Living with a crippled smartphone: A long term review

Posted on 01/10/2011

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There really is no better feeling than when you first get a brand new gadget, than the anticipation and reward of that first unboxing. Then putting it all together and firing it up. But what about six months later, one year, 18 months? This is no different fot a mobile phone, especially if you are tied down to a long term contract, in my case, 24 months.

Just before the start of the holiday season, having returned the Nokia N8 to Nokia RSA, I was a little bit disillusioned with my mobile setup as I was aproaching 18 months of ownership of the Nokia 6710 Navigator. A lot of this was N8 induced but I had been having niggly issues for months on end. So I got on my thinking cap and set about asking close friends and family some rather personal questions about their mobile habits, driven primarily by rage at the lack of advancement in battery technology. I will still put all that together but the information I received was interesting. Something I noticed was that a person’s choice of mobile phone is rarely dictated by their usage patterns. Essentially it boils down to the fact that a lot of people get phones on contract, and will only think about getting a phone when the network informs them that they are due for an upgrade. So the individual will head on down to the store, and choose something available on their package. Certainly this is how most of my close friends and family do it.There are exceptions of course, especially having witnessed Blackberry mania, driven by BIS and BBM, sweep through the land. Now one could get lucky and get a phone that is suited to their needs but more often than not probably not. I have a friend who got the 6710 Navigator but was actually looking for something just to make calls and send text messages, with the only additional feature they wanted being the navigation. It has not been a pleasant experience for them.

The best way to choose a phone is probably to do a bit of background research, know what you want from a phone, then read some reviews and where possible get some hands on experience. As I said, even if all you want is a simple calling and messaging tool, the last thing that you want is to get a device that is overly complex, so a bit of research can help. Reviews on the other hand can be a bit misleading. Most reviews are a week, two weeks and at most probably four week periods. Four weeks is long enough but anything less doesn’t really provide insight into the long term stability of a device. From my experience, problems only start to creep in after six months and as late as a year. No review will see that coming.

And this is the point that I am at now. I got the 6710 Navigator in October 2009 as an upgrade and I did the rounds with reviews. Initially I had looked at getting the N86, having yet to be convinced by the ouch screen phones then. The N86 really fitted the bill, great camera, at the time great video, a nice AMOLED screen, 8GB flash memory expandable with microSD cards, and the dual slide form factor which still remains my all time favourite. Sadly economics meant that I had to readjust a little and so settled on the 6710 Navigator which got decent reviews all round. Reading customer comments on sites like GSM Arena, the first wave of adopters were satisfied and in some of cases effusive in their praise. I was sold. It was a lot cheaper than the N86 and the only compromise seemed to be the camera (which hasn’t turned out too bad) and the storage capacity. The bonus was that at the time, before free navigation came along, it came with a voice navigation licence for Nokia Maps. I was also sold by the ‘innovative’ zoom bar below the screen, used in Maps, camera, gallery and in the browser.

The first month, I had a capable nippy smartphone with a decent screen, GPS with voice guided navigation, a decent browser, a full email client with exchange support, a surprisingly good 5 megapixel snapper and access to some good apps in the fledgling Ovi store. And this is where the shortcomings of reviews came into play. Remember the zoom bar I spoke of. Pretty neat idea, but in practice a complete disaster. Once the phone got even remotely hot, as it does with prolonged use, and I tend to sit on my phone for hours, the zoom bar went mad, zooming in and out without any contact. Initially it was mild but intensified to the point where the apps using it were unusable. At least with the browser there are options like Skyfire, Bolt, and the super browsers from Opera. But what about the gallery, Maps, and the camera? It was annoying having the camera spontaneously zoom in when wanting to take a photo, especially since it digitally zooms which is rubbish at the best of times. Worse was that when I took it back to the network; what was clearly a hardware issue was passed off as a  software issue. Well two firmware updates have been issued, fixing other bugs but this one hasn’t gone anywhere. Thankfully there was a solution forthcoming, not from Nokia though, which involved disabling the zoom bar. This should have be apparent from the start. Even if the zoom bar was fully functional, it was unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes, and a simple ‘off’ setting would have sufficed.

Beyond the errant zoom, which was the worst of it, the 6710 Navigator has been a challenge. I’m a self confessed geek and am willing to go to the sort of lengths I went through with the zoom bar to get things working, and if anything relish the challenge, but what of Jane and Joe Doe? The first lot of bugs I noticed was in the web browser. When a word was selected from the predictive text menu, the selected word was duplicated likelike thisthis. Really frustrating. Thankfully this was fixed with the first firmware update. By this stage I was using Opera Mini already due to frustrations with the zoom bar but in some instances, like when installing apps from third party sites, the default browser needs to be for device recognition.

The next issue I had was a build issue. The back cover has a matted like finish which was nice design touch I guess. The phone came with a car mount for use when driving and after a week or so I noticed two suspicious looking scratches at one end of the phone. Initially I thought it was my keys scratching the phone only to discover after some sleuthing that it was in fact the car mount that was responsible, with the gap between the scratches the same as that between th teeth that keep the phone in place when mounted. That really is an inexcusable design flaw. Did anyone bother to check this when they decided to ship the phone with the car mount? What was frustrating was that the networks refused to replace the cover even though this was clearly a design flaw and not negligence on the part of the user.

Next, I took issue with the internals, primarily memory, or rather lack of, both RAM and storage. The phone has 128 Mb RAM and 65 Mb user memory. With the former, the phone has just 40-45 Mb free RAM on startup. To compare, the N79 has about 60 Mb, and the ancient E71 and N95 8Gb have around 85-90 Mb free. That amount of free RAM is adequate for casual users, but once you start opening huge pages with three or four apps running in the background, things start closing. On a standard day, I will have music player, mobbler, Opera Mini and gravity running as a bare minimum and that’s half the free RAM gone. What’s worse is that the memory leakage on this phone is horrendous. After five or so days, with no apps running, free RAM is down to about 25 Mb…hopeless for any amount of multitasking. The user space is also a the wrong end of the scale. After six months, with email, text messages, and apps installed, I was down to less than 10 Mb and my phone was really struggling. I had to do a hard rest and start from scratch. To free up space I moved my messages to the the microSD card but this presents it’s own issues. When connecting the phone to a PC via USB in mass storage mode, the phone no longer has access to the memory card and switches storage of messages back to phone memory. I only became aware of this because I have Free iSMS installed and suddenly all my conversations disappeared. This is not the end of the world and involves merely having to go back into message settings and changing it back to memory card but it is a little annoying. I’m sure there must be a way for the phone to remember the setting when the phone is unplugged from the PC.

It’s sounds like I’m just ranting and ranting but it’s just that the issues I have had have been HUGE ones, at least for me, and potential deal breakers. I do have some good things to say about the phone though. Firstly even though the processor is running at 192 Mhz and not the advertised 600 Mhz, the system is reasonably fast. Ovi Maps in it’s current guise is superlative. Yes these ‘ancient’ devices will not be seeing any updates beyond Ver 3.04 with 3.06 seemingly reserved for the the trendy ouch siblings, but it is still a fantastic application. Some people I have spoken with have issues with the UI layout but I find it intuitive and very easy to use. With the number of value added service like weather updates, Lonely Planet, events and more, it makes sense to have front end where one can access these services and the maps. Real world performance is impressive even on 3.03, not getting left too far behind by dedicated GPS units. GPS lock is speedy and the routing algorithms are much improved from the dark days of Nokia Maps.

The camera, while not the best unit ever, is very good. I have taken some excellent photos with it both in general day to day moments but also on holidays. With easy uploading via furtive or pixelpipe, online sharing is  breeze. With a piddly LED flash on board, night performance is horrendous but I do occasionally get somewhat usable snaps. Considering this was not billed as a camera centric phone, it has served me well. When I show the photos to people they are genuinely surprised that they were taken with the phone, which is a vote of confidence I guess.

Something else I have enjoyed using is the music player. Again rather subjectively, I have no issue with the Nokia Music Player. I had an iPod Nano when I got the phone which eventually collected dust. I found the playback quality on the 6710 Navigator more pleasing, and in fact better than the iPod Classic as well. The UI is functional and logically arranged. I compared the Nano to the phone and found no distinct advantage with the dedicated MP3 player. I’m all for carrying around gadgets suited to a task but if I can get better performance from a converged device all the better for me. I was also swayed by the existence of mobbler as scrobbling tracks from the iPod to Last.fm involved having to plug in the iPod to PC. Oh and it also meant I could get rid of  iTunes. The only downer was that the phone only came with a 2GB miscroSD card, but transferring music either by drag-and-drop or using Ovi player (all it’s good for really),  is such a breeze it hasn’t really bothered me.

Nokia Messaging has issues, particularly with Google Sync, but overall I have found it pleasant to use. Certainly the major providers, Hotmail, Gmail etc have always worked fine for me. Syncing with corporate accounts has been pleasant too until the issue with Google sync cropped up. My current solution with Nokia Messaging and Road Sync is working out well for me. Calendar and contacts sync thorugh Google sync works well, and Road Sync handles this beautifully.

The one area were Nokia might fall a bit is in the apps. The App environment is not a primary factor for me when choosing a phone and will most likely remain an afterthought. Most apps I have installed have been deleted very quickly after the fact, but in any case I have 33 apps currently installed, and this after a bit of a cull last week. The apps that I need (best safe, best profiles, mobbler, gravity, nimbizz, pixelpipe, sports tracker etc) are there in Ovi and the rest is just entertainment. Other peoples needs are different but for mine, Ovi has been more than sufficient and I have not felt deprived. On the entertainment side, it does appear that the older keypad phones have been orphaned by Nokia, which frustrates but makes senses as touch screens seems to be where everything is heading.

To tie back to where I started, the past year and a bit has taught me quite bit, patience being the primary lesson. Even though I did my research, at stages I felt like I had a raw deal. My problem I guess is that I like to be on the bleeding edge of gadgetry and with that will always come risks. For anyone, the average Joe and the geeks, I think waiting, and making better informed choices is a must. My friend who was saddled with this phone is a good example. He now uses his business phone primarily. I have learned that there is a case against getting the brand new NOW! It’s important to know what you are getting, what you want from and make that that matches what you can do with it. In this instance I have clearly chosen something that was passable but mostly inadequate for my needs and I will not be making the same mistake again. The extra cash spent on a better specced device would have been worth it in the long term. At the same time I will not be making a rushed choice,; in the context of a 24 month contract six months spent looking around would have resulted in a far more enjoyable experience.

The 6710 Navigator is a phone that I will not be recommending in a hurry to anyone. Not powerful enough for power users, too  troublesome for non geeks, incredibly flawed and crippled. I’ve made it work for me, just, but I just don’t think most people, who really don’t put much thought into a new phone, will be willing to put in the effort, and in my opinion should not have to so ultimately this phone was a poor effort from Nokia.

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Posted in: Nokia, Review, Symbian