My on/off love affair with the Symbian operating system dates back to the Psion 3a handheld computer. The Psion 3a (still have it in my loft) was a beautifully engineered device. Despite only having a small monochrome screen it allowed all the basic office based tasks in a tiny dependable unit. This was back in the mid-90’s. Since then, despite the Psion organiser going the way of the Dodo, Symbian, in various flavours (‘series’ in Symbian speak) has flourished. Particularly in the Smart phone market.
My first look at a Symbian based ‘Smart’ phone was the Nokia 6680. Despite the potential and adaptability of the operating system the phone was horrible. Slow menus and the navigation was so convoluted it stifled any semblance of intuitive use.

Cue forward and the latest offering is the N95 8Gb. Heralded by many as an ‘iPhone killer’. On paper it certainly talks the talk: 8Gb of storage, dual slider design, 5 Mega-pixel camera, TV-out, high quality video capture, built in GPS. The list of specs goes on and on. The N95 8GB also feels good in the hand. It’s a chunky little fella but it feels right. A nice large screen, great slide action and accelerometers to switch the display between portrait and landscape modes. Boot up time, something that can take a short age on Nokia Smart Phones is also speedy. The menus navigate quickly enough ‘out of memory’ errors (previously common on Nokia Smart phones) were completely absent in the week I used it.

The hardware packed into the unit is beyond reproach. Basic stuff like phone reception (questionable on the Apple iPhone) and call quality is peerless. It also has a sensible SAR rating (0.56 W/Kg) and the 5MB camera feels and behaves like a ‘proper’ compact digital camera. The GPS is ‘proper’ GPS, not some pseudo-GPS based on cellular tower triangulation. The sheer wealth of add on apps is also incredible. However, much as I wanted to love the N95 8GB, I just couldn’t. The problem is my old friend Symbian.
Getting to use the wide and varied features of the N95 8GB is just too difficult. Even worse for users unfamiliar with the OS. For example, I know that if I hold down the ‘menu’ key, a list of the currently running applications will appear; the apps in the list can then be switched, like the ALT+TAB system employed in Windows. But how are new users supposed to know that? There is no included manual and no central repository for tips and tricks included either with the phone or on the phone itself (e.g. a help section). Sure there are great online resources like allaboutsymbian.com but seriously, how many new N95 8GB owners want to spend the first week of ownership learning how to get their applications running or setup shortcuts for their favourite applications? Or install new applications? Or browse the contents of the device? Surely a phone should be intuitive enough to use straight out of the box?
The Symbian faithful could argue, with a degree of merit, that not all phones have to be idiot proof. Not all phones need to behave like an iPhone. They could argue that having an OS able to behave exactly as you want it is a good thing. I would argue otherwise. The lack of consistency throughout the OS is a major pain. Things that do something in one app, don’t do it in another. For example, predictive text, whilst working fine for text messages doesn’t work in the browser. This makes entering web addresses an extremely tedious affair. On the subject of web browsing, the browser, similar in architecture to the iPhones, is capable of far greater speeds when away from a WLAN (thanks to 3G/HSDPA capability). But it is simply woeful to use. Besides the aforementioned URL entering farce, actually navigating a webpage is a hideous affair, requiring the shifting of a red ‘target box’ about the screen with the navigation key. I would wager that whilst out and about, actually browsing and getting information turns out equally slow on both an iPhone and a N95 8GB. The data speed is terrible on the iPhone but the user interface saves it. The situation is reversed on the N95 8GB.
On paper, the N95 8GB is more than a match for the iPhone. It’s certainly possible that the iPhone’s 0.94 SAR rating may put off the health conscious whilst the odd cheese slab dimensions and glass front may bother those with clumsy ‘mole hands’. Ultimately, in practice, despite the iPhones failings in many areas (aesthetic and technical), the incredible user interface trumps almost everything the N95 8GB can challenge it with. I for one would take usability over capability in all but the most demanding of situations.

In conclusion, it would be great to see a complete overhaul of Symbian. A ground up re-write with the emphasis on user experience and intuitive navigation. As users expect more and more from their phones this will doubtless happen but the sooner it does, the sooner the incredible hardware of phones like the Nokia N95 8GB can be harnessed and enjoyed by all. Not just the coneheads…

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