What about Symbian?
— 3:33 PM on September 28, 2009

I love my Nokia E71x cell phone.

There, I said it. Question me all you want, but I've tried everything else out there and stuck with Nokia. I've used the iPhone—almost half of my co-workers and even my mom has one. I've used Android on both the G1 and myTouch, and yes, I've used the Palm Pre and multiple Blackberries, too. I've even spent far more time with Windows Mobile than I care to admit... yet after trying all of these alternatives, I'm so thankful I got a phone that was inexpensive, well-made, and running Symbian under the hood.

Canalys market share data for the second quarter of 2009. Source: Wikipedia.

If you live in North America, you may be surprised to hear that Symbian, the operating system on all Nokia phones (and a handful of others), is by far the world market-share leader in the smart phone arena. Nokia doesn't seem to market quite as aggressively in this part of the world, though. Perhaps our hodge-podge of competing cellular technologies (GSM vs. CDMA) is to blame, but the good news is you can still get nice, unlocked Nokia phones from online retailers as well as a few branded Nokia phones from AT&T.

The real question is, why is Nokia outselling everyone else by such a big margin? Well, I have a few ideas. First off, I believe the company's hardware is second to none. Among their glossy plastic rivals, Nokia phones and their all-metal casings really stand out. My current E71x has plastic only on the buttons. My previous E62 was almost as plastic-free, too, although it did have a plastic battery cover on the back.

Second, Nokia doesn't seem to cater to any single type of user. Sure, I hate touch screens with a passion, so it makes sense that I love the E71x's hardware keyboard. Other people aren't as crazy as me and would probably prefer the N97. If flip phones are your thing, Nokia has you covered there, as well. While all of these devices will feel quite different in your hand, they're all very similar under the hood. They all run Symbian, so if you're familiar with one of them, picking up and using another will be a breeze.

Symbian's most popular incarnation, the S60, has also been around over eight years now, so Nokia has had a long time to get things right. Installing, switching, and removing applications is all pain-free, and customization options are available in spades. The built-in browser was great four years ago when I first used it, and it continues to impress reviewers. The latest revision even supports Flash to some extent. I have no complaints with the Personal Information Manager programs, Office-compatible document editors, or included utilities, and I enjoy the trouble-free syncing to Gmail and Google Calendar.

Combine this solid platform with a device that has all the hardware features one could hope for, and you might start to understand why I'm raving about my phone. The E71x is an AT&T-branded version of the hugely popular E71, sporting an all-black look and a slightly modified version of the third-edition S60 OS. I got mine for free upon renewing my contract, which I was going to do anyway, so the price alone made me a happy camper.

For a "free" phone, the E71x really comes with a surprisingly long list of features. 3G, Wi-Fi, and a built-in GPS receiver were the big three for me, but there's also a video-capable three-megapixel camera with flash, a 2.5-mm headphone jack, and enough battery life for a couple days of heavy use.

Some readers may now be wondering why I didn't get an iPhone, seeing as I'm on AT&T already. Well, as I said earlier, I'm no fan of touch screens. I know plenty of people can type quickly on the iPhone, but even if I was among them, I know I wouldn't like using it regularly. I perform standard tasks without ever looking at my phone all the time—for instance, locking and unlocking the screen, creating an e-mail, or pulling up a quick call back to the last person who tried to reach me. I also walk outside a lot in harsh Chicago winters, and having to take off my gloves just to use my phone would be a deal-breaker.

Then there are the apps.

I'm absolutely sick of hearing about the iTunes App Store. Before Apple made it, people like me were used to another way of getting third-party software you might have heard of—Google. All I've ever had to do to get any program for my Nokia phones (and my circa-2003 Dell Axim with Windows Mobile) was search for the functionality I wanted and the name of the operating system I was using. I have yet to run across paid software that doesn't have a free alternative listed in the same search results or mentioned in a related forum post. The scope is huge, too. Outside of a program that would give me mobile access to the Hamachi VPN I use, I have yet to find myself longing for an app I can't find.

Unfortunately, thanks to Apple's meddling in the cell phone market, that's all changing. Every mobile phone vendor out there is working on its own app store, from Microsoft's Windows Mobile marketplace to Nokia's Ovi store. Don't get me wrong; I'm not against companies making their products easier to use, but what bothers me about this shift is that users (at least most of the ones I've talked to) honestly think other manufacturers are copying Apple by supporting third-party applications.

Whether it's the purist in me or the tinkerer, I'm not certain, but it simply irritates me to no end when people credit the wrong party for something. Every time someone tells me about their sweet new iPhone app, and I reply "I've been doing that for years," I get a blank stare. Some people honestly don't believe me until I show them. Apple definitely deserves kudos for the things it's done right, especially its uncanny ability to turn common features among the elite into popular features for the masses. However, I really, really want people to know there are alternatives out there. If Apple took a less ridiculous stance with its marketing, maybe you wouldn't see hordes of angry nerds like myself. Then again, this kind of inflated enthusiasm is obviously one of the key ingredients to Apple's success.

That's enough Apple bashing for now, though. Here's a quick list of the programs I'm particularly fond of and screenshots of how they look on my E71x:

PuTTY - As a *nix admin, this is by far the most important utility for me. Sending control characters is easy, and lag surprisingly isn't bad, even over 3G.

Nokia Internet Radio - Think Shoutcast, except actually quick to navigate. Nokia nailed this app by letting you browse through stations by genre or search by keyword. Put together with my Last.fm client, this app has basically made my entire MP3 and CD collection obsolete. I even use it to enjoy music that's far superior in quality to the radio in my car.

MediaNet - The built-in Nokia browser. I use the speedy SkyFire sometimes, but the Nokia browser is better-tailored to the E71x's display, and fonts are always perfectly crisp. Pages are comfortably formatted for easy reading, too, and the built-in RSS support works great for reading news in the morning.

Xplore - A file-management utility that gives you full access to all areas of your phone's memory: RAM, ROM, and memory card. All standard file-manipulation options like copy and move are there, including an intuitive way to select large numbers of files at the same time. This app is very useful for helping free up space or quickly find that file you downloaded a couple months ago.

Mobile Weather - Everyone's got their favorite weather app, but I like this one. Mobile Weather lets me set the update schedule, and it lets me keep tabs on as many locations as I want.

One last thing: AT&T seems to give iPhone users the hardest time when it comes to the really good stuff. As far as I'm aware, making calls using the data connection instead of the phone's minutes with a voice-over-IP program like Skype or Gizmo only works over Wi-Fi. However, I can do it over the 3G connection anywhere with my phone. After getting a Google voice number and routing it to my Gizmo account, I can make and receive calls through Google voice, which lets me keep my minutes usage low. Nimbuzz, my multi-protocol instant messaging client, lets me access the phone's entire contact list and call people with either VoiP or the traditional cell connection.

I've also heard setting up tethering on the iPhone is tricky, but I tether my Nokia every day I commute into the city. I'm pretty sure you can't find programs in the App Store to let you send and receive text messages over the data connection, either. Naturally, all of these things are possible after jailbreaking your iPhone and thus breaching the EULA. Personally, though, I prefer to buy a cheaper, less-restricted device to begin with. Do you think I'm nuts, or have I convinced you to give Nokia a closer look?

157 comments — Last by fiilfinsagen at 11:13 PM on 07/11/10