Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Usability comparo: Nokia 6220 Classic vs. Sony Ericsson G700/G900

There have been a number of reviews of both the Nokia 6220 Classic and the Sony Ericsson G700/G900 twins. One of the better 6220 reviews is at The Register, while a comprehensive feature-list of the G900 is available at Mobile Me. If you want to read about the feature sets of these two phones, these are appropriate reviews. (Although Mobile Me gets the details of the G900's camera wrong, it is a 5MP autofocusing, fixed focal length camera with goodies like touch controlled focus area, and digital anti-shake. The G700 gets a 3MP fixed-focus camera instead.) However, I'm interested in usability, and it is on this basis that I want to compare the SE twins with Nokia's device.

Hardware and value

First, are these devices comparable? Certainly they are: in Australia I can get the 6220 on EBay for a little less than the G900, and for about a quarter more than a G700. How about in feature set? Well, the G700 is obviously the loser, but it's more than A$100 cheaper, too. The 6220 has a great camera, A-GPS, HSDPA and TV-out. The G900 counters with WiFi, and both SE's have a larger touch-screen. In terms of the physical packaging, I find the G700 easiest to use, with a good keyboard and joypad design, with the 6220 and G900 tying for second.

So in hardware terms, the 6220 seems to soundly beat the SE twins. However, this is where usability comes in. If you use even a subset of the 6220's capabilities (and I tend to use an awful lot of them), you'll find that the battery hardly lasts a work-day (ie. eight hours). This is borderline unusable for me, since the 6220 ends up not being a mobile phone. If you did a lot of driving and had a car-charger, this might be OK, but it's really an achilles heel for a mobile phone. It means I simply can't take my 6220 camping, or the like. For that I'd need the vastly bulkier N95 or the like.

There's another problem with the 6220: RAM size. After well over a year of large-memoried SE devices (P1i, G700/900), the 6220's limited RAM comes as a shock. Why do I have to go around and shut down applications to free up memory, anyway? Ridiculous. S60 is showing its seams here. The SE devices gain a huge usability advantage here (after the serious burning SE received on the P900 and then again on the P990).

Another shock was the network management. Why do I have to keep on telling applications which connection to use? And what on earth is this stuff about running out of connections? I've never seen that on UIQ, so it's clearly not a limitation of the OS. On the other hand, once connected, the HSDPA is fast, and has excellent reception (I use 3 here in Aus). But the G900's WiFi more than makes up for the lack of HSDPA. For a start, my ADSL connection is much cheaper than my 3 data cap, and for truly large things (like maps, podcasts, etc.) I really don't want to be paying for them. And the WiFi is faster (a bit). Finally, the G900 can automatically select WiFi when it's avaliable and fall back to 3G when it's not (something that requires 3rd party software on WiFi-enabled S60 phones).

So in terms of network connectivity the UIQ devices rule the roost (although the G700 probably ties with the 6220 due to the lack of HSDPA).

How about software?

System wide issues

S60 on the 6220 seems a little snappier than UIQ 3 on the G twins. This is particularly noticeable in, for example the Messaging app. While UIQ 3 takes a noticeable time to refresh its message list (about 0.5 of a second with a short list), S60 shows no refresh lag at all.

Both UI's have useless eye-candy effects that should be turned off immediately, since they don't help with usability at all. Both are deeply skinnable, which is both a positive and a negative.

UIQ allows each view of most applications to be zoomed (and the zoom setting remembered) to three levels. S60FP2 (feature pack 2, the version on the 6220), allows three levels of zooming across the whole UI. The UIQ approach is both theoretically and practically superior, though the S60 approach is better than previously (which had no zooming at all). In my experience, zooming is important to usability, since both eyesight and expectations vary considerably from user to user.

All of these phones have standard phone keypads, so a text input method of some type is required. The UIQ phones, of course, add handwriting and on-screen keyboards into the mix. The 6220 is limited to its T9 implementation. The superiority of the UIQ phones is amplified by the fact that many S60 applications inexplicably disable T9 in their input boxes. This drove me up the wall on S60 2nd Ed, and I can't believe such silliness hasn't been fixed! (For example, there are many input boxes asking for my name, eg. for an email account, which won't let me take advantage of the fact that my name is in the phone's T9 dictionary.)

Of course, UIQ isn't ideal, either. It's keypad input method has some truly frustrating quirks, such as the inability to guess at words (just refusing to accept more input, or reverting to digits), along with the crazy way the cursor won't go back into words (treating the whole word as an atomic unit and skipping over it). The 6220 also redeems itself with much better handling of a bluetooth keyboard -- the G twins force you to delve into Settings to turn off input methods all together. None of these devices is a patch on the SE P1i in terms of input.

Navigation and controls

Switching back to S60 after several years of using UIQ devices was not easy. S60's joypad/dual softkey navigation is clumsy, slow and frustrating compared to the richness of UIQ's navigation. It takes a while to remember all the S60 shortcuts (like the hangup key to go back to standby), and even then S60 is vastly inferior to the directness of UIQ. UIQ 3 really comes into its own on the G series phones, with their five-way joypad combined with the dual softkeys (which are present as both real and virtual keys on the G700 and virtual only on the G900) and back button.

Areas where I really appreciated the touch screen on UIQ 3, compared to S60, were:

  • navigating around grid views (such as the main menu)
  • marking items in a list (actually UIQ 3 implements this better even using just the keypad -- and S60 is worse than it used to be, thanks to the loss of the pencil key)
  • scrolling through long lists (eg. emails), where touch allows dragging the scroll thumb
  • activating on-screen status icons to bring up controls (eg. the bluetooth status icon on UIQ brings up the bluetooth app -- in S60 you have to dig into the menu, unless it happens to be on the standby screen; another good example is the camera applications with lots of on-screen controls rather clunkyly accessed in S60, but directly accessible in UIQ)
  • Hierarchical menus (quickly navigated by finger, slowly via joypad)

In addition to these benefits of a touch screen, SE has added a very useful lock/unlock button.

UIQ 3.0's control set of two softkeys and a back button is much preferable to the lack of a back button on UIQ 3.3 (and S60). However, there's not much we can do about that -- SE's next devices where going to be lacking a back button, anyway...

Finally, in terms of controls, UIQ's method of always changing volume in response to the volume controls makes more sense to me than Nokia's "hidden" approach.

Screen layout, etc.

UIQ 3 and S60 have a lot of commonality when it comes to screen layout. They both use three softkey spaces (in S60FP2) at the bottom of the screen, a thin status bar at the top, and a thick application bar below that, containing icon, tabs or other view controls, and a title. Both can use these areas in various ways, though, as mentioned, UIQ can use them to initiate commands as well as showing status. (For example, DreamLife uses the application icon as a command button for a context menu.)

UIQ 3 introduced an incredibly flexible listbox framework (that I really hope makes into into the Symbian Foundation platform), which allows for two truly useful features:

  1. Expansion of the highlighted selection. Thus the currently highlighted item in a listbox could have several lines of information, while the rest of the lines have only one (such as a title). This combines compact display of lots of information with details in the list view (without having to jump to the detail view). S60 has no equivalent, though the S60 application set try to compensate by allowing navigation between items in the detail view (using the left and right direction keys). This meets the second design issue (showing lots of details while being able to navigate between items), but fails at the first (showing many items).
  2. Navigation within "slots" in the highlighted item. In other words, the highlighted item can show a slot which contains multiple items, which can then be navigated between using the left and right direction keys. UIQ 3 uses this, for example, to display all the contact details of a contact while still in the contacts list view. The user can quickly flick through the different contact details in the slot, and then action (eg. call or message) a detail right from the list view. S60 (in the latest E series devices) tries to emulate this with a right arrow "context menu", but this is a much more limited mechanism.

Apart from this difference, S60 and UIQ 3 end up acting fairly similarly (even though the underlying technology is quite different). UIQ 3 is a bit more consistent, but it needs to be, because its interface is a lot richer (and thus potentially more confusing).


Both platforms have a fairly extensive set of standard applications. The 6220 soundly trounces the G twins in application range, though, with the location-based apps adding a whole set of applications that don't even exist on UIQ yet. Nokia maps is pretty impressive, the 6220's GPS locks on within seconds from inside my house, and keeps a pretty good signal. So far the routing has been OK, though not as good as my car's GPS. S60 also supports podcasting natively (though on a WiFi-less device it's not really that useful to most). Finally, S60's web browser is pretty impressive, although the way that it interacts with Nokia's own services is severely sub-optimal (why does the dictionary app send me to a page that requires scrolling down and to the right in order to download what I wanted?).

But that's where the good stuff on the 6220 ends. Everything else is inferior to the G twins. The standard PIM apps are inferior (poorer displays, inferior usability, inferior feature set); messaging is inferior (no HTML rendering, no push IMAP, no way to forward bluetoothed files); applications are scattered in mysterious places on S60 and fragmented into pieces (eg. Nokia Maps, GPS data, and Landmarks are all separate applications, in two different folders); UIQ's browser works better at least half the time, especially with mobile sites; the G twins' office suite allows editing without spending another A$100; and S60 can't import multiple calendar entries or contacts in a single message, and neither can the PC Suite's editor, so how do you transfer data without loosing information to a sync database?

The overall impression I got from the 6220 was a profusion of features presented in a confusing and slightly flaky fashion (especially with how it interacted with the numerous Nokia services). Add to that the fact that the 6220 has frozen about four times in two weeks, compared to the G twins' two or so times in the last four months, and things don't look so good.

However, Nokia's PC Suite is much better than Sony Ericsson's, both in terms of features and in terms of performance.

The 6220 has some pretty impressive third party software, however much of what I've installed has equal or superior UIQ 3 versions. S60 is probably better in this area, but it really depends on your individual needs.

I was initially very impressed with Sports Tracker from Nokia, which uses the GPS in a very useful way (to track your movements allowing analysis). However, so far I haven't been able to get it to complete a trip without dropping the GPS signal. And once it's dropped the signal, it can't pick it up again without ending the trip and starting a new one (meaning that you have lots of chunks of incomplete data). Very frustrating, and this needs to be working before this is really a useful tool.

The lack of WiFi has really constrained me in many ways with the 6220, so I imagine the N95 would be much more useful to me, personally.


The differences between UIQ 3 and S60 FP2 are not merely cosmetic. There are some real usability issues with S60 that remain after several generations, which points to poor design understanding on Nokia's part. However, Nokia is able to put together impressive hardware at a good value price. They just need to work on battery life and RAM size, and learn a few lessons from UIQ (such as its listboxes and a straight-forward touch interface), and the Symbian Foundation will have a good foundation to work from (no pun intended).

Providing a clean, coherent set of applications for a Symbian Foundation phone shouldn't be too hard, but is an important oversight on Nokia's part. Apple's example of a simple, clean set of applications should be emulated, not ignored, and UIQ 3 does better at this at present.

In terms of which phone to use, I'm torn between the 6220 and G900: the 6220's A-GPS and location app's are wonderful, but its battery life and clunky UI are really annoying. The G900 is a lot easier to use, and much more flexible. I'll check back in a month and say what I've ended up doing.

Update: Music Player

Having lost my borrowed iPod 20GB, I've decided to switch to the G900 as my MP3 player. Thus I've explored the music player on these two phones a bit more. Here are my findings. This is actually a three-way comparison between iPods (mostly the non-Touch versions), the G900, and the 6220.

The G900 has two weaknesses in music playback:

  1. Like all flash-based players, it has limited capacity, in this case to 8GB. Still, the 8GB is only A$90 or so, so it's quite cheap assuming you already have the phone (an 8GB iPod Nano is well over A$200). The 8GB can also be used as a memory stick later.
    The 6220 is exactly the same as the G900 in this area, except its card costs A$80.
  2. The sound performance is not great. There's a distinct hiss behind all music (no high-frequency components, but it's quite loud). This is borderline, but given the benefits I'm prepared to put up with it (especially considering that my listening conditions are rarely ideal anyway). Also, there's no "gapless" music playback, which irritates me.
    The 6220 has better sound quality, but falls down by having a pretty weak volume level. Gapless playback is not supported by the 6220, either.

The strengths of the G900 are:

  1. The music player component of the media player are excellent. The only missing feature is playlists based on genre (with the S60 player has). The ability to view, edit, and navigate around the play queue while it's playing (and even save it to a playlist) is brilliant. The cover view works at least as well as the iPhone's cover view. Other navigation is all quick, intuitive, pretty, and takes advantage of the keypad to allow searches, etc. I like the way you can operate on whole artists or albums, or drill down -- it's very powerful and flexible. Much better than the iPod interface (at least the pre-Touch version), and better, too, than the 6220's competent setup (with the exception of genre playlists).
  2. The ability to use a headset from the W960 with my own earphones is great. The remote control headset from the W950 is even better. An adapter for third-party headphones is just as easy to get for the Nokia -- not so sure about remote controls, though. The two are equivalent in terms of bluetooth solutions (and substantially superior to an iPod).
  3. The SE media manager software allows recoding when transfering files to the phone, which is very handy (esp. since AAC+ can get much better quality at the same bitrate than the iPod's AAC, and better also than WMA). Nokia's music transfer solution can do the same, but is substantially less polished (unlike the rest of Nokia's PC Suite), and less flexible. Apart from the encoding issues, neither solution is as good as Apple's iTunes (though iTunes inability to sync with multiple computers and its encoding limitations limit its usefulness).
  4. Just carrying the G900 (or 6220) is much more compact than even a Nano plus my phone.