31 January 2010

Nokia E72: review

On Friday (22/01/10) I took delivery of a Nokia E72 handset on loan from Nokia so that I could test-drive it and write this review. The whole thing could in fact be summed up in three words: "I want one". That is not, however, particularly helpful for other people so I'll go ahead and give you the longer version as well...

To get an idea of the perspective from which I'm writing this mini-review, bear in mind that I'm a long-ish term Nseries user having worked my way through an N73, N95 and N96, and my current phone is a 5800 XpressMusic (which really is an Nseries phone in all but name). I don't have much use for several of the business-related features of the E72 (such as VPN and printing, for example) and won't cover them here. There are also some of the features I used to use on the N95 that disappeared from the N96 and 5800XM but have reappeared on the E72. These features mean enough to me for me to be willing to compromise on the multimedia side of things that is usually less well developed on Eseries devices.

First impressions are very important. The build of this device is impressive. It certainly doesn't feel plasticky and flimsy like many competing phones, it has a metallic coolness and weight (128g) about it. Given that the E72 sports a full, 4-row QWERTY keypad, each of the keys is comparatively small at roughly 5mm (W) by 7mm (H) in size. At first I thought I'd have great difficulty using it because of this but I was pleasantly surprised at the speed with which I got used to it. The keys are domed, which helps you feel your way around the keypad, and the action is gentle yet well defined. The ergonomics make the keypad far easier to use than you'd initially think looking at its somewhat reduced size.

At 6cm wide, 11cm tall and only 1cm thick, this phone is quite a slab. Slim, but a slab all the same. With a significant amount of metal in the bodywork and no moving parts (this is a candybar phone, not a slider or a clamshell), it feels rock solid. The battery cover is also made of stainless steel and does not creak like the back of the 5800XM or the N96, another detail that makes the phone feel solid.

The E72 comes with 512 MB of NAND flash, resulting in a comfortable 220 or so megabytes of free space on its C: drive for installing extra software. This is complemented by a microSD card slot that also accepts microSDHC cards. At the time of writing, these cards are available in capacities of up to 16GB. A 4GB card comes with the phone and is already installed in the slot. It includes, among other things, 2.5GB of maps and the PC Suite software used for synchronising data between the phone and your PC. Personally, I'm using a ByteStor 16GB card in mine. The E72 also has 128MB of SDRAM, which is just about enough for a phone of this calibre. The CPU in this handset is clocked at 600MHz and it shows in the responsiveness of the user interface, especially if you turn theme effects off.

Having the screen in landscape mode all the time is certainly "different". Even though the only thing that changes from a more conventional phone is the orientation, you nevertheless have the impression that the screen is larger. It is only an impression, though. Maybe the landscape orientation allows for more information on-screen, or maybe we're just more comfortable looking at something more like a TV screen. Its QVGA (320×240) resolution, however, is lower than what I've been used to for the past 9 months. The 5800XM does have a 360×640 widescreen format display, so switching to this handset will be a bit of a step backwards in that respect.

Knowing that this phone has native VoIP support, one of the first things I did was to set up a SIP profile on the E72 and then pay a visit to forum.nokia.com in order to grab and install the SIP VoIP Settings application for this model. The setup was painless and literally within seconds I had connected the phone via my wireless network to my PBX at home running Asterisk and was using it as my "landline" phone. Now, that is a feature that I missed from the N95 and which disappeared when I "upgraded" to the N96.

Call quality, for both cellular and VoIP calls, is very good indeed. The sound is not tinny at all, it is rather rich without being fuzzy. The quality of audio transmitted appears to be good as well. I just spoke with my father in France a few minutes ago and he told me that I sounded very clear his end of the line (it was a VoIP call). The good audio quality is valid for the music player, too. And for Spotify mobile. One minor niggle I'd point out is the minor click you hear when one track ends and the next one begins. It's only a quiet click but it shouldn't really be there. Nokia has managed to suppress it in other music-enabled devices such as the N96 and the 5800, it should also be possible to do so in a close-to-top-of-the-range Eseries device. One feature that Nokia haven't sorted out in any of their devices yet to the best of my knowledge is gapless audio playback. Not having it, and having to suffer a pause in the playback between tracks, when listening to live albums, for example, is a bit of a pain.

The battery in this phone is a mighty 1500 mAh BP-4L, the same battery as in the N97. The official specs claim that this gives the E72 16-22 days of standby time or up to 13 hours talk time in GSM or VoIP mode (or 6 hours in 3G mode) but, as always with battery life annouced by manufacturers, need to be taken with a skip full of salt given that the conditions in which the measurements are made are not reproducible in real life. While playing with the phone pretty intensively, I've been able to get 3 solid days of life out of the battery, that's with the WLAN connected permanently since I've been using the phone as a VoIP phone connected to my PBX.

The E72 ships with a few nice accessories, and some not so nice. First of all, the stereo earphones. I'm afraid they're a waste of space. They reproduce virtually no bass or treble and they're the kind that you're supposed to wedge in your ear, and they invariably fall out all the time despite coming with three different sizes of rubber grommet. Not only that but the inline remote control only has volume up/down keys and a call key, and looks (and feels) cheap and nasty. This phone is fully compatible with the more complete remote control of the 5800 XpressMusic, which also includes track skip, fast-forward, rewind, pause/play and stop controls, and a lock. It also has a standard 3.5 mm stereo socket on it into which you can plug a standard set of earphones, such as noise-isolating in-ear buds. Forget the supplied earphones, get yourself an AD-54 audio adapter and some decent earbuds. Your ears will thank you.

You can use a microUSB cable to connect the phone to your computer. The supplied CA-101D "cable" (in quotes because it's a bit of a joke, "stub" would be a more accurate description) is only about 10 cm long and therefore probably OK for laptop users. It's no good whatsoever for users of desktop systems because it's just far too short. The photo above shows it next to an SD card, which gives you an idea of its size, or rather lack thereof. You'll definitely want to invest in a normal CA-101 cable. Note that the E72 can be charged through the USB port. The rate at which it charges is, however, much slower than if you use the supplied AC-8 charger, which takes approximately 2 hours to charge the battery fully. For the phone's USB port to be fully functional, it needs to be connected to a USB 2.0 port on your computer. My (rather old) laptop only has USB 1.1 and the phone will not charge when connected to it, nor will "mass storage" mode work. USB charging is comparatively rare on Nokia handsets.

Another rarity on Nokia phones is HSUPA. All of Nokia's recent 3G phones are in fact 3.5G-compatible, boasting data download speeds of up to 7.2 megabits per second (provided the mobile network supports such speeds) but only the old 3G uplink speed of 384 kbit/sec. Several newer Eseries devices, including the E72, support HSDPA at 10.2 megabits/sec and, very importantly for those who send large volumes of data, HSUPA at up to 2 megabits per second.

The cleaning cloth is a nice touch. It's needed because the phone itself is a bit of a grease magnet. There's also a protective carrying case and a wrist strap. The case offers good scratch protection but it's a bit of a scramble to get the phone out of it quickly enough if someone calls you. The wrist strap is a great addition. It offers much appreciated reassurance when, for example, using the camera. You know you're not going to drop £350 worth of phone into the pond while photographing the ducks...

Speaking of the camera, I was rather impressed with it. It shoots 5 megapixel still images and video up to VGA resolution (640x480) at 15 frames per second. The video frame rate is half that of the 5800 XpressMusic and high-end Nseries devices but I'm not really that bothered. I use the still camera far more, so that's what I was more interested in. I've not yet really put it through its paces, but preliminary tests suggest that it's every bit as good as the N95's camera despite the absence of Carl Zeiss optics. Nokia hasn't brought out a camera of this quality since the N82 (and arguably the N86 8MP). Once I've conducted some reasonable tests I'll add a link to the results here, so check back occasionally, but don't expect much until the weather improves around here (northern England). There's little point in me taking a load of pictures of rainy streets and grey skies. One indication of the piqué of images taken with the camera is the size of the resulting JPEG files. Generally, they range between 1MB and 3MB on the E72. Believe me, 3MB is big for a 5 megapixel image from a cameraphone, meaning that there's plenty of detail in there...

One feature of this phone that I appreciate greatly is the mode switcher. It allows you to switch easily from "business" mode to "personal" mode and back. You get a different set of shortcuts and notifications on your home screen and a different theme for each mode. It would have been nice for the mode switch to change profiles as well so you can filter out business-related calls when in "personal" mode, for example, but I suppose we can't have everything.



Just below the soft keys and above the call make and break keys, there are four function keys. Menu and calendar on the left, contacts and messaging on the right. With the exception of the menu key, all of these keys are in fact programmable. The action in response to short press and a long press can be programmed independently. For example, I have programmed the "calendar" key to bring up the calendar application if I simply press it, or to bring up the clock application if I press and hold it. Or, a short press on the "messaging" key brings up the messaging application's main screen, while a long press on it starts composing a new text message. In the middle is the usual 5-direction D-pad, the middle of which is also an optical Navi-wheel. Swiping your finger over it allows you to scroll in the direction of the swipe. At first I thought it got in the way, but I came round to it after a couple of days once I'd got the hang of it.


While on the subject of messaging, the e-mail client built into the E72 is far more feature-rich than that of Nseries devices. I suppose this is normal for a phone being presented as a business device. It is compatible with normal POP3 and IMAP4 services, but also Lotus Notes, Google mail, Hotmail and Microsoft Exchange. Not fogetting Nokia's own OVI Mail service. There are, however, a few things I'd like to see Nokia put right in future releases of the software. First of all, there is no automatic "send to self" feature, nor is there an automatic Bcc: feature to fall back on because of the lack of "send to self". If the E72 moved sent mails over to the "sent items" IMAP folder of the account it's connected to, it wouldn't be a problem, but instead of that it stores sent mail locally and there is no possibility to move mail between folders manually (or, if there is, it doesn't work). If you want a globally accessible copy of any mail sent, you have to Bcc: yourself manually each time you send something.

Secondly, the way the e-mail application handles network connectivity needs to be rethought. S60v3 with Feature Pack 2 (the user interface on the E72) has a network feature called "destinations" whereby network access points can be organised in a priority list. For example, in the "Internet" destination, I have my home wireless network in first position, followed by my mobile network operator's packet data service. Any application needing a connection to the internet can therefore use the "Internet" destination rather than any particular network access point programmed into the phone. If it does, the phone will first try and connect using the first access point in the "Internet" list, ie. my home wireless network. If that is unavailable, because I'm out of the house, for example, then it will fall back on the next item in the list, my operator's packet data service. Despite the presence of this feature in the E72, the e-mail application only uses specific access points, not destinations. I can set things so that my wireless network is used for e-mail connectivity, and all works fine as long as I'm at home. If I go out, I need to change the access point used, for the inbound mail connection and then for the outbound mail connection, for each of the mailboxes defined. It would make things far simpler if I could tell the application to use the "Internet" destination. The most convenient connection would be used regardless of whether or not I'm in range of my wireless network. The feature is built into the phone, so why does an application a priori developed specifically for the series of phones not use it?

While I'm griping about missing features, how about scheduled backups? Backing up your data is crucial, especially on what is supposed to be a business device. S60v5 devices have the ability to schedule either a daily or a weekly backup. As long as the phone is switched on, you don't need to think about backing up your data, it happens on its own. Why not include that in Eseries device? It's so useful. Much more so than 3D ringtones, for example...

The killer application on the E72, in particular since Nokia announced free navigation on several devices including this one, is OVI Maps. It includes walk and drive navigation with verbal prompts in over 70 countries. Other than the fact that turn-by-turn navigation is no longer subject to the purchase of a licence, one of the key features of OVI Maps v3.03 is the ability to log into your Nokia account and synchronize the locations and routes stored in your phone with your online maps.ovi.com account. Another feature added in this version is "location sharing", whereby you can update your facebook status with your location and an optional photo. The resulting status update on your facebook profile will include a link to a map marking the coordinates of the location you shared in this manner.

Unfortunately, there is a bug in the firmware of the E52, E55 and E72, which inhibits signing on to your Nokia account. If you try and do so within OVI Maps, the application simply crashes. This very same bug is most likely behind the fact that the e-mail application cannot create an OVI Mail account correctly either. The bug has been acknowledged by Nokia and they are working on a fix. The Nokia employee who posted the message linked to above on the Nokia Support Discussion forums sent me a patch to test on my E72 and it worked fine, allowing OVI Maps v3.03 to access my Nokia account and also allowing the e-mail client to set up my OVI Mail account with no problems. The patch will definitely be included in future firmware releases of these three devices. It is unknown for now how it will be pushed to devices running current (and older) firmware. Before you ask, I have not been granted permission to distribute the patch I was sent. Do not ask me to send you a copy of it.

Update 06/02/2010: The fix I was given to test has now been officially released by Nokia. You can grab it from this support page.

It is now 4 days since I started writing this review and just over a week since I took delivery of my test E72. In that time I have grown extremely fond of the device, especially the landscape mode screen. In fact, if I look at the 5800 XpressMusic now it looks positively weird. I never thought I would ever be able to use a non touch-screen phone again after the 5800, but the E72 has proved me wrong. I have now managed to reach a relatively fast typing speed, pretty much as fast as I was on the touch screen if not faster, and the fact that the E72 is VoIP-capable is, I think, what really won me over. As I mentioned earlier, I used to have an N95 until the end of 2008, when I "upgraded" to an N96 (in quotes because in many respects, the absence of VoIP and the comparatively poor camera in particular, it was more of a downgrade) and then to the 5800 XpressMusic (also without VoIP) in April 2009. The absence of VoIP on the last two handsets was a major pain in the neck and meant that I had to go out and purchase a dedicated VoIP phone.

Despite the complaints I have formulated here, I was so impressed with the E72 that I went and ordered one for myself only a few days after I first got my hands on the loan device. I'm really pleased that I can now have a single phone for cellular and VoIP calls, and I'm equally pleased with the build quality of that single phone. It's a pleasure to use.

Incidentally, I signed up with Virgin Mobile on an 18-month contract at £25 per month, which gets me 500 minutes, up to 3000 texts and up to a gigabyte of mobile web data. The phone itself was free, and here's the best bit of it: it's a generic, UK phone and it isn't even SIM-locked! Most of the time when you get a "free" phone from an operator, its firmware has been messed about with by the operator so that you get its logo in your face all the time and so that some features of the phone that they don't want you using have been deactivated. This is not the case here. You'd walk out of a Nokia store with exactly the same phone had you bought it SIM-free. Indeed, this phone is a SIM-free phone. Until now I was on O2 with a SIM-only deal getting me 600 minutes, 1200 texts and 1 gigabyte of data for £20 per month. In essence, I'm paying an extra £5 per month for the next 18 months (so £90 all in all) and getting comparable service given that I never got anywhere near the 600 minutes or 1200 texts, and I just got a phone worth around £350 for free. Not a bad deal after all!

21 January 2010

Free navigation with OVI Maps!


On the morning of January 21st 2010, Nokia announced that turn-by-turn navigation would be free for all to use on their Nokia handsets.

Until now, the OVI Maps software (formerly known as Nokia Maps) was free to use for finding your current position and managing locations, but obtaining step-by-step directions from one location to another with vocal prompts was subject to the purchase of a navigation licence.

The roll-out of free navigation is not yet global. The ability to use it is subject to installing OVI Maps V3.03, which is not yet ported to all models. As of writing, the models supported are:

5230, 5800 XpressMusic, 5800 Navigation Edition
6710 Navigator, 6730 classic, X6
E52, E55, E72, N97 mini

Current speculation is that this new version of OVI Maps will be embedded in the V21 firmware update of the N97 that is due to be released later this month. It is also thought that OVI Maps V3.03 is the reason why the V21 update, originally announced for December 2009, was delayed.

Visit http://www.nokia.com/maps for more details.

14 January 2010

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic V40 firmware update


What better way to kick off the New Year's blogs than with the announcement of a great firmware update from Nokia?

This article could be subtitled "Give Credit Where Credit Is Due" because V40.0.005 does seem to be the result of a productive effort from Nokia's software development team. They have evidently been listening to customers' concerns because the timer-related bugs that were introduced in V30 and V31 are gone and new features that many people were demanding have been introduced. In short, it took them long enough but they got this one right in my opinion.

Nokia considers changelogs to be confidential information, so you'll never find one except when it's leaked on unofficial sites, but bear in mind that they more than likely contain inaccuracies deliberately introduced by Nokia in order to identify the mole leaking them. The information here is therefore based solely on personal observation. There may be features I've overlooked because I never use them, and some things I did notice may be totaly subjective.

BUGFIXES

There were three (most likely related) bugs introduced in V30 and carried over to V31 that almost ruined the experience of using the 5800XM for me:

1) Scheduled backups would not happen
2) The alarm would go off late
3) Timed profiles would expire late

These bugs would appear to have been eradicated in V40. The scheduled backup did happen last night, my alarm went off at 07:45 precisely instead of some indeterminate time between 07:45 and 07:55, and the timed profile expired at 08:00 dead on. That is a major relief, it's been random since I installed V30 in October last year.

NEW THINGS I LIKE

More responsive

The phone definitely seems more responsive since the update, and this isn't the result of a reset because I didn't do that. There's no need to if the phone has UDP (User Data Preservation). The user interface is definitely snappier, menus open quasi-instantaneously, applications open quicker, on-screen controls react faster.

More RAM

Running x-plore immediately after the phone boots reveals that there's 51 MB (plus whatever x-plore itself is using) of RAM free on D: for applications to play with. That's more than with V31, where 48 MB were available. This will help if you have several applications running concurrently. You will be less likely to run out of RAM, which means less likelihood that the system will forcefully shut down an application that's being a bit of a memory hog.

More battery life

Preliminary investigations using Nokia's "Energy Profiler" suggest that the operating system has been optimized to use less battery power and thus increase battery life when in standby, which is the status in which the phone finds itself most of the time.

Swipe action

When this was first introduced on the N97 it confused the hell out of people. Despite the animated graphics, people were just trying to press on the green, animated, right-pointing arrow to take a call and, of course, not succeeding. They didn't realize that the animation was suggesting that they should swipe the screen to the right in order to take the call, or to the left in order to reject the call. Reading the manual might have helped here, but who does that? That's another matter altogether... Anyway, the "swipe to answer" gesture is now part of the 5800XM's firmware and I must say that I like it, although its implementation is a little confusing here. A swipe to the right does answer the call, whereas a swipe to the left unlocks the keypad and silences the ringtone but doesn't reject the call. You have to tap a button on the screen after you've unlocked the keypad in order to do that. The green and red keys still, however, function as normal (answer and reject).

The swipe action has also been carried over to the alarm clock. Swipe to the right to kill the alarm, or to the left to engage the "snooze" function. Ditto for calendar entries with a reminder (ToDo notes, Memos, Anniversaries and Meetings), albeit with a slightly different behaviour. With calendar entries, a left swipe will silence the alarm and then give you the opportunity to kill it or engage the "snooze" function.

Visual feedback

If you tap on a selected item in a list in order to open it, you now get visual feedback that you've done just that. It's a small detail but it helps in that you are given an acknowledgement of the command you just issued. This is particularly useful if you've deactivated haptic feedback (vibrations in response to actions on the touch screen) in order to conserve battery power.

NEW THINGS I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT

Auto QWERTY keypad

Many people were asking for this, and I can see the logic in it. If you're holding the phone in portrait mode, you get a conventional alphanumeric keypad for text input. If you now rotate the phone to landscape mode, the alphanumeric keypad is replaced with a full-screen QWERTY keypad automatically. This is all very well, but the option to have an alphanumeric keypad while holding the phone in landscape mode has now disappeared. I used to use that frequently because, say what you will, text input on a small keypad such as that of a phone is far easier on an alphanumeric keypad because the keys themselves are much larger than they are on a full-screen QWERTY keypad, and with T9 predictive input you don't lose any speed to speak of. Combine that with the ease of holding the phone horizontally and you're on to a winner. Unfortunately, you no longer have this option. It would have been nice to have included something in the phone's settings to enable either this new behaviour or the traditional behaviour.

New "Contacts Bar" homescreen theme

This, along with kinetic scrolling (see further down), brings the 5800XM in line with other S60v5 devices (except the N97/mini) from Nokia. You get up to 20 contacts in the scrollable contacts bar, a tap on one of which will bring up a screen showing a log of your communications with that contact and buttons to call or send a message to that contact. You also get the usual 4 shortcuts to applications like you do on the "Shortcuts bar" home screen theme, plus a small panel allowing you to control the music player or the FM radio, if one of them is running.

This would be great if it weren't for two things missing from it. Firstly, the "Content search" is not on the homescreen. Secondly, the calendar is missing. While the absence of the search facility is not a deal breaker, the lack of a calendar display most certainly is. Also, the contacts bar is extremely clunky with only 3 contacts displayed at any given time and with no option to rearrange contacts other than deleting them and then adding them again in the order in which you want them to be displayed.

Nice try but it needs more work.

Kinetic scrolling

This is the ability to scroll through a list by swiping the screen upwards or downwards and thus "flicking" the list in that direction, making it scroll until you stop it or until it decelerates and comes to a halt. Several applications have used this feature for a long time, Gravity and Nokia's own touch screen Photo Browser come straight to mind. Kinetic scrolling was added to the N97's firmware in V20, which was released late October 2009, and I believe other S60v5 phones had it right from the beginning. The 5800 was therefore, until now, the only S60v5 phone not to have it.

The trouble is, its implementation is inconsistent. Kinetic scrolling does not function in the phone's menus, nor can you use it to scroll through the text of a message or an e-mail.

Personally, I never had any problem sliding the scroll bar to the right of the screen and I find myself still using that rather than kinetic scrolling. At least it's implemented consistently, you can use it everywhere.

THINGS THAT LEFT ME PERPLEXED

The "Switch" application is used when you get a new phone and want to transfer your data to it from the old one (provided both are Nokia phones). In theory, you'll only use it once, if at all, so I suppose it doesn't really matter where it is in the menu heirarchy, but moving it from Connectivity > Data transfer, where it seemed perfectly at home, to Settings leaves me thinking "What was that in aid of?".

THINGS I DEFINITELY DISLIKED

Subscription to "My Nokia"

Whether you like it or not, the phone sends off an SMS to the "My Nokia" service, subscribing you to receive tips on phone usage by SMS. You are not asked if you want this, you are told "I'm going to subscribe you to My Nokia" with the only possible response from you being "OK". You then have to go into the "My Nokia" application in your phone's menu and send another SMS to unsubscribe from the service.

The problem with this is that the tips from "My Nokia" are of no interest to anyone who's been using a mobile phone for more than about 30 seconds. They are aimed at people for whom even the most basic operations (such as switching the phone on and off) are completely bewildering. For my part, I find it rather condescending, even insulting, that Nokia should feel the need to remind me that I can use the power button to switch my phone on... If it's switched off then I can't receive that pearl of wisdom. Duh!

FM radio

The FM Radio no longer works. It'll start, but then it becomes totally unresponsive. You can't change preset stations, retune manually or do anything other than exit the radio application.

I never use the thing so it doesn't really bother me, but I do appreciate the frustration of people who do use it in much the way that not many people were bothered about the bugs present in V30/V31 while I definitely was!

IN CONCLUSION

This is a breath of fresh air after the string of somewhat disastrous firmwares for S60v5 phones we've seen coming form Espoo. It fixes the main problems encountered in earlier versions of the 5800's firmware and adds new features that people have been demanding so that this phone falls in line with other devices of the same family. It's what V30 and V31 should have been with a few extras.

A few things still need ironing out in the new "Contacts bar" homescreen and there is still no native SIP client to place VoIP calls, but regardless of these issues, V40.0.005 is a huge step in the right direction towards making the 5800 XpressMusic a phone that's fun to use in that the features it offers actually do what it says on the tin.

This is a major update so it won't be available over-the-air. If you want it (and I certainly recommend that you do install it), you'll need to update the phone on your computer using Nokia Software Updater.