A look at Symbian

I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately with many people who think that Symbian is a terrible operating system and because Nokia are moving to Windows Phone 7 they must be correct – if it were any good, Nokia wouldn’t abandon it. The suggestion that bad things can succeed and good things can fall by the wayside falls on deaf ears. Certainly, Nokia’s recent decision has sparked much controversy and debate around the internet and everyday life too, but is Symbian really as bad as people make out?

What I have found to be true in every case someone speaks against Symbian is that they have not used it, and if they have ever used it it was years ago, at the earliest the S^1v5 on the Nokia 5800 or N97, and many even earlier, the Nokia N95 or Ericsson Satio. With scrolling by pulling down the sidebar, rather than kinetic scrolling, double taps to open a menu item, a single static home screen, an anemic amount of memory and RAM, I can most definitely understand that if that’s your only perception of Symbian then it deserves to be scrapped in today’s market. The problem is, Symbian isn’t like that anymore. With this article I will be looking at the finer points of the OS, looking at both the strengths and weaknesses before addressing the new Symbian^3 handsets as all-round devices, not just the operating system. After all, people buy devices on the basis of not just software but the hardware too.

One of the pros and cons of Symbian^3 is that its overall layout is much the same as it has been in the past. This is a good thing on the one hand because it allows for user-familiarity, but on the other hand it can be somewhat confusing to new users. Personally I think an update should put it somewhere in the middle; it would be nice to be able to uninstall an app by just holding it down like in WP7, but having a menu structure is also very useful and, dare I say, important. Having used an iPhone, the ‘settings’ menu is so anorexic it may as well not exist, made even worse by the fact that individual areas don’t have their own settings – in Symbian for example, if you are within the camera app you can bring up camera settings, mail settings from within mail and so on. Moreover, the settings available on Symbian are plentiful, whereas iOS, WP7 and, to a lesser but definite extent, Android. In other words, Symbian allows you to do far more tweaking to get things how you want ‘under the hood’.

Menu structure aside, the process of navigation is now much easier and more fluid: universal kinetic scrolling, single-tap to open anything, increased speed and responsiveness and pinch-to-zoom in the browser, photos etc.

Symbian also has the best mapping available on any device or operating system, without question. With Nokia Maps using Navteq data, the maps on the phones are the same as those found in car GPS systems. Moreover, you can set up your journey on the Ovi Maps website and wirelessly sync to the phone, or use offline navigation so you don’t use GPS – saving both data and battery, and no more worrying about losing signal on a cloudy day or when you go through a tunnel. Currently nothing else offers such services; iOS just has Google maps offering a picture navigation or a list, and Android doesn’t offer offline mapping. Furthermore, ‘Maps’ is a comprehensive app in itself, with Expedia and Trip Advisor built in, as well as the option to check in to social networks, find local events, restaurants, shops and so forth, and you can navigate with ‘drive to’ or ‘walk to’.



A real deal-breaker for me regarding other systems is the fact that Symbian does not track your location, unlike Apple, and doesn’t demand access to your private data or leak it to God knows where, unlike Android.

There are also many subtle intuitive factors at work in Symbian. For example, tap what you see on the home screen and it opens it. If you tap the battery icon you get a pop up menu where you can see battery percentage, activate power-saving mode, open ‘connectivity manager’ to connect/disconnect internet connection, Bluetooth, set APNs or destinations etc. This is a far better system than iOS or WP7, both of which require you to physically open ‘settings’ and change things there, which is a longer, more convoluted process. Missed calls and text messages will also have an icon in this area and in such circumstances tapping the battery will allow you to open conversations or missed calls. Then there are the home screens themselves, which are fully customizable unlike iOS or WP7, and unlike Android you can turn them off if you wish. So while Symbian comes with 3 home screens, you can turn one or two off as desired. They can also be customized freely, with widgets, icons and bookmarks, or you can install SPB Shell for a truly amazing customization experience. Compare this to WP7 where the only thing you can change the background on is the lock screen, the home screen only allows you to change colors. And on the subject of widgets, S^3, unlike previous versions, has social networking integrated complete with an updating widget that sits right on the home screen. One tap and you can view all your feeds individually or on one roll, view photos and comments and update your status.

Symbian not only packs features, but a few ways to use them. For instance, iOS will only be backed up by connecting to iTunes and WP7 will only back up when an update is available, through Zune – the user cannot manually create a backup (the user can backup photos etc to SkyDrive and apps are linked to the user account, but app data is not stored anywhere, so if you use a Wallet app to store sensitive data you’ll lose it all with a restore, and game saves will be lost. Plus, downloading things from multiple locations is a very cumbersome act). In Symbian, however, you can either connect the device to the PC and backup to Ovi Suite, or on the device itself you can perform a backup (or schedule regular ones) to the memory card or, best of all, perform a wireless backup to Nokia’s servers which will automatically download to your PC the next time you open Ovi Suite.

Thus, backups can be performed on the fly, allowing you to install a beta app on the train without worrying about backing it up at home first. Why perform a backup at all? some people ask. There are multiple reasons. Your phone can be stolen at any time. You can leave it on the table in a restaurant or simply drop it and break it. You could install beta software that requires you to perform a hard reset, or your phone may simply need restoring the software to improve performance. Or perhaps it needs to be sent back to the manufacturer for repair or replacing. All of these scenarios will make you want a backup to restore to the replacement phone, and Symbian offers the best options here. If someone is travelling with an iPhone, they can’t back up the phone, so suppose you went on holiday and left the PC at home? Not everyone has the luxury of a laptop so it’s not unreasonable to suggest many people do indeed leave the computer behind. If you own a WP7 device the situation is even worse, because you can’t back it up at all anyway. Mango may resolve this, but no mention has been made of it by Microsoft or developers. With Symbian, however, you can go on holiday and wirelessly sync a backup to the PC across the ocean without a second thought.

Moving onto the nitty-gritty, Symbian has the best multitasking available on any device. There are videos online of the N8 running 40 apps at the same time, and this is real, live multitasking. While it’s true to say Android allows live multitasking, Android also lacks a task killer so you need to install one manually then open menu, find it, and kill apps that way, rather than the intuitive and quick method in Symbian – hold the menu key to display running apps and tap the ‘x’. iOS and WP7, however, don’t offer live multitasking at all, the former pauses apps and allows you to open them again quickly, and the latter pauses apps but uses live agents to periodically poll for updates to certain things, like email and Twitter. The reason offered by these manufacturers is that multitasking kills the battery.

Now, it’s certainly true running five things at once will use up more power than running one thing, but first and foremost, most people won’t leave things open that they’re not using, nor will they tend to leave things open continually – except on Android, where closing apps is impossible without a task killer and difficult with one. Which leads to another problem with Android: if things are left running, Android will close them when it thinks they should be closed, which means the user won’t be running anywhere near 40 apps. Back to the battery then, the problem with that argument is Symbian offers the best battery life on the market. What’s that? Best multitasking and the best battery power? That means either Steven Jobs and Ballmer are lying about multitasking or they don’t have the ability to improve battery life through optimization, either way does not make for a compelling purchase. Indeed, the Motorola Atrix has the largest battery ever put in a phone, at 1900mA, and it still dies within 9-10 hours of medium usage, while the Nokia N8 can easily last a day or more.

Symbian also offers support for a plethora of file formats and codec support, allowing you to play media from the internet or elsewhere, be it movies or audio, without the need to convert the file format. Thanks to S^3 having mass storage mode, the device can be connected to the PC, the user can click and drag a movie or audio to the device and then play it immediately, without the need to open Zune or iTunes to do so or convert anything – this means you don’t need to convert a file to support Microsoft or Apple or have to decide which copy to keep, the original or the one you were forced to make. Symbian also supports 3D graphics, it’s hardware accelerated, the GPU is read by the whole OS including the UI and it is efficient to the point that less strain is placed on the CPU, thus increasing battery life and responsiveness. In other words, Symbian packs in more features than any other operating system, but is more optimized and efficient than the rest too. While Android is needing to put huge processors in its phones to compensate for the nagging lag, Nokia’s on S^3 run great on a 680MHz processor thanks to the GPU, noticed by the user with improved fluidity and amazing battery life.

Then there is the Ovi Store. People routinely complain it isn’t as packed as the App Store or Android Marketplace, and while this is true, it has more apps than anyone could ever need or use and is the second best performing app store on the market, second only to Apple’s App Store, with five million downloads a day. Let’s face it, the App Store does not have hundreds of thousands of quality apps, rather it has many, many ‘novelty’ or joke apps, fart apps, countless copycat apps and a bunch of mobile webpages downloadable as apps, and the Marketplace contains many incomplete, unfinished apps or out-and-out malware.

Next up are two things that Symbian offers that WP7 and iOS don’t: Bluetooth file transfers and a file manager. I have been told Bluetooth file transfers are blocked to prevent malicious files or even software that isn’t supported. This isn’t a valid argument to me. For starters, most people open turn Bluetooth on when they actually want to use it. Secondly, Bluetooth requires the recipient of a file to confirm the transfer, and often both users need to input a code to pair the devices. No one will accept a file that they are not expecting, and we’re not talking about covert terrorist files here – the Bluetooth range is still short enough that you’d need to be in relatively close proximity to find a phone and attempt to share anything. And even if someone did manage to accept a software file, the fact is it simply wouldn’t run if it were unsupported. And even if it did run and corrupt everything, it would be a simple case of resetting the device and using any of the backups you already performed to restore it to the previous state within an hour – and if you did a backup on the phone itself, the memory card data will be intact so you can even restore the backup while on the go. Simple.

Unless you use WP7, which won’t let you do a backup, or easily use a memory card – and if you do get a memory card inserted, you can’t ever take it out and retain the data, nor can you save specific things to the memory card. Which is, frankly, one of the most brain-dead and pointless decisions I’ve ever witnessed in a mobile device. Are Microsoft so unaware that people like to hot-swap the cards, or put it into the computer or printer or a card reader hooked up to a TV so they can copy, print or view photos or other media? Or when people get a new phone they often transfer the memory card? Thankfully Symbian has no such hang-ups and will freely let you swap memory cards all day long. And accept a Bluetooth file and restore a backup if you accepted a virus from a bearded man wearing a ‘down with technology’ t-shirt in the alley behind the porn shop.

What about a file manager? Sure, it’s not the biggest issue on a phone, but it’s important to many nonetheless. If I want to email a file, or just find out where something is saved, I can open file manager and navigate to it, and from there do what I please. In systems without a file manager I have no choice where something is put and am forced to live with the phone telling me what it will do with things. That’s something I’m not happy with. I like folders, I like organizing things in my own way. Have you ever seen the PC desktops of, say, three friends? Have you noticed that they’re usually different? Some have tons of loose files scattered, every ‘setup.exe’ file ever downloaded still there, while others have a few organized folders and others have nothing whatsoever. This is proof that one size doesn’t fit all and we like to organize things our own way.

For instance, in my N900 I have a ‘wallpapers’ folder on the memory card, I can leave the file manager running while I change the backgrounds and if I don’t like it, I can maximize the file manager and select something else. In non-file-manager-permitting systems I would need to go to photos, set as background, go back to home screen, go back to photos, set as background, go back to home screens, and so on. Or if I get new music from a friend sent straight to the device, I can use the file manager to put it in whatever folder I want if I want it in an existing artist folder, or an existing TV show folder. Quite frankly, the reason WP7 and iOS forbid file managers and Bluetooth transfers is nothing to do with anything other them wanting to lock you in with iTunes and Zune. Put simply: Microsoft and Apple want to babysit you as a technology user, while Symbian says ‘here’s everything you could want to do with a phone, go have fun. And if you break it, just restore a backup.’ I don’t know about you guys, but I much prefer the Symbian treat-you-like-an-adult approach.

So what of the hardware? It’s neither surprise nor secret that Nokia offers the best hardware on the market, bar none, and S^3 is getting the biggest reward from this. The N8 for example has the best camera on any phone to date, with a 12mpx camera and the largest sensor ever put in a phone, just look at the following video of ants filmed on an N8

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The N8 also has HDMI, HD recording, notification lights, FM transmitter, USB OTG and so on, making it not only fully competing in today’s market, but also surpassing the competition in many ways.

To sum up: Symbian remains the most feature-packed OS on the market. In an age of smartphones, should the purpose not be making things ‘smarter’ rather than ‘dumber’? Things can be smart and simple, indeed Symbian is by no means complex, so why must manufacturers insist on cutting important features out or limiting important aspects? Why are consumers treated with such contempt as to assume they couldn’t possibly know how to close apps, or possibly want to run a few things at the same time for a specific purpose? When put side by side with other OSs, Symbian is by no means perfect, but it does more than any other, and it is more efficient and optimized than any other.

I own smartphones because I want to do various things, and those things can vary day to day so I need something that is able to suit my needs and whims, not something that tells me I actually don’t need to do that after all, I just think I do. Technology is there to assist us, not dictate to us. And for all those reasons, Symbian remains the Smartphone King – hell, the fact it can do what others do and more and offer unparalleled battery life is impressive enough.