Editorials, Featured, Nokia, Symbian

Feature: Two weeks with the N86 – Day 7


I’ve spent an entire week with my Nokia N86 and I think it’s safe to say that the honeymoon period is over. My SIM card is still in the N86 and I haven’t powered on my Android device so the experiment is still going, but I have picked up my Xperia Mini Pro, looked longingly at it and thought about how much easier my life would be if I could just get my SIM card back in it.

[quote_left]The honeymoon period is over[/quote_left]

The N86 definitely isn’t the most stable smartphone in the world, and the software instability has definitely put a negative spin on my experience. In the past week, I have encountered several spontaneous reboots, Gravity force-quitting without warning (sometimes in the middle of composing a tweet), several instances of apps freezing up and frequent skipping during music playback, especially when I’ve got Gravity or Opera Mini running at the same time as the music player. Of course, I’ve already loaded the latest (and last) firmware version released for the N86, and it’s definitely less stable than the still-in-development CyanogenMod 9 ROM running on my Xperia Mini Pro.

Perhaps I’m stretching the N86 a bit too far? After all, my music collection (mostly) takes the form of 320kbps MP3s and Gravity is probably the biggest resource hog on these older Symbian smartphones. But it’s a fact that software stability, one of the most important aspects of today’s smartphones, wasn’t such a priority back in the day. [quote_right]Software stability wasn’t such a priority back then[/quote_right]In fact, I’ve encountered an issue with the N86 where a text message that has actually been delivered fails to leave the Outbox; I’d sent a text to a friend yesterday but I wouldn’t have known whether he’d received it if he hadn’t replied to it. I’ve also experienced 3G data issues such as random disconnections and connection failures and these have been the most frustrating of all.

I ended my last report by mentioning how I was missing Instagram, and 4 days later my longing for Instagram has gotten worse. What’s so surprising about this is that I’m by no means an Instagram veteran; I’ve never owned an iPhone and I only jumped on the Instagram bandwagon when the Android version was launched. [quote_left]My longing for Instagram has gotten worse[/quote_left]But it pains me to be cut off from the social aspect of the app. I miss viewing the photos shot by the people I’m following on Instagram. I’m wondering if anyone has left any comments or liked any of my photos, and I’ve been itching to take a look. I find that photos on Instagram provide an additional insight into a person’s life that isn’t so well-expressed on Twitter, even if it’s just a photo of his or her lunch. Besides, if I were following someone on both Instagram and Twitter, I’d be much more likely to view a photo shot by that person on Instagram rather than on Twitter.

But in addition to Instagram, I’ve begun to lament the absence of other apps that I depend on that are available on Android. Evernote is a big one; it’s a wrench to be pretty much unable to access my notes from the N86 because the Evernote mobile site is so horrible. Ditto for my inability to view anything I’ve saved on Pocket (formerly Read It Later) – I’ve found the service very useful for saving an article on my laptop before heading out so that I can continue reading it on my phone on the train and I simply can’t do this with the N86. [quote_right]The Evernote mobile site is so horrible[/quote_right]I’ve also been pining for a proper Google Reader experience – Gravity supports Google Reader but it doesn’t support it particularly well. The fonts are too tiny and not all unread items in a feed are loaded at a time, which doesn’t help if I’m trying to triage my subscribed feeds quickly. I wish either the YouTube mobile site or the native Symbian app would serve up higher-quality video streams – as low-resolution as the N86’s display already is, videos still look horribly low-resolution and blurry, while audio isn’t much better.

The basics are covered well enough though. Opera Mini takes are of all my browsing needs very well (except where apps like Gravity load links in the practically brain-dead S60 Web Browser. Gravity takes care of Twitter and Facebook access extremely well, and provides a really nice photo sharing solution. [quote_right]The basics are covered well enough[/quote_right]Google Maps for Symbian still works fine despite being abandoned by the big G and is still really helpful for delivering public transport directions and showing me what’s around my location (that’s pretty much all I use Maps for), the Gmail Java client is good enough for looking at previously-received emails and Joikuspot has been a winner. Podcatcher works very well for grabbing and listening to podcasts on the go. Of course, basic features like voice calls, text messaging, music playback, photo viewing, Bluetooth file transfers and even performing Google searches are all implemented and work well most of the time.

[quote_left]The N86 is not unfit for purpose[/quote_left]All things considered, I haven’t felt like the N86 has felt so stunted in terms of functionality as to be unfit for purpose. It’s not that you’d be unable to accomplish at least 60% of the things that you’d do on an Android device with the N86. Most of the time, it comes down to whether you’d actually want to, and how enjoyable the experience is. For example, both my Xperia Mini Pro and my N86 can play music, but the Xperia Mini Pro has a more ‘balanced’ volume control (on the N86, 50% is too soft and 60% is a bit too loud), a less spartan user interface where it’s easier to get to the music you want, much better support for album art and it reads .m3u playlists just fine. If I wanted to read a review on The Verge, it’s possible to do it on both the N86 and my Xperia Mini Pro, but during my time with the N86 so far I’d rather make a mental note to read it on my laptop.

As I cross into the 2nd and final week of this N86 experiment, I think it’s worth mentioning that if I had to use this Nokia N86 for an entire year, if I had no other option, I probably could live with it just fine. We, as human beings, are highly adaptable, and although using nothing but the N86 as my everyday smartphone has been challenging in some areas, the key is in getting used to how it is. Yes, it has a small display. Yes, it has a numeric keypad that’s really not suited for entering large amounts of text. [quote_right]I could probably live with the N86 just fine[/quote_right]Yes, the software it runs can get really cranky. But there’s nothing about the N86 that I couldn’t live with if I had to. I’ve even adapted to the lack of proper notifications by observing vibration patterns to determine what’s just come in.

These days, we all love to complain about the smallest flaws on smartphones, like how non-standard icon shapes on Android makes the user interface look less elegant compared to iOS. Using the N86 has helped me appreciate how complex today’s smartphone platforms are, how much work goes into developing user experiences and how far we’ve come since S60 was cool. It’s amazing.