can be saved as Landmarks and then used in routing and navigation.
Basic route planning is free, but turn by turn voice navigation is a premium feature, which you have to buy as a subscription service from within the application. You choose a specific area (e.g. UK and Ireland) and a time frame and the cost is set accordingly. For the UK and Ireland the costs are £4.50 (one week), £5.73 (one month), £43.06 (one year) and £50.24 (three years). For all of Western Europe, the same time frames are £6.00, £7.17, £64.59 and £71.77. The exact costs will vary by country and by operator. You can pay by credit card or, for charges under £10, by premium SMS. The pricing scheme makes a lot of sense and is especially attractive for those requiring only periodic usage. Navigation subscriptions are not transferable (to a new IMEI) so if you think you may replace your phone in the future think carefully before signing up for the longer periods.
Other premium features include guides provided by third parties such as Berlitz. I have tried a couple of these and the quality is very mixed; some are so poor they constitute a total rip off, but there's no way to distinguish between the good and the bad. You are probably better off avoiding the guides for now.
Nokia Maps has evolved considerably since its release early in 2007. It is now generally faster in operation and the user interface (information displayed on screen, menu layout) and feature set (more powerful search, bigger POI database) has been improved. Nokia Map Loader has also received similar updates and both applications feel a lot more polished that at their initial launch. However the most welcome improvement has been better navigation routing. In my experience the earlier version did not always plan the optimal route. Clearly at the local level the user will always know best - we all use local knowledge and shortcuts which are difficult to codify into a routing algorithm. The newer versions of Nokia Maps have definitely improved, more often then not they now get closer to giving the natural route. I'm now happy to rely on the software when in an unfamiliar area, whereas previously I still kept one eye on the paper map.
Web and Multimedia software
The N82 has the excellent S60 Web application, which is now relatively mature. With its intelligent column sizing, visual history, overview mode and minimap, browsing sites intended for the PC is easy. The limitations of the browser are more about the screen resolution (e.g. drop down menus not fitting on the screen) and softkey controls (as opposed to touch) than any application problems. In practical day to day usage there is the occasional annoyance of the N82 being recognised as a mobile device and presented with a stripped down version of a site. However this is not really the fault of the browser, even if some kind of user agent masking option would help here. The RSS functionality works fine though the lack of subscription import or export limits the utility. In due course the N82 is likely to receive a firmware update that adds Flash Lite 3 and Web Run Time (WRT) to the device (similar to the recent N95 8GB firmware update). This will represent a very major upgrade of Web's capabilities. It will enable Flash video (e.g. YouTube) to be viewed in the browser and usher in a new type of application - WRT widgets.
The N82 has a dedicated Music folder, in which you'll find the Music player, Radio, Podcasting and Music store applications. The Music player is little changed from its earlier versions with the hierarchical music library, support for album art, playlist management and integration into the Idle screen. Podcasts are now divided into their own hierarchy and can be paused and resumed at the same location at a later date. The podcasting application lets you find new podcasts (or enter them manually), set up subscriptions and, if required, schedule automatic downloads. There's no PC companion, but this really isn't required. Podcast downloads can be large, so unless you want have a flat rate data tariff you should stick to WiFi. Podcasting is one area where the N82 (and N95 etc.) really outshine any competition - there's nothing to match it/them on any other portable audio device or mobile phone.
The Music store application is a link to the the Nokia Music Store from where you can browse and buy music on your phone. The store is currently only available in the UK, but other countries should get their own versions shortly. Browsing the store is easy and there's a large (and increasing) music catalog available with 30 seconds samples available for all music. The downloaded music, priced at 80p per track (£8 per album), is protected by the Windows Media Janus DRM. On starting a download you'll first get the appropriate license file before the WMA music download starts. There are some nice touches to the download experience, for example new purchases are automatically added to the music library without any user intervention or annoying delays.
There's also a PC version of the music store, although this can only be accessed through Internet Explorer, as an extra ActiveX add on is required to manage the music downloads. Windows Media Player 11 is used for music management and transferring music to and from the device. It allows for two way syncs (music purchased on the phone is automatically copied to the PC) and has comprehensive, if slightly fiddly, sync options. Sync speed is a bit slow, but this isn't really a problem after you have performed the first sync. Windows Media Player 11 is not without its faults and the music management does not feel as refined as iTunes. Nokia is working on its own music management software which should improve matters, but this is not expected to be available until later in the year.
Overall, Nokia Music Store is an impressively slick system and is easy to use. Nokia has faced some criticism for its use of DRM (especially with the trend for DRM-free music) and lack of unique features. However it has to operate within the realities of the current music landscape and, with that in mind, the current system is excellent. Many users will 'side load' from their CD collection and a number will continue to buy CDs because of their flexibility. It is to Nokia's credit that this is made just as easy and seamless as buying music from Nokia's own store. I do think that the instant nature and single track purchase of the Nokia Music Store should attract its own set of users - you only need to look at the iTunes ecosystem to realise that digital music downloads are popular. iPods may currently have the digital music high ground, but the convergence trend has long pointed towards their functionality being subsumed into phones. With the Nokia Music Store in place, Nseries phones are in a realistic position to replace the complete iTunes experience. It may not be perfect, but for many it will be good enough and we can expect to see a lot of activity in this area in the next year.
Video is handled by the duo of Video Center and RealPlayer. The latter is the video playback application and supports both Real video and MP4 formats (including both H.263 and H.264). With the right formats and resolution, you can play video smoothly in full screen with excellent picture and audio quality. Video Manager is a video downloading companion program (technically it uses RSS feeds and acts in the same ways as the podcasting program). Video manager arrives with some default Nokia content but a variety of extra sources can be added. The selection is relatively limited and most people will be looking to get extra video from elsewhere. Getting video to mobile devices is generally far more cumbersome than music transfers. There are different formats, bitrates and resolutions to contend with, which means it may not always be possible to do a direct copy. The N82 also faces these problems too - Nokia provides a PC program to help with conversion of existing files. However a bigger problem is a lack of source material. Taking video off a DVD is much more cumbersome than ripping a CD (because of high resolutions and bitrates and because of complex DRM-circumvention) and digital downloads are in their infancy. The N82 is a good video playback device (even the physical screen limitations can be overcome with TV-Out), but its potential is some what limited by a lack of readily available video material.
As with other Nseries devices, there is support for the UPnP standard for interacting with other media devices over a network (WiFi) via the Home network application. UPnP devices fall into three categories: servers (store media), renderers (play media) and control points (control a renderer by telling it to play something from a server). Earlier Nseries devices were only UPnP severs and control points. The N82 (and N95 8GB and N95 with firmware v20+) can now also act as a UPnP renderer, which means you can send media to your phone from a UPnP server. The technology is impressive (for example I streamed music to the N82 from my PC using the UPnP server built into Windows Media Player 11 and then used TV Out to play it through a HiFi), but it can be fiddly to set up and use. As a result I'm not sure how much use this will get from mainstream users; nonetheless, it is good to see Nokia pushing the boundaries.
TV Out, also built into the N82 (the included cable plugs into the 3.5 mm audio jack), is likely to get more usage. This is ideal for watching videos or showing photos captured on the phone. RealPlayer (videos) and Gallery (when displaying a photo) will send a VGA resolution signal via TV Out, though whether you see it as such depends on your TV. We covered some of the possibilities for TV out in a series of feature article on AAS which you can view here. In day to day usage, I found myself using the cable for high quality audio out (connecting to a HiFi) as much as video out, but I'm sure your usage pattern will vary.
The N82's multimedia software suite is undoubtedly comprehensive. However, Nokia could improve things by making it easier for users to take advantage of some of its capabilities. The component features do not always feel like they fit together. Nowhere is this more obvious than sync - I would personally prefer a unified sync process where I could control all copying to and from the device. Moreover it sometimes feels like too many of the features have been left for users to find and take advantage of themselves; the N82 has a lot of untapped potential. I would draw a contrast with the iPhone, which many would deem a better multimedia experience despite the fact it has nowhere near the technical capabilities of the N82.
The N82 is an N-Gage compatible handset, of course, and there are two demo games preloaded (Fifa and Asphalt) which Krisse looked at earlier on All About N-Gage on the N81. The N82's spongy d-pad may not offer the best experience for gamers nor are there any extra keys, such as on the N81, to optimise it for landscape usage. However, many N-Gage games do not require extensive button bashing. Thus the gaming experience will likely depend on the sort of games you play on the device. In this light it is not really possible to draw any conclusive judgements until N-Gage formally activates. Moreover, for the majority of people, N-Gage will be a nice extra rather than a reason to buy one Nokia device over another. If your primary interest is N-Gage then you are probably better off with the N81. The one caveat here is that the N82, like the N95, does have accelerated 3D graphics (the N81 does not) which may be used in future N-Gage titles.
Multimedia menu and UI complexity
The N82 has the newest version of the multimedia menu (first seen in the Nokia N95 8GB and N81). This menu, accessible via the multimedia key, offers a series of tiles in a carousel fashion (navigated via the left and right directional controls). Each tile represents a certain application (experience) and offers a vertical menu of shortcuts to specific functions. For example the music tile offers shortcuts to the Now playing screen, the Music menu (the list of available music), the Podcast menu, the Playlist menu and a Shuffle all songs option. There are other tiles for Contacts (list of user selectable contacts), Internet (first five Web bookmarks), Maps (last five Maps locations), Games (N-Gage links), Gallery (last captured image, slide show and albums) and Videos (last captured). Taken together, these tiles allow easy access to a large proportion of the most commonly used features of the phone. The default first shown tile is Gallery which seems a little strange on the N82, given the dedicated Gallery shortcut key on the side of the device. Fortunately the tiles can be rearranged in any order, but beyond this there is little scope for customisation. It would be helpful to be able to remove some tiles altogether and messaging and application tiles (for third party applications) would be welcome additions. No doubt the multimedia menu will continue to evolve as additional Nseries devices are released this year.
For some, the multimedia key and associated carousel menu will be immediately much used, for it does provide very easy access to many of the key features of the phone. Longer term S60 users may, initially, find it less useful as they will be more used to accessing functions via the traditional application menu. However, learning to take advantage of the multimedia menu is worthwhile since it does give faster access to some functions. For example, music playback can be as little as three keypresses away via the multimedia menu versus five for an application menu route.
You can also argue that it is also a more intuitive experience and that breaking down phone functions into discrete experiences and tasks (with the key task at the top of each experience tile) more closely matches how people think when carrying out a task. This contrasts with the more regimented and less intuitive application menu approach ("I want to do this, so I should use this application").
On the other hand, you can argue that it adds an extra layer of confusion because it gives the user yet another way to launch applications and access functions. With the application screen, multimedia menu and active idle screen there are now three distinct ways (UI methodologies) in which you can access applications. The multimedia menu in particular feels disconnected from the other two. Perhaps the very need for the multimedia menu represents a failing of the original UI? Wouldn't it be better to just have one method that was straight forward and easy to use for everyone (e.g. iPhone)? However, this is an over simplification, phones like the N82 are complex, with an ever increasing array of functionality. Presenting this complexity in a UI is very much more difficult than presenting a simple set of functionality. This UI conundrum is one of the curses of convergence.
I think the multiple UI methodologies offer a good compromise because it offers flexibility to the user. The standard S60 UI is there, but the multimedia menu offers an opportunity to provide a more experience driven-alternative. There is a price to be paid in terms of the initial learning curve and immediate intuitiveness compared to simpler devices, but this must be measured against the much richer functionality available in the N82. There is plenty of room for improvement, but, given the diversity of its functionality, the N82 still remains accessible to the large majority of its target audience.
Other software, screen rotation and performance
Outside of its multimedia prowess, the N82 has the same S60 application suite as other phones. Contacts, Messaging and Calendar reassure with their familiarity, as do the usual companion applications. At one time, such applications were the main stay of smartphones and PDAs, but today a reasonable address book, calendar and messaging suite are a near universal constant in mobile phones (generally). S60 provides a good experience in this area and while some power users may clamour for more, the average consumer will find that what is on offer is more than good enough.
However there is still room for the companion applications to impress. One of these is Nokia's Search application, which was first publicly released last year, and has since gone through a number of iterations. The latest of these is present on the N82 and is accessed via an Active Idle shortcut or as a distinct application. It combines Internet, local and device search into a single application. The Internet and local search uses different search providers in different markets. In the UK you can use Yahoo or Microsoft Live. Unfortunately, at the time of writing there was no local search included for the UK. The on device search provides search across all the different types of content on the device. The application provides a more advanced search than that available within the Contacts and Messaging application, letting you track down important information.
Another application that rose in prominence over the last year was Download!. This enables Nokia to provide extra applications and content for download directly on the phone. Many of these are provided by third parties and are charged for, but Nokia also provides a number of its own add-on applications for free. It is well worth checking to see what is available on a regular basis and Nokia often uses it as a channel to distribute new applications, such as Internet Radio. It also goes some way to educating new users that the phone can accept new applications and, while it does not present a universal solution to the discovery and distribution problems facing mobile software developers, it is a good start.
There are plenty of other applications in the S60 offering and, of course, installable third party applications can add to the number. On the N82, by default, the majority of these are hidden away in the Tools or Applications Folders. This makes sense as most are only going to be used occasionally or will be automatically activated by another application (such as the excellent Quickoffice when dealing with email attachments). This goes some way to stopping an avalanche of software icons (57 out of the box, by my count) overwhelming new users. It is possible to see this many applications as software bloat, but perhaps it is fairer to see it as a symptom of flexible functionality? Once you get past the common basics, everyone has a different set of usage scenarios. With the ability to install new applications and reorder folders and application placement in the launcher at will, each person can customise the phone to their usage patterns.
A UI refinement which gets its debut on the N82 is automatic screen rotation. This allows a switch from portrait to landscape mode when you physically turn the device anticlockwise. This uses the N82's accelerometer to measure the current orientation of the device relative to the ground. The accelerometer is also used to automatically rotate pictures from the camera at capture time (as on the N95). Switching the UI from portrait to landscape is near instantaneous in almost all situations. At first it may seem like something of a gimmick, but after a while its benefits become apparent. Some applications are more suited to use in landscape mode. Web and the viewing of landscape photos in Gallery are obvious examples, but this also applies more generally when viewing larger amounts of text on screen. For example you can see more text when using Messaging in landscape mode; this reduces the amount of scrolling, which can be particularly beneficial when reading email. Rotating the device is a very natural action and I hope we see automatic screen rotation become a staple feature of Nseries phones.
For longer term S60 users, what will really impress about the N82 is the speed of the UI and general performance. Navigating around the device is quick, with little or no lag time between screens. Most applications open in the blink of an eye and even the more demanding applications only take a few seconds. If an application is already open then switching is instant, and there are real benefits to be had from multi tasking by leaving applications running in the background. This is made possible because the N82, like the N95 8GB and N81, boasts more RAM that earlier S60 devices and consequently it is technically possible (if unlikely) to open every onboard application at the same time. The N82 remains nippy even with the heavyweights of Web, Gallery and Maps running simultaneously - a real testament to the architecture in the underlying software platform (including Symbian OS itself). This performance is also noticeable elsewhere, thumbnail creation and image browsing in Gallery is much improved over first generation S60 3rd Edition devices and 'out of memory' errors in Web have gone the way of the Dodo.
The N82 benefits, in maturity and stability terms, from being at the end of a line of S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 devices. S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 devices are due out later in the year, but the major software additions (outside the previously mentioned WRT and Flash Lite 3) are relatively small. S60 does still have some strange minor omissions, and there are a few areas where it could learn from Series 40, as was commented on in a recent AAS podcast. Overall, though, the S60 software suite still manages to impress most of the time and the ever increasing number of third party software solutions can fill in niche gaps, add new functionality or provide a replacement for those looking for something more.
During the course of writing this review the first firmware update for the N82 was made available. There were no major additions (that will likely come later), but there was a first for Nseries, support for user data preservation (UDP). UDP means that your data and installed applications are preserved through a firmware update. Previously firmware updates would wipe the internal drive clean (and thus delete user data). UDP worked well for me and its a very welcome feature, but I would recommend you continue the backup regime if only as a safeguard.
Outside its Nseries stablemates, the N82 has little competition. Nowhere else do you find the marriage of an outstanding camera, good multimedia playback features, integrated GPS and a flexible open software platform. As we've highlighted in the review above, it is not without its problems and annoyances. A more intriguing issue is that the N82 may not, despite its technical and feature prowess, stand out all that much from its most recent Nseries siblings. The glory of the 'flagship device' goes to the N95 8GB with its bigger screen and because of this it is all too easy to forget the N82. Perhaps a comparison with the last Nseries candybar, the N73, is more informative. Here we can see just how quickly Nokia's Nseries lineup has evolved. Remember the N73 was a top of the line handset just 18 months ago (it was launched on April 25th 2006) and is one of the Nseries best sellers. The N82 justifiably faces some criticism for its keypad, but many would agree it improves on the N73's cramped keypad and joystick. The N82's feature set and software is a generation beyond the N73. In this light it is easier to see the N82 for what it truly is - an outstanding handset.
Inevitably, the N82 is directly compared to the N95 8GB and, among power users (yup, that's me - Ed!), the N95 8GB usually comes off best. If the N95 family did not exist, the N82 would be held up as the ultimate handset. However this rather misses the point, the N82 has complementary market positioning to the N95 8GB and it appeals to a more style-conscious market segment. While some consumers are only concerned about getting the best possible mobile experience, others marry this requirement to a desire to have their phones represent part of the style they project to the world. This means that the N82 may not be the first choice for a typical AAS reader, but I suspect it may have broader appeal in the wider market.
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at