Hands On With the New Nokia 5800

Hands On With the New Nokia 5800

The touchscreen 3G Nokia 5800, set to launch in North America later this month, will give the mobile world a pleasant surprise. This iPhone rival brings plenty of hardware goodies, but can it compete with Apple's crown jewel?

The 5800 will launch on February 26th, and will be available in an unlocked version, which can be used on either AT&T's or T-Mobile's network, for US$399. I've been using the Nokia 5800 as my primary phone for the past few days to see how well it performed--and how well it compares with my iPhone.

The Good

+ 3.2-megapixel camera with autofocus, dual-flash, and geotagging

+ VGA video recording at 30 frames per second, and TV out

+ Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM Radio with RDS, GPS, and USB 2.0

+ Accelerometer, proximity sensor

+ Nokia OVI integration

+ Rich retail package and relatively affordable price (for an unlocked phone)

The Bad

- Immature and cumbersome user interface

- Not the best touchscreen sensitivity

- Unpolished web browser

- Limited 3rd party apps availability

- Separate charger/syncing ports

- Additional paid license needed for voice-guided GPS navigation

The Hardware

What struck me immediately about the Nokia 5800 is that it lacks external music controls--and it's supposed to be a music-centric handset. On its right side, you'll find SIM and memory card slots, with stereo speaker grills underneath. On the left side are volume controls, a sliding screen lock, and a camera shutter. At the top of the phone, there's a power/profile switching button, plus a microUSB slot and a standard 3.5mm audio jack. A pleasant surprise was the included stylus, housed at the bottom right corner of the handset's back.

One of Nokia's 5800 most important assets is located at the back of the phone. The 3.2-megapixel autofocus camera sports Carl Zeiss lens with dual LED flash (take that, iPhone). Nokia just upgraded 5800's firmware last night, adding geotagging for photos (using the built-in GPS antenna), among other features.

The 5800 features a 3.2-inch 16:9 aspect ratio touchscreen (360 x 640 pixels), which has three control keys underneath it: call, menu and hang up. The front of the phone also has a secondary VGA camera for video calling. Above the touchscreen, there's a tiny touch sensitive area can be found that brings up five onscreen shortcuts for music, pictures, media sharing, movies, and Web.

Music is the central point of the Nokia 5800, and the phone delivers. The sound quality is excellent, and the 5800 has a dedicated music chip built in, offering a listening experience on a par with a dedicated music device like the iPod and the iPhone. The music player offers plenty of functionality, including the ability to create playlists, view cover art, and an adjustable equalizer. The new firmware also allows users to modify song information in MP3 ID tags. As usual, iTunes DRM protected songs are not supported.

It's worth noting that the Nokia 5800 is almost 50 percent thicker than the iPhone but around half-inch narrower and quarter-inch shorter. In contrast with the iPhone's poor retail package, Nokia's 5800 package is quite rich, coming with PC and video cables, headset and remote control, extra stylus, a stand and wrist-strap with an alternative stylus. A 8GB microSD card and a carrying case come bundled as well.

The Software

The Nokia 5800 is based on the Symbian S60 platform, and its touch-optimized user interface is where the 5800 scored the least points with me. Unlike the iPhone's excellent interface, the one found on the 5800 is not very user-friendly. I also found that the touchscreen was not very responsive; I had to press very hard with my finger, though I did have better luck with the stylus.

Nokia didn't really optimize the Symbian S60 mobile operating system for touchscreen input, though you do get haptic feedback (via gentle vibrations). Scrolling down is still achieved using a regular bar, making it virtually impossible to be done with your finger. This is quite inconvenient, especially when you have to scroll down through a long list of songs or artists in the music player.

In addition, I found the 5800 slow when accessing menus and switching applications. Even after installing the new Nokia firmware update, the phone still felt slow in comparison to the iPhone or even the T-Mobile G1. And while I'm making comparisons, there are not enough applications out there for the Nokia 5800 right now (but Nokia is expected to launch an AppStore soon).It's worth noting, though, that the 5800 supports features long-craved by iPhone users, such as copy and paste and multitasking with applications allowed to run in the background.

Messaging on the Nokia 5800 can be difficult, as well. The touchscreen makes finger typing on the full-screen QWERTY keyboard cumbersome. Nokia offers a mini-QWERTY keyboard, an alphanumeric one, and also handwriting recognition, all done best with the stylus. Unfortunately, the e-mail client doesn't take advantage of the large screen and doesn't display HTML e-mail either--just text (text size can be adjusted in large, medium and small formats).

Though Nokia's 5800 own web browser uses the same WebKit rendering engine as Safari on the iPhone, the browsing experience is not comparable. Browsing the Web on the 5800 is fast, but zooming in and out of columns and pages is by far not as smooth and functional as on the iPhone.

The Bottom Line (So Far)

The Nokia 5800 is by no means an iPhone replacement, as I discovered from a few day of using it as my primary phone. But if you're not into the iPhone and you want a good music handset with a decent camera, this might be the one for you, especially if you get the handset bundled with Nokia's Comes With Music offer, which gives you unlimited music downloads for a year. Also, given the recent firmware upgrade, it seems that Nokia is actively working to improve the phone's features and responsiveness. We may also see another firmware update after the phone is available in the US.

Regardless, if you're looking for a more powerful, full-featured touchscreen phone from Nokia, maybe it's worth waiting a few more months for the N97 to get released.

Back in Europe, Nokia announced that it already sold over one million units of the 5800.

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