For the past 18 months my day-to-day mobile phone has been a Nokia N95. When I bought the phone it was the top-of-the-line device from Nokia and while I’ve generally been happy with the phone, it’s showing its age and I’m looking at alternatives.
The Series 60 user interface of the N95, once the cat’s pajamas of mobile UI, seems needlessly complicated and clunky now that we’re in a touch-screen world. While I was once happy to put up with bugs and irregularities because the device was “bleeding edge,” things like the address book crashing once in a while, are increasingly frustrating. And when a recent firmware upgrade — the first in over a year — ended up introducing more bugs and irregularities (like the need for a hardware reset when trying to access a just-out-of-range WLAN), my frustrations only increased.
I feel like the N95 has been abandoned by Nokia, and thus I feel abandoned as a customer by Nokia, so I’m thus much less inclined to look at things like the Nokia N97, which has replaced the N95 as Nokia’s top-end phone.
By way of sussing out the alternatives I’ve been carrying my iPod Touch, as a stand-in for an iPhone, in my other pocket every day, and using it to run the sort of mobile applications I’d otherwise run on the N95. So instead of Profimail I’m using the built-in iPod mail client, instead of Gravity I’m running Tweetie, instead of Nokia Podcasting (that stopped working completed after the firmware “upgrade”) I’m using iTunes (or at least half-using it, as the mobile iTunes doesn’t support over-the-air subscriptions), and instead Nokia’s built-in web browser (never a joy), I’m using Mobile Safari.
After a few weeks of experimenting this way, here’s where I’m at:
- The most maddening aspect of the N95 has always been it’s wifi-handling (or rather mishandling). The notion that I need to select an “access point” for every application I start, even if I’m already online with another application, is clunky and somewhat bizarre. While there are, in theory, add-ons like Devicescape that make this process easier has never really panned out for me: while they make logging in to secure access points easier, they don’t solve the underlying issues. The iPod Touch, by contrast, handles wifi brilliantly: you turn it on, and it works across all applications, and auto-connects to access points you’ve used before. The only downside is that if you leave wifi connected on an iPod Touch overnight it’s likely that its battery will be dead by morning. +1 for Apple.
- I’m not convinced that the “screens of scattered icons” user interface used by the iPod Touch and the iPhone is best for me: I get confused by which application is which, and all applications being “equal” but for their icon position and design doesn’t offer enough for my brain to quickly be able to pick out what I need. That there is a Music application to listen to music and an iTunes application to buy music and download podcasts only makes this doubly confusing, given that it’s the iTunes application on my laptop that does both. While the N95 uses a similar approach, it at least supports folders of application so I can apply some hierarchy to the organization. +1 for Nokia.
- The iPod Touch has two buttons: an on/off button on the top, and a single round button under the touch screen. By contrast the N95, in addition to the numeric keypad, has 14 buttons (I had to count), and while my fingers have become accustomed to their functions by now, there’s a steep learning curve, and something I’m still not sure which button I’m supposed to press. +1 for Apple.
- Enforcing user interface guidelines is something Nokia has never particularly excelled at: even with applications the Nokia itself creates there are a seemingly endless number of user interface toolkits in rotation, and an application like Nokia Sports Tracker looks and feels completely different from something like Nokia Internet Radio. There’s more UI unity on the iPod Touch, but in a way this only makes things more maddening when inconsistencies appear: there are two different ways of “deleting items on a list of things,” for example: in the Mail application it’s “Edit, Select, Select, Select, Delete” whereas in Instapaper it’s “Edit, Select, Delete, Select, Delete.” Draw.
- When it comes to syncing my calendar and contacts, it’s a draw: both the N95 and the iPod work well with iCal and Address Book on my Mac via iSync and iTunes. Similarly, Nokia Multimedia Transfer does a good job at handling photo and music syncing with iPhoto and iTunes. Draw.
- The iPod Touch doesn’t have a camera, so I don’t have anything to contrast to. The camera on the N95 has always been a standout feature for me: it’s takes nice 5 megapixel images, has a very solid macro mode, and the onboard photo management and editing capabilities have always been enough for my needs. Setting as the occasional need to reformat the internal memory card to prevent videos from stuttering, the video camera in the N95 is similarly nice, and it’s nice that I can shoot videos like this with a camera that fits in my pockets. +1 for Nokia, but perhaps the iPhone will work just as well?
- While it’s hard to argue with the ease-of-use of Apple’s App Store for finding and installing applications — it makes Nokia’s Ovi Store seem like a Commodore 64 application — the notion of there being a single conduit through which applications must flow to the device is anathema to me. That said, while the N95 is, in theory, more “open” to applications — I can install apps from any source, either over the air or from my PC via Bluetooth or USB cable — the inane Symbian Signed process that requires all applications to be digitally signed to be able to access capabilities of the device has always been a significant barrier, especially for open source applications. It’s great, for example, that Nokia released Python for the N95, less great that you need to use the complicated signing process to really take advantage of it (which effectively nullifies the notion of distributing Python apps for the N95 to a broader audience). +1 for Nokia, with a footnote.
- I bought my N95 factory unlocked, meaning that I can use it with any carrier simply by swapping in a new SIM card. This is a big deal for me when I travel: it means I don’t have to pay exorbitant international roaming fees and can, instead, purchase a low-cost prepaid SIM card for whatever country I happen to be visiting. The iPhone, by contrast, is locked, here in Canada, to the Rogers network (although in theory it can be “jailbroken” to unlock it). +1 for Nokia.
It’s those last two points – the notion that having an iPhone locks me to Apple for my applications and to Rogers for my service – that are particularly distasteful to me, and that, in fact, might be iPhone deal-breakers. My next move is to consider the Palm Per (presumably suffering from a similar locked-to-Bell problem), or one of the Google/Android phone. Or maybe I should just give up this mobility silliness and go phone free?