Reviews

Nokia: from a bright past to a dim future?

A few months ago I bought a Nokia X3-02 “Touch and Type” cellphone, and I’m sorry to say that I’m disappointed with it. I’ve been gradually let down by it over time, and in the end, it’s just not what I’d hoped it would be. In the store, I was dazzled by its small, thin design (I love thin phones). I loved its metal shell as well. It felt the proper weight as it sat in my hand.

After I took it home, I started to see the defects. This was a brand new phone mind you, and already one of its clamshell latches (on the back) refused to close properly. And the more I used its touch screen, the less I liked it. I’m accustomed to working with quality touch devices like the ones on the iPod Touch, the iPad and the Magic Trackpad. The touch screen on the Nokia X3 is just not as good. It feels like a sad, cheap imitation of a great original.

Granted, this is Nokia’s first touch-and-type device, as they say in their intro video for the phone.

But they have other touch screen devices in their product line-up. They’ve had time to perfect their touch screens. Why launch a phone with an inferior touch screen?

Once you ask that question, then you have to ask a bunch of other questions as well:

  • Why are they using so many versions of their operating systems on their phones?
  • Can they come up with common design elements and aesthetics on their phones, to make them seem like they’re part of the same product line-up? Because right now, if you were to look across the whole Nokia line-up, you wouldn’t know all the phones are from the same company unless you looked at the logo.
  • Can they reduce their product line-up to something more manageable? Why have a gazillion phones? What’s the point of that? I understand the need for targeting products at various audiences and at different price points, but do you need tens/hundreds of phones to do that? Why not have at most 10 phones in the line-up?
  • Why launch the phones with lackluster features? As an example, the X3 has a 5 megapixel camera, but it’s a sad facsimile of the 5 megapixel camera on my old Nokia N95, which was launched in 2007. And there are less in-software options available on the phone, so it’s even harder to get better photos out of the camera. It also doesn’t have a flash.

Another thing I quickly discovered about the X3 is its annoying sleekness. Normally, a sleek phone is a good thing, but somehow, the X3 has the annoying characteristic of being very likely to slip out of your hand. You’re afraid to hold it by its top half, because you’ll press the on-screen buttons. You can’t hold it by its lower side, because that’s where the keypad is. So you hold it by the sides, but they’re rounded and thin, so the phone slips right out of your hand and falls to the ground. To its credit, it’s pretty sturdy and unless it’s going to fall on bare concrete, it’ll probably be fine, but the design was not well tested before it was launched.

Another problem which I discovered, and I’m not sure if this happens on just my phone or on all the Nokia X3 phones, is a software bug that lets the built-in @Mail application access the internet when the phone is on a WiFi connection, but will not let it access the internet over WAP or GPRS. I’ve sent the phone in for service and it remains to be seen what Nokia will do with it (if anything).

I can’t help comparing the phone with my Nokia N95, which as I mentioned above, was launched in 2007.

I bought it in 2008, brand new, unlocked, and have been using it ever since. I’ve used it, by my count, on four different mobile networks, one in the US and three in Romania. It worked just fine on all of them, did what it was supposed to do and it has served me well. I’ve recorded more video and shot more photos with it than I remember, and some of those videos and photos came out quite nicely. I still use it today, though it’s now my backup phone.

The N95 is Nokia at its best (for its time). It was compatible with a ton of cell networks, was even capable of 3G speeds, could use WiFi networks, had a 5 megapixel camera with a built-in flash, a ton of options for manipulating the photo software, recorded video at 640×480 resolution in stereo sound, it could play music and movies, it had Bluetooth, Infrared and USB 2.0 connections, it could use MicroSD cards, it had a second camera for video calls or video conferencing and best of all (for me) was the ability to sync it with my Mac using iSync and tether it to my MBP via Bluetooth.

The only things I didn’t like about the N95 were its operating system, which was (still is) a bit wonky, and the incredibly expensive apps (at the time) on the Nokia (now known as Ovi) Store.

Fast forward four years, and what has Nokia done since then? The software for their phones is still wonky and still looks the same, I’m still confused about where to find certain phone or system options when I look for them, their new phones still only have 5 megapixel cameras (some still sell with 2 megapixel cameras, like my wife’s new C3), most of their phones record almost unusable 3gp video with crappy sound (the X3 is a prime example) instead of mp4 or mov files, and I’m sure I could keep adding to this litany of complaints if I tried. Meanwhile, other phone manufacturers are doing unbelievable things with their phones.

One other thing comes to mind: Nokia Maps. In recent years, Nokia keeps advertising this app and the fact that their maps are free, but what they fail to mention is they’re not really usable. Sure, the maps are free. You can download them from the Nokia website at any time. But the maps are no good without an extra internet option on your phone’s monthly plan, and more importantly, you also have to pay extra in order to get the driving instructions (the voice guidance files and the step-by-step turns). So really, all the maps are good for is to give you general guidance about your whereabouts. But they won’t tell you how to get to your destination unless you pay more. Sure, you could futz around with your mobile phone, zoom in and out of the maps and eventually figure out how to get there, but that’s not going to be possible if you’re driving.

To be fair, I haven’t used today’s equivalent of the N95, which would be the N8 (or the E7). How much do you want to bet the Maps app has the same shortcomings on those devices as well? They’re supposed to be better. Unfortunately for them, they’re still using the Symbian OS, which from my experience is wonky and ill-organized, as mentioned above. I’ve heard Nokia plans to launch a new smartphone this year that uses a new and better OS. We’ll see how that works out.

There is a saving grace for Nokia though. Do you know what my favorite phone right now is? I’m using it and I love it. It’s the Nokia E63. Yes, I know it’s old, and it’s actually a hand-me-down phone (I bought it for my wife about 1 1/2 years ago), but I love it.

It’s got a surprising amount of options (if you keep digging through the OS screens). The camera is only 2 megapixels and the video camera only records at 320×240 pixels, but as far as the rest is concerned, it has the same options as my Nokia N95, and it has the incredible bonus of an actual keyboard. Of course, I can sync it to my Mac, just like the N95 (and unlike the X3, which still has no official sync plugin).

I never realized until now how useful an actual keyboard is on a phone. Sure, the virtual keyboard on an iPod Touch or iPhone is nice, but there’s something wonderful about pressing actual rounded buttons. I was so frustrated with buttoning on keypads and using predictive text (which sucks for anything other than simple messages). Now I can easily send emails and text messages from my phone at any time. It’s made my communication so much easier!

As a matter of fact, do you know what our current phone line-up is? It’s this: a Nokia E63, a Samsung Ch@t GT-C3222 and a Nokia C3. Notice something common across all of them? They all have keyboards. I think the Nokia keyboards are better designed. The buttons have rounded edges so it’s easier to press them. But there’s no mistaking the productivity gain from having an actual keyboard on a phone.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? The point is this: phones with keyboards are awesome. Nokia should focus on them. If they’ve got to use their kludgy old Symbian OS, then simplify it and put it on nice phones with nice keyboards and nice cameras. That will work well and won’t disappoint. And if Nokia’s bent on imitating Apple and putting touch screens on their phones, they should work on the quality of those touch screens. They should make sure they’re just as good or better than what Apple’s got. I know that’s a hard standard to beat, but if they shoot for that, they’ll probably end up with 80% of what Apple’s got in terms of touch screen functionality, and that’ll do just fine.

I’ll end on a final note, with a pet peeve of mine. If all these phones from Nokia have Nokia Maps and access geo satellites, why in the world aren’t they geotagging the photos I take with them? This has been bothering me ever since I bought the N95. It started as a nagging wish on the back burner, but now it’s a full blown pain in the derriere kind of thing. The iPhone’s doing it. Now consumer-grade digital cameras, cheap ones, come with built-in GPS chips. Here Nokia’s had this in their phones for 4 years or more, and they still haven’t bothered to do it right. It’s not even a hardware upgrade. It’s just a software upgrade that checks for an internet connection, goes out, gets the geo coordinates when the camera app is activated, and applies them to the photos. And if there’s no internet connection, then the photos don’t get geotagged. How hard can it be? Sadly, this is yet another example of Nokia’s inefficiency.

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How To

Finally, an update for Apple's Bluetooth problems

Updated 8/26/09: It turns out the firmware update didn’t fix the Bluetooth issues. But OS X 10.5.8, which also came out recently, seems to have mostly fixed the problems. I still get the occasional Bluetooth connection error, but it’s nowhere near as often as before.

A software update noticed popped up on my MBP today, telling me Bluetooth Firmware Update 2.0 was available for download and install.

bluetooth-update-1

The update explanation says the following:

“This update provides bug fixes and better compatibility with the Apple Wireless Mighty Mouse and Apple Wireless Keyboard. It installs on all Macintosh systems with Bluetooth based on the Broadcom chipset.”

Finally! If you’re unfamiliar with the Bluetooth crashing problems on Mac computers, then you’re one of the few lucky ones. But the rest of us with late generation laptops like the MacBook Pro have had this issue for at least a few months now. This, for example, is just one of the many threads in the Apple Forums dealing with this persistent Bluetooth issue. On June 9, I’d had enough and vented on FriendFeed about it.

Basically, Bluetooth communications stopped working after a Mac was woken up from sleep mode, necessitating either a turn off/on cycle of the Bluetooth hardware, or another quick sleep/wake cycle. I for one didn’t have too many problems with the keyboard and mouse not working, but I did have a serious issue maintaining connectivity with my Nokia N95 via Bluetooth. My MBP kept refusing to connect to it, and I can’t remember how many times I removed and re-added it from my preferred Bluetooth devices. I even thought my N95 was to blame, until I tried turning Bluetooth off/on and realized my MBP could connect to it just fine after that.

From the looks of things, Apple’s been at work on a fix for the problem, and it’s now available for general install. So, by all means, download away and see if it helps you. I for one will be on the lookout for any more Bluetooth issues, to see if this firmware update has truly fixed the bug.

Before I close, I’d like to point out that even though a restart is not announced for the firmware update, you will most certainly need to restart your Mac. Once the Safari update installs, and your Mac restarts, the following dialog box pops up on the screen, informing you that the Bluetooth update will now begin, and your machine will restart once it’s finished. Just FYI.

bluetooth-update-2

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Reviews

I like "The Saint"

It got panned by the critics. Val Kilmer’s acting was indulgent at times. It was somewhat cliché. What was up with those knee-high socks that Elizabeth Shue’s character wore throughout the movie? Those are some of the things that come to mind when I think of “The Saint” (1997). But it struck a chord with me, from the first time I saw it, and I like it even after all these years.

I think it evokes the feel of that time in Eastern Europe very well. I visited Romania in December 1998, for the first time since I’d left in 1991. The movie and the impressions from my trip match. It was cold, snowy, in many ways dreary, there was poverty all around, but still somehow enchanting, inspiring, in a way that made you feel you could do almost anything, as if the slate had been wiped clean and people were free to start things over.

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Simon Templar, the character played by Val Kilmer in the movie, has a long heritage that started in books in 1928. The character itself has been played in movies and on TV by several other actors, Roger Moore being one of the more notable ones. I remember watching Moore in the Saint series as a child growing up in Romania. The films were gripping and I loved seeing a modern-day Robin Hood escape from dangerous situations, just as I enjoyed seeing Kilmer’s character escape from similar situations in this latest installment.

Given the character’s long history, Kilmer had some big shoes to fill in this movie. For example, I thought there were too many close-ups of him. Perhaps the director was trying to establish character, and the close-ups were meant to give us an insight into what S.T. was thinking, but at times, I could see the actor hamming it up behind a thinner-than-usual mask. Still, I always thought Kilmer was charismatic and I don’t begrudge him the less than stellar acting here. Every actor goes through a ham stage in his or her career — most notably of all, the famous John Barrymore, who quite possibly illustrated the very phrase in some of his later film roles.

The film’s tech was amazing for its time. Simon Templar’s phone in the movie — that Nokia phone was something else. It blew me away. I think it could do everything modern phones could do — at slower speeds, naturally — except play movies. I learned it was a Nokia 9000 Communicator, thanks to the Saint.org website. And to think, all of that technology was available in 1997! Nokia was very happy about the phone’s appearance in the movie and even issued a press release about it that same year.

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nokia-9000-communicator-in-movie

All in all, “The Saint” is one of a handful of movies in my library that I’ve watched multiple times, and will probably watch again. I like it.

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Thoughts

Premium gasoline dips below $3 per gallon

As I filled up my MINI a couple of days ago, I glanced at the pump and noticed the price of the premium gasoline: $2.77 per gallon. I couldn’t believe it. I left the pump running and ran toward the street sign to take a photo.

I just didn’t think I’d ever see premium gas dipping below $3 again. While I’m sure others welcome the change — and I can’t say I disagree when you consider the issue solely from the point of view of one’s bank account — I still say gasoline needs to stay above $3 at the pump, in order to encourage proper driving behavior and to make research into alternative fuels and technologies viable.

It wasn’t that long ago that I paid $4.45 at the pump to buy premium gasoline for my MINI. There’s a huge difference between $4.45 and $2.77, and I don’t like this sort of yo-yo behavior when it comes to gas prices. First it was too high, and now it’s too low. It’s not right. It needs to stabilize somewhere between $3-4 dollars per gallon, preferably somewhere between $3.00 and $3.50.

If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on a gasoline tax (which isn’t a new idea, but already in use in Europe), see this post from March of 2005.

I took the photo above with my Nokia N95.

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How To

Use a Nokia N95 as a Bluetooth modem on a Mac

One of the reasons I bought a Nokia N95 was the ability to tether it as a Bluetooth modem on my MacBook Pro. I wanted to access the internet via my mobile phone if I’m away from home or from a WiFi spot. While Nokia’s PC Suite of applications includes an option to tether the phone to a Windows machine with just a few clicks of the mouse, it’s not that simple for the Mac.

Fortunately, once you go through a 5-10 minute initial setup process (outlined below), connecting to the net via the N95 becomes a simple matter of two mouse clicks. Keep in mind that this tutorial will help you configure a Nokia N95 phone only for the T-Mobile network; you’re on your own when it comes to other service providers, but the process should be fairly similar.

I’m indebted to this pre-existing tutorial from The Nokia Blog. However, I found the instructions a bit confusing, as the Mac OS X operating system has been updated since and the network preference screens don’t look the same. Consider my post an updated tutorial, with screenshots from the current Mac OS X (10.5.5).

1. Get the 3G modem scripts for Nokia phones from Ross Barkman‘s website.

Look for the section called “Scripts for Nokia 3G (EDGE/UMTS) phones”.

He’s written numerous such scripts and posted them for download on his site. They work fine for countless people, so please, if his script works for you, show your thanks by donating a few dollars to him.

2. Drop the “Nokia 3G” folder containing the modem scripts (yes, the entire folder), in the /Library/Modem Scripts/ directory at the root level of your Mac’s hard drive.

It should look like this once it’s in there:

3. Add your Nokia N95 phone as a paired Bluetooth device.

If you haven’t added your phone as a Bluetooth device yet, click on the plus sign in the lower left corner and go through the wizard to add it. Make sure to check both boxes shown below, and to pair it as well.

If you have already added it as a Bluetooth device, you may want to run through the configuration wizard again, making sure to mark both checkboxes, as seen below. Click on the phone to select it from the list of Bluetooth devices (see screenshot above), then click on the little gear icon in the lower left corner of the dialog box and select “Configure this device”. You will get the following screen. Click on Continue and run through the wizard to the end.

4. Configure the Bluetooth service preferences.

Go to Network preferences. Here’s where you have a choice. If you’re going to want to use multiple mobile phones or Bluetooth devices as modems, you may want to duplicate the existing Bluetooth service and configure each copy separately, naming them accordingly (Nokia N95, iPhone, etc). To do that, select Bluetooth, then click on the little gear in the lower left corner and select “Duplicate Service”.

I’m only going to use the Nokia N95 as a Bluetooth modem, so I chose to work directly with the existing Bluetooth service, as you can see below. To do that, click on the Configuration drop-down menu and choose “Add Configuration”. You’ll be asked for a name. I named it “T-Mobile Internet”. In the Telephone Number field, I put “internet2.voicestream.com”.

Now click on Advanced, and you’ll get a whole series of preference panes. Modem is the first one. Make sure the information matches what you see below.

Now click on DNS. Some say you should pre-fill DNS server addresses, because your mobile service provider may or may not give them to you. Thankfully, T-Mobile will automatically assign you two DNS server addresses when you connect, but just to be on the safe side, grab one or two more DNS addresses from a public DNS server list like this one and add them to the DNS preference pane. If you look below, the two DNS addresses that are grayed out were automatically assigned by T-Mobile after I connected through the phone, and the single address in black was the one I manually added.

Don’t worry about WINS or Proxies, go to PPP, where you’ll have a drop-down menu. The Session options on the PPP preference pane should look like this:

And the Configuration options on the PPP preference pane should look like this:

Some people say you should disable “Send PPP echo packets” and “Use TCP header compression”. I left them enabled, and my connection works just fine. But, if you should have problems connecting and staying on, you may want to disable them. Just uncheck them and hit OK.

5. Apply the changes and click on Connect.

The Bluetooth modem status should change in the menu bar and first say “Connecting…” then “Authorizing…”. After it connects, it should show the time elapsed since the connection started, like this:

There’s one thing I haven’t been able to figure out though, and I would appreciate your help on this. Getting the Mac to connect to the internet reliably through the phone, every single time, is still something that I need to work out.

That first evening after I configured things as outlined above, I was able to connect and disconnect at will. However, the second morning, I got a “Could not authenticate” error. I clicked on the “Set Up Bluetooth Device” (shown above), and re-configured my N95 (as detailed in Step 3). After that, it was okay for the rest of the day, but the same connection issue re-surfaced the next day. I’d read that keeping iSync open while you connect will help, and I tried it, but it didn’t seem to work reliably for me. What has seemed to work is logging in and out of my account on the Mac, and rebooting the phone.

It seems that Nokia would be best equipped here to make things easier and more reliable. I do wish they’d release a tethering app for the Mac, just like they released an iSync plugin that lets the N95 sync with the Address Book and iCal. Until then, you can try any of the following workarounds when you experience connection issues:

  • Re-configure the phone as a Bluetooth device (as outlined in Step 3 above)
  • Disable “Send PPP echo packets” and “Use TCP header compression” in the PPP Configuration preference pane
  • Open iSync before you try to connect to the Internet through the phone
  • Log out of your account on the Mac and reboot the phone

Once the phone is tethered properly, it’s an enjoyable experience. There’s a newfound freedom I feel when I can go online from just about anywhere. There’s something elegant in using my phone as a Bluetooth modem. It can stay in my pocket or on the table next to my laptop, tethered wirelessly, still working fine as a phone while also letting me get on the Internet. Cool stuff indeed.

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How To

Get the Nokia N95 for $390

I’ve been amazed by the capabilities of the Nokia N95 smartphone since I first heard about it in 2007. Its price though put it sadly out of reach for me, until a couple of days ago, when I saw it at Micro Center for $389.99. This is a new, unlocked Nokia N95 V3.

If you’ve been watching the price for this phone, like me, then you know that’s at least $60-70 off the lowest price listed anywhere else, if not more. When I search the internet, I still see it listed at some places for over $580.

Of course I bought one. You might want to do the same. If you find it for a lower prices somewhere else, let me know. Keep in mind this isn’t the new N95 8GB model. This is the older N95 that runs the 3rd edition of the S60 software, also known as V3. Btw, the specs say the max size for its MicroSD memory card can only be 2GB, but mine runs fine with a 4GB card.

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-05

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