Moto's banana beats Nokia's brick
Gadget porn stand-off
First look The surprise of the 3GSM show so far has turned up in the Gadget Porn Department. Nokia's new communicator, the E90, was one of the most eagerly anticipated launches in a long time. But rather like Apple's iPhone, it's somewhat less spectacular once the reality sinks in.
For your reporter, the E90 was all but eclipsed by a device that came completely out of the blue: Motorola's UIQ slider phone, the Motorizr Z8.
This, Moto's first new Symbian phone for four years, isn't a touchscreen device, as every UIQ phone hs been to date. But it is the most impressive competition Nokia has faced at the high-end of the market for a very long time. And this is all the more surprising given the well-publicized difficulties Sony Ericsson has had getting its UIQ 3 devices to work. The Motorizr Z8 takes a clever new design - Moto calls it a "kick slider" but I think "bendy phone" or "banana" is more descriptive and more likely to stick - to a thoughtful software user interface to create a very satisfying experience.
Moto has remedied almost all of the deficiencies of the UIQ3 specification, settling all doubts that it can work for one- handed use. This is remarkable given that Sony Ericsson has been so closely involved involved in creating UIQ. The Z8, in short, does everything it says on the tin.
So why did the E90 leave us disappointed?
It's not because it's underpowered, that's for sure. If it had been Nokia's intention to cram in every piece of state of the art mobile technology into one handset, then it certainly succeeded.
Like Apple's iPhone, the E90 a technical triumph. But like the iPhone too, it's all dressed up with nowhere to go. After some time with the E90, it's hard to avoid two design decisions that cast the rest of the project in an unfairly harsh light.
The first of these is apparent when, having been primed with press photos or snaps from the gadget sites, you open it up for real work for the first time. In the photos, the E90 looks like it's a laptop replacement. Echoing around the web yesterday were many comments proclaiming the phone as the first communicator worthy of the Psion legacy. With the Psion Series 5 and even the Psion Revo, it was possible to touch type two-handed. Alas, unless you have very small fingers indeed, you're going to be disappointed. So you're really obliged to use your thumbs.
The reality is even worse, however. I found I made more mistakes typing on the E90 than I do on an E70 or an E61, which really are optimized for minimizing thumb input errors, particularly the E61, with its widely spaced keys. I made even more mistakes on the new communicator than on its true predecessor, the Nokia 9500. And nothing about the experience suggests I'm going to adapt to the device.
Why, I was left wondering, did Nokia go to the trouble of creating such a large device to house a full QWERTY keyboard when the final user experience - and in the end, as Apple knows, this is what really counts - is so poor. Was it simply to demonstrate its technical prowess? To beat the world record for the longest feature list in a smartphone?
Nokia may plead circumstances beyond its control for this curious state of affairs. Veteran Psion users will recall how the company used clever patented hinge designs to maximize the amount of space available for the keyboard. This trick bought precious square millimetres of space for the keyboard. (Psion's design company also invented a new kind of key design, giving the keys additional 'travel'). Even though Psion doesn't use the IP in its products any more, it won't license the patents, we're told, so no company can recreate the Psion experience. If that's really true, then Nokia should buy the rights outright, rather than continue to develop products that can't deliver a user experience it promises.
In almost every other respect, the E90 really is a pocket-sized laptop replacement, that to get so close to the goal and fail is seriously disappointing.
(Case in point: because of a dead laptop power supply, I'm bashing out this article on a Nokia SU-8W keyboard, connected by Bluetooth to an E70. It's suitable really only for emergencies, and of course I could be using the Nokia keyboard with the new Communicator. But then that would negate the whole idea of building a full QWERTY keyboard into the Communicator. I may as well use Nokia's Linux tablet - available for half the price.)
It's the software, stupid
The other aspect where the Nokia's nouveau brick disappoints is in the applications. The E90 runs S60 FP1 (Feature Pack 1), which is pretty much the same severely-hobbled) PIM suite that's shipped in Series 60 for the past five years. That's fine if that's all you were expecting. But for Communicator users it's not so much a step, but a giant leap`backwards. Even 9300 users could prioritize multiple tasks lists. With the latest Communicator, you can't even add categories to To Do lists. And forget about priorities... Nokia has added multiple alarms to the Clock application, to bring it closer to the Series 80 Clock app, but even that's short of the old Psion application.
It's only after some time with the applications that the stupidity of using S60 in a rich device such as this becomes apparent. Gone is the pull-down menu, which invoked a Mac/PC-like menu bar. Instead there's the two-button S60 menu, which you probably already know is a one button menu, as the secondary soft key is devoted to a 'Back', 'No' or 'Cancel' function.
So despite all this new screen real estate, (800x352 vs the old 640x200 means more than twice as many), almost every function hangs off a single menu. What made perfect sense in a simple smartphone designed for one-handed use, makes no sense at all in a mini-PC style communicator. Nokia seems unable, or unwilling to develop around the consequences of design decisions taken many years ago.
When the company folded its Series 80 and Series 90 Communicator platforms into Series 60, it had good pragmatic reasons to do so. But we never imagined the process would result in such an awkward Communicator user interface. I'm writing as a critic who has been staunchly supportive of the concept for many years, so I'm naturally disposed to defend this kind of device.
Earth to Nokia: you need a Brian Clough to sort out the S60 department, starting at the top down.
Moto raises UIQ from the ashes
While the E90 falls far short of the hype, the new Moto UIQ phone cheerfully exceeds all expectations. TheMotorizr Z8 comes from the British design team that Motorola acquired when it bought Sendo. And they've done good.
Given the agony that Sony Ericsson has experienced with its two UIQ3 products of last year, the P990i and the M600i, we'd have turned down very long odds on the following: that UIQ3 could be fast, that it could be rendered usable, and that it could be anything other than clunky to use one-handed. The design team has rebuffed all doubts here.
It has achieved this by ripping up the design guide, and applying simple common sense. Several UI elements have been stripped out, and in their place sensible buttons such as a Home key.
With Motorola's UIQ implementation, some things are quite subtle. The fonts render beautifully, unlike the P990i, which looks as if the fonts have been rendered using fountain pen ink onto slightly damp paper. But overall, the designers have been flexible, pragmatic, and above alll coherent - qualities notable by their absence from S60 in recent years.
As for the hardware, the 'kick slider' feels very robust. You could be forgiven for thinking you've broken the phone when you first extend the slide - it takes a little getting used to. Sliding the lower half of the case down causes the front part of the upper portion to slide along a roller, tipping it forward a few degrees. Hence the 'banana' shape.
What the Z8 does well is multimedia: Motorola claiming it can render 30fps video on its QVGA screen. Sky is lined up as a partner allowing subscribers to take their shows with them, and you can also use the phone to program your Sky+ box remotely.
The 'Rizr Z8 isn't a touch screen device, and the absence of rapid text input may deter parts of the market which might otherwise be attracted to the device. But we hope that pen-based variants aren't too far behind, as the phone has the potential to win converts from Blackberry, Palm, Windows Mobile and Nokia, not to mention Sony Ericsson itself, which has create a whole new class of defectors with the sorry P990i saga.
With the fashion in marketing tilting towards strict segmentation, conventional wisdom suggests that manufacturers shouldn't try and create devices that appeal to everyone: business users as well as entertainment and media enthusiasts. Both Nokia and Moto appear willing to disprove that. However it's Moto, with the UIQ Rizr, that stands the best chance of proving one phone can 'do it all', and do it pretty well.
In the smartphone business, Motorola is back with vengeance.The Z8 will be available in April. ®