First taste of Mango in Finnish

Wonderful, today I changed from Symbian Belle to Windows Phone Mango. The Belle software kind of corrupted itself. It warned about ”memory full” and after a reboot the whole device was reset to the factory settings; all of my contacts, e-mails, apps and settings gone in an instant. I give up. It has to be my destiny telling now it’s time to move on. R.I.P Symbian.

Fortumately just conveniently yesterday I got the first Windows Phone Mango smartphone in Finnish. I will play with this until I decide my next actual device, possibly Nokia’s Sea Ray or HTC Titan. Or maybe Samsung introduces a WP device with the Galaxy S II form factor. That would be great.

I guess I will post more about WP Mango later, but one detail really puzzles me. Why haven’t Microsoft implemented a screen capture feature on the platform? It would be so handy to take screenshots without having install some developer tools and/or emulators.

Symbian Belle brings a huge improvement

Symbian Belle allows more start screens than before. The UI with different sizes of widgets is quite familiar to Android users.
Symbian Belle allows more start screens than before. The UI with different sizes of widgets is quite familiar to Android users.

I have been losing faith in Symbian step by step, as it has taken such a long time to get the promised updates from Nokia. Symbian Anna came about 11 months after Nokia N8 shipped, and it has not been that huge a step forward in usability anyway. Therefore Nokia 701, the first smartphone running the latest Symbian Belle platform, hasus been a big positive surprise. Compared to Symbian 3 and even Symbian Anna, it is a tremendous leap in usability, performance and overall completion of the platform.

Symbian Belle brings a bit same kind of a notifications bar than in Android. It gives easy access to disabling and enabling Bluetooth, mobile data and WLAN access, and to the alarm clock settings too.
Symbian Belle brings a bit same kind of a notifications bar than in Android. It gives easy access to disabling and enabling Bluetooth, mobile data and WLAN access, and to the alarm clock settings too.

To put it short, Symbian Belle delivers those promises that were given by Nokia’s executives in advance about Symbian 3, and then Symbian Anna which they did not deliver. Symbian Belle is faster, smoother and more finished. On Nokia 701 running Symbian Belle, the UI runs smoother than on my Nokia N8 running Symbian Anna, updated from the original Symbian 3.

There are new features too, such as more flexible and versatile web widgets (like on Android), and a notification bar like you’ve seen on Android too. But it’s not bad thing to copy good ideas. I just wish the next Symbian C… update (whatever it will be called) would copy from Windows Phone 7 the ability to take pictures even though the device is locked with a security code. Apple already copies this to iOS 5.

The basic menu structure in Symbian Belle is still about the same it has been since the first Series 60 build in 2002, but Nokia has made it more simple by taking away subfolders. Now there’s just a long list of icons. I’m not sure if this change is for the better, but at least the UI is more familiar to those who have used Android and iOS.

The big question is can Nokia offer as good Symbian Belle performance on current Symbian 3/Anna devices (Nokia C6, C7, E7, N8 and X7) which have a weeker CPU than the 1 GHz processor on Nokia 701. I still haven’t got the Belle update running on E7 or N8, so I can’t be certain.  I have heard some intial comments the performance should be quite ok. I will get back to this when I have Belle running on E7 and N8 later this year or maybe early next year.

The Nokia 701 I got at the office was such an early review sample the virtual QWERTY keyboard does not even have support for Finnish characters (Ä, Ö), so these letters have to be entered by holding down A and O keys. According to Nokia, a localised version will be available later. It’s good to note this when considering buying a smartphone cheaper abroad.

The basic app structure is still the the same S60, but thanks to those many start screens, you don't have to access these lists of apps very often.
The basic app structure is still the the same S60, but thanks to those many start screens, you don't have to access these lists of apps very often.

Windows 8 to finally compete with Android and iOS

Different hybrid form factors of laptops and tablets were showcased in exhibition hall of the Build conference.Attending the Microsoft Build 2011 conference last week was very interesting, as I could see and experience a very early, but already quite a promsing pre-release of Windows 8 that could finally compete with Google Android and Apple iOS in tablet devices when coming out next year.

Before I had seen and tried the Windows 8 (Developer Preview) on the Samsung 11.6-inch tablet, I was actually planning to buy iPad 2 in the U.S. After that iPad 2 has felt too limited and too expensive. Of course, Windows 8 tablets are still a long way from shipping in stores, so I may have done a bad choice by deciding to wait for them.

The metro stule UI of Windows 8 supports both landscape and portrait display modes.
The metro stule UI of Windows 8 supports both landscape and portrait display modes.

The Metro style UI, as Microsoft calls it, is fairly similar to the Windows Phone 7.5, even though it is already a bit more sophisticated. For example, it supports both landscape and portrait modes to begin with. Like Windws Phone UI, Windows 8 also felt immediately familiar.

At least the Samsung device is not a tablet in the same way as Android tablets or iPad 2 today, instead it’s a real PC which also has a tablet user interface in addition to the traditional Windows desktop.

Intregration between the Metro style user interface and the standard Windows desktop is still very much work in progress, based on what I experienced using the Samsung tablet for two days. It felt like an application that just launches by default when starting the operating system.

The touch screen functions did not work properly either yet, and I had to use a mouse to have a full control of the system.

So it is too soon to make in any way final judgements of Windows 8, because it’s in such an early state, and I had just a few days to play with it. Microsoft gave away thousands of Samsung tablets with Win8 Developer Preview devices pre-installed to regular Build attendees, and members of press were allowed to borrow it while attending the event.

The Samsung tablet featuring a 11.6-inch Super PLS screen (1366 x 768 pixels), a 1,6 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB SSD storage and so one is a powerful device, but the price is also expected to be over 1000 USD when it ships, initially running Windows 7. This can be an important factor for the success of Windows 8 tablets, will we see affordable enough devices to compete with Android tablets and iPad 2 or even iPad 3?

More inexpensive devices are expected when Windows 8 can run on ARM processors, but Microsoft admited at the Build conference this is still very much work in progress. But it’s definitely not only about Intel Atom here; AMD, Nvidia and Qualcomm showcased their early reference models at the event too.

Microsoft didn’t give any timelines for Windows 8 yet, even though it is expected to ship some time next year. After the current Developer Preview there will be some beta versions, then release candidates and then finally, the final RTM (released to manufacturers) release. Even after that there are usually a few weeks or even a month of final compatibility testing.

* * *

I was hoping to see at least a glimpse of Nokia’s Windows Phone Mango smartphone, but didn’t happen. A few people claimed they had seen it. One of them called it “amazing”, and another one said “it’s a lot better than any of today’s Windows Phone devices.”

Microsoft seems to have high hopes for Nokia’s support. Even their CEO Steve Ballmer emphasized this while quickly appearing at the second keynote. To see Steve Ballmer’s speech at Build, check the day 2 keynote, starting at about 1h 26 mins.

We are still all anticipating the greaat work Nokia will do on its phones as they come to market, and frankly, help Windows Phone into new geographies, and price points and form factors in ways that I think will be very important”, said Ballmer on stage on Wednesday. Microsoft expects Windows Phones to reach to over 190 countries with Nokia’s global channels.

Worth noting is Microsoft seems to change from talking about  Silverlight to XAML in Windows Phone development. This is not a dramatic move, since Silverlight is actually based on XAML, but this way Microsoft apparently wants to communicate the similarities between Windows Phone apps and Windows 8 Metro style apps. They already even have a document describring how to migrate from a WP7 app to a XAML app.

iPad 2 with a physical keyboard, almost a laptop replacement

Logitech case and keyboard for iPad 2Could a tablet with a decent physical QWERTY keyboard replace a laptop when travelling in Finland and abroad? That’s a question many people seem to ask. For long, I had not seen a good enough keyboard accessory, but things have improved.

ThinkPad tablet does not have as good keyboard as their laptops, but it didn't felt bad either.Some time ago Lenovo introduced their Android 3.1 based ThinkPad tablet which is quite promising based on the first minutes of playing with it during their press meeting. I just have to wait until I really get it on my hands before I make any final judgements.

Yesterday my brother showed me his new iPad 2 plus a Logitech case and Bluetooth keyboard which he had bought from the Finnish online store verkkokauppa.com. I was immediately astonished. The initial impression was very good, although it’s quite an expensive accessory, about 100 euros in Finland. If you’re from the Nordics and want to buy it  cheaper elsewhere, it’s worth checking if there are Scandinavian characters too. The model sold in Finland has Ä and Ö keys where they are on the regular Finnish keyboard layout.

The keyboard feels robust, and keys give a decent physical feedback. I might even say they’re better than my 11-inch MacBook Air (Spring 2011 model) has, but maybe not, because the layout is a bit smaller. Definitely the keyboard is better than on most small netbooks.

This accessory also works as a protective case for iPad 2. However, that does not apply to the first iPad due to their little different physical size. The Bluetooth keyboard itself works with both iPad models and many other tablets et cetera.

The keyboard has many hotkeys for iOS and OS X, such as main menu, search and volume controls in iOS, and Spotlight, Option, Cmd and so on in OS X.

The combination of this keyboard and a tablet actually so tempting I’m now seriously thinking about getting iPad 2. (I dropped my first iPad in a sink full of water and swore I would not get a new one.)

A clever Symbian touch UI for the elderly or weak-sighted

MummoPhone shows large letters and numbers. It also allows setting the most important contacts showing first.My mom bought her first phone with a touch screen, because it was a nice looking device. The sales person convinced her and somewhat even me she would learn to use a new touch-screen Nokia phone. Well, it has turned out it’s not that easy anyway. There’s clearly demand for a more simplified user interface. On Friday I got a tip about MummoPhone, a nice little app for Symbian S60, Symbian 3 and Symbian Anna touch-screen phones.

“Mummo” is Finnish and means grandmother or gran. However, this application is not only limited to them, but anyone with a weak sight could benefit from it, or even just a regular user who needs to control the touch-screen when driving a car. MummoPone has several features of which the large fonts are the most important. It does not replace the default address book of the phine or the phone call applicatin, but instead it’s loaded by default when return from idle or power save mode, presuming the user has allowed this when asked for it.

It’s not just about large fonts. There’s also a security feature that allows a care-takers of an elderly or somehow disabled person to open aphone call in speaker mode, even though the owner could not take the call having fell or got some kind of a seizure. The application also allows setting the most important contacts showing at first, even though the default setting is the alphabetical order of the phone’s address book.

MummoPhone costs 5 euros on Ovi Store and is available for Symbian S60 5th Edition, Symbian 3 and Symbian Anna. It has been developed by a small Finnish software company which hasn’t developed mobile software before this. They had a group of beta testers before publishing the app, but I believe they are very happy to hear new ideas and suggestions for improvements.

I don’t know if there are same kind apps for Android or iOS too. I guess there could be demand for that.

First experiences: 4G (LTE) is amazing

This week I have had the pleasure of being one of the first people to really experience 4G, or LTE in Finland. Sonera opened their commercial service in November, and now they have that much coverage in Helsinki it was possible to try it a little bit around the city centre. The first impression has been great.

I’d like to start with getting a quick flash-back into history. I still vividly remember the press conference held in 2004 at the headquarters of TeliaSonera, hosted by both their CEO Anni Vepsäläinen and CEO of Nokia Networks (nowadays Nokia Siemens Networks) Sari Baldauf. The room was fully packed with too many journalists, camera men and TV cameras. It was hot in the room. TeliaSonera was finally launching their commercial 3G (UMTS) service.

Now, about seven years later, without any kind of hype, Sonera has launched their 4G (LTE) service. This week they held a small press conference about their LTE plans this year and going forward, and you could easily count the number of journalists with your one hand fingers. No TV cameras. I think my Canon PowerShot G12 and a few camera phones were the only cameras there.

Nevertheless, after my first  experiences, I have to admit LTE (4G) has amazing potential.

I first tried the LTE network of TeliaSonera in July 2010 when they had a trial in Turku, a city in Southern Finland, about 200 km from Helsinki. I was sitting in a restaurant and could download files at the peak download rate of about 47 Mbit/s. What was even more amazing, the latency was less than 20 ms.

This week I’ve had a chance to try their commercially available LTE network in Helsinki. It was a nice experience to download an episode of a TV series (download size of 1,3 GB) before I finished my appetizer in a restaurant. Or to watch a 8 Mbit/s MPEG-2 stream on VLC without any glitches. The popular test site speedtest.net gave a result of about 37 Mbit/s downlink and 24 Mbit/s uplink, and latency of around 24 ms.

Before I had enjoyed my main course, the OS X Lion update (3,7 GB) was downloaded in the background. That means faster than most Finnish people get with their fixed broadband today.

However, there are many limitations yet which mean LTE won’t probably become a commercial hit in many years. First of all, the coverage is too small compared to 3G networks; building LTE ist just starting. Finnish operators still put most of their resources to extending 3G+ coverage.

Secondly, Sonera charges a whopping 55 euros a month for LTE of which about 10 euros is for the USB modem and the rest is for the service. It’s “all you can eat” flat-rate, but there’s a reasonable 30 GB a month fair-use policy.

To try this, Sonera offered a USB modem by ZTE supporting their 1800/2600 MHz LTE and 3G too. Another Finnish mobile network operator DNA has a semi-commercial pilot (a few hundred users) with a Huawei modem supporting 1800/2600 MHz too. I still haven’t had time to try their LTE yet, but I will do that too.

Sonera has something over 10, but less than 20 LTE base stations (from Nokia Siemens Networks) in Helsinki. They didn’t want to announce the exact number.

I first tried their LTE inside and outside Lasipalatsi, a building in the centre of Helsinki where they have a base station very close. The peak download rate was almost 80 Mbit/s, and 13 ms latency. When Sonera demoed their LTE to journalists during their press meeting, they showed downlink speeds over 90 Mbit/s, but I haven’t been able to reach that.

Some 1,7 km from there, in Kaisaniemi, I could still get 4G inside a cafeteria. But then at the Pasila railway station, about 5 km from Lasipalatsi, there was no longer LTE, only 3G+ (HSPA+).

So, inside the small area of LTE coverage, download and upload speeds and latencies have been wonderful. I look forward to seeing more affordable prices and wider coverage.

speedtest.net result using Sonera's LTE in Helsinki.

Of course, 3G and LTE capacity is normally shared by very many users. At the moment, I could have been the only one using the LTE network, or at least one of few ones. So you can expect real life speeds to be mostly slower.

Today, the first 3G/4G modems (USB sticks) from the Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE are very big and power hungry devices too, so a lot of development is needed here. When using a 4G stick, my MacBook Air runs out of battery in just about two hours. Using the integrated 802.11g WLAN (WiFi), the battery lasts for about four hours.

That’s all I have in mind at the moment about my LTE experiences. The rest of the blog post is more or less background information.

* * *

All three of the Finnish mobile network operators have started building LTE. DNA has only a few LTE base stations in Helsinki at the moment, but over 60 base stations (from Ericsson) in the city of Hämeenlinna, about 100 km north from Helsinki.

11-inch MacBook Air and ZTE's 4G modem; a quite large and power hungry USB stick.The third Finnish mobile network operator Elisa also has some LTE coverage at least in Helsinki and neighouring suburban city Espoo (close to Nokia Siemens headquarters), but they haven’t told details yet in public. They haven’t given their LTE for journalists to try either.

Finnish operators have built 1,8 and 2,6 GHz coverage for now, until Finland’s east neighour Russia is ready to move their military navigation systems to other frequencies to avoid interference. Later operators hope to be able to build 800 MHz coverage which would enable expanding LTE to more scattered areas too.

Why are lower frequencies needed? They enable larger cell sizes in radio networks. Thanks to the 900 MHz band (versus 2100 MHz), Finnish operators have been able to build almost nation-wide 3G (HSPA+) coverage in scattered areas to reach small towns and many summer cottages too.

This week I asked Finnish operators for comments about the 800 MHz band. They seemed to agree we would start seeing first commercial 800 MHz LTE networks in 2013 or later.

An official from the Ministry of Transport and Communications told me the Finnish government is expected to start the decision process later this year. Due to the economic situation, they might want to have an auction for the 800 MHz licenses, even though that failed with the 2,6 GHz frequency. There were only a few applicants and no foreign players. The money raised was just a few million euros.  Earlier that year, Suvi Lindén, the former Minister of Communications in Finland had boasted for the Finnish business newspaper Kauppalehti (in Finnish, read a bad Google translation here) Intel would come to compete in Finland for a WiMax license.

I also met Hossein Moiin, the CTO of Nokia Siemens Networks a few weeks ago for an interview. He said if the demand for bandwidth and mobile data increases as fast as it has done so far, we could see as broad 4G coverage as 3G networks offer today. I think that would be great.

However, this week, Finnish mobile operators were not as optimistic as Moiin. “I think we will never see as broad 4G coverage as 3G will have”, said Marek Hintze, the head of mobility services at TeliaSonera Finland during their LTE briefing earlier this week. Executives from DNA and Elisa gave pretty much same kind of statements.

LTE also brings good news to global travellers. Moiin was happy we could finally have one common mobile network standard around the world after 30 years of disagreements.

In Europe LTE is pretty much the default choice pushed by the European Commission. Many operators in the U.S. are going for LTE after 3G (HSPA) or CDMA2000. LTE is also expected to be used in Australia.

And even though China will probably go for a little bit different variant of LTE than Europe, due to their different frequency policies, time division multiplexing (TD-LTE), versus frequency division multiplexing (FD-LTE) in Europe, these technologies are mostly compliant with each other, according to Hossein Moiin. I believe him, because since 2003 he has been one of the gurus who has been writing these next generation standards which have eventually led to LTE.

* * *

Either way, Finland is not quite in the lead of LTE anyway. Telia, the Swedish division of the TeliaSonera group, announced at the Mobile World Conference (MWC) in Barcelona to build LTE (4G) in almost 220 cities by the end of 2011. I recall Telia also charges about 60 euros (or 600 Swedish kronors) for the service. So to really experience LTE today, Stockholm is probably the best city in Europe.

Of course we could also argue if the first generation of LTE is really 4G at all. Some engineers think the real 4G will be LTE-Advanced, coming after some years, which supposedly offers maximum download rates from 300 Mbit/s to as high as 1 Gbit/s. Then again, according to the ITU standards, already >20 Mbit/s HSPA+ can be called 4G.

So networks are still very interesting. The world of wireless can be very different from today in just some 5 to 10 years.

It would be interesting to read your experiences of 4G (LTE, WiMax) in different cities.

First look: HTC Titan was impressive

HTC Titan with Windows Phone MangoToday the Taiwanese smartphone vendor HTC announced two Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) smartphones in many local and international events. I got a chance to see and quickly try both HTC Radar and HTC Titan of which both were interesting and worth considering.

HTC Radar has been built as an aluminium unibody, and it felt robust and sturdy. The 3,8-inch touch screen was nice. The camera is supposedly better than in HTC devices before.

But what really made me interested in WP 7.5  was the Titan model, with an impressive 4,7-inch screen. The device felt and looked nice too, even though it’s not that impressive in pictures. The Metro UI and the first apps I tried ran smoothly. As my Nokia N8 (with Symbian Anna) is starting to feel more and more obsolete, the Titan could well be my next phone.

I assume some people will be disappointed the screen resolution is still the same 480 x 800 pixels, even though the display is physically larger than before. This is fine for me, because I like large fonts and graphics. The device is physically about the same size as HTC Sensation. So it’s big, but it will probably fit in most of my pockets. And fortunately quite thin; only about 9,9 mm in thickness.

Nokia will need to come up with some real competitive advantages against HTC to beat these. I couldn’t test how good a camera HTC has managed to put in these, but the specifications are good; a 28 mm wide-angle lens and f/2.2 aperture size, which is the same as in Nokia N9 (MeeGo device). Nokia has had better cameras than HTC until now at least.

HTC has not packed any turn-by-turn navigation on these new Mango devices, so you have to pay extra for that, for example to Garmin. There are others available on WP Marketplace too. But will Nokia include free navigation on Windows Phones too? That would be a real benefit worth tens of euros a year.

HTC has a new service called HTC Watch that lets you rent and buy movies which you can then stream on your HD television using the wireless DLNA technology. The rentals start at about 4 euros (for 48 hours) and purchases at about 12 euros. The wireless streaming requires a modern TV and/or home theattre equipment, and I’m intrested in seeing how easily it will actually work.

HTC’s managers said Radar and Titan will be available in about a month in October. Estimated retail price for Radar is about 450 euros and for Titan about 700 euros in Finland. HTC expects to start offering Mango updates for their current Windows Phone 7 device by the end of September.

If you want to know more about HTC Radar and Titan, there are many hands-on previews already online, for example on Engadget.

HTC Titan has a very nice 4,7-inch screen.