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My Take on the Nokia E6 and Symbian Anna

Two handsets arrived at Casa de PhoneBoy recently: a Nokia E7 with Symbian^3 and a Nokia E6 with Symbian Anna. In my last post, I reviewed the Nokia E7. This time around, I’m reviewing the Nokia E6. Unlike the E7, which I’ll get to keep, the E6, which went back to WOMWorld.

This will be another long post, so go get your coffee and settle in for a nice read. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to read my previous post on Symbian^3 and the Nokia E7 as a lot of that also applies here as well.

The Hardware

There are two basic form factors of phones I’ve really liked over the years from Nokia: The Communicator-style, which the Nokia E7 is most like, and the Blackberry-style device, which Nokia began doing with the Nokia E61 and, in my opinion, perfected with the Nokia E71. The Nokia E6 is the next evolution in that line and, at least in terms of the external hardware, they nailed it.

The first part: the keyboard. I really liked typing on the E71 keyboard and find it similarly easy to thumb type on the E6. The phone also has a four-way directional pad with a center button to select items, the standard send and end buttons, and the home/calendar/mail/contacts buttons.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention the standard left and right select buttons. That’s because they don’t exist on this device: the 640×480 screen (which is physically smaller but has more pixels than the Nokia E7 screen) is now touch-enabled. While multitouch is supported in the places you’d expect, the physically small screen makes it difficult to perform these operations. It also makes the screen challenging to read if your eyesight is not the best.

The phone also has a MicroUSB (which can be used for charging and USB On-The-Go), a MicroSD card slot, a 3.5mm headset jack, volume control, a voice command activation button, the screen lock lever, a place to plug in your standard Nokia 2mm power charger, and a 1500 mAh removable battery. As for the radios, like the E7, the E6 is GSM-based and also has pentaband 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth.

Symbian Anna

Having spent a week with the Nokia E7 helped gear me up for the Nokia E6 with its updated Symbian Anna OS. The icons certainly look different. The problems I noticed with lag with Symbian^3 on the E7 seem to be largely non-existant on the E6. Given the processor on the E6 and E7 is the same, it has to be as a result of using Symbian Anna. Being able to use both hardware keys and touch in most places was largely intuitive. I did notice that a couple of particularly problematic applications on the E7, particularly the WordPress app, work beautifully on the E6.

Since the Nokia E6 has an always-exposed hardware keyboard, and thus does not need to provide an on-screen one, I don’t know if there will be improvements in the on-screen keyboard. I hope it implements one similar to the one that is implemented in Gravity, which itself is similar to the one that exists on iOS and Android.

The most noticeably different thing on Symbian Anna: The web browser. I had forgotten about this, although I had read various reviews of the Nokia E6 and it was most certainly mentioned. The first clue was that the browser had a URL bar up at the top rather than at the bottom. You can type in something in the URL bar and request that it be “searched” for rather than go to a particular URL. It also seems to do a better job at rendering pages, though I will admit I didn’t test that many pages. It should be noted this new browser will actually be backported to a number of older Nokia devices, including the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic I still have.

Something I missed when I talked about Symbian^3 but also exists on Symbian Anna: you can change the default applications for browsing the web, playing music, playing videos, and viewing images. For those who like the non-default choices for the web browser (especially), this is a nice bonus.

Something else I missed: apparently both Symbian^3 and Symbian Anna both detect WiFi hotspots and automatically bring up the home page. I missed this because, at least in my testing in Canada with the Nokia E7, this didn’t happen, but it did happen at my local Starbucks. Nice touch!

Since the SIM slot on the Nokia E6 is not externally accessible while the phone is on, I won’t know if they addressed the issue I raised about changing the SIM card while the phone is on in Symbian^3 is addressed in Symbian Anna or not (yet).

Home Screen and Widgets

Symbian Anna has a customizable home screen, like Symbian^3 and Symbian^1. Unlike on the E7, where each of the three screens have 6 customizable rectangular widgets, the Nokia E6 has three customizable widgets on each of its four screens with a non-customizable section along the left that shows up on all the screens. This section includes the clock, active profile, and notifications (e.g. for missed called, text messages).

The selection of widgets available on Symbian Anna is not significantly different than it is on Symbian^3. Because it doesn’t make sense to hold the device in landscape mode (except to take photos), there is no landscape mode for the widgets, either.

The Camera and Photos

The Nokia E6 includes an 8MP camera and a dual LED flash. While there is no dedicated camera button, the camera can be snapped with the select button in the middle of the 4-way navigation button. Unfortunately, the camera is not any better than the E7 in terms of taking macro shots.

One other thing I noticed on the Nokia E6 with Symbian Anna was that, by default, the camera application now geotags photos. This is also present in the E7 in Symbian^3, but it was disabled by default. Fortunately, the way I found out about this was the camera application told me this was the default when I first loaded the application. The dialog box provided a link to the settings page where this could be disabled, which of course I did right away. Personally, I’d prefer the feature be opt-in rather than opt-out (with a dialog telling you to turn it on if you’d like), but that’s just a personal preference.

Nokia Accounts, Ovi Store

My major complaints with the Ovi Store, and, well, any of the apps that require a Nokia account is that they seem to randomly “forget” I’ve authenticated with them. This happened on Symbian^3 and on Symbian Anna. This is either poorly thought out user experience or some sort of bug.

A Symbian phone should be associated with a Nokia account in much the same way that iOS and Android phones are associated with an iTunes and Google account respectively. The phone should ask for this information once. All applications that require this information should be able to use it with a one-time “ask for permission” (e.g. “can app X use your Nokia account information”).

The one exception to this rule: when doing a chargeable action (e.g. buying something from the Ovi Store). In this case, asking for the password for confirmation makes sense.

Other Included Applications

While, of course, you can buy applications via Ovi Store or get them via third parties, the Nokia E6 includes a number of applications “out of the box.”

If you’ve used a number of Nokia devices over the years, one included application you’ve likely used is the one that allows you to easily copy data between Nokia phones. It’s called Phone Switch and it’s been around since S60 3rd Edition. It uses Bluetooth to send the data between the phones, which works for things like text messages and call logs, but not so well for images and sounds. That said, it’s better than anything I’ve seen for any other platform.

Mapping and Navigation has always been a strong point on higher-end Nokia phones. The ability to download maps and use the mapping features when the phone is effectively offline is vital, especially when the phone is used in places where data is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. When I first looked at the Nokia E7, I didn’t spend too much time using the mapping. I spent a little more time with the Nokia E6. I was able to easily download maps for offline use–directly from the handset. I could easily see the difference in size downloading the vector-based maps versus the bitmapped based solutions I’ve seen in the past with OpenStreetMap-based applications.

Some other out-of-the-box applications include QuickOffice (the ability to work with Microsoft Office documents), Adobe Reader LE (to read the ubiquitous PDF files) and JoikuSpot (which turns your Nokia phone into a WiFi hotspot). QuickOffice and Adobe Reader LE are “lighter” or even somewhat older versions of their pay cousins, and you are given a special price to “upgrade” to the more recent versions.

The included JoikuSpot is the full version, though it does have one significant limitation: it cannot operate in infrastructure mode, but only in ad-hoc mode. What this means is that’s it’s not a true access point, so not only will some devices (notably Nintendo’s various game consoles) simply not connect, you cannot use WPA as an encryption method. It also has impact on battery life, though Joiku has spent three years optimizing the battery usage as much as possible.

Music and Podcasts

There are no substantial changes from Symbian^3 in this regard. That said, I’m going to re-iterate my complaint about how Nokia even requires music libraries to be refreshed. They don’t make it easy to allow for apps like Podcatcher to automatically update the Music Library, either. Per this thread, applications signed with the Ovi Store certificate or a self-signed one do not allow for this functionality.

The “Phone” Features

While I myself don’t make a ton of calls, I seem to have issues with this phone when making calls from home. I have had a lot of dropped calls while using the Nokia E6–moreso than with my other phones. The phone seems to spend most of its time on 3.5G, which at my house, varies in signal widely. I tend to blame AT&T for this rather than the phone, but one cannot be 100% certain. I’ll have to do some comparisons with the Nokia E7 at some point, since when I was using the E7, I was in Canada and purposefully not making a lot of calls due to the cost of doing so.

Syncing With The Mac

I didn’t have any problems syncing the Nokia E7 with my Mac. The E6, on the other hand, was not recognized by Nokia Multimedia Transfer nor was there an iSync plugin when I initially set up the device. Since then, an iSync plugin for the E6 came out.

MicroUSB Charging

I have to say, I love the idea of devices supporting MicroUSB charging. Considering that I am a regular traveler, I hate taking extra chargers and cables if I don’t have to. Every bit of space helps.

Unfortunately, there is a serious issue in both Symbian^3 and Symbian Anna. While I can’t consistently reproduce this, I have noticed that USB charging doesn’t always work on the Nokia E6 and the Nokia E7 when the device is powered on and I plug in something other than the supplied mains charger. The end result: even though the device is plugged in and is recognized by the computer (i.e. I can use Ovi Suite or Nokia Multimedia Transfer), the device isn’t charging.

If I turn off the phone and plug the same MicroUSB cable in from the same computer, it will charge. If I power up the phone again and plug in the cable, it may (or may not) also start charging. Clearly there’s some sort of software issue here, or maybe there is some issue with my systems. Nokia Care seems to think whatever computer I am hooked up to isn’t putting out enough juice. It’s hard to say, but it is annoying that I have to double check to ensure my device is actually charging.

Did Nokia “Fix” Symbian in Anna?

Clearly Nokia did “fix” Symbian. There’s new bugfixes tweaks and whatnot. In terms of keeping the Symbian faithful faithful, I think it adds some nice features that bring Symbian near the iPhone or Android in terms of usability and functionality, though Apple is still the king of this. Its likely not enough to win new converts to Symbian, though, as Apple and Google continue to iterate on their respective platforms.

That said, I don’t think Symbian is as broken as everyone thinks it is. While usability is arguably better in iOS and Android and a wider variety of applications are available, at the end of the day, I do not need most of those applications on a regular basis. In fact, there are only two “third party” applications I use on a regular basis: Gravity and Podcatcher. I occasionally use Skype, JoikuSpot, QuickOffice, Adobe Reader, and Internet Radio (an audio streaming app), but only occasionally. There are a couple of missing apps that I require only occasionally (namely Evernote, TripIt, textPlus, Boingo, and any sort of application for Plurk). That can be mitigated somewhat by carrying multiple devices, which I do anyway.

The biggest issue isn’t with Symbian, it’s Nokia itself. Having worked for Nokia and seen some of their concepts, I think their vision for mobility is spot-on. Unfortunately, the execution of that vision is problematic, with many high-profile stumbles with flagship products.

Nokia also doesn’t seem to react to changes in the overall market in a timely manner. It took Nokia at least two years to introduce a credible alternative to the Motorola Razr, which came out in July of 2004. Likewise, when Apple introduced the iPhone in June of 2007, It took two years for Nokia to come out with a touch-based phone that, while a nice phone in its own right (the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic), was an inferior experience to the iPhone.

Had Nokia shipped Symbian Anna in 2009 (or even by this time last year), I think their fortunes would be very different. Instead of talking about how Nokia is going to launch Windows Phone 7 devices, people would be talking about how Nokia is going to evolve Symbian and MeeGo. Nokia seems to be following the market rather than leading it.

To be fair, one thing Nokia has always been good at–better than anyone else, in fact–is commoditizing high-end smartphone-like features and pushing them downmarket in lower-end phones. This has happened with cameras, music players, web browsers, even mapping! They can design features that work in environments where data is either not available or simply too expensive. Considering the low end of the market is where the volume is, and not everyone can afford high-end smartphones, Nokia has a real advantage here over their rivals.

The Final Verdict

I really like the Nokia E6 for many reasons, but I have to give the edge to the Nokia E7 for one reason: the screen. A touch interface really only works well on a bigger screen. Even though the E6 has higher resolution (640×480 versus 640×360), the E7 screen is physically bigger and much easier for me to read as well as use the touch interface on. The E7 will be that much better once it receives the update to Symbian Anna in August.

At the moment, I’ve switched back to using a Nokia handset as my primary phone–specifically the Nokia E7. It’s been two years since that’s been the case. That said, it need not be an either-or decision. You can have Symbian, Android, and iOS devices. They don’t necessarily have to be phones.

#Cybersecurity Evangelist, Podcaster, #noagenda Producer, Frequenter of shiny metal tubes, Expressor of personal opinions, and of course, a coffee achiever.