Monday, June 08, 2009

Nokia N97 Launch

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Nokia N97 Launch Party last Friday night. They held it at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and on the foyer, mingling amongst the crowd were people in ChunLi, HellBoy, JackSparrow, Uhura and Evil Anakin cosplay. The good thing about it was that they were really into character happily posing for canwhores, but the strange thing is, I didn't really see the connection between the cosplay and a device launch.

Met up with @bytebot, @bleongcw, @limyh and met up for the first time @geekonomics (CNET Asia blogger from Singapore) and @dk.

crappy camera phone pic by @limyh

I tried to register, but I was bounced from the "Media" counter to the "Guests" counter mainly because I presented my business card. They couldn't figure out if I was invited as a blogger or as a corporate guest. I didn't know which category I was either. But I mentioned the secret password: @davidlian, and it was all magically settled.

The doors opened, and Colin and I made a beeline to the furthest booth with two available units for hands on use. We tried them out. First impressions were good, with a nice build quality to the device. The keyboard looks a little puny, but the buttons have a nice feel to it. I didn't really like the location of the spacebar, being really small and way too far to the right.
the symbol key has moved to the right too.

I tried to probe into as much features as I could without being too rude in appearing to hog the device. I must have handled it for about 15 minutes. So while I had a very limited amount of time with it, this "review" is will also compare the N97 with its peers. Some background information, before my Bold and iPhone, I used an E61 (Oct 2006). This is the original version without the camera. This was over 2 years ago, and that was my first experience with the S60 Symbian Operating System. I found it appropriate at that time, providing a relatively stable OS, good enough pull email, an interesting way of handling connections to WiFi, EDGE and Bluetooth. I found it functional enough for its time.

The iPhone was snazzy, but pretty much a toy and I didn't use it more than 4 months before moving onto the BlackBerry platform. The Bold I use now is a great balance of stability, functionality and most importantly integration to work (Email, Calendars and Contacts). The Bold is nice, but looking at other platforms, is probably getting abit old. I have tried the Storm, but it feels like the touch screen features were a kludge; it doesnt feel smooth, and the display seems to lag behind the interactions.

I also had to maintain a series of Nokia Communicators over the past few years. Having to handle the whole family of what I call, "The Beasts", the 9000 to the 9210 to E90. This is absolutely indispensible to some senior managers and directors who NEED the large screens and full sized keyboards for due to failing eyesight. Mobile device manufacturers seem to want to design stuff for the young and trendy seeming to forget that the people who pay the bills are old and are severely long sighted. So Nokia and Blackberry, please don't forget about this market segment!

I always found the Communicator series wanting in their performance. Navigation was a pain, especially when there were literally thousands of emails in the inbox. We had to wait over 30 seconds just to task switch. Options were scattered everywhere and the UI looked very clunky.

Considering the amount of time Nokia had to develop the N97 since the E90, I had high expectations and assumed the N97 to solve all these problems. A form factor which would be useful for upper management, a modern OS, great integration with productivity apps, snappish performance, and as a bonus, a new input and interaction method with the touch screen.

Unfortunately I was wrong.

First off, when I was navigating the menus of the N97, it basically felt like my old E61. Yes, the familiarity is good, in that I knew where to access the obscure options like how to define Connections, etc, but I had the feeling like I was using a 2 year old phone. It was like a timewarp. I would have thought that with a new processor, more RAM, this machine would fly. Unfortunately not. It just felt so laggy. Fonts and widget designs too were retro.

The N97 touch screen interactions, like the Storm, is not cohesive and feels out of place. It doesn't register the exact position, and it feels very sluggish in terms of recognising a contact, and especially when a stroke (to pan) is made. For example if you need to scroll down a page in the Apps desktop. As you scroll, it feels jerky and there is a 500-800ms delay. This is not good.

The scrolling itself is jerky. Meaning that the refresh rates are very slow. You can actually see the screen repaint as the desktop pans. Surely the display should have some basic 2D graphics acceleration assisting it?

I often felt frustrated with the accuracy of the pointing. OK, I was using my fingers, and not a stylus. But being spoilt by the iPhone, I expected that tech nowadays would be good enough for any pointer be it a grubby finger or a stylus.

The Apps

One of the first apps I loaded was Nokia Maps. This looked interesting as it was an official Nokia product, so integration and features must be almost bleeding edge. It loaded up and displayed the entire globe ala Google Earth. This was all good until I tried to zoom in. Again I expected the iPhone-like feature of navigating the Earth with multitouch by zooming with two fingers. Unfortunately it wasnt to be, as @geekonomic's tweet explains, the Nokia N97 uses the standard resistive tech vs the iPhones capacitive technology. So to zoom in, you'd have to use the buttons located by the screen on the right, which is not as intuitive as it should be. The refresh rates again was jerky with probably at 2 fps.

One of the options on Nokia Maps was "Traffic Info". Wow! This would be an excellent feature to have as a device. It then cautioned me that this required a license / subscription. Since it wasn't my device, I agreed as a proxy, to the terms and conditions for the demo device. However after a few minutes of downloading, it came back to me and said that my region did not have any traffic information sources. This is a real pity. I expected with the amount of effort spent in this launch, a more extensive localisation effort would be put in in extending the features of the Maps product. Glen Cha (Product Marketing Mgr) later explained that getting information from Malaysian Govt Departments is not exactly easy. So much for ITIS.

This to me is a killer feature for a mobile phone / GPS convergence product. The ability to get up to the minute updates of traffic information and to guide you through the optimal path is something only a mobile phone can do which a regular GPS product cannot.

The interface for the Maps App itself is still very primitive just like the BlackBerry Maps App, which I dont use, where the interface looks like it was done by a 9 year old: drawings for roads are just plain lines. Looks like Google Maps Mobile still offers the best UI and functionality. Latitude, Satelite Hybrid, pretty roads (1way/2way/highway) and a great search facility gives Google a huge advantage.

The Camera

The camera slide cover is a good idea. Camera holes tend to be an attractor of lint, so this will certainly help get rid of the trademark cameraphone blur. I took a picture of Colin and Bernard, and was very happy with it.
there were lots of people cameraphoning a cameraphone that night. geeks.

The flash was "good enough" for the distance, the Carl Zeiss lens was bright and able capture the subjects in focus. However I was slightly worried about the time it took to take the picture. The camera took a good 3 seconds to focus, and then it snapped only after a second. So while this was marginally worse than @mellissa's Ixus, I hope that the performance will be better in normal conditions as this was done in really low light.

Sending Pictures

After taking the picture, I wanted to send it to my email account. This use case was abit more obscure, because I think an email account was not setup on the demo device. It didn't allow me to directly email the picture to any other arbitrary address. However via the Internet looking icon, it did provide an Ovi option, which was to upload the picture to the Ovi website which would then forward a link to your intended recipients. This worked good enough.

Physical Build

Generally it looks adequately built. Of course we wont know how well it survives the real world unless someone actually uses it day in and out for at least 3 months, dropping it and knocking it on hard surfaces a few times. What I'm really afraid off is the spring loaded mechanism where the screen snaps out of the keyboard.

Now it reminds me of the modified Nokia "banana-phone" in the first Matrix movie where Neo snaps out the mouth piece and says "Most Awesome, Dude!". Its all really cool, and feels great. However someone must have tuned this snap-action a little too hard. I'm really afraid that it would jump out of someone's hands if not held properly.

I checked the construction of the supporting mechanism at the back, and the two plastic hinges seem sturdy enough. But I would hate to think what will actually happen when they utlimately fail, as Ive seen way too many Nokia devices fail due to their plastickyness. e.g. Screen hinges for all the Communicators which eventually cut into the screen connection ribbons.

The Web Browser

I also had the opportunity to test out the browser, and it was good. Not as nice as the iPhone's Safari, but way better than my Bold's minimal browser. Scrolling with the touch screen was unfortunately jerky. The promo video ofcourse showed super-smooth compiz like effects on-screen which I thought was quite deceiving.

That was all the time I had with the device. The speeches started, so I put the device down and paid some attention to it while I twittered my first impressions, with full reference to the #n97kl hashtag.
They had booths which ran Gravity on the S60, showing the latest tweets on screen. This was a great touch and should be a permanent feature in all future events.

After the marketing spiel, which tried to project this device as the answer to everyone's need to access the internet "Nokia N97: Making the internet YOUR Internet", we were approached by one of the wonderful Text100 staff, Erna @mahyuni invited us to go down to the Press Conference to ask a few questions if we wanted to. So Colin and I went down, hoping to get some detailed answers.

Bambos Kaisharis (Head of Mktg), Vlasta Berka (GM), Glenn Cha (Prod Mktg Mgr)

The room was already full with some traditional media folk. They asked some basic questions and we waited our turn. An interesting factoid was that people in East Malaysia are bypassing wired internet and using mobile devices as their gateway to the interwebs nowadays. Through twitter, @ditesh asked:
does it come with inbuilt SIP client? Does the SIP client support Speex? (Speex = open standard)
So Colin asked that to one of the three dudes there. They did say that SIP support will come as software upgrades, and assumed that if there are new features, it can be sent via Over the Air. Something like Windows Upgrade.

I then asked my first question:
"Your Nokia device seems to support a multitude of video and audio formats. This is great. So does it support Ogg Theora and Ogg Vorbis, the Open Standard for video and audio as recommended by HTML 5.0?"
Bambo Kaishari's (Head of Marketing) answer was almost immediate; "We'll get back to you on that one."

Oh, I thought, thats interesting. Im not too sure if it was too geeky a question, but there were three guys in front. Someone should know at least? They fielded other questions, and when it was quiet, I asked another:
"Nokia announced a while back (june 2008) that the Symbian Operating System will be Open Sourced. When exactly will this occur?"
Again, a brief silence, and Bambos said "We'll get back to you on that one too." They were very nice about it though, and after the conference, Vlasta Berka (GM for Sales) came up to me and said that he will definitely come back to me. I then remembered another important question:
"Our company uses BlackBerry devices, and previously we used to integrate our Communicator devices with BlackBerry using the Nokia-BlackBerry connect. Will the N97 have BlackBerry integration?"
He looked stunned and looked like he was about to say "We'll get back to you", but he elaborated that he was not sure what has transpired between Research in Motion (those evil device pushing Canadians) and Nokia, but the last he heard was that the development for BlackBerry Connect for Nokia devices have stopped. There were some issues with the pace of development. So while he couldn't give a definite answer, he seemed confident that there would not be BB integration in the future.

Pity. It would be great if BlackBerry users had more choice in what devices they could use to access the BlackBerry infrastructure. Considering that there are quite alot of older users using BlackBerries they should either develop a large Communicator form factor like device, or open up their infra so that device makers like Nokia can more easily address those needs.

Food and Entertainment

After the Press Conference, we went back upstairs and by that time, all the kiasu people had cleared off from the buffet line. The food served was constantly refreshed, so there was ample left for us latecomers. Nokia then had some competitions for most extravagantly dressed couple, and a Guitar Hero competition.

I stayed on, anticipating to see @kimberlycun + @shaolintiger and @kyspeaks + @mellissa dominate this competition, but it was truly an epic fail. They didnt last 11% citing reasons like the Wii timing wasn't synched. Yeah right.

Overall, it was a great event, excellent food (roast beef and apple crumble+ice cream ftw), excellent ambiance, well organised, but huge let down by the star of the show itself, the N97.

So Ill still have to wait for another launch cycle to recommend a suitable device to those old folks who have their Bolds set with font size 20.