Symbian is the planet's most popular smartphone OS—everywhere except the US, that is. It's also arguably the most boring. In this last, most urgent installment of the cellphone revitalization series, we alleviate your Symbian shame.
Symbian's dominance isn't evident here in the US, as it's driven by smartphones—like Nokia's N series or Sony Ericsson's P Series—that don't really have much of a market/mindshare outside of Europe. We've even gone so far as to declare it too marginal to include in our smartphone OS guide.
But there are still plenty of UIQ and S60 phones around, and they all suffer from the same sense of staleness—a stagnation that's obvious, whether it's because of Symbian's global popularity and fragmented nature or despite it. So what do you do to shake the feeling that you're toting a last-gen device? Try this:
Get a new browser
Oddly enough, lots of Symbian phones actually ship with not-so-bad browsers, like S60's, which is based on WebKit just like Mobile Safari and Mobile Chrome. Unfortunately, most of these phones also ship without touchscreens, and depend on a clunky d-pad navigation system. This makes panning around fully-rendered pages a bit of a pain—a problem not helped by the browser's often slow performance. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives.
Opera Mobile/Mini: Opera has made an appearance in every last one of my smartphone revival stories, and with good reason. Each version offers its own advantage for Symbian: Opera Mobile brings fast-ish full-page rendering with inertial scrolling—only really a boon if you're lucky enough to have a touchscreen handset like the XpressMusic 5900. The newer 9.5 beta, complete with Google Gears support, can be had for UIQ phones, but S60 handsets will have to settle for 8.65. Opera Mini, a Java app, will work on virtually any phone. It's not the prettiest browser, but server-side data compression and clever formatting tricks make it a good fit for smaller-screened Symbian hardware. Bolt is another Java-based browser in the same lightweight, data-conscious vein, and it matches Opera's app feature for feature. You know, six of one...
Skyfire: This surprising little browser takes the Opera Mini/Bolt rationale a little further, running everything through server-side compression, including Flash video. What does that mean, in a word? Hulu. Unfortunately support is limited to Nokia N and E series phones.
Work On Your Communication Skills
Out of the box, most Symbian phones take you as far as emailing. With a few downloads, though, you'll be privy to the same range of messaging capabilities as your smug iPhone and BlackBerry-toting friends, and then some.
Fring: This isn't your locked down, Wi-Fi tethered iPhone Fring. No, this is the real deal: Multiprotocol IMing, VoIP over 3G and Wi-Fi and most importantly, background processing. Skype is supported, sans video.
Truphone: A dedicated VoIP app that integrates rather seamlessly with your S60 handset, Truphone can save you a pretty penny on international, long-distance and even in-plan calls. By routing calls through Truphone's network over Wi-Fi or a cell data connection, Truphone can connect you to other users for free, and connect international calls for a few cents a minute. Other perks include voicemail-to-email forwarding and Google Talk support, but discounted calls are the star of the show here.
Agile Messenger: It may lack the VoIP accouterments of the previously mentioned apps, but for straight up instant messaging you really can't beat it. All the big protocols are here, accessible through the same simple interface. You can send videos and voice messages, but not engage in full conversations—this app is about messaging, and message it does.
And All The Rest
Once you've updated your browser and messaging software, you've edged much closer to a modern smartphone experience. Now to fill in the blanks:
Google Maps: Google's superb maps app is as good here as it is anywhere else, with GPS integration, local search and a clean, intuitive interface. Perhaps most importantly, it's not just for fingers; Google Maps is well-suited to d-pad navigation.
JoikuSpot Lite: It's tethering+1: Any Wi-Fi-equipped S60 3rd Edition phone can operate as an access point with JoikuSpot. The Lite version is free, and adequate.
Qik: Qik is a cool app that can only be described in ways that sound utterly stupid. Lifecasting? Live vlogging? Either way, with the right phone, Symbian can do it well.
Nokia has some ongoing beta projects to check out, and a few of them are worthwhile. SportsTracker feeds a GPS-tracked record of your run or bike rides to a handy web interface. WidSets is a widget dashboard for a rich variety of web apps. ShareOnline provides basic portals for media uploads, whether it be photo, video or audio content.
And finally, we have Mobbler. A lovely little Last.fm radio client, Mobbler is an iffy addition to this list because Last.fm is cutting off third-party radio support at some point in the near future, so it probably won't work for long. But it's good, so use it while you still can.
If what you see so far isn't overly heartening, hold on: The Ovi App Store for S40 and S60 is on its way, hopefully in May. Symbian's laissez-faire take on the App Store, it promises a slew of applications and media downloads, installable through a handset client. This could end up two ways: As a consolidated Symbian app aggregator, collecting the above apps and others into an easy interface, or as an attraction for new developers, who'll be drawn by the large audience and easy publishing features of the store. That latter scenario may be better, but neither is bad.
Dealzmodo Hacks are intended to help you sustain your crippling gadget addiction through tighter times. If you come across any on your own that are particularly useful, send it to our tips line (Subject: Dealzmodo Hack). Check back every other Thursday for free DIY tricks to breathe new life into hardware that you already own.