Nokia 5800 XpressMusic review

It's not the company's first touchscreen device, but the 5800 XpressMusic is the first touchscreen device that Nokia has designed to appeal to the masses, and as such, there are certain expectations. By even the most forgiving of standards, Nokia is now officially late to this game -- all of the remaining top-five manufacturers have been offering mass-market touchscreen phones for some time now -- so there's plenty of ground to be made up. What's more, the 5800 marks the retail introduction of S60 5th Edition, the latest incarnation of the world's most ubiquitous smartphone platform; future iterations of this very code will lay the groundwork for the Symbian Foundation's next-gen offensive, so the stakes have never been higher. You might say the weight of the world -- or Finland, at the very least -- is on the 5800's shoulders, but is this unassuming little slate up to the task? Let's have a look.



Physically, the clean, all-black 5800 doesn't make much of an impression at all -- and knowing Nokia, that's by design. By all appearances, it's a simple, functional, and to-the-point device without any frills to detract from its lot in life; only the decoratively patterned battery cover belies the theme. Of course, the same could be said of virtually any slate-style handset, yet still, there's something very uniquely... well, "Nokia" about the 5800's industrial design. It's a polarizing effect; personally, we're on the "love" side of that delicate love / hate balance, but we can imagine plenty of potential buyers being underwhelmed at first glance. The 5800's price and XpressMusic designation suggest that it's meant to live in a market segment where fashion and style often play a pretty big role in the decision, and if you're cross-shopping it (perhaps unfairly) with high-end feature phones, iPhones, Storms, and the like, the 5800 probably isn't going to look as design-conscious, well-made, or aspirational as the competition to the casual observer. Again, don't get us wrong, we dig how it came out -- but by the same token, we'd like to see what the E71's design squad could've done. Fortunately, S60 5th Edition (and its Symbian Foundation-controlled successors) are Nokia's future, so there's no question we'll have plenty of opportunities to see this same platform operating on a variety of form factors, designs, and price points. Of course, whether the 5800 was the right first device to launch will likely be debated for years to come.

"Nokia-ness" isn't the only potential problem with the 5800's physical design, though. Raised bezels around displays are passé by any measure, and the big, fat lip on this particular device is about as prominent as they come. Fortunately, it doesn't touch the edge of the visible area of the display on any side, so it's less of a usability concern here and more of a cleanliness one; if you keep the phone stowed in your pocket, you'll likely end up with dust and lint lodged around that edge. That sleek, black slate isn't so sleek or so black anymore, then, is it? A minor concern, yes -- but again, the bezel serves no functional purpose here, and we would've been just fine with seeing it disappear.

Heading around back, things get a little cheap -- and a little weird. Like the software (more on that in a moment), the battery cover on the 5800 appears to have been a total afterthought. It pries off without any sort of latch -- and yes, granted, this is a widely-accepted design decision for phones, but it's on there just tightly enough so that you almost feel like you're going to break it every time. For folks who use a single battery and a single phone, this won't be much of an issue -- you'll probably only remove the cover once or twice in the entire time that you own the phone -- but for anyone who switches devices or carries a spare battery, beware, because you're going to want iron fingernails and an iron will. (Strangely, even though the SIM conveniently loads through a slot on the side of the phone, you still need to get under the battery to remove it.)

It gets worse. That now-infamous plectrum (and yes, Nokia does actually refer to it as a "plectrum" in the manual) is required fare, because the 5800's stylus is perhaps the most ill-conceived we've ever experienced on any touchscreen device (okay, the Sony Ericsson P800's was pretty bad, too, but at least you have a sense for how bad we're talking about here). It seems as though the inclusion of a stylus literally could've been a last-minute decision when Nokia engineers realized and came to terms with the fact that S60 5th Edition wouldn't be 100 percent finger-friendly, because it's sort of wedged into the battery cover. Hooks on the other side of the cover secure the stylus when it's stowed, and on a couple occasions, we missed the second hook, jamming the stylus between the hook and the battery beneath it. Furthermore, on the first of our two test units, the stylus was virtually impossible to dislodge from the cover when we first got it (we had to triple-check the manual to make sure that it was, in fact, a removable stylus and not some sort of decorative element to the cover). Not to say the stylus is really worth dislodging, since it's plastic, easily bent, and generally not worth your time. Bottom line: stick with your fingers and the plectrum if you can.

Controls are conveniently-placed and pretty much where you'd expect them to be on a modern Nokia: two-detent camera button, spring-loaded slider for locking and unlocking the phone, and a volume rocker all along the right (granted, this is reversed from where most phones place it, but we're still getting used to an S60 Nokia even having a dedicated volume rocker, so we're not complaining); a 3.5mm headphone jack, micro-USB port, standard Nokia micro charger port, and power button on the top; and covered slots for the microSD and SIM cards along the left. The bottom is port-free, save for the mic.


If you take a Ferrari and duct-tape a hull to the bottom of it, does it become a speedboat? No, of course it doesn't. Likewise, if you take S60 3.2 -- a perfectly capable, reasonably usable smartphone platform powering tens of millions of devices around the world -- and duct-tape touch support to it, you're not going to end up with a very usable system, and it's bewildering to us that Nokia seems to have thought otherwise. 5th Edition is, for all practical purposes, a remix of 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 that's been mildly massaged to support touchscreens, and the result us nothing short of a usability nightmare.

The problems begin the instant you power on the phone for the first time. In the process of setting your region and the date and time, you need to choose AM or PM (at least, you do here in the States where we use the vastly inferior 12-hour system). Here's the problem: the on-screen numeric keypad you're presented doesn't have letters below each number like you're used to seeing on a traditional handset, so you've just got to guess where "A" and "P" might be. [Correction: AM / PM can be toggled by pressing any number, which makes no more sense. -Ed.] Granted, it's not the end of the world -- many of us have the letter layout memorized anyhow -- but it's a dead simple usability miss that should've never made it past Nokia's testing department. The AM / PM thing also starkly demonstrates 5th Edition's core problem: wide swaths of it are simply 3.2 carry-overs that have been gently reworked to become "usable" without a physical keypad. Needless to say, it feels like Nokia's being dragged kicking and screaming into the world of touch. Maybe it is.

Speaking of keypads, 5th Edition has many to choose from -- and few (if any) of them make much sense. Pictured here is the city search keypad, which we think would bewilder even seasoned touchscreen and Nokia veterans -- it looks more like a puzzle game of some sort than an input method. Even worse, keys start disappearing once you type to restrict it to letters that correspond to entries in the city list; it sounds intuitive, but in reality, it's pretty disorienting when your keypad looks like this to start.

We never got the hang of knowing when pressing on an input field would pop up a part-screen or full-screen keypad, but there isn't any consistency that's meaningful to the user. As far as we're concerned, with the exception of perhaps the landscape QWERTY option, none of the input methods has any excuse for obscuring the whole screen. In the pictured example here, we're in the Notes app -- but for some reason, the landscape numeric keypad (which can be used in both T9 and triple-tap modes) takes up the whole screen. There's no good reason for it, and frankly, we're not sure why you'd ever want to use this style of keypad in landscape mode anyway.

The 5800 does a commendable job of flipping between portrait and landscape modes quickly and seamlessly. Unlike the iPhone, there's no stupid screen transition to get in the way here -- you turn the phone, and boom, you're on your way. We were actually a bit shocked at how thoroughly the phone supports both portrait and landscape, considering how half-baked other aspects of the phone seem; the home screen is pretty much the only prominent thing here that can't be thrown into landscape mode, and fortunately, there's no great reason why you'd want to do that anyway.

One bright spot for 5th Edition is its included browser, which is excellent as usual. The problem is that in the time since the WebKit-based app was first released, the iPhone and Android have both caught up; webOS will be playing the same game as well, and WinMo certainly has no shortage of options, either. Of these, 5th Edition has perhaps the worst UI implementation, though it does a totally fine job of rendering -- and unlike some of those other platforms, you've got Flash support out of the box. In particular, we struggled to use our thumb to scroll around on the plastic, resistive display, which had a tendency to "bounce" just enough to register clicks as we scrolled. This is a problem we've witnessed on other devices in the past, and we think that a glass screen -- something with a little less "give" and friction -- would solve it completely. Needless to say, we're not worried about the Omnia HD suffering the same fate here. Not to beat a dead horse, but the browser also represents a glaring example of an area where 3.2 software has been massaged for touch support: the mouse pointer, which serves no purpose on this phone, is still present and visible.

Voice quality on the 5800 is good; as with all Nokias, we realistically could've used one or two more notches of volume, but it wasn't overly quiet by any stretch. Music quality was also very good over the 3.5mm jack (assuming you're bringing decent headphones to the table), and the loudspeaker is both loud and clear enough to be used as a makeshift desktop boombox from time to time. Annoyingly, most operations in the music app take about a half second to execute, which gets tiresome -- this is one place where the 5800 definitely seems like it could use a bit more processor juice, a better-written app, or both. At any rate, we do like that the 5800 includes podcast downloading and FM radio capability out of the box, but we're pretty ticked that they've removed the internet radio app found in 3.2 -- mobile internet radio is one of the great pleasures of a 3G connection, and we're chalking this one up to Espoo not having enough time to port the 3.2 version to 5th Edition. We're hoping the app reappears by the time the N97 rolls around; either that, or Nokia's probably banking on developers fixing this issue with their own wares on the Ovi Store.


Would we recommend the 5800? Unless you like solving mysteries like "will this operation take one or two taps" and "what number corresponds to F on the keypad," no, we wouldn't. Nokia's come to the table with really good, if not stellar, midrange hardware here -- but the company's lack of willingness to shed its preconceptions and leap head-first into the touch paradigm with a clear mind and a clean slate has hampered it beyond salvage. We have every confidence that Nokia (and its buddies at the Symbian Foundation) will end up getting it right, but these guys are still the biggest in the world; maybe it'll take a bit of humble pie before they realize that this needs to be addressed from an entirely different angle. Windows Mobile is learning that lesson from countless licensees re-skinning what has become Microsoft's liability of a UI, and perhaps Nokia should look at Samsung's Omnia HD -- which has reskinned S60 with TouchWiz -- as an advance warning that they're headed down the same path.