Nokia says Symbian is on its way out, before promising more support and new models. Can the ailing OS ever really get back on track, or is it time to throw in the towel and give up on handsets like the X7?
The X-series range is to music what the N-series range is to imaging. In an attempt to be hip and trendy, Nokia has allowed its designers to go crazy with the X7. It’s certainly a unique design, and history has shown how Nokia isn’t scared to try new things. The company has to be commended for doing so, even if it has allowed the release of some real clangers over the years.
In the case of this phone, the smooth, curvaceous rear and a front with more odd angles than a Citroen DS4 will probably make your initial decision to consider it very easy. Otherwise it might be the non-removable battery or the fiddly covers to change the SIM or memory card.
Take the four speakers, one for each corner of the phone, for example. Two of them aren’t even real speakers and are simply there to balance the design. The other two are (fortunately) very loud and will let you blast out music, or hear the audio to accompany videos, without separate speakers.
And, unlike the N8 with its high-end 12-megapixel camera, the X7 makes do with a mere 8-megapixels and ditches autofocus in favour of the EDoF (Extended Depth of Field) sensor that Nokia seems to like putting in just about every new device it releases.
The upside of EDoF sensors is the ability to take photos quickly without worrying about focus. As long as you aren’t trying to take close-up images, the results are usually pretty good. The phone also gets a twin-LED flash, which isn’t as powerful as Xenon but can cope with most indoor situations.
Because of the odd design of the phone, the shutter button (and indeed the volume keys) are almost at a 45 degree angle on the edge. It means that if you don’t hold the phone securely with both hands, you run the incredibly high risk of pressing the camera button and pushing the phone out of your grip. If you think of holding with one hand, supporting the phone with your thumb at the front, you then risk pressing on the screen and changing settings. It’s a really bad design, given you’ll have to totally change the way you are used to pressing buttons while holding the phone.
Video recording offers HD-resolution capture at 720p, but there’s no HDMI output. This is a disappointing omission, given the fact that the N8 and the keyboard-equipped E7 each have this feature, along with a large number of smartphones on sale today.
The screen is the same size as the E7, but lacks the resolution of Nokia’s forthcoming MeeGo-powered N9 and as-yet-unannounced Windows Phone 7 model. At 360×640 pixels, it is also down on the VGA-resolution display on the E6, but a bigger problem is that the small text lacks anti-aliasing and looks extremely pixelated as a result.
The only real hardware improvement is a faster processor, yet this is no 1GHz+ dual-core monster. Nor is there loads of RAM (256MB) compared to other smartphones. Arguably, one strong point of Symbian is its memory management and multi-tasking abilities, so packing in loads of memory isn’t vital. A fast processor is more important, however, and it can sometimes fall behind and play catch-up when you’re using the phone.
The phone also makes do with only a 1,200mAh battery, although the OLED display helps keep power consumption down, along with power saving options to further squeeze the most from the (smaller than we’d have liked) battery. On the voice side, the X7 supports the HD Voice codec, which Three began rolling out in May. It’s also available to users on Orange and soon for T-Mobile, offering a much clearer audio experience as long as you’re talking to someone else with a compatible phone.
Software wise, the X7 comes with Symbian Anna and a range of improvements that includes a portrait QWERTY keyboard and a quicker way to enter URLs in the web browser. These might be big things for Nokia, but to anyone else they’ll seem somewhat underwhelming.
The next version of the OS will be called Belle, as Nokia has opted to follow Google by starting each new version of the OS with the next letter in the alphabet. It seems doubtful that we’ll ever get to see Symbian Zara though.
For social networking, Nokia has its own Social app that supports Facebook and Twitter. The web browser has been tweaked so you now have a box at the top to enter URLs instead of going into the menu. In addition to the core apps, you get a lot of preloaded apps for YouTube, video trailers and channels for Nat Geo, CNN and E!
There are productivity apps, for managing Office documents, an app for Foursquare, BBC iPlayer (with the ability to download for offline viewing) and on the 3 version an additional app called 3Spot, which turns the phone into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. Some of the other apps are time-limited trials and many are simply apps you could have freely downloaded anyway.
Off the button
Besides the camera and volume keys, the X7 is devoid of buttons besides the single button that toggles between the menu and home screen. The home screen has scrollable panels and a combination of widgets and application shortcuts, while the menu shows off the all-new Nokia Pure icons. These are little more than window dressing however, given the layout of the menus remain essentially unchanged.
Nokia introduced widgets to Symbian years ago, but never seemed to fully appreciate their value. Even the latest OS continues to keep widgets in a rigid design, with no resizing or interaction possible with any individual one.
The biggest problem with the new OS is the continued use of pop-up menu dialogs that require you to confirm just about everything. Data charges are an issue for customers, especially when roaming, but Nokia is far too desperate to warn you about anything and everything, and not just about data connections. Does an iPhone, Android or Windows Phone 7 ask for permission to load or go online?
This is a legacy of the old school thinking of Symbian and even Anna fails to deal with it. When preinstalled apps do it, including those written by Nokia itself, you know something is wrong even if you’re of the opinion that you should be better safe than sorry.
The good news is that the Ovi Store has now built up a fairly respectable list of apps and games, which are easy to find and download once you’ve logged in. The email client also seems to work better, especially with email services like Google Mail. When the Ovi name is dropped, Nokia should be able to properly build on its services like Maps and become more competitive, but its first Windows Phone should be out by then too.
Ovi and out
For the time being, the X7 keeps a lot of Ovi branding and uses a mix of the old Nokia font and its new ‘Pure’ font. Future software updates should standardise things, and the phone has an app to help do this, although system updates require a connection to a PC.
Nokia promises Symbian updates will be faster than they’ve ever been, but it’s hard to fully believe that when the latest OS still doesn’t look significantly different to the version that shipped on the N8 a year ago.
It’s hard to say that the X7 is good to use as a phone, or indeed a camera, given the terrible positioning of the side keys. Furthermore for anyone that has already had a taster of iOS, Android or even Windows Phone, it’s getting harder by the day to say “it’s not as bad as you think”, or “don’t write it off just yet”. With no redeeming features of note, besides some loud speakers (the two that are real), the X7 fails to offer much in the way of satisfaction.
It’s hard not to sound like a broken record when writing about the shaky future for Symbian. However, when Nokia can release devices like the N8 with a fantastic camera, or the E7 with its great keyboard, you can accept the need to compromise. With the X7, the quirky look and stupidly designed side keys actually impact on usability and that cannot be excused. The OS is improving, but the X7 hasn’t really got a market that we can see. It may be getting on, but we’d recommend the N8 over this every time for anyone who still has faith in Symbian.
Ratings (Out of 5)