The Tech Bishop’s Guide to Getting the most out of your Symbian Device

Posted on 08/26/2011

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Earlier this week, I received an E7 loan unit from the good guys over at Nokia South Africa, which I get to keep for a month (full review to follow). While setting up the device for my needs, it struck me how dogmatic the whole process has become for me. I attribute this primarily to the need for some ‘fresh’ starts on my N8 Before Anna (BA). For some reason, probably due to my attraction to works in progress, ie beta apps, Symbian^3 BA turned into a bit of stability nightmare. So I have been able to hone the art of the set-up process. It’s like clockwork. Import contacts, import calendar events, set up email accounts. Install core apps, install secondary apps and finally the tertiary apps (yes a hierarchy exists in my app catalogue). Lastly personalisation: wallpaper, theme, profiles.

Symbian Anna Tech Bishop Style

With that in my mind, I have learnt a lot out getting the most out of venerable old Symbian in the last couple of years, and I thought I would share a little bit of that. Much of what I’ve noted here will be specific to my needs of course, and no two smartphone users handle their devices in the same way, but there are general use cases that I hope to touch on and expand a bit. I must also stress that much of this is based on my experience with S^3 on the N8 and now the E7, but some of it will apply to older devices as well.

Device Maintenance

Software Updates

I’ll be honest enough to put my hand up and admit that I’m one of those types that when I ask to check out a mate’s new gadget, I often linger longer than is necessary. One of the things I like to check is software versions. And I’m often shocked and appalled (ok not really) that people are often running firmware that is often two versions behind. There are two ways to maintain a Symbian device, the more convenient over the air (OTA) updates or via desktop software.

Whenever possible, I prefer OTA updates. All Symbian devices have the handy Software Update tool, usually found in the applications folder, or if the folder exists already, under Tools. Software Update informs of application updates, like Maps and Store as well as firmware revisions. The firmware version of your Symbian device can be checked by simply dialling *#0000#, which brings up device info. Under options is the handy ‘check for updates’ option, which like Software Update will notify you of any firmware updates your device has received.

The other option is to make use of Nokia’s Ovi Suite desktop program, which essentially functions like Software Update on your device. I also make use of Nokia Software Updater 3. I have found bizarrely, that the two programs are sometimes not in sync, as was the case with Anna, so I make use of both just to be sure I have all bases covered.

Quick Links: Get Ovi Suite

Watch that battery

One of the sad casualties of the crazy rate of knots of development in mobile is battery life. The days of charging up once a week (!) are history, probably never to be repeated again, as long you use a smartphone.  The pitfalls are everywhere, data hungry apps, desktop grade games, instant messaging, giant screens, and this crazy race for the thinnest device with the first compromise invariably coming with the size of the battery. As such managing your device is paramount just to extract an extra 3 or 4 hours out of your struggling battery.

I find modern screens to be incredibly bright. My wife’s Samsung Galaxy SII is incredible on this front, as is the E7 and the N8 doesn’t match those two but is not too bad. As such , I just turn the screen brightness right down.

I find that I rarely get any emails outside of my working hours, so between 6 PM and 8AM, I don’t have any email accounts syncing, preferring a manual check once in a while. If like me you use Gmail as your primary account (or Windows Live), these services support Microsoft Exchange and true push, and just from experience, I find this is easier on the battery than setting up polling.

Symbian also supports true multitasking which is a blessing and a curse. Some apps are friendly even when left in the background but some apps will suck the life out of your battery. It’s as easy as holding the menu button to call up the task manager to zap any errant applications.

Lastly, I find that it is useful to make use of the power saving present in all Symbian devices when I’m asleep. There’s no need to have the system running at full tilt. Power saving mode can be activated by pushing the power button once and selecting it in the menu that pops up, or by tapping the battery meter, on the top right of the screen. A little notification unit pops up and tapping the battery icon there switches to power saving mode.

If you get really paranoid about your battery consumption, Nokia has developed a handy untility called Battery Monitor, which will give you detailed info about which apps are abusing your precious battery power. Handily it also gives you the option to select a battery level where power saving is automatically activated

Quick Link: Nokia Battery Monitor

Personal Information Management (PIM) data

Email on Symbian is quite simple actually. The major email services, Gmail, Yahoo etc, require just your email address and your password and the app handles the rest. However, even though there is a setting for what is effectively ‘push’, I have never gotten this to work. Ever. So I use Mail for Exchange for my Gmail account, and I set my Ovi Mail account to sync every 4 hours. Setting up an exchange account might be daunting at first, but Google’s instrcutions are relatively straightforward, so much so that I do this out of memory now.

Unlike other platforms, other data associated with your email account, calendar, tasks and contacts, is not synced to your device, which is disappointing. Thankfully there are options available. Mail for Exchange can sync calendar and contacts. However, if you have multiple calendars, Mail for Exchange is a no no, as only the primary calendar is synced to the device. I have a two part process for getting contacts and calendar to device from my Google account.

I sync contacts using the Sync utility, which utilizes the SymcML protocol, in S^3 devices located in Menu>Settings>Connectivity>Data Transfer. Unfortunately Google seem to have removed the setup instructions from their support site but SYmbian blogger Asri al-Baker put together an easy to follow guide over on his blog. What is nice now is that one sync profile can be automated, so I set mine to sync once a day, typically at midday just to ensure my contacts are always in sync.

Reliable calendar sync with GoogaSync

Calendar is a little trickier. Google does not support SyncML but there are third party services that can tap into your Google account like Syncme.se (free and paid option) and GooSync (different levels of paid plans). Unfortunately, only one Sync profile can be automated so I found this useless for me. Instead I discovered a lovely service called GoogaSync. I’m using the trial at the moment and I’m so impressed I will cough up the funds to use it. At $14.99 it is steep but I will derive benefit so I’ll gladly put up the money.

There are other ways to get PIM data onto your device without using cloud based services, the simplest of which is to use Nokia’s Ovi Suite to sync with your Outlook database. I have never used this personally but my mother-in-law has been syncing her contacts and calendar to the E63 from Outlook using Ovi Suite successfully.

Quick Links: Google Sync, Contacts via SyncML, Syncme.se, GooSync, GoogaSync

Media Transfer

There are a number of ways to get media onto and from a Symbian device. The simplest way is to simply connect the device in mass storage mode and drag and drop files. This is a sadly underrated capability that is yet to exist on some platforms like iOS and Windows Phone. On most S^3 phones, USB on the go, allows connecting peripherals, USB sticks and external hard drives as well, and as long as they FAT32 formatted is quite reliable.

If this is too fiddly, Ovi Suite is there to make your life ‘easier’. It is useful for transferring photos and video. I have set Ovi Suite to automatically sync my captured media to designated folders, and since I connect my phone to my laptop at least once and a day, I can rest assured that my memories are always backed up.

Ovi Suite (and Ovi Player) can be used to transfer music to your phone, but I recommend using Media Monkey. It will detect your device as an MP3 player, and syncing to device is a more fluid experience than with the default solutions. It’s also able to populated your albums with album art, and these are transferred with great fidelity to the device.

Quick Links: Media Monkey, Ovi Player

Securing your Data

I found it tricky to remember all my accounts, insurance policy, serial numbers etc, and thankfully the smartphone can help. There are a few ‘Safe’ apps around, Handy Safe, Best Safe, but I prefer to use SBSH’s Safe Wallet. It‘s two separate installations (and purchases), a desktop client and a phone app. Each wallet is password protected, and syncing between desktop and phone is simple.

When it comes to files, I have had disasters with not backing up my documents. I make use of both SugarSync and Dropbox. Each has its own merits, but I feel better not leaving my data to once source. On the phone there is a decent official client for SugarSync. Dropbox is served by a number of free third party apps, at the moment I am satisfied with cuteBox but other clients like Dropian and DropML also get the job done. DropML does offer synchronisation, which I could never get to work, with the app creating a new folder instead of syncing back to the correct one. Once this is fixed I will probably go back to DropML.

Dropbox client cuteBox

Quick Links:  Safe Wallet, Best Safe, Handy Safe,  SugarSync, cuteBox, Dropian, DropML

Getting Productive

All Symbian devices ship with at least a version of QuickOffice that supports document viewing. E-series owners were always lucky enough to be stocked with the full viewer and editing suite, supporting word, power point and excel documents. Us N8 owners joined the editing club after the PR 1.2 update. QuickOffice BA was a bit clumsy unless you were using the keyboard endowed E7 but now with Anna on board, for basic document creation and editing, nothing monumental like crafting the next hit after Harry Potter mind you, I find the app sufficient on the N8. There is version 7, called QuickOffice Pro that adds support for cloud based storage medium like Dropbox and GoogleDocs, but I have yet to be tempted.

Adobe Reader is also on board but is really not suited for touch devices at all. If you are a serious user though there are paid options like Pdf+. Not to be forgotten is the visually stunning Picsel Smart Office, which has the most intuitive and capable Pdf viewer that I’ve seen on Symbian and is no slouch with document handling either. It’s a pricey option.

Task management on Symbian out of the box is useful but not up to the Getting Things Done (GTD) requirements. To be honest I find GTD slightly too much; I seem to spend more time planning my tasks than actually getting anything done. I have found a happy medium where I use basic contexts, work, home, miscellaneous and then divide my tasks as such, So Remember the Milk works for me. There’s the web app, a decent mobile site and reminders of due tasks are sent to my Gmail account half an hour before I’m due to begin the task. And now there’s a beta app for the service called Quick Milk, still in its infancy but does allow access to basic features, creating tasks, adding contexts, and marking as done. There are promises of updates to enhance the functionality of the app, so I look forward to seeing where the developers will take.

Lastly, taking notes is something I find necessary to keeping productive. Not in a media rich vein like what Evernote allows, but something more primitive, plain text. Lists (shopping, movies, music, wines), things to do, ideas for blog post etc. It can be one word, one line or 50-100 words, I need to be able to get it down now and as easily as possible. More importantly are easily accessible backups. For that reason, the built in notes app which only syncs to Outlook is out of the picture. So I use the brilliant SImplenote. It’s cloud based, and I like the cloud. The Windows client I use ResophNotes, lets me save notes to a folder of my choice, which I have designated as my Dropbox folder. Backup sorted. On mobile, I have been fortunate enough to beta test the first Symbian client for Simplenote, SymNote, created by one of my favourite developers Talv Bansal, which is going through Ovi Store’s QA process as I write, and a full review will follow once the app is available for purcahse. SymNote keeps all the principles of Simplenote to its core. It is fast and has a simple, easy to understand interface. And at v1 it already supports all the key features of Simplenote. In fact, much of the planning behind this blog post was done using simple note. Moreover it has an ace up its sleeve, offline support. Highly recommended.

Simplenote on Symbian - Coming Soon!

Quick Links: QuickOffice PRO, Picsel Smart Office, Pdf+ Basic and Pdf+ Standard, Quick Milk, SymNote (coming soon)

Entertainment

I’m an avid Last FM user and even though there is no official client for Symbian, we are well served by the excellent Mobbler. It scrobbles your playlist, and while I don’t make use of the streaming feature, I have read that it is quite relieable. For streaming music, I have been happily using Nokia Internet Radio, which came pre-installed with Anna.

Rock 'n Roll!

Podcasting is quite a big thing these days, and unfortunately Nokia has discontinued their rather excellent Podcast app. Podcatcher, by Sebastian Brannstrom, fills the void. I’ve had no problem searching for and downloading podcasts, though you can manually input the feed URL. Alternatively you can drag and drop podcast files, and as long the genre is correctly captured as ‘Podcast’ these will appear in the default music player under Podcasts.

I mentioned earlier that I use Media Monkey and that it’s rather excellent at finding album art work. If you find that some of your albums still lack album artwork, Sebastian has another rather handy app called Cover Up that uses the Amazon database to fill in the blanks.

Lastly some app called Instragram has made quite a splash on iOS, and photography purists might cringe at the idea of ruining photographs with a myriad of colour and style filters, but the craze has caught on. It has reached Symbian in the form of MoloMe. I don’t like having to go through yet another social network before I can do anything with the photographs, so I use CameraBag, which saves the photos to your mass memory and lets you share them as you please. Not to be forgotten is the rather cool PocketBooth.

Quick Links: Mobbler, Nokia Internet RadioPodcatcher, CoverUp, MoloMe, CameraBag, Pocketbooth

Staying Connected, Web 2.0

As you might know, one of the major gripes mentioned in many reviews of otherwise capable devices like the N8 is that the browsing experience is not on a par with the competition. And it’s true. Browser 7.3 that comes with Anna brings Symbian closer but having experienced first-hand the Android browser on the SGSII, there is merit to the complaint. For a lot of people though I will argue that the Anna browser will suffice but if you want something more, then the leader in Symbian is Opera. Opera Mobile is in direct competition with the Symbian browser and offers an intuitive interface coupled with great performance…minus flash. I actually prefer the UI of the Anna browser but it gives a bit in performance to Opera Mobile. In any case, coming from a data constrained country, I much prefer Opera Mini, which is both faster than the full browsers and saves me data meaning my bundle goes much further. I must also mention Opera Link for those that go with Opera. This free service syncs your nine speed dials and bookmarks across to any device you install Opera’s browsers to, including the desktop version. Handy.

Social networks are here to stay. I’m a twitter man these days, with Facebook on the periphery. Current devices ship with Nokia Social, which is okay for basic use but if you do more than casual interactions on either social network it is inadequate and also in need of a performance overhaul. It is nicely integrated in the system with photo sharing from gallery or camera, you can add events directly to the calendar as well as manually linking contacts to social network profiles, so there is hope. In the meantime though, I use the superlative Gravity for Twitter. Simply put nothing comes close on Symbian and it’s worth the premium price tag. There are other free alternatives, the innovative DifferentTack, TwimGo and Tweets60.

Facebook is served by a number of launchers in the Ovi Store that have wrapped the Facebook website either in Qt  or WRT. Standalone clients include Kasvopus (free), Borg (paid) and the standout app fMobi. If you are a serious facebook user, ignore the rest and jump straight to fMobi. It is simply in a league of it’s own.

fMobi -The Best Symbian Facebook Client

Location based and checkin services are all the rage it seems, though Facebook has just pulled the plug on it’s own Places experiment. I stick with Foursquare, and here the third party app 4squick stomps all over the official app. Nokia Social also has a checkin facility which makes use of Nokia Maps point of interest database, or you can use the latest version of Ovi Maps. This allows checkin to foursquare and other service.

I am not a big user of instant messaging but this is well covered. Third party apps like Nimbuzz and Fring will give you access to Facebook Chat, Google Chat, MSN Live, Yahoo Messenger and their own services. There is an official app for Skype and Nokia’s own offering IM for Nokia. I have simple needs and stick with the tried and tested Whatsapp Messenger.

Lastly, perhaps due to being data constrained, I have become a fan of reading offline. I use Read It Later. It’s really easy to use. On the desktop, I have RIL bookmark in Google Chrome that adds articles to my reading list. I have abandoned RSS and prefer using twitter to aggregate my reading material, and Gravity has an option to send URLs to RIL. Then I use Talv Bansal’s other great app SymPaper (paid app) to do my reading. The app is simply superb and like SymNote is designed around the task at hand. And with a few more updates to come (including another UI refresh) will only get better. There is also a trial version available, limited to loading five articles.

Quick Links: Gravity, Different Tack, TwimGo, Tweets60, Kasvopus, Borg, fMobi, 4squick, Foursquare for Symbian, Read it Later, SymPaper, Nimbuzz, Fring, IM for Nokia, Whatsapp

Life Management

As you can see, the smartphone has catapulted the capabilities of mobile phones to places we could never imagine 10 years ago. This next section is an extension of that and perhaps a niche function but something useful. Life management for me at the moment is made of Health and Fitness, and Expense Management.

I use two apps to watch my health and fitness. Nokia Wellness Diary is a useful app that requires active user management. It keeps track of a number of parameters, weight, sleep, food, steps, and through a reward system offers incentive for continuous input. There are weekly tips and posts on improving wellness and you can also sign up for online coaching if you are looking to streamline everything. For my training, I use Sports Tracker. The app was initialy Symbian only but is now also on Android and iOS. It has everything I need, steps, speed, distance and can pair with a Bluetooth heart rate monitor, with an excellent app and very useful website.

I work off a tight budget and it sometimes gets a bit difficult to keep track of where every cent goes. I use a traditional excel spread sheet approach but have recently discovered a cross platform app called Toshl expense tracker. It filters entries either by date or by tag, supports recurring expenses like contracts and rent, and also budgets. The interface is easy on the eye and very intuitive. There is also a useful website, and data captured on device can be synced back to the website for safe dtorage

Adding an expense (Toshl)

Quick Links: Nokia Wellness Diary, Sports Tracker, Toshl.

Getting Around

In Nokia Maps, Symbian users have an app that should be the envy of many. The current commercial version v3.06 is a great companion, with a nice UI and the ability to update the map data directly from your device over Wifi. If you are feeling brave and you have an S^3 device, I would suggest taking the plunge and installing Maps 3.08. In this version, you now get 6 modules, Maps, Drive, , Guides, Check In, Map Loader and the newest member Weather. It sounds confusing but feat not it is rather intuitive. You can add the Map widget to your homescreen which has the first four apps in one place. The weather app (screenshot below) is gorgeous and like the rest of the interface is rather intuitive, with the time bar below the forecast scrollable. In a  number of countries including South Africa, there is live traffic information and having tested it it works rather well.

New Drive Interface

Nokia Weather

Quick Links: Nokia Maps 3.08 with Weather beta

Context Awareness

Even more niche than Life Management is automation, or context awareness. In this case, certain aspects of phone usage that are regimented can be automated. This can be passive or active.

Nokia Bots, still in beta, is a passive context awareness app. Literally all it takes is installing the app, adding the widgets or bots to your home screen, and it takes care of the rest. The app will learn when you like to set your alarm,  your most used apps, who you like to phone the most and where (currently supports home and work as location, when you toggle profiles, and where appropriate will offer an action to you that you would usually take. Neat.

I prefer a more engaging approach, and use Best Profiles, though Nokia Situations is a free alternative. Just by adding or modifying existing profiles, these days when I wake up my phone presents the weather to me and opens my task app and my email client. While I’m getting ready for work, those apps will be closed automatically after a predetermined time. It knows I’m at work using my Wifi network and switches to power saving mode. When I have meetings, it switches to meeting mode and if I get a call an SMS is automatically sent to the caller to inform them. At meetings my calendar is opened so that I can quickly input the next meeting. When I leave work, power saving mode is disabled. Likewise from between 9PM and 6AM phone is also in power saving mode as I’m likely to fast asleep. All under the control of Best Profiles. A truly smart phone.

Quick Links: Nokia Bots, Best Profiles, Nokia Situations

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And there you go.

We Symbian users have it tough these days. Symbian is no longer top of the tree and Nokia themselves are shifting focus to getting those Windows Phone erm phones out into the wild. But in the interim, we haven’t quite been forgotten, with Anna rolling out worldwide and the next iteration of Symbian the luscious looking Belle announced on the 24th August and to be out on new devices this quarter and on older devices in Q4, hopefully as early as October. The app situation, while not explosive is stable, and I’ve discovered some gems in the last couple of months. And I hope I have shown here that even if in some cases it might not appear as elegant as iOS, Android or Windows Phone, it is possible to have a functional and fulfilling experience with a modern Symbian device.

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