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Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Lab: Nokia E75 - phone + email + keyboard

Recently, Nokia has made quite a few important announcements. The first was the launch of the local version of its "Comes with Music" program, where the owner of a new compatible Nokia phone could get one year's worth of (legal) music downloads for free.

Most recently, Nokia announced a new focus on messaging. And not just familiar SMS or MMS, but email as well. Sure, most modern phones have supported email, but Nokia has extended its support by providing a new email user interface. And I had a chance to try out one of these phones, the Nokia E75.

Nokia claims to be able to provide out-of-the-box support for Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes, two common email systems in businesses. It also supports regular protocols like POP3, SMTP and IMAP. Though I didn't attempt to add an email account to the display phone, I did see in its user interface that it not only supported those protocols, but allowed you to see your email from different service providers within the same inbox. This shoud make it convenient for a person on-the-go to view his personal- and work-related emails at a glance. If there are too many messages, you can view only those from a particular service through a drop-down menu.

Of course, providing email support is only one part of the equation. The other important part is the hardware for composing emails. The Nokia E75 solves this with a slide-out keyboard. This is a full-sized QWERTY keyboard, like a mini version of what you'd find in notebooks. This means you get all of the alphabets and punctuation marks, and numbers are a function key-press away.

Typing on this keyboard was a snap. The keys are made of a material that feels like metal and produce sufficient tactile feedback. The closest analogy that I can think of about the keyboard is like what you get at ATMs. The buttons are solid to the touch and depress nicely within their fixed rectangle spaces. There was little chance of me accidentally pressing the wrong key with this keyboard.

Since the phone is turned sideways when used with the keyboard, the screen not only turns correspondingly, but the directional keypad also changes. What used to be the up-down buttons become left-right, and vice versa.

Nokia E75 photo
Besides these, the phone also packs a 3-megapixel camera. Normally, I would expect low quality pictures on an E-series phone, since it's not meant to be used for taking pictures. But with the E75, I was pleasantly surprised. Pictures not only came out clear and rich, but they also looked pretty clear! So now business-type people have no reason to say that their phones take crappy pictures.

The Nokia E75 comes in three colours: silver black, red, and copper yellow. (I found the red to be very trendy!) It is expected to ship in March 2009.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Test drive: Samsung SGH-D980

Samsung SGH-D980
Over Chinese New Year, I had the opportunity to try out Samsung's SGH-D980. It's a dual SIM (i.e. it can accommodate two SIM cards without the need to swap between them), touchscreen handphone with a five-megapixel camera and handwriting recognition.

Unfortunately, after two weeks of using it, I felt underwhelmed by it. This was in spite of the "high-tech" touchscreen. Sure, touchscreen smartphones have been around for a long time, like the early Sony Ericsson P-series. But it was the Apple iPhone that made people really sit up and take note of the technology. And its user interface has become the "de facto" standard.

It seems that people are more inclined to swipe a finger (or stylus, if really necessary) across the screen to scroll, rather than rely on a dedicated scrollbar -- especially one that is as mediocre as the one found in the SGH-D980! It was just impossible to scroll even with the stylus, and its implementation across applications, e.g. SMS and web browser, was inconsistent.

Here's my full review:

Thanks to Samsung and Cheil, I had the opportunity to try out the new Samsung SGH-D980. And good timing too, since it was Chinese New Year, so I could really make use of the camera and camcorder features!

However, the phone's key selling points are its dual SIM capability, handwriting recognition through its touchscreen, and 5-megapixel camera. The dual SIM function means that you can use two SIM cards with the same phone. Useful for home + work or home + leisure (or wife + mistress...). Unfortunately, I only have one SIM card, so I didn't get a chance to test this out.

Like most other Samsung phones, the SGH-D980 features a touchscreen that responds to fingers or the included stylus. While that feature is nifty, I felt that there was still lots of room for improvement. The touchscreen responded perfectly with the stylus, but not so with fingers. I found that a gentle tap would garner no results, so I had to press harder on the screen. And that caused me to worry that too much forceful pressing would one day cause the screen to crack. Where you pressed also made a difference, depending on what you were pressing (icon, keypad, web page link, etc). There were times when I'm sure that I pressed a button correctly, only to see that nothing happened or I got the wrong response.

Where the touchscreen -- and the built-in software -- shone was with handwriting recognition. As an ex-Palm user, I knew that I didn't want to learn a brand new way of writing just to work with a gadget. And thankfully, I didn't need to with the SGH-D980. As long as I wrote in large characters (even bigger than what primary school kids would write), the phone would recognise them. And even if I got them wrong, the software always provided suggestions that were close to what I had written.

In the end, though, I reverted to typing the letters rather than writing them out. It was much faster to type them with the on-screen keypad.

Chinese writers are not left out either. The software recognises Chinese characters as well. Since I only know simplified Chinese, that was what I wrote, and the software recognised my characters very well, again, as long as I wrote large and clearly. I don't know if the software works with traditional Chinese characters.

Its other key feature is its 5-megapixel camera. Having used only a 3-megapixel camera phone, I was eager to see what kind of results I would get with the larger resolution. The pictures I got were certainly larger, so I was better able to appreciate the results. But at that large size, I also noticed something else. Even under bright light conditions when indoors, the pictures looked grainy.

Take a look at this steamboat. Or this table of oranges. (Flickr has resized the images, but the picture qualities are the same as the originals.) Notice the graininess of the steamboat pot at top-left. And see how the white chairs around the table of oranges are speckled. This graininess was definitely not something I expected for an electronics company. I suspect that it is more due to the image processing software rather than the camera hardware (lens, etc) itself. Compared to Sony Ericsson's line of camera phones, the SGH-D980 doesn't hold a candle in terms of picture clarity.

The camera can also take videos at 640x480 size. Personally, I was just glad to finally be able to record such decently sized videos with a camera phone, so I've no issues there. The picture quality was similar to what you'd expect from other camera phones, i.e. don't expect crystal clear images or lack of jerkiness.

I had other peeves with this phone. The most glaring one was its user interface, in particular, the scrollbar. Firstly, I had to find out by trial-and-error that I could scroll only by pressing the up/down button at the side of the phone. Scrolling with the touchscreen is impossible with fingers and ridiculously difficult with the stylus. Why? Because the scrollbar is so narrow! On the screen, it's only about 1mm -- that's millimetre! -- wide. I barely noticed it the first time I used the phone, and when I tapped on it with the stylus, I had to tap so close to the screen's edge that most of the time, I had tapped outside of the touchscreen area.

But it was the lack of consistent application of the scrolling function that really frustrated me. In menus, the up/down button worked as expected. With SMS messages, pressing the up/down button caused the screen to zoom out, not scroll. And the up/down button simply didn't work in the web browser.

On a sidenote, here's a free tip that you won't find in the manual. To use a widget in the sidebar on the home screen, you need to drag it out of the bar to "activate" it. Tapping on a widget does nothing. I feel that this user interface goes against what is implemented with other widgets, i.e. you only need to tap a widget like any other icon/button to activate it.

Other specifications: 3G + Bluetooth (no Wifi), microSD memory card slot, music player (MP3 and AAC formats), video player (MPEG-4 format only). At 97.5x55x16.3mm and 117g, it fits comfortably in a jeans pocket, though ladies might find it a tad bulky and heavy.

Mac users, beware! In spite of the Bluetooth feature, the phone is not supported by iSync, nor is there a plug-in to make it work with iSync. Bluetooth File Transfer works, but the transfer has to be initialised from the phone, i.e. you can't use OS X's built-in Bluetooth File Exchange to transfer files.

Windows XP users: for some reason, I couldn't get Bluetooth file transfer to work with XP, whether initialised by the phone or computer.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend this phone. Sure, the dual SIM and touchscreen handwriting features sound extraordinary, even unique. But all of its other features are sub-par. The scrollbar was already a huge turn-off for me.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nokia launches Comes With Music in Singapore

For about a year, Nokia has had a music program called "Comes With Music". In a nutshell, it allows owners of certain music-enabled handphones to download music from the Nokia Music Store -- for free! No hidden charges, no subscriptions, nothing (except for normal telco data charges).

Now, Comes With Music has been launched in Singapore, making this the first Asian country to enjoy this program. At the launch, new owners of Nokia 5320 XpressMusic and 5220 XpressMusic will be able to download as many songs as they want for the first year after purchase. There are apparently no catches, and everything is as legal as can be.

Find out more at www.nokia.com.sg/comeswithmusic.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Measurement Lab - test your Internet connection

Google now offers a range of tests to check your Internet connection. Recently, it had partnered with a range of independent research institutitions to launch Measurement Lab, a central location that links to these tests.

There are two main sets of tests: for end users and for researchers. For end users, you'll find a list of tests, e.g. for network speed, problems in broadband connections, and BitTorrent traffic manipulation.

The test that will probably most interest techies is the Glasnost test for BitTorrent traffic manipulation, or "shaping". BitTorrent is a common method for downloading large files. It has its legitimate use, but it is its illegitimate usage for downloading movies and software that has most authorities concerned.

In response, many ISPs have been known to meddle with BitTorrent traffic. Through "shaping", these ISPs attempt to limit the bandwidth available, thus hindering the flow of downloads.

With the Glasnost test, you can now check whether your ISP is shaping your BitTorrent traffic to your detriment. The test is relatively painless. Through your web browser, a Java applet is run which simulates BitTorrent data transfers. If you get the "all clear", then your ISP is probably not shaping your BitTorrent traffic. But if you get any red warnings, then there's a chance that something is happening behind the scenes.

Besides the Glasnost test, I tried using the other ones, but all of the servers that operate them appear to be overloaded. As a result, I either had to join very long queues or the servers simply refused to let me get on. Hopefully, this situation will improve with time.

But for now, I'll be content with the Glasnost test.

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