Tuesday, August 10, 2010


The Past
Over two years ago I bought the first and only Symbian phone worth paying for: Nokia E71. The knockoff-berry was the first smartphone with decent battery life and an efficient input method. Other attractions included excellent VoIP support(I logged ~20x as much VoIP minutes as cellular), sportstracker(decent builtin GPS!), shoutcast-streaming, etc. I got hooked on Podcasts with the podcast app, the music player was sufficient, etc. In general E71 is a standalone device that does not need to be hooked up to life-support regularly(aka to update podcasts, music library with iTunes). AT&T doesn't know that E71 is a smartphone, so I got to use a cheap data plan with it.

Symbian is a great OS for phones with great battery life, but it sucks for pretty much anything else. The tcp/ip stack + wifi can be flakey, the phone rebooted on me at least once week. There is no almost no open source software for the phone. Nokia's applications range from disappointing (the webkit-based browser) to decent(Sportstracker), there are few thirdparty apps worth bothering with such as Opera(impressive what they managed to accomplish on such a limited OS) or Fring.

Vibrant Hardware
I held out on android because the hardware it shipped on until now has been junk. There are two manufacturers able to build highquality portable devices: Nokia and Samsung(Apple is catching up in hardware quality, but I'm not interested in software lockin) . Nokia has yet to announce a decent MeeGo device. While MeeGo appears to be the least-molested Linux platform, but I don't see myself waiting another 2  years for it mature.

So I got an unlocked Samsung Vibrant. There are lots of reviews praising the Vibrant, so I'll focus on what sucks about it from a perspective of a Nokia user.

Formfactor. First off, it's a slate-tablet-like thingy that Apple popularized. I prefer the knockoffberry formfactor. I'd happily trade in a big screen for a smaller high-dpi one with a physical keyboard.

Nonremovable memory card. I appreciate that unlike Apple, Samsung allows me to use a removable memory card. I don't appreciate that getting at it requires removing the world's sketchiest backcover.

Sketchy backcover is so sketchy that Samsung included two of them in the box. "Yeah we know it's a piece of crap that will bust from frequent removals or from being dropped". For a GSM phone (ie one may want to swap SIM cards while traveling) with a memory card(which one might also want to get at), this is ridiculous.

Craptastic volume control. Seriously Samsung, how hard can it be to make some real buttons instead of a wobbly piece of plastic that looks like an SD cover?

Speakerphone location is a joke. What moron decided to put the speakerphone on the back of the phone? Do Samsung designers know how the phone rests while people are looking at the screen? Could there be a more idiotic speaker location? I can't think of one. The speaker is nice and loud, it's too bad that most of the time it's playing away from me and usually into a solid surface like a desk.

Look Ma', no d-pad! There is a software dpad that can be used to navigate within textfields. Touch is the main way to navigate between fields. This is so inefficient. To Samsung designers: please slap yourself for this.

Overall the build quality is ok (the phone doesn't creak and the screen isn't coming unglued like certain HTC phones), save for the glaring mistakes listed above.  I thought that Samsung might've surpassed Nokia in build quality by now, but they've regressed. So back to listing things that suck:

Android Software

Sucky VOIP. First thing I did was setup SipDroid only to have my dad demand that I call him from my Nokia instead. Whereas on the Nokia VoIP over wifi is far superior to GSM on the Vibrant it completely sucks. The microphone has a constant background hum and it clips my voice funny. I think Nokia E71 does some serious QoS on their tcp/ip stack, because calls do not drop out nearly as much as on other devices (whereas bulk downloads are 10x slower than they used to be in recent firmwares).

Decent cellular quality. Turns out some of the crap that manifests itself in VoIP calls is also present during normal calls, but I wouldn't notice it if it didn't make itself obvious during VoIP testing. It's safe to say that this phone does not compare to Nokia in voice quality, no matter how great it supposedly sounds according to reviews.

The phonebook is a sick joke. Gmail accumulates contacts like crazy...and Android displays them all whether they have names/phone-numbers or not. Nokia deals with this problem neatly by filtering the phonebook based on context - "Oh you are trying to dial a number, I won't show contacts without a phone number...same idea for writing emails".

Android appears to be written by(or for?) children without commitments.
On E71 I sync with the Google calendar via an Exchange-emulation that Google hosts. So I figured that if Android can sync directly, it will cut out most of the suck...It doesn't, it sucks infinitely more. On initial sync it seems to have synced my calendar correctly, except for my meetings with boss(Google, are you trying to get me fired?)...To make matters worse none of the new entries I've added to the phone managed to sync to the server. That and entering appointments on a touchscreen is 10x slower than with a keyboard+dpad.
Seems bad? It gets worse. The calendar alarm is a quiet ping sound... That's it, no vibration, no loud alarm, no snoozing. How is one supposed to not miss meetings with this?

I really miss being able to close applications. Applications can crap themselves or not provide a proper quit options...Would be nice to have some provision for that. It's really hard to keep android apps from doing stuff in the background(sucking my bandwidth and battery life).

The Good
I did decide to keep the phone. Android ecosystem is far superior to anything else I've seen. The OS is Linux, so the phone doesn't shit itself due to TCP/IP or multitasking confusion like many OSes out there (though I did manage to confuse the wifi driver into not working until a reboot...good old Linux).
Android provides hooks so if the handset vendor didn't ship with a particular feature, there is often a third-party solution. For example I found an Android app that makes the phone vibrate and REPEAT the calendar alarms(what a concept!) until acknowledged. Similarly, VoIP apps can hook into the dialer/phonebook for an almost Nokia-like experience in seamless VoIP integration(other than working properly). One can override the default browser, etc.

Vibrant has set a few records in CPU, screen and battery life. I think this is the best Android hardware one can get at the moment. I'm looking forward to writing or customizing existing open source apps for it.

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