The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

…and the kitchen sink too

Posted by Deliverator on July 28th, 2007

In general, I am not a fan of so called “convergence” devices. Devices which cram too many functions into a small package often suffer from interfaces which are inappropriate or clumsy for any particular task or at the other extreme have a tendency towards buttonitis. Even devices designed towards a single function but with a need for small size often have hopelessly confusing and clumsy interfaces. One common example of this is the Bluetooth headset, which tend to access all functions through three or four buttons which each have a variety of sub-functions depending on the context of use. Devices like this practically necessitate carrying around a twenty page manual to facilitate their use.

On the other end of the quality spectrum, you have companies with a long history of designing intuitive user interfaces. The recently released iphone from Apple sets a new and very high standard for out of the box intuitiveness for a multi-function device. At the same time, while Apple got the user interface right, the iPhone is fundamentally flawed in many ways. A lot of functions on the iPhone are minimally implemented (such as the one button camera) and common functions that have been considered near mandatory by all phone manufacturers for years are simply missing. To generalize, the iPhone suffers from a problem common to many convergence devices. Namely, having too few developers to implement every feature properly on a deadline and in a way consistent with the look and feel of the device. Companies attempting convergence devices often find out midway through an implementation cycle that they simply don’t have enough developers or the right skill sets to deliver on an ambitious goal in a short period of time. It has long been known in software engineering that pouring on more developers midway is actually counter-productive. So, features get cut or are under-implemented. In the case of under implement or half assed implementations of features, it tends to be an attempt to retain as many all important “bullet point” features for product marketing purposes. While this will sometimes sell a product in the short run, consumers tend to feel burned in such cases and it does little to build brand loyalty.

Apple, on the other hand, has been very smart over the years by not announcing feature sets in advance of a product’s release (to avoid the inevitable “why did features x get dropped?” questions) and indeed to rarely announce a product at all until it is done and ready for purchase (although things do tend to leak, but Apple is amongst the most aggressive in the industry a attempting to plug leaks via whatever means necessary). They also tend to release only the barest number of units (and presumably to carefully vetted journalists) in advance for “just in time” reviews. Apple seems to “get” the challenges of releasing ambitious products (and dealing with the public) more than perhaps any other company in the modern computer and personal electronics industry. While the iPhone, at present, is too much of a compromise to meet my needs, I fully expect many of my qualms about the device to be fixed in future software releases and certainly by the time iphone generation 2 or 3 rolls about. Given that Apple makes no promises or even hints about future features to be implemented in future free software upgrades, I can’t justify spending $600 on a device that doesn’t meet my needs and has little chance of ever doing so in the future. Although I would be more inclined to believe a promise from Apple of future software support, it is my observation that many companies promise future software upgrades that never end up materializing in an attempt to separate a consumer from his pocket book. This sort of behavior usually creates a LARGE amount of ill will and isn’t exactly the sort of thing that brand loyalty is built upon. Usually you see this sort of behavior from struggling companies after a version 1 product release in a desperate attempt to bring enough money in the door to keep going till version 2 is out, or at least make off with more loot as the company implodes.

This long ramble/rant is all prelude to this most un-me-like statement, “I bought a convergence device and love it!” To be specific, I purchased a Nokia N95 “super” phone. This was not a light decision for me, I read a great number of detailed reviews before purchasing it and made a somewhat out of the way trip to the Alderwood Mall to visit their Nokia Experience Center. The Experience Center is an un-store, they don’t actually sell anything there, which is somewhat confusing for people strolling in right out of the mall without any foreknowledge. It is simply a place where one can go to try out Nokia products and speak with a Nokia representative for any length of time about their product line up. I found Brian, the Nokia representative at the Alderwood to be an excellent representative for his company. He was extremely well versed about issues surrounding the contemporary cellular market in the US and knew the entire Nokia product lineup in and out and was extremely articulate and able to adapt his presentation to the perceived level of knowledge of the person he was speaking with, without ever seeming to “talk down to” them or resort to misleading or grossly simplified answers, a common fault I see in tech sales people everywhere. I often times “play dumb” (which is not hard for me ;) just to evaluate the character of a salesperson with whom I am dealing. Anyways, Brian passed with flying colors and is a credit to his company. I would have happily walked out of there with a N95…if they sold them. Unfortunately, Nokia only has two retail sales locations in the entire US, one in Chicago and the other in New York. I ended up purchasing mine online via Amazon with fulfillment provided by Tiger Direct. I usually try to avoid Tiger Direct, but their price was $100 cheaper than Nokia’s online store and I couldn’t stand the thought of purchasing it through the next cheapest well established retailer, Walmart. Anyways, I’ve had my N95 for a few weeks now and have been using it intensively every day.

What all did they cram into this device to interest me in the first place?

– Quad band GSM radio with EDGE data connectivity, as well as UMTS 3g (but only on the European frequencies, sadly)
– Wifi
– 5 megapixel still camera with a decent flash, optics with actual autofocus, settings adjustments for things like white-balance + DVD quality video recording + a second lower resolution camera for video conferencing. This is unquestionably one of the best camera-phones sold in the world today.
– SIP based VOIP
– Well implemented audio playback functionality with A2DP wireless headset support, support for Podcasting, support for syncing with your desktop via a variety of means/programs, stereo speakers built in. I was somewhat skeptical about the built in speakers, but they are surprisingly loud and I can leave my N95 in one room and listen to most spoken word content easily from several rooms over. With the support for bluetooth stereo headsets, for the first time, I can leave my mp3 player in my pocket and listen to music without a tangled mess of wiring getting in the way. Strangely, the iPhone, which many are calling the best iPod ever, doesn’t support stereo headsets.
– Micro-SD card slot for up the 4 GB of storage expansion
– Decent built in GPS and included navigation software, plus options to use external bluetooth GPS devices and other mapping packages. The onboard GPS usually takes a few minute to get initial lock if you haven’t used in a while, but is accurate enough to get you where you are going.
– FM radio with good sensitivity and the software can download a list of preset stations for your area!
– Very bright, large 320*240 screen with excellent daylight visibility. You can slide the screen to one side to reveal a standard keypad with excellent tactile feedback or push it the other way to reveal dedicated media control keys. Sliding the screen open one direction or the other automatically unlocks the device and switches it from landscape to portrait mode and sliding it shut automatically locks the device. Almost as intuitive as the “gravity” sensor in the iPhone.
– Robust, non-crippled Bluetooth 2.0 support and a host of PC side applications for easy syncing of data. I am sick of the intentionally crippled Bluetooth support on phones sold through cellular network providers. I don’t want to pay extra to be able to offload a picture of a device or install my own custom ringtones!
– USB 2.0 with multiple user selectable modes for acting as a USB flash drive, MTP device, or for printing directly to a photo printer.

The N95 feature list goes on an on for pages and I suggest checking out another review if that is what you want. I am simply listing the things that attracted me to this phone. So, what are my general thoughts on the device after a few weeks of use?

The user interface is not as jaw-droppingly fluid as the iPhone, but it is substantially more fluid and intuitive than any phone interface that I have used before. The N95 implements a much greater set of functionality than the iPhone and implements it well. I don’t find the controls for any of the N95’s many functions counter-intuitive or misplaced or buried in the “wrong” settings menu. A lot of obvious thought went into the UI and menu design for the N95 and it has a very consistent look and feel. I haven’t had to pick up the manual once.

As just a phone, the N95 is the best I have ever owned. The reception is better than anything I have ever used. The speaker phone function is loud and clear. Contacts and call logs are easily accessible. The included wired headset is excellent and bluetooth headsets work well. I can access almost all common phone functions without having to grope for keys or hunt through menus. I really like how I can shift menus around and create both key based and voice based shortcuts to the phone functions that are most important to me. My only real complaint against the N95 as a phone is that its battery isn’t big enough for some users. If you make heavy use of the phone’s other features, you are going to need to charge it once a day. Thankfully, like every Nokia phone I have used, the N95 charges extremely quickly and Nokia thoughtfully included a “travel” sized transformer/charger rather than the cheaper, larger wall transformers that come with most phones.

The camera/camcorder functions of the phone are excellent. I feel no need to carry around a separate digicam for those spur of the moment shots. I have a D80 for more serious photography. I love the many syncing options for offloading and playing around with photos taken by the device. The Lifeblog app is pretty cool and I also really like the integration via bluetooth between the N95 and my Nokia N800 internet tablet. I can easily view images taken by my N95 on the 800*480 screen of my N800. When I get home, my computer automatically downloads the pictures of the N95 without me having to press a single button.

The audio playback functions work really well and I haven’t been tempted to pickup my dedicated DAP, an iRiver H320 in quite a while. I wish that the N95 supported SDHC instead of Micro-SD to provide for more storage space for music and a beefier battery so that I wouldn’t have to trade off phone talk time with tune time. I feel that Nokia could have actually gone with a slightly bigger device without loosing their intended audience. Indeed, my Nokia 6620 is bigger than my new N95. Nokia is in fact kinda infamous for defying the trend towards ever smaller phones and I think for good reason. At a certain point, you have to acknowledge that a phone is a device that is going to be used by apes with big fat fingers.

With its long initial sync times, poor sensitivity and accuracy, the GPS solution offered by Nokia is sub-par compared to my usual combo of Maemo Mapper and Holux M1000 on my Nokia N800, but pretty much ever standalone GPS device I have used doesn’t compare to that combo. I am extremely impressed that they achieved the level of GPS functionality that they did in such a small device. I can see the GPS in the N95 being useful for location based services, but I wouldn’t want to use it day in and day out for in car navigation or even pedestrian use. On the other hand, if it is going to be the only device you carry, I see it being extremely useful and probably good enough for most people’s use. The actual application design is excellent and easy to use and I like the ability to load maps dynamically over the air or manually preload maps from a PC.

I had no problem using the devices built in Wifi with a variety of access points. The signal strength is good from a surprising distance away and it is easy to find and connect to (as well as disconnect from) different networks. The built in web browser is surprisingly good for such a low resolution device, although it doesn’t compare to the browsing experience of Opera and the new Firefox based browser on my N800’s gorgeous 800*480 display. While the N95 offers a mobile web and email experience far above most devices I have tried, it just doesn’t compare to the desktop like internet experience that I get from my N800.

I am really pleased overall with the N95 and am continually amazed at not hating its many, many functions. It has helped me consolidate my pockets down from at maximum:

-Nokia 6620 Phone and headset
-iRiver H320 DAP and wind up headset
-Nokia N800 Internet Tablet
-Bluetooth Keyboard
-Holux M1000
-Dedicated Digicam
-Wallet
-Keys

to maximally:

-Nokia N95 and headset
-Nokia N800 Internet Tablet
-Bluetooth Keyboard
-Holux M1000
-Wallet
-Keys

and more typically:

-Nokia N95 and headset
-Nokia N800
-Wallet
-Keys

This later configuration will in fact fit in my normal pair of jeans whereas before I pretty much had to wear a jacket (not fun in summer) and was almost getting to the point where I needed cargo pants or an oh so geeky Gear Management Solution. For consolidation without too many compromises, I can whole-heartedly recommend the N95.