Saturday, June 14, 2008

Nokia N78 Review - Part 1: Hardware, Design and Connectivity

Rafe looks at the latest Nseries deivice from Nokia - the N78. This part of the review considers the hardware, design and connectivity elements of the N78.


The N78 is the new entry level product for the Nseries range, but this should be set in the context that all Nseries phone should really be considered high-end - it is just a matter of degrees. The device can be seen as a direct replacement for the Nokia N73, far more so than was the case with the N82, which was really all about the camera. I think there's every chance that the N78 will match the pattern of the N73 - becoming one of the best selling Nseries, carried by numerous operators and breaking out of the traditional smartphone user base. It is also the product that, to date, goes furthest in carrying the message of Nokia as a service and Internet player, as envisioned in the Ovi strategy, to the wider market.

The N78 has an impressive feature set: the hardware - 3.2 megapixel auto-focus camera, WiFi and 3.5G connectivity, integrated GPS - tells one part of the story, but it is the versatility of the software suite that pushes location, imaging and multimedia services to the fore that makes it really stand out. At the same time it has a modest price point compared to its Nseries sisters. Its launching price point, around £300, is 50% that of the N96, 60% of the N95 and 80% of the N82.

Notably, the N78 is the first product on the market to use S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 (S60 3.2), the latest version of S60. There are also some significant updates to the Nseries-only software pieces. This means that there are quite a few software changes and some of the most annoying software usability problems (from previous S60 versions) have been fixed. The new version doesn't introduce wholescale changes, but rather is an evolution towards a more mature platform. The same software will be used in the upcoming N96 and doubtless in a few more, as yet unannounced, devices.

Hardware and design

With dimensions of 113 x 49 x 15.1 mm (76.5 cc), the N78 is at the small end of the S60 scale. It manages to be noticeably smaller than its N70 and N73 (89 cc) predecessors while packing in extra features - such is the pace of changes in the mobile world. The E51, due to its thinness, is smaller, as is the 6120, but these both have smaller screens and fewer hardware features. The upcoming 6220 (70 cc) is just smaller, but it too has a smaller screen size (2.2 versus 2.4 inches). Clearly it is still not a small handset, but given the form factor and screen size it's difficult to see how the front profile of the device could be shrunk further. Subjectively it does feel reasonably sized in the hand; where the N73 gave an impression of bulkiness because of its thickness (19 mm), the N78 feels relatively slimline; it's a similar story with the N82, although the difference is smaller.

At 102g, the N78 does well in the weight department, it still has a sense of heft, but is notably lighter than similarly specified models. As you would expect from a Nokia candy bar form factor the build quality is very good. There's a little bit of movement on the battery cover, but the rest of the device feels rock solid.

The overall design of the N78 is striking and definitely scores points in the style department. The front of the device has the 2.4 inch screen sitting flush with a hard-shiny plastic slab, with minimal interruptions (D-pad, multimedia key and four key ridges), giving a sense of flat slab. This is reinforced by the fact that, when inactive, the keys are no longer backlit and consequently look like they have disappeared. The sides are a hard, durable matt plastic and the removable back cover is a lined-patterned shiny plastic. The choice of materials does leave the N78 very susceptible to finger prints and it can be a bit fiddly to clean between the raised ridges making up the keys.

At first glance most people may be concerned that usability has been sacrificed for style, as it was (fatally) with the N76. There is an element of this, but in truth it is no worse than other handsets in this respect. There is always an element of compromise in design; the N78 impresses by managing to pull off a distinctive style without seriously effecting usability. Most of the questions that have been raised in this department focus on the keypad, especially the number keys. However, this is one of those cases where looks are deceptive because the N78's relative text entry performance is quite good. In purely physical terms, good tactile feedback for each key and enough spacing (despite keys being on the same ridge) means entry is accurate; moreover in my tests I was able to achieve text entry speeds similar to that of the N95 (with its more traditional key design) and better than that of the N82 (with its thin keys). The label for each key is not printed, instead it is a clear plastic 'window' that is illuminated from below. This does mean that, outside, in bright sunshine, the illumination tends to get washed out a little, but at the same time the label 'windows' can be seen more clearly (even without illumination from below).

The control key layout is generally good. Appearances may suggest touch sensitive keys, but in fact each key has its own key dome beneath the flat plastic and has good tactile feedback. Like any phone, it takes a while to settle into a new layout, especially if you have muscle memory from an earlier phone. A good example of this is the S60 key, positioned on the lower left of the keypad, which I found somewhat awkwardly located at first. I'm more use to finding this key to the left of the D-pad, but it did not take long to get use to this new arrangement and it has the benefit of making the left softkey much less cramped. More problematic for me was the closeness of the end key and right softkey, especially when using the phone in my left hand, which resulted in numerous accidental presses of the end key (which exits many applications and returns you to the idle screen). It is something I adjusted for over the first week, but I would still have preferred both the end and send keys to be positioned a little lower down the keypad. It is worth adding that I do prefer the side positioning of these keys, as found on both the N78 and N82, compared to being located beneath the softkey in a control panel cluster, as on other phones.

The D-pad does double duty as both a traditional five-way control key and as a navi-wheel. As a traditional D-pad it performs as you would expect. Nokia have been good at achieving consistently usable D-pads and the style has been set fairly firmly into that of a thin outer ring with a larger central area. In use it does benefit from being nicely raised from the main surface (unlike the original N82), but the fact that it is a single piece (rather than two as on the N95 – or E61i, etc.) means that the central key press has less definition.

The navi-wheel is the touch sensitive rim which can be used as a scroll wheel, as first seen in the N81. The use of the navi-wheel has been extended in the software (e.g. in option menus), but its main use remains for getting through long lists (e.g. music) quickly. The N78's navi-wheel is quite sensitive, which means it does occasionally ‘activate’ unintentionally and will cause the equivalent D-pad press 'left' or 'right'. For example, in the application launcher this means the wrong application sometimes starts (navi-wheel causes a jump as you press the D-pad in) - a bit of a surprise the first time it happens. I suspect the navi-wheel will be like Marmite - people will either love it or hate it. Fortunately, you can choose to turn the navi-wheel off in the settings and some software changes are expected in the first firmware update that should help the sensitivity problems. Personally I really like the functionality, use it frequently, and over time have found the frequency of unintentional activations reduced dramatically as I got used to the keypad.

Running around the inside of the D-pad ring there is an indicator light. When the phone is in sleep mode this light periodically 'breathes', slowly illuminating - then fading. This gives a visible indication that the phone is on when it is sitting on your desk (something you wouldn't otherwise be able to tell). If you have a new message or missed call then the breathing rate increases. It is a clever and well executed idea.

Overall, the controls of the N78 are good rather than excellent, but they are much better than they look and ultimately with the space available there's only so much you can do. More conservative users will point towards the E51 style keypad, but this would take up 20% more room and lead to a bigger overall device or smaller screen. As ever, design is a compromise.

The left hand side of the phone has, from bottom to top, a speaker, power port, memory card slot and microUSB port. The speaker is part of a stereo pair; the other is diagonally opposite - giving maximum separation. In use the speakers are, as with most mobiles, a little tinny, but are good for decent sound in phone calls, ring tones and games. The N78 uses microSD memory cards and most retail packages will ship with a 2GB card in the box. There's the now standard support for HC cards, meaning that you can add up to 16GB of memory to the phone. The microUSB port supports higher speed transfers (up to 5x faster in the real word) than earlier Nseries devices, this is because it uses USB 2.0 Hi-Speed (480 MBit/s max.) - previous devices used USB Full-Speed (12 MBit/s max.). This makes an enormous difference when transferring media to the phone.

The top of the device houses the 3.5mm audio jack and power button. The right hand side has, from top to bottom a speaker, volume controls and the camera capture key. The volume controls double as the zoom keys in the Camera and Photos applications. One absence compared to earlier devices, such as the N73, is the Gallery key - this is because it has effectively been replaced by the multimedia key, although because of its versatility, an extra few key presses are required to access recently captured photos

The back of the device houses the 3.2 megapixel, auto-focus camera, with its Carl Zeiss optics. It’s accompanied by a single LED flash. This limits the camera’s abilities in low light conditions, but makes sense given the pricing and positioning of the N78.

The entire back (plastic) part of the device can be removed and replaced relatively easily. The back plastic is ‘adzed-patterned’ - it looks like lines have been scored into the plastic. Initially there are three colour variants: pearl white, coca brown and lagoon blue. The N78's aerials for GPS and WiFi are part of this back piece; this does give excellent WiFi and GPS reception, but may be worth bearing in mind when buying third party covers that may be of questionable quality.

Inside there's a generous 1200 mAh BL-6F battery which should provide plenty of power. The N78 should easily get through a day of typical usage and will last two days for a lot of users. S60 3.2 and Symbian OS 9.3 have a number of under the hood changes that reduce power consumption in a number of areas.


In connectivity terms, the N78 is bang up to date. With quad-band GSM and dual band WCDMA with HSDPA cellular radios; there are two variants of the N78 - the N78-1 with 900/2100 MHz WCDMA bands (suitable for Europe and Asia) and the N78-3 with 850/1900 MHz bands (suitable for use in the US). The world variant is available now and the US variant will be available in the next few weeks.

There's also WiFi (802.11b/g), Bluetooth and the aforementioned USB for local connectivity. WiFi performance is excellent, helped by stability and performance improvements in the underlying Symbian OS. Subjectively, I found WiFi performance much better when downloading large files (e.g. podcasts) from the web. Bluetooth profile support is comprehensive and includes A2DP (stereo music), AVRCP (music control), SAP (SIM access for in-car systems) and BPP (printing). Software-wise, there is the usual S60 SIP profile and DNLA software providing support for IP communications and UPnP functions respectively.

However Nokia have removed the Internet Telephone application which means you can no longer easily set up a SIP based VoIP service. Service providers can, theoretically, build a VoIP client on top of the SIP service, but they can not build on top of the Nokia VoIP client (which most existing ones do and which allows you to use most generic VoIP services). The removal of the Internet Telephone application and associated settings is a serious retrograde step. The reasons behind this are not clear; there are some inidictations that the feature will be put back in a later firmware upgrade, but it is also possible that Nokia has removed the feature at the behest of operators. We'll try and find out more information about this and report back.

S60 3.2 brings one very important software connectivity change - Destinations (or, by another name, Access Point Groups). These allow you to group access points together into prioritised lists (e.g. both the standard operator access point and any number of WLAN access points). When using a Destination, the phone will use the first available access point on the priority list. By default there are three existing destinations: one for Internet, one for MMS and one for WAP services. You're also free to create your own destinations, although you cannot share access points between destinations (though duplicates are fine). Which access point is used is still controlled on an application by application basis. Previously it was best to choose 'Always ask' as this made it easier to switch between 3G and WiFi access points. Now that's no longer necessary and connection prompts should be a thing of the past.

This works really well in Web, but unfortunately the feature is rather spoiled elsewhere by the fact that some applications either do not take advantage of destinations at all (including Download!, Share Online and Internet radio) or do not allow you to choose one as a default in their settings (including Music store). You might expect this to happen for third party applications (and indeed it does in some cases), but it's really not good to have such inconsistency in default applications. I can only hope this will be fixed in a future firmware update. Incidentally, If you stay with the 'Always ask' setting in Web then you get a list of Internet destinations pop up, which on its own is much more understandable than a list of access point names.

There are a number of other connectivity-related changes in S60 3.2. Most of these relate to operators being able to provision devices automatically, improved FOTA (firmware over the air) support or remote device management, but remote drives (via support for WebDAV) may also be of more general interest. Remote drives can be accessed from the File manager application and used to easily copy data off the device.

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