When Nokia came up with the idea of combining a cellular phone with a small, keyboard-driven computer nearly a decade ago, the idea seemed startling.
It took an old idea – the clam-shell PDA of Psion Series 3 origins – and added the important ability to communicate using voice or data. It was so successful in its way that it helped invented a whole new category of device, the smartphone, which had evolved beyond the capabilities of a mere PDA.
Since Nokia’s communicators first appeared, the company has stuck doggedly to the “baby brick” concept, slowly improving it even when, at times, it looked as if it was about to be overtaken by newer designs from rivals such as Blackberry and Palm (see our second-look review of Palm's 650 platform here). That is still stands out in this company is remarkable.
Having not handled one of the Communicator family for some years, it is striking then to pick up the 9300i, based around Symbian OS 7.0S and the Nokia Series 80 platform, and feel immediately at home. It has got a lot smaller than the first Communicators, and it has added new forms of connectivity such as Wi-Fi (on the 9300i variant but not, confusingly, the 9300), but it is recognisably the same device, both in appearance and in its user interface.
Outwardly, the shrinking phenomenon turned it from a computer that could make phone calls into a phone that could compute, but it is more accurate to see it as still on the computing side of the divide. The 9300i is not really a smartphone at all in fact – it’s a smart pocket computer.
Lest it be forgotten, this is a business computer, not a curiosity for the gadget-happy. The give-aways are quite subtle, the sort of features nobody other than a business person on-the-move would care about such as sophisticated messaging support (IM, fax send and receive), and an add-on VPN client. The latter is, as you'd expect, compatible with Nokia's own IP VPN, as well as other major vendors such as Check Point VPN-1 and Cisco's 3000 gateway.
Application-wise it comes with a suite of Microsoft Office-compatible applications, including a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation suite, which can read as well as create compatible documents with impressive aplomb. A PDF reader and a backup application (which backups to and from the supplied MMC flash card) are useful inclusions to add to the file viewing and email synchronisation apps.
Hardware-wise, the 9300i runs TI's OMAP 1510 150 Mhz chip, with a superb 4 inch letterbox screen supporting 65K colours, a QWERTY keyboard (with its own semi-usable mouse), and 80 MB of shared memory. Extra capacity can be added using the MMC card slot up to 2GB. The battery is a respectable 1300 mAh, which lasted quite well and recharged smartly.
The keyboard is good considering its dimensions, just about the best on offer at this form factor. Combined with the screen, which can be used outdoors, it is possible to contemplate composing lengthy email, notes, and even the odd word file without damaging your eyesight in the process. Top marks, then, for ergonomics.
Aside from the phone-based GSM communications (which now includes souped-up GPRS in the form of EDGE), the 9300i has its own 802.11g WiFi, bluetooth and infrared connectivity. Setting up the WiFi and wireless security was straightforward enough, though extensive Internet access using the Opera-based browser in this mode will reduce battery life.
This is not a perfect package. The loading and running of applications can sometimes be sluggish, against which should be set its Psion-derived ability to juggle a number of applications at once using the XIP (execute-in-place) memory task switching. Presumably, the modest chip power was seen as an necessary sacrifice to minimise battery drain, but it could also be a consequence of the memory architecture. Once in memory, however, even videos (enter a Realplayer application) ran acceptably well. It just depends on the application.
The 9300i is for people who want a business-oriented portable computer to email and a basic set of Office-compatible applications which just happens to be able to make phone calls. If the phone part of the package is more important, there are probably better options around.
It's amazingly compact, the software is stable (try using a Window-based equivalent and you'll appreciate this), physically well made, and the concept of just opening a clam-shell and having the applications appear “instantly” using XIP is joyfully convenient. The 9300i is the end result of a long evolution, and like all successful evolutions it is perfectly adapted.
We liked this one a lot. It is the result of a long evolution, and has had almost every flaw ironed out long ago, and has even managed to reduce itself to pocketable size as well. The processor power might need to be upped for the next revision, however. It costs about the same as the Palm Treo 650 but has a better keyboard and, crucially, WiFi. The oldest but perhaps the best, we'd say.