Nokia’s First Touchscreen: It’s No iPhone But It’s More Sociable

Nokia’s first mass-market phone with a touchscreen was always going to suffer from the inevitable iPhone comparisons. After using it for a week, I’ve concluded the XpressMusic 5800 is no iPhone killer – nor is it trying to be. Extending the hallmark Symbian S60 to accommodate touch interaction whilst leaving the aging OS fundamentally intact, the 5800 is a classic Nokia (NYSE: NOK) consumer handset, right down to the obsession with menu after tedious clickable menu. The web browser is largely the same old Nseries WebKit implementation, the thing has an over-sensitive accelerometer and some of the touch menu options seem to require a double-click.

But one impressive key feature on the 5800 — due a Q109 release as Nokia’s third Comes With Music phone — racks up brownie points galore. The homescreen’s new contacts bar places four address book friends’ mobile and social web activities front-and-center on the device. Showing feeds for each friend’s online updates — right on the start screen, not buried away in some app — the feature makes for one of the most connected native social address books we’ve yet seen and, while it’s still limited, offers a good deal more innovation than today’s relatively blunt mobile social efforts.

Touch, write, poke and pluck: The 5800 isn’t just about finger-touch; the handset also slots a stylus in its battery cover and packs a guitar pick-shaped prodding implement for a total four interaction methods. For someone as indecisive as me, it’s nice to have options; but you can’t help wonder if so many are offered because of the phone‘s own indecision about how exactly to make Symbian touchscreen.

More on the handset, multimedia, Web and maps after the jump

When text entry’s required (and, though it’s obvious, you’ll need to press to tell the phone as much), the last used input method will pop up, but an icon press reveals a choice – an alphanumeric keypad for plain ‘ol candybar converts, a full-size horizontal qwerty keyboard for finger and thumbs, a mini qwerty with tiny keys designed for designed for pen presses and (shock!) PDA-style handwriting recognition for old-skool stylus fans. In the latter two cases, a draggable writing area can be placed anywhere on the screen to ensure it doesn’t get in the way. Every screen press is greeted with a “haptic” vibration beneath the surface to provide a reassuring confirmation the item was actually clicked, and, a little frustratingly, each text entry requires a press of a green check box before it’s committed to the app in question. After that, the “send” button (in the case of outgoing SMS) must still be clicked before the operation is truly complete.

Contacts bar: It’s on the homescreen that the 5800 really shines – but not bright enough. The contacts bar recognizes what, for mobile users, has been a no-brainer feature for so many years: placing a user’s four most favorite contacts on the front and offering one-button access to place calls and write SMS to them. While the bar also opens to reveal a log of latest phone and SMS exchanges, it’s the feeds function that is most radical, allowing users to fix two RSS feeds to each homescreen contact’s profile.

The addition could be a genuine departure from the age of the fixed mobile start page, which is all about simply navigating the handset, to one that puts the most used contacts and the latest info right at the front of the experience. Even every iPhone’s home screen is pretty much the same as another, differentiated only soullessly through the selection and positioning of icons that merely launch apps – the 5800’s contacts bar, though, recognizes that some of the functions and information behind those apps are some of the most valuable on the handset, and places them at the forefront. Just by looking at the phone, I can see my girlfriend’s latest Twitter tweet or Flickr photo.

But the experience is neither as simple nor as full-featured as it could be. Rather than find friends’ Facebook or Twitter feeds, for example, from fields in their address book card, the contacts bar asks users to set a contact’s homescreen feeds either by entering a new RSS URL from scratch or by selecting a feed already subscribed in the web browser’s news reader – a rudimentary app bolt-on that few are likely to use to for real RSS reading (and I defy any sane man with fingers my size to enter a long RSS URL without error). Indeed, the necessity to use RSS at all, given the feed standard’s low adoption in the 5800’s target market, could confuse users unnecessarily. The feature would have benefited from closer tie-ins with key social networks rather than falling back on the albeit powerful RSS format – but alas, that kind of social integration still evades most everyone in the space and the contacts bar remains one of the best examples.

Music and multimedia: Bringing little new from recent previous Nokia handsets, the 5800 packs the same music player, with added play/pause/skip touch keys. The Nokia Music Store is again accessed via mobile web rather than a dedicated app and the Comes With Music unlimited-downloads service that will come with the 5800 will basically make prices at the store disappear. Again, a built-in FM radio must be used with the headphones’ built-in antenna.

The handset: Solid, black and anonymous, the 5800 is like a cross between the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey and KITT from Knight Rider. Sleek and virtually featureless it’s sometimes difficult to know which way up the handset is facing without the slowly winking lower white light – resembling the aforementioned car and that on a sleeping MacBook. One frustrating feature is the need to pull a trigger on the handset’s right side to unlock the phone (I would’ve expected an on-screen touch combination, but maybe this would have made accidental key presses too common). The built-in accelerometer flips the handset in to landscape mode with just a turn – but too easily for my liking, producing seemingly random orientation shifts just when I didn’t want them.

Web and maps: Symbian’s built-in WebKit browser offers the same “real web” experience but with added touchscreen support and a zoom function to better accommodate pages. Especially in full-screen landscape mode, it offers a realistic browsing experience of true web pages, though pages don’t scroll with quite the same zing they do on an iPhone or G1 and it can be hard to click small hyperlinks with accuracy. Exactly the same goes for the maps app, whose satellite view and traffic info do a nice replication of *Google* Maps and benefit from both quick GPS location and finger-tip map dragging, but which stutters a little on the touchable map scrolling.