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The Belle Refresh

This is a follow-up of my previous article on the continued development and evolution of Symbian – specifically on the Nokia E7.

Thinking that Nokia had completely given up on Symbian development, imagine my surprise when Nokia announced on August 28, 2012 that the Nokia Belle Refresh had started rolling out.  The Belle Refresh is an update to the Nokia Belle operating system available on several first generation Symbian^3 devices.  It brings the OS more in line with the Belle FP1 version available for the second generation devices like the PureView 808.  This is going to be an overview of some of the changes in the Belle Refresh update (and it is more than just eye candy).

How to get the Upgrade

Upon hearing that the Belle Refresh was available, I immediately hooked up my phone to my PC to see if I could update via Nokia Suite.  Unfortunately, this was not to be as there was no indication that newer software was available for my phone.  I then tried the Software Update app located on the device and sure enough, I was presented with an 11mb update to apply (termed ‘Software Improvements’).  I downloaded/applied the update (which took about 15 minutes total) and when my device rebooted, I was using Belle Refresh.

So What Changed

Nokia indicated that the Belle Refresh would include a newer web browser capable of HTML5 apps as well as several new home-screen widgets.  While that might not seem like a lot – there is actually a lot more that was changed/enhanced in this update and I am going to cover some of the updated items I have discovered here.

Web Browser

The 800-pound elephant in the room is the new web browser.  Is it an improvement over the previous version?  Is it any good?  I was never too keen on the Symbian^3 browser and the enhancements made in the Anna and Belle releases were better but still not great.  I am happy to report that the new browser is significantly better than the previous versions.  It has a *much* faster rendering engine and appears to handle page loading and scrolling more efficiently.  Thankfully the menu system has been overhauled to use a more traditional menu structure as well.  I cannot tell you how many times, I launched the browser in Anna/Belle and hit Menu -> Exit (X icon) and inadvertently closed the browser while I was just trying to stop a page from loading.  Nokia once again has a good web browser.

Here are some shots of the new browser in action:

The mobile version of YouTube works especially well now and videos load and play through the media player without issue.

Pinch-to-zoom and kinetic scrolling are faster than before and the whole experience feels more polished.  This is a much improved browser and appears to be a complete rewrite of the prior version keeping only small parts of the rendering engine.  It shows and is a nice enhancement.

New Home-screen Widgets

The term ‘new’ should be  used here with a grain of salt as most of the added widgets were actually available in the preview beta and release candidate versions of Nokia Belle.  They were removed prior to launch and then re-added with the FP1 edition.  Now the first generation devices can have these widgets as well.

The new widgets include (but are not limited to):
– several new clock types (mechanical, flip, small, large, etc…)
– weather widgets
– CNN/Reuters/BBC feed widgets (thank you!)
– new agenda widget
– new smaller media player widget (thank you!)
– 3G on/off
– 2G on/off
– mobile data counter
– and more…

Overall there were upwards of 20 additional widgets added. A nice number for sure.  Here are some pics of some new widgets in action:


smaller media player widget


CNN feed reader

As is the case with many Belle widgets – be it the size of the widget, or the screen resolution, some of the newer widgets are very large.  Nokia would have been well served to either include smaller versions of the widgets or introduce a higher screen resolution.  I would love to use the agenda widget instead of the ‘next event only’ widget but I just don’t have any available room on my home-screens. In any case, I will take what I can get.

Media Player

The music player got a UI overhaul and functionality update as well.  Nokia has once again split out albums and artists into their own separate views (last seen in S60v5).  I know this will make many people happy.  They have also updated the buttons of the player to have a rounded look.  The album art in the now playing window has been made a little smaller (similar to the S^3 version).  All-in-all, it’s a nice update to an already fantastic music player.  There is now a series of selectable categories at the top of player (artists, albums, songs, playlists, genres).  There is also a link to Nokia Music in in the player (doesn’t do me much good in the U.S.).


artist view


album view


coverflow (as good as ever)


new artist view (showing all albums for a given artist)


now playing (portrait)


now playing (landscape)

You can now play all albums for a given artist which is something you could not do previously.  While you can still swipe on the album art in the now playing view to change songs, you can no longer tap the album cover to change the volume.

Gallery

The gallery app has changed a bit as well.  While functionally it is the same, it now appears to have better support for creating albums.  The ‘share/send’ icons have also been updated/re-arranged as well.

Camera

Supposedly the N8 is going to get some enhancements to the camera UI – I am guessing some functionality found in the PureView camera UI will find its way to the N8 camera interface.  The E7 did not get any noticeable updates.

Skin Deep Changes Only?

There were a few things fixed behind the scenes as well with this update.  Prior to updating to Belle Refresh, I had a bit of a bug where if I was sending a message through the conversations app and hit send then immediately rotated my phone (i.e. switched from portrait to landscape), the messaging app would hang and the phone rebooted.  That no longer appears to happen so I am guessing that Nokia addressed the issue.  Also, the device seems a bit snappier but that is just subjective and may be in my head only.  The orientation rotation in Qt/QML apps has been updated as well.  I don’t know what the actual impact of the change is, but Qt apps appear to rotate more slowly than native apps now – so something changed.

Overall Conclusion

I have been using my E7 since the end of December 2011 and I love it.  Each iteration of the OS has been better and better in my opinion.  Just to give an example, I recently had to boot up my N900 to get a note that I had saved on it.  Let me tell you how slow and clunky the UI seemed compared to Belle now (and I hold the N900 in high regard).

Nokia definitely still knows what they are doing in the R&D department.  If they only knew what they were doing on the business side as well…

The Belle Refresh is a worthwhile upgrade.  The new browser alone is worth it and is really good.  The overall OS continues to improve and I truly hope that we have not seen the last of Belle.

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Categories: Product Reviews
  1. Raymond
    September 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Nice write-up. The new music player is good news, but unfortunately not the absence of on-screen volume control. Hope they put it back in. There’s also one thing I notice – song lyrics are displayed on-screen and scroll-able. Cant recall if this was there before in plain old Belle.

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