Lately we have been reviewing smartphones for the UK carrier Three, in the past we were impressed by the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play and blown away by the HTC Sensation, therefore we excited when we were asked to review the Nokia X7 which runs the latest version of Symbian ^3 (Anna).
The last Symbian device which we spent a lot of time with was the Nokia N96 and it was clear that Nokia needed a rethink, so we were excited to see how a 2011 Nokia smartphone compared to some of today’s more popular Android devices etc. Also as Nokia recently announced that they were scrapping Symbian devices in North America we were keen to see why this decision had been made.
Unboxing and Design
You can usually tell a lot about a product by its packaging and the feel of the device when you pick it up, in terms of retail packaging the X7 could not be faulted and inside the box you get the Nokia X7, a hands free kit, mains charger, USB cable, an 8GB microSD memory card and the paper work you tend to get with any smartphone (safety guide and a brief user guide). All of the cables etc were high quality and the controls on the hands free kit gave the X7 a premium feel, rather than cheap and cheerful “plasticky” accessories.
When you first pick up the Nokia X7 it has a very solid and weighty feel, it feels balanced in your hand and the single button on the front of the smartphone makes it quite iPhone-esque. On the right hand side there are volume rockers and a dedicated camera button and on the top there is a power button, microUSB port and 3.5mm headphone jack finally on the left hand side there are two trays which you must use to slot in your memory card and SIM card.
The two trays mentioned in the previous paragraph can be seen below, as you can see this is a pretty unique way of doing things and despite being pretty fiddly we quite liked it. This does mean that the back cover is not removable (not easily anyway), so let’s hope you won’t have to remove the battery. We liked the flush finish these trays left when slotted in.
The back of the X7 is pretty nice and premium-looking, you can clearly see an 8 megapixel sensor (no sign of Carl Zeiss optics) and a dual-LED flash. The physical design is dominated by a curved metal cover which wraps around the back of the device, despite the curved back edge it sits nicely on a flat surface and doesn’t wobble. As for the front of the X7 it is dominated by a massive 4-inch display and speakers at each corner, we like the design and the black bezel compliments the silver metal finish nicely. One design imperfection in our opinion is the fact that the volume rockers and camera button are situated on the tapered edge of the X7, this means that sometimes your finger slips rather press the button you wanted, this is especially annoying if you need to quickly take a photo.
Software first impressions
When you first turn on the Nokia X7 you have to carry out the standard “set up your phone” procedure and then you are welcomed by a UI which boasts three home screens, you can swipe left to right or right to left to see all three home screens, or press a button to scroll through each home screen. No matter what home screen you are viewing there is a “Call” button and an “Options” button, the physical button situated below the display opens up the phone’s menu. The display itself is bright, but suffers in outdoor conditions (like most touchscreen smartphones), compared to the Sensation the resolution was a little lacking, but that said there was not a moment where fonts on websites weren’t easily viewable. If you hold the X7 horizontally the UI automatically adjusts accordingly. One thing which annoyed us as soon as we begun using the Nokia X7 is the touch screen vibrating setting which is turned on by default, it is just awful and to us sounds like the noise a blown speaker makes, it is easy to change this setting, but it annoys us that Nokia think this is something everyone wants on.
As standard Nokia covers your home screen with all sorts of shortcuts and widgets, we didn’t like the hectic look and because a lot of the widgets were live we found that at times the smartphone slowed down when updating these – if you press options you can switch widgets to offline mode, this saves battery life, but somewhat makes some of the widgets redundant. We decided to clear all of the home screen and completely configure them from scratch to suit our needs. To do this touch and hold any shortcut / widget and select remove to clear it, then once they are all gone touch and hold the home screen and you have 6 areas on the home screen which you can customize, unlike Android these areas have a set size and do not spread across more than one area – this means that widgets have a very small area to work with (approx 43mm x 10mm), we see this as a major limitation.
It took us a while to configure the Nokia X7′s UI and once we had we tried out some of the many applications and widgets, Three UK’s 3G network ensured that services such as BBC iPlayer ran smoothly, however as you would expect loading times and buffering improved when connected via WiFi, we also tried out an app called Movie Teasers which allows you watch trailers and find out about films in an intuitive manner, videos were clear and so was the sound and streaming the videos worked well over 3G.
Music playback was great, the sound quality was crisp and the music app was responsive, however despite the X7 looking like it has four speakers spread out around the display sound only comes from the two situated near the bottom of the display, if you use the headphones which Nokia supply with the X7 you can easily skip tracks and play / pause media via the controls, but there are no volume controls on the headphones. What bemuses us is the fact that the X7 comes with just 350MB internal storage, obviously you get an 8GB microSD card, but we would have thought Nokia would have given the X7 at least 1GB of internal storage.
As previously mentioned the Nokia X7 features a physical button to help you take photos quickly, easily and comfortably – however as previously mentioned the tapered edge on the side of the X7 can make this a little difficult, that said in terms of layout and functionality the camera app is great. When taking photos it is easy to zoom in and out, adjust the flash and switch to camcorder mode, also if you press options you can further configure your settings. We loved how easy it was to choose different scenes, colour tones, sharpness and white balance etc (see image below), and also loved the fact that you could customize photos once taken, it’s really easy to crop images, remove red eye, add clip art to images and much more, if you capture video you can add images to the video and text or perhaps chop down videos to make them shorter – all of this functionality was available with no third-party apps installed and you can share media you capture to social networking services quickly and easily, but the software would not allow me to tag friends in photos for some reason.
Stills were all pretty good, however close-ups weren’t that crisp and the flash was sometimes over powering. For general day-to-day photos of landscapes, pets and people etc the results rarely disappointed and the colors captured look spot on. The video capture was not the greatest we have seen from an 8 megapixel camera, video playback was smooth, however the X7 picked up a lot of noise from fairly calm winds and there were often grainy areas of color, don’t get me wrong videos were great at times, but we have seen better results from the 8 megapixel sensor which the HTC Sensation possesses, so we have to compare the two side-by-side.
Well as you probably know Nokia has pledged to concentrate on Windows Phone 7 in the future, and we have to agree with their decision, why? Well if you used the Nokia X7 for an hour and compare it to a similar Android-based device you would probably end up saying that the Nokia X7 would be amazing if it ran Android, that said the processor is a little on the slow side. When using Symbian we found that all thinks Ovi took time, the structure of the Ovi Store is impressive and purchasing, download and installing apps is commendable, but at times it seems as if the OS and applications need some time to catch up with your actions, which means that you don’t get the fluid experience which we expect from competing devices – also as social networking is so popular these days we were frustrated to see that there were no official Facebook or Twitter applications, instead it all came under something called Ovi Social, this creates one stream for both Facebook and Twitter and it’s not all that bad, but it takes time to open up and scrolling through the news feed is by no means smooth. We have to say that the virtual keyboard which Symbian allows you to use is pretty good, but the layout takes a little of getting used to and we preferred using it in landscape, also unlike Android there doesn’t seem to be much support for voice recognition (excluding the Vingo app) – but in my experience such functionality is usually flaky at best.
The default web browser is pretty fast and easy to use, but tabbed browsing seemed clunky and there was no easy way to share things such as links socially, we installed Opera and it ran perfectly offering a much more intuitive user experience than the default browser, but if you just want to check out a few web sites here and there Nokia’s solution is adequate – it supports pinch to zoom, but this is not always as smooth as you would hope.
Our biggest gripe with Symbian is the fact that quite often apps just wouldn’t launch or things would slow down to a halt, the multitasking functionality is there and you can easily see what apps are running, but at times you go to open something up and it just won’t load, you check open applications and there is no sign of your app. General menu navigation isn’t affected by this, and quite often apps open up just fine, but sometimes things just don’t work – why? Your guess is as good as ours. Intensive apps such as Angry Birds run ok, but you can pretty much guarantee that you will experience slow down at times, also the lack of a menu button means that if things freeze you quite often have to come out of an app by pressing the handset’s only front-facing button – which gets very annoying.
The Nokia X7 does not disappoint when it comes to calling, texting and emailing – calls sounded loud and clear and people on the other end never complained about my mic, in terms of texting and emailing the software was pretty solid, but we didn’t like the way that you could view SMS messages both independently or in a conversation view, surely these days the conversation view is just fine? We experienced some difficulties sending picture messages and were often told that sending the message had failed, but no reason was given which was frustrating to say the least. We do think that the Android and iOS ways of doing things are a lot less cluttered, perhaps Symbian devs should sometimes think less is more as half the time people only want to carry out basic functionality. In terms of battery life it depends heavily on how you use it, we would confidently charge it every other night as general usage does not take its toll, but if you start running demanding apps this will soon change, especially the navigation application.
As previously mentioned the Nokia X7 gives you a lot out of the box, we were particularly impressed by the aforementioned photo and video editing apps also the maps app is just great. We used it as a sat nav in the car and can safely say that it will get you to your destination just fine, sometimes local road knowledge is missing so you won’t take the shortest route, also the narration isn’t as clear as a TomTom, but let’s face it this has been chucked in for free and it is actually pretty good. The Calendar application is a bit strange, for some reason it would not stay in a monthly view for us, which was annoying, but in terms of adding events and appointments you can’t fault it, that said there is no social network integration, which means birthdays and events from Facebook don’t sync, we were very disappointed by this. It was not just the Calendar that didn’t sync, when testing out the Nokia X7 there seemed to be no way to sync your contacts from your social networking websites, which means manual entry of everyone’s details, along with manually linking contacts with photos, social networking profiles etc – this is pretty basic functionality for smartphones these days and the Nokia X7 fails miserably.
This has been one of the hardest reviews I have ever had to write, the trouble is the Symbian operating system, it just lacks the intuitivity of modern mobile operating systems and sometimes has you wondering whether you lost signal, didn’t touch an icon correctly etc when really the OS is what was at fault – if the Nokia X7 ran Android or WP7 we are sure that this review would have been much more positive, Symbian just delivers a slow and predictable user experience which won’t cut it in today’s high-end market, at times you are delighted by the X7 especially when you see what some of the pre-installed apps can do, but at times your are left thinking “why is this so difficult” and that’s pretty much the bottom line. The Nokia X7 summarizes why Nokia has axed Symbian in North America, you can’t fault Nokia’s design team as it look great, feels solid and sets a strong foundation for the OS to thrive, but it is clear that the OS cannot run well on the hardware provided, is it because the processor speed is relatively slow? Not entirely, as this has nothing to do with menu structure, navigation, poor social networking functionality and extremely limited home screen customization – we just think it has been proved that the future of Symbian in the mid to high-end market is not very promising – and we really didn’t want to have to say that.