A year ago it seemed Nokia was happy to let the whole touchscreen music phone phenomenon pass it by, sticking with more traditional form factors. But times they are a changin', and Nokia has finally caught up with the Joneses, releasing its first true touchscreen device.
Opening the 5800's retail box with a head full of iPhone expectations is sure to lead to one predictive first impression, it looks kind of like a toy phone. The 5800 has a playful aesthetic, with its electric blue (or red) trimming and glossy black plastic, but it doesn't have the premium look or feel of Apple's phone or the Samsung F480, another excellent touchscreen. It's thicker than these other phones as well, measuring in at 15.5mm deep, but we quite like this — it doesn't stretch the pants pocket and it felt secure in our grip.
The front of the phone is 90 per cent touchscreen with three slim mechanical buttons below; the calling keys and a menu button. The right side of the 5800 houses a volume rocker, camera key and spring-loaded switch used to activate the touch-sensitive display. On the top of the handset, alongside a USB slot and power button, is a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is what we like to see on a music phone and the exact location we hope to find it. On the rear of the phone is a 3.2-megapixel camera featuring Carl Zeiss topics and an LED flash.
The home screen of Nokia's new fifth version of its Series 60 operating system is strongly reminiscent of previous versions, but with a few key differences. Replacing the standard shortcuts bar is a new contacts bar, giving you quick access to your four favourite people. Selecting one of these four icons (or profile photos) bring up options to call, message or change the settings for that contact. Beneath these icons is a list of the most recent communication you've had with your friends, hot-linking you to recent SMS messages and details about your last call to them. There's also a shortcuts drop-down menu located to the top-right of the screen for quick access to media and the web.
Entering the menu is a more familiar experience for those accustomed to using Nokia's Symbian platform. The menu may have had a make-over, with new colourful icons, but the placement and purpose of each is similar to what you'd have found in previous releases. Drilling down into the phone settings, for example, is mostly identical to doing so on a Nokia N95.
The inclusion of the guitar pick stylus Nokia has included with the 5800 tells us two things: that the screen uses resistive technology, and that using a pick to tap out an email does make us feel like a rock star. Resistive touchscreens have had a bad rap for being less sensitive than their capacitive touchscreen counterparts, however, the screen on the 5800 goes a long way to proving this is a speculative falsehood. This screen is as sensitive as we've seen from any of the touchscreens in market at this time. It responds to light touches, and the menus scroll comfortably with little input.
Our only criticism is that Nokia seems unsure about whether it should use single touch input or double-clicks, the way Windows does on PCs. For instance, if you want to read an old text message the process would be as follows: press the mechanical menu key, touch "Messaging" once, double-tap "Sent", single-tap the message you wish to read. Switching backwards and forwards from one method to the other is a tad confusing, but is a minor issue. We wish Nokia would use single touches only, but this issue isn't going to stop us from using the 5800.
Media and the web
Being part of the XpressMusic family, the 5800 shouldn't be a slouch in the media department. Luckily, it isn't. The media player is easy to use, quite attractive and the music sounds great, particularly if you're not using the lousy bundled Nokia headphones. The screen is 360x640 resolution, just shy of VGA, and displays videos in true 16x9. The 5800 also has built-in stereo speakers which may have given us the biggest surprise of all. While the bass is predictably low, the volume of these speakers is amazingly loud. Often during our review we'd play music directly through the handset while chilling out in a quiet room.
Web browsing isn't as impressive, but is nonetheless serviceable. The 5800 XpressMusic supports HSDPA data transfers but the real-world performance of these speeds, in unison with the built-in browser, is nothing to write home about. Pages load slowly and data connections services like Google Maps, are sluggish. The browser is good for a desktop browsing experience, but the data speeds suggest you probably won't end up using the 5800 to visit the sites you love on a day-to-day basis.
Comes with Music
Many people reading this review will be interested in the 5800 for its bundled music subscription offer, rather than the handset itself. Comes with Music offers Nokia customers the chance to download unlimited music from the Nokia Music Store for a full year and keep all the tracks downloaded at the end of this period. Nokia has generously allowed us to experience this feature and let's just say we've taken full advantage of the service.
There is an argument against Comes with Music, something to do with DRM-protected music and compression of files, but it's hard to argue with the logic behind free music. Nokia is cautious not to call this free music, reminding us that the cost of the service is built into the price of the handset, but with carriers like Virgin Mobile offering the 5800 for a standard AU$49 per month it's hard not to consider Comes with Music a free add-on to the monthly spend on a phone. Comes with Music gets two thumbs up from us.
A word to the wise: while the tracks downloaded don't have a cost, the data to download them will eat up your monthly data allowance and could end up being expensive if you exceed your monthly limit. For our tests we've been downloading to a PC first and side-loading the tracks to the handset.
Competing with the iPhone is an uphill battle for most manufacturers. We've seen touchscreen phones with great feature lists fail miserably at providing a decent user experience. The 5800 XpressMusic is not one of these phones. As mentioned above, the touchscreen is super responsive and menu navigation is mostly great. Entering and exiting menus and applications happens with a minimum of lag. Being a brand new operating system we were on the lookout for bugs and glitches. Our worst experience was having the music player freeze twice, and though this didn't stop us accessing other parts of the phone, it required a reboot to access our playlists again.
Nokia has had mixed success with battery life recently, but seemed to be improving. The 5800 sits somewhere in the middle of a scale from bad to great, offering about two days between charges. Nokia rates the battery at five hours talk-time on a 3G network. We found that, while the music player is reasonably energy efficient, accessing a whack of data can drain the battery in a single day.
Nokia may have been late to the party but we like what it's delivered. The 5800 is a full-featured handset with an excellent touchscreen interface. Compared to the Apple iPhone we'd recommend the iPhone for web browsing any day of the week, but for people looking for a music phone the Comes with Music service and the cheaper price tag should be enough to persuade them to Nokia's touch offering. You'll also forgo Apple's excellent App Store with the 5800, though Nokia promises to have a similar service in a few months and it should be compatible with the 5800 when it's made available.