SUMMARY: Nokia’s N70 is a reasonable all-rounder; not ‘the best’ on any single feature, but an excellent ‘Swiss-Army Phone’. Yes, it combines the functionality of all seven creaky old gadgets in this photo: phone, digital still camera, PDA, video camera, FM radio, MP3 player, portable TV – and it’s roughly the same size as that old mobile phone! No, it can’t possibly outperform them all. You need to think about what you really want it for, and go in with your eyes open.
On 27th September 2004, when Vodafone promised a massive 3G assault for Christmas (2004) with the launch of several new models, I wrote in a blog entry at the time:
as soon as I can get a phone incoporporating a tiny 3.2 megapixel camera that also takes my SD memory card from my other gadgets, I’ll get one.
Well, over a year later, I decided it was time to jump. Sure, there’s always something better just about to be released, and no, I didn’t choose 3.2Megapixels or care about SD memory: I decided that the Nokia N70 had pretty much all the attributes I wanted (expandible memory, FM radio, 3G, video, sync with my desktop calendar and contacts), and in the right form factor (‘candy bar’ design, quite compact). Besides the ads were practically offering to pay me to take the damn thing: so I got it.
On the right is the obligatory picture of the gadget itself, courtesy BestBuyMobilePhones.
Years ago I had abandoned a Nokia 7650 cameraphone: just like the ancient Rio MP3 (sneaked into the photo above) that was a UK first, we had the UK’s first camera phone, and in fact sent it with Lorenzo Gariano up the Matterhorn for a live webcast). Alas, the 7650 was too big, and sending text messages was a far worse experience than, say, using the now-classic Nokia 3330, so I downgraded. But here we are practically in 2006. So, still appreciating that a dedicated ‘simple phone’ was undoubtedly better at being, well, a simple phone, I was in need of an ‘all-rounder’ that would serve as an ‘on-demand’ tool that could help me avoid carrying extra gadgets: yes, the “Swiss Army Gadget” that many others have talked about.
There are already so many reviews of the N70 on the web that I don’t need to repeat what most of them say (and you should search around before buying, obviously). Instead, I want to take a different slant, kind of like I’ve done before in my August 2003 review of the iPaq 5550/5555 (and a September 2003 followup), and my July 2004 blog entry entitled “Truth about Tablet PC” (and a November 2004 followup on Corante entitled Comfort Zones: More Road Warrior’s ‘Truth About Tablet PC’). In the latter article I wrote:
…. 3 different lean-forward “zones”, as follows:
- arm reach (typical desktop and laptop use)
elbow reach (typical tablet and PDA use)
- shoulder reach (typical phone use)
In a nutshell the Tablet PC can be used in a comfort zone that is more like that of a PDA, which makes it not only suitable for pretty private and comfortable use in crowded circumstances like those you encounter on an airplane, but also for taking notes at meetings
Looking at that ‘comfort zones’ commentary when writing up this article today reminded me that there are some specific factors you need to consider when purchasing a ‘modern multi-purpose mobile (smart)phone’, and which don’t get mentioned in many reviews, so I’ve written them down below:
1. Grab without thinking: If you have to think twice about whether to carry a gadget with you on Errand X or Trip Y or Meeting Z, then it’s too big. The N70 is an absolute winner on this front: it’s always in your pocket, without a second thought.
2. Thumb-centric vs pen-centric operation: if you’re making the jump to a smartphone (i.e. phone with PDA functionality), one key attribute you should consider is whether you prefer to enter short items with your thumb or with a pen (touch-screens can do both, but a thumb is too inaccurate so let’s just say thumb vs pen). Another way to think about this is one-handed (hold gadget + use thumb) vs two-handed (hold gadget + use pen) operation. For many applications, pen-centric is great, and for others, it gets in the way. I decided to move to thumb-centric because it fit better with my daily usage patterns.
3. Satisficing beats moving goalposts: when Nobel-prize winner Herb Simon invented ‘satisficing’ in 1957, he meant (among other things) that people had a great gift for triming a search space opting for solutions that were less-than-optimal but ‘just good enough’. Since Moore’s Law means there will always be a better gadget around the corner, and indeed the special-purpose gadgets (MP3 player, camera, etc) will get better even faster than an all-purpose Swiss Army Gadget), you just need to decide on your threshold of ‘just good enough’ acceptability for the features you want, and go for it.
So yes, the N70 is a good all-rounder. The era of ‘jaw-dropping surprises’ is over: the fact that the N70 can do so much of what it does, and so well, ought to amaze us, but our expectations keep growing and we are increasingly hard to impress.
Finally, what are my biggest gripes? Just two:
1. If you are a text-messaging fanatic, you will be unhappy with the N70: the keys are too small, and, most importantly, the ‘Clear/delete backwards key’ is in the wrong place, certainly for right-handed users. For me, this is an acceptable tradeoff given the good screen size and compact size of the phone (all things considered).
2. Scrolling through news/articles/messages/emails of more than, say, 30 lines in length is annoying because there is a ‘discontinuity jump’ as each new segment is rendered, which makes it hard for your brain to ‘do the right thing’, the way it can when scrolling even longish articles on most PDAs. This is not so good: it means au revoir to those New York Times articles perused using AvantGo on my PDA (so I may have to keep the PDA for that reason!).
Just to expand on that last point a little, I read a lot of news on my PDA. As I wrote in a commentary about ‘WSJ Quits Avantgo’:
AvantGo differs from typical (automated) RSS feeds in that it is a ‘clipping service’, which offers a ‘sensibly-rendered’ variant of news feeds that look quite nice on a PDA, and contain all the important content. Not as rich as the full web experience, but not as impoverished as many RSS feeds.
Well, I note that AvantGo at last offers RSS feeds), so I’ll have to think a little about the best way to deal with ‘news on the go’. For short clips/headlines, news browsing via the embedded HTML/XHTML browser on a 3G Nokia N70 is fine. For longer stories, I don’t think the N70 makes the ‘above threshold’ cut.
So, there you have it. Now to deploy my new productivity tool (by ignoring it).
[UPDATE: Don’t get me wrong, this is one gorgeous phone! By ‘ignoring it’ immediately above I mean ‘letting it blend unobtrusively into my activities, without fuss’. I’ve got a trial of the OrangeTV service with about a dozen channels – I regard this as a cute ‘proof of concept’; ‘it works’, with minor hiccups as you might expect, but I doubt whether I’ll actually want to pay £10 monthly for the service;]
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