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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: Nokia X6

Nokia converges their Xpress Music with Smartphone capabilities, so how does it fare?

Nokia has always been the dominant player in the mobile industry. However, they have held on to this position through sheer numbers, pumping out the most variety and volume of phones than any manufacturer. If we look at the popularity of their smartphones, that is another story. 
Once upon a time, there was an operating system called "Symbian" that dominated the mobile industry. It was the pioneer, even before Microsoft released their XDA's and long before Apple and Android even got into the game. Symbian was so promising that Nokia (who was still at the top of the game at that time) decided to make it their own, and acquired it.
Unfortunately things went downhill from there as the aforementioned players suddenly came out with their own Mobile operating systems, which were (arguably) better than Symbian; and (factually) more popular and better supported. But since Nokia owns Symbian, they are sticking to it to run their smartphones, as can be seen from the n96 to the n97 until now.
The Nokia X6 is one of the latest in it's line to run on this platform. Let's take a look at its performance. For this review we will look at the newer release of the X6, which comes in a 16GB model and retails for US$450 (PhP20,000).

Inside the rather large box, you get the following:
- The Unit with battery
- The charger
- The USB connector
- A dashboard GPS cradle
- A car charger
- A very nice pair of headsets
- The usual manuals/inserts

It's definitely not a basic package. Nokia has included some good stuff here. First of all, including the car charger and dashboard cradle means that Nokia is positioning this as a "Navigator" phone. Looking at the picture below, it looks like areal GPS navigation device for mounting to your car. But I'll say more about that function later in the software section.
It comes with a 3.5 inch display sporting a capacitive touch screen. This is a big deal. Capacitive touch screens are the equivalent to Apple's iPhones and most of the high end Android phones. Capacitive means that you get more response from your finger gestures versus the older Resistive screens, where multi-touch wasn't even possible. Nokia was criticized for using Resistive touch screens on their smartphones (even on the n97), but it's good to see they got the message, and went the right way this time.

The phone is rather light and comfortable to hold or keep in your pocket, which is always a good sign for a high-spec smartphone. The sides of the phone have the usual volume and camera buttons, the top has the USB entry and the charger slot. One thing interesting to note is that the Simcard is loaded from the right side of the phone, as shown here to the right. 

The materials are made from plastic, which feels kind of brittle and fragile. If you can't tell from my other reviews by now, I'm very sensitive to having weak plastic parts on a relatively epensive gadget. Removing the backside always felt like some of the hinges were going to snap. You will need to open the back to have access to the battery and simcard. Why? because even if the simcard is loaded from the side....you will need to push the slider at the back to get it out. I would have been very pleasantly surprised if I could swap Sims from the side, without having to take out the phones battery, but unfortunately that is not the case. A silly design choice in my opinion. 

Software/User interface
Like I said in the introduction, many people would consider Nokia's insistence with using Symbian on their smartphones as a mistake. Just a few Google searches will show you the frustration and lack of hope Symbian users have with that operating system. It's not a bad platform, I enjoyed using it on my Sony P900 back in the day.....but that was a long time ago, and unfortunately Symbian did not mature too much since then, or at least not as fast to match the pace of Apple OS or Android.

Still I have grown so familiar with Symbian from my past usage that it was intuitive enough for me to browse through, although it always felt like I was handling an old piece of technology, especially after using an iPhone or Android. The basics are still there though. On the front of the phone, you would have only the call, end call and menu buttons. Simplicity is the name of the game for user interfaces nowadays. Once you open the menu, you are greeted with the customary application menu, which is the same for all smartphones, even Apple or Android. But the big differences lie in the Applications themselves.

Since Nokia bundled in accessories to make this sell as a GPS navigation device, I'll begin with that first.
I tried using it as intended by firing up the maps application. It was not an easy start, since I had to surf through a few menus to get to my desired settings in the first place. Once I was all set, I was disappointed to see how the map looked like. Just see for yourself on the pictures to the right.

It looks primitive compared to the Google maps we are used to seeing on our smartphones (both iPhone and Android use it).
I even searched for a busier zone to see how much detail it contains, and it was still pretty bare. On the picture to the right, that is supposed to be a bustling business and commercial district. But it looks like a few dots on a green field. The pinch to zoom works well with the capacitive screen, but it doesn't do any good if the maps were not good in the first place.
A disappointing experience and not a strong point of the Nokia X6.
Google maps seems to have made the competition look bad with their offering.

Speaking of Google, lets check out the browser of the Nokia X6.
The Symbian browser works well, being able to render full webpages onto the X6 screen. It also plays nicely with the built-in accelerometer by smoothly changing the render of the webpage when the orientation shifts from landscape to portrait and vice versa. As you can see on the picture to the left, it has the basic browser functions as well, which can be hid with a tap of the screen.
One big gripe I have with the browser, and is unfortunately related to other features as well, is the touchscreen keyboard. Usually on smartphones without a physical keyboard, the user is reliant on typing on the screen with finger taps. It's the same deal for the X6. I'm fine with that and in fact I even prefer that method over physical keys. But in this case, the touch keyboard on the X6 has a major flaw: you cannot see the screen you are typing on once you pop up the keyboard. Look at the picture to the right to see what I mean. Sure, the keyboard is large...but at the cost of not being able to see what I'm typing on anymore. Not a good user interface for my taste...but others might like it, if they prefer larger keys to tap on.

Now to the bigger substance of the Operating system: The Applications. When I said that Symbian has been left behind by the more popular OS platforms today, It is due largely in part to the Applications available. Yes, Symbian does have an archaic sense in its interface, but I think many would overlook that aged feeling if there was a big library of quality applications like those found in the Apple App store or Android Market. Too bad that is far from reality. Nokia still uses the OVI store as their "App store". They launched this a while back but it never seems to have picked up steam. It has the basic functions of an Application store, but just a few minutes of browsing will reveal that there isn't much interesting to get. I know that is purely a matter of opinion, and I'm sure there are many OVI users who are happy with their App's, but coming from the Apple and Android store it's like a huge leap backwards. Even when using the same applications on Symbian as on iOS (for example), there is a big difference on the quality of the App interface and output.
But on the bright side it does have the basics one would expect, such as a Productivity App like "Quick Office" (that was actually raised on Symbian devices, but migrated on to greener pastures). And like I said previously: Quick Office is one of those apps that ironically works better on other Mobile platforms vs. on Symbian where it had a longer time to grow in.

Moving no the media player, the X6 high quality screen and good speakers (A Nokia trademark) allows for some pleasurable media consumption. The media player itself is basic fare, with the usual touch control interface containing Music, Radio, Videos, and Podcasts. The inclusion of Shazam is a nice touch, bringing the music capabilities up to snuff with the other smartp

Video quality is smooth, and the resolution on the screen is impressive enough for a smartphone, even for those that are priced much higher than the X6.

Games on the other hand are rather sluggish. Again, it suffers the same fate as the Symbian apps I mentioned previously, it just feels more primitive. This is also accentuated by the weaker processor on the X6 vs. those found in it's pricier competitors. The Nokia X6 has an ARM11 434MHz processor, when the latest offerings now have at least 600MHz, with 1Ghz being the prime spot. But it's important to note that smartphones with those higher end processors also cost much more than the X6.

The Nokia X6 comes equipped with a 5MP camera, which seems to be the standard fare nowadays for smartphones. I decided to compare the image quality with the Nexus One, which also has a 5MP camera. For both phones, I only used the default settings and simple point-and-shoot at the same subjects. Below are the results:

The picture above was taken from the Nexus camera, the shot on the right was taken with the X6 camera. The loss in crisp color is noticeable. Also there seems to be some washed out contrast in the center. The X6 shots look brighter in general, but not as vivid.

The picture to the top was taken from the Nexus One. The shot on the right was taken with the Nokia X6.
Same observations, The Nokia X6 seems to be inferior to the Android phones camera. There is some loss in detail and difference in the coloring. 
This is ironic because Nokia used to be well known for their cameras, with their Carl Zeiss optics. But I guess to release the X6 with such a cheap price, cuts had to be made.

In summary, the Nokia X6 camera is a decent shooter. You can get average quality shots from it, but might take more tweaking with the settings, and there are definitely better alternatives out there if a phone camera is a big concern for you. On the "bright" side, the camera on the X6 comes with twin LED lights for a stronger flash.

Battery life and Connectivity
The X6 sports a standard Li-Ion 1320 mAh battery. It is supposed to give 9-12 hours of talk time (in 2G networks) and 25-30 hours of media usage. We should all know by now that gadget manufacturers exaggerate their battery life claims. The X6 is no different, but in fairness it does have comparatively much better usage from a single charge vs. other smartphones. This is one of the trademark reliability factors from Nokia. For connectivity the X6 has the usual:
3GHSDPA, 3.6 Mbps
WLANWi-Fi 802.11 b/g, UPnP
BluetoothYes, v2.0 with A2DP
No infrared port, but who really uses that anymore. The call quality is terrific even in weaker signal areas. Antenna and signal optimization has also been a trademark reliability factor for Nokia ever since before.

Price, Price, Price. Less than US$500 for a capacitive touchscreen smartphone, with built-in 16GB of memory and a 5MP camera. A solid sales pitch for the Nokia X6. Plus it has Nokia's trusted level of connectivity engineering for smooth calls (sorry Apple). You can easily find better specced phones, running more advanced Operating platforms, but to find one at this price with this good a brand name is nigh impossible. I will safely label the X6 as the budget smartphone, for the average consumer that values phone reliability over fancy applications and interface.

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