Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nokia Lumia 800: the first few days

The Lumia 800, the Windows Phone 7 powered smartphone is finally on sale in Finland. What could I do but to try to get my hands on one and report back my findings and experiences. Overall, I'm quite pleased, although I see that a lot must still improve for these devices to hit home in a big way.

I managed to get my hands on a black Lumia 800 with a fun lime soft casing. This was the combination I had in mind already when getting the N9, but never really followed it through. Lime turned out to be a great colour that complimented MetroUI's funky and fresh look, although I was left hoping for a little extra punch. Theming WP7 doesn't really exist (out-of-the-box anyway), as you can really only change the colour of the tiles and turn the black background into white. If you want to have more control over customisation, I suggest you get the N9.

Glad to see emphasis is on the aesthetics (again)

I won't spend any time describing the exterior of the device, as its the tried and trusty N9 casing with an extra camera shutter button and a differently placed hole for the flash. Everything about the physical form of the device raises feelings of respect, complimenting the smoothness of WP7. Perhaps even a little more than the same casing did for MeeGo-Harmattan on the N9. WP7 and the casing are a great fit, and the Lumia 800 joins the N9 in the league of devices that bombard the senses with the most pleasant sensations. Bravo, Nokia. Once again.

Even though the customisation options of the operating system on the Lumia 800 are practically 0, the customisation on the N9 is also debatable. Sure you can do all sorts of things in theory, but in practice most people have aimed to keep the core look and feel of MeeGo-Harmattan untouched. And its easy to understand why: MeeGo-Harmattan is a beautiful experience as it is. Windows Phone 7 succeeds in the same feat. Screen items swush, slide and stack on your screen with no stutters or hickups, and soft sounds of the keyboard pat your eardrums with the most pleasant sounds. As a comparisant I regard my HTC DesireZ's system sounds as too interruptive, loud and all around cheap sounding. I think this is true for all Android devices regardless of manufacturer. Leave it to Nokia to spice the ringtone selection up with some familiar sounds and melodies, although Nokia fared much better in this category in its devices from around 3-4 years ago.

Half-baked cakes all around

When comparing to MeeGo-Harmattan, WP7 feels much more finalised which might not come as a surprise to anyone. Everything is in place, nothing feels like a placeholder and a lot of functionality MeeGo-Harmattan seems to go for is already place here. On board the Lumia 800 Nokia ships the latest version of WP7, Windows Phone Mango which hasn't really changed since Tango as I last saw it on the HTC Trophy. Undoubtedly 99% of the new features took place "under hood", which is to be expected anyway in a system so keen on its UI design guidelines.

Windows Phone 7 is by no means, however complete. Funnily enough some gripes I had about MeeGo-Harmattan also apply here. For example, I complained about not being able to adjust font size in the browser on the N9. That really can't be done here either. The second gripe was the refitting of the text to fit your zoom level. This doesn't exist either in WP7 or MeeGo-Harmattan. Also, I was quite fustrated with constantly twisting and turning the device, as only a few applications and functions supported landscape mode. Relating to this, I found it odd that the landscape keyboard doesn't stretch out to invade as much screen real-estate as it could, but instead crammed itself into the middle of the screen. Why is it like this, Microsoft? Is it a resolution thing?

 WP7 makes a big deal about location awareness as well, but sadly the Lumia 800 doesn't know what's around to drink and eat, but will give you locations (that might be restaurants and bars) that you can check in to. This seems like a halfway implemented idea. For some reason my initial response to this was the feeling of being sold a product that doesn't even have all the features it was sold on. Funny I didn't get this feeling with MeeGo.Other similar nigglets include (but aren't limited to) app availability in my region, lack of control over autocorrect functions and missing voice recognition in my language.

The killer thing about Windows Phone 7 for me still seems to be the integration of Facebook and Twitter services into the system. I also happen to agree, that "having an app for that" has very rapidly become part of the problem instead of the solution on smartphone platforms. Having a separate app for everything on an operating system that doesn't support multitasking is just madness. Its like being given all the keys to a huge house, but instructed to close and lock each door after leaving the room, even if just popping out to the kitchen to get a cup of tea before you continue reading your bedtime book. With these smartphone platforms it just never becomes possible to leave a door open. Windows Phone 7 attempts to address this problem by allowing you to view your friends' Facebook images and status updates in your address book, in addition to the traditional options of calling or texting them. This is my number one favourite feature of WP7. Bravo Microsoft.

The many faces of WP7

So just how well does Windows Phone 7 fare against the competition? This is an incredibly difficult question to answer, as WP7 is aimed at people moving up from "dumbphones" to smartphones. This means that functionality in WP7 will be limited, although time will tell how much functionality the ever growing selection of apps for WP7 will bring. WP7 is also strongly stylised and focuses to achieve so tightly defined goals that I imagine it might appear alien or plain unfriendly for some people.

The Lumia 800 comes packed with two great music apps, that really bring life to the entire device in a whole new way. Using the Lumia 800 can be like a visually appealing music video, pulsating with youth and trendiness. The downside to this is that older users force-switching over from Symbian with business purposes in mind might feel like they're getting the raw end of the deal here. Many business users will have their contacts and other data synced to one cloud service or another, but for those moving up from Nokia's pre-Symbian3 phones will have a tough time. At the time of writing this, you can only transfer contacts to WP7 over bluetooth if you have a S3 device. Nokia Suite doesn't work with WP7, and Zune can't manage your personal info on your phone in any way. I don't understand why Nokia was in such a hurry to announce WP7 partnership, only to ship a device so totally incompatible with any previous Nokia devices. Way to piss off loyal customers I think.

I wouldn't be surprised if the reasons described above explain why operators are so sceptical about WP7's chances: business customers don't care how much their phone bill is, but they have to feel they're getting services worth paying for. New smartphone users are a huge target market, but the amount of confusion related to transferring your data over from previous devices might be too much of a hassle, as operators certainly believe customers will return to them for assistance.

Final thoughts

For me WP7 is an opportunity for hedonism, so I choose to enjoy all the things I can about WP7 and not feel so bad about the shortcomings. I'm also lucky to not be really affected by its downsides, as I have all my data in the cloud, and I'm a bit of a social media junkie. So it caters to my needs quite nicely. Comparing to MeeGo-Harmattan, I feel there's more to do on me on this device. The ability to view desktop versions of websites has a big influence on this aspect. Windows Phone 7 is something new and different, albeit incomplete. If I had to describe WP7 in a word: its fresh. Let's see how long this impression lasts.

WP7 is a good choice if you aren't too business or productivity orientated (note: I haven't tried out Office365 yet). We just need to hope that big men Elop and Ballmer won't give out any more ridiculous statements about their own fails with the platform, blaming sales staff or marketing or what have you for bumps in the road. They are in my view the greatest threat right now to the credibility of the platform.

A great testament of this CEO tomfoolery is Elop's promise of bringing "added Nokia value" to this product, which sadly is exactly 0. There's nothing especially Nokian about the software in this product, and that is a truly sad thing to realise. Although the reinvention of Nokia Music's mix radio brings some comfort. The bottom line remains, however: If you see another manufacturer produce a WP7 device with a better screen, processor or some other factor, go for it. You won't be missing out on anything.

Sadly he king no longer stands on its own two feet -- contrary to Elop's promises.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Asus Zenbook UX21 - First few days with it

My Asus Zenbook UX21 arrived yesterday, and its been a great experience so far. I have little experience with Apple products, but the feel of a premium product is created by numerous details both large and small and you are constantly reminded of them.

The problems mentioned in previews regarding the trackpad have all been fixed in the final commercial product, all you have to do is click "Yes" on first boot-up to apply Asus updates. The second gripe previewers had was with the keyboard and there I can see what they might've been talking about. In contrary to previewer's, I would consider the keyboard to be too stiff rather than have too much flex like often reported. We might be describing the same phenomenon, though, as I too suffer from the occasional letter being left out when typing, just like previewers warned. My biggest problem with the keyboard is the placement of the "Del" and "Power" keys right next to eachother. Luckily a custom Asus dialog screen pops up when you press the power key as to make sure you didn't press the key by accident.

Sound from the speakers is very good. I'd still much rather have headphones connected, but for the occasional video viewing they're really great. I can also listen to music if no headphones are available with comfort.

The "instant on" feature is superb, and now a necessity to me on devices as portable as this. Apple people will be more than familiar with this function: it enables the device to come back from hibernation into usable state in around 2 seconds. Just close the lid, pack it away and forget about it. The device has been designed for this use, and so the battery will last for about a week in this state and should the battery run out it will do a quick backup of everything going on so you won't lose your precious work.

Previewers criticized also the viewing angles especially on this 11.6" Zenbook, but I must say that doesn't matter the least to me. I'm glad that the dude sitting next to me on a train won't be able to just gaze over and see what's on my screen. I don't think anyone watches movies off these things, at least not with friends. The screen could be less glossy, but its not as glossy as my old laptop that actually made using it hard in most situations. So again, I'm very content.

Ideally, I would've wanted to get a netbook with built-in 3G,  but soon noticed that these seem to have gone out of fashion. Finnsh operators still have some models in their selection, but I wasn't in the mood of making a 2-year contract just to get my hands on a 3G-enabled device. Luckily my DesireZ and N9 work fantastically as WiFi hotspots, effectively negating the need for a 3G SIM-slot.

Performance wise the machine is great. I'm a big Starcrat 2 fan, and I'm happy to report that SC2 runs decently on Medium settings applied automatically by the game after hardware inspection. If you want to stay on top of what's happening in the game, you might as well switch to "Pro" graphics settings, which means "Low" settings for those unfamiliar with SC2 progaming. ;) Installation of SC2 is always a 2-4 hour feat, as first you download the installer and then you apply all the updates to the game. Thanks to the solid state drive in the UX21, the game installed in record time, clocking just under 3hrs. This is a good hour faster than on my desktop PC. Bravo.

I have no opinion whether this netbook is a "MacBook Air killer" or anything of the sort, but I feel like I've got pretty much everything I would've wanted from the Air and more: premium feel, premium look, but all the app compatibility I could dream of. Not to mention support for accessories: I depend on no single manufactuer for them, everything proprietary has been compensated by Asus by providing the required dongles with the sales package. When comparing the UX21 to other ultrabooks out there right now, Asus fends distinction for itself by the premium design and manufacturing materials. Other ultrabooks at this moment look like plastic toys compared to this thing, even if they cost almost as much as the Zenbook.

Off to install Jolicloud on this thing.

Links to reviews of the Asus Zenbook UX21: 

Anandtech's in-depth review into Ultrabook technology and how the UX21 fares in this regard:

Introduction to the UX21 and a little about the media playback on this device:

UltrabookNews' great written review: