Monday, November 30, 2009

Nokia N97 Mini review

Nokia's N-series smartphone flagship N97 has seen plenty of flak this year, deservedly so. Not only was it badly executed and came with outdated internal hardware when it arrived, it was also blighted with bugs - both in its firmware and hardware. The choice of plastic material used didn't help either and the keyboard was one of the poorest in its class. If you wanted a QWERTY based Symbian phone, you would be better off getting a E71, E75 or even the now dated E90.

With the N97 Mini, Nokia aimed to to rectify whatever was wrong with the original N97. They have succeeded - to a certain degree. Comparison pictures may not show it well, but the N97 Mini is significantly smaller than the N97 and feels better to hold and use. The stainless steel material used increases the premium feel of the phone and the weight (138g) gives it a reassuringly solid feel. The display, whilst smaller, is perfect for a device of this size. The sliding screen mechanism is the same but the tilt isn't as extravagant as the N97, which, in my opinion, offers a better view of the screen when opened.

Unfortunately like the N97, Nokia has only managed to cram in three rows of keys. The wrongly positioned d-pad has been removed giving users more room from the left side. Whilst still behind the E75 and E90, the N97 Mini's keyboard is better than the N97 and offers a bit more tactile feedback than the old N97. Even my old HTC Wizard had a better sliding keyboard and that was from a few years ago. At any rate it isn't beyond Nokia's design and engineering capability to fit in a better keyboard as they have done so with the E75 and E90. Quite why they did not is beyond me.

At 3.2 inches, the display is sufficient in size. I was perfectly happy with my old 2.8" touchscreen phones in the past, so 3.2 iches is actually pretty generous. The touchscreen is resistive, which may annoy some people. I have always been a stylus person, preferring to accuracy of a thin poking device or fingernails than a fat thumb, so this isn't a problem to me. A stylus is also useful when using the built-in paint application. I used it extensively when visiting a property last week and jotting down notes on a floor plan. You just can't do that with a capacitive screen, at least not with current devices on the market or until slim capacitive stylus become common (like the rumoured HTC version). The screen itself is lovely to look at and offers good colour saturation and is visible outdoors. Like ancient Nokia phones, there is a ambient sensor located on the top which will adjust the screen brightness accordingly. A proximity sensor also resides nearby.

The battery is a 1200mAh BL-4D variant, which is smaller than the massive 1500mAh battery found on the fatter sibling, and various Nokia none-touchscreen superphones like the E55 and E72. It is good for about a day of moderate use - certainly no where near the powerhouse of my E55 (which can go 3 days of heavy use despite the quicker processor - it does have a much smaller screen to power though). Use the GPS navigator, WiFi and the music player heavily and you will be lucky to last a full working day. An investment of something like Proporta's mobile charging kit is advisable if you are planning to be away from a wall socket for longer than a day.

On the back resides the same 5 Megapixel camera sensor with a Carl Zeiss lens. The lens protector protector is missing this time, though I am sure many N97 owners would be glad to see it go. The dual LED flash is thankfully separated from the lens through a raised divider, which prevents the flash to bleed onto the sensor. You can read my review of the N97 Mini's camera here. It is a good camera for a phone and is more than decent enough for everyday snaps. The usual rules applies here: no cameraphone is capable of replacing a dedicated digital camera, even a cheap sub £100 compact performs better than this. On the plus side, the N97 has some form of manual controls that are usually missing from dedicated cheap compacts.

The N97 Mini is quite a bit more stable than the N97 thanks to a reasonable out of the box firmware. It does freeze occasionally at some points especially when running heavy applications, which I will attribute to the lack of RAM and processing prowess. The processor here is actually slower than the one found inside my tiny E55! Again, it isn't beyond Nokia's engineering capability to put in a quicker processor so I do not understand why they didn't choose so. It is likely that the N97 Mini's product development cycle prevented them from switching to a quicker processor, but the N97 Mini's processor is already outdated - about two years ago! If my Dell Axim X50v from 2005 can have a 620Mhz ARM processor, I see no reason why the N97 and N97 Mini couldn't have the same. It makes no sense to purposely cripple a high-end flagship with a processor that is ideally better off suited powering low and mid-range devices.

Mobbler is also compatible with the N97 Mini, a joy to all scrobblers

Julia Bradbury on my mobile? Count me in!

Because of the processor, the N97 Mini's multimedia capability isn't what it could be. Audio quality is brilliant as expected from a N-series phone and the 3.5mm headphone slot helps. It does suffer from a slight treble roll off. On the other than the bass isn't overpowering which is always a good or bad thing (depending on your point of view). The equaliser should help. In any case audio quality is similar to the E55, which is a pretty damn good audio player in its own right. With 8GB of built-in storage, and potentially another 32GB in the form of microSDHC expansion (once those flash memory cartels decides that their price fixing activities of 16GB cards is no longer sustainable and release the much overdue 32GB version), the N97 Mini is worthy of replacing your dedicated DAP.

As for videos, it supports MPEG4 videos out of the box and has SD TV-out support (which I did not test). There are no support for DivX and XviD files out of the box. Unfortunately it isn't compatible with high bitrate files as well, no doubt due to processing constraint. Third party applications like BBC iPlayer is supported, which is a great thing.

Browsing on the N97 Mini isn't a huge issue thanks to the higher resolution screen. With fonts set to the smallest one can comfortably browse sites without having to zoom in and out constantly with minimal scrolling. Rendering of sites are accurate as you can see from the screensnaps below. The browser also has support for Java and Flash. This means you can view flash videos such as those hosted at YouTube, directly within the browser, though quite why you would want to is another matter entirely.

The GPS receiver is far more accurate and quicker to gain a position than the N97, whether as a standalone receiver of with A-GPS enabled. I had no issues with getting a cold fix under ideal conditions (a couple of seconds with A-GPS enabled). Ovi Maps 3 is pre-installed and maps can be downloaded freely via the Ovi Suite desktop client or Nokia Maps Uploader. As the N97 Mini has a digital compass which allows the map to be rotated based on where the screen is facing, even if stationary. There are various third party applications that are being updated to take advantage of the digital compass - one of them being ViewRanger, an outdoor topographical map viewer/application.

Ovi Maps works in landscape and has polygonal renderings of famous landmarks

The N97 Mini is a good walker companion, though you would better invest in a spare battery!

In-call quality is brilliant. I have to admit I did not test the N97 extensively when it came to in-call phone call quality, but the N97 Mini offers crystal clear voice calls and brilliant reception (despite the metal body). As a phone, you will not be disappointed by the performance of the N97 Mini. Anyone familiar with a smartphone will have no issues with the PIM capability of the phone as well. It can be synced with various desktop PIM applications like Outlook via PC Suite. PIMs can also be synced to the 'cloud', though I do not recommend doing so exclusively when you have a perfectly good working computer to store your data in.

Many love the widget based homescreen, but I detest it. I prefer the 5800XM standby screen.

Ovi Store carries about 99% less applications than what is actually available on the Symbian platform. It is slowly getting there though.

The paint application is rudimentary at best, but works well for jotting quick notes

Plenty of third party applications including Gravity, a Twitter client; Fring - the first to bring Skype video calling to a mobile platform and the multi tasking compatible Spotify client (not shown).

The N97 Mini is a much better phone than the N97. From a design point of view, it is what the N97 should have been in the first place, and if I had to choose between the two, I would have chosen the N97 Mini even despite the smaller built-in storage. Fortunately I am not in the position to choose as the N97 Mini have also inherited the internal hardware weakness of its bigger older sibling and for that alone I cannot recommend the N97 Mini. It is actually a rather nice piece of kit hampered only by Nokia's reluctance to provide it the power it so craves.

The N97 Mini retails for £399 and is available now.

Thanks to WOMWorld/Nokia for providing the review unit.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Feringgi Bay, Edgware Road

I have been meaning to write something about this Malaysian restaurant ever since I was introduced to it in summer. The restaurant is located in Edgware Road Colindale, a short walk from the old Oriental City building where they once did business there as Oriental Garden.

Feringgi Bay's name comes from the popular tourist destination Batu Feringgi beach strip on the northern coast of Penang, Malaysia. I have been there a couple of times and while it is a lovely strip, it is pretty much a tourist beach. But enough of that.

The service here is brilliant if a bit slow. Once our main meals arrived about 15 minutes apart which I found unacceptable. Fortunately delays like this does not occur too often and seem to be isolated to whenever I order the Nasi Lemak. The staff are courteous and friendly throughout.

The prawn noodles is pretty authentic, and probably second only to the one served in the resurrected Kopi Tiam (now on Charring Cross after a series of disaster expansions...). The Nasi Lemak is pretty good as well, though I wouldn't classify the sambal as overly authentic. The portion is generous, a snip at about £6.50. Other recommendations includes the Laksa, Char Kway Teow and Tofu Rojak.

A meal for two with starter and drinks generally come out at about £24, which is pretty decent. You will do much worse with some of the newer and trendy high end oriental bar/restaurants in the West End.

It is definitely worth the effort of making a visit. There are a number of bus services to Edgware Road, including the 142 from Brent Cross and 32 from Kilburn. They are open daily except for Wednesdays. Do note that they get very busy at times (it isn't a huge restaurant) and are popular with the local oriental community.

Address: 225, Edgware Road, Colindale, London

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Top albums of the 00s

And so it begins...

British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power (2003)

This, my friends, is my pick for the greatest album of the 00s. It sits up there with greats like OK Computer and The Wall. Timeless and filled with quality from its short intro chant to the epic 14 minute post rock 'Lately'. A brilliant album from one of the greatest British band of all time (yes, I went there) and one whose gig you have to at least attend once before you die. A modern masterpiece this is. It is such a shame that many are still left unenlightened by the band and album, but I am sure this will eventually be remembered as a modern classic.

Other brilliant albums of the 00s (in no particular order):

Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out Of This Country (2006)
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton - Knives Don't Have Your Back (2006)
Metric - Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)
Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
Black Box Recorder - The Facts of Life (2000)
Emmy The Great - First Love + Edward E.P. (2009)
LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
Arcade Fire - Funeral (2003)
Radiohead - Kid A (2000)
KT Tunstall - Eye to the Telescope (2005)
The Go! Team - Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2005)
Sigur Rós - Ágætis Byrjun (2000)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Evolution of the Walkman

I bought my first Walkman in the mid-90s. It was a great player and one that changed the way I listened to music forever (sorry I can't remember the model number). It even had a microphone attachment thingy that I used to interview people for a school project. I wasn't loyal to the brand though. My first portable CD player for example was a Panny and so was my first MiniDisc player (SJ-MJ70).

My dabble with the Walkman brand continued with Sony's line of extremely sleek and portable MiniDisc players (the 100 hour battery life MZ-E900 was my favourite - in fact I had two of them). MD may be derided in North America, but it was a success in Europe and Asia. Hell, as late as last year large supermarket chains in the UK were still selling MiniDisc blanks, so please US-centric blogs spare us your condescending opinions. When I finally decided to freecycle my blanks two years ago it wasn't difficult to find anyone willing to collect them. In fact I had to divide up my collection in batches and give it out equally.

Sony had been a bit slow and behind when it came to their digital players though. The first DAP Walkman I owned was the A818 - which in many ways was close to perfect. It was a no-nonsense player, with an intuitive UI and usable button system, is drag-and-drop compatible, highly pocketable and offers a great battery life. The S630 and S730 series were merely a natural progression of the A810, and the X-series blew me (and judging by your comments, you readers as well) away when it came to the sound quality.

Sony are on a roll when it comes to their reinvigorate Walkman brand. Unfortunately their marketing team seems to operate in a 1990s fashion. Where is that A840 that was released in Japan some time ago? Judging by the comments on this blog and many others, many are waiting to hand over their hard earned cash for it. So why is Sony Europe dilly dallying in releasing what could be their best ever Walkman model over here, in a year that is obviously historically important to the brand?

Top 10 list of stuff

I've just realised that the end of the noughties is about a month away - so I guess it is time to bring up the top 10 lists of stuff. The next couple of weeks I will attempt to create lists after lists so please bear with me. It is stupid, but hei, everyone's doing it! It will be a great time waster too, perfect five minute posts I can slot in in-between house moving and stuff.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

fring introduce Skype video calling on Symbian platform

It must be a wondeful time to be a owner of a Symbian S60v3 and S60v5 (Symbian^1) powered device. A day after we finally see the release of the Symbian Spotify client, fring has released a new version with Skype video calling functionality! The new feature is currently only available on selected Nokia models for the time being (N97, N97 Mini, 5800XM, X6, N95, N95 8GB, N82) though support for more models will be added.

I tested the function on the N97 Mini and it really works well and seems to be stable enough, at least over a WiFi network. The video quality seems reasonable enough with a frame rate that is usable enough, though it does seem laggy. The screenshot above is taken whilst video calling to my cheap as chips Creative Live! Optia which has a VGA resolution and lacks a macro mode.

Now lets hope a video calling compatible client for the E55 is being planned. In the meantime if you have a compatible device, head to and download the latest client.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Spotify for Symbian launched

Spotify has finally release the mobile client for the Symbian S60 platform, the most popular and widely used smartphone platform. Models supported includes the Nokia E52 (I suspect the E55 is supported but will test it later), E66, E71, E75, N86, 5800XM, N97, Sony Ericsson Satio and Samsung i7110, Omnia HD; and more. A list of supported devices is available here. Listeners would also be able to listen to Spotify whilst e-mailing, surfing social networking sites or even whilst hillwalking thanks to the multi-tasking nature of the OS.

Available to premium subscribers, the client will allow subscribers to stream music, download 3,333 tracks for offline mode and sync playlists with the desktop client. In fact as a premium subscriber, you can have offline playlists on up to three mobile or desktop devices. Premium costs £9.99 a month and allows the subscriber to stream music at a higher bitrate, use the mobile client and download music for offline mode.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nokia N97 Mini camera samples and review

The N97 Mini features the same camera module as the Nokia N97. The lens here are branded as Carl Zeiss, though I suspect that Nokia are simply licensing the brand. Still who am I to know. Anyway...

The camera here is a 5MP auto focus module with macro capability. Like the N97, the camera application isn't intuitive to use and is slow to boot and explore around. You do get some form of manual control in the form of ISO adjustment (labelled as 'Low', 'Medium' and 'High'), white balance control, sharpness, contrast, colour tone and exposure, though you can't manually control the shutter speed. Three resolutions are supported: 5MP, 2MP and VGA. And like any modern Nokia smartphones, co-ordinates can also be embedded onto images and videos in the form of GPS geo-tagging. There is also a dual LED flash module, which is clearly separated from the lens by a raised frame, so none of the flash bleeding malarkey here as suffered by plenty of N97 owners.

Here are some unedited photographs taken with the Nokia N97 Mini. Unfortunately Blogger does not support resolutions as high as 5MP, so these are resized to 1024x768 resolution. Apart from that they are essentially untouched, and will give you an idea of what to expect from the N97 - as far as the camera goes. While certainly no match for my G9 and modern digital compacts, it is good enough to be used as a quick snapper - as long as there is sufficient natural light source. It works well at picking up low light but suffers from loss of detail due to the way N97 Mini process the image. Macro performance is pretty good, just like the N97. Flash performance is reasonable, but do try not to use it as much, even if it is an improvement over the N97 (again, no bleeding here).

Remember the T28? Brilliant no-nonsense phone that was.

Colour saturation could have been better

The N97 and N97 Mini's camera works best outdoors

The iconic "Barcelona Chair" by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Here are some 100% crops:

Macro mode f/2.8 ISO 528, 1/17 sec

f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/333 sec

f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/1000 sec

f/2.8, ISO 174, 1/33 sec

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Spotify for Symbian, where art thou?

It has been more than two months since we saw the video of a functional S60 Spotify client. So, one serious question to developers at Spotify HQ: why are you ignoring the largest market out there?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Chrome OS

The amount of attention by self proclaimed experts on Chrome OS is rather unnerving. For those who do not know, Chrome OS is a Linux distribution filled with adware, basically a trojan horse for Google's advertising business - minus the bits that makes Linux great. You may realise that I have adsense on this blog, but you can always adblock it if you want to. With a Google controlled OS and browser, you may not even have a choice.

If you want an open source operating system, stick with OpenSolaris or many of the billion Linux distributions out there. Also harddrives are cheap as chips, so I see absolutely zero reason to trust your data to the "cloud". Anybody who is excited by this and "cloud computing" ought to open up their eyes and realise they are basically putting their data into the hands of a corporation, whose interest lies with their shareholders and no one else.

E55 successor wishlist

You have read my positive review of the Nokia E55 (if not what are you waiting for?). It is easily the best smartphone I have ever had the pleasure to use or own. But nothing is perfect and there are some gripes that I would like Nokia to address in any future successor of the E55/E52.

Camera with macro mode
This is essential for an enterprise-class phone. It just makes so much sense to be able to capture a business card and let the phone's OCR software work its magic, like with the E71.

E51 durability and material
I am sure I am not the only one here willing to sacrifice the lightness and thinness of the E55 if it meant we can get our stainless steel material (and thus bomb proof durability) back. The E55's built quality is fine, but is still a step backward compared to the E51.

HVGA or VGA display
Symbian already supports multiple resolutions so I can't see why the E55 couldn't have a HVGA or VGA display. QVGA no longer cuts it, even on a 2.4" screen. I do not care if you can't see a difference - I can and so can many others.

TV-out makes so much sense for a business phone, I can't believe no one else is demanding it. I am sure many users would prefer to simply connect it to a hotel room's LCD display and use a wireless keyboard to work on QuickOffice or their e-mails if only the feature was present. I know I would.

Move the charging slot to the bottom
The microUSB slot on the E55 is placed on the left hand side making the phone an ergonomic nightmare whilst it is charging. Moving the slot to the bottom is just a basic design common sense. It will also make the phone cradle compatible.

Better bundles
With only a 2GB microSD card and not even a faux leather case or phone strap, Nokia is really taking the piss when it comes to the E55 bundle. A 4GB expansion card, at minium, is expected at this price point.

Timely firmware upgrades
I am fine with the current firmware, but I am disappointed with the way Nokia Care UK treats its customers. It has more than a week since the release of the v22 firmware, and yet the new firmware has yet to be made available on UK simfree model.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

ThinkPad X100e

Whatever Lenovo's excuse is, the new ThinkPad X100e isn't a real ThinkPad at least design wise.

Whilst retaining some form of identity to the classic and timeless ThinkPad design (the red TrackPoint), the X100e basically looks just like yet another netbook It has a chiclet style keyboard, first made popular on notebooks by Sony, meaning it lacks the popular keyboard that made the ThinkPad brand what it is. The hinge also does not look sturdy enough, but one should not judge merely from press shots. It also does not appear to have the ThinkLight functionality. Also, whoever decided that the new ThinkPad X100e should be available in anything other than black should be shot and disemboweled.

Still it looks okay, and the specs seems competent enough - but I will stick to my guns that it does not deserve the ThinkPad branding. It looks like an Ideapad project that marketing decided to simply slap the ThinkPad branding on. Ugh, I am starting to sound like a Luddite, but whatever.

More here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nokia N97 Mini unboxing

Tom from WOM World Nokia surprised us with something that truly caught us off guard this evening. A mariachi band, camera crew and a N97 Mini, as part of Nokia Human Research Department Experiment! I was expecting something when Tom called this afternoon, but certainly not this! Truly entertaining though I suspect our neighbours may not be too amused! Not that we are too bothered as we will be moving soon.

BTW, thanks to Tom, Ricardo and the guys and gals from Wom World for traveling all the way to Watford to hand deliver the phone. Also massive thanks to mariachi the band for entertaining us. Wonderful stuff.

Here are the videos of the Nokia Human Research Department Experiment ads on the phone:

The Museum -Experiment #022

The Restaurant - Experiment #016

Brilliant isn't it? I wonder if the video the camera crew captured today will end up as an ad somewhere??? Hmm...

I also had a chance to play around with the N900. The battery was dead (why am I not surprised?), so no opinion about Maemo 5 today. Based on my previous experience with the N800 and N810, it will be good. Regardless, the N900 was solidly built despite having too much plastic for my taste. It is also pretty darn thick and heavy. It isn't something I would replace my E55 as I see it as more of a smaller alternative to a netbook than a smartphone.

As I mentioned before, the N97 Mini is basically an improved version of the N97. It is basically what the N97 should have been in the first place. It feels much smaller, slightly lighter and have a better built material. Unfortunately it also inherits some of the N97's flaws - mainly the limited RAM, slow processor and bizarre keyboard layout (the keys are better spaced and have a better tactile feedback). Still it is a lovely looking phone with a good 5Mp camera, 8GB flash, an assorted of connectivity including GPS receiver, and a brilliant operating system.

I hope to have a review sometime next week. Anyway here are some pictures.

Update: At least two other bloggers has been visited by Tom and the chums from Wom World:

Ruper Howe has an excellent video of the band playing at a pub in Soho.

And Christopher Stobbs has some lovely unboxing pictures which just puts my post to shame (really ought to get a better camera).