Thursday, 26 August 2010

Nokia N97 mini: Pity they stopped before finishing it

After two years and no little agonising (look back over this blog's archives if you really want to know) I ended up, thanks to a ridiculously cheap contract which is technically cheaper than buying it outright, but amortised over two years, I have a Nokia N97 mini (Nokia site).

The main reasons for buying, apart from the price, being that it has a good camera, OK speakers, mature OS that I already know, the almost certainty of regular firmware upgrades into the next year, and doesn't actually fall down on any criteria, whereas all other contenders fell down badly on at least one or two criteria. 

Not great, but pretty good everywhere.

And that's how it presents: Not the smoothest, fastest or prettiest, but consistently powerful and has so much functionality built in it's almost complete out of the box. 

But, me being me, I just have to start picking holes the moment I pick it up and turn it on, and have to keep finding holes the longer I use it. See my "Notes from the N95" series if you doubt my nit-picking tendencies.

I shall, for the moment, draw a veil over the time taken to refresh each screen or to change between portrait and landscape and back, because if I start mentioning that I may start crying, and I want to finish this.

Some of the Mini's problems are obvious, like not having a sunlight friendly transflective layer on the screen. But would you really expect charging to be a problem?

It is.

I have a powermonkey, a rubberised little beast of an external power source which made my infamously small-batteried N95 approximately twice as useful and became indispensable to me.

It doesn't work with the mini.

I was to discover that both the N97s are "notorious" for being "picky" with chargers, some people having trouble with genuine Nokia accessory chargers.

This does me not a happy bunny make.

 Powermonkey, however, are brilliant. I sent them an email saying "Got one, love it, doesn't work with my new mini, is this a known problem?" they sent an email back asking for my address so they could send me a new microUSB tip, in case that's the problem. No demand for proof of purchase, just "here, have a new tip, see if that works." Customer service win.

It's long postage from the UK to Australia, so I haven't received it yet.

I shall now mention the stereo ear buds that came in the box. They are, in all but one crucial respect, rather nice. In fact, much nicer than the set that came with my N95.

They have little rubber cups over them that fit really well in your ears and effectively isolate you from the outside world ( although my God does eating toast echo in your head), the cords seem stronger and the control is a very attractive unit, as opposed to the ugly chunk of the N95's unit. And when I plugged it in, I got a message saying to use the phone microphone. Not an actual full hands free, then?

Specific moments of fail (or, on twitter, #fail):

  • system settings and email settings both appear as an application called " settings", which makes life interesting when you're trying to assign a shortcut and you have to choose from a text only list;
  • in old S60 3rd Ed, settings dialogues that had multiple pages had visible tabs. In 5th, there are tiny little arrows instead, very easy to miss. Fail;
  • this is more a design thing: when you select a text field to edit with the soft keyboard, what you get is the keyboard replacing the application you're in with its own sort of scratch buffer, instead of just popping up and resizing the application. You get the full amount of existing text and I suppose it neatly deals with the problem of badly designed applications, but it looks incredibly amateurish;
  • The screen lock switch. Easy to use, but the cheapest and tackiest piece of design and manufacturing on the whole device. It actually rattles;
  • it gives you a message to "unplug charger from wall to save power" whenever you unplug phone from charger. Annoying enough. But, it gives you the same message when you unplug a USB cable. Can't it check, and realise that would be a stupid message to give?
  • there is no transflective layer on the screen, making it all but invisible in bright sunlight. News flash, Finns: some of us live in countries with bright sunlight, and would like to be able to use your phones outdoors. Particularly the rather excellent camera you provided, which can't be properly aimed if we can't see the screen;
  • I think I have just diagnosed one of the worst offenders of lingering-even-after-dead RAM hogging. Nokia's own Podcaster. The one they declined to donate to Symbian. I wonder if I've now found out why? I was having hideous problems with running out of RAM to the point where the only way to get the image gallery to load was to reboot. And everything has improved suddenly, and the only change I can identify is that I switched to the development, official Symbian Podcatcher, which is also better designed and nicer to use;
  • The home screen keeps crashing, and needing to reload. Please note, it has received two firmware updates since release, already, and it's still happening.
So, after all that, what is the single biggest thing the mini needed to be a truly great phone?

Double the RAM. It really is that simple. The screen is unnecessarily annoying in direct sunlight, the lock switch is a little cheap, it could have done with at least one more firmware generation before being released - possibly three.

But the single biggest issue with it is performance, and we all know that the single best way to improve performance of any computer is - more RAM.

It just runs out too damn easily. It has 128MB, and that is just not good enough. It has about 40MB free after booting, and that drops pretty quickly.

The benefits of the most mature and sophisticated multi-tasking mobile device operating system start to disappear when applications running in the background start closing down every time you run something interesting in the foreground - the HOME SCREEN keeps crashing, and that's just stupid.

If Nokia had given this thing 256MB, it would have made the WORLD of difference.

As it is, it feels like yet another own goal, nearly-there effort. And that bites when you're a customer trying to use it the way it could be used.

Next time: third-party software.

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