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THOUGHT: Symbian S60 vs. Microsoft Windows Mobile Smartphone
Posted by Alfredo Padilla - on Thursday, 02.11.06 - 04:18:28 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 38709x
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These past couple of weeks I've had the opportunity to use a Symbian Series 60 phone for the first time. If you're interested my review of the Nokia E70 is linked below. Because I come from a Windows Mobile background there was definitely an adjustment that needed to be made in order to get the most out of the S60 operating system. Throughout the process I couldn't help but compare it to my normal OS, Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition (on the Cingular 2125), so I thought it might be nice to write up a comparison review between the two.

Before I get too far into this I do want to say right off that there isn't going to be a clear "winner". Both operating systems can meet most of the needs of smartphone users. There are definitely differences though. So, without further ado, let's get started.

General Usability
Both S60 and Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition (WMSE from here on out) are non touch-screen interfaces. You interact with the OS through a D-Pad/Joystick, soft keys, command keys (home, menu button) and a keypad/keyboard. Because both devices have a D-Pad/Joystick and soft keys, lets start with the most obvious difference, the built in command keys that provide useful functions.

In WMSE you get two keys, a home key, which takes you back to the Today screen, and a back key that usually takes you back to the previous screen, although in some programs like text editors and IE it can have other functions. Between them these two keys provide a lot of functionality and make getting around the device fairly easy.

In contrast S60 has three different command keys. The first is the "pencil" key, which gives you access to text entry functions. This includes standard things like switching to T9 entry, but it also includes functions that WMSE is missing, such as copying, cutting and pasting text.

The second key is the "menu" key. This is somewhat similar to the "home" key on WMSE, but it reveals the different perspectives in development between the OS'. In WMSE the center of interaction with the device is the Today screen, where the "home" key takes you. With S60 however, the menu key takes you to the application menu. In order to get to the S60 version of the Today screen (the Active Standby screen) you have to hit the menu key twice. For a Windows Mobile user who lives in the Today screen, this is frustrating, but I'm sure that longtime S60 users find it annoying to hit 2 keys in order to get to the Start menu in WMSE.

This is probably a good place to compare WMSE's Today screen to S60's active standby screen. Both are meant to provide you with fast access to key information such as signal strength, battery life, appointments, messages received, and shortcuts to often used applications. I must say though that in this area WMSE wins simply because the Today screen is open to 3rd party developers. This means that you can install a third party application and get a "plug-in" that puts information on you're today screen. S60 does not allow you to do this.

Back to the "menu" key, another feature is that a long press brings up a task switcher, which lists all of the active programs and easily allows you to switch between, or shut them down. This is particularly useful for taking advantage of the OS' multi-tasking capabilities, and unfortunately there is no similar function in WMSE.

The last command key in S60 is the "C" key, which I believe stands for Clear. This is most often used as a backspace when entering text, but also has some other functions, for example in the task switcher hitting the C key will shut down the selected program.

Apart from the command keys, both operating systems have the expected D-Pad/Joystick and soft keys. There are no appreciable differences in the D-Pad, but I did notice a difference in the soft keys. With WMSE when you hit a soft key and get a menu the choices are numbered and can be activated using the corresponding number key. In S60 you have to use the D-Pad/Joystick to scroll to your selection. Another peculiarity of S60 is that in programs one of the soft keys is almost always taken up by the "exit" command. This probably sounds nice to some WMSE users who get annoyed about the fact that there is usually no way to exit applications, but in practice it means that one of your hardware keys is relegated to an option that just isn't used very often, especially when you consider that the hang-up key also fulfills this function.

Both operating systems are fairly comparable in terms of speed and graphics. Once you have them figured out you can move around with equal speed, perhaps giving S60 a little bit of an edge because of the built in task manager. They are also both very stable, I did notice that I do more resets with WMSE, but this is balanced out by the fact that most S60 phones have a comparably small amount of RAM, which leads to more programs shutting down when you demand a lot from the device.

PIM & Business Applications
Both operating systems have a full suite of programs to manage your personal information and business needs. This includes a calendar, tasks/to-dos, email/messaging, contacts, etc. I have to say that S60 devices have an edge in terms of applications available because the OS natively includes a notes application. If you get an E-series phone you also get native Office editing applications. These are both missing from WMSE.

The calendar and tasks/to-do application(s) both provide fairly basic functionality. You can easily create a new item and set a reminder. I don't think either operating system has an edge here. WMSE does have an edge in terms of contacts. The key distinguishing feature here is that you can search your contacts using T9 predictive text, this means that if I want to find Bob, I can hit 2,6,2 and it will come up. Unfortunately S60 lacks this feature, and you have to use multi-tap. This means that finding the same contact requires you to hit 2,2,6,6,6,2,2, more than twice the number of key presses. I also find the way that WMSE presents your contacts to be more visually appealing.

The messaging program in both operating systems are fairly comparable; the only significant difference that I found here is that WMSE has much better support for IMAP servers. In S60 only headers are downloaded, and then you have to download each email you want to view separately. In WMSE you can choose to download the whole email during the send/recieve, which I found more convenient.

Of course one of the great things about smartphones is that in addition to being powerful business devices they also allow you to enjoy you're multimedia almost anywhere. Both devices come with built in Music and Video applications. In the case of WMSE Windows Media Player Mobile takes care of both functions. S60 on the other hand has a built in Music Player, and then depends on Realplayer mobile for video.

Music player is a very powerful music application, and I have to give it the edge over media player. Both applications allow you to scan you're device for music, but S60's music player skips over system files, while media player unfortunately does not. Both allow you to sort through your music by artist, album etc. but music player also allows you to create playlists on the device. Music player also has what I consider to be a killer feature by allowing you to search your music. Like the contacts you have to use multi-tap, but it's still very nice to be able to find a particular song by hitting just a couple of keys. With media player you have to scroll through your entire list of music until you find the particular track.

Conversely, media player provides better video playback than Realplayer. Both support 3gp and mp4 formats, but media player also support wmv. They key features for me though is that media player provides more configuration options; Realplayer's configurable options are an embarrassment of minimilism. Media player also allows you to continue playing video in the background, which Realplayer does not.

Media player is also more compatible with online streaming options. For example I can easily stream my local NPR station to media player, but all attempts at using the station's realplayer streaming link on an S60 phone failed.

Web Browser
I gave this its own section because I expect it to be the most controversial discussion. This is due to S60's web browser, which I believe is a "love it" or "hate it" program. The idea behind S60's browser is to provide a desktop browsing experience on your device. In this it does a reasonably good job. I was impressed by the way that pages were rendered, and the tools for getting around are serviceable, although being a 1.0 release there are still rough edges.

Unfortunately where this web browser falls down is in being too demanding on the hardware. S60 devices come with an unfortunately small amount of RAM. 48mb is standard, compared to 64mb for WMSE devices. With the high demands placed on RAM by the web browser I found that the program shut itself down on a regular basis. You can get around this by doing things like turning off some options, not loading images, and using services like, but in that case you lose the power of the desktop browsing experience.

In contrast Internet Explorer Mobile does a very good job of providing a stable web browsing experience on a mobile device. Although it is not able to display all of the complex web pages that S60's Web can, it handles most pages just fine. It also provides more flexibility by providing three different options for displaying web pages, desktop, default and one column. Most importantly though it rarely crashes, being that I spend several hours a day surfing the web on my device this is particularly important to me.

Some other items of note, in no particular order:

  • S60 provides better capabilities for ordering and customizing you're applications screen
  • S60 has more built in applications for useful functions such as a conversion tool for currency, weights, etc.
  • S60 has better support for java applications, which run natively form the underlying OS rather than through an emulator on WMSE
  • WMSE has a better phone interface, with T9 lookup from the dialer screen. The call button also always takes you to the dialer. In contrast with S60 you have to go to the active standby screen before you can start dialing.
  • WMSE gives you easy access to you're hotmail account through the messaging application.
  • WMSE has a more comprehensive call history, going back much further than S60's history

Final Conclusion

As you can see, both operating systems have their pluses and minuses. I would definitely recommend spending a week or so with either before making a decision, because they both have something of a learning curve. As I said earlier, I'm not going to declare a clear winner, but as of now I'm still using my Cingular 2125.

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