We're huge fans of the Nokia N8's slick aluminium case and awesome 12-megapixel camera, but the user interface leaves us flat. Happily, *Spark is here to slap a fresh face on Symbian. *Spark aims to replace your default home screen completely, with a new user interface that reminds us of what you'd see on an HTC Sense phone like the HTC Legend.
After you've installed *Spark from the Ovi Store, it runs automatically when you turn on your phone. On a phone like the N8, which runs Symbian 3, you'll lose the option of having three home screens that you can swipe between. Instead, you'll see one home screen with a handful of configurable widgets that deliver news, weather and Facebook and Twitter updates, as well as a couple of shortcuts. Scrolling down reveals the latest updates from your friends, and space to update your own status.
You also get a new menu button, which brings up a long, swipe-capable menu of shortcut icons to the phone's apps and features. We much prefer this menu to the N8's default menu, where options are often nested within options, and can be hard to find.
*Spark has a simple, intuitive touch interface that we enjoyed using. The news app is particularly fun, thanks to the ability to swipe through the news stories, which are divided into sections. Unfortunately, if you leave *Spark, you get kicked out into the cold world of the normal Nokia interface. Tapping on a Facebook update, for example, opens a Web browser window with the mobile version of Facebook, rather than the Facebook app installed on the phone. It's no use if you're not online, and we would have liked to have seen *Spark's functionality go much deeper -- into its own Facebook app, perhaps.
This gets especially bad on the N8 because there's no 'back' button, so once you're out of *Spark's walled garden, it's not easy to get back in. You have to hold down the home button to view all your open apps, and select *Spark from the list. *Spark also renders the home button a liability most of the time -- if you press it, you end up at the default Nokia home screen, not the *Spark home screen.
Hipper than your average?
*Spark just came out in a beta version, so we have to cut it some slack, but scrolling and swiping wasn't always as smooth on the N8 as it should be. We also had an error message showing we were out of memory. We hope that its maker, HipLogic, will put some work into fine-turning *Spark -- there shouldn't be any lag on a brainbox like the N8.
There are plenty of fans of HipLogic's earlier product, HipLogic Live -- formerly known as SnappLife. It brings the live widgets and social networking features, which we've come to love on recent smart phones, to smart-but-boring Symbian S60 and Windows Mobile phones like the Nokia E75. We think HipLogic Live is best suited to non-touchscreen phones, and *Spark definitely takes its user-friendly design to the next level.
The Nokia N8, with its uninspiring user interface and dead-sexy hardware, is the perfect candidate for *Spark. In saying that, we spent too much time getting kicked out of *Spark whenever we wanted to do something, and it's too hard to get back in without a 'back' button. Since it renders the N8's home button almost useless, *Spark reduces the number of handy buttons on the front of the N8 to zero.
We tested *Spark on the latest and greatest Nokia N8, but it also runs on Symbian S60 phones from Sony Ericsson and Samsung, and on Android phones running version 1.6 or newer. Get *Spark for free from the HipLogic website or search for it in the Ovi Store on your Nokia phone.