Although the concept of the smart phone pretends to be cutting-edge, it was
really created by Nokia back in the early nineties with the 9000 series. It was
dubbed the Communicator and by combining telephony, e-mail, internet and PDA
functions in one item it lived up to its name. Despite the miraculous
convergence, however, it was not without its flaws. For a start, mobile data was
only available in GSM flavour and its paltry 9,600kbit/sec rate meant an
eternity waiting for anything internet-related. Secondly, it was enormous. I
mean really enormous; 9000 owners didn’t need to fear being mugged since they
could beat off any assailants with their phone.
result, the 9000 largely passed by un-noticed whilst the PDA world
Psion and Windows CE. Nokia, however was not discouraged and its engineers used
the long, Scandinavian winters to do something productive. Involving phones.
Next in the 9*** series was the 9110 which was smaller, lighter and sleeker.
Then, there was the 9210 which had essentially the same body as the 9110 but
screen, HSCSD (High Speed Circuit Switched Data) and the Symbian Series 80 OS.
The 9210i was exactly the same but with more memory, an Opera browser and a
silver (rather than black) keypad on the front. The last point was obviously the
deciding factor when I made up my mind to buy one.
had my 9210i for several years and I loved it even though on almost every
logical count it was rubbish. Firstly, HSCSD was only ever supported by one
network in the UK (which I wasn’t with) and since the 9210i didn’t have GPRS, I
was stuck with the asthmatic snail that was GSM. Other problems included a case
that creaked when you looked at it, a lack of Bluetooth and touch screen, a mail
client that didn’t work with my account and, to cap it all off, a PC suite that
refused to work with Windows XP. Despite this, the phone had two saving graces:
a sensible keyboard and a 640×240 screen that made web-pages look acceptable. As
a result, it became my own little stand-alone PDA which ran my life for me.
After that little potted history, I can finally get to the actual subject of
this review: the 9500. Nokia obviously saw the 9210i as being slightly light on
features and, as a result has stuffed the 9500 with everything they could lay
their hands on. It has WiFi, Bluetooth, GPRS, EGDE, a camera, an MP3 player,
Real player and tri-band capabilities. As a result this probably won’t be the
most comprehensive review in the world but it should give a reasonable overview
of the phone.
TI OMAP 1510 RISC @ 150MHz
Memory: 80 MB Flash
OS: Symbian OS7.0s with J2ME
First impressions first and, after being used to the 9210, the 9500 looks like a
far more polished product its predecessor. It feels wonderfully solid and
creak-less and due to its slightly curvy and rounded styling the phone looks and
feels smaller than its predecessor even though there isn’t actually that much
notable change is that the front screen is now colour and uses Nokia’s Series
40 system giving it a bit more functionality than the old model. The keypad on
the front is slick and shiny with good "tactile feedback" but because Nokia
seems incapable of putting a normal keypad design on any of their new phones the
9500’s feels a bit clumsy. It does, however, offer changeable covers and keypads
(odd considering that its supposed to be a business phone) and at the moment
there are two options: black and white. Imaginative… One annoying thing about
the covers is that it’s very easy for dust to get between the cover and the
screen. For some reason, the screens on the front of Nokia phones appear to
accentuate any dust or scratches which for someone like me who dotes on their
new toy becomes very irritating. Compressed air sprays for camera seem to do a
fairly good job of getting rid of it but I’ve resolved not to take the cover off
unless absolutely necessary.
other reviewers have complained about the absence of T9 on the front keys. I,
however, have never had much time for text entered through a numeric keypad,
predictive or otherwise, and since there’s a proper keyboard inside the phone
the lack of T9 doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The last change over the 9***
series that Nokia has made to the front of 9500 is one that new Communicator
users won’t notice: the position of the speaker. Whenever a 9*** series phone
appeared in a film, those in the know would have a little chuckle whenever the
person on screen using it held it to their ear with the keypad facing inwards.
This was because the speaker and microphone were on the back of the phone which
meant it had to be flipped round when making a call. With the 9500 they’re back
in the right place which is fine for new users but a pain for existing users;
I’ve answered several calls and wondered why the sound was so faint… The back
of the phone now sports the camera, two rubber grip strips and a panel that
covers the battery, SIM card slot and the MMC slot (which unfortunately doesn’t
support SD). Despite looking tidier than the back of the 9210, the battery cover
is a bit of a fiddle to remove when you want to get to the memory card.
most phone cameras, the one on the 9500 can only get to VGA resolution and as a
result the photos are fine for sending to other phones but not exactly something
that you’d want to print off. In bright light, though, the quality isn’t too
Quite frankly, the front interface on the 9500 is only for showing you the
numbers you’ve just pressed when entering a number and as a result I won’t spend
much time on it. The only other thing of note is that it runs Nokia’s Series 40
interface so should be familiar to anyone who’s used some of Nokia’s
non-smart-phones recently. On to the inside – the more interesting bit. Upon
opening the 9500, one is greeted by what looks pretty much like a laptop that
has been tortured on a rack and stretched a bit.
a 640×200 screen and full qwerty keyboard the 9500 feels far more like the
Psions and HPs of old than the PDAs of today and to a certain extent this
reveals the thinking behind the 9500. Whilst a Pocket PC or a Palm is more of an
extension of a desktop or laptop, the 9500 can genuinely be used as a standalone
machine. I know you can get fold away keyboards for other PDAs but they tend to
be the same size as the PDA itself when collapsed and however pain-free setting
them up is, it can’t compare to the ease of simply opening the communicator. The
keyboard on the 9210 was of the chicklet variety but on the 9500 its become more
like the Psion Revo with the keys laid edge to edge but without much travel.
Whether you like it really depends on whether your fingers are elfin or shaped
like sausages but I find it quite acceptable and have used it to type most of
this review. One thing that may put people off the 9500 is the lack of touch
screen but it shouldn’t since the Symbian OS has been set up very well for
keyboard control. The keyboard has a nine way rocker switch as well as four
cursor keys. When using the web browser, the pad controls a small on-screen
cursor and the four cursor keys act like a mouse scroll wheel which allows a
fairly pain free browsing experience. The lack of touch screen has also resulted
in a profusion of shortcut keys which can be seen on the top row of the
keyboard. These consist of Desk, Telephone, Messaging, Web, Contacts, Documents,
Calendar and the user assignable “My Own” key. Finally, there are the four
buttons that run up the right hand side of the screen whose functions are
indicated by on screen tabs next to them.
Although the design is a definite
improvement over the 9210, the 9500 is still slightly clunky. Although not quite
as deserving of the “brick” moniker that it’s predecessor had, it is still not
quite as svelte as the other devices that offer similar services such as the XDA
IIs, the Treo 650 and the P910i. Although I don’t have one handy for comparison
in the following photos, the Treo is about the size of the P910i when it’s
The internal screen is, without a shadow
of a doubt, the best screen I have seen on a PDA and is much, much better than
the screen on it’s closest competitors; the SonyEricsson P910i and the XDA IIs.
It’s also a match for, if not better than, the 1920×1200 screen on my laptop…
You can also set whatever picture you
like as your background on both the front and inner screens of the phone
although there’s no way of skinning either interface.
On the inside the 9500 runs the Symbian
OS7 with Nokia’s Series 80 overlay and as you’d expect, it has all the requisite
applications already installed. These include the Opera browser, a messaging
system that brings SMS, MMS, e-mails and received files in one place, a full
suite of office applications, a calendar, contacts etc. The menu system has been
simplified considerably over the 9210 and all the various programs and settings
can be access through Desk with the four basic shortcuts Personal, Office, Media
and Tools all of which are fairly self-explanatory. You can also place your own
shortcuts to programs and documents on the desktop. Personal brings together
your PIM programs, Office does the same with the “productivity” applications,
Media combines audio-visual things like Imaging and MP3 and Tools is mostly for
All the applications are fairly
straightforward and none of them really suffer from being on a device without a
touch screen (except the calculator; learn those keyboard shortcuts!).
Messaging, Calendar and Contacts all follow the same basic lay-out with the
entries being on the left hand side of the screen and their details on the
The only real disappointment for me, at
least, is that after coming from the 9210i’s word processor with its
spellchecking and superb thesaurus (better then Word XP), the 9500 has neither.
Although I’ll survive without them, it does seem strange that they’ve been left
out since the 9500 has more than enough memory for them…
Two other applications that deserve a
special mention are the MP3 player and Real Player. The former of these is very
good and although the 9500 doesn’t have a headphone jack, Nokia supplies
headphones that connect to its “Pop-Port” and, surprisingly for such a product,
they actually sound pretty good. The only downside is that they’re white and
have a little Nokia logo on the ear buds so when walking down the street you
might as well carry a sign saying “I’ve got an expensive phone, I have.”
Hopefully, with the rise of MP3 playing smart phones, it should only be a matter
of time until someone releases a pop-port to 3.5mm adapter. Because the 9500
doesn’t really have enough space for many MP3s, a memory card is pre-requisite
if you plan to be doing a lot of listening and a 1GB MMC card now goes for
As for Real Player, all I can say is
that Real Networks have successfully managed to condense all of the
user-unfriendliness and idiocy of their desktop version into a nasty little pill
for the 9500. The thought of being able to watch, say, BBC News over a wireless
LAN is very appealing and Real have obviously realised this and made sure that
it’s impossible. Which is a shame since it would have been a very interesting
illustration of mobile technology. Oh well…
The communicator’s claim to fame has
always been its connectivity and the 9500 doesn’t disappoint. On the cellular
side of things it offers HSCDS, GPRS and EGPRS (EDGE) which gives you
theoretical top speeds of just over 200kbps. Some may point out the lack of
proper 3G data facilities as a rather serious omission but in the UK, at least,
3G services have not yet reached the coverage (and cost) at which I would
seriously consider using them. By they time they do, I wouldn’t be surprised if
a new communicator model had come out to take advantage of them. The
configuration of the data facilities is very simple and the phone takes all the
settings from the SIM card and then creates the separate connections for GRPS,
WAP and MMS.
On the non-cellular side of things, the
9500 has Bluetooth and WiFi. The Bluetooth can be switched on or off using a
keyboard short cut but the default state is controlled through the settings
menu. When activated, a little Bluetooth rune appears on the left of the screen.
The WiFi can be set to search for wireless networks at regular intervals and
although it doesn’t announce it when it finds one, a small “W” appears in the
same place as the Bluetooth blob (see pictures above). There’s also an option to
automatically deactivate Bluetooth when using the WiFi since both operate on the
same frequency and although they can be used simultaneously, it increases the
likelihood of problems.
The 9500 comes with Nokia’s PC Suite
which allows you to synchronise your phone with Outlook (or Lotus Notes) via
either cradle and cable (see first picture of the 9500), infrared or Bluetooth.
All three seem to work well although the transfer speed for large files such as
MP3 is not exactly rapid and, on my computer, if the Bluetooth card has been
deactivated it takes a few minutes for PS Suite to realise that the 9500 is
nearby before syncing. The PC Suite also includes a number of other programs
such as a SMS sender and contact editor but to be honest, most of these are
intended for Nokia’s other phones and are superfluous since almost everything
can be either done in Outlook on or the phone itself.
The 9500 uses Opera as its internet
browser and the “Fit to page” function coupled with the 640 pixel wide screen
make internet browsing about as pain free as is possible on a palmtop (I know
that some of the newer PocketPCs have VGA screens but the text on them is
microscopic). When you open the web browser you’re greeted with the Nokia logo
and a link to the mobile version of Nokia’s website.
When you enter the address of a website,
the 9500 then offers you a list of available connections. Since it automatically
picks up the settings off the SIM card, O2 Internet is one of the options (for
me) but it also shows connections created manually and, if there’s one in range,
a wireless network access point. If there’s one of the latter about then is
comes under the “EasyWLAN” option which, when selected, allows you to select the
nearby network to connect to. If the network is an open one, you can just start
surfing but if it’s an encrypted one then you have to enter the network key.
Since doing this every time is a pain there’s an option in the settings menu to
create a permanent access point for any network that you use regularly.
Once connected, everything is fairly
straightforward and when using GPRS the connection feels about as fast as a
normal dial-up one but, if your network supports it, the 9500 can take advantage
of EDGE and shoot up to 200kbps. The WiFi connections I’ve tried it with (mostly
at airports) all seem to work well but there are two slight catches: firstly,
the phone only has a 150mhz processor and as a result the WiFi isn’t as fast as
it would be on a laptop. Secondly, although the phone is good at detecting
networks with weak signals, using them to browse the web can be a bit tiring as
the phone takes a bit of time to reacquire the signal when it loses it.
The e-mail accounts in the messaging
suite can also be configured to use the available connections and, as with the
web browser, usually work smoothly. Having a keyboard that is genuinely usable
along with almost every type of mobile connectivity makes the 9500 more of a
mobile e-mail device than anything else especially since RIM have announced that
they’ll be releasing a piece of software that gives it full Blackberry
functions. Since mobile data is very much on the rise (although I wish the price
could do the opposite) and European networks now have roaming for data calls in
addition to voice, it’s possible to keep in touch almost wherever you are,
regardless of country.
The 9500 is quite literally the phone
that can do everything but, as always seems to be the case, there is a
trade-off: the size. Although I’ve never found it to be much of a problem since
I usually wear a jacket or overcoat, the 9500 is the antithesis of the Motorola
V3 and is not a phone that will slip into a shirt or trouser pocket without
leaving a bulge. If is a bit smaller than its predecessor so compared to other
phones it’s not so much brick as briquette.
Would I recommend it? If I say that’s a
tricky question that doesn’t mean the phone is bad, it’s just that it has been
designed to very specific guidelines and as a result may not suit everyone.
Personally, I feel that the keyboard sets it apart from most of its other
competitors since none of them offer one that compares in usability. If,
however, you feel that a camera and wireless networking are not high on your
list of “must-haves” Nokia is just about to release the 9300 which has all the
features of the 9500 bar those two but at a smaller size. Although I don’t have
one to hand, it’s about half-way between the 9500 and the P910i size-wise.
Personally, I’m delighted with it and I
wouldn’t part with it. Although it may sound a little silly, you do feel that
mobile technology has started to make good on the industries’ promises when you
can sit at a restaurant at the top a mountain in the French Alps, take a picture
of Mont Blanc against a blue sky and then immediately e-mail it to your (soon
not to be) friends back in the office!
Unfortunately, the phone I used for this
review is no longer with me. A few weeks ago the microphone had an appointment
with the Grim Reaper the company I bought the phone from agreed to a replacement
which should be in my hands soon. I haven’t heard anyone else having a similar
problem so hopefully it was a one off. One problem that does seem to be common
to all examples, though, is that the catch for the screen seems to get
progressively weaker after extended use. Although the catch was noticeably
looser on mine after I’d been using it for a bit, it hadn’t got to the point
where it became a problem. If anything happens with the new one I’ll keep you