Review: Wind Mobile Nokia C5-04

Nokia has gone through a lot of changes in the past year. Their Canadian CEO, Stephen Elop, has brought the party into a partnership with Microsoft, adopting their Windows Phone operating system for their high-end devices. The C5-04, a $150 device newly launched on Wind, exists very much outside that realm, where its trusted legacy Symbian OS still reigns. While not an outright smartphone, the C5 is a powerful enough device in its own right, and proves that Symbian still hasn’t entirely fallen into the quicksand.

Sporting a bright, 3.2” 360×640 pixel resistive display, at first glance the diminutive device is quite attractive. On the front of the device the screen is surrounded by a narrow black bezel, giving way below to a matte chrome tri-button input area. The right side houses the lock button and volume rocker while the top sports a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB port. There is a lone 2.0MP camera on the back of the device, and a 1000mAh battery below it. There is 60MB of internal app storage and a microSD slot supporting up to 16GB cards (2GB card included).

The Phone:
Typically Nokia, the device is well made, though unlike its more expensive brethren there is not a speck of metal to be found. Due to its relatively tiny height and width the phone appears thick and sturdy and the plastics don’t creak. It could probably withstand the onslaught of a teenager’s backpack without fuss.

It also feels good in the hands. Coming from a 4.3” Android device, the C5 feels lightweight and comfortable in the hands, aided in part by the rounded back.

The screen is sharp and colourful, though due to the passive resistive technology, requires more force to generate input than its more expensive capacitive counterparts. For the most part this is not an issue, but can get frustrating when pecking out individual keys on the software keyboard. It also requires a more steady hand as light presses will go ignored by the device. A fingernail (or stylus) sometimes works better than a finger, as resistive screens need precise action to function properly

The display also betrays its inexpensive roots too easily: while indoors and viewed straight on it is bright and colourful, in direct sunlight viewing angles are horrendous and are washed out. The device measures 105.8 x 50.8 x 13.8 mm and weighs only 100g. Compare that with Wind’s other newly-released smartphone, the Samsung Nexus S, at 123.9 x 63 x 10.88 mm and 129g and you can see how tiny it is.

What It Can Do:
Under the hood of the Noka C5-04 is a Symbian S60 5.0 operating system which, though two generations old, is sufficiently up-to-date to support features like the Ovi Store and Maps. Unlike newer Nokia phones running Symbian^3, the C5 has one homescreen and does not support custom widgets.

The device does, however, support a growing number of apps, such as Snaptu, which are catered to entry-level, low-cost devices. By sending highly-compressed bits of information and limiting high-bandwidth images, these apps keep cheap phones fast. And the C5 is fairly quick, especially once you figure out its Symbian quirks.

For example, the touch-based homescreen is static, so icons cannot be moved around, but there are a number of built-in shortcuts to speed up access to various information. The social networking widget allows for Twitter and Facebook status updates, and next to it is a Persons carousel that smoothly rotates through your contact list. Underneath it is a handy email shortcut, displaying your last received message from the unified Inbox. When playing music, a small interactive widget will appear below the email shortcut displaying album art and a few key functions.

The phone comes pre-installed with Swype, a keyboard alternative with which you slide your fingers over the various letters in one continuous movement to form words. Predictive algorithms attempt to match the closest word in its database within your sentence, but it can easily be changed with one button. Mercifully supporting both portrait and landscape orientation, Swype is a vast improvement over the existing Symbian keyboard and gives the C5 a very smartphone-like first impression.

Email functionality is quite robust, too. Once I added my Gmail account using the included Mailbox software (many other services are offered, in both POP and IMAP configurations) I was able to view an attractive list of my current emails, including a sliding preview. Holding down on the email will bring up a standard Symbian context menu to Reply, Forward, Mark Read, Delete, etc. With the Swype keyboard I found typing, even with the cramped landscape incarnation, to be usable and relatively fast (though you’re certainly not going to be touch-typing on the C5).

In fact, I was quite surprised at what, for $150, the C5 could do as well as some high-end smartphones. It can play back movies fluidly on the simple yet elegantly-designed Media player. Lack of DivX or Xvid support is a shame, but correctly-encoded, short clips can be viewed and shared from inside the app. The music player is equally austere, but scans for and adds relevant music files automatically from the microSD card and supports album art in both portrait and landscape mode. Playlists can also be created directly on the device.

One can tell, however, that the C5-04 was designed for European use, as there are references to features such as the Ovi Music Store that are not available in Canada. There are also shortcuts to former Euro-superstar social networks such as Hi5 and Orkut. Seems like more regional pruning was needed before releasing this device to the Canadian market.

What is available in Canada is the excellent and free Ovi Maps, which is based on SatNav and will work anywhere in the world (provided maps are available) without a data connection. Considering many GPS units alone cost $150, the C5-04 is an excellent alternative, particularly for avid travelers.

HD Voice:
Earlier this year Wind Mobile touted HD Voice capabilities as an addition to their 3G+ data network. Implementing the AMR-WB (Wideband Voice) standard, the company is marketing it as a huge improvement over the generally-displeasing and narrow sound available over regular 2G and 3G networks. Widening the available audio frequency from 300-3400Hz to 50–7000 Hz, calls are supposed to sound clearer, sharper with improved filters against background noise.

Does it work? Well, yes and no. In most cases I did not experience a huge difference in voice quality between my Desire HD on Rogers and the C5-04 on Wind. There were areas of the city, however, that I found the latter device to be clearer especially in adverse network conditions, such as low signal areas or during a rainstorm. I also found voices to be generally less muffled and more sibilant; letters such as ‘n’ and ‘m’ could be more easily distinguished, and the letter ‘t’ had a more crisp follow-through.

I don’t doubt that amongst all the data speed increases of the last few years, improving voice quality has been a low priority for carriers. Even though the effect is slight, the improvement is noticeable, especially in areas of low signal, and one has to give Wind kudos for being the first Canadian carrier to undertake such an implementation.

In addition to carrier voice calls, the protocol is supported by VoIP applications such as Skype and Fring (though only the latter is available from the Ovi Store).

Update: Thank you to commenter John for pointing out that HD Voice is only enabled on devices that support HD Voice, as well as over a network that has the AMR-WB protocol enabled. As a result, Wind Mobile officially offers only two devices that support HD Voice, namely the Alcatel Tribe and Nokia C5-04. However, in doing some further investigation, many smartphones released on the market today, including BlackBerry and Android devices such as the Bold 9780 and Nexus S respectively, support HD Voice as well as most modern Nokia devices such as the N8.

So, while the improvements in voice quality may only be experienced by some, as Wind gradually rolls out the protocol on new devices, HD Voice will become considerably more useful.

And that increased voice quality on the C5-04? That’s probably just Nokia doing what they do best: making great-sounding phones. (More info about HD Voice here at Howard Forums & WirelessMoves)

What’s Missing:
WiFi. No, seriously, in 2011 no internet-connected device, smartphone or not, should be released without WiFi connectivity.

In all seriousness, though, the C5-04 isn’t being marketed as a smartphone. It is a feature phone with some smartphone flourishes, so one shouldn’t measure the two in the same way. That being said, the capabilities are there, so one must judge based on how well they function.

For example, the Symbian WAP browser is so slow as to be unusable. Pages load sluggishly, if at all, and the interface is sorely lacking in features such as tabbed browsing and an easily-accessible address bar. Text-based mobile pages such as m.nytimes.com load up fairly quickly and realign properly on the narrow screen (in either portrait or landscape) but it is not feasible to do any great amount of browsing on this device.

Data synchronization relies on your Ovi account which, done properly, can yield satisfying results. However, when attempting to register my device at www.Ovi.com, Nokia’s management portal, I could not get the device to connect with the service. If it did, I would have been able to add contacts and calendar entries on the site and sync them wirelessly to my phone. I would have been able to download apps wirelessly from the Ovi Store. I could add favourite places and have the Maps app direct me there with turn-by-turn navigation. But I wouldn’t have had access to Music store, which is limited to a handful of countries. In fact, the C5-04 isn’t currently registered in the Ovi database. The device does have healthy plug-and-play Windows connectivity, but it is not enough.

Long-time Symbian users may find the Ovi sync helpful, but I rely on Google for my contacts, calendar and email sync. And, unlike Symbian^3 there is no way to natively sync Google information using the Mail for Exchange.

The 2.0MP fixed-focus camera is also a disappointment. This device’s forebear, the C5-03, came with a 5MP sensor, but likely due to cost savings, it was downgraded. Recalling the muddy, soft, over-exposed shots of Motorola’s early shooters, the C5-04 will not replace your point-and-shoot except in times of urgency. The one upside is that due to its fixed-focus nature, photos snap quickly. And it is possible, though laborious, to upload directly to Flickr from within the application. Photos can be also be used as wallpapers or assigned to specific contacts.

Battery Life:
The battery lasted, and lasted, and lasted. I really can’t complain about the three days of continual usage I got from the device. Suffice it to say, there isn’t much to do on the device and but for the simple games available from the Ovi Store the C5 behaves more like a feature phone in terms of battery life.

But due to the relatively low power requirements of the resistive screen and the enormous efficiency of Symbian itself, battery life isn’t something you’re going to have to worry about.

In short, the 600Mhz ARM processor provided sufficient power for most activities. As stated earlier, video playback was fluid and music can play in the background without hiccups. This version of Symbian has been updated to support kinetic scrolling and it behaves quite nicely when inside the menus, giving a healthy bounce when reaching the end of a page or list.

Scrolling inside a webpage had noticeable lag, and it wasn’t uncommon for a site to take up to 4 minutes to load entirely. But day-to-day functions, including messaging, email and basic browsing, is not inhibited by the CPU. The low amount of RAM (I believe 128MB) is enough for multitasking, but after a few hours apps need to be closed or the device slows to a crawl.

Symbian Faithful or the End of the Line?
Most people know that Symbian is being phased out of the mid-to-high end of the Nokia phone line. It is going to be replaced by Microsoft’s flashy, immature and aesthetically pleasing Windows Phone 7 operating system. But Nokia still sells millions of low-end devices every year, all of which are powered by Symbian in some form.

The company has the scale and foresight to release devices like the C5-04 for $150CAD since there are still a large number of consumers who are not ready for an iPhone or Android device, or want the similar capabilities without the same expense. If I were to say that the C5 can do everything an iPhone can do, I wouldn’t be lying, but with Apple’s product you’re buying more than just access to a calculator, alarm clock or notes application. Leaving aside the availability of apps, the iPhone, and more recently, high-end Android devices, provide a far superior user experience, both in terms of aesthetics and content consumption. It takes much longer to do any number of things on the C5 than it does on the iPhone, and with far more labour.

But what it does it does well: nary a dropped call or an aborted app; a nice loud speaker and good quality headphone jack; excellent battery life; easy-to-access messaging and email; usable gallery and multimedia; built-in IM and browser function; access to Ovi Store and Maps. These are not trivial attributes for a $150 device. One must be certain that this is what he or she wants before considering the purchase, but you’re never going to go too wrong with Nokia; just know what you’re not getting.

Rating: 6.5/10

• Excellent battery life
• Bright, sharp screen
• Good built quality
• Symbian S60 5.0 is still fairly capable
• Excellent email support with Swype keyboard
• Access to Ovi Store and Maps
• Good quality speakerphone
• HD Voice a noticeable improvement in voice quality

• Disappointing system performance
• Resistive display is not sensitive enough for finger input; terrible viewing angles
• Browser is not able to keep up with current state of the web
• Most apps appear to perform with a layer of sludge on them
• Awful camera
• Plastic prone to scratches