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My Take on the Nokia E7 and Symbian^3

It’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to use a new Nokia handset. The last one I got right before the Nokia business unit I worked for was sold to Check Point in April 2009 was a Nokia 5800 XpressMusic (Nokia’s first touch handset after the iPhone came out). Even until very recently, despite owing both an iPhone and a Nexus One, I would still carry a Nokia E71 when traveling outside the US as it met my basic needs well.

Through some horsetrading, which included giving up my beloved my Nokia E71, I managed to get a brand new Nokia E7. It arrived at my house the day before I was spending 5 days in Canada, as did a Nokia E6 I got from WOMWorld Nokia for review. Since the E7 arrived first, and it’s also running Symbian3 versus the newer Symbian Anna on the E6, I decided to road test the E7 so I can see the differences between the two later on.

In any case, this is a long review. I spent a week using the Nokia E7 and used it for, well, a lot of things. Including writing this review in QuickOffice. Go grab a coffee and settle in as I deconstruct the Nokia E7.

The Hardware

One thing I generally like about Nokia phones is the hardware. The E7 doesn’t disappoint with a nice, big, bright capacitive touch screen and a hardware keyboard that, when you push correctly on the left hand side of the handset, appears underneath the screen. The screen itself tilts up to a comfortable viewing angle.

The hardware keyboard is a 4 row chicklet-style keyboard but the keys are comfortably spaced and provide solid feedback when pressed. It has arrow keys, a reasonably sized spacebar in the middle of the keyboard, and shift, control, modifier key, and a symbol key that brings up a touchscreen to input characters not otherwise available on the hardware keyboard. My experience so far is that I rarely have to use this symbol keyboard–a testament to the fact Nokia has chosen what is on their keyboards wisely.

The phone also has a physical home button at the bottom, a screen lock/unlock switch on the left, a rocker switch for volume, a dedicated camera button, a SIM tray, 3.5mm headphone jack, a MicroUSB port that can be used both for charging and hooking other USB devices to using something called USB To Go, and an HDMI port. Notably absent is the standard Nokia 2mm charging port, which doesn’t bother me, the lack of any ability to add storage via MicroUSB (the device has 16GB of internal storage), and a non-removable battery.

Inside, the phone has WiFi, Bluetooth, GSM and WCDMA radios. The phone has all five bands where 3G are used worldwide, including both AT&T and T-Mobile in the US! This isn’t unique to the E7: several of Nokia’s high-end phones are pentaband, which increases your potential carrier choices worldwide without having to sacrifice 3G!

Symbian3

While S60 and Symbian has remained somewhat consistent over the years, every new iteration has brought changes. Trying to figure out how each phone reacts in a given situation requires some experimentation and hunting to try and figure out where the option to adjust a particular behavior has gone. As I said before, the newest Nokia I had used until recently was the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic, which runs S60 5th Edition. I haven’t seen a Symbian1 device up close and personal, so I had at least two generations of changes to cope with on the E7.

The first thing I struggled with was basic application network connectivity. It didn’t take me long to define the various WiFi access points in my house and add them to the Internet “destination” on my device. I did not want the phone using Celluar Data since Truphone charges quite a bit for that. You can configure each access method within a given destination to prompt before use. You can also configure the phone to simply not use Cellular data at all depending on whether you are in your home country or roaming. Flexible, albeit a little clunky to configure.

On the plus side, applications seem to utilize whatever connection is currently connected much more easily than with previous Symbian iterations I’ve used, including the random hotspots I run across in an airport or elsewhere. Unnecessary prompts are minimized, which is a huge plus in terms of usability.

The next struggle I had, strangely enough, was the home button. It works similar to the Symbian key of old–you push it, it brings up the familiar grid of applications, which hasn’t changed too much, aside from the organization and included apps. The phone includes, among other things, Ovi Maps, Quickoffice, an over-the-air software updater, a web browser, and more.

When you hold down the home key, it brings up a visual representation of running applications that you can swipe through, switch to by touching the image of the running app, or kill by touching the X to kill. Very nice improvement.

The problems I had with the home key really weren’t problems with the home key, per se, but using the home key is the first place I noticed this: lag. Lag is defined as a very delayed response to touch screen or hardware key presses. I notice it throughout the OS in both built-in and third party apps. It was especially noticeable and annoying in QuickOffice.

I remember it took about four iterations of the E71 firmware to eliminate this. I’m currently using 14.002 (PR 1.1) and am not sure how many releases have been issued on the E7. I sincerely hope this is something Symbian Anna fixes because, quite frankly, it’s been a continual problem with Nokia’s Symbian handsets over the years and it’s inexcusable.

While the phone has a hardware keyboard, you can also use an on-screen keyboard either in portrait mode (using a T9-style keyboard) or a four-row QWERTY in landscape mode. If I’m going to type in landscape mode, I might as well use the hardware keyboard, but at least it’s an option if that’s how you roll.

A word about the SIM tray: if you change the SIM card with the phone on, the phone will reboot. Given that you are shown a message to that effect, this is clearly by design. C’mon, Nokia, if Apple can figure out how to implement this, surely you can.

Overall, the OS seems to take advantage of touch where it has to. I haven’t run into anything that I thought was a weird choice so far. The phone seems to understand and utilize multitouch, the long touch (e.g. To bring up a menu) and scrolling with your finger works much better than it did with the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic. It’s still not quite as refined as iOS or Android in terms of usability but it is a nice step up from S60 5th Edition.

Home Screen and Widgets

Like Android, Symbian3 provides a customizable home screen. It takes a different approach than Android where the screen is made up of a series of widgets rather than being a mix of applications and application icons. Each of the 3 home screens can have 6 widgets on it. A widget is rectangular and can provide certain kinds of information (e.g. Weather, email inbox) or provide 4 application shortcuts.

The upshot of this: the home screen functions both in portrait and landscape mode. When you rotate your phone, so does the widgets (which neither iOS or Android does). The only niggle: you can’t control the layouts independently of each other. If you get the widgets right in one orientation, they may not be the way you want in the other.

Ovi Store

Nokia does not get enough credit for their application store, as in a few ways, it rivals the App Store for iOS or Android Market. Any app that you’ve purchased or downloaded from the Ovi Store shows up in the My Stuff category and can easily be downloaded again to a new device, assuming the app is compatible with your new device. If the application is not compatible with your device, it won’t be shown either in My Stuff or searchable in Ovi Store. Considering the number of handsets Nokia supports with Ovi Store, this is a very nice touch. It supports both direct credit card and (where available) operator billing.

Unfortunately, Ovi Store is not entirely flawless. Some applications have issues downloading correctly (notably WordPress). I also saw different applications available or not because of my Truphone SIM and being in Canada. Instead of listing prices in USD, it was listening them in EUR. I assume once I am back in the US, it will switch back. It also seems to occasionally “forget” I am logged into Ovi Store (despite marking Remember me on this device). I also noticed some issues displaying long lists of applications in the Ovi Store.

Social Networking

Nokia includes a functional Twitter and Facebook application. I am not sure why it is tied to your Ovi account, but it is. In any case, much of the basic functionality is present. The only real benefit I can see in this client is that you can easily share photos to Twitter and Facebook from both the camera and photos app.

If you’re an advanced user, you will ignore the Nokia Social app and buy a copy of Gravity, if you haven’t already (I have five of them). Gravity supports Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, status.net, and Google Reader. It is the premiere Twitter app on any Smartphone platform and is the major reason I am still willing to use a Symbian-based device, despite its faults–it;s that good. On the E7, Gravity is even better with its built-in browser for links, which seems to work a little better than the browser built into Symbian3.

The Camera and Photos

The Nokia E7 includes an 8MP camera and a dual LED flash. The camera itself is improved from the Nokia E71 but it lacks any ability to focus. Supposedly there is software that is working to improve the overall picture quality, but close-up macro shots that are in focus are impossible to get. Unfortunately this is something I use my smartphone for a lot (especially for receipts). If you forget to disable the flash on close-up shots, you’ll probably find that the flash has washed out your shot, as you can see in this shot:

For the sake of argument, here are a few other shots I took with the Nokia E7 during my recent travels:

The photo gallery app is nothing to write home about. You can look at all the photos on your phone, see specific photo albums, play a slideshow, edit photos (which launches a separate photo editing app), tag photos and organize them into photo albums. The app also supports the typical pinch to zoom made famous on the iPhone.

Music and Podcasts

Nokia’s Music Player has typically been very functional over its various iterations and includes a software equalizer with various presets. A new feature I hadn’t seen before now is the coverflow-style album browser when the phone is in landscape mode.

I have two major complaints. While the app recognizes podcasts, and has a separate section for them, it provides no on-device means for actually downloading them like the Nokia E71 did. Fortunately there is a free program called Podcatcher that you can acquire for this purpose. Why Nokia didn’t port its existing app to the E7, I don’t know.

My second complaint: the need to refresh the music library after downloading podcasts. I assume this is a problem of the Podcatcher app since the built-in app on the Nokia E71 did not suffer this problem. (Update: it turns out Nokia does provide a way for apps to update the Music Library, but it’s not allowed for apps signed by the Ovi Store certificate or a self-signed certificate per this thread). That said, even when I synced my tracks to the device with Nokia Multimedia Suite on my Mac–one of Nokia’s own apps–I still had to refresh the Music Library. Seriously, Nokia. This should just be automatic.

My third issue (not a serious complaint) with podcasts: no ability to listen at variable speed. This is a feature made famous on the iPhone, available on Android only recently via third party software, makes it easier to consume podcasts faster.

The “Phone” Features

While most of the die-hard smartphone users I know rarely use these features, they exist and for the sake of completeness, should be reviewed.

While I didn’t make a ton of phone calls while I was away, the few calls I did make were very easy to hear and I generally found myself understood. The phone benefits from a second microphone on the back that serves as input for noise cancellation. It also benefits from Nokia knowing where to place an antenna in a phone so any “grip of death” effects are minimized.

The included headphones serve well both as regular audio headphones and have a built-in microphone. The headphones I got were the WH-205s which are in-ear–my favorite kind. They also include larger earpads if your ear canals are larger than mine are.

USB On-The-Go

The phone came with a rather odd USB cable–one that plugs into the MicroUSB port on the phone and has a female USB receptacle to plug in another USB device. What you can do with this is plug in a regular mass storage device (say, a thumb drive) and it appears as another drive letter in the operating system. You can then copy files to/from it (e.g. with File Manager), save documents to it in applications, and, well, anything else you might use a thumb drive for. Reports say that Nokia introduced this feature in the N8, so it’s a relatively recent addition that will be very useful indeed!

Maps

Unlike Google and Apple, whom have to license their map data from third parties, Nokia owns Navteq, which produces high-quality mapping data. Also, unlike iOS and Android, which cannot cache map information for offline use (short of using a third party mapping tools based on OpenStreetMap data), Nokia can cache map data–remember, they own the data outright.

While OpenStreetMap can cache data, it tends to be bitmap-based, which means if you need a map for a large area or even a small one at high resolution, it means downloading a ton of data. Nokia’s maps are now vector based. This means a higher level of detail in the maps with much, much smaller downloads.

The mapping application also supports turn-by-turn navigation, traffic information, checkins with Foursquare, city guides, and much more.

The Final Verdict

As much as I like this phone–I will admit that I still have a Symbian bias–Symbian3 needs some improvements. The lag problem simply has to be fixed. The camera is not usable in one of the situations where I would use it (i.e. for close-up pictures). While Gravity is, in fact, an excellent application, and there are a number of apps available, a couple of key applications aren’t available: Evernote (which I make heavy use of) and TripIt. There are workarounds for this, of course, but they’re not as good as having native apps.

I’m hoping that Symbian Anna will be a big improvement over Symbian3. Fortunately, I don’t have to wait until Nokia makes Symbian Anna available to my E7 via an over-the-air update (which will happen soon). I have a Nokia E6 from WOMWorld Nokia to review, which should have Symbian Anna on it. We’ll see if that improves things.