Feature: The N86 and Me
[quote_left]My N86 is broken[/quote_left]This will be my final piece of writing about my time with the Nokia N86. I’ve failed to make it through 2 weeks and it’s all my fault really. It’s not that I ended up succumbing to my urge to head back into the modern, super-slick world of Android. On Sunday night (i.e. shortly after I pushed out my last report), the N86 decided to stop recognizing my SIM card.
Despite the money and effort spent on the repairs after I annihilated the SIM tray’s contacts the first time round, the inevitable has happened and I’m once again stuck with a smartphone that can’t be used to make phone calls. I’d tried to get it working; I inserted and reinserted the SIM card multiple times, rebooted the phone multiple times – no dice. Hence, I’ve had no choice but to cut the experiment short and switch my SIM back into my Xperia Mini Pro.
That’s not to say the past week with the N86 hasn’t been extremely interesting, not just from a daily usage perspective but also in terms of how different my experience with this phone has been compared to every phone I’ve used in the past 6 months. There are several thought-provoking comparisons that can be made between the N86 and today’s smartphones, and I’ll be discussing what these comparisons are through this entire article.
It is no secret that there really isn’t much of an app ecosystem left on Symbian S60v3, and throughout the week I had been pining for apps such as Instagram, Evernote, Pocket and a decent news reader. In terms of social apps, I was pretty much limited to sharing on Twitter and Facebook via Gravity – I set up my Foursquare account within the app but I hardly remembered to check into places. As a result, there are certain social networks that I was simply cut off from when using the N86 – Instagram is a prime example, in addition to Path and Google+. [quote_right]I’ve stopped sharing stuff on social networks just for the sake of sharing[/quote_right]Because of this limitation, my social sharing became a lot more focused and less about sharing something on some social network just for the sake of sharing. I realized which of my social networks are really important to me – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are the big ones in my life, while Path and Google+ are far less essential to me. Never once during the week did I feel disturbed about not being able to access my Path feed or see what’s happening on Google+, which means that even if I were to close my account on either social network it wouldn’t really matter to me.
It’s quite amazing, though, to be toting a smartphone that can last an entire day on a full charge without compromises. For everything that the N86 can’t do, it really makes up for it in terms of being able to get me through each day and still have a decent amount of battery power left to stay alive and play music on the evening train journey home and then some. [quote_left]Do you still remember what “good battery life” is?[/quote_left]No need for external plug-in batteries, no need to make sure WiFi is turned off, no need to turn the screen brightness down, no need to be mindful not to check Twitter too often – it just keeps going. The smartphones of today are far more powerful and can do more than the N86 can even at its best, but what’s the point of having so much speed and functionality when I wouldn’t use my Android phone as a mobile WiFi hotspot because that would kill the battery, nor would I download podcasts on the go via 3G because it would mean a dead phone after lunch? In contrast, I have used the N86 as a mobile WiFi hotspot and downloaded podcasts via 3G while on the train without worrying about whether the phone will die on me shortly. It’s been such a long time since I last used a phone that I could truly rely on to last through the day without help from my Nokia DC-11 power pack and this aspect of the N86 experience has been really refreshing.
The biggest difference between the smartphones of old, such as those running Symbian or Windows Mobile, and the smartphones of today lies in the prioritization of hardware quality and design versus software, user interface design and user experience. There is zero sense of fluidity or smoothness in S60v3 running on the N86, while modern smartphones like Windows Phone 7 have been built around fluidity and smoothness. Yet, in the past, buying a smartphone meant you were guaranteed top-shelf hardware components and nifty hardware features. [quote_right]Hardware vs Software[/quote_right]The N86, for example, still has an amazing 8-megapixel camera even by today’s standards. Its stereo loudspeakers sound better than any modern smartphone I’ve ever owned or reviewed. It had cutting-edge (at the time) display technology, a flip-out kickstand, hardware media controls and an FM transmitter. But S60v3 on the N86 is a complete bodge prone to spontaneous reboots, freezes and general weirdness. And in terms of usability, one has to wonder how an average N86 user even managed to figure out the menu structure or customize the homescreen. The settings menus on the phone are literally scattered everywhere.
On the other hand, any modern smartphone – take the Sony Xperia S, for example, provide an excellent and seamless user experience supported by a rich ecosystem of apps and services. Even a platform like Android, which is often criticized as being messy and complicated, is far more user-friendly than S60 ever was. Getting around the Android user interface is painless for most, the phone remains stable and problem-free in everyday use and there is a wealth of apps available for the platform. Yet, corners have been cut on the hardware; build quality isn’t great on the Xperia S, the loudspeaker is mediocre at best, and the 12 megapixel camera is hampered by an overly-small image sensor. But despite these flaws, the Xperia S is still considered one of the better high-end Android devices available at the moment, given how certain rivals competing in the same price bracket are encased in cheap glossy plastic, have Pentile displays or a worse camera. The only aspect of the hardware where manufacturers aren’t skimping on is the internals.
[quote_left]This is why Symbian is dated and obsolete in a post-iPhone world[/quote_left]Delving deeper into the then-versus-now comparison, it’s worth looking into how smartphone platforms have evolved since the S60v3 era. Trying to use the N86 as my only smartphone for a week has helped me realize how Symbian S60 was originally designed and why it eventually gained a reputation for being dated and obsolete. The Internet is, at best, an afterthought in S60, and perhaps this is really attributed to its existence in a decade where cheap and plentiful cellular data was nonexistent until the latter part of the decade. S60 was designed with traditional phone features and PIM features at its core, with multimedia and location capabilities added on later when advances in hardware demanded it. Most pre-2007 S60 users didn’t even attempt to install third-party apps. If asked to name a strength of Symbian, most would quote the fact that S60 devices are still fully functional even when not connected to cellular data. However, I would argue that this ended up making S60 irrelevant in the post-iPhone smartphone space.
Every smartphone platform developed post-iOS is built first and foremost with the web in mind. That’s how big the paradigm shift has been. It’s not even about touchscreens and user interfaces, it’s about how iOS, Android, Windows Phone and webOS are designed around the Internet. Social networking, online sharing, cloud storage, streaming media, desktop-class web browsing, downloadable games, email, instant messaging, background sync, integration with web services – all these aspects of modern smartphone platforms take priority over being able to dial a number straight from the homescreen, being able to sync data with Microsoft Outlook, supporting the greatest number of video codecs or making efficient use of limited hardware and data allotments. Symbian quickly became unappealing to the average consumer simply because it hadn’t evolved to keep up with the web-focused capabilities of post-iOS smartphone platforms.
In many ways, the N86 symbolizes how progress in smartphone hardware has gone forward in some areas, yet backward in others. Design and construction techniques have improved since the N86 – we have seen phones with unibody casings, curved and scratch-resistant glass, use of aluminum and other premium materials, micro-arc oxidation, coloured polycarbonate and even mid-range devices today are mostly solidly built. [quote_right]The N86 comes from an era where Nokia was notorious for slow processors[/quote_right]Of course, who can ignore the hardware spec race that has been the story of every new top-end Android smartphone in the past year? Today’s devices are all about multi-core gigahertz processors, powerful graphics chips and copious amounts of RAM, yet the N86 comes from an era where Nokia was notorious for skimping on internal specifications. Display technology has also seen much progress since the N86, with capacitive screens replacing their once-commonplace resistive counterparts, improvements in both AMOLED and LCD displays, big steps forward in terms of smartphone display resolutions and of course, ever-increasing screen sizes.
[quote_left]Today, virtually every single smartphone on the market is a big touchscreen slab[/quote_left]All this ought to be fantastic, but in many ways smartphone hardware development has taken backward steps since the N86. We no longer have a choice between different and unique form factors when buying a new smartphone – even smartphones with slide-out keyboards are a dying breed. There was once a time when we could choose between a full touchscreen slab, a plethora of landscape QWERTY sliders (some of which packed rather unique sliding mechanisms), a durable monoblock smartphone, a dual-sliding device and even a few flip phones. Today, virtually every single smartphone on the market, particularly at the high-end, is a big touchscreen slab. This is a microcosm of the impact that the 1st-generation iPhone has had on the entire mobile industry. The average person readily identifies a ‘smartphone’ as being an iPhone or a similar-looking device. I think it’s a real pity that we’ll probably won’t see much experimentation in the form-factor department from manufacturers again. Every new smartphone design today is just an additional iteration of the basic touchscreen slab.
It’s been an interesting week and an interesting experience with the final dual slider in Nokia’s now-defunct Nseries range. It’s been a more usable phone that I thought it would be. There’s something really enjoyable about selecting an old smartphone, living with it for a while and making the most of it. Furthermore, I’ve been feeling rather jaded about Android for a while now, but this experience has really rekindled my love for the platform.
Maybe I’ll try not to break the phone the next time I do something like this.