Review The 9300 Communicator is Nokia's most serious challenge yet in the mobile data market. We sourced a unit from Expansys, who have several hundred in stock right now, with or without contract.
But using it soon invoked a really odd sensation in your reviewer, an erstwhile Psion user. It was like being thrown into the future from five years ago, only to find that the future looked really passe. A bit of a history helps explain this odd observation, so forgive us a long preamble, before we get to the device itself. If you are not now, or have never been a Psion user, feel free to skip along to the next page.
Nine years ago Nokia (in partnership with Intel) wedded a phone to a computer with a QWERTY keyboard, running a 80386 processor. The 9000 Communicator (as Nokia called it) or the "brick" (as everyone else called it) won a small but loyal following. You could collect and receive faxes on the go, which was useful, and BOFHs could telnet into remote servers without getting out of bed.
The third generation of the brick was the first to run Psion's PDA software, and appeared at about the time that Psion withdrew from the consumer PDA market. Then, Nokia didn't update the line for almost four years. As you can imagine, this left a huge yearning in the hearts of former Psion users. Many wondered why, with ever-increasing miniaturization, the marriage of QWERTY computer and phone couldn't be a success. The Treo and the Blackberry have QWERTY interfaces, but no one who had ever used a Psion could mistake the labelled dimples on these newcomers for true QWERTY keys - imagine trying to type on a novelty condom.
And to an extent, in the 9300, both of those hopes for something better have been fulfilled. This is essentially the old EPOC ER5 PDA suite (minus the flat file database) running on a phone. The Nokia 9300 is the fifth generation of the brick, but only the first to resemble a normal phone. It's small enough to fit in a trouser pocket. One forum poster wrote that when set alongside the larger 9500 Communicator, the latter resembled not so much a brick, but a whole house.
However it isn't the Psion "experience" old-timers might expect, simply because the size trade-off means you can't hope to touch type on it: the 9300 is strictly for thumbs. The keys barely travel, and I found myself turning on the audible feedback, something I never normally do, simply to get the assurance that I'd pressed the key.
The other reason the 9300 looks both futuristic and very retro at the same time, is that in the intervening four years we've seen an update to the Communicator come and go. The Series 90 user interface was designed for a more modern Communicator (with pen input) and it makes the 9300/9500 look and feel very dated.
The only devices available that use Series 90 are the 7700 and 7710 (the latter now available in Asia) and during a period of internal turmoil, Nokia scuttled a Series 90-based QWERTY keyboard communicator on the launch pad, in favor of the 9500. Based on a 640x320 screen, the Series 90 UI makes much better use of space, and right away, as soon as you see the alpha-blended pen input overlay, you know you're using the "true" successor to the Psion PDA. But late last year Nokia "folded" the Series 90 into the Series 60 platform.
Nor does the 9300 use the space as well as it could. Nokia's simple "spectacle case" design doesn't make use of the ingenious sliding hinges that gave Psion keyboards more space. The retro feel is enforced by the amount of space - a good centimeter - to the left of the keyboard. These, presumably, remain Psion patents - and either Psion hasn't licensed them to Nokia, or Nokia has licensed them and not used them. (Clarification, anyone?). Most irritatingly, the keyboard isn't backlit.
All of which I hope sets expectations appropriately for the 9300: don't expect it to be a Psion. That said, how did it shape up on its own merits?