Nokia's E-series phones have been a hit in certain circles. They take the Nokia's Series 60 platform, on the Symbian operating system, the biggest contender in the so-far somewhat limited smartphone market, and package it up for a wider audience - specifically, the BlackBerry or Treo-using executive on mobile email.
The E-series succeeds at this (more below), but has lots of other strings to its bow. As the first "mass market" series of devices which combine Wi-Fi with cellular links (and not just GSM, but 3G too), the E-series has attracted attention from vendors of dual-mode phone solutions, making it a potential tool for low-cost mobile VoIP.
Aesthetics are subjective, but we like the feel of the E61. The phone has an all-silver look, with a metallic back that makes it feel reassuringly solid. It's also thin, at 14mm. It has a wide (320x240), bright landscape-oriented screen, and all the buttons one would expect: green and red buttons to start and end calls, a joystick, an email button, a menu button, and two software defined buttons. There is also a sound-recorder button on the side, along with the volume controls.
The keyboard, like all qwerty phones, has small keys, but they are well designed, sticking up from the phone surface. The overlay of numbers and letters made sense and the software dealt with it intelligently: though the number keys do dual duty as letters, when you press them from the home screen the phone guesses you are probably dialling.
The phone also has expandable memory - unlike most BlackBerrys, with an SD card slot hidden under the back panel.
Any review of an E-series phone is inevitably partly a review of the Symbian operating system and Nokia's series 60 platform built onto it. In weeks of use we found it to be reliable. Basic functions are fairly easy to find, and more complex ones became straightforward once we had mastered the routes through a menu structure somewhat different from that of Windows Mobile phones or smartphones.
In a month's use, we had to reboot the phone twice - once to persuade it to dial out, and once to deal with a tricky software installation.
The physical connections include separate power and data/voice sockets. We like having power separate, so we can keep the phone going during long conversations without having to unplug the headphone (or use Bluetooth), but we'd have preferred a standard headphone socket, to connect voice and data at the same time.
Software and add-ons
With its lead in smartphones, Nokia has had a chance to build reliable and useful software for the E-series. The PC software installed easily, connected quickly to the phone and put the GPRS modem and other functions in front of us in minutes. Features include the ability to synch calendar and contacts to those on the PC.
We found the PC connection and the Nokia's GPRS modem abilities genuinely useful during a two-week outage caused by our Internet provider (TalkTalk). The Nokia stood in as our main connection to the Internet, and did good service.
Installing other software was straightforward - in particular we loaded the Truphone mobile VoIP client, which gave us good telephony using the phone as a platform.
There has been a certain amount of backlash against dual-mode phones, with criticism levelled at their low battery life, and questions raised about how well integrated they would be. Mobile operators, we were told, would not tolerate a phone which made it easy for users to connect over Wi-Fi, especially for cheap voice. Recent major launches such as the BlackBerry Pearl and the Palm Treo 750v have made a virtue out of omitting Wi-Fi on battery-life grounds.
So we expected that using Wi-Fi would be fiddly, and would rapidly bring the phone to a grinding halt.
In fact, neither of these things were the case. The IP stack running over WI-Fi clearly has access to the innards of the machine, so that VoIP applications such as Truphone can be dialled directly using the keypad. Any dificulties were with the mechanisms of connecting to secure Wi-Fi, and were therefore part of the Wi-Fi landscape, not due to any hobbling of the phone.
We found the Wi-Fi set-up to be easy to manage, with WEP and WPA encryption modes clearly laid out and selectable. Entering a WEP or WPA key is fiddly, obviously, but Nokia does its best to make it as easy as possible.
The in-built browser is the best we have used on a mobile device. It scrolls well using the joystick across a version of the Web page that looks close to what would be seen on a PC (ie way better than on many mobile devices). A useful window appears when you reach the edge of the screen, giving a small view of the whole page one is looking at, for navigation.
For email on the go, the E-series supports POP3, and IMAP, as well as Nokia's own Intellisync, Visto, GoodLink, Seven and BlackBerry Connect the (not very widely used) BlackBerry mail implementation for non-BlackBerry hardware. It also supports Microsoft ActiveSync, and if you want you can browse mail over the web at sites like Google.
The keyboard - like other similar products - is good enough for short messages. The phone also can view Microsoft Office format documents and PDFs, and even edit Word Excel and PowerPoint. You can also show the E61's screen on a projector, allowing presentations from the phone.
Battery life was fine too, with the phone easily supporting Wi-Fi use for hours at a stretch, and lengthy cellular and Wi-Fi calls without needing extra charges during the day. On a Eurostar trip from Paris to London we managed three hours of continuous GPRS data (give or take the gap during the tunnel).
Overall, this is a phone we would be happy to call our own. It has limitations - it is large at 69.7mm wide by 117mm deep, and at 144g quite heavy, and is also too business-like to include a camera. But these are all by-products of its virtues.
A smartphone that makes a lot of sense as a device for mobile email and other tasks, as well as providing a platform for Wi-Fi based mobile VoIP and other new ideas. It's somewhat heavy and large, but that goes with the territory: overall, good value for money.