I’m a great believer that when it comes to choice of smartphone, one size doesn’t fit all. As much as we like the iPhone here at last100, for example, particularly for its industry leading mobile web browser and fast growing library of third-party applications, for my personal needs it doesn’t quite fit the bill. Enter Nokia’s new QWERTY smartphone, the business-oriented E71, which along with addressing most of its predecessors’ shortcomings (the E61/E61i) is a device that comes incredibly close to meeting all of my own particular requirements. Which, of course, isn’t to say that it will meet yours, although it may well do.
Claiming to be the world’s slimmest cell phone with a QWERTY keyboard, the E71 is highly pocketable, especially compared to Nokia’s earlier attempts. It also looks the business in other ways, using a stylish blend of stainless steel and ‘grey’ high density plastic, resulting in a very solid feeling build.
Spec-wise, the version of the E71 for review was the UK version, a Quad-band GSM /3G phone with HSDPA, EDGE, GPRS and WiFi data support.
There’s obviously, as ever, a degree of compromise between the size of the device, screen and keyboard — however, in the case of the E71, Nokia may have found the sweet spot. The QVGA screen is bright and maintains a productive 320 x 240 pixels in dimension, and the QWERTY keyboard, although tightly packed, is one of the best I’ve used. Key presses on the E71 are far less spongy than on the E61 (or Nokia’s latest Internet tablet), providing enough tactile feedback without requiring too much pressure to register. Nokia have also found room for four keyboard short cuts, dedicated ‘home’, ‘calendar’, ‘address book’ and ‘email’ keys, all of which can be re-mapped to launch your own choice of application. Additionally, holding down each of the shortcut keys for a few seconds will trigger a different action, such as entering a new appointment in ‘calendar’ or a new contact in ‘address book’, and again all of these can be customized, as is the case with almost any element of Nokia’s updated S60 User Interface. Another nice touch is that if you start typing a person’s name while on the home screen, the E71 will instantly drill down into your address book.
The E71’s choice of directional-pad over a pointy joystick or Blackberry-style trackball is also a welcome change, and proved great for navigating around the device, scrolling through documents or browsing the web, and even a dose of casual gaming. The d-pad also functions as an indicator light informing you when there’s a new SMS message, email or missed call.
Down the left-hand side of the E71 is a microSD slot and a mini-USB port, both concealed by a rubber door, and on the right-hand side are volume up and down controls, as well as one-touch voice record and a 2.5mm headphone jack.
The E71 also has two cameras, where the original E61 had none. There’s a 3.2 megapixel stills camera which is also capable of shooting QVGA video at 15 fps, along with a front-facing cam to support 3G video calling.
Overall, however, the E71’s media production features are a little disappointing. For example, on the software side, while the E71’s camera nicely integrates with Nokia’s Ovi web service, enabling photos to be instantly shared on Flickr, the quality of the captured images aren’t great (especially compared to the industry leading cameras found on Nokia’s flagship N-series phones, such as the N95). Bottom line: this is no camera phone, which although makes some sense considering the E71’s intended market, it leaves us wishing that Nokia would release an E71-like QWERTY smartphone with the media production goodness of its high end consumer-oriented phones.
Having said that, media playback features are pretty decent for a business-oriented smartphone. The E71 can handle the usual audio formats, MP3, AAC and Windows Media Audio etc. and on the video side there’s support for MPEG4 and H.264 (along with other codecs), both needed for watching video podcasts. Talking of which, Nokia has bundled its own excellent podcast client, which enables you to subscribe to pretty much any podcast and download episodes over WiFi or 3G (no need to side-load iPod-style). There’s also the Nokia music store application and a built-in FM tuner.
Of course, where the E71 really excels is in its more natural territory, email and all round business features. As you’d expect, the E71 supports Microsoft Exchange for email, contacts, and calendar syncing, along with MS Office document creation and reading. Standard email accounts are also accessible and Nokia has gone out of its way to make email set-up a breeze, requiring just a username and password for most services, such as GMail or Yahoo. Notably, however, there is no longer support for Blackberry Connect. For my own push email requirements I signed up to Nokia’s solution, which is currently free on Nokia Beta Labs. There are also a number of additional business applications bundled, such as remote wipe, PDF reader, a VPN client, and an advanced call manager, the latter of which can block or filter known callers.
Web browsing on the E71 is a delight, in part because of its landscape oriented screen. Of course, at 320 pixels wide this isn’t enough on its own to eliminate endless horizontal scrolling in order to view the ‘full’ web. Thankfully, Nokia’s S60 web browser does an excellent job of subtly re-flowing columns of text, and similar to Opera Mobile, uses a panel view to help you navigate around a page before zooming in. Nokia has also added support for the latest version of Flash Lite, enabling access to the full version of YouTube. Best of all, however, is that compared with previous Nokia phones, the E71 has enough processing power to render and move around web pages smoothly. In fact, the E71 is notably snappy running almost almost all of its applications, suggesting that this time round Nokia has ensured that the hardware meets its software ambitions.
Bundled with the E71 is Nokia Maps, a competitor to other mapping services such as Google Maps. In addition to the basic mapping client, for a monthly subscription full turn-by-turn directions can be switched on and additional maps and guides downloaded. While this can prove expensive compared to a dedicated GPS offering, it can work out more cost effective if you just want to rent a particular map as a one-off for a month whilst taking a vacation. The E71 utilizes A-GPS, and we found it to be surprisingly quick at locating our whereabouts, although we haven’t tested it in a turn-by-turn situation.
Although the S60 platform doesn’t have nearly the breadth and quality of third-party applications that already exist on the iPhone – the software library seems dominated by to-do lists and business apps that duplicate functionality – I’ve installed the following apps in addition to those that came bundled with the E71:
- GMail – used as an occasional alternative to the E71’s built-in email client or Nokia’s push solution, purely for its archive search capability.
- Tiny Twitter – a fairly decent Twitter client.
- Shozu – for instant publishing of media to Facebook and YouTube.
- Google Maps – as an alternative to Nokia Maps.
- Mobbler – a Last.fm client.
- Conversation – Nokia’s threaded SMS client.
If I had to sum up my liking for the E71, much of it is down to the form factor. Packing in a very usable QWERTY keyboard into such a pocketable device is impressive, although admittedly I do have small hands so your own millage may vary. That coupled with the device’s overall responsiveness, bundled applications and a number of welcome improvements to S60’s User Interface, have made it a joy to use. Add decent web browsing and media playback to the mix, superb call quality and extremely good battery life – thanks to a 1500mAh battery – and the E71 is my favorite smartphone yet.