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Review: Nokia E71 – Captain of the Industry

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HISTORY

Email access is arguably the biggest “killer app” of the smartphone era. It allows direct communication and file transfer anywhere a network connection is present, taking business out of the boardroom and giving it more agility, global reach, and response. No smartphone today lacks an email client.

Canadian smartphone purveyors RIM, makers of the #2 smartphone platform in the world, owe most of their success to focusing on email access. It has become their forte, and allowed the Blackberry brand to become an icon.  It is not uncommon in the US for the uninitiated to erroneously attribute the Blackberry name to any email capable device with a screen positioned above a mini QWERTY keyboard. It is the preferred form factor amongst business users, mostly out of habit or familiarity with the original Blackberry. In retrospect, email access has probably had the biggest influence on today’s business professional, and today’s corporate smartphone world.

Most smartphone OEM’s today have taken notice, producing Blackberry clones of their own. Following the Blackberry’s success, the market has seen similar devices like the Samsung Blackjack, Motorola Q, Palm Treo, and various other competing devices. Their success has done little to dent the market reach of the Blackberry, with RIM having risen to the #2 global market share position, and #1 in the US, even with major growth from competitors.

Nokia, the global smartphone market leader, has had little success in the US. Many feel they have done little to cater to its business dominated smartphone market, hardly contributing to their paltry market share. Nokia’s ESeries line is intended as the business professional’s mobile data assistant. The E71, their latest ESeries device, is designed from the ground up to present a new powerful alternative for global business professionals, and finally allow the Nokia smartphone line to gain a toehold in the ultra hot US market.

STYLE, DESIGN & IMPRESSION

The E71 is probably Nokia’s best combination of style and build quality since the N90. The first word this device conjures up is “thin”. Not thin as in N78 thin, but iPhone thin! I am not a fan of thin devices, but that seems to be a big driver in sales with consumers today, and most people with find it appealing. Once that wears off, you think “business”, but not in the conservative, safe way, but as a risk taking, captain of the industry sort of way. The E71 has a mature, urbane flair, and still manages to look like a beast of a workhorse, capable of taking care of business. The E71 seems made for the quarters of luxury yachts and consoles of exclusive luxury sports sedans, its theme song played in the great symphony halls of Vienna. The device speaks class, and is in a class of its own. This is definitely not something you will mistake for your teenager’s text message gizmo. Plenty of phones have a similar layout, but this one plays a pretty convincing role as a productivity tool. It has an excellent weight, is somewhat small, yet still adequate size, and its premium metal and plastic construction seem bulletproof.

While trying the WiFi connection at my local coffee house, I saw three iPhones, an older Blackberry, a Motorola Q, and an HTC Tilt. I decided to chat up the woman with the Tilt, named Deborah. I told her I had a new innovative smartphone I wanted her opinion on, and she was immediately interested. When she saw the E71, she looked immediately deflated, asking if it was a Blackberry? Before I could answer, she evidently noticed the Nokia insignia, and began to light up again, and exclaimed, “That’s an E71!?”, more telling than asking, as if shocked to be seeing it in person. As I confirmed her guess, she reached out, grabbed the device, ordered me an enormous blueberry muffin, and immediately began to work through its interface. I explained how Symbian and the menu system worked, showed her the WLAN Wizard, and she spent a good 10 minutes, mostly on the Messaging app, menu, and Webkit browser.

Deborah’s first question after about 10 minutes was if it worked with Blackberry servers and Exchange email. I was a little shocked she was interested in RIM email solutions, especially after her early reaction to mistaking the E71 for a Blackberry. Turns out, her former employer used a Blackberry corporate email solution, and she couldn’t use a device that didn’t support it. I told her it supported Exchange, but didn’t have native RIM solution support. She seemed glad to hear it supported Exchange, and said she’d definitely consider trying one just based on the web browser, integrated Maps application, and camera alone. I was equally surprised she liked the camera, until I remembered she was an HTC user, not known for multimedia savvy hardware.

The E71 is shockingly thin, svelte, but still solid, with a respectable weight that you expect from high quality electronics. When you take into account the E71 is a dead ringer spec-wise to the much heftier E90, yet has a thinner profile and lighter weight, you truly marvel at Nokia’s materials and manufacturing divisions! I found its weight to be perfect for a device of its size and cost. It wasn’t so light as to make me wonder if it were still even in my pocket like some of the lighter thin devices today. It was never a cumbersome burden carried around in my pocket all day. I was always comfortably assured it was there. That has a lot to do with my preference for larger more hefty phones, as my daily device is an N95 8 GB. The E71 lacks size, but has the perfect heft. The device’s perfect combination of metal and hard plastic will raise expectations for the quality and build of high-end business devices.

CONTROLS

The E71 features a five-way D-pad, eight buttons, plus a miniature 37-button thumb QWERTY keypad, which covers the front surface. The D-pad has the best response I have felt on any Nokia device. Its size and Select button area were ideal for those with small or large digits. Though the N95 variants also feature an eight-button control layout, the E71?s eight buttons look and function like a lot more. The right spine of the E71 features volume controls and a Voice button to activate the microphone for voice control features. The power button is on the top of the phone, slightly to the right. Though on the small side, it requires just enough effort to activate to avoid accidental presses while still being easy to press.

The E71 mimics the Menu/Task Switcher key present on NSeries and other S60 devices with an identically performing Home key. Cut, Copy and Paste and Clear are accomplished via the Shift and Backspace keys, respectively, in the QWERTY layout. This deems the Pencil and <C> keys superfluous. Nokia also doesn’t use the Multimedia Menu key on ESeries devices. In their places in the eight button layout, Nokia has implemented what I feel is the perfect button layout for S60 3rd Edition, with the expected two softkeys, the Red/End and Green/Send keys, and dedicated Home, Calendar, Phonebook, and Messaging keys.

One of the greatest features of the E71 is the configurability of the Calendar, Phonebook, and Messaging keys. These three keys are called the One-touch keys. The One-touch keys come preconfigured to launch the corresponding applications of the same names when launched, and another application when long pressed. The hidden treat is these buttons aren’t locked to the applications for which they’re named, and they can be programmed to launch any applications the users chooses. Therefore, the user can launch six commonly used custom assigned applications with one press of a button! That is an example of true versatility.

The mini QWERTY keypad is on the narrow side, but then again, they usually are. It is still more than adequate for speedy two thumb typing, and surprisingly, even one handed typing with confidence is possible! The layout is what you?d expect, and the labels are bright and lend to intuitive text entry right out of the box. I was able to type at considerable speed after a week of using it, though far slower than my regular T9 device. The keypad’s tactile feedback is good, and the keys are decently sized for a device that fits so comfortably in the hand.

I had always disliked mini QWERTY, preferring the superior and much faster T9, and test after test by various sources have bolstered my confidence in having made the better choice. Nevertheless, like my new friend Deborah with her HTC Tilt, most business users prefer a device with QWERTY. I always wondered why, and decided I would open the debate by challenging her to a typing speed race, T9 versus her landscape QWERTY. Proving to know a lot about mobile technology, she was aware that T9 is faster than mini QWERTY, yet she said she, too, preferred it to T9!

I was shocked until she explained why. In her work environment, she is required to use various computing platforms, from Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, UNIX, and RIM, and Windows Mobile. Most of these systems require a full size QWERTY input. She said switching back and forth from a T9 to a full size QWERTY text input method was confusing to her muscle memory and taxing to her mind, and the mini to full size QWERTY transition was a lot more seamless. She made perfect sense, and made me rethink how I look at devices meant for business.

DISPLAY

The display is on the small side, at about 2.4″, but it fits this application well. By positioning the screen in a landscape aspect instead of the usual portrait, the screen feels a lot bigger. Screen width proved a big way to improve the experience, offering a decent amount of horizontal pixels for such a slim profile. It displays a QVGA resolution with a 24-bit color depth for 16 million possible colors. The resolution is pretty archaic for smartphones today, yet Nokia pulls it off well somehow, and you rarely seem to notice except on web pages. Colors are the expected vivid and bright variety, with text and visual media are presented in high quality. The backlight is very bright, and provides excellent views in most normal lighting. Direct sunlight caused many reflections on the outer screen protector and really caused fingerprints and smudges to hamper visibility at times, but this is no less true for nearly all phones.

OPTICS

The E71 features two cameras. There is a main rear camera and a secondary front-facing camera. The main rear camera, a 3.2 megapixel CMOS sensor with autofocus and LED flash, is intended as the main unit for image and video capture. Images can be captured at up to an obvious 3.2 megapixel resolution, and video capture is locked to 320×240 at 15 frames per second. Featuring a camera like this in a cellphone is great, but an absolute luxury on a business device. The secondary front-facing camera is a basic unit supporting a VGA resolution. It is intended mostly for video conference calling.

The E71 camera features autofocus, but unfortunately lacks a dedicated camera button. To activate autofocus, you must press the ‘T’ key, for whatever reason, and then the OK/Select key to capture the image. It is by no means difficult, but far from convenient or intuitive method for using the autofocus. The E71 isn’t the best device for capturing a quick snapshot, but it serves its purpose, and the results are good for an enterprise positioned mobile device.

Consumers choosing this device will mainly be from three groups. There will be those that had Blackberry, iPhones, or Windows Mobile devices, those that previously owned ESeries devices, and previous NSeries owners. Most will be from the first two groups, who are used to getting little focus on the imaging front. They should find images and video taken with the E71 to be on par or even better than they are used to. NSeries devices have long stood at the pinnacle of mobile imaging, and users migrating from an NSeries device will be entirely horrified by the quality produced by the E71’s optics.

Either way, the truth is this camera is a lot better than what you will find on most business smartphones, and probably better than anything not sporting an NSeries label.  It is not a multimedia beast to say the least, but still outperforms most Blackberry, Android, iPhone, and Windows Mobile-based business competitors out there. I found it more than serviceable for basic imaging.

BATTERY

Removing the back cover was a snap. It requires pressing two tabs along the bottom of the left and right spine of the device, then lifting up to remove the entire back cover of the device. It was very intuitive, and seems simple by design, but the tabs were on the small side, and users with large hands or big digits will find it takes a little effort to press in the small buttons. The back cover is one solid piece of thin, solid metal. Yet and still, if you’re clumsy, you should be careful, because it can be bent, leaving a beautiful device needing an auto body specialist. When attached, it is very securely latched to the device, and has absolutely no gaps or wiggling to cause worries. The E71 feels like, and definitely is a well designed, battleship grade, lovely engineering marvel!

Removing the back cover exposes the battery. The BP-4L 1500mAh battery is an appropriate power plant for a business device, and definitely rises to the occasion. Using the device heavily will still require regular recharges, but nothing close to the past flagship NSeries models. Battery life during average use is beyond excellent. I read battery life ratings for perspective, but judge on feel when reviewing a device, and the E71 is a real road warrior. If you leave the charger at home for a few hours, you can be confident you?ll have the power to make it without it. The E71 not only has the looks, but the stamina to handle its business well past most smartphones.

POSITIONING

The GPS module has gone from a luxury feature to a ubiquitous listing on the spec sheet of today’s smartphones. The E71 fails to disappoint, either, supporting positioning and navigation via Assisted-GPS, using GPRS to approximate location based on the cell tower data. This results in quicker satellite connections. I was able to connect to satellites even indoors, showing the E71 to be a capable navigator, with no need for a supplemental Bluetooth GPS module.

COMPUTING PLATFORM

The E71 runs the world’s most capable smartphone platform, S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 OS. It is powered by a hardware platform based upon a Freescale MXC300-30 solution. It features a single Starcore SC140e ARM 11 core processor running at 369 MHz. While this may seem slow for those used to Windows Mobile or other OSes, but the S60 platform and efficient ARM architecture seem designed and optimized to work very fast at such speeds. There is 128 MB RAM, plus 110 MB of high read/write speed storage for stuffing with third party applications and user storage, and a micro SDHC slot for expandable hot-swappable storage media. A 2 GB card is included. There are cards in capacities currently reaching 32 GB, with 6 GB to 16GB cards now common and easily accessible.

CONNECTIONS

Connectivity is provided by a micro USB port, a 2.5 mm mini stereo plug, IrDA data port, FM receiver, and Bluetooth, WiFi, GSM, and WCDMA 3G transceivers. Wired data transfers are extremely fast thanks to USB 2.0. The Bluetooth radio supports many profiles, including A2DP stereo audio as well as data transfer. WiFi is available in 802.11b/g, with WEP and WPA security schemes, among others. It supports 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM, and 900/2100 for WCDMA 3G in Euro models, and 850/1900 for US models.

FEATURED SOFTWARE

Since the E71 is an S60 Feature Pack 1 device, which has been well covered by various sources, I will only give a brief overview, and cover the highlights and device specific features found only on the Eseries in general or E71 in particular.

Nokia’s Maps 2.0 navigation software comes pre-installed. The Nokia Flash-enabled Webkit browser with included RSS reader is still the mobile browsing benchmark to date. Web videos play smoothly even in full screen mode on a broadband connection. The included Search application allows searching your device as well as the web, and includes search services Yahoo, Live Search, and Google. Creation and handling of desktop office documents is handled by a full version of QuickOffice, allowing you to view, create, and edit your Microsoft Office documents on the go.

The E71 has a few unique features that set it apart from most other S60 devices. The main feature of today’s business phone is communications, and the required messaging client is included, though in a bit better format, with more messages shown at once than most S60 models. It supports a robust list of communication protocols, including SMS, MMS, and POP3, SMTP, and IMAP4 email, with Exchange email and bulk messaging also supported. The text to speech engine is included, as well as Voice Aid, an accessibility application that utilizes the text to speech engine to read information on the screen using the computer generated voice. VPN access is a breeze with the Intranet settings client. This is perfect for using the device without directly looking at the screen, or allowing visually impaired users easier access to data. The E71 supports full data encryption and decryption of both the phone and removable card storage. This is paramount when working with sensitive data that must be protected from theft or prying eyes.

If there’s one feature that everyone should remember from the E71, it’s the new Mode application. I don’t prefer to use the Active Standby feature of S60, instead going for my own custom D-pad shortcuts. The Mode application totally changed my preference. Mode is special in that it allows you to have two totally individual, custom, separate Active Standby screens to be activated as the user decides. So you can have one screen for work, with all applicable email accounts and other standby plugins activated, and another, with a completely different theme, wallpaper, and Active Standby plugins for leisure times when you may not wish to monitor business activities so closely, or just want to monitor personal information when away from the office. Switching Mode screens requires simply selecting the Mode icon, and a few seconds later, it is an entirely new phone. This feature will become a staple of the ESeries, and hopefully find its way to NSeries as well.

THE VERDICT

After a complete overview, this device leaves hands with much reluctance. I find it hard to rationalize why I love this device so much, especially since I abhor mini QWERTY. The truth is many people do, and will absolutely fall in love with it if given a few days to give it a good once over. I just can’t deny this it, this is a near perfect device. Minus the imaging and optics, there is little to complain about with this device. I would like a slightly larger version of this device with a T9 keypad, but hardly missed my N95-2 were it not for the middling camera of the E71.

The lack of a headphone port was a let-down, but honestly, many people today are cutting the wires and going with Bluetooth headphones and headsets anyway. A headphone port would have been nice, but is far from a deal breaker. If you have a nice stereo Bluetooth headset, you may never even notice. Most business users use an earpiece, and will never plug anything into the device other than the USB cable.

Nokia has always positioned the ESeries brand as a business class brand, and backed it up with high quality and materials. Nokia has created their new business flagship this very same way, and the results have no match anywhere in the industry. This device belongs in a GMC truck commercial, because it is nothing short of professional grade. You look at the E71 and can’t guess its price, but once you hold it, you?ll probably decide it’s definitely expensive, even assuming a higher value than it carries. Buyers will be pleased across the board, and I doubt seriously anyone will have a worthy complaint.

The US version of this device is somewhat hampered by its AT&T 3G network dependence. While the Euro version would provide 3G coverage in most parts of the world outside the Americas, the model for the US only provides 3G coverage to just 70% of the American GSM subscribers, 60% of the US population, 30% of the entire US market, 25% of the major US carriers, and 0% of T-Mobile USA’s subscribers, who now have a 3G network, badly need devices to use on it, and no options from the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer. There is a large fraction of GSM subscribers that view AT&Tin the same vein as Europeans see Microsoft, as a controlling and evil entity. They will not use any device that requires the AT&T network whatsoever. Without the proper marketing, product awareness and education, and incentive to switch carriers, the E71 will face an uphill battle.

Right now, this device is a resounding 9.5 on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best score. I still refuse to accept the fact that business users don’t like high quality cameras and video out. In fact, the PowerPoint presenting crowd could really make some great presentations with a better camera, so I just can’t give it a perfect score. But the E71 is definitely the bonified boss of business phones, a true captain of the industry.

Live photos and screenshots captured by Meraj Chhaya

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By , Senior International Correspondent on Nov 9th, 2008 GMT +2

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