When 2009's disaster phone ticks far more boxes than 2013's flagships?

Published by at

Not wishing to embarrass the current crop of 1080p, 5"-screened, quad core-processored superphones, but in continuing to play with something altogether older and humbler, I can't help but reflect that the latter meets my needs and 'shopping list' for a perfect phone far, far better than the latest 2013 flagships. Prepare to be shocked. Then laugh. And then cry.... 

Here's the set up. I set myself a shopping list of attributes of the 'perfect' smartphone for me. I emphasise the 'for me' part - I accept that this list will be different for other people!

  1. Good camera. Decent size sensor, Xenon flash if possible. Dedicated shutter key if possible.
  2. Great battery life, must have replaceable (and preferably) high capacity battery.
  3. Full width physical QWERTY keyboard, backlit if possible, cursor control if possible, for easier editing and moving through lists/menus.
  4. Loud stereo speakers.
  5. Memory expansion via microSD
  6. Screen that's easily readable in sunlight.
  7. Built-in kick stand or other means to prop up screen.
  8. FM transmitter for getting tunes and podcasts to my car radio.
  9. Great sat-nav, preferably free.
  10. Mechanical camera glass protection and camera launching when sliding back.
  11. Full physical media controls (no fiddling around on a touchscreen with wet or dirty hands etc.)
  12. Ability to take both microSIM and miniSIM.
  13. One handed use and screen unlock.
  14. Needs to have full multitasking, plus a full editing Office suite.
  15. Not too big and must be robust.
  16. Cheap.

At this point your brain should be exploding, since there is no way on earth such a 'perfect' smartphone exists, surely? Take the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S III or the new Sony Xperia Z and they maybe satisfy five of the 16 points above, at best.

And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, what if I said that I'd been using such a smartphone on and off for the last three years and that you could now pick it up for £40 on eBay? You'd cry out, not unreasonably, that I must be stark, staring mad.

Actually, I'm not. Here's a clue...

You see, I have in my hands an old and black Nokia N97 classic, picked up on eBay last year for a 'song', it's a bit battered and beaten, has obviously been dropped quite a bit since 2009, yet works perfectly in every way, I've got the latest Qt-compatible custom firmware loaded, and - most importantly - satisfies every single one of the characteristics above either completely or mainly.

Yes, this is the device that many people blame for Nokia's downfall. This is the nightmare device that people returned in high numbers. This is the device that still prokes outright revulsion in the smartphone community. And yet it fits the bill as my perfect phone. How crazy is that?

Here, for completeness, is the matchup of my custom Nokia N97 classic with the list above:

  1. Yes, 1/2.5" sensor and Carl Zeiss optics, though admittedly only dual LED flash and not Xenon.
  2. Yes, battery is the BP-4L 'hero' cell, too. A legend.
  3. Yes, and backlit, and includes a d-pad for extra control.
  4. Yes, though they're a bit tinnier than the lovely speakers on the likes of the 5800 and X6.
  5. Yes, plus mass memory is 32GB.
  6. Yes, it's transflective. Though admittedly indoors it's uninspiring by current standards and, at nHD, fairly low resolution.
  7. Yes, open the keyboard and you have a mini-laptop with propped up screen.
  8. Yes.
  9. Yes. 
  10. Yes.
  11. Yes, in that the d-pad acts for play/pause/fwd/back/cue/review for media.
  12. Yes, in that a low-tech caddy is used, working well with even primitive microSIM adapters.
  13. Yes, not too large a screen and a side-mounted keylock toggle.
  14. Yes, it's Symbian and yes, Quickoffice is there.
  15. Yes, genuinely phone-sized and extremely robust - you should see the wear on mine!
  16. Yes, £40 on eBay or similar.

You see, I do get what Nokia was trying with the N97 - their 'shopping list' for a smartphone at the time was obviously similar to mine and the aim was to pack every feature ever requested into the one device. And Nokia succeeded.

But they also failed in a major way by getting the internals wrong: not enough RAM to future proof the device, not enough system disk (ditto), plus a resistive screen that didn't suit the way the interface was evolving. Add in a poor GPS antenna and issues with the camera glass cover and, yes, there was the recipe for almost guaranteed failure.

Of course, I'm not, repeat not advocating that Lumia 920 and iPhone and 808 owners throw away their smartphones and revert to a hacked, custom firmware, Gravity-pimped Nokia N97 like mine. The difference in web browsing performance, in screen clarity, in application availability and so on is vast, and the N97 suffers hugely here, as you might expect from a device that was under-specified in 2009 (though my use of custom firmware helps here to some degree!)

But I am recommending you at least read my shopping list above and see how many of the 16 also reflect your own needs. Can you think of any other recent devices, in the Symbian world or elsewhere, which also get even close to hitting all 16 points? I can't. Even my current primary device, the mighty Nokia 808 PureView only hits 10 or so...

Which means that manufacturers are most definitely missing a trick! Here's a thought: imagine the 'new Nokia 980', an N97 with the display and processing internals of the 808. Quite easy to make, I'd have thought. And yes, imagine a world where Nokia hadn't publically hung Symbian out to dry. That would be 'job done' as far as I'm concerned, and I bet I wouldn't be alone.