My two week trial of the Nokia C7/T-Mobile Astound is over. A big thanks to WOMWorldNokia for letting me get extensive hands on with this pre-release device, which is now available from T-Mobile USA for $79.99 after rebate on a two year contract. The off-contract/prepaid price is $299.99.
Here’s a wrap up of my experiences with what I consider (thanks mainly to the updated “pre-2.0” firmware) the best Symbian phone yet.
The Astound is newsworthy for a couple of reasons. It’s the first Symbian^3 phone sold through a US mobile operator. And it’s the first device to ship with the new Symbian OS browser, email app, split-screen keyboards, portrait QWERTY and improved performance that will be part of the PR 2.0 firmware update that’s expected to be pushed to the rest of the Symbian^3 line in a few weeks. But does the Astound stand up on it’s own merits? Here’s my take.
Appearance: The Astound is a very attractive phone with a broad chrome bezel around the screen that’s tastefully engraved with the T-Mobile logo. The phone’s back is dominated by a stainless steel battery door and a chrome panel that carries the dual stereo speakers, camera lens and dual LED flash. The main body made from a quality satin silver finished plastic. The top of the phone houses a micro-USB port, 3.5mm headphone jack, and power button. The right side has up and down volume rockers flanking the voice command key along with the lock slider and a dedicated camera button. A couple of these keys do double duty; the voice command key also mutes the microphone when pressed during a call and holding down the lock slider turns on the phone’s flashlight (torch). Curiously, the flashlight only works if the phone display is showing the home screen. The left side has the Nokia 2mm charging port (the Astound can also be charged with USB). The bottom of the phone has an eyelet for attaching a strap or charm.
Size and weight: The Astound is almost exactly the same width and height as the N8, iPhone and most other touch-only smartphones with 3.1 to 3.5 inch screens and it weights about the same too. At 10.5 mm it’s about 20% thinner than the N8 and is the thinnest Symbian^3 device to date. People with small hands and those preferring a small form factor should be pleased with the Astound.
Storage and Memory: The Astound has 256 MB RAM, 512 MB of C: drive phone memory for installing apps, an 8 GB internal SD. A micro-SD card slot under the battery accepts cards up to 32 GB
Build Quality: The Astound is constructed with quality materials that belie its modest price. My unit, which was assembled in Mexico, is very well made with all pieces lining up properly with no uneven gaps and no creaking when squeezed hard. This is a remarkably rugged phone too. While I don’t recommend doing this, Tom Messett and I ran an Astound over with a mini-bus at CTIA (video) and the phone survived fully functional with the screen intact!
Display: The 3.5 inch Super AMOLED screen (same diagonal dimension as the iPhone) has a resolution of 640 x 360 px. Although the C7 doesn’t use Nokia’s Clear Black technology, I’m very pleased with the way it looks in normal light where it delivers excellent sharpness, contrast and color saturation In bright sunlight the screen washes out a bit but is still generally readable if you shield it a bit with your hand.
Battery Life: The Astound has a 1200 mAh battery, the same size as the N8 and E7. The Astound and its Symbian siblings are the only touch smartphones I’ve used that can make it through a full day of my typical use, which includes a lot of web browsing, without the need for a recharge. Plus the Astound, unlike the E7 and N8, has a replaceable battery, so with a spare battery or two in your pockets you should be able to go for days without running out of juice.
Camera: The 8 MP camera is an Extended Depth of Field (EDoF) unit. EDoF uses a fixed focus lens together with sophisticated post processing that achieves sharp focus from about 30 inches to infinity. While Nokia’s gotten a lot of criticism over the use of EDoF on the flagship E7, I think it’s a good choice for an entry level smartphone like the Astound. As long as I didn’t try to shoot close ups I got great pictures with the camera. There’s almost no shutter lag and no need to focus, making it perfect for shooting candids. The only area where the Astound’s camera let me down is with closeups. There’s no macro mode so document scanning, reading most bar codes and even taking product photos of phones are all impossible. Here are a few unedited sample photos. (Click the thumbnails to view full size).
HD video capture is very good indeed as evidenced in the video of the Astound being run over by a bus, which was shot with another Astound. As long as you stay in the 30 inch to infinity EDoF working range focus stays sharp as you pan and zoom. The digital stereo microphones are very sensitive and the phone does a good job of auto leveling volume. Note in the bus video how my voice and Tom’s are roughly the same level even though I’m inches from the phone and he’s several feet away.
Software: I covered the new Symbian browser, Email app and other pre-PR 2.0 firmware enhancements in an earlier post. To summarize, the new Email app, browser, split screen keyboards, QWERTY portrait keyboard and the performance and usability tweaks totally transform the Symbian experience, finally bring it into the modern era.
The transformation is particularly sweet for Gmail users. Setting up Gmail as a Mail for Exchange service finally works properly and provides reliable, instantaneous push email and calendar and contact synchronization.
The new browser, while not quite at the iPhone/Android level, is much faster and has improved fonts, tabbed browsing and better HTML5 support.
Split screen keyboards, including a new portrait QWERTY eliminate the extra steps and clunkiness around text entry.
Symbian also feels faster and more polished on the Astound. The lag sliding between the three home screens is gone and there seem to be fewer of the redundant, head-banging “do you really want to do that” prompts that used interrupt the user experience.
The Astound also comes with the latest versions of the Ovi Maps, Ovi Store and the Ovi Social Facebook/Twitter client. Maps is the killer app on Symbian phones, providing full off-line turn by turn navigation with voice guidance. A complete set of Maps with way point databases for North America along with voice files is pre-installed in mass memory on the phone which means that mapping and navigation are fully functional off line without a data plan or in areas of no signal. The latest 3.06 version of Maps that’s pre-installed on the Astound lets you download map sets for anywhere in the world using only the phone rather with a PC as previous versions required.
Other preinstalled software includes T-Mobile’s visual voicemail app, Slacker radio, Accuweather, QuickOffice Pro for viewing MS Office documents, Fruit Ninja Lite and several trial or demo games.
Also included is T-Mobile’s WiFi Calling app which lets you make and receive calls and texts over WiFi using UMA. This is not the same as SIP or VOIP, calls made and messages sent with UMA are charged against your included plan minutes, text bundle or prepaid balance. Where UMA is most useful is in keeping you connected when you are in an area with poor or no cellular service.
I ran into what seems to be a new security feature on the Astound. When I swapped the Nokia provided SIM with my own person T-Mobile SIM, my contacts, calendar and Mail for Exchange settings were wiped. While this could be is a good thing should your phone is lost or stolen, it happens without any warning and there doesn’t seem to be any way to disable the behavior. Fortunately, at least for Mail for Exchange users, re-inputting your MfE settings quickly restores contacts and calendar from the cloud
Unlike AT&T ( which is in the precess of acquiring T-mobile, unfortunately) T-Mobile isn’t in the habit of crippling their branded phones. Almost all the functionality of the unlocked C7 is present on the the Astound. The only thing I’ve found missing is Nokia’s handly WAN homescreen widget which lets you see and search for available WiFi networks and displays the name and signal strength of your current WiFi connection.
There are a couple of gray mysteries around the possible operator crippling of the Astound. The WiFi sharing app Joikuspot is blocked on the Astound (according to Nokia this is due to running afoul of some FCC rule) however both T-Mobile and Nokia’s online spec sheets for the phone say that a “T-Mobile Tethering & Wifi Sharing Option” is available. However, while USB tethering appears to work I haven’t found any way to make the Astound work as a Hotspot.
There’s also some confusion over whether Nokia’s Pentaband 3G radio is present on the phone. Slashgear says the 1900 mHz band (used by AT&T) has been removed, but Nokia lists the phone as supporting the same five 3G bands (850/900/1700/2100/1900/2100) as the other Symbian^3 devices. I don’t have an AT&T SIM and I’m in an area where AT&T has 3G on the 850 mHz band so I can’t verify if 1900 mHz 3G support is present or not.
The sum it up, here’s my list of T-Mobile Astound pros and cons:
- New firmware for the best Symbian touch experience ever
- Attractively priced
- Replaceable battery
- Micro-SD support
- Great build quality
- Pocket friendly form factor
- Very good display quality
- 8MP Camera takes great pictures (except for close ups)
- Ovi Maps for free turn by turn navigation with voice guidance even offline
- Minimal operator crippling
- WiFi calling
- Built in flashlight
- No camera macro mode
- No Joikuspot
- Flashlight only works on home screen