Symbian Anna re-invigorates Nokia’s smartphones

Nokia is rolling out an updated version of the Symbian operating system to users of the C7, N8, E7 and C6. Codenamed Anna, it improves the user experience of text input by adding a portrait orientation on-screen Qwerty keyboard, a faster and more capable web browser, a new edition of Maps and improvements to overall stability, speed and battery life (see All About Symbian for a full changelog).

Anna already ships pre-installed on the newer Nokia E6 and X7 handsets; in addition to maintaining the loyalty of existing users, Anna is also a sufficient improvement to boost the appeal of Nokia’s products for new customers.

I’ve spent time using a Symbian 3-based Nokia E7 as my day-to-day device, but have been constantly frustrated by its glitches, inconsistencies and poor user interface. I will typically spend a few weeks persevering with it before being lured back to an iPhone. It has certainly never been a device I would recommend to anyone outside the mobile industry and I recorded a similar verdict in my review of the N8.

The Symbian Anna update, however, changes this and significantly improves the overall user experience. There are 3 main factors which have transformed the UX:

    1. The portrait keyboard – Nokia’s new on-screen keyboard is accurate, fast and gives good haptic feedback. It seems incredible Symbian 3 users have been without this option for so long and its arrival makes text entry – a function essential to almost any task – an efficient experience. Crucially, it means users will not be confused by switching between the 9 key predictive method and physically re-orientating the screen to open the landscape on-screen keyboard. On the E7, it means users can save opening the flipout hardware keyboard for longer tasks (like writing this blog post!). Good text input is at the heart of good mobile experience and Nokia’s is now among the best.

    2. Web browser – one of the biggest problems with the previous version of Symbian was the speed and capability of the browser. It was nowhere near good enough for browsing most sites, which meant installing the third party Opera Mobile as a substitute. While Opera was a great application in itself and could be set-up to replace the built-in Symbian browser, this led to an inconsistent experience. For instance, clicking on a web link in another application often led to launching the old Symbian browser, even after you’d told the OS to default to Opera. The new browser is fast enough and has a sufficiently improved UI to make it viable as the default choice. As a result, the whole web experience on Anna devices is better – links can be launched from emails, tweets and other apps without worrying about which browser you need or whether it will load properly. One caveat to note is the browser on my E7 seems to place a limit of 3 open windows at any one time – I would hope to see this improved in a future update.

    3. Speed, stability and battery life – the lag and frequent crashes which were a feature of the previous OS are largely gone. It feels stable and fast in use. Power management also seems better, with my E7 lasting about 30% longer.

The end result is that Nokia’s portfolio of Symbian handsets – which it has stated will continue until 2016 – has become more attractive to end users. Setting aside the upgrade benefits for existing customers, Anna eliminates most of the usability problems which were detracting from Nokia’s undoubted excellence in industrial design at the point of sale.

Take, for instance, the N8. It is available ‘free’ on most operator contracts or can be purchased outright for about GBP 300, significantly less than an iPhone or high-end Android handset. For that, users get far and away the best camera on a mobile phone, free (and excellent) mapping and GPS navigation, a beautifully crafted form factor in several aluminum colour choices, HDMI out and access to an app store with a wide selection of free games (mainly courtesy of Nokia’s deals with developers). Where before the poor usability of the Symbian OS would have negated these qualities, now the Anna update will allow users to enjoy the features of the handset without compromise.

Nokia’s Symbian handsets have become recommendable again.

With 10 new devices scheduled to launch in the next 12 months and a further OS update (Belle) in beta testing, the Symbian portfolio may have a more graceful path to retirement than analysts have been predicting.

(Existing users can update their phones via the integrated ‘SW Update’ app on the C7, N8, E7 and C6, or via the Ovi Suite on a PC. It is being rolled out in stages, so might not be available to everyone immediately. If you’re in a hurry, there are ways around this – search for Navifirm and Phoenix on Google – but bear in mind this is an unofficial hack and should only be attempted if you’re willing to risk killing your device).

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