Friday, July 28, 2006

Summer on the Tegernsee

I spent some time near the Tegernsee. The sky was a typical Bavarian blue with some white clouds, the sun was shining, and the water was perfect.

The church in Rottach-Egern seen across the Tegernsee

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Review: Nokia E61 (first look)

A few days ago I purchased a Nokia E61 phone specifically to replace my Sony Ericsson P900. I want a phone that serves as an address book and calendar to similarly to a Palm. It must synchronize with Apple\'s iSync well to be useful.

The phone should also allow me to surf the web and occasionally check my emails. I specifically wanted a 3G (i.e. UMTS) phone so I can use it as a cellular modem from my iBook with tolerable speed.

I specifically do not want a camera because there are issues with some of my clients (a lot of facilities forbid cameras on site and therefore camera phones.) I also don't like the idea of spending money on something that I will never use because the quality is apalling. O.K, if you know of a camera phone that can keep up with even a mid-range compact digital camera, let me know.

There are only a handful of phones currenty (July 2006) on the market that meet this description:

  • Nokia E60

  • Nokia E61

  • Nokia Communicator 9300i

  • Sony Ericsson M600i

The Sony Ericsson M600i software currently has a lousy reputation on various internet forums because of the many, many bugs. After my experience with the SE P900, I am predisposed to believe this and struck the device off my short list.

The Communicator is a great device, but it is fairly expensive (currently € 520). There are a number of issues with it and iSync that I did not feel like getting into.

There is also the issue that Nokia appear to have decided that the Series 80 must be milked for what it is worth but not really improved. I do not see a vibrant future for this class of devices.

What sealed the 9300i\'s fate is the fact that it is not a 3G phone. I\'m tired of having to wait for ages for the bits too trickle in.

The E60 and the E61 are very similar in price (€ 320 and € 350, respectively) and feature set. The E60 is candy-bar shaped, the E61 looks more like a Blackberry with a large QVGA screen and a keyboard.

I could not find either at a local store to play with, so I decided the larger screen would probabyl be an advantage for web browsing and the keyboard for email, so I ordered an E61 intending to send it back if it did not please.

Physical Properties

My last Nokia phone was a 6210 (probably bought in 2000 or 2001) which I absolutely loathed because after a few weeks the back cover/battery decided to loose contact with the phone body every few hours, especially when in a pocket or bag, turning the phone off. Nokia was not helpful, so I swore to forgo Nokia phones until things got better. So, to say the least, I was very interested in build quality of the phone when I opened the box.

The physical quality of the device impresses me. It is just heavy enough to convey the feeling that I\'m holding something solid. All surfaces are smooth and edges are nicely curved so they are a pleasure to touch. The quality felt is, although very different in nature, similar in intensity to an iPod.

The back cover is made of aluminum and it fits very snugly to the phone body. The battery, SIM card, and optional MiniSD flash card all fit under the cover. To release the cover a button must be pressed fairly deeply. This looks like it will keep things securely in place.

The screen is absolutely gorgeous. It is crisp and bright, contrast is good, even in sunlight, and the writing on screen is easy to read.

The keyboard is adequate. I can type using two thumbs, but the keys are spaced too close to one another to be comfortable. My old Treo 270c had a much better keyboard.

The joystick is nice. It works exactly like I would expect. It is not as good, in my opinion, as a touch screen with a stylus, which I would prefer, but it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. I did have to actually read the manual to figure out how to copy/paste text using it. [If you\'re curious: hold the shift key while moving the joystick to select text. Then press CTRL+C to copy and CTRL+P to paste.]

I also had to read the manual to figure out what the four keys between the screen and the keyboard are. The soft keys are pretty well self-explanatory, but the button to initiate and the button to end a conversation really should be labeled with a pictogram. Even entry-level phones have labeled keys.

Basic Features

The basic phone features are all very easy to use. I won\'t comment on this any further except to say that this is actually a huge achievement for Nokia: the phone does not get into my way when I try to do something. I now see why some people claim that Nokia is the Apple of phones.
The address book is even nicer than the P900\'s: it features live searching for anything entered into the search bar, which is much better than the selection of the first letter of the last name and then scrolling down a list.

The calendar is very basic. I don\'t mind that there are very few bells and whistles (such as different categories for events), but an option to show an entire day on the screen in the weekly view without having to scroll is very useful to me indeed.

Synchronization with my Mac (OS X 10.4.7) was as easy as

  1. downloading and installing the plugin from

  2. enabling Bluetooth on the Mac and the E61

  3. pairing the two using Bluetooth Assistant

  4. starting iSync and initiating first sync

All data was transferred correctly. I am impressed.

Internet Use

The web browser is simply spectacular and unlike anything I have seen on a mobile phone to date (even though Opera is close). Based on the same KHTML engine as Safari, it supports HTML, XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Cookies. I did not find a website that works with Safari but fails to work with this beauty.

I like the ability to scroll around a large page using the joystick. This is more compatible than the way Opera reformats pages. It is also a bit more akward to use, but that is the price to pay ...

I really like the way a thumbnail of the page is shown both when scrolling the page and when pressing the BACK button. This makes it very easy to see where I am going.

Cookie handling sucks, but it does that on all browsers that I have ever seen except for iCab and Firefox. I would also like more control over which sites get to use JavaScript, but again, only those two browsers seem to allow this.

Email accounts are easy to set up, and they actually work! This is no mean feat, if the P900 is any indication ...

There is no instant messaging client for any of the usual IM services included, so I have not tested this yet.

I have also not tested VOIP yet.


I can get 3G service using the E61. I have not noticed a significant speed increase compared to the P900 using GPRS while browsing web sites. This may be due to the browser because downloading email is definitely faster.

In the near future I plan to set up the phone as a cellular modem for the Mac to test data rates.

The P900 totalled all the traffic coming to and going from the phone on every network profile. The E61 aggregates this information for a grand total and it allows me to see the traffic for every single connection. I could not find a total per connection.

This is a bad thing because I am charged by the kB on UMTS and GPRS but WLAN is free, but there is only a sum for both or only individual connection data which I have to total manually.


It is easy to set up the phone to use an 802.11b/g wireless LAN if one is available. This is nice because it allows me to use my free WLAN at home to download emails in the morning and then to just send replies and get new messages using the expensive mobile data services.

Setup is just as simple as on a Mac or PC, you simply enter all the different required information and the phone does the rest. Nokia's WLAN implementation in the E61 claims to support all of the currently used forms of securing wireless networks (WEP, WPA, EAP). I have only tested WPA-PSK because that is what I use for my network. It works like a charm.

Internet access appears to be faster than a 3G data connection, which is expected. The speedup is most noticable with email. The processing required for rendering HTML seems to be the limiting factor for web browsing, so the speed gain is not as noticable.

It does feel weird to access a LAN using a phone at first, but it is something that I am sure I will grow used to quickly. :)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Review: Sony Ericsson P900

I have owned and used a Sony Ericsson P900 for over two years now, so I feel that it is more than time to do a long-term review.

The plastic case is rather robust and wears well. The phone dropped to the floor several times and all that it has to show for this abuse is a paint scratch (the silver is only painted on) in the front top left corner. I finally managed to crack the plastic molding over the screen right where the flip rests, but I feel that this was due to an abusive fall and should not be held against SE.

The phone feels quite to me it is small enough to slip into a pocket and big enough that I can hold it comfortably in my hand for an extended conversation. The keys on the flip give just the right amount of tactile feedback when pressed to allow me to use them without looking at the phone. If I do want to look at the keys, the backlighting allows me to see them even when it is dark.

The screen is bright and easy to read. The colors are nicely saturated and the contrast is pleasant. The phone is harder to read in bright sunlight, but it is still useable. I have not managed to scratch the screen at all. Unfortunately, there are constantly smears on the top half of the screen after I hold the phone to my ear.

When I use the P900 as a phone, I usually keep the flip closed (opening the flip will turn on the speaker phone). Ever since I figured out how to enable T9 input I also use the flip for the occasional SMS entry. Everything else I usually do with the flip open. I still would not want to take the flip off, as many people do - I find the keyboard nicer than putting fingerprints all over the screen.

I use the P900 as my main calendar and address book. This works very well since the address book is easy to use and will take a seemingly endless number of phone numbers, fax numbers, and email addresses per entry. It is easy to find entries from all the different phone applications (SMS, Email, etc.) because the phone cleverly displays only entries that contain the data it needs. In other words, if I am trying to send an email, I will not see any entries without an email address.

The calendar is basic, but it gets the job done. I like the ability to color code entries by placing them into different categories. This is just what I do in iCal. Now why won't the categories synchronize with iCal? I can assign categories on the P900 and/or iCal, but I can not keep the categories in sync. Keeping the entries in sync works, however.

That brings me to one of the flaws of this phone: bluetooth. Yes, the phone has bluetooth. And yes, bluetooth does work ... most of the time. I can pair the phone with my Mac. I can then sync it. Great. A few days later, the phone and the Mac simply refuse to talk to one another, pretending they don't know of each other or don't see each other. I then delete the pairing in the phone and the Mac, set the Mac to "discoverable" and initiate pairing from the phone. I can then sync for a while before amnesia hits the two ... Admittedly, this is much better than the P800, where you had to catch the right phase of the moon and carry a lucky rabbit's foot to get syncing to work, but still for a device in this price class I expect better.

Lest anyone blame Apple for this one: I also used a Plantronics M105 headset with exactly the same problem when paired to the P900. For some reason the headset never lost pairing with the same Mac.

When the phome is paired to the Mac syncing contact and calendar information works very well. Other than the calendar categories mentioned above everything has worked for the entire two years now without a hitch or data loss. There are some issues with syncing to .mac, but that is a different topic.

The email client is basic but it works to read and send messages. It even understands IMAP, which is good because I have only a single POP3 account, all the others are IMAP. Unfortunately, the IMAP client will only speak TLS by sending a STARTLS command to the default port. On mail servers that expect a different port for IMAP+SSL this is not acceptable. So I never managed to even connect to my main email account.

Now we get to the really ugly: when I receive a phone call that I do not pick up, the call is redirected to my cell phone provider's voice mail. The provider then sends an SMS announcing that either a call arrived without a mesage or that a message was left for me.

Unfortunately, for reasons known only to SE, this SMS is not actually received by the phone until I place the next call. It still carries a timestamp that shows it was sent right after the call. Putting the SIM card in another phone shows that the SMS is received by the other phone immediately after it is sent, so it is not the cell phone provider's fault.

Warning: technical geekery
The SMS is actually received by the SIM card. The phone then picks it up from the card to display it to the user. So it could be the SIM's fault. But, as I explained above, I've eliminated that possibility.

But it gets better: there is a list of missed calls maintained by the phone. The missed call that was redirected to voice mail is not actually listed until after I make the next call.

So I effectively have to place a call just to be notified of any calls that I may have missed. This is a serious problem.

While we're at it: I'm in the middle of the just mentioned call and the SMS arrives. A window pops up asking me whether I want to read the SMS or not. I then get to press either 1 or 2 depending on what I want to do. Pressing the "OK" button defaults to reading the message.

Unfortunately, to end the call I also have to press the "OK" button. Guess what? Instead of ending the call, I now get to read the SMS, press another button to make the SMS go away, press another button "back" to exit the SMS application, and then finally I may end the call. By this time the other party has usually hung up. Very, very annoying.

Last problem: it is possible to lock the keyboard against inadvertend presses while the phone is not in use. This is a useful feature because it prevents accidental calls and saves on battery power (switching on the backlight of the LCD is a major drain on the cell phone battery).

It is also possible to lock the phone so that you need a PIN to access the phone itself (there is a separate PIN for the SIM). This is a useful feature to me on a device with so much personal information on it.

However, when you activate both features, the keyboard lock disables itself the instant the phone lock kicks in, which is after a few minutes (configurable). This means that you still have to enter a code to access the phone (good) but any keypress will light up the backlight and drain your battery dry (bad). It is not uncommon for 5-10% of the battery charge to be drained during a 1 hour commute while in flight mode (i.e. radio transceiver off).

To add insult to injury, this has been a problem ever since the first P800 and SE is aware of the problem but does not see any reason to fix the software, according to SE technical support staff.

The camera is not worth discussing, it is so bad even for a VGA camera.

I do not use the built-in web browser since Opera for Symbian is so much better. I usually use the PDA versions of websites because GPRS data service is usually quite slow, but in a pinch even complex sites like or will work. You just have to scroll about a bit.

The media player is nice but I find myself using an iPod instead. I don't mind carrying the extra device, so why put up with tiny and expensive MemorySticks?

I originally bought the P800 and then the P900 to replace a Palm and a cell phone (the Treo 270 failed to meet expectations, but that is another story). The P900 is a good choice as a smart phone and I've never looked back at Palm.

However, there are some serious usability issues with the phone. The call notification issue is a real killer if you miss a lot of calls. I spend a lot of time at meetings nowadays where cell phones are not welcome so this is getting to be a real issue.

I think that SE could have produced a killer product if they had opted to fix the obvious software problems. Unfortunately, the P910 (successor to the P900) seems to have these and some new flaws in the software. My next phone will be a 3G (UMTS) phone to allow faster data service, but it will not be a P990 or a M600i unless SE can convince me that they are taking their software quality more seriously.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006


I was out walking in the forest when I came upon a muddy little pond with a large dragonfly hovering about.