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Communicating with the Nokia 9500

by Ewan Spence
01/31/2005

Introduction

The Nokia 9500 is the latest phone in Nokia's venerable Communicator range. Essentially an updated 9210, it is being promoted as the ultimate device to keep you working and staying in touch, no matter where you are. While it's a good phone and PDA, there's a huge amount of room for improvement.

The Nokia 9500 is the latest phone in Nokia's venerable Communicator range

Can I Still Talk To People?

For a long time, the definition of a smartphone was having a GSM mobile phone strapped to the outside of a PDA such as a Palm or a HP360LX. Nowadays, these have unified into one device, but there's still a strong sense of a phone and PDA taped together in the 9500.

While they may look very stylish, the actual number keys never feel accurate--they seem to slide around a bit and don't give you the confidence to type an SMS reply with the cover closed.

About two centimeters shorter than previous Communicators, the 9500 is starting to feel like a regular-sized phone. Just two years ago, the size of the 9500 would have been stunning, but smaller and smaller phones have been released since then, so the moniker of "the Brick" still stays with the Communicator. The phone itself is good, with clear sound quality. I've had no issues with it in terms of call handling. The buttons on the side of the phone are another matter. While they may look very stylish, the actual number keys never feel accurate--they seem to slide around a bit and don't give you the confidence to type an SMS reply with the cover closed.

The central cursor is terrible. Unless you really concentrate, pushing in the cursor without pressing one of the four direction keys is almost impossible. It's frustrating that design seems to have been placed before function.

One of the hidden treasures of the 9500 is the speakerphone. Flipping open the unit activates the speakerphone, and you can be tapping away and looking up information while still talking. The speaker is great, and the microphone means that even a call on a busy street is clear enough at the other end. The number of times that I've had an impromptu conference call just by opening the phone and putting it in the center of the desk illustrates that this is probably the greatest hidden feature of the 9500.


Interactions: Front and Center

The 9500 is powered by the Symbian OS. That's only half the story, as there are various user interface layers that utilize the Symbian OS, none of which are fully compatible with each other. The 9500 uses v2.0 of the Series 80 interface, and is an update on v1.0, which appeared in the Nokia 9210, 9210i, and 9290.

On the other hand, the web browser isn't really the best experience when you have to select links by pressing buttons.

The biggest surprise for users coming from Palm and Pocket PC is that there is no touch screen. Instead, there are four dedicated function buttons on the right-hand side of the screen. Their functions changes in each application, and generally are used for the features that you need to get to quickly. How badly does the lack of a touch screen affect the 9500? It all depends on what you're doing. As long as you're happy editing documents and controlling a cursor through a keyboard, you'll not notice it. On the other hand, the web browser isn't really the best experience when you have to select links by pressing buttons.

Nokia really likes their keyboard designs, and the 9500 comes up with a novel control system on the inside of the device--two sets of cursor keys. One is the classic "four button" style like every regular PC keyboard in the world, and the second is a digital stick. Normally, "down" on either of these is down, but in some applications, the down key performs different functions. In the web browser, the button cursor keys scroll the web page you are viewing, and the digital stick moves an on-screen cursor around so you can select a link. It's a nice solution, but given that the underlying Series 80 interface can respond to pen taps, it's a shame that there isn't a touch screen.

The keyboard itself is nothing much to write home about. It looks wonderful, but when you're using it, you find that it's very cramped. While the keys are bevelled upwards slightly, there's no space between the keys. Unless you're very accurate, you're going to need to slow down or watch out for errors; a definite step backwards from the 9210 keyboard.

When the device is closed, we've a standard Nokia 128 by 128 color screen running the Series 40 interface. Unfortunately, there's no support for running any Java MIDlets on the outside of the device, and there's no official way for third-party developers to get access to the front cover.

Is It a Good PDA?

The Internet

The key to the Communicator is that it can go online and communicate. In the ROM of the 9500 are an email client and a web browser, nowadays the bare minimum of an Internet suite.

The Messaging application unifies the email client, SMS client, MMS client, and fax machine functions into one application. The classic tree and contents view of an email application is here, and you can create as many subfolders as you like. Received messages must be moved into these new folders manually, as there is no way to set up rules for incoming messages.

Received messages must be moved into new folders manually, as there is no way to set up rules for incoming messages.

Messaging exposes one of the biggest flaws of the Communicator. Despite the huge 640 by 200 screen, you can never zoom out far enough for my liking. Even on the lowest zoom setting, I can only see three messages in this view. In typical use, this lack of small fonts means a lot of scrolling.

Attachments are handled fairly well, although this all depends if you have a program that can open the files. The Word and Spreadsheet applications can handle files from Office 2000 and XP, but note that for spreadsheets over 100K, the conversion and loading times are incredibly high.

The accompanying CD brings with it an add-on application to handle .zip files from Epocware, but other commonly required applications are strangely absent. There's no instant messaging client bundled, nor an FTP application. Even a link to these on the accompanying CD would help new users.

The web browser is in fact Opera, although it's been "skinned" to fit in with the rest of the Series 80 interface. Having a wide, thin screen rather than the portrait screen you would expect on a phone means that there are fewer problems with page rendering. If you do have any, the "fit to page" option intelligently rearranges the page to fit the screen width.

If you do have any problems, the

Wi-Fi

One of the big selling points of the Nokia 9500 is that it is Nokia's first Wi-Fi-enabled phone. The 9500's Wi-Fi support works nicely in the background, and is one of the most unobtrusive Wi-Fi setups I've seen on any PDA device. Whenever the 9500 wants to go online, it brings up a dialog box asking which connection to use. Alongside all of the telephone options (GPRS, GSM Data, and EDGE) you can select Wi-Fi (either to a named access point, or Easy Wi-Fi, which is an auto-configure option for any access point in range). And that's it.

Now, if only Skype would hurry up with a Symbian OS client ...

The PIM Suite and Synchronizing

It's just a shame that synchronization is limited to contacts and calendar information.

Synchronizing data from phone to PC has never been Symbian's strong point, but the 9500 is actually a pretty good syncing machine, mainly because everything is based around SyncML. The big problem is that there isn't a native desktop app from Symbian. Palm has Palm desktop and Microsoft has Outlook, so Symbian is always going to have to battle with someone else's software, and hope that they don't get locked out by an upgrade.

Well it's working now. Yes, there are grumbles, but I don't see the 9500 performing any worse than Palm OS syncing into Outlook. It happily transferred my 1700 contacts, and my diary (not that I have a huge amount there). Connections can be made through Bluetooth or a dedicated USB cable (which is much more reliable than Bluetooth). It's just a shame that synchronization is limited to contacts and calendar information.

The Contacts application is probably the most polished application on the device. Based on a split view (which occurs a lot in the 9500 interface), there are names on the left and full details on the right. Highlighting a mobile number gives the choice to call, send an SMS, or send an MMS.

Activating the telephone button gives a dedicated view of the contacts application, showing only names and phone numbers. Call logs and phone settings can also be accessed from this view.

Activating telephone button gives a dedicated view of the contacts application, showing only names and phone numbers. Call logs and phone settings can also be accessed from this view.

The contacts database is accessible from the front of the 9500 when it is closed, to enable calling and SMS. The front also gives access to the Messaging application, letting you read emails and texts, but only send SMS messages.

The Office Applications

Both the spreadsheet and the word processor (called "Documents" on the 9500) share the same strengths and weaknesses. They're both descendants from the early 1990s Psion Series 3a PDAs, and as such are very solid pieces of code. They're optimized to run on devices with even less memory and processor speed than the 9500, and are just as fast as any desktop equivalent. The size of the resulting Word and Sheet files are tiny in comparison to MS Office documents.

And there lies the big problem. No matter that these office apps have all of the features you want, it's almost impossible to roundtrip Word and Excel files through the 9500.

While opening MS Office Word and Excel documents when on the road is a great boon, opening a document, editing, and emailing it back to the office with all of its original formatting intact is almost impossible. In fairness, Pocket Word also suffers from this, but it doesn't profess to be the perfect mobile companion that Nokia claims the 9500 to be.

Other than this caveat, they're good solid workhorse applications. They do the job when you're mobile, and you can happily type away and do long articles and spreadsheet work without feeling cramped. The width of the screen proves less of a hindrance than you might expect.

Camera and Multimedia

Like almost every modern smartphone, the Nokia 9500 ships with a digital camera, taking pictures at the just-about-useful resolution of 640 by 480. It does the job it's meant to do, but I'm not sure why this is here on a business phone. You can only use the camera to take pictures when the 9500 is closed, and with the lens recessed on the base of the unit, there's no practical way of doing any videophone work with the Wi-Fi link. The quality is similar to the rest of the Nokia cameraphone range, so it's good for quick snaps, but you'll not be throwing away your digital camera just yet. You can shoot small video files, although the image is pretty small and you'll need a Nokia application on a PC to view the resulting files.

You can shoot small video files, although the image is pretty small and you'll need a Nokia application on a PC to view the resulting files.

It's de rigueur to have MP3 playback on a modern PC, and while this is present on the 9500, it feels like an afterthought. There player is ugly, with no way to control it from the front panel when closed. There's also only a mono headphone in the sales package, so any serious MP3 use is going to need an additional purchase of a pop-port stereo headset, such as the Nokia HDS-3.

On the upside, thanks to the excellent built-in speaker, you can drop in a nice big MMC card (I had good results with sizes up to 1GB) loaded with MP3s and have music in the background while continuing to use the 9500 for other tasks.

Conclusion

The Nokia 9500 is a capable device, and could be the perfect match for you if you need its strengths and can work around the weaknesses. If you're looking to use the phone more for interaction than as a small computer, then the 9500 is pretty much the perfect phone for you. The advantage of an integral keyboard that's actually usable (not a hunt-and-peck thumb board like that of the Treo 600) means that anyone who deals with a lot of text entry or loves writing long emails should also consider the 9500.

If you've used any of the Communicators before, then this is more of the same, but with enough 21st century acronyms on board to keep it up to date. Is it worth jumping away from Pocket PC and Palm OS if you're happy with them? In the balance, probably not, so I'd recommend testing before buying.

The 9500 is a good addition to the Symbian OS family, and you wouldn't be disappointed if you got one, but it still promises too much and delivers too little to make it an out-and-out success.

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Ewan Spence is one of the leading authorities on the OPL language under the Symbian OS.


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