Archive for March, 2009

Sri Lanka Civil War Basic Facts

March 22, 2009
  • Formerly called Ceylon
  • Sinhalese majority – Buddhists
  • Tamil minority – Hindu and Christians
  • Good thing there are no muslims
  • The War has been raging for 25 years as of this writing
  • The LTTE is the rebel Tamil group seeking independence
  • More than 70,000 people have died
  • War started in 1983 after 1,000 Tamils were killed
  • Stunning beaches and lush hills
  • Virgin forests and varied animal fauna
Country profile: Sri Lanka

Nestling off the southern tip of India, the tropical island of Sri Lanka has beguiled travellers for centuries with its palm-fringed beaches, diverse landscapes and historical monuments.

But the island has been scarred by a bitter civil war arising out of ethnic tensions. After nearly two decades of violence, a ceasefire was signed in 2002, but it broke down in January 2008, leading to renewed fierce fighting.

Known as “Serendip” to Arab geographers, the island fell under Portuguese and Dutch influence and finally came under British rule when it was called Ceylon.

NATION AT WAR
Army and Tamil separatists are engaged in conflict involving air raids, roadside blasts, suicide bombings, land and sea battles

  • More than 50,000 killed
  • 1983 – start of war
  • 2002 – ceasefire is signed but violence escalates in 2006
  • 2008 – Ceasefire ends, renewed fighting erupts
  • 2009 – Government says army offensive has left the Tamil Tigers close to defeat and cornered in a small area of the north-east
  • There is a long-established Tamil minority in the north and east. The British also brought in Tamil labourers to work the coffee and tea plantations in the central highlands, making the island a major tea producer.

    But the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community resented what they saw as favouritism towards the mainly-Hindu Tamils under British administration.

    The growth of a more assertive Sinhala nationalism after independence fanned the flames of ethnic division until civil war erupted in the 1980s between Tamils pressing for self-rule and the government.

    Most of the fighting took place in the north. But the conflict also penetrated the heart of Sri Lankan society with Tamil Tiger rebels carrying out devastating suicide bombings in Colombo in the 1990s.

    The violence killed more than 60,000 people, damaged the economy and harmed tourism in one of South Asia’s potentially prosperous societies.

    A ceasefire and a political agreement reached between the government and rebels in late 2002 raised hopes for a lasting settlement. But Norwegian-brokered peace talks stalled and monitors reported open violations of the truce by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

    Escalating violence between the two sides in 2006 killed hundreds of people and raised fears of a return to all-out war. In January 2008, the government said it was withdrawing from the 2002 ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire expired a fortnight later.

    Following a renewal of fighting, in January 2009 government troops captured the northern town of Kilinochchi, held for ten years by the Tigers as their administrative headquarters.

    The government said a sustained army offensive had left the Tigers close to defeat and cornered in a small area of the north-east.

    International concerns have been raised about the fate of the estimated 70,000 to 200,000 civilians caught up in the conflict zone.

    • Full name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
    • Population: 19.4 million (UN, 2008)
    • Capital: Colombo (commercial), Sri Jayawardenepura (administrative)
    • Largest city: Colombo
    • Area: 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq miles)
    • Major languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English
    • Major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity
    • Life expectancy: 69 years (men), 76 years (women) (UN)
    • Monetary unit: Sri Lankan rupee
    • Main exports: Clothing and textiles, tea, gems, rubber, coconuts
    • GNI per capita: US $1,540 (World Bank, 2007)
    • Internet domain: .lk
    • International dialling code: +94

    President: Mahinda Rajapaksa

    Mahinda Rajapaksa, prime minister at the time of his election, won the November 2005 presidential poll by a narrow margin. His main rival was the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

    Mr Rajapaksa was backed by Marxist and Buddhist parties in the government. He also benefited from an extremely low turnout by Tamils in the north and east.But he inherited a troubled economy and a faltering peace process. During campaigning he promised to take a hard line in any peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels and said he would seek direct talks with the group’s leader.

    He says the solution to the conflict lies in a unitary state.

    Mr Rajapaksa, a Buddhist lawyer, became prime minister in 2004, heading a heavily-polarised parliament.

    He served under Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, president since 1994. She had backed economic liberalisation while in office but government rifts slowed the pace of change.

    Mrs Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga’s coalition was also divided over the Tamil peace process. The former president pursued a twin-track approach during the civil war, trying to offer the Tamil rebels some form of autonomy while seeking the upper hand on the battlefield.

    However, she accused the government of making too many concessions to the rebels and tensions over the peace process led to a bitter power struggle with the then prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, in 2003.

    The Sri Lankan president can appoint and dismiss the prime minister, and can dissolve parliament.

    Media outlets are divided along linguistic and ethnic lines, with state-run and private operators offering services in the main languages.

    Many of the main broadcasters and publications are state-owned, including two major TV stations, radio networks operated by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), and newspapers in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

    There are more than a dozen private radio stations, and eight privately-run TV stations. Sri Lanka’s privately-owned press and broadcasters often engage in political debate, and criticise government policies.

    But the country is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. In late 2008, a grouping of international media freedom groups noted a deteriorating situation, marked by “murders, attacks, abductions, intimidation and harassment of the media”.

    Reporters Without Borders says the media come under pressure from the authorities, while the Tamil Tigers “allow no dissident voices” in the areas they control.

    The internet is a growing medium for news; many papers have online editions. There were more than 770,000 internet users by March 2008 according to world telecoms body, the ITU.

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    Rapid Declines in Manufacturing Spread Global Anxiety

    March 20, 2009

    March 20, 2009

    Since it was founded by his great-grandfather in 1880, Carl Martin Welcker’s company in Cologne, Germany, has mirrored the fortunes of manufacturing, not just in Europe but around the world. That is still true today. In a pattern familiar to industrial businesses in Europe, Asia and the United States, Mr. Welcker says his company, Schütte, which makes the machines that churn out 80 percent of the world’s spark plugs, is facing “a tragedy.” Orders are down 50 percent from a year ago, and Mr. Welcker is cutting costs and contemplating layoffs to prevent Schütte from falling into the red. That manufacturing is in decline is hardly surprising, but the depth and speed of the plunge are striking and, most worrisome for economists, a self-reinforcing trend not unlike the cascading bust that led to the Great Depression. In Europe, for example, where manufacturing accounts for nearly a fifth of gross domestic product, industrial production is down 12 percent from a year ago. In Brazil, it has fallen 15 percent; in Taiwan, a staggering 43 percent. Even in China, which has become the workshop of the world, production growth has slowed, with exports falling more than 25 percent and millions of factory workers being laid off. In the United States, until recently a relative bright spot for manufacturing despite the steady erosion of blue-collar jobs, industrial output fell 11 percent in February from a year ago, according to statistics released Monday by the Federal Reserve. “Manufacturing has fallen off the cliff, and it’s certainly the biggest decline since the Second World War,” said Dirk Schumacher, senior European economist with Goldman Sachs in Frankfurt. The pattern of manufacturing and trade ominously recalls how the financial crisis of 1929 grew into the Great Depression: tightening credit and consumer fear reduced demand for manufactured goods in one country after another, creating a downward spiral that reduced global trade. “Plunging manufacturing suggests that as bad as things were in the fourth quarter, they are at least as bad now,” said Robert J. Barbera, chief economist at ITG, a New York research and trading business. “This is a classic adverse feedback loop. It won’t quickly correct itself.” That means more workers can expect to lose their jobs around the world in coming months as manufacturers continue to cut production, especially as global trade contracts. In fact, trade is shrinking even faster than production. Germany’s exports down are 20 percent from a year ago, Japan’s have plunged 46 percent, and in the United States, exports fell at an annualized rate of 23.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. Mr. Welcker says he has never seen anything like it. For parallels, he has to hark back to the Great Depression and World War II, when Schütte’s factory was destroyed. After focusing on Germany and Europe in the decades after the war, Schütte thrived recently as globalization opened new markets in Eastern Europe and Asia. In the last five years, Schütte’s sales soared to about 100 million euros ($131 million) from 58 million. The sudden reversal in global manufacturing suggests that Americans should not expect economic relief from abroad soon, despite a slightly more optimistic mood on Wall Street lately and President Obama’s call for more stimulus spending by foreign governments. While manufacturing equals about 14 percent of gross domestic product in the United States, it totals 18 percent worldwide, and accounts for 33 percent of G.D.P. in China, according to the World Bank. That means that China, Brazil, India and other fast-growing emerging market countries that have escaped the worst of the fallout from the credit crisis will increasingly suffer, dragging down demand in more advanced Western economies even as government-led stimulus packages kick in. The damping effect works both ways. Despite the misperception that America no longer makes anything, falling demand for goods made in the United States, including jet engines, locomotives, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and some high-tech products, will hurt American growth prospects. “Manufacturing makes up about two-thirds of U.S. exports, and contributed more to G.D.P. growth over the last 20 years than any other sector of the U.S. economy,” said David Huether, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. “Our share of global manufacturing output has remained steady at 20 to 23 percent over the past decade.” Elsewhere, even relatively healthy industrial companies like Toyota are also slashing production, which contributed to Japan’s huge export decline. Toyota halted work at its 12 auto plants in Japan beyond its normal break in February and March. It also cut its production forecast for the year ending March 31 by 20 percent, to slightly more than seven million vehicles, and has warned that it will post a net loss of 350 billion yen ($3.6 billion), its first in decades. In Europe, new figures for January manufacturing are due Friday, and they are expected to show that the decline is still worsening. Although the problems of manufacturers supplying the auto industry and other so-called big iron manufacturers of products like locomotives, jet engines and power turbines have gotten the most attention, makers of a variety of other products, including handicrafts, clothes and jewelry, are suffering too. India’s manufacturing sector, which accounts for about 16 percent of G.D.P., recently recorded its first quarterly production decline in more than a decade. Since last April, handicraft exports have fallen by 55 percent to $1.35 billion, and textile makers estimate they have slashed half a million jobs. Banks, meanwhile, are restructuring loans for diamond makers and polishers. And despite tax cuts and a $64 million stimulus package announced in February, Indian textile makers are pushing for more government help. “We’re competing with countries like Bangladesh, where wages are lower,” said Rakesh Vaid, the chairman of Usha Fabs, a Delhi textile manufacturer. “We’re competing with China where the currency is well managed, and Vietnam where the industry is getting strong support from the government.” At Schütte, which has 550 workers and is emblematic of Germany’s bedrock Mittelstand sector of family-run businesses, perilous times are part of the company’s history. Mr. Welcker recalls family tales of trucks filled with cash to pay workers during the hyperinflation of the Weimar era, and how after G.I.’s crossed the Rhine in 1945 near where his factory stands today, “not one stone stood atop another.” Today, he is thankful the situation is nothing like those days. “But the speed of the decline in orders,” he said, “is the worst we’ve ever seen.”

    Extravagance Has Its Limits as Belt-Tightening Trickles Up

    March 15, 2009
    March 10, 2009

    ATLANTA — It is a sign of the times when Sacha Taylor, a fixture on the charity circuit in this gala-happy city, digs out a 10-year-old dress to wear to a recent society party.

    Or when Jennifer Riley, a corporate lawyer, starts patronizing restaurants that take coupons.

    Or when Ethel Knox, the wife of a pediatrician, cleans out her home and her storage unit, gives away an old car to a needy friend and cancels the family Christmas. “I just feel so decadent with all the stuff I’ve got,” she explained.

    In just the seven months since the stock market began to plummet, the recession has aimed its death ray not just at the credit market, the Dow and Detroit, but at the very ethos of conspicuous consumption. Even those with a regular income are reassessing their spending habits, perhaps for the long term. They are shopping their closets, downscaling their vacations and holding off on trading in their cars. If the race to have the latest fashions and gadgets was like an endless, ever-faster video game, then someone has pushed the reset button.

    “I think this economy was a good way to cure my compulsive shopping habit,” Maxine Frankel, 59, a high school teacher from Skokie, Ill., said as she longingly stroked a diaphanous black shawl at a shop in the nearby Chicago suburb of Glenview. “It’s kind of funny, but I feel much more satisfied with the things money can’t buy, like the well-being of my family. I’m just not seeking happiness from material things anymore.”

    To many, the adjustment feels less like a temporary, emergency response than a permanent recalibration, one they view in terms of ethics rather than expediency.

    “It’s kind of like we all went overboard,” said Ms. Taylor, 33. “And we’re trying to get back to where we should have been.”

    Not everyone thinks the new restraint will last. Ms. Riley, 37, who lives in Atlanta, said she doubted it would extend beyond the recession.

    “I do think that maybe now it’s a little bit chic or something to save money, or to be pinching pennies,” she said.

    Just as she stopped carpooling when gas prices went down, Ms. Riley said, she predicted that people would start buying again when the economy rebounded. “That’s just my own, maybe, cynical belief,” she said.

    Still, economists point out that the Great Depression created a generation of cautious savers. The longer the downturn this time, they say, the more likely it is to change financial habits permanently.

    Holly Moreno, 30, a part-time Web site manager in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett, Tex., whose husband is a business analyst, said she had been taking their 2-year-old son to indoor playgrounds at the mall and free story-times at the library instead of paying to get into the children’s museum, their favorite wintertime haunt.

    “Even though we’re secure with our jobs, you’ve still got to plan for just-in-case,” Ms. Moreno said, “especially because we have a kid.”

    As many economists have noted, cutting spending is the worst thing people with means can do for the economy right now. But that argument seems to have little traction, especially because even those with steady paychecks and no fear of losing their job have seen their net worth decline and their retirement savings evaporate.

    “I don’t think there’s been any other period in modern history where appeals to people to spend the economy back into health have worked,” said Ethan S. Harris, a co-chief of United States economics research at Barclays Capital. “The only time I’ve ever seen where that kind of urging people to spend worked was after 9/11, and I did think at the time that there was some patriotic buying going on.”

    After the attacks of Sept. 11, though, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping. President Obama has taken a different tack, issuing a budget whose very title, “A New Era of Responsibility,” strives for an austere tone. On Inauguration Day, the first daughters, Sasha and Malia, dressed not in designer labels but clothing from J. Crew. On television, the insurance giant Allstate is running a sepia-toned “back to basics” advertising campaign, and in Target’s “new day” commercials, the “new pedicure” is administered by a spouse and the “new vacation glow” comes from a spray bottle.

    “Though the recession was always talked about in economic terms, we felt really strongly that, in fact, it was a crisis of culture,” said Tracy Johnson, research director for the Context-Based Research Group, a market research firm in Baltimore that views the recession as a rite-of-passage that will reorder consumer priorities.

    Ms. Johnson has advised clients to focus on quality rather than quantity. Malls redecorated in screaming red “sale” signs are not the way to go, she said, because “if you just give people the opportunity to buy more, you’re not matching up to where their minds are.”

    Carol Morgan, who teaches law at the University of Georgia and whose husband has a private law practice, said she felt a responsibility to cut needless spending. “That is probably something that is a prudent thing to do in any event, but particularly now I see it as the right thing, as the moral thing to do,” she said, adding that she also hoped to increase her charitable giving. “Before, extravagance and opulence was the aspiration, and if we can replace that with a desire to live more simply — replace that with time with family, or time for spirituality — what a positive outcome to a very negative situation.”

    Kim Gatlin, a novelist who lives in Park Cities, in the Dallas area, said some of her friends had urged their husbands not to give them jewelry over the holidays. “They were like, you know, ‘There’s nothing I’m dying for right now — let’s just wait,’ ” she said. “It makes them feel like they’re participating, although they don’t contribute to the income stream.”

    Even some of the very affluent said they were reluctant to be conspicuous in their spending.

    “It’s disrespectful to the people who don’t have much to flaunt your wealth,” said Monica Dioda Hagedorn, 40, a lawyer in Atlanta who is married to an heir of the Scotts Miracle-Gro fortune. “I have plenty of dresses to last me 10 years.”

    Ms. Hagedorn said she did not hold herself apart from the rest of society because of her money. “Everyone’s going to pull through together, or everyone’s going to sink together,” she said.

    Fear and uncertainty have paralyzed even the most insulated clients, said Jack Sawyer Jr., who manages money for some of Atlanta’s wealthiest families. “I have clients who have $20 million, young grandparents, and they’re concerned about whether they can continue to pay tuition for their grandchildren. It’s not a rational process.”

    Any sharp decline in consumer spending will feed on itself, said Juliet B. Schor, an economist at Boston College and the author of “The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer” (Basic Books, 1998). Typically, people spend when those around them are spending, but in a downturn, the need to compete evaporates. “You can stay right where you are without falling behind,” Ms. Schor said.

    Consumers’ focus may have shifted, she said, from striving to catch up to those above them to contemplating the fates of those below them.

    Craig Robinson, 34, a manager at a real estate investment firm in Atlanta, agreed, saying that he was not tempted to join those who were scooping up deals at department stores. “There’s one guy to the right of me showing me this great deal he got on his tie,” he said, “and there’s four guys to the left of me who got laid off and can’t find a job.”

    Numbers of the Depression of the 21st Century

    March 6, 2009

    March 6:

    • 651,000 jobs lost
    • 25-year high jobless rate
    • 4.4 million jobs lost since December 2007
    • 161,000 more jobs lost in January & December
    • 12.5 million people unemployed in February
    • 787 bn – stimulus package of Obama
    • 681,000 – 2008 December’s payroll losses were adjusted to the deepest since October 1949
    • 8.1 percent unemployment rate surged January, its highest level in a quarter-century.
    • $600 million in long-term debt – Saks has more than
    • more than $2 billion – Claire’s, the accessories chain, is on the hook for
    • $6 billion in debt and more goes to Rite Aid
    • $8 billion – Macy’s debt is more than this
    • Manufacturing, Financial services and Retail — layoffs have accelerated so quickly in recent months
    • 650,000 jobs for three straight months, the worst decline in percentage terms over that length of time since 1975
    • 19 million houses and apartments — nearly one out of every seven — are vacant, the highest percentage since the 1960s
    • 10.6 percent – Michigan unemployment rate
    • 44,000 jobs in February lost in financial services

    Chip Makers Watch Sales Fall Sharply

    March 4, 2009
    March 3, 2009

    MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — While accustomed to the boom-and-bust nature of their industry, the companies making the semiconductor chips that run computers, cellphones, digital cameras and even cars find themselves in the middle of a collapse in sales that resembles total chaos.

    With sales of most manufactured goods plunging in this recession, demand for chips is evaporating. In January alone, chip sales plummeted by almost a third from the previous year, to $15.3 billion, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

    “This is the worst recession the semiconductor industry has seen since its inception,” said Sean M. Maloney, the chief sales and marketing officer at Intel, at a news conference Monday.

    Consumers have benefited from some of the underlying turmoil. Smartphones and the cheap laptops known as netbooks are getting more powerful even as they drop in price. And the prices for the memory chips used to store information in iPods, digital cameras and cable set-top boxes are plummeting as the companies making the products grapple with overcapacity at their factories.

    Major chip makers like Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia have felt the sting of businesses and consumers curtailing their spending on computers. Last month, Hewlett-Packard, the world’s largest PC maker, reported a 19 percent drop in computer sales, while Dell, the second-largest PC maker, posted a 27 percent decline in desktop sales.

    On Monday, the research firm Gartner predicted that computer shipments would dive by 12 percent in 2009 to 257 million units — the steepest decline ever.

    In the memory chip industry, conditions have turned cataclysmic.

    In the last couple of years the production of memory chips swelled as companies chased rising interest in consumer gadgets. The result was a vast oversupply, which led to plummeting prices. Memory prices fell 60 percent last year and could fall 40 percent this year, according to Jim Handy, the director of the chip research firm Objective Analysis.

    Now, on top of the oversupply, memory makers like Spansion and Micron Technology must also deal with falling demand for the consumer devices that use their products.

    “We’re in unprecedented territory for the chip industry as a whole, and the memory makers are then in a category by themselves,” said Dale Ford, an analyst at the research firm iSuppli. “These companies put themselves in a position of putting in place so much capacity that they were bleeding cash when the downturn took place.”

    Burdened with aging chip factories, Micron announced in October that it would lay off close to 3,000 people, or 15 percent of its work force. In February, it said it would eliminate up to 2,000 additional jobs. Qimonda, a German memory maker, began insolvency proceedings in January.

    And over the weekend, Spansion, the largest maker of a type of memory popular in cellphones, automobiles and set-top boxes, filed for bankruptcy protection after having already cut 3,000 jobs, or 35 percent of its work force. The company has said it was open to acquisition proposals.

    “There is no relief valve from the credit markets,” said Thomas T. Eby, an executive vice president at Spansion, which is based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

    Mr. Eby conceded that the memory chip makers brought some of this misery upon themselves by building too many factories, which led to the declining prices. But he added that chip makers must try to anticipate demand and pay for and build their expensive factories two to three years ahead of time. “The bigger issue is that no one had a crystal ball to see what was coming from the economy,” he said.

    With the complexity and cost of building chips only continuing to rise, the current market conditions could accelerate a trend toward consolidation while also making it less likely that start-ups will challenge the incumbents, say industry observers.

    And credit problems will probably result in some companies just disappearing, Mr. Ford said. “The industry doesn’t have its historical ability to manage through this.”

    Nokia 5800 XpressMusic

    March 2, 2009
    Feb 27, 2009

    Four months have passed since its announcement in October 2008 and the 5800 XpressMusic has finally landed in Singapore. It is the first touchscreen smartphone that runs on the Series60 (S60) 5th Edition platform and bundled with an unlimited music download service, Comes With Music (CWM).

    Meanwhile, Nokia has already announced the N97, its second touchscreen S60 model, in December last year. That is expected to be available worldwide in the first half of 2009. Samsung, too, has shown off its Omnia HD based on the same software at the recently concluded Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

    Editors’ note:

    As this is the first handset that runs on the S60 5th Edition platform and bundled with CWM, we are taking a different approach for the review of the 5800 XpressMusic. Our evaluation will be split into three main sections looking at the software, service and hardware before ending with our usual performance tests and conclusion.

    S60 5th Edition Software

    Naturally, the highlight of this device is the touchscreen-enabled S60 interface. This is an extension of the current S60 3rd Edition UI, dubbed the S60 5th Edition. What happened to “4”, you might ask. Without elaborating too much, Tuula Rytila-Uotila, vice president for Live, GoToMarket, said the company traditionally doesn’t use that number in its products. In the Asian context, the number 4 is considered unlucky.

    The 5800 doesn’t have a directional pad or an Enter button, but is instead fully controlled using the touchscreen and the three hardware keys below the display. The resistive LCD which allows you to use your fingers or a stylus for input requires a little more pressure to tap compared with capacitive screens.

    Going with the music theme, Nokia has even included a plectrum–normally used with a guitar for plucking or strumming–as an alternative pointing device. Making up for the absence of tactility associated with hardware buttons is onboard haptic feedback.

    User Interface
    A lot of what you expect on an S60 phone has been retained, including the ability to bring up a list of running applications by holding down the menu button. To quit any application, just press and hold the corresponding icon and a context menu will pop up for you to do so. Additional shortcuts have also been added to capitalize on the touch interface. You can set an alarm by tapping on the time or switch from Silent to General by hitting on the profile. The battery indicator, on the other hand, brings up the connection manager.

    The key takeaway with the touch interface is the inconsistency with scrolling and tapping gestures in the software. It’s not a deal-breaker, at worst marring the initial experience with the device. The irregularity makes it seem like Nokia hasn’t put much thought into what it wants to deliver with the 5800.

    For instance, you slide your finger down in the menus to scroll down, but you “push” a page up in the Web browser instead. The swiping finger gesture is also implemented only in selected applications. One example is the picture gallery.

    Applications need only one tap to activate, while other menu options require you to tap twice. Granted that a possible reason for implementing a second click is to prevent accidental presses, the constant switch between single and double taps is something which takes getting used to.

    While we like the overall “stickiness” of the interface, it doesn’t beat the iPhone in terms of fluidity. Given an option, we would have preferred the rim that runs around the circumference of the device to be flush with the display instead. That will make it easier to scroll pages using the onscreen bars at the sides.

    The Home screen on the 5800 prominently shows pictures or avatars of those contacts you want quick access to. Tapping on their pictures, you can then see your recent activity log with them on the screen and conveniently call or message them. Vital information like your RSS feeds and calendar appointments are also easily accessible via this Home screen.

    Alternatively, you can switch back to the standard Shortcuts bar which you can customize with four frequently accessed applications. The icons are noticeably bigger to cater for finger-based inputs.

    On the top right corner, a touch-sensitive “button” above the LCD brings up a shortcut dropdown column which allows you to access your music, videos, pictures and the Internet browser quickly.

    Text Input
    Various text input methods have been implemented including a full QWERTY for landscape mode use, a mini QWERTY if you’d rather thumb type in portrait format, the good old onscreen numeric keypad for one-hand operation, and handwriting recognition.


    L to R: Alphanumeric keypad, full QWERTY, mini QWERTY.
    (click for larger images)

    There is haptic feedback for every action, a useful feature when you don’t have the tactility of physical keys. You can adjust the intensity, and we found that keeping it to the minimal, so that the vibration was subtle, gave us the best experience overall.

    During our review, the mini QWERTY input was much too small to be useful. On the flipside, the full QWERTY and numeric keypads both take up the entire screen so you can’t see the screen you are on. That may also cause problems in some cases where you have to type in something while referring to text or images on the display at the same time.

    While we fully understand the need for these onscreen keypads to be large for accessibility, some size compromise could have been implemented so you can still see part of the original page. That said, we got up to speed typing on the full QWERTY the moment we picked up the phone and it was our preferred mode of text input.

    Applications
    According to Rytila-Uotila, programs created for current S60 phones will also work on the S60 5th Edition, though many of them have not been formatted for the 5800’s 640 x 360 display and may look odd. The software development kit (SDK) for the S60 5th Edition has been released to developers and they will be able to tweak their current applications for this UI and create new ones, too.

    Bear in mind that there are still very limited applications that are fully compatible with the 5800. Preinstalled are the Web browser, Maps 2.0, music player, file manager, calculator, converter, voice recorder, FM radio, Podcast, RealPlayer and your usual Calendar, Contacts and Messaging facilities. Missing are Quick Office and a PDF reader which would have been useful for document handling. Mail for Exchange, one of our favorite free apps for syncing with Microsoft Exchange, worked perfectly fine on our review unit though.

    The Web browser hasn’t seen much improvement, so it’s basically still the Webkit version, but with touch capabilities. It’s a pity because Nokia could have taken the opportunity to make it more polished than the Safari browser on the iPhone. What’s good is that the browser supports Flash and Java.

    The 5800 is preinstalled with two games–Bounce and Global Race-Raging Thunder. Interestingly, only the racing game makes use of the onboard accelerometer for steering the vehicle in-game.

    Comes With Music

    Also a big part of the 5800, other than the new software, is Comes With Music (CWM), Nokia’s unlimited music download service. According to the company, Singapore is the first market to get the 5800 bundled with CWM for S$798. For comparison’s sake, a local export set without CWM is priced at S$560.

    Here’s the proposition of CWM’s unlimited premise. You can download as many songs as you want, within 12 months, from the Nokia Music Store and you get to keep or re-download the tracks after the service period. So far, tunes from EMI Music, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music, Universal Music Group and local labels including Rock Records and Ocean Butterflies are available from the store.

    Music downloaded from the store are encoded with a 192kbps bitrate in WMA format and are shackled with Windows Media DRM. This means you cannot copy the tracks to another MP3 player, for example, an iPod. Burning music onto a CD also requires additional rights which you must pay for. You can, however, transfer the songs you’ve downloaded to a new PC within three years of purchasing the CWM handset.

    So is this for you? Depends, but the price-for-feature ratio is rather compelling. In the four days that our CWM service was activated, we downloaded over 700 songs, though we would chalk that number to our initial enthusiasm over downloading whatever that’s readily available. That brings us to the next point.

    What we find most appealing about CWM is the instant gratification it offers. The only thing to watch out for if you are downloading from the device are the airtime charges incurred, which means you’ll need to factor in a data plan with decent bandwidth. What would have been great complements to the service are a music recognition app like Track ID on Sony Ericsson mobiles and a feature that pulls the lyrics of the song you are listening to off the Web.

    A few other things to note about CWM are that after the initial phase of downloading all the music available on the storefront, it comes to a point where you either search for a particular album or track that you want, or wait for Nokia to refresh the store’s page so you can pick from there again.

    The downloading speed is also dependant on the network which can make or break the user experience. Mass downloads are best on a PC (no support for Mac) and single tracks on the handset. Syncing between the PC and device is only via the bundled micro-USB cable connection (no Bluetooth). A nice feature to have is the ability to charge via micro-USB.

    We did encounter a few errors during downloading where the songs couldn’t be found and albums couldn’t be downloaded fully. A Nokia representative said that could be due to our network connection as she didn’t encounter the problems we noticed on her end. There were instances where we resume the download though that doesn’t work all the time.

    The 5800 XpressMusic

    The 640 x 360-pixel display on the 5800 may seem strange at first because it’s not the VGA (640 x 480) screens we are more used to seeing. The reason for this becomes clear when you think about its 16:9 aspect ratio. 640 x 360 is exactly one-quarter of 1,280 x 720, the minimum resolution for something to be classified as high definition (HD).

    If you visit video-sharing sites like Vimeo which allows you to upload HD clips, you will notice that the streaming clips are displayed at 640 x 360 within the browser. For a media-centric mobile phone like the 5800, this is ideal for watching movies and television clips originally formatted for HD displays. You may also want to know that the 5800 has 50 percent more pixels than the iPhone 3G, but has a smaller display which measures 3.2 inches diagonally.

    The choice of a plastic chassis may irk users who are used to the metallic accents on premium handsets, but we found the build quality impressionable overall. The SIM card, once inserted, is difficult to remove without a prodding stick (stylus), but that’s not an issue unless you swap SIM cards often. A keylock switch is found on the right edge of the 5800 and it was indispensable for quick locking of the touchscreen.

    Internally, there’s little to gripe about. This handset comes with HSDPA, Wi-Fi, GPS and a touchscreen display. An 8GB card is included as standard and the microSD card slot supports up to 16GB and even 32GB cards when the latter becomes commercially available.

    Having lots of storage is, of course, important to a music-focused mobile phone, and that’s further complemented by its built-in speakers and a 3.5mm audio jack so you can plug in your favorite headphones. This same jack also lets you to output the sound and screen onto an external display using a TV-out cable that’s included by default.

    Performance

    Overall, we found the 5800’s performance to be snappy and there weren’t any issues with call quality. Audio playback via the onboard speakers was also surprisingly good. If you own a pair of decent earphones, the 5800 is a very good alternative to standalone MP3 players.

    The 3.2-megapixel camera wasn’t fantastic, although it would suffice for occasional snapshot moments.

    On average, the 5800 lasted two days with combined Web browsing, music playback, calls and text messages. Your experience with the device may vary depending on your usage pattern.

    Nokia rates the 5800 for up to 9 hours of talktime and 35 hours for music playback.

    Conclusion

    Though we expected Nokia’s first touchscreen UI to appear on a high-end device like one of its Nseries or Eseries products, the birth of the S60 5th Edition on a mass market phone like the 5800 has its advantages, too. For one, it has an amazing price of 279 euros (about US$386). That’s phenomenal considering the features you get–a comparable Windows Mobile phone is easily 50 percent more expensive than that. With Comes With Music, the additional premium puts the device in the midrange portfolio.

    The positioning of the phone also makes sense if you take into account the competition the 5800 faces. Most manufacturers are already into their second- or third-generation touchscreen handsets. For Nokia to come in at this price point and with a laundry list of features, it will force other makers to revisit their lineup.

    That’s not all. The Finnish outfit is also going all out with Ovi, its online portal for a range of services. In the case of the 5800, the Comes With Music is key. Building a tightly integrated ecosystem is pertinent to a successful product. The Apple iPhone clearly showed the way with iTunes. BlackBerry is catching up and Nokia is obviously not far behind.

    The 5800 isn’t without misses, too. There aren’t that many third-party apps right now, though that will change down the road. Plus the touch user interface isn’t consistent, which is what the company should urgently address. We were close to giving the 5800 our Editors’ Choice award but felt that this aspect caused it to miss the mark slightly.

    Overall, it’s hard to find a touchscreen smartphone that matches the 5800 in terms of price and features.

    According to Nokia, the red and blue versions of the 5800 XpressMusic bundled with a grey plectrum will be available on February 28 in Singapore. A silver-black model will come in mid-March. Nokia added that a standalone 5800 XpressMusic without CWM won’t be available at launch, but didn’t comment on whether its decision will change in the future.

    Specs

    Physical design
    Phone type Candy bar
    Dimensions (W x D x H) 111 x 51.7 x 15.5 mm
    Weight 109g
    Secondary display resolution x pixels
    Input method(s) Touch screen
    Available colours Silver–Black, Red, Blue
    Phone
    Network Quadband
    Network type(s) GSM 850, GSM 900, GSM 1800, GSM 1900
    Connectivity options 3G, GPRS, GPS, HSDPA, Bluetooth, A2DP, USB, WLAN
    Calling Features Video calls
    General
    LCD display size 3.2-inch 640 x 360-pixel, up to 16 million colors
    Color LCD? Yes
    Performance
    Operating system Symbian OS
    Max. talktime (in hours) 9 hours
    Max. standby time (in hours) 408 hours
    Internal memory 81 MB
    Expansion slot(s) TransFlash / microSD
    Included accessories Handset with stylus, extra pen stylus, stylus plectrum, headset, 8GB microSD card, carrying case, portable stand, video-out cable
    Multimedia
    Built-in digital camera? Yes
    Maximum camera resolution 3.2 megapixels