December 13, 2008

The British Gas saga continues...

On December 3rd I posted an article here describing the unhelpful way in which British Gas dealt with a complaint we made after their deceitful methods of trying to increase our so-called protected price plan by 131%.

It was agreed after our last call to them on November 29th that they would reimburse us the £31 over-payment made on the gas bills. We were told that the funds would be transferred to our bank within 5 working days. Even allowing for the slowness of the UK banking system, where a money transfer can take up to 5 working days to appear on the recipient's statement, we should have seen something appear by today and, needless to say, we've seen nothing appear.

So, as well as being incompetent, British Gas are economical with the truth. It seems fairly obvious that they have no intention of paying up.

Obviously, this blog entry will be updated if something does turn up.

Update: The £31.75 appeared on the bank account on Tuesday Dec. 23rd. So, they promised us around £160 on Nov. 13th and we got less than a quarter of that after six weeks and two calls to chase them up. How's that for efficiency…

December 06, 2008

Review of the Nokia N96

The Nokia N96 was launched in the UK early October 2008. Its specifications having already been made public, it was eagerly awaited by present and future customers of most of the UK's mobile networks. Conspicuous by its absence among those networks was O2, who decided not to sell the N96 because they had spent all their subsidy budget on the iPhone 3G.

I gave my first impressions of the N96 back in October, on the day after I took delivery of mine to be exact. Just over two months have elapsed since then so I'd like to give a more detailed write-up now.

To be fair to Nokia, I think the N96 is a great handset that has, however, suffered from a few bad decisions. Firstly, given the sheer amount of technology that's been packed into it, it's something that must have been a long time in the making. My impression is that someone at Nokia must have thought it was taking a bit too long, maybe, and people were encouraged to get it out the door sooner rather than later. This shows in some of the firmware bugs, which really shouldn't be in a production phone and which were certainly corrected in new firmware releases very shortly after the phone was let loose on the market. Since that release, there have already been two firmware updates and a third is expected any day now (Update: the new firmware was released on Dec. 8th, just 2 days after publishing this post). In short, I think the software was rushed out and consequently botched to a certain extent. At least it certanly wasn't tested thoroughly. The bugs I encountered were bugs that anyone who bought the phone for whatever feature in which the bugs appeared would have found.

Secondly, the aesthetics. A shiny, black phone looks good, there's no doubt about that. For about 30 seconds. The minute you touch it, it's the last time it'll look really good because it will collect fingerprints and face grease at an alarming rate. You can clean it if you want, and it'll look good again for another 30 seconds, but for no longer. Some kind of carrying case or pouch is a must for the N96. Without it, you'll get the phone dirty and/or scratched, which will seriously affect the retail value of the phone in the event that you decide to sell it on one day and get something else (I must say that the recently announced N97 looks tempting!). The choice of themes provided in the firmware is also utterly boring and monotonous, and themes designed for earlier phones running S60 3rd edition with or without Feature Pack 1 are not fully compatible with this S60 3rd ed. with FP2 device. The back cover and the D-pad seem a little "cheap" in their design for a phone in this price range (around £500) in that they tend to creak a lot in normal use. The slider mechanism in the N96 of a friend who obtained his at the same time as I did mine has worked much more loose than mine has. It really seems to be the luck of the draw as it is with virtually every other slidephone on the market. The phone is 103mm high by 55mm wide and 20mm thick at the thickest point, and weighs 125g. For the metric-challenged, that's 4.06"×2.17"×0.79" and 4.4oz. Some may think that's a little too large and heavy. I quite like the proportions in that you can't not have the thing in your pocket and not know it, and it isn't a significant weight to carry around. Furthermore, with the slider open while you're talking on the phone, the microphone is close enough to your mouth for people on the other end to hear you clearly without too much background noise.

Finally, the speed and autonomy. It's a trade-off between the two. Like the N95, the N96 has twin processors, but they are clocked slower than in the N95. The N95 has ARM-11 chips running at 330MHz while the N96 has ARM-9 chips running at the slower speed of 264MHz and no 3D accelerator chip for the graphics. It is reasonable to assume that the reason for this is in order to save power. One of the big problems with the N95 was its insatiable appetite for power and the comparatively small BL-5F battery it used. The N96 uses that same BL-5F battery with only 950mAh capacity, and yet it outruns the N95 easily thanks to the choice of processor. The downside to this is the fact that the whole user interface is far less "snappy" than on the N95 or on other similarly-powered devices such as the N82 for example. The N96 "feels" more like an N73 from that point of view. Unlike the N95 and N82, though, the N96 has hardware decoders for MPEG4 and WMV video.

So, the N96 is an otherwise great handset, which is let down by buggy firmware, unwise aesthetic choices and a slow user interface that's necessary to give the phone a semblance of autonomy.

The good news is that the firmware and power management are things that can be worked on after the product has been released. We saw exactly the same thing with the N95. Its firmware versions V10, V11 and V12 left much room for improvement. Then along came V20 and V21 and they increased the battery life of my N95-1 by some 30%. V30 was even better, and the recently released V31 has yet to prove itself (I only installed it a couple of says ago). The progress made by the N95's firmware gives me high hopes for the N96's future.

One good thing to say about the N96 and firmware updates is that this is one of the few handsets that's able to update itself without the need for a computer, using so-called "FOTA" (Firmware Over The Air). It connects via the Internet to Nokia's update servers and, if there are any updates, downloads them and applies them all on its own. You can download either using a wireless network or using your mobile network operator's packet data service (check with your operator for tariffs). The size of the update from V10.065 to V11.018 was about 3 megabytes of data. V11.018 to V11.101 was merely a few hundred kilobytes and V11.101 to V12.043 was about 2.5 megabytes. Also bear in mind that updates may not be available to you if you have an operator-branded phone.

Network sensitivity is pretty good. If available, the N96 will use HSDPA (High Speed Download Packet Access) at a theoritical maximum of 3.6 megabits/sec. HSUPA (High Speed Upload Packet Access) is not yet available on Nokia phones, which is a shame because many networks have now put in place the infrastructure. My own network (T-Mobile UK) rolled out HSUPA nationwide this Summer, with an uplink speed of up to 1.44 megabits/sec. That's faster than my cable Internet connection, and I'd definitely use it to upload large data files to the various servers I manage. If you live in an area where 3G coverage is patchy, it can drain the battery faster if the phone is constantly trying to re-acquire a 3G signal and switch back into UMTS mode. Therefore, if you use your phone mainly for calls and messaging, you might want to set the phone to work in GSM mode only. It'll save significant amounts of power.

Speaking of messaging, at first I thought I'd have great difficulty with the keypad because it is now flat. The keys are not domed like they are on most handsets. In actual fact, this doesn't matter in the least because you get used to the keys pretty quickly. For one thing, they're rather large because the N96 is quite a chunky, albeit well-proportioned, phone. There's enough width to spread the keys out. The backlighting is also reasonably bright but not too much. It won't dazzle you in the dark. Nor will the screen, for that matter, because there are light sensors hidden in the front plate that adjust the screen's backlight according to the level of ambient light. The more ambient light there is, the brighter the screen's backlight. Reduce the ambient light and the screen's backlight will dim and the keypad illumination be switched on.

Unlike the N95, where you have separate "new text message" and "new multimedia message" commands, both are grouped under "new message" on the N96. The messaging application will default to text message but switch automatically to multimedia message if you enter text into a subject header, if you attempt to include multimedia content, or (on firmware versions up to V11) if you attempt to send an identical SMS to 20 or more individual contacts. The pseudo-intelligent handling of the message type takes some getting used to but works out extremely useful in fact. The trick is to have the subject header displayed permanently (see in the options when writing a message) and leave it blank for a normal SMS. If you insert a photo, for example, then the N96 switches the message type to "multimedia" automatically. If your SMS is getting long (the N96 displays how many individual SMS messages will be sent for a long, multipart message) and it would work out cheaper for you to send it as an MMS, then all you have to do is enter something into the subject header and the phone will convert the message to a multimedia message this way too.

The N96 also has e-mail capability. It'll pick up mail using POP3 or IMAP4 and it can both send and receive using SSL. There is, however, one annoying bug with the e-mail application. Once you have entered the connection settings and told it which access point to use in order to connect to your mail servers, you cannot change that setting. If you want to use a different access point you have to delete the mailbox and re-create it with different settings. Update 08/12/2008: This bug is fixed in version 12.043 released via FOTA today.

Moving on to the media functions, the front of the supplied remote control is also flat, meaning that you don't always know exactly where to press in order to stop, start, pause playback, skip forwards or backwards, or take an incoming call. You have to stop and look at the remocon, while I think taking a call is something you should be able to do by feeling your way around it and without having to look at it.

Of course, the remocon's primary function is to allow you to plug earphones into the phone and listen to music or watch video footage, and in this area the N96 rates pretty high. In fact, the "killer" application on the N96 is, in my opinion, the BBC iPlayer (available only to UK residents), which allows you to access online, and download for local viewing in some instances, BBC TV and radio programmes from the previous 7 days. The N96 comes with 16 gigabytes of on-board memory for storing these programmes, and there's also a microSDHC slot on the left hand side of the phone. The 2.8" LCD screen is large, bright and sharp enough for comfortable viewing at arm's length and the default system font is displayed large enough to be easily readable yet not too large so that it looks awkward on-screen. This is an improvement on V30 firmware for the N95 and N82, in which Active Standby objects sometimes spilled over on to 2 lines. There is still room for improvement in the playback quality, though. Every 15 seconds or so the playback will stop for a fraction of a second and restart. Depending on what you're watching, it's barely perceptible. Sometimes, though, it sticks out like a sore thumb (FIXED in V12.0.043). Also, pausing a video in order to see how far through it you are can be enough to lock the phone up completely in a few rare cases leaving you with no choice other than to remove the battery in order to regain control. Hopefully, these issues will be resolved in future firmware releases.

There's a kickstand on the back of the N96. In the form of a ring around the camera lens, it swings out enabling you to stand the N96 inclined on a flat surface so that you can watch video content comfortably without having to hold the device all the time. It's very thoughtful but I have doubts about the kickstand's durability. Also, it cannot be adjusted, so if the angle doesn't really suit you then that's tough luck. You have to hold the phone anyway.

You definitely will want to use earphones for video footage and for music. The built-in speakers can't perform miracles. They're small and consequently give out no bass, precious little mid-range and mostly treble. This is to be expected.

The audio quality of the music player blew me away. There is no perceptible hiss during playback like there is on earlier phones like the N95 and, to a lesser extent, the 6280. There is no audible click when the sound switches off at the end of a track and when it switches on again to play the next track. The gap is still there, though. Nokia has not yet mastered gapless audio playback, which can be a little annoying when listening to live recordings and ambient music with transitions from one track to the next. Whichever type of music you want to listen to, you'll want to dump the earphones supplied with the N96 and use your own. I use earbuds from Creative that have soft rubber buds that fit inside the ear blocking out external noise pretty efficiently.

Also, the 3.5mm socket is on the top of the N96, like it is on the N82 and many other media-oriented Nokia handsets, instead of the left hand side like on the N95. This is a great improvement since it makes it possible to use the provided kickstand.

As with previous versions of the music player, the phone extracts the usual frames from ID3V2 tags embedded in MP3 files in order to sort your music tracks by artist, album and genre. Album art embedded in an APIC frame is also processed as long as its type ID is 3 (album front cover). How to ensure that the picture is embedded correctly depends on the software you're using to do this.

There are four media manipulation keys (back/rewind, skip/fast forward, stop and play/pause) around the D-pad. If you slide the slider downwards it reveals another four media keys, those around the D-pad are deactivated and the ones just revealed replace them. OK, it's handy having dedicated media keys on the front, except that they take up valuable space meaning that the remaining keys are a little cramped. The N95 used the D-pad to control the music player ands that was perfectly adequate, although it would only work from within the music player itself. When not in the music player you can always use the controls on the remote control or the dedicated media keys revealed by sliding the slider downwards. In short, the media keys around the D-pad are unnecessary and use up precious real-estate.

One annoying bug of the music player is that it forgets about the physiological corrector, aka "loudness" control, as soon as playback stops, including between two tracks. This function's purpose is to boost the bass and treble when the sound is at a low level in order to flesh it out. When playback stops, the correction is disengaged. If you change the volume level, it is engaged again. Another annoying bug is how, on very rare and unpredictable occasions, the sound will suddenly become garbled. Pausing and re-starting playback solves the problem, although it shouldn't occur in the first place.

Once all the music files present in the phone have been indexed, they can sometimes get in the way. For example, my music library currently contains 1462 tracks, and they will all be listed as choices if I decide to change the phone's ringtone! This means firstly that it takes a long time to populate the list of choices for the ringtone, and secondly that it can take a long time to scroll to the one you want to use. It would make things a lot easier if, instead of lumping all the tracks together, it first makes you choose between the phone's internal memory (C:), the mass storage (E:) and the memory card (F:) if one is installed. In fact, in earlier phones such as the N95 and the N82, if there were enough music files in the phone, it would prevent the list from being populated at all and you'd simply be given the opportunity to download ringtones. In this case, the work-around was to eject the memory card before attempting to change the ringtone. You'd think Nokia would have learned from that. This said, the default tones for the alarm clock, calendar reminder, etc. are pleasant enough and I've seen little point in changing them.

Still on the subject of media applications, one of the accessories provided with the N96 is a video cable, which connects to the same 3.5mm socket as the remote control. On the other end there are 3 RCA plugs (composite video and stereo audio), which plug into a TV or other AV device. The output resolution of the circuitry is VGA resolution, 640×480, which enables you to show off on a large screen videos and photos you've shot.

Another useful application that I use frequently is the Internet Radio. There are numerous radio stations preregistered with the application, stations playing back many different genres in various languages via shoutcast protocol (HTTP). Access to these stations is recommended using a wireless network connection. It'll work perfectly well using your network operator's packet data service but there can be frequent drop-outs since the network connection is not necessarily very solid, and you can rack up significant charges if you don't have an unlimited data plan.

The media applications provided with the N96 also include an FM radio (with RDS now, unlike FP1 and earlier phones), RealPlayer and Flash Lite.

The built-in camera can snap pictures at up to 5 megapixels (2592×1944 resolution), and video at VGA resolution and 30 frames per second. The phone does, however, lack a lens cover. Scratches on the lens window won't affect the quality of captured images that much, but smears and fingerprints definitely will. You will always want to have a clean cloth or paper handkerchief with you in order to make sure that the lens window is free of grease before shooting anything.

A bug in the firmware means that the gain on the microphone will be pushed far too high when the sound level is low, resulting in a very loud hiss being recorded. This is the case for the video recorder and for the sound clip recorder.

Location tagging of captured photos and videos is now natively embedded in the phone's firmware instead of a stand-alone add-on application. For those with FP1 and earlier phones, the stand-alone location tagger application is still available from betalabs. The built-in GPS seems pretty sensitive and accurate and acquires a fix sometimes within seconds of being fired up. An on-screen indicator in the camera application lets you know if the GPS has yet acquired a position. If it has, that position will be embedded in the media captured and can be used by media presentation sites such as and to place the media on a map at the location where it was shot. Location tagging can be deactivated easily if you're worried about privacy issues.

The multimedia menu present on the N95 has been replaced with a carousel regrouping the video centre, the photo album and a few other frequently used functions of the phone (music manager, Ngage games, Nokia Maps, Internet bookmarks, Contacts). The multimedia button on the front of the phone fires up this carousel, which is a time-saver, although I have to admit that the only elements of it that I use are the video centre and the photo album.

New media added to the video centre by connecting the phone to a computer in mass storage mode and copying it across, or by downloading it from the network (iPlayer, for example), doesn't show up in the video centre for several seconds. This can be a little confusing and the phone can become a little unstable and sluggish while the indexing process is under way. Also, the photo album takes quite a while (up to several minutes) to location-tag captured images and videos.

The wireless network adapter seems to be less sensitive than in earlier models and there have been several problems reported demonstrating incompatibility with Netgear wireless routers supplied (and branded) by Sky Broadband. For my part, I have a Netgear WG602v4 wireless access point and I do sometimes have difficulty connecting to it if I'm too close or if I'm upstairs in my bedroom (connection is much easier since the firmware V12.043 update). I never had any such difficulties with my N95.

Bluetooth seems to be a little odd on the N96, too. Even though my software for sending data to the phone by bluetooth has a record of the N96 and its BD address, the phone has to be set as "visible to all" for any transfer to work. The 6280, N73, N95 and a Motorola RAZR V3 phone all accept bluetooth file transfers even if set to be "hidden".

Speaking of bluetooth, I used the "switch" application to transfer my data from the N95 to the N96 over a bluetooth connection. The operation was not entirely successful. While my calendar events were transferred entirely, the same cannot be said about contacts. First of all, the contact groups were not transferred, so I had to define them and populate them manually. Secondly, defaults for each contact were not transferred either (contacts can have several numbers and e-mail addresses, and you can define which ones to use as the default for a phone call, which one to use as the default for a text message etc.). Not only were the defaults lost – imagine what it must be like for someone with several hundred contacts in their contact list – but it was impossible to set them again. If you opened a contact for editing and attempted to set defaults, the contacts application would crash and you'd be sent back to the phone's standby screen. There is a work-around for this. You have to export all your contacts to the mass memory or to the memory card, select them all from within the contacts application, delete them and re-import them from the location where you exported them. While this works, you shouldn't have to do it. I only discovered it by trial and error.

According to the changelog, there's a new, improved "Switch" application in V12.043 firmware. Hopefully this will solve some of the problems I encountered.

One thing I did notice about bluetooth is the stability of the connection with a wireless earpiece. All my previous Nokia phones would have great difficulties maintaining a connection with a bluetooth earpiece for more than about 90 seconds unless I was able to place a call within that time frame, in which case the connection would remain stable. The N96 has no difficulty keeping that connection rock-solid right from the beginning.

The N96 comes with a selection of Ngage games for you to try out. You can then choose which one you like best and you get a free license to use it. The infrastructure needed to play Ngage games is already installed in the phone's memory, which makes playing the games that much easier. The downside to this is the amount of space used up on the phone's C: drive. One of the first things I did was to remove everything to do with Ngage and it got me an extra 15 megabytes of space or thereabouts. Even so, I still only have about 55 megabytes free space, and that's with only one third-party theme installed and very little extra software. It's always a good idea to install themes and software into the phone's memory (C: drive) rather than the mass memory (E: drive) despite the much greater space of the latter because of the speed at which the phone can access them. The same applies to ringtones. If the phone cannot read in and start playing back the ringtone within a set time, it reverts to the standard "Nokia Tune" ringtone. In order to avoid this, your ringtone should be short (preferably under a megabyte in size) and stored in the phone's C: drive.

The last niggle I'd mention with this phone is really a minor niggle and is more the responsibility of Symbian than of Nokia since it concerns a design choice that was made before Symbian was wholly owned by Nokia. In most applications, the last entry in the "Options" menu is "Exit". It was very easy to exit applications simply by pressing the "Options" key, scrolling up once and selecting "Exit". You could do it without even looking at what you were doing. With the advent of Feature Pack 2, scrolling up once highlights the "Show open apps." option, so you have to scroll up a second time to reach "Exit". The "Show open apps." option is unnecessary because you can access the same function quicker by pressing and holding the menu key just like on S60.3 FP1 and earlier phones.

A great improvement of FP2 over earlier versions is what's known as "Network destinations", which are accessible from the connection settings. With previous systems, you either had to set network-aware applications to ask you which network access point to use each time they needed the network, or you had to define a default access point for them to use each time. So, assuming you have a wireless network at home, you'd tell the Internet telephony application to use that in order to make free calls. But what if you leave the house? Your own wireless access point is no longer available and the Internet telephony application becomes useless all of a sudden because it can't connect to the Internet. So, you can always change its settings and tell it to use the free hotspot available at your local shopping centre or your mobile network operator's packet data service, but you also have to remember to switch it back when you get back home. There's plenty of scope for error there! Network destinations solve the problem elegantly. Your access points are grouped under headings called "Destinations", such as "Internet" and "Multimedia messaging", and each destination can have multiple access points defined. Each one is assigned a priority. If the access point with the highest priority (your home WLAN for example) is not available, it tries to use the next one on the list (free hotspot at the shopping centre), and if that isn't available then it tries to use the next (packet data), and so on.

Most mobile phones nowadays have what's generally known as "profiles", which are groups of settings concerning ringtones, volume level, keypad tones, vibrator, message alert tones etc. Different groups of settings can all be applied en masse simply by switching profiles. Thus, I have a profile I call "Night" in which the ringtone is toned down, no alert is given for inbound messages and only certain groups of callers will actually make the phone ring in the first place. One feature from earlier S40 phones that was missing in S60 until the 3rd edition with FP2 is the concept of a "timed profile". You could switch from one profile to another easily enough but you had to remember to switch back afterwards. With the timed profile, you can set it to revert to your current profile at a given time. So, when I go to bed, I set up the "Night" profile so that it reverts to "General" at 9am. I no longer end up missing customers' calls by forgetting to switch the "night" profile off in the morning!

Another feature of the N96 that I find very useful is the "breather". In order to save energy, the N96's display switches off altogether after a set time, which can in fact be only a few seconds if the "energy saver" is engaged as happens automatically if the battery gauge drops to a single bar. A consequence of this is that you no longer know if you have any new messages or missed calls without waking the phone up and wasting more energy. There's a light around the D-pad that glows every 10 seconds or so to let you know that the phone is still switched on and connected to a network. If there are any events that require your attention, the breather glows twice instead of just once. It's only a small LED that's glowing here, and it's only glowing for a second or so every 10 seconds, so only 10% of the time, and even then not always at full power. It uses up hardly any energy, certainly less than keeping the LCD screen switched on otherwise it would somewhat defeat its own purpose.

Transferring data to the phone via USB is faster than it used to be on earlier models. The transfer would max out at around 1 megabyte/sec on the N95, while I've clocked the N96 at nearer 4 megabytes/sec.

The modem facility works as advertised. Connect the N96 in "PC Suite" mode to a USB port and you'll have, among other things, a standard ACM modem. Set it to dial the number "*99#" and use the login and password as provided by your mobile network operator, and you can use their packet data service to surf the Internet on your computer. Check with your operator regarding tariffs and exactly what you can and can't do with this service. Terms and conditions vary from one operator to another, but one thing you're advised to do is take out an unlimited data plan. Also pay attention when using this service abroad. Roaming data charges can be horrendously expensive and are not usually covered by your data plan.

In no particular order, these are the main criticisms that people have made of the N96:

It's slow and unstable
To start with, it's true. However, once the N96 has been used for a while it's had time to index all the multimedia content in its memory and it no longer needs to process it in the background. All the computing power of the device then becomes available to you again. Give it time. Also, you can improve things by deactivating unnecessary gizmos such as theme effects and menu transitions, and make sure you've not left applications running that don't need to run (contacts list, log, music player etc.)

It has no battery life
This is a major problem with a device of the complexity of the N96. A lot of power can be saved by optimising software, and indeed the update from V10 to V11 did prolong the battery life in mine. If I listen to music and/or watch some video when I go to bed, send some text messages and talk for maybe 20-30 minutes during the day, I can expect to have to recharge the battery every 36 hours. I would have had to recharge every day using the N95 in the same way, so at least some progress has been made. It is still a shame that Nokia decided to use the same BL-5F battery as in the N95-1 instead of opting for the BL-6F used in the N95-2 with its 1200mAh capacity. It would have made a big difference and not made the phone that much thicker.

It freezes when opening messages
This bug was corrected in firmware version 11.018. Update if you can.

I can't hear it when it rings!
There's a feature called "3-D ringtones" in the N96. It alters the sound of ringtones to make it sound like the source of the sound is moving around, presumably to catch your attention better. Except that there was a bug in firmware V10.065, which basically made the ringtone inaudible when the 3-D effects were switched on. This was corrected with firmware V11.018.

It's always that default Nokia tune that goes off!
As mentioned earlier, the ringtone has to be short and stored in the phone's memory rather than in the mass memory or on the memory card for best results. It works every time.

Video ringtones don't work!
Well... err... maybe. I prefer to answer the phone when it rings rather than to watch it play back a video. This really is a non-problem. Grow up.

The Internet telephone has disappeared!
True. The SIP stack is still there in the phone and I can, for example, set up a profile that connects and registers to the Asterisk server I have here. However, it is useless because there's no front-end application that uses the API to place or receive calls. There are some third-party applications but they all use their own protocols instead of the built-in SIP stack and tunnel the communications through vendor-specific servers. Nokia has since released a small "VoIP Settings" application which restores functionality to a select few S60.3 FP2 phones such as the N85 and the N79. The N96 is not among the lucky few, so I think it's safe to say that there will never be a real SIP client for this phone, which is a crying shame.

One feature of the phone I've not mentioned until now is the DVB-H receiver. Mainly because it is totally useless here in the UK since nobody is broadcasting DVB-H and most likely won't be doing so until the switchover from analogue to digital TV is complete. That won't be until 2012 sometime. When we do start receiving DVB-H transmissions, the N96 will be able to act as a kind of digital VCR and record TV programmes as they're being broadcast. Whether or not we'll be able to view them via the TV-Out circuitry is another matter if DRM gets in the way. It is impossible to view in this manner, for example, TV programmes downloaded by the iPlayer.

In conclusion, I do think that the N96 is a great phone. I enjoy using mine and see plenty of potential. It was, however, released too early and without sufficient testing, which has annoyed many early adopters. The silver lining to this cloud is the fact that most of the problems encountered are software-related and can therefore be put right in time, even if many are problems that should never have escaped the testing labs in the first place.

If I were granted three wishes for this phone by the Nokia genie (God knows I rub the phone enough to clean it so a genie should appear from somewhere, right?), they would be:

1) Get SIP working. Putting in only half the stuff needed when there's nothing available to complement it and actually make SIP telephony functional is a waste of time and memory space.

2) (WISH GRANTED!) Fix the bug that makes it impossible to change the access point used by a mailbox without deleting that mailbox (and all the mail it contains) and re-creating it.

3) This would be hard to ask in fact because there are many trivial things I can think of, none of which really stands out as particularly important like the first two wishes. If pushed I think I would ask for more varied themes to be provided in the firmware instead of or as well as the boring ones already there. Granted, there are thousands of themes all over the Internet, but very few of them are designed for FP2 and are therefore not fully compatible.

If I now had to give the N96 marks out of 10, I'd give it two different marks. Firstly, based on the current state of the handset with its numerous bugs and stability issues, I'd have to award only 6 out of 10. Secondly, based on the phone's potential, once Nokia have ironed out the bugs and if they finish what they started with VoIP, I'd award 8.5 out of 10. The phone loses 1.5 points because of the creaky fingerprint magnet of a case, the absence of a lens cover and the general slowness, which can't be corrected in software.

Update 08/12/2008: The bug preventing you from changing the access point associated with mailbox connectivity is fixed in V12.043 firmware. The phone is also able to connect much faster to the wireless network than before. In the light of these fixes and the greatly improved stability of video playback, the marks I'd give the N96 are now 7.5 and 8.5 out of 10 for its current and potential state. As soon as Nokia fix the VoIP issue, this will truly be a great phone.

Photos © Copyright Nokia. Available from the Nokia press site.

December 03, 2008

The British Gas saga

How do they get away with this? It is simply daylight robbery and the Energy Ombudsman is completely and utterly toothless.

It started in August 2008. British Gas must have spent a huge amount of money (at least we know where they're getting it from) on a massive publicity campaign, both on the television and in leaflets through letterboxes, urging customers to sign up to the "Price Protect 2011" tariff. The principle of this tariff is certainly attractive: no matter what happens to the cost of energy, your energy bills won't go up until 2011.

Sounds good, right?

We were already on the "Price Protect 2009" tariff and there was nothing to indicate that the "2011" scheme was anything other than an extension of what we already had, so we called British Gas and signed up for this new thing. A few days later we received confirmation through the post that we were now on the "2011" scheme. So far, so good.

Late September we received another letter stating coolly that our monthly payments for electricity would be going up from £29 to £67. That's a 131% price hike! Where's the "Price Protection" in that? We called British Gas to complain, saying that we simply couldn't afford that kind of price increase, that some kind of solution had to be found and that we were looking forward to a proposal through the mail. British Gas "justified" the increase in terms of an increased tariff (wasn't ours protected until 2009?) and an adjustment due to the fact that we were in fact around £50 in debit for the whole year...

Needless to say, no proposal was forthcoming so we complained to the Energy Ombudsman and copied the complaint to British Gas. The Energy Ombudsman sat heroically on the fence saying that this was a commercial issue that should be resolved directly by the complainant and the energy supplier. What use is an ombudsman that directs complainants back to the organisation against which they're complaining?

In early November, however, British Gas responded by placing us back on the "2009" tariff as a "commercial gesture". That's fair enough. We couldn't complain about that. On November 10th they sent us revised statements of account taking into account the old, lower tariff, and it emerged that we were about £160 in credit. Really needing that money to go towards a new fridge/freezer, microwave oven and washing machine, we asked for a refund around November 13th, as soon as we received the new statements of account, and were told that the refund would be effected within 7 to 10 working days.

On November 30th, seeing that nothing was coming through from British Gas, we called again and were told this time that no refund would be possible without providing a meter reading. We gave electricity and gas readings there and then, and now British Gas is singing a completely different song. We're now about £6 in debit on the electricity and only £31 in credit on the gas. What was a £160 credit has turned into a £25 credit. Why was this?

The statements of account we received on November 13th took into account payments made until November 5th but only meter readings until September 5th. Why were we not asked for meter readings when asking for the refund that day? Furthermore, why were we left in the dark that no refund was forthcoming after all? Had we not called again a few days ago we would never have known that British Gas was holding back.

The whole thing has been badly dealt with by British Gas.

More about these "Price Protect" schemes, though. In actual fact, what they do is project what the cost of energy will be at the end of the protection period and start charging those rates throughout. In other words, they're not worth it. You are conned into a false sense of security, thinking that you're going to save money if prices go through the roof, yet you're paying over the odds every month.

Meanwhile, American-owned (which probably explains a few things) Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, is posting record profits of around £900m. This conjures up images of some fat cat in a cozy office sucking on a cigar with his feet up on the desk, watching reports of people dying of cold because they can't afford to heat their houses, and not realizing that his opulent lifestyle is ultimately responsible for their demise.