Nokia Astound: Beautiful Hardware Marred by Clunky Symbian

 
 
By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2011-04-07
 
 
 

Stephen Elop made the right decision to abandon Symbian.

The Nokia CEO generated some controversy in early February when he announced a new partnership with Microsoft that would see Windows Phone 7 ported onto the Finnish manufacturer's smartphones. That followed the leak of a 1,200-word internal memo, ostensibly penned by Elop, suggesting Nokia needed to make a "radical change" and leap from a "burning platform" in order to revive its sagging fortunes.

Elop had apparently weighed the merits of embracing Google's Android operating system before embracing Microsoft. He could have chosen either, really; what the new Nokia Astound makes clear is that Symbian needs to be retired with extreme prejudice. 

That being said, the Astound-offered exclusively from T-Mobile in the United States-is a nice piece of hardware. Its 4.4-ounce body sits well in the hand, feeling lightweight but not cheap like some Android smartphones. The 3.5-inch AMOLED (active-matrix organic LED) high-definition touch-screen is sharply defined and responsive (if a little dim in sunlight). And the 8-megapixel rear camera (paired with a 1.3-megapixel front-facer) zooms smoothly and takes serviceable images and video. The battery is good for roughly a day of moderate Web-cruising, email answering, map-zooming and game-playing. The processor (680MHz with a 3D graphics accelerator) is adequate, although the device also became noticeably warm during prolonged, intensive use.

Where the Astound succeeds in its hardware, though, it utterly fails in software. Symbian 3 is the best mobile operating system of 2002. Between the antiquated built-in browser, the inexplicable crashes and lockups, the near-indecipherable icons and menus, and the tragically overstuffed home screens, it plays like a graduate-school programming project that somehow managed to escape into the wild. It will make you appreciate anew how Google Android, Windows Phone 7 and Apple's iOS have all emphasized simplicity and ease-of-use in their respective user interfaces.

Nokia also desperately needs to improve its backend infrastructure supporting its smartphones. Registering for a Nokia account involved not only an overlong form on its Website, but also:

A. Inputting a code into the smartphone to retrieve the serial number, a required space on the aforementioned form.

B. Having that code fail, requiring the user to power down the device, pop out the battery and read off the serial number from the sticker underneath.

C. Having completed the form on Nokia's Website, receiving a four-digit code texted to the smartphone, to be inputted on yet another screen on Nokia's Website.

D. Having Nokia's Website refuse to accept that four-digit code.

Your own mileage on this part of the process may vary. But compared with the process of signing up for a Google or Apple account, and then having that account "activate" a smartphone, Nokia's signup is excessively convoluted.

In exchange for that little bit of micro-drama, you have full access to the Ovi Store, which offers a healthy collection of both name-brand and little-known applications. (Yes, Angry Birds is here.) The storefront is relatively easy to navigate and the applications themselves are hassle-free to download, although it lacks the sheer size of Apple's App Store or Google's Android Marketplace. As with seemingly most things Symbian, navigating between menus or downloading applications comes with various "downloading" or "loading" screens. That's a feature designed to give you time to fetch a cup of coffee.   

The Astound comes pre-loaded with the T-Mobile Store, 3D Wooden Labyrinth, Slacker streaming radio, YouTube, the Ovi Store and the game Fruit Ninja Lite. The YouTube interface is streamlined and clean, even if the videos themselves are sometimes grainy. With video, calls and games, the Astound's speaker boasts superior sound quality-yet another example of the excellent hardware.

Compared with rival offerings, Symbian's virtual QWERTY keyboard feels practically Stone Age. The tiny keys (even in landscape mode, but especially in portrait) will likely drive bigger-fingered users to distraction. Swype is supported. Activating the keyboard has the disturbing tendency to blank out the original screen. 

To be fair, Symbian offers three bright spots. One is gesture control, including pinch-to-zoom, which is remarkably fine-tuned. The second is Ovi Maps, which offers a smooth interface, some impressive detailing work (a map of New York City features impressive renderings of the Empire State Building and other famous landmarks, jutting from the otherwise 2D landscape) and navigation tools. The third is the multitasking interface, which offers a swipe-through menu of your open applications (with the ability to easily close any of them).

Setup with email (the Astound supports Exchange, AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, and a variety of POP and IMAP services) is also simple. That being said, Symbian missed the boat when it comes to a streamlined user interface. Instead, Symbian got on the boat that suggested nearly every menu come with a bewildering array of options (pressing the power button on top of the device brings up a menu with 10 options-compare that with Android, which offers three), often burying useful functionality four or five screens in. If you're a power user who enjoys a high degree of granular control over your device's function, then Nokia's interface may boast some appeal; otherwise, it comes off as something designed by a committee in which everyone had an input.

T-Mobile is offering the Astound for $79.99 (after a $50 mail-in rebate) with a two-year contract. Given the device's solid camera, superior hand-feel and great sound quality, that might make it a deal for someone who basically wants a regular cell-phone capable of email and flinging the occasional irate bird at a pig. Those in the market for a robust smartphone, though, might do better to stick with an offering from Apple, Microsoft, Research In Motion or Google.

Nokia may have made the right decision in dumping Symbian in favor of a new system. Barring a total revamp, the platform feels outdated in comparison to its rivals. 

 


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