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Nokia 7650 – the camera phone future?

Picture a phone...

Review Only a couple of Bluetooth issues mar Nokia's much-hyped camera phone, which is a landmark consumer electronics device. For one - lack of support for Bluetooth headsets, Nokia is firmly to blame. Who's to blame for the other, problems syncing with Windows PCs? Several culprits. We'll address these at the end.

I was on hand at the launch of this device in Barcelona last year, and you could probably gauge my scepticsm about picture messaging - especially as it appeared to be so costly - from my report.

But this is a compulsive device, which ought establish picture messaging with the masses. After a couple of weeks, frustration grew that hardly anyone I know doesn't have a picture phone - which is the biggest surprise I found with the device. The price with contract in the UK is a tempting £149. [$230]. The two networks so far to launch MMS in the UK - Orange and T-Mobile - offer tariffs of 40p per picture message, or as many as you want for £20 per month, respectively. The former looks more attractive for the beginner.

The 7650 does exactly what it says on the tin, and very well. Its excellence comes from ease of use - it's hard to imagine a better one-handed UI - rather than it being a great camera. In fact it's an OK, but no more than OK camera.

Nokia has integrated quite a broad range of quite sophisticated functions into a simple consumer appliance, which proves it can mass market a Ferrari at Ford prices.

Using the 7650

The UI is the most successful aspect of the phone. It's a hybrid between familiar 2G phones UIs - the green and red call buttons are still there, on a traditional phone keypad that slides down to reveal the lens on the back of the phone, but I can't actually remember using them - and a UI that can cope with more sophisticated functions on offer.

(For a photo-rich review with lots of screenshots, see My Communicator).

A single "Home" key in combination with a rocker button performs most of the work. Two option buttons, one of which typically displays the pop-up menu, the other a "return from current context" choice, augment these. Confusingly, Nokia calls the Home key the menu key, even though users will use the left option button to invoke the pop-up. This is because there are really two "Homes": one is the default display with the clock, and the other could more accurately be called "Applications and Settings". That's what Nokia calls Menu. It's a dumb choice of names, a case where reading the manual makes the process less intuitive than it really is.

We found that pressing the rocker was a great workhorse: it typically took us to the task we most wanted to perform. For example, taking a picture involves this sequence: slide down the keypad, focus and hit the rocker once. The pop-up menu offers four choices to Send via MMS, email, Bluetooth or Infrared. Returning to the rocker, one press on email takes you to a message form with the focus in the 'To' field. One more press of the rocker takes you to the contact book, with additional check buttons. This tedious description doesn't convey how few keystrokes have been performed.

The "Main" key also doubles as a task-switcher: this is a powerful multitasking computer. Holding the key down for a second displays a task strip on the left of the screen. A nice touch would have been an indicator showing that more than three tasks are active: there's only room for three items on the strip.

Nokia's choice of screen is excellent: there are some beautiful touches (anti-aliasing around the clock, and a fine caption font based on MacOS Techno font; and some not so nice touches: a utilitarian menu font that appears to be monospaced, even though it isn't, and a choice of only three themes. (The T68 has more).

I'm dwelling on the Series 60 user interface here, because with Nokia's success in licensing this to other manufacturers including Siemens, we're going to see an awful lot of it. So shout now if you really hate it. One aspect of the user experience that the visual screengrabs don't convey is the speed: it's really a very snappy device indeed.

The camera produces some interesting images. Here's an example [40k], taken at arm's length. The three modes are landscape (VGA), a truncated portrait (80x96) and a night mode. Things get interesting at night, as you know, and the camera can produce some interesting abstract effects. For example, this [24k] is not a Trance rave, but the sedate and rustic Flask pub in Highgate Village at night. There's 4 MB of RAM for images, which are captured in JPEG format, even though the imaging application can display several other formats including PNG and TIFF.

The main downside is the lack of image editing on the phone as a default. You can't even save a picture that you've rotated 90 degrees, and there's no cropping. However that leaves the field open for third party applications - in some markets, Nokia has included a Kai-like morphing package.

The best and rest of the worst

We found a couple of limitations, the most annoying being that the mail program barfs at unrecognised attachments: and an application installer file (.SIS) is an unrecognized attachment. This limits its potential for spreading applications virally (Or for that matter, spreading viruses), and obliges the user to download a third party file manager to fish the attachment out of the file system.

Another annoyance is that the address book can only be displayed Last Name - First Name.

Bluetooth between phones worked extremely well. But Nokia has failed to implement the Bluetooth Audio Profile, causing much iration with one Register reader in particular. He might have a good case with his local Trading Standards department, as the box packaging notes: "The Nokia range of accessories, where available, includes .... Headsets". It doesn't say that Bluetooth headsets won't work with the device - at least in this revision of firmware.

Nor is Windows XP supported, officially. Although Dave Curl of TDK says the system passed the compliance tests for TDK's Bluetooth card under XP, Nokia can't guarantee that the Windows-only Nokia Data Suite will perform. Register readers reported a range of problems getting synchronisation to work with a PC equipped with 3Com's Bluetooth card, and even Nokia's PC Card - its recommended adaptor - is known to be problematic.

"From TDK's testing, Nokia has a specific way of working between the software and the phone. Nokia connects as a master and looks for the software, so if it can't find the Nokia Data Suite, it won't work."

While on the second count, some of the blame can be attached to Microsoft or 3Com, Nokia is firmly to blame for omitting the Audio Profile. And this was an omission - it gets its Bluetooth stack from Symbian. (Nokia doesn't turn Bluetooth off after a specified period - which has some logic, I guess, as you wouldn't want to keep turning your unsupported headset back on).

The phone handles GPRS, has a speaker phone and a rather confusing proximity sensor that causes the speaker phone to cut out when it's next to your ear. Thankfully Nokia turned this off by default. The sound produced by the Beatnik audio engine was terrific.

Is it worth it?
After the niche appeal of the 9210 Communicator, the 7650 is the first "open" phone to hit the mass market in phone-volumes, offering telephony APIs to third party developers, and as such it's the most powerful and hackable handheld computer available today. (Until the next one).

But PDA users will be frustrated that the 7650 doesn't have pen input, even though it's rich enough to make good use of it. Nokia intends this to remain a one-hand device, with one function in mind, that runs third party apps, but that doesn't take expansion cards.

I'd happily use a 7650 without the camera, simply because the UI is such a pleasure, it's an open phone that supports third party (SymbianOS and Java) applications, making it a fine gaming and document viewing platform.

I probably won't because I prefer all-in-one devices, because there's one fewer address book to synchronize. Then again, I have Palm-doting friends who'll use this as a fast, Bluetooth GPRS modem.

Nokia's 7650 doesn't work on US GSM frequencies, and the company hasn't announced when a version will be made available for the US market.®

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