Nokia 9500

A while ago I bought a Nokia 9500 ``Communicator'', as much for use as a portable computer for note-taking as for use as a phone. I particularly wanted to carry only one piece of electronics with me, rather than getting separate PDA and phone.

It's well-featured, but a bit slow (mostly bearably so, provided you leave applications running, and just switch between them).

The speakerphone is great -- this was one of the reasons for choosing it (not being comfortable about the health risks of radio transmitters close to my head).

The keyboard is surprisingly usable for something so small -- certainly enough for making quick notes on things, although (particularly as an RSI sufferer) I wouldn't want to write a long document with it.

The screen is sharp and clear, and the web browser is pretty good (it's based on Opera).

The battery capacity is pretty good, except when the wireless ethernet is running. It charges very quickly; annoyingly, it's incompatible with earlier Nokia chargers, but uses the same connector -- that seems like a really daft design decision to me. I tried the (car) charger from my old Nokia mobile, it noticed it, thought about it a bit, and put up a message ``Not charging''. Smugly, it seemed. I've also heard that it may be possible to damage an earlier Nokia (or perhaps its battery) by connecting it to a Communicator recharger.

However, what stands out to me, from a techie viewpoint, is all the things they could have done better, such as the following:

USB access
The Pop-Port connects to a USB port on the computer, but it seems that it's really just a USB wrapper for Nokia's old serial line interface.
  • I got an extra storage card (the phone has 80Mb built in) in the hope I could use the phone as a USB key too, but it appears that USB access to phone internal or card file spaces is only through special client software, not a standard USB storage interface.

    I know they want to be able to do other things, apart from file access, by the USB connection, but, as I understand it, USB lets each physical device be multiple ``devices'', so I would have thought it would make sense to provide both a ``phone'' and a ``mass storage'' device.

  • The USB connection is peripheral-only, so you can't stick a USB memory device onto it. Perhaps with the USB-on-the-go on its way, future smartphones might sort this out.

Being a smartphone with wireless ethernet, it would make sense for it to have a VOIP client. It doesn't. I guess either it was developed just a bit too early for that, or the TSPs leant on Nokia not to include it, as it was the first hardware on which it might have made sense. (Competitors have since included such features.) See this article for a step in the right direction.
Voice recording and sound playback
I'd hoped to use it for making notes while cycling, and for playing either music, or language-learning material, also mostly while cycling on quiet roads; but these are only available from the ``Communicator Interface'', not from the ``cover phone''.
Text from the cover phone
There's no predictive texting from the cover phone; they seem to assume you'll always open the device and use the main keyboard for composing messages, but that's not always convenient.
No external keyboard connectivity
Nokia's support line tell me it won't work with an external keyboard (e.g. a bluetooth one). I don't know whether this is exactly what they meant to say, or whether it's just that they don't make one themselves, and don't recommend third-party devices. With an external keyboard, it would make a really nice note-taking system for meetings away, journalling, essaying etc; as it is, it's usable but not really comfortable.
The images aren't very sharp, and it's easy to do the wrong thing with the tiltable joystick-button. But still, it can be handy to have a camera ``always there''. (Actually the cover phone has to be on, and the cover closed, to use the camera, so it's not quite always there.)
Given that it's crammed full of radio stuff already (GSM/GPRS, Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b) it would have been nice to have DECT in there as well. Perhaps that seemed like cramming too much in, or perhaps market pressures pressed Nokia into not including it. (With VOIP, DECT, and GSM, it would be possible to have a single phone, with your phone number list in it, that could pick the cheapest connection it can find as you make each call. The TSPs don't get anything from me on this one, as I look the number up on my 9500 and then dial it manually on a landline if one is available; it would just be convenient to have it all-in-one.) Come to think of it, GPS would be nice, but that's probably too much to cram into something that has some other main primary purpose.

The 9500's Operating System, Symbian looks sufficiently different (from Linux etc) from a programmers' viewpoint, that porting things to it is probably major task. Someone has ported putty to it, which I installed, and that works fine. I had had grand plans to try porting GNUemacs, so I could have my usual environment, but Symbian looks too different from anything else that has GNUemacs, at least for a spare-time port. (Actually, microcode almost looks friendlier!)

It does crash or hang occasionally, not nearly as much as Windows-based systems but a lot more than Linux or BSD.

The device works fine on the whole (except it's just borked the MMC I bought for it, so badly it won't even reformat it), but when I eventually replace it, I will look for a Linux one (or BSD if any appear; NetBSD emphasizes portability, and has a port for ARM handhelds). Summary: it does a lot, mostly quite well, but there are a lot of things it gets disappointingly wrong, so keep an eye open for something better. There's a page listing Linux phones on Linux Devices. The ones I like the look of are:

John C. G. Sturdy
[John's home] Last modified: Sun Jun 10 22:00:02 GMT Daylight Time 2007