The Nokia Astound is a great phone for users who want an affordable, yet full-featured smartphone, but the Symbian platform isn’t the most user-friendly.
Given the recent news of an AT&T purchase of T-Mobile, it is slightly ironic that the very first phone we saw up close at CTIA (and immediately got a review unit of) this year is a T-Mobile phone. And even more ironic, the Nokia Astound uses the Symbian platform, which Nokia made pretty clear it had washed its hands of last month. But don’t dismiss the Astound immediately; for its low price ($80 with a two-year contract, you get a well-designed, attractive phone with a great camera.
At CTIA, Nokia told us that the phone is targeted at first-time smartphone users who don’t want to pay a lot of money for a data plan. And T-Mobile is following through on this promise; Astound owners can pay as low as $10 a month for this type of plan.
If the Astound looks familiar, it is because it is the T-Mobile branded version of the Nokia C7, an unlocked global Symbian phone. The two are very similar, but the Nokia Astound has a different color scheme with T-Mobile branding. It also has the most recent version of Symbian.
The Astound is quite attractive with a frost white and dark silver color scheme and slim profile at only 0.4-inches thick. It weighs a manageable 4.58 ounces and feels really comfortable in hand. On the face of the phone, you’ll find the Send, End and Menu buttons, which are flush into the phone. In the top right corner, you’ll see the 0.3-megapixel VGA front-facing camera for video chat and snapping self portraits. The left edge of the Astound is clean, but you’ll find a camera shutter key, a lock/unlock switch (which I always appreciate), a dedicated voice recognition button and the volume rocker. The top of the phone houses the USB port, 3.5-mm headphone jack and the power button.
On the back, you’ll find the 8-megapixel camera as well as the battery and microSD slots. I didn’t like how buried the microSD card slot was on this phone; you have to remove the back as well as the battery to get to it. The SIM card slot is nicely labeled however (see picture).
The Astound has a bright 3.5-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 360-by-540 pixels, which is a bit smaller than the 4-inch and larger displays we’ve seen on the most recent crop of high-end smartphones. But I found it sufficient for browsing the Web, running various apps and watching YouTube clips. Since it is AMOLED, the display holds up pretty well in bright sunlight too and viewing angles are pretty good as well.
Symbian S3: Stale, but Functional
While the Astound might be attractive on the outside, Symbian is still, well, Symbian. Although it is a powerful and full-featured platform, its whole aesthetic feels dated and static compared to Android 2.3, Apple’s iOS, and even the latest version of RIM’s BlackBerry OS. This is the most recent version of Symbian S3 so you get a portrait QWERTY keyboard and an improved browser.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I really dislike Symbian’s typography. The boxy, small text just looks so late-1990s to me, and it isn’t easy on the eyes. When Nokia announced the Symbian S3 revamp, I had hoped for cleaner, more modern-looking typography and aesthetically pleasing icons. But S3 looks more or less the same as the previous version with some tweaks and added features here and there.
As I mentioned, you now get a portrait and landscape QWERTY keyboard in S3. Both keyboards are a bit cramped, but you at least get the added benefit of Swype for the landscape keyboard. Unfortunately, the portrait keyboard does not have Swype support which I found sort of annoying since I use portrait mode for most of my typing.
You also get only three homescreens to work with. For some users, three may be enough to accommodate all the widgets they need, but I wanted more. The widgets are all of identical size, and they’re rather large, so you don’t have a lot of room to work with. If you want to add a shortcut to an app on your homescreen, you must open the “shortcuts” widget; you can add a total of four icons on there. The process is a lot more complicated than Android’s system of adding a widget or shortcut simply by holding down the touchscreen.
Arranging widgets is a bit of a pain as well. You can’t move a widget between homescreens; instead, you have to delete it from one homepage and then add it to another. Moving widgets around on the same homepage is a simple matter of holding and dragging it to the desired place.
S3 does introduce some improvements over older Symbian versions, such as multitouch in the browser and photo gallery (at last!), a navigation system that requires fewer taps, and a simpler multitasking system. Also, when you press the battery icon in the homescreen, a window pops up to display available Wi-Fi connections, USB connections, and a bigger clock that you can use to adjust the time or set an alarm.
Despite these tweaks, Symbian S3 feels outdated and overly complicated in comparison to the Android OS and iOS. Simple tasks–such as adding shortcuts to your homepage–are more difficult to perform than they should be.
E-mail, Browser and Multimedia
The Symbian S3 e-mail client is pretty basic and gets the job done, but if you’re a Gmail user, you’ll obviously prefer Android’s client (or even iOS) to the Symbian e-mail system. Setting up your Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail accounts is as simple as plugging in a username and password.
The spruced up S3 browser gives you tabbed browsing (international readers take note: the Nokia C7 does not have this version of S3), which is always useful. But the S3 browser doesn’t hold against competitor browsers, like the Android stock browser. Scrolling can be a bit of a pain (it is kind of choppy) and the browser renders images slowly. The bright spot is that you can download an alternative browser, like Opera 11, which performed much better on the Astound in my hands-on tests.
The music player has a nice Cover Flow-esque interface when you’re sifting throw you music library, but once you’re in the Now Playing mode, you get a static screen showing album covers, track information and player controls. Audio quality sounded pretty good, though it wasn’t mind-blowing.
Videos looked great on the Astound’s sharp AMOLED display. If you’re used to a display over 4-inches, however, the Astound’s 3.5-incher might seem a bit cramped. YouTube videos played back smoothly as did the high definition videos I loaded on the device.
An 8-megapixel camera with a dual LED flash seems promising, but I was disappointed to learn that the Astound has no auto-focus. This isn’t a big deal if you’re taking photos of landscapes or a group of people. If you’re focusing on a single person or object, however, your photos don’t turn out very sharp. Pictures taken outside looked pretty good, but I had a hard time steadying the camera when I was on-the-go so my photos turned out a bit blurry. This was an instance autofocus could have really helped with image quality.
The camcorder can capture 720p (HD) video and my test clips looked pretty decent. Image quality could be a bit fuzzy indoors and looked smoother in my videos captured outside.
Powered by a 680MHz ARM 11 processor, the Astound can’t keep up with the 1GHz and dual-core beasts we’ve seen this year. But for basic tasks, like Web browsing and using various apps, the Astound handled everything I threw at it.
Unlike the recent crop of phones we’ve seen from T-Mobile, the Astound is not a 4G phone, meaning it does not support T-Mobile’s faster HSPA+ network. The Astound loaded up Web pages quickly enough over T-Mobile 3G in San Francisco.
Call quality was excellent. Voices sounded crystal clear over T-Mobile’s network. The network isn’t always the strongest here in San Francisco so I appreciated the bonus feature of being able to make calls over Wi-Fi.
Lastly, battery life was excellent. I was able to keep the battery going with moderate to heavy usage for about two day before it died. At the time of this review, we haven’t completed our formal battery tests, but I can say that in my hands-on use, the Astound was a trooper.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Nokia phones have excellent hardware, but the Symbian platform simply cannot keep up with the competition when it comes to aesthetics and user-friendliness. Nokia officials had no comment on its relationship with Microsoft, but they did hint that there will be more Symbian phones to come. I’m excited to see what is to come with the Microsoft thing; Windows Phone 7 is a highly capable platform, especially when paired with the right hardware.
The Nokia Astound is a great phone for users who want a full-featured smartphone, but don’t want to break the bank. If you’re not a Google or Android fan and find the BlackBerry too business-minded, the Astound is a good choice. The Symbian platform isn’t the most user-friendly, however, and the 8-megapixel camera feels like a waste without autofocus.
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