Symbian^3 devices are imminent - what's new?

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With the first Symbian^3 device now imminent - the Nokia N8 - and with other Symbian^3 phones about to be announced, it's worth taking a look at what's new. Is it a case of a tarted up S60 5th Edition rehash, or is there in fact plenty that's worthy of serious note? Will Symbian^3 convince the tech doubters? Starting with a genuine user 'first impressions' that had been sent in, I attempt a rebuttal and an exploration of the underlying changelog.

Although the Nokia N8 has yet to appear in retail officially, it seems that some shops do have them in, for demo at least. Listener 'Arron' sent this into The Phones Show Chat a couple of days ago:

"An unusually sheepish Nokia employee offered us a live N8 to play with after inspecting the dummy models at the front of the store. My abiding impression was that this was not a phone I would be proud to reveal in any social situation; the Symbian^3 UI is terribly dated and unsightly, looking entirely unchanged from S60 5th Edition to the untrained eye. The body is ugly and retrograde with some bizarre design choices (the combined 'send/end' key is uncomfortably positioned). Despite the largish capacitive screen, I found texting to be slow even with the half-hearted implementation of spell-correction.

No doubt the camera and speaker are outstanding, as is Nokia's custom, but if I wanted a 12mp camera I'd buy a stand-alone device (with optical zoom) for a fraction of the N8's price and still have money left over to buy a HTC Desire or HD2. The N8 feels like the hardware analogue of Ovi Suite: overpowered, unfashionable and overhyped. The halcyon days of the N95 (and Nokia PC Suite) are becoming a distant memory and the Nokia smartphone brand has been terminally contaminated with the dreadful hardware and software designs of the past few years. I very much wanted to like this phone and see Nokia become competetive again in the high-end segment, but if they were 'betting the company' on this handset then they will be following Atari and Sega into the dustbin of hardware history. "

Which was strong stuff, even for the usual Nokia and Symbian sceptics. Before diving into Symbian^3, I'd like to rebut (and agree with) a few of Arron's points.

  • The idea of S60/Symbian looking fairly unchanged is, I think, deliberate. Nokia are by far the biggest seller of phones and smartphones in the world and, unlike a new startup, do have to think about existing users 'trading up' - hence the retention of the left/right function key paradigm (left for Options and right for Back/Exit). I did ask at the N8's launch whether it was strictly necessary to keep these old, non-touchscreen control elements in place and was given the line about keeping a familiar look and feel. I'm not convinced, but I can see Nokia's point of view.
  • The hardware styling is a matter of personal taste - it's growing on me, and it did feel great in the hand when I had hands-on time again recently.
  • Text entry using an on-screen keyboards is notoriously tricky to estimate in a 5 minute demo in a store. Entry on the i8910 HD's 3.7" screen, for example, is really quite pleasant - and that's without the N8's writing aids.
  • Methinks Arron isn't looking at the right prices. A 12mp camera can be pretty cheap, around £100 if you're not fussy over quality, but the N8 is widely on sale for £399 and in some places (e.g. Tesco Mobile) on pay as you go from £290 £330 [edit: their earlier price was apparently a mistake - sigh]. And the HTC Desire is usually over £400. Provided you shop around a little, I think the N8 could well turn out to be something of a bargain, considering that Nokia rate its camera as equivalent to many standalones.
  • I'll agree that the 'halycon days' of the N95 are a distant memory now, but there have been a few decent Nokias in between, you know! And the N8 looks like being another in the same vein. In my opinion, anyway.
  • This is a point we keep making, but Symbian still powers far more smartphones than any other mobile OS and Nokia still sell far more smartphones than other manufacturers. I think predicting the 'dustbin' is a bit strong...!


And so to Symbian^3 itself. Here's what's new in the OS:

  • A new IP networking architecture, which "significantly improves data flow performance" and also "implements automatic roaming between different access points, for example WLAN and GPRS." Also helping to reduce the number of connection dialogs is 'One-Click Connectivity' (OCC), which "makes the user's interaction with "connecting" and "select access point" dialogs significantly simpler and easier."
  • USB On-The-Go (OTG), enabling "support for USB mass storage and audio devices". There's also MTP improvements for syncing with the likes of Windows 7 and 'MTP over Bluetooth'.
  • There's now an improved device 'lock' mechanism, with security, and (apparently) an "enhanced firmware update installation experience".
  • There's now a "Landmark-based URL Parser". As I understand it, this means that correctly formatted URLs on the web can auto-launch Ovi Maps (or equivalent) with the right location shown.
  • Assisted GPS is improved by supporting two SUPL servers for serving up satellite ephemeris data (in case one server's not available)
  • Nokia's Here and Now has been integrated into the OS, allowing for local info lookup and weather etc.
  • Better image processing algorithms, including panorama-stitching being built-in
  • Native H.264 encoding for video capture
  • Multiple customized Home Screens with 6 different widget slots each.
  • 'Pinch' zoom now supported wherever needed/applicable.
  • Full kinetic scrolling throughout the interface. 
  • 'Single-click' operation - the old 'scroll and select' paradigm, left over from the days of d-pad and function key-driven phones, has gone, replaced by anything you see being 'active' directly. This will significantly reduce user confusion.
  • New UI theme and "renewed" icons.
  • Support for full hardware acceleration, ensuring a "fast and responsive UI" with "new transition effects".
  • Visual multitasking, nicknamed 'Teleport'
  • More intelligent slide functionality for hybrid touch and QWERTY slider devices. 

So quite a long and significant list. It's worth noting, of course, that Symbian is Symbian and Nokia is 'just' a partner. Nokia will have made significant additions and improvements at the application level, over and above what Symbian itself has put into its open OS. But all of the above can be considered the baseline improvements that will be in every Symbian^3 (and upwards) powered smartphone, whether from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, etc.

Are you looking forward to Symbian^3? Or do you, as Arron wrote above, see it as "dated, unsightly and unchanged"? Comments welcome!

Steve Litchfield, AAS, 13 Sept 2010