Monday, April 30, 2012

Me and Nokia: From love to engagement to messy divorce - Part II

In part 1 of this saga, we had travelled from the humble 6233 to the flagship-lite N82. So far it had been a journey full of gradually dawning understanding, and slowly rising wonder and awe. Then the iPhone happened and Nokia was caught in the headlights.

You see, the iPhone launched in 2007 and despite the hype and the hoopla, it had very little to offer to existing NSeries owners like me, since it lacked many key features. But it did introduce touchscreen phones in a big way, and everybody saw sense in it.

Nokia's answer: the 'Tube'.
Nokia 5800 XpressMusic 3Q.jpg
Yes, this is the iconic Nokia 5800 XpressMusic. This was Nokia's answer to the iPhone and caused great excitement in the masses, including me. I bought it before it was officially launched in Pakistan, at a price which would these days fetch me a Samsung Galaxy Nexus AND a Nokia Asha 303. Yes, you read that right - I was desperate enough for it to have bought it in the black.

And truth be told, the set had everything - Wifi, great music capabilities, good user interface, TV out, etc. I liked the S60 5th edition, and at that point in time, Android hadn't taken off and Apple's iOS was the only other touch interface available (there was Sony Ericsson's UIQ but it was just another variation of Symbian). All was fine and dandy until this happened:

The N97. The ultimate super-uber-ultra phone that was meant to kill everything. Amazing construction. Latest touchscreen UI. Great hardware keyboard. 3.5-inch nHD screen. 32 GB built in memory AND an SD slot. 5 MP camera. In June of 2008, you couldn't go much higher end than this.

With all this, it might come as a shock when I tell you that the N97, hands down, is the WORST gadget I have ever used. The reason? A little something called the 'C: drive'. You see, most phones even these days have a root directory which is variously called 'C drive' or 'internal memory'. In the N97, the C drive was used to store contacts, messages, web browsing caches and Nokia apps (the latter couldn't be shifted to the SD card). Nokia chose to allocate a grand total of 50 MB to the drive. See the problem? Every update, every web browsing session, every download filled up the C Drive and it started giving an error message. There was no solution except to clean up the browser cache.

Every. Single. Fucking. Time.

Quite how Nokia's internal QC and testing procedures allowed this to happen speaks volumes about how Nokia was at that time: arrogant, out of sync with the web culture, lax in standards. This not being Android, there was no easy way to hack the device and tell it to store the damned data elsewhere.

Luckily, the Nokia N900 launched at the same time and I went out to exchange my N97 in a hurry.

See that screen? That was the N900 multitasking screen and I have't seen a better implementation anywhere else. The N900 was a revelation: all the high points from the N97 hardware had been retained, albeit with a better design, memory management, and a vastly superior OS that brought true desktop-like experience with elegance and flexibility. It also provided another groundbreaking innovation: a unified contacts and messages list that listed IMs and SMSs from anyone in the same threaded view.

It did have its limitations. Not a lot of apps were made  for the Maemo 5, and the phone only worked in landscape. This landscape limitation was promised to be fixed by Nokia by end of 2009. The fix never came. As good as N900 was, I couldn't live with this long, and traded it in for HTC Legend.

So that's how the divorce was: quiet, unexpected but distressing. Because trading in the N900 meant I was giving up on Nokia for good. It still pains me to this day, since I still remember the build quality and industrial design of the N900 and cannot find a match in current offerings.

If you can see a pattern here, it is that Nokia itself refused to address problems with its devices and let too many devices out the door with crippling defects. Their current troubles and the inexorable march to bankruptcy is, I feel, justice served for a lot of users like me who were swindled out of our hard earned cash in the latter years.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Me and Nokia: From love to engagement to messy divorce - Part I

I would admit this: Nokia might be the most influential tech company of all time. I believe that most people on the globe have been touched in some way by Nokia, whether they currently own a Nokia device or not.

Like many people, I was a Nokia fanatic at one time. Just see the list of the Nokia sets that I have owned: 6233, N80, 6120, N81, N82, 5800, N97, N900, X1, X2. To gauge the intensity of this marriage, consider this: I bought my first Nokia set only in February 2007.  Do the math.

Interestingly enough, I started out as something of a Samsung fan. I was well enamored with their feature phones having polyphonic ringtones and those lovely blue screens. After starting out with the rather lovely N500, I moved up gradually, with my final Samsung set being the X820 (the world's thinnest phone at that time). On the second day of joining a big oil company, I dropped it in the toilet. Adios, good guy.

That forced me to consider my options. I hated Nokia at that time, because everyone was in love with it. To me their designs looked horrible compared to the sleek offerings from Samsung. However, a friend bought the 6233 and it opened up my eyes. Take a look:

The phone was handsome, had the best sound in the business, was pleasantly heavy and well finished and had a cracking QVGA screen. Please remember that in 2007 a QVGA screen was da bomb. Also I was attracted to the S40 OS, which, while not smart, had a large ecosystem and had some very advanced functions, such as java support.

A few months in, though, the size and weight of this beast started to bother me. I thought, if I had to carry such a heavy phone, shouldn't it have more functions? That attracted me to the N-Series, specifically the N80.

The N80 was my first taste of a smartphone and I rather fell in love with Symbian, at that moment the most powerful smartphone OS. I loved the power and the flexibility. Please note that phones back then weren't used for web browsing or media consumption, but rather for calls, messages, photography and maybe playing games.

Then Nokia launched the 6120 Classic, at that time the world's smallest and lightest smartphone. With the same processing power as any NSeries, a thin and light body, and a cracker of a price (Rs16,000), I bought that phone right at launch. It had a latter version of Symbian, and again it offered a lot of power and flexibility. I broke its d-pad playing endless sessions of 'Roland Garros' tennis by Gameloft, so I wrote to the Nokia Board of Directors via their website, complaining of the build quality. Incredibly, 15 days later I received a phone call from Nokia's local business partners and they offered to replace my keyboard completely free of charge. My love with Nokia as a company started to strengthen, seeing how it was in touch with its customers.

Then Nokia launched the N81, a self-proclaimed "gaming handset". Besides having a nice look and some extra gaming keys, the phone had little going for it in terms of gaming credentials. Funnily enough, for just Rs2,000 more Nokia were selling the N82, which had a hardware accelerator, a 5 MP camera with a Xenon flash, and the looks and build of a tank. It took me two days to return the N81 and get the N82.

The N82 has been the best Nokia set I have owned. It's eccentric look satisfied my 'rebel tendencies', while its hardware and software offered endless ways to tinker.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nokia: How to Destroy a Company - Part 1

Nokia's troubles are well known today. The company recently announced disastrous quarterly results, with their handset sales declining 39% quarter on quarter. That's right: 39%. Even more spectacularly, their smartphone sales fell 50%. Wonder why? Just look at the pathetic Nokia lineup. Their top end phones are based on Windows Phone, a system nobody seems very interested in. Their middle tier is still running Symbian which is now a pale copy of Android. And their feature phones - such as the Asha series and X2 -02 which I own - offer sub par features with the added attraction of instability and bugs.

I think Nokia's fate was cemented once Mr Stephen Elop stepped into the CEO's shoes. The decision to abandon Symbian has been disastrous. This is the guy who, while announcing the best Nokia handset ever (N9), also announced that Nokia was abandoning the excellent OS underlying the N9, Meego. This is the same Meego that Nokia previously spent a billion Euros on.

Today, there is an article by a worldwide respected industry expert, Mr Eldar Murtazin from Russia. I have seen Mr Murtazin go from a great Nokia champion to one of it's biggest opponents (with good reason, I might add). Here is a link to this great article. In the second part, I hope to cover my personal experiences with Nokia devices and chronicle the demise of a great company from a consumer's viewpoint.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Which Phones NOT to Buy Right Now

It's getting funny. Every week new models are launched, and most people I know tend to get attracted by the looks of a new gadget long before they are able to consider its advantages. I have learnt this one lesson: It's not about specs, it's about what you can DO with it. So, in parallel to my monthly feature of 'Which Phones to Buy Right Now' I have decided to start this one. The main intention is to share my pain and suffering so that others can be warned.


Samsung is spoiling the party for everyone. One X is a fine machine, but in view of the impending launch of successor to Galaxy S2, it is wise not to spend that much cash on the One X and wait for what Samsung have to offer. In my opinion, One X is quite overpriced right now at Rs58k. It's battery life is pathetic even by HTC's own low standards. In a month or two perhaps the One X will make sense, but not today. Samsung Galaxy Nexus will give everything that One X has, with the exception of the camera, and it's around Rs17k cheaper.


I am being harsh here, but Xperience has taught me that Sony sets lose their speed fast as you use them. I think it has something to do with their custom skin - in any case, after witnessing the phenomenon on my past favorite, Xperia Neo V, I am putting recommending Sony phones on indefinite hold. Xperia S, besides having a stunning HD screen, doesn't have anything going for it. It's dual core processor is old news, and the price is way too high at Rs50k. But it's biggest crime is running on Android Gingerbread (though an upgrade to 4.0 will roll out soon). Bad deal.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Which Phone to Buy Right Now - April 2012

Hello all, here's my monthly guide to which phone is right for you. This time around I have tried to expand the scope and in some cases, included alternatives rather than a definitive answer. Some further usage of the devices I mentioned in the March 2012 guide has resulted in updated impressions of those, and sadly, not all of them are favorable. Here it is.


The entry-level segment is not as hotly contested these days, and that's why average phones like Nokia X2 02 rise to the top. You detect a change in tone, right? Right. Having had another month to use this phone, I have found out that it is quite buggy. It is prone to freezes and restarts. Given that it runs Nokia's S40, a 'dumb' OS that has been around for more than a decade, and is commonly shared with dozens of models over previous years, does not even have touch capabilities, this lack of stability is downright shameful. It speaks volumes about where Nokia stands today; the pathetic set of engineers that cannot get a dirt-cheap set right do not deserve our money. Additionally, the phone is not that fast; the one thing you expect in entry level sets is speed, which is missing here. 

Even so, the feature set means that this still remains the cheap set of choice for me, though that is almost certain to change by end of this month. 


Image 1]

So, only after a month, Samsung's Galaxy Y has lost its perch as the cheap smartphone of choice. Why? Because suddenly, HTC Explorer's price dropped to Rs12k and in Galaxy Y territory. This price drop means that now you can get an HTC Android device, with a 3.2 inch HVGA screen (the resolution is notably superior to that of Galaxy Y), for rock-bottom prices. The phone loses out in the processor speed stakes to Galaxy Y (600 MHz vs 800 MHz), but in every other respect - looks, build, camera, user interface - it emerges on top. The set is reasonably fast and has WiFi, GPS, motion sensor, and other bells and whistles. You can't go wrong with this one.

Image 1

I know, I know - at Rs29k One V is hardly 'mid-priced', but its price is expected to fall to Rs25-26k level in a couple of weeks. Why has it replaced Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo V? Because Neo slows down over time. It still remains a good bargain, but there should be no compromise on the speed of a set at any price. Neo is set to receive its ICS update shortly, so it might make it back into this list if its speed issues are fixed. Till then, you can consider HTC One V; its specs are almost identical to those of Neo V, however, it sports an aluminium body and Android 4.0. The one drawback is tiny internal memory of 4 GB, but an SD card slot takes care of that. The set is solid and speedy. 


Image 1

At Rs 25k, HTC Radar is an excellent Windows Phone 7 set. As I mentioned in a previous post, WP7 doesn't have the power or flexibility of Android, but it is noticeably ahead of iOS in those aspects. Arguably, WP7 is the best-looking interface on phones today. The phone is fluid, fast, and has good specs. The only drawback I can think of is that since WP7's future is far from certain, this set's resale might be questionable.


So the Nexus retains its perch. In the intervening time, I have had the chance to use the HTC One X which is being billed as the best Android handset on the planet right now. However, I cannot recommend a set with hard physical buttons and tiny, non-user-replaceable battery despite all its other merits. Additionally, I will take vanilla Android 4.0 any day over HTC's Sense, but that's a personal preference and nothing else, since Sense has its own advantages. 

What has happened is that the Galaxy Nexus's price has fallen to Rs42k, and at that price you cannot find a better phone, period. It is astounding to see the local market's gross underestimation of the handset's capabilities, and their perceptions are dictated by the 5 MP camera. However, this ignorance means that the Galaxy Nexus has now become a bargain. Let them be fooled. 


The hottest phone in local market at the moment. Note is the SAME as Galaxy S2, with three differences: 5-inch screen with an HD resolution (same as Galaxy Nexus), larger battery and stylus capability. The only negative points I can think of are debatable pocketability, Samsung's horrible TouchWiz UI over Android 2.3 (though an Android 4.0 update is due in a month or so) and difficulty in reaching the corners of the screen due to large size. If you can live with these shortcomings, get ready to be blown away by the games and movies on this device as nothing else comes close to in those respects (except to some extent, the Galaxy Nexus). This beast (in all senses of the word) will set you back Rs55,000 and even at that price it's a steal. If you can live with the size, there's nothing else like it!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Windows Phone: A viable alternative?

Yes, there is another operating system besides Android, iOS and Symbian for smartphones. Microsoft has been toiling away in the mobile operating system area for more than a decade now. They started off with Windows Mobile which saw 6 iterations before MS dumped it entirely and built Windows Phone 7 (WP7) from the ground up. I have handled several sets featuring Windows Mobile, and contrary to the popular trend, always came away impressed. See, I have always fantasized about having a computer in my pocket, and back then, computer used to be a synonym to "windows based machine". Windows Mobile did a stellar job of bringing the look and feel of Windows XP to a mobile device. Unfortunately, it was not a marriage made in heaven. While the OS was certainly the most powerful around, with the ability to run Office and other core Windows apps, it suffered from difficulty of operation and small text that seemed ill suited to thumb operation.

After the advent of iOS with iPhone in 2007, the core focus of smartphones was forcibly shifted towards usability. It can be argued that iOS sacrifices too much functionality to achieve its ease of use goals. Ironically, some of the key features of iOS end up making the device more difficult to use. However, the competitors failed to notice this paradigm shift and stuck to their guns - Nokia to Symbian and MS to Windows Mobile. They believed that their solutions were superior to iOS and therefore there was no need to change.

Needless to say, the rest is history. While not being the first touchscreen phone, iPhone showed the world that it was perfectly logical to have a touchscreen on your phone, and sent Symbian packing, while MS went back to the drawing board.

This is what they came up with:

Windows Phone 7 was introduced in 2010 to enthusiastic reviews but lukewarm sales. Due to Microsoft's tightly defined hardware and software guidelines, all WP7 sets sport similar specs and identical software. This means that OEMs can only differentiate their phones with design and hardware features.

I have used a WP7 called HTC Radar and have the following impressions:

1) Very elegant and fluid interface
2) Very good built in apps
3) Entirely unlike anything else
4) Tight integration with MS Office, Internet Explorer and Outlook
5) No major features expected in a mobile OS are missing
6) Wide variety of sets available starting at Rs25k and upward

1) Screens are stuck to 800x480 resolution which is no longer par for the course
2) Limited applications available compared to iOS and Android
3) Simplistic approach sometimes reduces ease of use
4) No Flash support in browser
5) Your phone will look identical to everyone else's.

1) Not for anyone coming from Android - too much functionality missing
2) Ideal solution for iPhone users. WP7 is much more powerful and much more elegant than iOS

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

HTC One X: Should you buy or wait?

So, one of the most anticipated devices of 2012 has been released, and is even available in Pakistan. HTC One X is meant to be the HTC flaghship for 2012 and tops their new brand of 'One' nicely, the other two lesser devices being One S and One V.


In many respects One X is already a success. It restores some of the glory to the HTC brand which it lost during 2011 thanks to a sprawling product line up, branding confusion and frankly, quite capable but ultimately ordinary devices. One X also ushers in the 'One' brand which in itself is very strong, and its strength is redoubled when coupled to HTC's rediscovered penchant for product design.

Their 2011 flagship line, Sensation, played second fiddle to Samsung Galaxy S2 on the high end and was beaten on price very nicely to boot. It also had pathetic battery life among other failings, though by no means a bad device.

2012 brings in the era of quad-core devices and HTC seems first out of the gate with NVidia's Tegra 3 quad-core chipset. Here is a quick overview of what makes One X special:

1) 1.5 Ghz quad-core Tegra 3 processor
2) Android 4.0 married to HTC Sense 4.0 skin
3) 32 GB built in memory
4) 4.7 inch 1280x720 resolution SuperLCD2 screen
5) No card slot and fixed 1800 mAH battery
6) 8 Megapixel wide angle camera

If you skim through the reviews, the following key points emerge:
1) The screen is the best on any mobile device
2) Sense 4.0 is, unlike previous version, is very light and understated
3) The phone is fast, but not as fast in web browsing as exepceted
4) Camera is very good and very very fast
5) Battery life is, once again, pathetic

For me the last point is key. For years HTC handsets have been notorious for their lack of battery life and this seems no different. I have another reservation, which is the phone having physical buttons at the bottom while Android 4.0 natively has virtual on-screen buttons (an infinitely superior solution).

Even then, the sheer style, coupled with those specs and that screen, makes the phone worth a consideration especially if you are a HTC loyalist. However, I would suggest to WAIT for Samsung's announcement regarding the successor to Galaxy S2. By then, the price of the set will also have fallen to a more reasonable level/