By Steve Rosenbush
The Good Handles phone calls and e-mail well, and games look great
The Bad Lacks a camera, and some functions run a bit slowly
The Bottom Line An unbalanced effort to integrate a phone and a computer
I wanted to fall in love with the Nokia 9300. I eagerly removed the newest Nokia (NOK) smart phone from its box, impressed with its sleek, brushed-metal exterior and nicely sculpted keypad. But despite a brilliant screen that does a great job with games, this high-end mobile device for the executive set fails to fulfill its potential. It's not bad, but it could have been a lot better.
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Like all smart phones, the 9300 is an attempt to combine the features of a mobile phone with the broader capabilities of a handheld computer. I judge smart phones based on their ability to integrate these roles.
DISCRETE DESIGN. I faulted the BlackBerry 7290 because the e-mail appliance gave short shrift to its phone and other components, such as its screen. The Nokia 9300 misses the mark for the opposite reason: Designed and built by cell-phone giant Nokia, the device is too phone-centric.
The 9300 takes an interesting approach to computer/phone integration. It's literally two devices in one. The clamshell-style device opens horizontally like a laptop. It unfolds to reveal a full keyboard with large, easy-to-use keys. The screen is brilliant and wide.
When folded, the phone is accessible from a separate screen and alphanumeric keypad on the front. Some users may find the device a little on the large and heavy side, but not egregiously so. The phone works and sounds just fine.
NOT IN THE CARDS. I liked 9300's approach at first. I'm a gadget guy, and I felt pleased with the multitude of screens and buttons. But the two-devices-in-one concept quickly lost its appeal. I loved the PalmOne (PLMO) Treo 650 specifically because it's one solid device. It does a great job of integrating phone and computer with one screen and one keyboard.
As a computer, the Nokia 9300 leaves a few things to be desired. The first problem is its choice of memory. I loaded dozens of songs onto an SD-format memory card that works on the Palm and Microsoft (MSFT) platforms. The format, which comes from the computing side of the tech and telecom divide, also works with many digital cameras and audio players. But the 9300 uses an MMC-format memory card, more common in the world of cell phones. I would have loved to have popped the memory card loaded with songs into the back of the 9300, but I couldn't. I had to transfer the songs from my laptop to the 9300.
Mobile devices will ultimately adhere to a single digital storage standard. And it will be the standard designed for computers, not cell phones. For now, the 9300 is missing the boat on that computer compatibility.
VOLUME PROBLEM. The process of transferring music was simple enough, albeit a bit slow. It took a good five minutes to transfer Bob Dylan's I Don't Believe You. The transfer went a bit faster on other platforms. And while we're on the subject of speed, the 9300 also took more time to load all 1,300 of my contacts into its organizer. Searching the contact database progressed a bit more slowly, too.
The software system, based on the Java programming language and the Symbian mobile operating system, isn't the most efficient in the world. At full volume, Dylan comes through pretty well on the 9300's tiny speaker. But I didn't want to disturb the news meeting next door, so I decided to lower the level. That was a two-step process. I had to press a "set volume" button, which presented me with a choice of two keys used to raise and lower the sound level. I vastly preferred the volume-adjustment bar mounted on the side of the Treo, which was easy to find and use.
And for all its beauty, the screen frustrated me in one significant respect: It's wide but only a few lines deep. That means you need to hit the scroll buttons fairly often to navigate through long lists and blocks of text.
PROVIDES E-MAIL OPTIONS. One more nit: When the 9300 arrives in the U.S. later this spring at $500 to $600, it'll compete with similarly priced rivals that cram a phone and camcorder into the package. The 9300 has no camera, and given its wide, shallow screen, it isn't well-suited for viewing photos.
Despite these faults, the 9300 succeeds in some important ways. It will be sold in the U.S. with optional software from e-mail powerhouses like BlackBerry (RIMM) and Good Technology. It remains to be seen how well these software systems run on the Nokia hardware, but I appreciate that Nokia isn't trying to force its own e-mail system on U.S. consumers. That's a battle best avoided.
And even though I wish the 9300 used a different storage format, it's better than none at all. Users can expand the device with third-party applications. That's an advantage over the BlackBerry 7290, which has no expansion slot.
I liked other 9300 features. It looks great, and the phone works well -- as a Nokia product should. The screen is well-suited for playing games. The organizer and the contact list are fine. But this device is meant for the executive buyer, and BlackBerry and Palm are eating up the market for mobile e-mail with the efficiency of hungry sharks.
I guess the 9300 will come across as a fancy cell phone. In an age when e-mail serves as the business world's crucial communications app, that may be the wrong approach.
Coming next: Rosenbush gives the new smart-phone platform from Microsoft a whirl.
Rosenbush is senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York