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Nokia X7

August 21st, 2011
Nokia bows out Symbian smartphones with a media focus

Much has changed since we last looked at a Nokia phone: what was once the undisputed king of smartphones is now fighting to stay a major player after Apple and Google took over. With Windows Phone coming soon, then, devices like the X7 are attempts to bridge the gap and keep Symbian relevant in an era where big screens, gaming, and Twitter mean more than phone calls and e-mail. But is it a proper swan song for an outgoing platform, or a sign that Nokia needed to embrace Microsoft sooner? We'll answer that in our X7 review. Much has changed since we last looked at a Nokia phone: what was once the undisputed king of smartphones is now fighting to stay a major player after Apple and Google took over. With Windows Phone coming soon, then, devices like the X7 are attempts to bridge the gap and keep Symbian relevant in an era where big screens, gaming, and Twitter mean more than phone calls and e-mail. But is it a proper swan song for an outgoing platform, or a sign that Nokia needed to embrace Microsoft sooner? We'll answer that in our X7 review.

Design and the screen

First impressions are positive, if not very conventional, for the X7. It embodies much of what a late Symbian phone is like: a very sturdy yet thin, aluminum shell. It's tapered to fit comfortably in your hand and usually does, although we found it a bit slippery. The oddness comes in through the shape: each corner is seemingly clipped off, creating a more octagonal shape than the iPhone's rounded corners or an out-and-out brick shape. Disappointingly, though, what looks to be speakers on all four corners isn't, as there's only two; don't expect a quadrophonic experience.

As with the N8 and other Symbian^3 or Symbian Anna phones, the battery isn't removable. You do get more control than some phones over storage, though: it's one of the few fully sealed designs to have a microSDHC card slot. Nokia gives an 8GB card in the box that's enough for most casual image capturing, apps, and music, although you'll want to trade up if you're prodigious or using it as a music player replacement. A micro USB port provides your charging and syncing, and thankfully makes a replacement cable easy to find if you lose one on a trip.

Controls are mixed and show that Nokia was focusing a bit too much on form over function. There's a very handy dedicated camera shutter button, but in our experience, it needs to be held down for a few seconds to get into the camera app -- somewhat defeating the point of using it as a shortcut. The volume rocker is also difficult to hit easily. To some extent, it reminds us of the fourth-generation iPod touch in that you have to more deliberately reach back to hit, although Apple's controls are at least raised. Here, it feels too much like guesswork.

The screen on the X7 is one of the more ambitious Nokia has had, relatively speaking, short of the N9. At four inches, it's just about in that sweet spot between size and portability that Nokia's rivals, in the Android world, are starting to ignore. In good conditions, it's bright, colorful without being oversaturated, and copes well with motion like you'd expect AMOLED to do.

Still, there are definite limitations, and ultimately it comes across as not quite where it needs to be. We don't mind the 640x360 resolution that much, but it's not on par with the 480x800 that's more common on other platforms (including Windows Phone) and certainly pales in comparison next to the 540x960 of newer Android phones and the 640x960 of an iPhone. Ironically, as a media phone, it's lacking the HD-friendly display that other more 'distracted' phones have -- and there's no HDMI output, either.

It's not quite so ideal outdoors. As it's using a regular AMOLED, it tends to lose viewability in bright sunlight considerably faster than Samsung's Super AMOLED or an LCD. We also noticed a slight, greenish color tinting when the phone is held at a certain, and not necessarily wide, angle. While it won't sour the experience, it's something that none of Nokia's rivals have encountered, so it puts the X7 at a disadvantage.

Symbian Anna

Software has been Nokia's biggest challenge, and arguably the cause of its rapid decline in share over the past few years. Much of its more recent work has been to simply adapt the platform to the modern definition of a smartphone, where an intuitive touch interface and strong media skills are everything.

In some ways, Anna is a lot better than even what Symbian^3 just last year was managing. The biggest is the browser, which is indeed a lot faster and is at least competent with other browsers, if not quite as speedy as when put up against a high-end rival matched with both a recent OS and a fast processor. It's more intuitive as a whole, too.

There's similarly a much-needed addition of a portrait keyboard. Users can now finally type without having to tilt the phone on its side, scrapping a somewhat arbitrary limitation of the past. It's clear early on that Nokia needs to refine this for Symbian Belle or later, however. Even on a fairly large screen like that of the X7, the keys are frequently too small, and the strictly grid-based key layout tends to lead to unintentional input, even when you've grown used to it. We'd equally question why certain text entry modes jump to an 'empty' screen showing nothing of the context while others don't. It's not very intuitive.

A few other extras exist, though unless you're in a workplace that needs Exchange support, most of them are cosmetic flourishes for home screen transitions and icons.

If you haven't used a modern Symbian version before, the day to day experience of the interface itself is solid, though definitely nothing special. The interface is somewhat austere-looking in many menus but generally works, including for media playback that includes podcasts and even an FM radio. The home screen is somewhat limiting in the inability to take fully customizable app shortcuts, but it has an emphasis on widgets that can be very handy for quick access to the music player, contacts, or other common tasks.

There's also a few key, though not necessarily unique, benefits. Ovi Maps (already renamed Nokia Maps elsewhere) gives it an Android-like free option for turn-by-turn driving and walking directions out of the box. Multitasking is also not only real but works fairly well: hold the home button and you not only get a list of running apps but thumbnails to show what they look like. HP's nearly defunct webOS, Nokia's MeeGo interface on the N9 and Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 Mango update will both have a similar effect, but as of this writing, only Nokia had an actively shipping implementation.

After spending enough time with the OS, though, it still proved to be more and more frustrating as time went on. A lot of it can be attributed to a death by a thousand cuts. E-mail is a bit less intuitive. Customizing the home screen is harder than it has to be. Nokia has taken care of many of the eccentricities of earlier Symbian versions, but you'll still get cryptic certificate errors browsing the web or other pop-up dialogs that would spook a relative beginner and don't show up on other platforms.

More importantly: Symbian Anna is still buggy, and extremely so at times. Apps periodically take inexplicably long pauses during tasks. The interface will occasionally grow unresponsive, only to "catch up" and suddenly process all your commands at once. Apps crash noticeably more frequently than they do on other platforms.

We've even had some definite showstoppers. At a couple of points, the X7 became almost completely unresponsive and had to be given a hard reboot (by holding the power, home and camera buttons all at once). Such problems certainly creep up on other platforms, but you shouldn't start facing them almost immediately after getting a phone and with this kind of frequency. We even saw the video player app choke on one of Nokia's own included sample videos; that doesn't bode well. The impression given would be like having Windows 7's interface on top of Windows 3.1: it might be mostly more intuitive on top, but the underneath code is old enough that it genuinely interferes with the experience.

Apps, the Ovi Store, and performance

Preloaded apps are relatively few on the X7, but generally start in the right direction. Everyone gets Gameloft's Asphalt 6 and Galaxy on Fire for games as well as song recognition from Shazam and voice commands from Vlingo. Facebook and Twitter are largely covered by Nokia's Social app, although it's relatively basic and might be overwhelmed by those with a lot of friends on either service.

The Ovi Store, Nokia's official app store, has come a long way since it first appeared. Along with being easy enough to browse, it's sufficiently stocked enough that there's a decent ecosystem, at least for the next while that Symbian is a living platform. You won't find as many apps as Android (over 250,000 as of this writing) or Apple's App Store (over 425,000). With over 50,000 apps, it's still enough to find a healthy selection of apps that will cover needs. We've noticed that some areas do suffer: if you want a Twitter client, for example, there are far fewer than on the Android or iPhone, and the best (Gravity) is a steep $10.

For a phone pitched as gaming-friendly, the performance isn't where it needs to be. Games that are relatively straightforward run well, such as Fruit Ninja, but games that demand a lot of 3D, such as Asphalt, run disappointingly slow and just quickly enough to be acceptable. The anemic 680MHz ARM11 chip is to blame. It doesn't matter that there's a modern graphics core on top; the main processor is clearly behind the pack. Even many budget or mid-range phones now have 1GHz processors on designs that would be faster even at Nokia's clock speed. We know there's likely compatibility reasons behind it. That doesn't change that this media phone is somewhat limited.

Camera apps and image quality

Photography has often been a centerpiece feature of Nokia phones. This certainly manifests itself in the apps. The video recorder is basic, as you might anticipate, but the still photo app is fairly well loaded with fine-tuning, such as the color tone, exposure compensation, white balance, and other settings that help massage the final output. Photography is fast, other than that few seconds of initial startup. There are some slightly odd decisions. We're still wondering why manual ISO is limited to high, medium, and low options rather than actual values.

The image quality is a let-down from what we're used to with Nokia. As much as we like that the X7 has an eight-megapixel camera with a reasonably well-powered flash, it's using a "full focus" lens system -- that is, there's no autofocus. Even as it speeds up shooting, it also rules out some close-up shots and fine-tuning the center of attention. You're mostly limited to mid-range and landscape shots.

Actual output isn't so great, either. We noticed that colors came out considerably more muted than they were in real life, whether it was a flower's petals or a neon green car. Images tended to have slightly exaggerated contrast, and elements like trees lose a lot of detail against a bright sky. Given that many of the X7's competitors have autofocus and better balance, we're honestly wondering whether the sacrifices in camera quality were necessary.

Video fares well, though. While the same image still image quality issues persist, the video stays fairly sharp, there's a minimum of artifacts, and it doesn't panic with rapid changes in scene color or movement. Audio quality is reasonably good in moderate situations and doesn't sound prone to significant wind noise.

One additional touch for video that even Apple doesn't have: a video editor. It's simpler than iMovie, but it's easy to use and, importantly, ships for free. If you're just looking to join videos, trim them, add a soundtrack and titles, you don't need to look elsewhere.

Call quality and battery life

As a phone, the X7 is solid in call quality on both ends. That's a slight achievement with the primarily aluminum body, where only a part of the top and bottom is plastic to allow both the cellular and short-range wireless signals to get through. Reliability on Rogers was fine, although your results will as always be subject to the quality of the network more than the phone.

Runtime is good enough to get through a typical day of use, but not more than that in earnest. We've observed that Nokia's Symbian smartphones tend to drain battery fairly aggressively overnight. What might be a 50 or 60 percent charge can quickly end up dropping to 40 percent or less by the morning. The X7 then performs about as well as some other smartphones with a slight catch.

Wrapping up

Cellular carriers know Nokia is in a difficult point in its history and, thankfully, have priced the X7 accordingly. It should be available free on contract in Europe and, on Rogers, is $30 on a (rather lengthy) three-year contract but also cheap on its own: at $300, it's reasonable if you like the freedom of jumping ship early.

With that in mind, it's still hard to recommend the X7. Most of the blame can be put squarely on Symbian, which is showing its age entirely too much by this stage. Nokia has largely caught up in important features; where it hasn't is in those fit-and-finish areas that mean the difference between a pleasing . It's still decidedly rougher in individual apps, and the stability induces headaches often enough that managing the phone can feel like a struggle.

And while the build quality is tops, there's enough hardware quirks that the phone falls short there, too. The physical controls and AMOLED screen quality are minor issues at most. Camera quality, though, is hard to understand. When a Nokia N8 with a far superior camera costs as much or less than an X7, it's hard to make that choice even if you're a Symbian fan.

Moreover, the price difference versus other phones is hard to justify. Just on Rogers, there are a slew of better phones that only cost $20 more. The Google Nexus S is our pick by a wide margin, but the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc and Xperia Play are also solid picks. On other carriers, it's magnified: the HTC Incredible S is in the same size class, just magnified. When you're bound to spend several hundred dollars or more a year on service, saving a small amount up front just isn't worthwhile.

Nokia's transition magnifies the issues. As true as it is that Symbian will be active through at least 2013, Nokia's decision to very publicly plan for Windows Phone devices by the end of 2011 raises the question why you'd buy on the outgoing platform. Microsoft's OS is much more stable, has more advanced features, and more importantly, has a long-term future. Merge that with Nokia's usual hardware design and you have a potent combination.

Symbian with the X7 isn't leaving on a sour note, since there's signs of what Nokia does well still there in the design. What it does show, though, is just how urgently Nokia needs to switch to its new OS strategy. The company is losing share quickly, and the X7 isn't the torch to make people change their minds.

- Solid aluminum body.

- Reasonably good AMOLED screen in more moderate light.

- Low price.

- Fairly good video recording; built-in video editing.

- Reliable voice.

- Symbian Anna improvements.

- Symbian Anna still buggy and sub-par.

- Disappointing camera.

- Slow performance with 3D.

- AMOLED has trouble in bright sunlight and off angles.

- Not enough price gap to justify skipping other phones.