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Living with a 41-megapixel 808 PureView: Symbian's heroic last stand

808 state: The Nokia smartphone that REFUSES TO DIE

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Meet the app store that time forgot

Many thousands of apps found on Apple’s iTunes store or Google Play marketplace are obviously absent from Symbian's arena of third-party software. That didn’t bother me so much. It’s just that by and large you will find a very mixed bag in terms of programs available. (See the box-out titled "Surviving Symbian" below.)

There are some real gems in the Symbian online app store – a superb Evernote client called Notekeeper was more than adequate, for example. And there’s a thoroughly slick and modern-looking Twitter client, the Qt-based Tweetian. But much else is woefully inadequate – or simply isn’t there at all.

The BBC’s iPlayer arrived on Symbian first, but hasn’t been kept up to date. Forget about Instagram. Most disappointing of all is the social networking widget. Again, Nokia predicted the web social boom very early, in 2002, but could never turn this foresight into products. Its engineers consistently produced the worse social software in the world. Here the gap is filled with a "Nokia Social" widget that does the basics of Twitter and Facebook – but very, very slowly.

The downsides include a display that is 640 x 380 pixels, which feels not quite right. And Symbian never could quite get the keyboard right, either. Oh, for a Swiftkey on-screen keyboard for the 808 – I’m not the only owner who’d pay a premium.

Surviving Symbian Belle

So, you’re tempted by the 808 and can leave the fancy tech wizardry stuff to a Nexus or Kindle Fire or an iPad Mini. You know you’re getting an amazing camera, first-class Maps app, and almost certainly the best mobile telephone anyone is carrying on your bus. But if the 808 PureView is to be your main phone how are you going to fill the gaps? Can it do so at all? Here’s a survival guide.

For all the loving care and attention to it, Nokia’s Webkit-based browser remains a sore point – rotten to the very end, and slow and poor at rendering pages. The built-in messaging client only handles one Exchange ActiveSync account at a time. This is going to hit users harder than it used to, as many people have multiple email accounts. There’s still no unified inbox, let alone basic features such as flagging messages. So much for the support that Microsoft’s Elop promised here in 2009.

I found the default mail app to be horribly temperamental – often refusing to sync on demand at all. Which is odd, because if you give it a schedule, it faithfully fetches the mail on time. Looking around the forums, this wasn't a widespread complaint. And the OS no longer supports CalDev calendars, which combined with the one-ActiveSync limit proved to be my biggest productivity hit: I simply rely on more than one calendar. You have to use the in-built calendar and sync and backup to a local desktop.

For web browsing Opera Mobile will do, but it can’t match the rendering quality of its rivals, and the phone can't match the blistering pace of modern mobile hardware. For IMAP and POP email, the venerable ProfiMail is probably manadatory. ProfiMail was the best-of-breed IMAP client just four years ago and the best mobile email client outside the BlackBerry world. Today, it still has many features absent in other smartphones – custom rules and alerts, fine control over fetching IMAP, and scheduling; but what it doesn’t have is a unified inbox.

Social networking software poses a problem too, as you really don’t want to use Nokia Social. I ended up usng Tweetian for tweets and being pretty happy with it. A portmanteau client called Gravity is available that does Twitter, Facebook and RSS, but it needs scaling down for the 808 PureView – the fonts it uses looked gigantic. It’s hard to see anyone else matching the functionality of this well-regarded app. fMobi seems to be the preferred Facebook client of choice. For other online services, you'll need to use their mobile-friendly websites: eBay probably being the biggest service-without-an-app.

Extra Buttons is a third-party utility that probably made the most difference. It adds, as the name implies, extra buttons to system icons creating a Swiss Army Knife of useful functions: popup folders (reminiscent of the old Mac OS’s popup folders), and all kinds of system function shortcuts and app shortcuts. You can even now swipe the bar to invoke a function, such as the multitasker.

There’s also a brilliant context-aware app called Situations, originally developed in house by Nokia but now spun out. Based on rules encompassing a range of criteria - such as where you are, or the time of day, or your battery level - it can perform certain actions. These include changing network settings, the screen brightness, launching and closing apps, or sending an SMS. So, leave the house and it will turn off the Wi-Fi. Drop it in your car holder to turn on "drive mode", and tell people via SMS you’re in the car. Motorola has a similar app for Android, called Smart Actions, but the Nokia version was first.

Conclusion

I found myself using the 808 at weekends and in downtime when I didn't need to check email or social media feeds, and was positively surprised by the ease of use.

So what’s the value proposition for the 808? Good, dedicated cameras can be found for under £200, and good, modern phones for under £99. You’ll pay a little more for a new 808 or less if you take a risk on eBay. But if you opt for using two separate devices, you've got to remember to keep them both charged and in your pockets.

As the cliché goes, the best camera in the world is the one at your fingertips – and I've taken terrific pictures that I wouldn’t have snapped otherwise taken – because I simply wouldn’t have had a dedicated camera with me, merely an ordinary smartphone. And the 808 is no ordinary smartphone.

If this whets your appetite for the PureView's tech, then luckily we won’t have to wait long for it to arrive in other Nokia handsets. This discussion of camera shortcomings in Windows Phone 8 shows how far ahead the 808 is today.

Alas, I found the 808 couldn’t hack it for me as the sole "work phone", largely because of the slow browsing and lack of calendar sync. But then I have a work BlackBerry and can call on a tablet for the fancy stuff.

The market looks very different now to 2007 when the iPhone was launched, and affordable small tablets do this "fancy stuff" (email, browsing, social media) better than a phone – that could be a justification alone for choosing a device that specialises in one or two things. ®

Many thanks to Symbian guru Steve Litchfield for tips and steers.

Resources

To get up-to-date features and user interface changes, start with the Belle Feature Pack 2 review. Also see how to get the most from the 808 PureView camera, how to double your battery life, and how to use scene modes.

The PureView Club has regular updates on accessories, interesting usage cases and showcases some of the most striking 808 photos.

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