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Nokia E71 smartphone

December 13th, 2008
A major improvement for the Nokia Eseries that faces tough rivals.

Nokia's E62 was always, comparatively speaking, the runt of the smartphone line in North America: outside of Europe, it was always sidestepped in favor of BlackBerries and Windows Mobile devices even before smartphones like the BlackBerry 8800 and the AT&T Tilt (HTC TyTN II) threatened to sweep the Nokia phone away. The E71 marks Nokia's return with a vengeance and is a dramatic improvement over the old device, though whether it's enough to unseat favorites in Canada and the US is the real question -- and one whose answer isn't immediately clear.

design and the keyboard

The E62 was a wide, fairly cheap-feeling device that called virtually no attention to itself and wasn't especially comfortable to hold. Thankfully, the same can't be said for the E71. Nokia has instead opted for a very solid-feeling, true metal design that feels absolutely unshakeable. It's also unusually narrow (2.24 inches across) and especially thin; at 0.39 inches deep, it's thinner even than the iPhone 3G. The combined effect is unusual in that the E71 is decidedly easy to grip with your fingers during a phone call where many full QWERTY phones often ask you to stretch your hand.

The back has received almost as much care as the front. It carries a form of understated luxury and yet has a textured feel that doesn't feel slippery. A chrome finish does make it hard to keep the back free of fingerprints, however.

This does have the ramification of shrinking the keyboard, which has a relatively unusual layout. Most smartphones' hardware keyboards have a slightly staggered layout to mimic a computer keyboard, but the size dictates that Nokia stack the keys almost perfectly vertically in a narrow format. It isn't quite as uncomfortable as it looks and is actually surprisingly quick and accurate. Having said this, the layout does occasionally produce errors. It's all too easy to hit "M" when you meant to type "N," for example.

Above the keyboard, the navigation pad is also a definite step up and could serve as a guidebook for other non-touch phone makers: the direction controls are clear and precise, and the four shortcut buttons (up from two on the E62) make it much easier to leap to calendars, contacts or the home screen than before. The side buttons are also reasonably well-positioned and convenient, if not entirely intuitive. Also, there's no dedicated lock button: unfortunately, users have to hit a slightly awkward key combination to start using the phone.

Ports are easily accessible; the microSDHC card slot and micro USB jack are both readily available through rubber covered doors, which is a relief from having to expose back panel covers or else leaving ports exposed. The E71 does use a 2.5mm headphone jack and is limited to its pack-in earbuds (or aftermarket adapters) as a result, though as a mostly business smartphone it's a more forgivable offense than if the N95 had done the same thing.

the Symbian S60 interface and carrier-specific touches

Using the E71 is, unsurprisingly, a slight change from the N95 8GB tested earlier in the year given the shift from media playback to messaging. The home screen now has a much more modern front end that provides quick access to recently used apps and important notifications like e-mail or appointments.

Beyond that, e-mail itself is also easier. When the N95 was tested, setting up even a simple Gmail account was extraordinarily difficult: even with full knowledge of settings, the process was laborious. This time around, Nokia has learned its lesson and now has Symbian autoconfigure mail settings for many common account types. There's still definite room to improve, however: the phone doesn't automatically use the best connection or even set up automatic retrieval without your intervention. There's also no convenient way to batch delete or otherwise quickly burn through a large number of messages. Simply put, this isn't a BlackBerry in terms of being an e-mail machine.

That also betrays one of the core problems with Symbian: there's too much manual setup involved. To get the E71 to an ideal configuration, it's still necessary to wade through multiple fairly arcane menu systems that don't necessarily have features in logical locations. Some valuable features like the camera are also buried two or three layers deep instead of placed at the top. There's a good reason why many smartphones have a reputation as being unnecessarily difficult, and both the main interface and certain first-party apps like the e-mail client reinforce that all too well.

In its current standing at Rogers, the E71 is actually relatively unaltered, with most of the interface being the same as Nokia's default. Nonetheless, the few additions are regrettably annoyances. The carrier continues to insist on putting its in-house media player at the forefront, but it's really just an attempt to push music sales; it's too simple and emphasizes the store as much as it does the music. Users still have to (at first) dig for Nokia's eminently more capable player in the menus, which now also supports podcasts.

web access and GPS

Nokia claims to have a fairly advanced browser with HTML and JavaScript support, but in testing this doesn't quite pan out as the company promises. Browsing a few more complex sites often gets closer to the desktop than many past browsers, but the alignment and formatting still isn't accurate. And since the phone doesn't have a quick zoom in/out function, it's considerably harder to navigate quickly in the Symbian browser than in Opera for the HTC Touch Diamond and touchscreen devices like the iPhone 3G.

GPS is virtually unchanged from the build seen in the N95 review (linked earlier on this page), but that's not necessarily bad. Nokia's built-in map application remains one of the best for those who aren't using a stand-alone GPS unit and provides spoken directions (including for pedestrians) plus data assist. The initial lock-in appears to be reduced, too, though it still takes longer than on the iPhone. It does behave more reliably and has more features (at present) than the quicker but limited Google Maps on Apple's hardware, though, so those who need strong navigation out of the box may want to choose this over both the iPhone and even relatively advanced map-capable devices like the BlackBerry Curve.

call quality and battery life

There's little to complain about with the E71's voice quality: while the default volume is quiet, at higher volume it's clear and loud. It's what you would expect from a 3G phone on an HSPA data network. This can vary from region to region but has performed well in this case.

In a pleasant surprise, battery life is reasonably long. Despite its large battery, the N95 8GB quickly ran out of power through moderate data and phone use and just couldn't be left unplugged overnight: a full charge would be drained by half or more on standby. Nokia has solved this through brute force by giving the E71 a much more capacious 1,500mAh battery (up from 1,200) and a smaller screen (2.4 inches versus 2.8). This only gives one if appreciated hour of extra calling time, but is much better for standby mode; light but regular use would let the phone sit one to two days on average before a recharge would be essential. It's the difference between being tied to wall outlets and roaming free, and it all goes a long way towards improving the phone's performance, though it's not quite as good as the claimed performance of the thicker, larger iPhone.

the camera

Nokia is often considered the king of cameraphones, and for good reason. It rarely skimps on quality parts and gives users a wide array of controls over the final output. The software controls, at least, carry over on the E71. Photographers can tweak color and white balances as well as choose different scene modes, and there are ample options to mail or upload photos to specific services without needing a third-party app.

Image quality, though, does seem a definite step down from the (admittedly strong) N95 8GB camera. Besides the drop from 5 to 3.2 megapixels, the E71's camera seems more prone to noise even in slightly dim situations and has a harder time focusing on subjects. It's still miles above the same-resolution camera in the Touch Diamond -- pictures are much clearer and the flash is brighter -- but it's clear the E71's unit is more incidental to the phone's real purpose than a key focus.

a note on data sync

Nokia has lately been good about synchronizing content with computers, and there is certainly no shortage of software available. There are suites to cover both business data and media on both Mac OS X and Windows, including third-party tools like Missing Sync; Nokia Media Transfer was used on the Mac for the bulk of this test, but previous tests of the software have shown that it's entirely possible to use all aspects of Nokia's smartphones tightly integrated with the Mac.

The software has been updated a number of times since its last appearance, but it remains near-identicial. Again, in this case, that's a high point. The software is understandably not as intuitive as a direct iTunes sync but faithfully ports over songs, playlists, movies and photos with a fair amount of customization. The E71 comes bundled with a 2GB microSD card and actually makes for a good if stopgap media jukebox, as long as users can accept the basic earbuds.

wrapping up

Nokia likes to pitch its smartphones as "multimedia computers" largely because they do much more than take calls. That's certainly true with the E71, and perhaps its best recommendation is that it rarely leaves its owner at a loss for features. There's no one aspect that will do anything less than an acceptable job, and for GPS as well as common calling, it's excellent. The form factor is a welcome relief from the outright fat designs that plague competitors, too. It's a smartphone that doesn't intrude the way many smartphones do, and it even manages this while delivering reasonable battery life.

At the same time, the majority of features don't truly rise above that level. Messaging isn't as good as on a BlackBerry, and media and web browsing aren't as good as they are on an iPhone. The operating system is also mired in a set of legacy design decisions that slow down even experienced users configuring the phone to work the way they'd like it. Nokia's phone will do the job well for many, but those who want especially strong performance in any one category will be a bit disappointed.

Wisely, Rogers has mostly left the E71 alone, though it would be appreciated if the carrier pushed its own music application to the background rather than attempting to draw the few customers that are likely to shop for songs on a business phone.

Thankfully, Nokia has one feature going for the E71 that many of its competitors can't match and which the company isn't normally known for: a low price. On Rogers, the only North American carrier currently selling the phone subsidized, the handset sells for just $100 Canadian ($80 US) tied to a long three-year plan. That's half as much as many competing devices, and even at full price it sells for $400. The US version sells for $442 but comes completely unlocked and thus supports apps that would otherwise be restricted, such as VoIP calling.

As such, it's not a trivial expense but could very well be the best budget option for a full-featured smartphone. More importantly, Nokia doesn't treat its design as an afterthought. The company just needs to put the phone on par with competitors on their strongest points, not just defeat them at their weak points.

- Very sturdy, stylish design.

- Good keyboard and navigation pad.

- Much improved battery life.

- Good GPS mapping and media playback.

- Easily accessible card slot and USB port.

- Good camera versus many phones.

- Very reasonable price.

- Symbian still tough to use in some areas.

- Mail isn't full-featured despite the phone's focus.

- Camera is a step down from the N95 in most respects.

- Browsing is still limited; connections aren't auto-managed.

- Rogers music player still at the top level and not very useful.