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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Nokia Music.. oh dear.

I had two options lined up for today's post: navigating on the N96 or a review of the all-in-wonder, have-to-have application Shozu. Well, Nokia still haven't sorted out my mapping license, so no joy there (had a jol on the weekend with Geocache Navigator though). As luck would have it I'm having trouble at the moment with Shozu too, and I didn't want to blog on the app until I got those issues sorted out.

As a poor substitute, Nokia Music launched in SA over the weekend and I can give my initial impressions on that. To put it bluntly, I'm not at all impressed. I was seriously looking forward to the service, as I'm keen to find a site I can easily and legitimately buy digital music from, and doing this direct to my phone would have been perfect. As it turns out, I'll have to keep waiting for that one great service.

The bad
The first glaring failure (in my eyes) is that Nokia have opted for WMV as a format, and DRM crippled WMV at that. Their PC client does give the option of burning bought music to CD, which can of course then be ripped back to a DRM-free format, but that really shouldn't be necessary. Even iTunes is finally freeing it's users of the shackles of DRM, so surely a new service like this should be DRM-free?
Second up is that their 'mobile optimized' site weighs in at a hefty 250kb per page. In other words, on typical SA out-of-bundle data rates of R2/meg, browse four mobile pages on and you've already spent R2, with no music to show for it. Granted, sensible users would be using a data bundle (contract or once-off) to download music but besides the bandwidth cost issue, these pages are also (unsurprisingly) very sluggish. This makes browsing for music tedious even in 3G reception areas. The search feature isn't that effective either, I gave up after a couple of attempts, and will try again when I have some time on my home WiFi network instead.
The PC client looked like it might have some promise, but sadly I've been unable to get it to connect to the Nokia store through our proxy due to a lack of proxy configuration options. It's quite possible our firewall is the problem, but no information is provided for dealing with that, so this is another one that will have to wait for a go on my home network. This is hardly surprising, since Nokia's other software (such as Map Loader) also tends to struggle on corporate networks.
At this stage the mobile and PC interfaces to the store have been serious barriers to use and purchasing, so I have yet to actually buy any music from the service. Price-wise, Nokia have settled on R10 per song and R100 per album. This isn't bad, if one considers the price of CDs these days, but I was really hoping to see a price around the R7-R8 per song mark.

The good
So with all these negative points, surely Nokia must have got something right? It's a small plus, but I have to say I'm impressed with how locally focused what I saw of the store was. It's refreshing to see a multinational like Nokia paying such careful attention to what is locally relevant.
The PC client also has a pretty decent (and obviously iTunes inspired) music player component which seems to have good support for locating similar music in the store (unfortunately grayed out because I was disconnected).Default filters include the expected artist, album and genre, and search functionality is available as well Music can be transferred between the local library, a connected phone and user created playlists. It's mini player could do with some attention to make is more 'mini', but for most users it should get the job done. Nokia would definitely do well to replace the music player in PC Suite with this application sooner rather than later.

In summary
Perhaps when I have tried the mobile site on a WiFi network and the PC client on a more open network my view of the service will be improved, but considering the majority of users are likely to access the services as I did - using GPRS for the mobile site and their work PCs for the desktop client - that really shouldn't be necessary. This is one service I believe Nokia will have to give some serious attention to before it really is ready for- and relevant to- the SA market.

[Update: 28/05/2009]

I have since managed to browse the store using the PC client through the firewall (by setting the music store site as trusted in IE settings) and it seems to be a really great source of music, even some of the obscure stuff I struggle to find in physical format locally. Again the focus on localized content is quite strong (I had to chuckle at the "Double Idols Winners" banner) and Nokia are obviously making an effort to keep content locally relevant. Sadly it's not possible to stream the sample clips or download purchased songs behind the firewall, as it's impossible to provide proxy credentials to the app.

With Telkom and Webafrica finally sorting out my home ADSL this week I had another go at the mobile version of the site over my home WiFi network. While the large pages still keep the overall service fairly sluggish, I no longer had the dissconnect issues I experienced over 3G and managed to download some music. The downloads themselves are also a bit slow (internationally hosted?) but once the music was downloaded I definitely couldn't fault the sound quality. Despite the speed issues I'm sure I'll be using the service to buy more music.. particularly once Nokia removes the DRM as they have committed to doing later this year.

Nokia Music SA has been quite active on Twitter as @NMS_ZA and I managed to get an email from them I could send feedback and questions to. I posed questions about the large size of their mobile pages and the inability to stream or download audio behind a proxy requiring authentication, my email to them follows:

First of all, thanks for getting back to me on my queries. Also, my apologies for publicly replying with the issues, NMS_ZA isn't following me on Twitter so I can't direct message you.
The two issues I wanted to bring to the development team's attention are:
1. Music store mobile page sizes
This is obviously a site designed to be accessed on a mobile platform, on which people typically pay a premium for bandwidth. I understand the ideal is that it be accessed over WiFi, but the market reality is that most customers will be using a GPRS/3G connection without a data bundle, meaning their bandwidth could be costing them up to R2 per megabyte. As it currently stands, music store pages weigh in at a hefty 250kb or more (the landing page is almost 300kb). In other words, before even buying and downloading any music, just browsing 3-4 pages of the store could cost the user R2. This also makes the pages quite slow over a (non-3G) GPRS connection, slower browsing = fewer sales.
By way of comparison, here are some other mobile optimized sites which include images and some of their typical page sizes: 10kb 11kb 13kb 9kb
2. PC Application does not include proxy authentication settings
The PC application currently does not allow the user to specify proxy settings, most importantly proxy login details. There is an obscure workaround for users to actually browse the store by adding the music store as a trusted site in Internet Explorer settings, but this does not affect actual downloads. As a result, neither previewing music nor actually downloading music from the store works if the user accesses the internet through a proxy, a VERY common setup for corporate workers. The ideal may be that users access your site from a home PC without these complications (and indeed Nokia support's suggested fix is to do just that), but the reality is many will try it at work, fail, and never look at the store again, costing you sales. Consider the number of individuals accessing social networking sites such as Facebook from work and you will realize there is huge potential for sales to bored office workers.
It's worth noting that this is a common problem with a number of Nokia PC applications. The Nokia Software Updater and Nokia Map Downloader applications both fail to work when accessing the internet through a proxy server and thus are useless for individuals that would use them at work in a corporate environment.
For reference, the error received when trying to download a purchased music track (observed by hovering over the "X" in the current downloads queue) is: "The remote server returned an error: (407) Proxy Authentication Required".
I really am excited about the Nokia store in South Africa, I happily use my N96 as my primary music device when not at home and will welcome the ability to buy my music directly in a digital format (especially once the store goes DRM-free). I hope you'll seriously consider correcting the above issues to make the experience more pleasant for myself and other Nokia users.

They got back to me today on these issues, and I’m sorry to say the impression I got wasn’t that they really have any intention of improving on these issues:

Hi Matt

I got the feedback from our technical guys at NMS_ZA and below are the responses to your queries - I am not sure that the answers are exactly what you wanted, but this is where we are and how our service runs

1. In order to offer the richest and nearest to "full web" experience on mobile as possible, it is neccesary for the pages to be of the size that they are as they include rich content, imagery and security features.

2. Nokia Music Store uses the Internet Explorer proxy settings. The suggestion is that the user confiigures the Internet Explorer proxy connection and points it to the right server. This can be done by opening an internet explorer session, then doing the following: Goto--> Tools-->Internet Options--> Connection--->LAN Settings---> tick "Manual Proxy" and enter the settings.

I’ll leave it up to my response to them why I don’t feel these are acceptable answers, note that the attachment referred to is simply a screenshot of my IE/Windows proxy settings which point to our office proxy server (and which, of course, don’t specify login credentials):

Hi Tania,
Thanks very much for getting back to me, I hope you don't mind but I intend to post this response (and my answer) on my blog?
1. I'm afraid that answer doesn't make sense to me based on past experience. I use numerous internet services on my mobile, including those that require high security (mobile banking) and those with a lot of media (social networking) and a combination of the two ( mdeia [yeah..oops] content and secure payment). I would understand if pages were reasonably larger (maybe double or triple the size) but almost 20 times larger than the worst case mentioned below seems really extreme.
2. As illustrated in the attached screenshot, I have manually set my proxy in windows Internet Settings. The problem is that this proxy requires authentication, and windows does not provide a means to permanently specify these credentials. When browsing (through IE, Firefox) a user is prompted for these credentials, which can then be remembered for future sessions. I assume Nokia Music is using the native IE engine for basic browsing, and as such that works fine once the user has authenticated through IE, but downloading and streaming use some other (obviously secure) mechanism which does not allow for the user's credentials. Other applications get around this by allowing a user to specify proxy credentials which are then passed through to the proxy by the application.
I look forward to further feedback.

I can only hope they do come back with something positive in response.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Getting social on Symbian

In this post, I’ll discuss what I currently use on my N96 for social network interaction. Most of the apps mentioned should work fine on any other recent Symbian device and in the case of Java apps, on most  non-Symbian devices as well. The three social networks I use most frequently are Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, so I’ll focus on these.


Twitter is the current darling of the social network world. Far simpler than the more populous Facebook or MySpace, Twitter simply asks users “what are you doing right now” in 140 characters or less (see my previous post on Microblogging). Twitter’s greatest strengths are it’s simplicity and the huge ecosystem of clients and services that have erupted around it’s open API. When I first joined Twitter, the service included free SMS updates to users around the world. Unfortunately, a couple of months ago this was scaled back to only include US users. As such, the mobile version of the site ( and third party equivalents and applications have become essential to non-US Twitter users.

Up until very recently, there have been no native Symbian applications, but within a few days of each other two such applications were released. Gravity and Twittix are both high quality native Twitter clients, with support for multiple Twitter accounts, and all common Twitter activities such as replies, direct messages and favourites. The problem is, at around R50 for Twittix and R100 for Gravity, I just don’t believe their features set them apart enough from free Java based alternatives to warrant pulling out my credit card. Apparently, I’m not the only one.

Which brings me to my (free) preferred choices. If I happen to be browsing the web already (with the native browser, or the excellent Opera Mini), I’ll just use the standard mobile Twitter page, otherwise I start up Twibble. In all the months I have been using it (I first discussed it here), I’ve yet to find another mobile Twitter client that justifies switching. Twibble includes support for all the basics as well as submission of images via TwitPic (present in Gravity, but missing from Twittix). It also includes GPS support, allowing tweets to be prefixed with your geographic location, but this is somewhat obscure functionality that I’m yet find a real use for -and no, as cool as the Twitter/Google Maps mashup TwitterVision is, I don’t consider it a real use. The focus of this application is undoubtedly keeping things small and efficient -as is evidenced by avatars being disabled by default- and it weighs in at a measly 100k.

Another application I use occasionally for Twitter is Shozu. Since I last covered it’s use for Twitter, the clumsy per-contact view has been replaced with a more sensible timeline view. It also has support for TwitPic, which benefits from Shozu’s ‘upload once, send anywhere’ approach to media uploads.


I have little doubt that Facebook is the uncontested king of social networking in South Africa. It allows users to connect with past schoolmates, colleagues and just about anyone that will accept a friend request. Activities on the site are hugely varied (thanks again to third party extensibility), but I stick to the basics: status updates, wall posts, messages, photos and occasionally instant messaging. Most of this functionality is more than adequately covered by the mobile version of the site (, with the two exceptions being instant messaging and photo uploads.

Shozu once again comes to the party for image uploading, allowing easy uploads of photos direct from the phone over any connection. I actually find this preferable to copying photos from the phone to a PC and then uploading them, especially when in the vicinity of a WiFi network. Shozu also has feeds of friends updates, though these are organized in a somewhat inconvenient manner.

Facebook Instant messaging functionality (along with just about every other kind of instant messaging AND voip) is handled perfectly by Nimbuzz. This great universal messaging software allows you to add your facebook ID and chat with other online facebook users in a clean, easy to use interface. Fring is another popular application that does the same job, but I find Nimbuzz to be more reliable and prefer it’s interface.



As popular as facebook is with the masses for sharing photos, I still prefer Flickr. Probably the best of the Yahoo! owned websites, Flickr places great emphasis on photos as the building blocks of a community. It includes fantastic ways to organize photographs, including massive amounts of additional information for each image, both added directly by users as tags and extracted from metadata within the image files themselves. It’s easy to lose oneself on Flickr, meandering through it’s many “explore” views which showcase some of the great photos users of the site have taken. Viewing content on Flickr is again best performed using their own mobile site (, but uploading is better handled by third party apps.

Two good options exist on recent Nokia Symbian devices to upload content directly to Flickr. The first is Nokia’s Share Online, which is preinstalled on the phone. This is an incredibly easy way to upload photos and short videos to Flickr, with a shortcut on the standby screen (which displays new content notifications) and sharing options available in the gallery as well. Share online also downloads comments left on your photos, and can be used to view recent uploads by contacts on Flickr. This is an excellent addition by Nokia, and it’s only real shortfall is that it currently only supports sharing to Flickr, Vox and Nokia’s own Ovi.

If it supported facebook, and used the same bandwidth preserving approach as Shozu, I might be tempted to use Share online in Shozu’s place. As things stand, for Flickr my choice is once again Shozu. Flickr is one of the standard available destinations, and feeds are available for comments and recent uploads as well.


That’s all folks

These are just a handful of the methods that exist on modern phones for interacting with social networks, and I am by no means claiming they are the best, but they are the best suited to my needs right now. Ultimately, I would still like to see a native Symbian application that leverages it’s native advantages to integrate Twitter and Facebook messaging into the default messaging system, display friend updates on the status screen and facilitate efficient uploading of media to all sites from the standard gallery.

This weekend we’ll be heading out to the lowveld for a bit of R & R. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to put Nokia Maps to use and do a bit of geocaching. If so, I’ll have a post on it next week. Otherwise, expect a full review on Shozu, which is long overdue if I look at how heavily I use it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tech Tuesday: N96 - Media

I have no doubt that when Nokia design the N96, media was one of their top priorities. If the 16Gb of built in storage plus MicroSD expansion slot weren’t enough of a hint, the two sets of dedicated media keys definitely drive the point home. The original N95 (and particularly the 8Gb variant) was already a media powerhouse, so lets see how it’s successor does on the media front.

Media transfer

A portable media device isn’t much good without a means to copy media onto it. The PC Suite and drivers that are included on a CD in the phone package allow the phone to be connected to a Windows PC by bluetooth or by USB. When connected by bluetooth, media can be copied directly to the phone using the Windows shell extension or the PC Suite’s Video Transfer and Music Transfer applications. Transferring over bluetooth may be convenient, but it is fairly slow and quite draining on the battery, and USB is a far better alternative for larger files or collections.

Of the four USB connectivity modes, mass storage mode allows windows (and other operating systems) to treat the phone as a simple mass storage device, and music and other files can simply be copied to the desired location. Media Transfer mode allows the phone to be detected by third party software for media management and syncing. I initially tried using Songbird to manage music on the phone, but after numerous failed attempts settled for Windows Media Player 11, which worked flawlessly with the device. In PC Suite mode, Nokia’s Video Transfer and Music Transfer applications can be used to easily copy media to the phone-though neither has any advanced media views so managing a large collection this way will be challenging to say the least. Both applications can be set up to convert files to formats better suited to the phone before copying them. This can be particularly useful for videos, which will be converted to the phone’s native resolution of 320x240, more often than not significantly dropping the size of the file. I did have trouble with recently encoded xvid files, with Video Transfer unable to find matching audio codecs. The last available connection mode is used for transferring photos from the phone and isn’t relevant to this discussion.


General media functionality

Despite the variety of applications used to consume media on the N96, play control is generally very consistent. When the phone’s top slide is closed, the media control keys around the navigation pad are lit and make for easy track navigation and pausing and resuming media playback. Opening the top slide dims these keys and lights the top slide keys instead. This duplication of functionality really does seem to be overkill and I can’t think of a logical reason for including two sets of media buttons. If the top slide buttons had been indented or had some other kind of tactile separation I would have understood their use as controls to be fiddled with in a pocket, but with their flush finish they need to be seen to be used. The playback controls on the hands-free kit provided with the phone are small and similarly flush, and this affects their use as well, though the kit is still handy and a better option than having to pull out the phone and control playback directly.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usAnother common aspect of all media software on the phone is it's support for the standby screen. Regardless of the source of audio, minimizing the application will cause current track information to be displayed on the standby screen below the calendar entries section of the display.

Navigation to the various media applications is kept consistent on the N96, all of these are easily activated by pressing the silver shortcut key to the right of the navigation pad and navigating to the relevant menu. The TV & Video and Music menus contain shortcuts to each of these apps, obviously grouped by video and audio respectively. In the case of audio playback, once media is queued up, it can be started immediately by simply pressing the play button on the phone's face.

Stored Music

The most commonly used media functionality on the phone will undoubtedly be it’s music player, used to play music and podcasts stored in the massive internal memory or on an SD card. The player in the N95 was already more than capable, and Nokia have been smart enough to not fix what aint broke. Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe built in player supports meta tags on music files and uses these to organize music according to artist, album, genre and (oddly enough) composer-all of these filters are available from the player's start screen. Podcast episodes are conveniently separated from the rest of the library, so no more podcast episodes unexpectedly butting into your randomly selected playlist. Playlist support is as robust as ever, with easy addition of songs (or any grouping of songs) to new or existing playlists. One serious criticism of the music player is that navigation through lists and menus in it generally seems sluggish with large amounts of music on the phone, which is curious considering the N96 was supposed to be designed with that in mind.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe main player screen displays all the expected track information, elapsed and remaining time, loop and random status and has full support for album art (though the art doesn’t always copy correctly when third party software is used). The player supports custom equaliser settings, playlist shuffle and looping of individual tracks or entire playlists. Additional options include balance control, loudness boosting and the excellent stereo widening effect first seen in the N95. One of three dynamic visualizer effects or the track’s album art can be displayed 'fullscreen' instead of the usual media information. It is a pity that the visualizations haven’t been updated since the N95, as it would have been nice to see some Milkdrop-esq effects being used. Finally, for those that prefer to have their music going in the background and keep using the phone for other things, hiding the player causes the play status and current track to be displayed in the phone’s standby screen. Of course incoming calls and other events fade out and pause the music, which resumes when the call is over. Most commonly used file formats are supported, including AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA (including Windows DRM) and MP3. OGG is not officially listed as supported, which may disappoint linux users.

One element I did find lacking in the native player, considering other social media aspects of the phone, was support. Thankfully Mobbler works perfectly on the phone, and will provide an adequate substitute to native scrobbling support for junkies.

For those that want to play their music out loud with the phone’s built in speakers, they are satisfyingly loud, though there is some distortion at higher volumes. At a pinch they will definitely do, but an external speaker set would obviously be a better choice for regular 'public' use.

I was really pleasantly surprised by the battery efficiency of the N96 while listening to music. On a full charge the phone will quite easily last a full workday -and then some- if used as a music player. Other activity on the phone will obviously have an effect as well (particularly anything involving data transfer), but the music itself does not cause an unreasonable strain on the battery at all.


Streaming audio, podcasts and FM radio

With the N96's excellent connectivity options (Edge, HSDPA and WiFi are all well supported-more on this in a future post) it makes sense for the phone to have good support for online media, and it does.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe Podcasting application provides a simple way for users to subscribe to podcasts, set them up for manual and automatic download, and listen to them. The application includes a number of podcast directories for casual users, but also allows more advanced users to manually add podcast urls. Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usOnce downloaded, podcasts can be listened to in the Podcasting application itself or in the music player (in which they appear in a separate folder for easy access). Settings include the default access point to connect to, update regularity (manual is an option), as well as storage location and size limits. The Podcasting app has all the options necessary to make it a competent tool, and no unnecessary frills.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usInternet radio is equally well represented by the creatively named Internet Radio application. As with the Podcasting app, it includes a directory of stations (organized by genre, language, country and Top Stations). Text search is also available, and works well. After finding a station, it can be played immediately or added to a list of favourites. Once playing, the Now Playing screen displays whatever track information the station provides, as well as the current bit rate.Free Image Hosting at Station information and track history are available on a separate screen. The few available settings allow control over the default access point, and bit rate (and thus audio quality and bandwidth utilization) when connected via GPRS, 3G or Wi-Fi. This is another simple but highly effective application that does it’s job well.

There is a good chance that the N96 will be the device that first introduces some of it's users to the world of internet media, thanks to these simple to use and highly accessible applications. This is an area where Nokia has done a sterling job.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usFor those that prefer more traditional broadcast technologies, the N96 includes FM Radio support. The radio application remains largely unchanged from that in the N95. As before, the headphones are used as an aerial, and FM radio won’t work without headphones (or something similar) plugged in-though once connected the loudspeaker can be manually activated. The app includes a station directory though I could not get it working over Vodacom gprs and had to settle for manual tuning. With manual tuning, the application is simple enough to use: just enter a frequency and listen. Stations can optionally be saved as favourites and easily switched between with the track forward and back buttons. RDS is supported, though again I had no luck with it, despite tuning into stations which I know implement the format. The Visual Radio button does the basics well enough but it seems like some testing with South African service providers is in order to get the frills working.



The N96 inherits the N95 8Gb's larger 2.8" screen (as compared to the original's 2.6") and keeps the 240x320 resolution. This may not quite match the likes of the iPhone, which can utilize a much larger screen due to it's touch interface, but it's more than adequate for displaying videos clearly. The picture is crisp and clear and colours are vivid. The ample storage easily allows multiple full length videos to be stored and played back, and the TV-Out functionality even allows these to be played back on a TV if so desired.

The built in video player is very simple. Playing video can be paused and resumed, fast forwarded or rewound, and volume can be adjusted. The player is supposed to support resuming playback from where a video was last stopped, though i have found this seldom works correctly. File format support is extensive, with various avi encodings, mp4, wmv (again including DRM infected) and real media all supported. The one missing format I would particularly have liked to see is flv.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe player forms part of the Video centre application, in which all local and internet video access is handled. This unified approach is quite handy, and a similar approach would have been a good idea in the music application as well. The My videos section of the Video centre organizes all locally stored videos, including downloaded videos and videos captured with the N96's camera. The Video feeds sections contains feeds the player has subscribed to. The Nokia Nseries feed is the only default subscription but others can be found in the Video directory. The obvious popular feed choice here is YouTube Mobile Videos, though a handful of others are also available. I would have liked to have seen a wider choice of video feeds, though in all fairness advanced users could always rather subscribe to vodcasts with the Podcasting application instead.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usFree Image Hosting at

Whether feeds are streamed or downloaded and stored seems to be dependant on the stream itself. YouTube videos seemed to download first, but were not accessible from the My videos area, whereas Reuters videos were downloaded and permanently accessible. Application settings include the ability to disallow downloading while roaming and while connected to GPRS, so Nokia has taken some care to ensure ignorant users don't get surprised with big bills at the end of the month. Parental control is available as well, though what an underage user would be doing with such a high end phone is beyond me.

The Video Centre is another application that does what it needs to and no more, and since video use is likely to be limited outside of novelty value and reviewing captured videos, this is understandable.


Mobile TV

It has to be mentioned that one of the selling points of the N96 is it's support for DVB-H mobile TV broadcasts. Unfortunately DVB-H is only in a trial phase in South Africa and limited to the Sagem MyMobileTV, so this functionality isn't really of much use as yet. One can only hope that once trials are completed, the technology will be made available to a wider variety of handsets.



Both the N95 and N96 claim UPnP support as a feature. Unfortunately while it is technically supported, using it is clumsy and unreliable. I run XBMC (which implements a UPnP server and client) on an old Xbox, and also have an Xbox 360 set up to consume media from the XBMC machine. Using the Home media application which is hidden deep in the phone’s tools menu, I was able to locate the XBMC server and browse it’s contents. However when I tried to play the media locally, it failed repeatedly and when I tried to play it on another device, neither XBMC nor the Xbox 360 showed up as renderers.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usSharing media from the phone was slightly more successful, with XBMC detecting it on the network as a media source. I was able to add it as a media source to the music, videos and photos sections of XBMC. Browsing and viewing photos worked reasonably well, albeit very slowly and some videos could be played as well (typically very small ones, larger files seemed to fail in streaming or copying). I was unable to get any music at all playing from the phone. The Xbox 360 didn’t detect the N96 as a source at all.

Many of the more commonly used media applications, such as the music player, allow direct playback on UPnP devices on the network, but again I could get neither the Xbox nor the Xbox 360 to show up as renderers, so this functionality was useless.

This is one area which needs a lot of work. I’m not sure whether the issues lie in Nokia’s implementation of the UPnP standards or elsewhere, but in it’s current state UPnP on the N96 is pretty useless. Rather than rushing out a solution to be able to tick the UPnP compliance standards box, Nokia should either leave this stuff out entirely or spend some time testing and perfecting it to make it usable by the average person.



In closing, the N96 shines as music device and does a competent job on video as well. The huge amount of storage (and expansion capacity) combined with dedicated media controls and an impressive array of software dedicated to media discovery and consumption, not to mention comprehensive connectivity options, make this phone an excellent choice for anyone that wants to enjoy their own media on the go and have access to all the great media on the web as well. Some of the more obscure areas of functionality like UPnP need work, but I have certainly found it to be a far superior all-round media device to it's predecessor, and no longer have any need of a separate portable media player.


Note: Nokia’s music store is not yet available in SA, though according to MyBroadband it should launch here within a couple of days. As such I didn’t see much point in even looking at that functionality, and will update this post or write a new one dedicated to the Nokia store when I’ve tried it out.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Email attachment netiquette 101

Email is a wonderful invention, it lets us easily, quickly and reliably communicate with others, and has the added bonus of allowing any kind of digital file imaginable to be attached to it. Of course some people have to go and misuse this awesome ability, and more often than not it’s the kind of people that we can’t really ask to change their ways without some kind of consequences (professional or personal). Some of the prime offences which drive me (and I’m sure others nuts), and which you can stop doing right now if you’re guilty of them are:

  • Forwarding a mail by adding it as an attachment to another (blank) mail. You’re giving me an extra, completely unnecessary step to read your mail, which increases the likelihood it will be routed directly to the trash without ever being looked at.
  • Attaching what should be the body of the email as a word, rtf or other document. What valid reason could you possibly have for doing this? It’s like moving a live cow by putting it on the back of a horse-stupid and completely nonsensical.
  • Pasting images into a word document and then attaching the document instead of just attaching the images to the mail. You do realize that when you resize those images in word, it doesn’t actually make the filesize smaller, right? (ok so MS got smart in the latest version and changed that, probably especially for idiots like you that do this).
  • Attaching absolutely anything other than an actual presentation as a powerpoint file. As above, if you have images to share, then attach them directly to the damned email. You want a bulleted list? Fancy formatting? Guess what, just about every email client today supports HTML or at very least rich text.. you can do that formatting directly in your email.
  • Attaching anything, and I do mean ANYTHING, larger than 1 meg unless it is absolutely necessary. Not everyone uses a web client for their email and is protected from downloading your digital bloat. Upload that funny video to Youtube and send me the link. Upload the enormous photos of your cat to Flickr and send me that link. If all else fails, try one of the zillions of free file sharing sites that will accept just about anything you want to post on them.

Can you think of any other major attachment-related email snafus that make you want to take on the accounts department with a large blunt instrument..?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tech Tuesday: N96 – Look and feel

In this, the first of a series of posts on my shiny new N96, I’ll look at the basics: what comes with it in the box, and the device’s look and feel. I’ve decided not to take and include photos of the phone as these can be found in abundance elsewhere, such as on GSMArena’s N96 gallery. In future posts, when looking at software aspects, I’ll include screenshots as needed.

What’s in the box

Nokia’s doing really well on the environmental front (according to Greenpeace, they’re the mobile phone manufacturer you should be buying from), but they still have a little way to go on their packaging. There was a hell of a lot less plastic than you’d find in, say, any Microsoft box, but the box itself is way larger than necessary.

Besides the phone itself, documentation and obligatory Nokia PC Suite CD, the package includes an impressive array of accessories. The included charger is identical to the N95’s and is accompanied by a car cigarette light charger which is an unusual and welcome addition. A USB cable (micro-USB, unlike the N95’s mini-USB) is included for direct PC connection. On the media side, the expected earplugs are surprisingly comfortable and are complemented by a wired playback control and microphone that can be used with any standard headphones, if preferred. Finally the TV-Out adapter allows the phone to be connected to most TVs.

The phone also comes with a year’s local navigation license, the film Transformers (which included a scene in which a Nokia phone transformed into a nasty little metallic critter-some cross marketing methinks?) and a copy of Tetris for the N-Gage platform. These extras do a great job of showing off the phone’s features out of the box, though something a bit higher-tech than Tetris may have been a better choice.

Look and feel

The N96 has received criticism in some reviews for it’s look, with those reviewers preferring the lines and metallic buttons of the N95 models. I for one found the N95’s visual design was one of it’s worse aspects, and I consider the new look a major improvement. It’s quite obvious that the N96’s design is heavily influenced by (if not directly copied from) the N81’s, but I see no problem with this. The clean lines, curved edges and glossy finish look great.

When closed, the N96 has a smooth, uncomplicated look, with the 2.8” screen taking up the majority of it’s glossy black face. The phone call speaker and tiny secondary camera can be found above the screen. With the exception of the silver navigation ring and shortcut button, most of the face buttons are flush with the surface and when in power save mode the four media controls on the face are unlit. These flush buttons certainly look good, but are impossible to use by touch alone, since they completely lack any kind of tactile separation. Unlike the N95, accidentally pressing one of the face buttons while using the navigation pad is unlikely, which is a blessing. The choice to “frame” the phone in a more metallic finish not only sets it apart from the many all-black devices out there, but looks as if it will protect those areas most prone to damage from highly visible scratches.

The top of the device sports the (flush) power button, headphone port, keylock slide and the left stereo speaker (which curves around the corner of the phone). The bottom holds the power and micro-usb ports, the right speaker and a lanyard loop. The left edge has a small flush flap covering the MMC slot. The camera button and volume/zoom buttons are on the right edge next to the left and right speakers respectively. Again, the choice to set all buttons flush with the phone’s surface make them far more difficult to use than is necessary. The camera button in particular is a pain, since it’s necessary to partially press the button to autofocus and then press it all the way to take the picture. The lack of covers on all ports other than the MMC slot is a pity as well, since these can get clogged with dust, affecting their use.

When the main slide is open, the keypad is shown to be another exercise in flush design. The keypad keys consist of four solid horizontal strips of plastic, with three keys on each. Other than slight ridges around the central “5” button, there is nothing to really differentiate the keys, and as a result these keys are also difficult to use by sight alone. This is definitely an area where form should have given way to function, as individual, ridged keys would have been far better.

One of the N95’s unique features was it’s secondary slide, which exposed media control buttons at the top of the device. These keys make a reappearance in the N96, but seem a little redundant with the inclusion of face media buttons (which dim when the top slide is opened). One great innovation in the N96 is that these keys double as game keys, and when an N-Gage game is started the play control symbols disappear and are replaced with circles highlighting their use in games. These are really useful, as using the navigation keys and pressing action keys with the same hand when playing games in landscape mode has always been challenging. It would be fantastic to see Nokia release an application to control mapping of these keys for non-N-Gage games as well.

Finally, the back of the device sports the primary camera lens, dual led flash and Nokia logo on a pattern of curved silver lines with a black background. Unlike the original N95 there is no retractable lens cover, however the lens is protected against dust and grit by a clear plastic cover. There is a small hinged kickstand which frames the camera lens for propping the phone up on it’s side on a surface. This addition is quite useful for keeping an eye on the screen in standby while on your desk, and of course for watching videos, though I am somewhat concerned that it may not last long. The clips on my N95’s small batter cover had a tendency to break, and a completely different (and hopefully much sturdier) approach has been taken with the N96, with the cover now taking up the whole back of the phone.

In summary, the N96 package offers an impressive array of accessories and some decent bundled software extras. It looks great, but as far as controls are concerned the emphasis on trying to keep everything smooth and flush has definitely had a negative impact on the usability of the phone’s buttons.

Next week I’ll move away from the common-review-fodder and put the N96 through it’s paces in the media arena. I’ll look at the media basics and see how it handles some more obscure stuff as well.


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