Nokia Symbian Belle review - Turn the page
Back in January 2011 I did pretty big Symbian^3 review as it was a big step up the evolution ladder for Symbian. Today I want to do the same kind of review to Belle, because it is more of a revolution than an evolution of Symbian.
Why am I calling it a revolution? Because Nokia finally got rid of many of the perks that were holding Symbian back. The bottom toolbar can now host 4 buttons instead of the traditional Menu and Back buttons, while Qt apps can have even more. That means the menus got simplified all over the OS and you can now do more with less taps.
The status bar and lockscreen
|New status area||Lockscreen|
Symbian just got a new pull-down status bar a-la Android, which is a good thing. The new status bar is not as tall as the old one was and leaves more room for applications. Considering that Qt applications use the same status bar, you can not hardly tell the difference between a Qt app and a native app.
Besides showing notifications for new messages, missed calls, missed reminders, mobile network and WiFi network, the new status area has 4 non configurable shortcuts for turning on and off mobile data, WiFi, Bluetooth and silent mode.
The unlock screen appears when the phone is locked and you press the menu or unlock key, and shows you the time and your missed events, like messages, calls and the upcoming calendar events. Of course the phone can be locked using the knob too(if your model has one). The unlock screen now supports background images, and uses the one from the last visited homescreen.
|Portrait view||Landscape view|
The Belle menu uses the same layout as it's predecessor, which is a good thing and can be shown in a grid view of 3x4 or a list view. By default the menu has no folders defined, and you see all your applications in one big list, but folders can be added. The menu supports now only one level of folders, instead of the old way of having folders in folders in folders until you had no clue where you were heading and how to get back. Having folders in the menu is vital from my point of view, and Nokia simplified the way the work by allowing just one level.
The Symbian homescreen has a default of 4 homescreens, but you can add as much as 6(on all Symbian devices besides the Nokia 500, which maxes out at 4 homescreens).
Widgets can now have variable sizes and I have to say that it's not always a good thing. I'm sorry to say the the old Clock/Profile/Date widget is gone and has been replaced by two clock widgets and a separate profile widget. The Clock/Date widget however is pretty big and eat up around half a screen, so I preferred the analog clock one combined with the profile widget to get a closer to the functionality the Clock/Profile/Date had in S^3/Anna. The email widget also got an overhaul, also using half a homescreen. But this time, is for a greater purpose, namely scroll. Yes, the widgets support scrolling.
Shortcuts are no longer arranged in lines of 4, but can be freely moved around the homescreen.
Contacts have now a new widget. Besides the revamped favourites widget, you can now have single contact widgets. That is a good thing, but I would have liked these single contact widgets to come in two sizes, because the ones in Belle are a bit too large for my taste.
Hopefully someone will make some more widgets to fill these gaps.
In Belle we also get 4 new social widgets. One is for your entire social stream, where you can post and refresh your feeds, another one is for Facebook which includes posting and notifications, and two more are for summary-like information from Facebook and Twitter.
You can choose from the available widgets or download more from the Nokia store.
The widgets can be easily added by accessing the Edit homescreen from the Options menu, and you can move them around while editing the home screen. In Belle you can finally move widgets and shortcuts from one homescreen to another and reposition them as you like. There is a new WLAN widget that is smaller than the one on Anna. The search widget has also been revamped looking much better now.
For those of you who don't like the bigger scrollable email widget, there is something you can do. Once you install the Microsoft Apps update, you will get a new widget called Mail, new arrival. This widget is a small as a shortcut and it acts like a shortcut to any of your email accounts. When you have a new incoming email, this little widgets will show you a symbol a-la iOS so you know there's a new email there.
The standby screen
When the phone is locked the screensaver kicks in showing you the time, date and events missed. I would have loved to see new emails here as well. You have to keep in mind that the screensaver is only efficient on AMOLED screens like the N8 and E7, but on other screens such as the 603's which is a LCD screen, it eats up battery pretty quick.
For those of you who don't know, Symbian Belle supports true multitasking and it just got a new live task manager, which displays a snapshot of each application that is running. You can easily close any of them using the big X button in the right corner. The new memory management scheme from Belle allows now for older devices to run more apps at a time, and no longer shows those awful "Memory full" messages so often. However, I have found myself in the situation where I could not open another app even if I had just one other running. I guess there were some memory leaks involved, because once I rebooted the phone everything was all right again, and I could open those two apps and many, many more beside them.
Calling includes smart dial
The call button on the homescreen leads to the dialer, which includes a T9 search ability, practically replacing the need for the Contacts app when you need to call someone. Just type in the name you're looking for and all matches appear in a scrollable list. A single tap on one of the matches automatically calls that person. The in-call screen includes the usual mute, end call, loudspeaker, and hold keys, and the proximity sensor locks the screen so you don't accidentally touch the screen while talking on the phone.
The call log is available when pressing the green key when the phone is on standby unlocked or enter the Dialer and press the green key there(without any dialed numbers) and it is split into 3 tabs, missed calls, received calls and outgoing calls. It would have been nice however to have them all in one screen, maybe a fourth tab of the call log app. The logs are kept for maximum 30 days, not that you would need more than that.
|Contacts list||Searching contacts|
The contacts app used to be one of the most used apps in the old days, but now thanks to the smart dial it is no longer. Still, the contacts app has everything you may need from it. You can setup your own contact card, and add as many contacts as you want as favorites. The favorites can be added to the homescreen trough the Favorites widget. The search is now done using a text filter that narrows down the contacts list as you type. The contacts app includes a grouping feature so you can group your contacts as you wish.
|Contact details||Edit contact|
You can add a whole bunch of fields to any contact, add an image or set a ringtone for that contact. The contacts app has now social networking integration so you can see your contact's status straight from the contacts app. If you don't have a photo assigned to your contact, or if the photo you have assigned is a low resolution photo, the social integration will automatically assign the Facebook or Twitter photo to your contact. You can create contact groups using the Groups tab of the Contacts app, and all these, including the photos will be synchronized with your Nokia account if you have Ovi Sync active.
The input method has some subtle changes compared to Symbian Anna. One of them is the fact that the popup key stays visible a tad longer than it used to on Anna, and it's just enough to make sure you typed the right thing. Another change is that the popup color now contrasts the keyboard color thus making it more visible when you type.
The social networking application can connect you Facebook and Twitter, and I found the new app pretty usable, despite the fact that it still gets a lot of negative reviews. It's faster than the old one, and has been revamped to fit Belle better. Scrolling is now smoother, and now you don't have to press that "More" button when you want to load more items in your feed. The loading is handled by the application itself when you get closer to the bottom of the list. However, the Twitter section still only gets a limited number of tweets until it loads no more items and that renders it useless when your timeline has 200 tweets in the last 15 minutes. The app is linked to the Social widgets on the homescreen and shows live updates of your Facebook friends or people you follow on Twitter. The app also includes support for media sharing allowing you to post photos shot with the phone on your social accounts. I was a little skeptical about this app, but I have to say it does the job it's supposed to do. For casual Facebook and Twitter usage it's good enough.
|Month view||Week view||ToDo view|
The calendar app looks much better now with the 4 button toolbar at the bottom. You can now get quick access to two more items, and those are the New event button and the view switcher button. You can choose from the following views: Day view, Week view, Month view and ToDo view.
The calendar app is automatically synchronized with the Nokia account, so migrating to another phone is painless. The calendar app is linked to the homescreen calendar widget that shows the upcoming events for the current day, as well as the next week.
|Month view||Week view||ToDo view|
As usual the clock app allows you to add as many alarms as you like. Each alarm can be set o act only once, or can be repeated on a daily basis or only on work days. It also has a world clock tab, where you can setup as many cities around the world as you like.
|Default threaded view||Folders view||Conversation|
The messaging department is where Belle got a serious overhaul. The default view is now Conversations which makes more sense than the folder view used before. You can still access the Folders view from the options menu, but why would you?
|Typing in a conversation||Search threads|
The threaded conversation is very nice and you can text someone just like you would chat with them on your IM client. A thing worth noting here is that when you are in the conversation view and chat with someone, whenever you have an incoming SMS you no longer get the default SMS tone, but instead a nice low volume beep to let you know that whomever you're talking with has replied to you.
The integrated email client supports full HTML emails, sorting, search emails and much more, and moves very fast too. The email client got the toolbar treatment too, and the two new buttons are for new Email and Send/Receive(or sync).
The email viewer can expand and collapse headers information, can show or not the images by default. You can open links straight from the email client and as everywhere around the new Symbian, you can long press on an item for more options. In the settings dialog you can setup your mail client to download images automatically, and to sort them, or better said group them or not by days. The each email account can be show on the homescreen in a scrollable widget that shows the name of the email account and a scrollable list of your emails. The widget also shows you if you have any unseen emails, just in case you miss one.
The web browser unfortunately is not such a big improvement over the S60v5, the new browser, or should I say the old browser revamped, has got flash support and pinch zoom, which works decent enough under most circumstances, as long as those circumstances do not include flash or lots of images or gif animations. I found the browser to be quite unresponsive at times, which gave me the impression that the phone is struggling. This however depended on the phone used. On the N8 the struggling was more obvious than on the 603 which was more fluid. However, Opera Mobile definitely beats the native browser at it's own game.
The tabbed browsing is now better handled and more fluid than it was in Anna, and the bottom toolbar does help a lot. It now has shortcuts for Back and Forward, and also for the Windows(tabs) view.
A plus on the Web browser is that you can now set your home page to the Most visited pages view, which helps me at lot.
The gallery is faster than ever, and detects any new pictures you may copy to your mass storage. The gallery loads the thumbnails in a heartbeat. The image viewer has pinch zoom and the side swipe brings you to the next or previews photo instantly. The gallery app is really among the best in the business as it is now. You have the options to view the entire gallery as a slideshow, or select multiple images and create a slideshow. The image specific options are shown when you long press a thumbnail. The gallery has options for sharing the current photo or a list of selected photos trough your social networking accounts, and send the photos via MMS, email or Bluetooth.
The photo editor is allows you to do some basic editing to your photos. Rotating, resizing and cropping, as well as adding effects, frames, text, or drawings to your photo. You also have red eye reduction and photo tuning like color saturation, brightness and contrast as more advanced effects. Bottom line is that you can do a lot with this app while youâre on the move.
The music player is very well organized. You can see your tracks by Artists and albums, Song title or Genre. If you flip the phone when you're using the Artists and albums view, you get to enjoy the cover flow feature of the music player.
The music player has an equaliser with a good range of settings for musical styles. If you think that the volume is not enough for you, just head to the music player's settings and enable the Loudness option. In the settings you can also set the balance or left-to-right or enable the Stereo widening option. You can also enable the FM transmitter from here and share what you're playing with any FM radio you may have around.
The music app also comes with an larger and better homescreen widget that can help you swoop trough tracks easier.
The video player supports DivX out of the box which is a gold mine, because even nowadays there aren't too many smartphones that include native support for such a wide range of video formats. Video playback is very smooth and it worked with everything I threw at it. The video files you have on your phone are shown in both Videos and Photos applications. The Videos application however shows a more detailed view of the videos including.
The video editor has two modes, create videos using your videoclips and photos, or create a slideshow from photos only. In the slideshow mode, you can select from a wide variety of slideshow transition effects and then add the photos you want in the slideshow. You can also add background music and text overlay to the slideshow. In the video creation mode, you must firest select the clips you want included in the storyboard and then get to editing. You can move clips around by dragging them. Here too you can add background music, text overlay, and you can clip parts of movie to include it in your storyboard. This app certainly provides more than I expected.
We also have a native YouTube client onboard that can handle all your YouTube needs. You can also download apps such as FastTube or CuteTube or even Xenozu if you don't like the default YouTube client. One thing I miss is that you can't upload videos from the official application.
Nokia store is the same as Anna, having categories and subcategories like Applications - Business. The application is now smoother and faster than ever. The My stuff is now practically integrated everywhere which is a good thing, and you have much more options to help you out. One thing I have to note here is that all your purchases from the store can be accessed from any new phone you may buy, just by entering your Nokia account details.
Maps and navigation
The maps application got a big boost with Belle. The Maps application is not more like a Maps suite. You have Maps, Drive, Map loader(which gives you the ability to download maps when using WiFi and using them offline for navigation), Guides, Weather and Check in.
You can easily see nearby points of interest or find a hotel or restaurant near you.
You can easily set your maps app to use an internet connection or not, but if you won't have internet access remember to download the maps to your phone first.
The maps app can be used when you want to walk around and just see the surroundings, but if your need navigation Drive is here to help. Drive has a car friendly user interface with big buttons and large fonts.
The Weather application can now be coupled with a widget available for download over at Nokia Beta labs.
As usual any Symbian device comes with an integrated file manager, renamed to Files, that allows you to easily do file operations around your system. This is one of the Symbianâs strongest points because there are not many phones out there that have a good file manager, not even smartphones, and this one is state of the art. You can sort files, move them around, order them, pretty much whatever you can do with a decent desktop file manager, keeping the proportions of course.
You can also select multiple files now much easier than before.
The notes application has not received any boost in a while, but what can you improve on a notes taking app? Maybe categories support and a homescreen widget would have been nice, or a new type of note like a checklist. Of maybe a brand new checklist application would have been nice in this department.
Ovi sync works as usual, synchronizing the Contacts, Calendar and Notes data with Ovi, which can prove very useful when you lose your phone or switch to another phone. The synchronization only requires an Nokia account, and can be set to synchronize itself daily, weekly and so on, as well as whenever the data changes.
The search application can search your phone and internet for a keyword and give you the results grouped by categories, in one place. The search application is connected to the Search homescreen widget. The search widget can be set to search on your default search provider for web results, or your phone in order to search trough your files and applications. The search application can actually find results in your notes, emails and text messages, which, at least for me, it's a very useful feature.
The settings application can be a bit confusing for someone who did not have anything to do with Symbian before. It is not very intuitive but with if you dig in a little, you'll discover it brings customization to a whole new level. You can edit profiles, visual themes, phone settings, calling options, manage applications and connectivity. For a profile, you can set the usual options, like ringtones, vibration and many more options.
The theme customization includes changing the visual themes, the screensaver, and the call image. If you want to change the background of your homescreen, you can do so for each of the 3 homescreens using the Options button. The application manager allows you to setup additional options like internet access point, and other security options for applications that support that, and also uninstall unwanted apps. The calling options include the usual Calling options, Speed dial, Call mailbox, Call divert and Call barring options. You can enable things such as on-call details, summary after all and many more. The Connectivity covers the Network settings, WLAN settings and scanning, Bluetooth, Data transfer which includes Ovi Sync to synchronize your Contacts, Calendar and Notes with the Ovi services, Video sharing and FM transmitter settings. The Application settings allows you to set default applications for photos, music, videos and web pages, setup your SMS messaging options, video streaming options, call log settings, voice recorder settings, camera, search and calendar. If you find too many options it confusing, just use the Settings wizard to get some help.
One thing I used to hate about Symbian was that the Bluetooth options were hidden away under the Settings - Connectivity options, and were very hard to find and use. With the status area switches, Belle helps in more aspects than one.
The Web Runtime(WRT) seems to be getting faster and faster with every Symbian release. The first place you'll notice that speed is when you open up the Social app, where scrolling is now smooth as butter.
Qt applications also seem to load faster and blend into the operating system now. One thing I didn't get though is why Qt apps don't use the system theme for buttons and everything else? They only blend into the OS is you use the Nokia Evolve theme, but if you change it... well, they don't anymore. TechMobility