Sunday 26 April 2015

Nokia 5140i (2005)

Announced April 2005

Designed to be more rugged than a standard mobile phone, the Nokia 5140i was resistant to bumps, water and dust ingress and followed on from the Nokia 5140 and Nokia 5100 handsets.

Although most of the functions were that of a very simple Nokia phone, the 5140i also sported a flashlight and a digital compass and thermometer, both of questionable reliability. It had an FM radio, but no music player and only a basic 0.3 megapixel camera.

But one thing that put the 5140i ahead of pretty much every phone was its support for NFC and RFID tags through an optional shell. Back then the actual uses of NFC were unclear, and to be honest the situation hasn't changed that much today. To a large extent NFC has always been a solution looking for a problem.

The durability and simplicity of the 5140i made it rather popular, and if you collect such things then they are freely available today with prices ranging between about €35 to €70 depending on condition. There are far more durable handsets on the market however, but the 5140i is still a practical classic for people who just want a phone.

GSMArena: Nokia 5140i Review
Microsoft: Nokia 5140i NFC Shell Guide [pdf]

Thursday 23 April 2015

Futureretro: LG Watch Urbane

LG Watch Urbane
Smartwatches are a new-old thing. About 6 years ago we saw a rush of "watch phones" such as the LG GD910 which included a SIM card and some basic feature phone functionality, but these never took off (despite which, they are very collectable devices today). The whole concept seemed to be quickly forgotten.

But the concept of wearables came back in 2014 with smartwatches such as the LG G Watch and many other devices, which generated a lot of media buzz but it didn't really translate into sales. But early-generation products are sometimes a bit rough around the edges, and the new LG Watch Urbane seeks to address some of these issues.

It's certainly an elegant device, as was last year's LG G Watch R, but this has the latest version of the Android Wear OS and is the first LG smartwatch to support WiFi, meaning that it won't have to be slaved to a phone all the time.

So it this a Futureretro device? Will people look back at the LG Watch Urbane in (say) 2020 and say "that was a design classic"? Perhaps as with the watch phones from half a decade ago, this is the point at which smartwatches with either sink or swim. We give it a Futureretro score of 5/10.

The LG Watch Urbane might either mark the point at which the smartwatch market became really mature, or it might mark the point at which consumer indifference kills off the concept. Remember phones with 3D screens? They were launched with great hype, but they didn't sell. Smartwatches may still go the way of 3D phones.

A quick tour round the tech specs reveals a 1.3" 320 x 320 pixel plastic OLED display, a 1.2 GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storate, a bunch of sensors including a compass, barometer and heart-rate sensor plus the whole package is dust and water resistant to IP67 standards.

The Watch Urbane is set to roll out to Korea this week, with major markets following this month, with the device available through the Google Play store at a price of around €400 to €420.

Monday 20 April 2015

BlackBerry Pearl 3G 9100 / 9105 (2010)

BlackBerry Pearl 9105 (left) and 9100 (right)
Announced April 2010

Traditional BlackBerry devices have been quite wide affairs with a full-QWERTY keyboard underneath, but for several years BlackBerry also produced the "Pearl" range which looked a lot more like a standard mobile phone.

The BlackBerry Pearl 3G 9100 and 9105 were the final generation of Pearl devices, and were the first to support 3G which had been conspicuously missing from previous models. The 2.3" 360 x 400 pixel display wasn't big even by 2010's standards, but it was certainly good enough for messaging which is where the Pearl 3G excelled.

The difference between the versions was the keyboard - the 9100 had a sort of hybrid QWERTY/numeric keyboard which previous versions of the Pearl also had, the 9105 had a traditional mobile phone number pad.

One other strong feature with BlackBerry devices of this era was the long battery life, which the 9100 and 9105 also had, plus the Pearl weighed just 93 grams and was very easy to carry around.

The problem was that beyond these good features, the BlackBerry devices of this generation could be a pretty miserable experience. Web browsing was terrible and although there were many applications available, a lot of them were of very poor quality. And no matter how much polish BlackBerry tried to apply to the aging software platform, it was fundamentally clunky and out-of-date.

"Old school" BlackBerry devices such as this still have fans, however, and the full-QWERTY Curve smartphones are still in demand. Ultimately, the Pearl was the wrong sort of product for a market that was switching to full-touch devices and it reflected a general problem with BlackBerry's lack of vision at the time.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Microsoft KIN (2010)

Announced April 2010

Several years before Microsoft acquired Nokia's handset business and started branding them as their own, there were a couple of other Microsoft devices that the company probably hopes that people will forget.
The Microsoft KIN range is quite possibly the biggest handset disaster ever. A massively high-profile and very expensive launch was followed by miniscule sales and the entire product line was canned just a few weeks later. And then, just be on the safe side, Microsoft closed down the entire division that was responsible as well.
Launched in an era when smartphones were becoming the standard thing to have in your pocket, the KIN range were a pair of feature phones that you couldn't download apps onto. Odd-looking devices, the KIN One had a tiny touchscreen and even the bigger KIN Two was very limited compared to most of the competition.
Worse still, the software was slow and buggy. So slow in fact that you couldn't really do anything practical with it. Return rates were huge. And these sort of problems were not fixable, because essentially the hardware was not up to the job.
Once Microsoft had decided to kill off the product line, they also killed off the servers that supplied the KINs with cloud services. This crippled what little functionality the KIN range had, and made it even harder to shift the large inventory of unsold stock. The GSM version of the KIN was never launched, leaving only CDMA handsets made for Verizon in the US.
But there is more to this disaster than just the failure of the KIN product range. Some years previously, Microsoft had bought a firm called Danger who had developed the highly successful T-Mobile Sidekick range. Microsoft drained resources from Danger to work on the KIN, to the extent that they had a massive cloud outage that led to many users losing all their data, and this effectively killed off the Sidekick range of devices too.
It was the wrong product to launch up against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S or Apple iPhone 3GS, it was badly implemented and overall it was just a huge distraction from the important work of creating Windows Phone 7.

Monday 13 April 2015

Nokia 8800 (2005)

Nokia 8800
Announced April 2005

The Nokia 8000 series was the Finnish giant's range of "perfect" phones, including the elegant Nokia 8850, the tiny Nokia 8310 and the expensive Nokia 8910 and 8910i. In April 2005 Nokia announced the Nokia 8800, an exquisitely-designed but fundamentally flawed device which is still a desirable handset for collectors today.

The 8800 favoured elegant physical design over technical features. A fairly minimalist phone, the stainless steel cover slid down to reveal both the keypad on the front and the camera on the back. Nokia spent a lot of time engineering the sliding mechanism and case, but perhaps they should have spent rather more time on the other features of the phone.

Costing around €750 to €800 at launch, the Nokia 8800 was expensive, but underneath it was a pretty basic Series 40 feature phone. The 208 x 208 pixel display was similar to the Nokia 6230i but had an added scratch-resistant coating. Internal memory was 64MB and the Nokia 8800 was touted as being a music player.. but you couldn't expand the memory which meant that music space was limited. There was an FM radio to liven things up though.

The camera on the back was just 0.5 megapixels at a time when a midrange phone would have 1.3 megapixels or better. There was no 3G support, which was perhaps not important, but many people struggled with battery life, which is certainly important in a phone like this. The keypad design was also compromised according to one review.

Nokia were certainly capable of producing handsets that were technically better than this, for example with the Nokia N-Series launched a few weeks later, and indeed there were two later versions of the 8800 which improved things a lot.

"New old stock" of the original 8800 still appears to be available, in the price range of about €200 to €250. Buyers are urged to be cautious as there were also a number of fakes manufactured, so it is possible some of those are still about.

Perhaps one thing that the 8800 does is highlight Nokia's shortcomings in that era. They could do beautiful design, advanced features such as 3G and WiFi support, multi-megapixel cameras and touchscreen devices. But for some reason they couldn't put it all together in a single package, something that Apple did rather better just two years later when they launched the iPhone.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Nokia N-Series: N70, N90, N91 and N8 (2005 to 2010)

April 2005 to April 2010

Announced ten years ago this month, the Nokia N-Series was a successful attempt by Nokia to move their range upmarket with a collection of high-end handsets that offered the best technology that Nokia could produce, helping to cement Nokia's position as the leading mobile manufacturer for the next five years or so.

Although the N-Series name was also applied to Maemo and MeeGo devices and most recently the Nokia N1 Android tablet it is most closely associated with a series of Symbian S60 smartphones that were launched in April 2005, with the last announcement made exactly five years later with the Nokia N8. The high point of the range was probably 2007's Nokia N95 8GB.

Back in 2005 the initial handsets launched were a varied bunch. The most traditional device was the metal-clad Nokia N70, primarily a cosmetic upgrade of the Nokia 6680. This was a 3G device with a 2.1" 176 x 208 pixel display, video calling camera, a 2 megapixel primary camera with a flash (hidden under a sliding back), RS-MMC expandable memory, an FM radio, media player, web browser and email client. At the time this 126 gram device was the smallest Series 60 3G phone on the market.

Nokia N70

Nokia broke with tradition somewhat to come up with the Nokia N90, a Japanese-style folder with a swivelling display. Building on the features of the N70, this had a 2.1" 352 x 416 pixel primary display with a 128 x 128 pixel secondary panel on the outside. There was a single two megapixel camera which pointed out sideways from next to the hinge, an unusual arrangement that worked quite well with the swivelling screen, so you could hold it like a camcorder or even make a video calls with just one camera. A big beast weighing 173 grams, the N90 never seemed to be all that popular. Perhaps it was a bit too radical.

Nokia N90

If you thought the N90 was odd, then the Nokia N91 went even further into uncharted territory for Nokia. A metal-clad but rather ugly device, it was actually a slider with media control keys that moved down to reveal a standard number pad underneath. But inside the Nokia N91 was very special, with a 4GB internal mechanical hard disk (later upgraded to 8GB) which provided plenty of space for music files. A dedicated audio chip meant that the quality of music playback was first rate. The N91 is a rare but quite collectible device today, typically costing €50 or less.

Nokia N91 and N91 8GB
Exactly five years after the first products were announced, the final N-Series handset was launched, the attractive Nokia N8. While the N8 was still a Symbian smartphone, this was now Symbian^3 which fully supported the N8's touchscreen. But the game was nearly over for Symbian and less than a year later Nokia's incoming CEO effectively killed it off. Novel features included a 12 megapixel camera and a full set of smartphone features that were at least somewhat competitive with other devices of the time.

Nokia N8
Although it was a highly polished product compared to the Symbian of five years before, this was stretching the platform about as far as it could go. Designed originally to be a very lightweight operating system, it simply wasn't as easy to write applications for this as for Apple's iOS or Google's Android OS. The logical solution would have been to move from Symbian to the Maemo platform on the N900, but Nokia had managed to screw up Maemo completely with an ill-advised merger with Moblin.

Although the N8 wasn't the last Symbian handset to market, it is one of the best and is still in some demand with prices for "new" stock coming in at between €230 to €300. It wasn't the last Symbian phone from Nokia, that was the 41 megapixel Nokia 808 PureView in 2012.

The end of the N-Series also marked the beginning of the end of Nokia's dominance of the industry. A little over four years after the N8 was launched, the Nokia name virtually disappeared from the mobile phone market.

Further references

Specifications: Nokia N70, N90, N91, N8 [GSMArena]
Press Releases: Nokia N70, N90, N91, N8
Nokia N-Series Datasheet [2006]
Nokia N8 Datasheet, Factbox, Symbian^3 Datasheet