Review: Nokia X7 - Part 2 (Music and Video)
Last week Steve introduced the Nokia X7, the first Symbian Anna retail device, and as promised he's passed it over to me to take it into the real world and see what it can deliver away from his technically detailed eye. To be honest, being handed to Mr Spence in the height of a Scottish summer is probably going to leave the X7 wondering what it did wrong. First up for me is the multimedia angle.
This is the next phone in a long line of Nokia entertainment devices, but I think most people who consider purchasing this phone will be new to Symbian, and they will be taking a close look at the sticker price. This is where the networks are going to have an impact on device sales. As Steve has pointed out in the first part of this review, the unsubsidised price of the X7 is out of sync not only with the rest of the Nokia Symbian^3 range, but it's not matching up with similar smartphones in stores. Once the networks decide what the subsidised price will be, it will be interesting to see where the X7 slots in with those prices - it is going to need to be aimed very competitively to have an impact on the marketplace.
I do want to touch on the styling choices made by Nokia - but rather than engage in a smartphone version of the 'Four Yorkshiremen' sketch and note down every single missing milliamp, keylock switch and front facing camera (that personally I think I've used three times in over eight years of phones), I want to look at the X7 with the fresh eyes of a consumer. Take the price out of consideration and put the X7 next to the top fashionable phones of each OS... I think you would have a fair catwalk fight. At first glance I loved the styling out the box, and while I have some issues with it after using it, it's still stunning when it catches my eye. There is no doubt that the X7 has the mainstream looks, more than any other recent Nokia device.
But what about when you start using the phone and the new variant of Symbian: Anna?
Let's find out... first up, the multimedia angle.
Even without understanding what the 'X' designation represents, you get the feeling that this is a device not for creating, but watching and listening to. Yes it still has a 8 megapixel camera, although it's EDoF and only a twin-LED flash (compared to the Carl Zeiss-equipped 12 megapixel focusing camera with Xenon on the N8).
You'll experience my photography attempts later in this multi-part review. For now, let's look and listen to what the X7 can give out. For all the whizz bang features and bullet points, there are some applications that people will always turn to first. For me it's Music player. Given my long term love/hate with the Nokia music player, I always wonder if they've picked up on some of the bugs.
And they have! Music player now recognises a much larger range of ID3 data (that names each track) - specifically, it now also picks up the album artists and my compilation albums now say "Various Artists" on the screens, as opposed to the name of the first artist on the album. That means a lot to me, as I have a thing about wanting album art and data to show up correctly, but it's also a subtle thing when it comes to users. This is how it should be, it should just work.
I'm less convinced about Nokia continuing with the combination of Artists and Albums into one view, and not two separate views. First up is the most obvious one - I think it is what people expect to find in a music player, and by not meeting expectations, you create a distrust around a phone. You need that trust before you can say that there is a 'better' way of carrying out a task. You don't have time to explain that in a store or at the point of sale. The simple conclusion will be "Nokia didn't put it in" and you've lost a sale.
The alternative, of course, is to use the search function built into the X7. Using this is very fast, and I'd say that the results came up in real time as I was typing M-O-N to get to The Moniker (a Swedish band who didn't qualify for Eurovision, sitting on one of my own compilation albums of songs that didn't qualify for the Song Contest). Here's the problem though. The search function isn't linked from inside the music application, and there's no indication that you can use it for music. Old hands coming to the phone will be able to work that out, but new users are going to have to hit a folder icon (that looks like an application), then choose Search, before they can hunt for the musical track. Anyone want to explain how this isn't marked up as a #fail?
I can rationalise why Nokia has made the design decisions they have in Anna for Music player - it keeps the furniture and menu options to the app at a minimum, and if you're album-focussed then there are very few clicks needed to get to the music as fast as possible. The problem is that the second you step outside of this remit you find you have to be (a) doing a lot of clicks and manual searching through alphabetised lists or (b) have to use obscure parts of the operating system that aren't linked from the application. Put simply, the excuse of "that's what we had before" doesn't wash here. The X7's Music player will not match consumer expectation.
Oh, and I bet a lot of people will ask what the "podcast" menu option does. It takes you to a blank screen with no explanation of what to do (press Help and you get some nice info about listening to the built in FM radio). Again, old hands know you need to get a third party podcast application, or copy over podcasts from your computer that have the genre field marked "Podcast" to make this work, but again, someone coming cold to the X7 is going to go "this is broken". Again, you can't mark this down as anything but a fail. Even a simple line of code along the lines of (if there are no podcasts, do not show the podcast menu) would make this a far better implementation in the UI.
Audio quality is rarely a problem on Nokia handsets, especially if you use your own headphones. The fact I can spot the compression artefacts and the warblings of a small MP3 is not a fault of the audio processing used, it shows that it's replicating the contents of the file as well as can be expected.
Where I do have an issue is that the X7 still does not do gapless playback - where one music file plays seamlessly into a second track. It's an important issue if you listen to a lot of live music or classical music. It's an even bigger problem if you love concept albums (guilty as charged, but everyone should listen to Amarok at least once). This should be a matter of professional pride to whoever is leading the music playback team, and it's a shame Nokia still hasn't figured out how to do this.
And then there are the "fake" speaker grills on the outside of the handset. I do feel cheated that only two speakers are employed, and they're at the base (when in portrait orientation) of the device (so easily covered by your hand when holding the device). On first glance, the media phone X7 has four speakers - could this be a little pocket Dolby system? In fact, the truth is much more horrible. It is, effectively, a mono device.
Yes, there are two speakers on the circuit board, but there is no effective stereo coming from the device when you use the loudspeakers (as opposed to headphones, which are stereo). My first clue was Carrie Anne by The Hollies, one of those delightful 60's "fake stereo" songs with the vocals in one ear and the instrument in the left. It sounded mixed together when I really focused on the sound. One quick edit later of a test MP3 with 95% of the audio on the left and none on the right and... there's no difference, the output from each 'speaker' (grille) sounds the same.
I tested the same file on the X6 by the way, and the obvious stereo split in this magical mono track was obvious. So forget the tech specs, forget what you were hoping for and trust my ears. The X7 is as mono as an original pressing of "Please Please Me" (just not worth as much).
Nokia have updated the Music player application for Anna, but they seem to have taken out a few bugs and quirks, while leaving the vast majority of code in place. Is an OS's music player as vital as its web browser? That's a good question, because I know that the online community will push that the web browser is key. But a music player has a very well defined set of parameters and only a handful of UI use cases. It should be an easier target to hit. Nokia haven't managed a clean kill - they've wounded, they've maimed, but they've not landed a clean blow. Music player in Symbian Anna works, but it's not a simple and easy ride for the user.
On to video and the big bugbear in the past on S60 has been the limited codec support - the chances are that just because a video file played on your computer did not mean that it would play on your phone. Thankfully those days are long past - and both Steve and I have thrown a number of different video files with different codecs and compressions onto the X7, and they've all played smoothly, with no stutter. And that's right up to the 1280x720 resolution of 'HD' video.
I'm also happy with the on-screen controls. Tap in an empty space to bring 'em up, tap again in an empty space and they go away. Given the nature of the X7, almost everything is done on screen, apart from changing the volume which can additionally be done with the buttons on the edge... errr on the back of the machine. Actually, the funky styling of the X7 does cause a bit of an issue with video playback. Most of the time you're going to have the smartphone in your hand, and the acute angle on the edges around the screen mean that while I've found the X7 comfortable to hold in portrait mode, it feels really unstable when being held in landscape to watch a video. The curved back also means that balancing the X7 on a table is a lot harder than an N8. So usability has improved with the larger screen giving larger controls and a more accurate slider for skipping through the video, but is taken away in the physical world.
You can decide yourself if that's an improvement or not. For me it's debatable, but shading to not.
I'm also going to return to the issues of the speakers. When I was five, we had a portable TV at home, with one speaker. It sat to the right of the screen, and I just accepted that this was where sound came from. Not in or around the picture, but beside the picture.
Since then, technology has moved on. But the X7 has pulled that memory right back. Thanks to the weird speaker arrangement, the sound obviously comes out of the right hand side of the smartphone (in landscape video-watching mode), and while my younger self might be forgiving, right now it sounds wrong and uncomfortable. Sure, I could put headphones on, but as the 3.5mm stereo jack plug is slap bang in the middle of the other side, it's in the crook of my hand as I hold the phone.
In other words, there will always be a physical compromise when watching any video on the X7. To be fair, this is true of most handheld devices (I'll put the Sony PSP up as an exception on speaker placement, with one either side of the 16:9 screen, but that gaming device also falls down on 3.5mm positioning).
Strangely, I can forgive a lot of the issues around the video player because of one reason - the screen. It's nice and big, there's little strain when watching video for long periods of time on the screen, and being a 16:9 ratio screen, most modern TV series will fit, and motion pictures are close enough that the eye can sort out any slight squishing (Cinemascope, such as West Side Story above, still needs black bars top and bottom, but you can zoom in to fill the screen and ignore the picture at the side if you so wish, by tapping the icon on the top left).
Video on a mobile device is still high frontier stuff, even though conversion is now no longer an issue - finding the content is still not mature (especially if you stay with legal sources).
That's how I'd class the X7's multimedia capability. Yes it does all you would expect for a smartphone focused on listening and watching media. But it doesn't do it with any style, any panache. it doesn't make it exciting to navigate your music, to find out what's coming up next. Take that and put it on top of the niggling issues above and you have a phone that fulfils its remit, but no more. It's as if the product designer sat with a checklist, made sure everything was ticked, put the piece of paper in the out tray and clocked off promptly at 5pm.
That gets everything out the door, but it doesn't give it any lust. And with the X7's styling starting that process, it's the job of the software to keep that going. Unfortunately, the first elements that I turn to in a smartphone don't do that. So it's on to the connectivity and internet solutions to see if there's any improvement in part three of our X7 review.
-- Ewan Spence, June 2011.
Reviewed by Ewan Spence at