Nokia 9300: our long term test
High class tech in a non-nerdy case
Review Yesterday Cingular announced that it is bringing Nokia's 9300 Communicator to the US market starting in November. The 9300 puts a QWERTY keyboard, and a powerful computer, into a form factor apparently designed to repel gadget geeks, such is its conservative styling.
So it's a serious piece of kit - it just would rather you didn't notice it. It's the first time, out in the wild, that a Nokia phone will run RIM's BlackBerry Connect. (It will also run Nokia's own new enterprise mail software, or Cingular's version of Seven's email). Unlike models designed for Europe or Asia, it supports the 850Mhz frequency, and we can't stress what a difference this makes. For GSM users here in the US, this is becoming pretty much mandatory.
So how did it shape up?
Sometimes only months of real world usage can give you a sense of the device's value - and I've spent quite a bit of time with the phone since first looking at it back in March. Our 9300, provided by Nokia, also endured some testing conditions in Indo-China. And there were some surprises along the way.
The first time around, the 9300 impressed with its compactness and its quality of built-in PDA applications. But I rued the lack of vibrate, found web browsing disappointing, and also found it difficult to use the keyboard in poorly lit conditions.
Sometimes it's illuminating to discover just what you miss about a phone after extended use, and in the case of the 9300, it was its ease of use. With the lid closed, it's a basic, simple Nokia phone.
But once the lid is opened, the device makes certain tasks much easier to accomplish. Microsoft was derided for adding "cue cards" to each folder in Windows XP, but which novices found this very useful. Nokia's "soft menus" beside the screen similarly anticipate your actions very well. Compared to other high end smartphones, dealing with conference calls, for example, was trivially simple. So while Nokia's Series 60 seems to make certain tasks unnecessary complicated, the Nokia 9300's human interface brings out the best in what a phone should fundamentally do: er, make phone calls.
With a full keyboard available, Nokia hasn't been forced to load the keys with extra functions. But it does make adjusting the screen brightness, or the size of text, or turning the Bluetooth and Infra Red connection on and off very straightforward.
Perversely, I found the keyboard to be just as prone to inducing errors as the button boards found on its rivals. That's mainly because the keys are so close together, giving precious little tactile feedback, and they barely travel. On the other hand, there's no need to train yourself to remember where keys are, and yes, there really are two shift keys.
The phone's main quarter-VGA display is in a class of it own, undoubtedly helped by Nokia not needing to overlay a digitizer. Either in the bright light of Northern California, or the tropics, the Nokia's internal display was bright and clear. By comparison, Nokia's 6620 is very hard to read on a sunny day here in San Francisco. (There's no ambient light sensor, as there is on Nokia's latest Series 60 phones).
But most impressive of all is the 9300's reliability. It crashed just once in a five month period: and that was caused by a beta driver for a Bluetooth keyboard - which was rapidly uninstalled. Since the 9300 has 80MB of RAM, it can keep many applications open at once. In fact it was disconcerting to find two week old text messages lurking about at the bottom of the task list. Microsoft bloggers recommend turning their PCs off every night - welcome to the world of computers that stay running.
Uptime is this phone's strongest feature.
Performance wise, the Nokia 9300 is a tale of two phones. The Series 40 external display is very laggardly. In frustration, we found ourselves opening the phone in situations where we really would have preferred to do a one handed thumb lookup with the lid closed.
Communicator applications start a little slowly compared to Series 60 applications but once in memory - and there's room for a lot of them in the 76-odd MB available - switching between them is pretty much instantaneous. Nor do background operations slow the device very much: we were able to type away while the messaging applications was collecting mail, for example. Only in a couple of applications does performance really suffer. One of these turned out to be rather important. Adobe's PDF reader really struggled with the basic San Francisco MUNI transit system map. Not the 1MB citywide map, but the 192kb Downtown Map. This took 20 seconds to load, and took almost as long to complete a zoom, or redraw after a scroll - making it essentially useless.
Our first review made much of the limitations of the built-in Opera browser. The problem, it transpires, is the "Fit To Screen" option. For some reason this is far slower than Opera's snappy browser for Series 60 phones. Turn this off, and pages load and display considerably faster. The 640x200 letterbox screen is far from idea for viewing web pages, and it's never going to be as comfortable to use as a portrait-style device, like the P900, that has a scroll wheel.
Planning trips in Thailand with the 9300 was interesting. Incredibly, the 9300 found strong GPRS signals in areas with only a patchy, or no electricity supply such as Tsunami-hit islands in the south of the country, or by the Burmese border. The communicator's ability to do the full web helped a little, enough to get the phone numbers.
But overall, it's depressing to realize how fast the web is moving away from mobile devices. The mobile web doesn't compete with rival technologies so much as it competes with the Real World, and the Real World is almost invariably faster and nicer to use. Want some information fast? Ask somebody!
(And in the Real World, you generally don't have to hand out Idiot Cards before you can open your mouth.)
For technical and aesthetic reasons bad web design is outpacing clever workarounds, like Opera's small screen rendering. Needless to say, the most impressive web applications, such as Google Maps, don't work optimally on a handheld. CSS positioning takes a lot of mobile CPU power to begin with, and pages are now being overloaded with textual clutter, where selectively turning off the images doesn't help. Think of blogrolls with hundreds of entries on the left hand column - such pages are a no go zone for the mobile browser. (Tech savvy newspapers like Wall Street Journal and The Guardian are amongst the worst offenders. And the problem getting worse. To think these web site navvies call themselves "information architects"!
Given how exorbitant data roaming rates are, we found ourselves thankful for long-forgotten WAP gateways - or the next best thing - sites which offer versions of their web pages optimized to low bandwidth connections, like BBC News.
But the biggest surprise lay in store back home in San Francisco.
I'm used to canvassing a wide range of opinion for phones, and women don't usually pull their punches with technology. The Nokia 9300 proved to be far more popular with women professionals than any piece of loan kit I can recall. Why? Because of the discreet design. It isn't loaded with buttons, so doesn't look macho or geeky. But it does offer the user the ability to send a text much quicker than a T9 keypad - and women send more texts than men, typically conducting more conversations too . The messaging application's ability to perform a lookup from a couple of characters was also popular. (For example, type in "Ele" and it will complete the rest, or give narrow it down nicely. So you can type quickly, and put it right away. This factor alone, rather than any of the touted multimedia or web features, or EDGE or Bluetooth  was the big draw.
In addition, I was assured that a good set of fingernails made the keyboard, which I found awkward, to be easier to type on. And in a handbag, the prize screen was going to be protected from keys and accessories because the lid is closed.
At the start of the long term loan, I'd have put very long odds on this phone having any kind chick appeal, but there you have it.
In fact, on several occasions opening the 9300 up caused some surprise - amongst technical and non-technical users. Nokia's designers used the model 6310 phone as a design template to try and shrink the Communicator into something more pocket friendly - and this has evidently been more of a success than they can have anticipated.
"I thought that was just an ordinary phone," was a remark I heard more than once. In fact the 9300 is exactly the same thickness, and only a tenth of an inch longer than a 6310. It comfortably fits into a breast pocket.
There are cases where the limitations of the Series 40-like, lid-closed interface really hurt. One is music playback, which can't be controlled without opening it up. Although the 9300 supports large and cheap MMC cards, giving you the capacity to carry some music around with you, there's no way to control playback without opening the case. That said, things aren't much better with the native Symbian Media Player that ships with the phone. This appears to have been designed by someone from another planet. It either doesn't pick up ID3 tags, or when it does, it doesn't display them.
In common with all Nokia phones using the accursed PopPort, it's more difficult to use than it should be. (This accessory might help - any reader reports?) I suspect Nokia called its audio interface the PopPort because headphones Pop Out so easily. Then they're really hard to get back in again. It's difficult to design something quite as bad as this, and the PopPort should merit some kind of Anti-Engineering award.
The 9300 is clearly a business phone, and we don't expect killer music features: but Nokia can do so much better than this.
Having got so many of the basics right - reliability, battery consumption, ease of use - it's odd to find the absence of one small feature so annoying. Living in a city, we take phones' vibrate functions for granted. I continued to curse its absence well into the trial, and it was only when it was paired with a vibrating headset that I stopped missing incoming calls. If you're seriously looking at the 9300, you should consider the Jabra BT800 too - it's mandatory.
The 9300 takes some pretty forbidding technology and puts in a very discreet and unassuming package. Businesses may appreciate the lack of a camera, and while it doesn't really shine as a multimedia cache, the calendar and messaging applications are well-lived in and like the machine itself, rock solid. The software portfolio isn't as rich as for Palm and Microsoft, but it is well supported by enterprises, particularly IBM. But it's the first device to be a Nokia quality phone with genuine BlackBerry software, a combination a long time a coming.
Today's smartphones try to do too much, most of it not very well, but the 9300 does three things very well indeed: phone calls, messaging, and an alarm clock you can rely on.®
Nokia 9300 Communicator
|US price||$299.99 after rebate from Cingular from November 2005.|
|More info||Nokia US: 9300 page|
¹ Paul Fussell's book on American class explains this title inflation very succinctly. It's all about the number of syllables. So moving from being a "garbage man" to a "waste disposal technician" offers a 175 per cent increase in syllables, while "information architect" is 233 per cent better than "web monkey".
² I suspect men like using text to avoid talking, and women use text to keep several non-verbal conversations on the go, but I'm no anthropologist. If you are, well, drop us a line and we'll share it.
³ Sometime between our first 9300 review appearing and now, Bluetooth has caught on over here in quite a big way. Just like that.