Review: Nokia E61

Nokia has made no secret of the fact that it covets RIM's BlackBerry market. While Nokia has always done well in the corporate space with its standard cellular phone models, it was caught sleeping by the Blackberry boom. Its tardy response comes in the form of the E61 -- part of Nokia's E-series line of cellular phones built for professionals and corporate users.

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When evaluating the E61, I will be judging it based on how it helps me work. Nokia has a separate line of smartphones targeted at consumers called the N-series.

Design and construction
The first thing that I thought when I handled the E61 was how much this device reminded me of the Sony Clie TG50 I once owned. Like that PDA, this smartphone is constructed of solid-feeling aluminum. The weight comes in at 5.1 ounces. The surface texture is very slightly buffed. It is not particularly slippery in the hands, but a rubber strip along the edge would be a good idea -- on hot summer days devices with this type of texture can easily fly out of sweaty hands.

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It measures 2.75 inches wide and is about 4.5 inches tall. The E61 has a wedge-shaped profile that goes from 0.5 inches thick at the base to 0.75 inches at the top. It rests nicely in the hand.

When twisting the E61 in my hands, it felt like a solid chuck of metal. It feels much more solid than my Sony Ericsson P910a or Treo 650, but not so solid that I would want to drop it. The E61 would probably dent before shattering, but that is a road I don't want to travel.

My over-all design impression of the E61 is that it's a typical Nokia business device -- understated and modern. A few years ago a device like this would have wowed people but now it's pretty conservative. Compared to Nokia's previous smartphones, which ranged from giant bricks (9500 series) to goofy toys (3600 series, N-Gage), I think the E61 with its mini- QWERTY keyboard design is a big improvement.

Keyboard
I really like the feel of the Nokia keyboard. I found that typing long emails and text messages was no problem, but unlike most people I am a 'hunt-and-peck' typist. Better typists may struggle with the small keys. Comparing the keyboard to the Treo and P910a I certainly prefer the E61. The P910's keyboard was a arthritis-inducing torture contraption (compensation coming in the form of the P910's excellent hand-writing recognition) and the Treo's keys, while pretty good, felt a lot more toy-like with their small size and glossy finish.

The key travel is very short, and although there is no audible feedback of a button press, after using it for a few hours I felt quite confident with it. I did not have any problems with accidentally pressing more than one button. A lot of this is personal preference so I would encourage you to visit a good cellular store or find buddies with these types of devices and try a few out to figure out what keyboard works for you.

Absent from the keyboard are dedicated buttons for some functions, like Internet. There are keyboard shortcuts for most of these common functions (like 'silent mode' and Internet -- # and 0 respectively). Like any Nokia phone, take some time to learn all the shortcuts because these phones reward people willing to fully learn their device.

Nokia has equipped the E61 with an ambient light sensor that automatically backlights the keyboard when needed. In my testing the backlight came on whenever I pressed a key -- pretty standard in my books. Perhaps I was missing something.

Device layout
Above the QWERTY keyboard is the five-way joystick, flanked on either side by Right and Left soft keys, begin/end call buttons, and dedicated keys for the programs area and email. My keyboard had special keys for international characters. Above the screen is an unread email indicator light.

Along the left side of the E61 are the loudspeaker, volume up/down keys, and voice recorder button. The top and right side are clean. The E61's bottom is where you will find the infra red port, Nokia's proprietary pop-port, and power plug.

Allow me to rant a bit about the pop-port: Nokia made a nice device in the E61 only to saddle it with a proprietary port for data connection and other functions, including audio output.

This is a huge knock against the E61 that is worsened by the fact that this ridiculous connector does not even charge the unit -- you need a separate charger for that. Yuck. Nokia makes an optional USB cable they will gladly sell you that includes both a charger tip and pop-port tip. At a minimum this cord should be standard.

Also, when listening to music with the E61 you will have a giant blob of plastic protruding from the bottom of the E61 because that is the only way to connect headphones. Meanwhile, competing devices do it all through an IT-department friendly mini USB cable and a standard 2.5 audio jack. I hope that Nokia wakes up to the fact that this connector is lame and detracts from the overall experience of using the phone.

OK, rant finished.

Wondering where the miniSD card slot is? Nokia has hidden it underneath the battery cover -- perhaps to preserve the E61's clean lines. I'm not sure how I feel about this. The card is hot-swappable, but it's a pain popping the door off. If the E61 was equipped with USB 2.0 I would probably not mind because I would never have to remove the card, but we get USB 1.1 and moving any large files across this connection is painful. Also, as you can see from the dimensions, it's hard to believe that a standard size SD card could not be fit into the E61.

Unlike RIM's Blackberry devices, the P910a and the aforementioned Sony Clie PDA, the E61 does not have a thumb wheel. It is hard going back to a joystick once you are used to a wheels and I think Nokia should add one to the next generation of this device -- maybe in place of the volume keys. Or perhaps a future firmware could enable context-sensitive use of the volume buttons for scrolling menus or lists.

Nokia wisely chose not to include a digital camera on the E61. There are two reasons that I like this idea. First, with the exception of some Sony Ericsson models, the quality of cell phone cameras is terrible. Second, many companies will not allow you to visit their premises with a camera phone. This later point is more important -- I have been running across more and more clients that do not let visitors in with digital cameras of any kind. Why take a chance?

Like most GSM devices, the E61 has no external antenna. Impressive considering it has quad band (850/900/1800/1900) GSM with EDGE, WCDMA 2100 (3G), 802.11g and Bluetooth 1.2. That is a heck of a lot of radios (and acronyms)!

 

 Hardware overview
Processor: 206 MHz Texas Instruments OMAP
Operating System: Symbian 9.1 with Series 60 version 3 User Interface
Display: 2.75" 320 x 240 LCD, 16.7 million colors
Memory: 64 MB RAM, about 46 MB accessible
Size & Weight 4.5 inches long x 2.75 inches wide x 0.75 inches thick; 5.1 ounces
Expansion: Single miniSD slot
Docking: Nokia Pop-Port
Communication: Quad-band GSM, EDGE, WCDMA, 802.11g, Bluetooth 1.2
Audio: Microphone, speaker, proprietary headphone/headset jack
Battery: 1500 milliamp-hour Lithium Ion replaceable/rechargeable battery
Input: 5-way directional pad; QWERTY keyboard; hardware buttons

Performance With only a 206 MHz processor and a paucity of RAM, the E61 won't win any PDA smack downs. I am not an apologist for Nokia here, but so far I have not found the CPU speed or lack of memory to be a problem. Most applications open quickly -- the exception being Java applications.

I have been installing and testing every application I can find and so far I have not run into any performance issues. Having said that, a lot more RAM (probably double) is the minimum that any smartphone should have.

Operating system
As a veteran of many Microsoft, Palm, and Symbian based smartphones I have my own opinion on where these platforms rank against each other. I would rate Windows Mobile 5.0 and Symbian devices equal, with Palm OS in the rear.

Symbian has been with us the longest (tracing its roots to Psion's Epoch OS) and is a very stable platform, but it has gone wildly off in all directions over time. There are three versions of Series 60, three versions of UIQ (Sony Ericsson's version of Symbian interface), Series 80, and Series 90. Compatibility is broken between versions. With a new device like the E61, which is different than other Series 60 v.3 devices because of its landscape screen, broken compatibility rears its head a lot as developers are having to recompile and test applications for both Series 60 v.3 and the E61.

Traditionally, the average Symbian phone was comparable to a Windows Smartphone in that the devices were phones first. The E61 is about as far as you take a Symbian device towards being a PDA without adding handwriting recognition.

In addition to full PIM capabilities, email (POP, IMAP, BlackBerry Connect, and Exchange) you get a basic native office suite that handles documents, spreadsheets and presentations, plus Quick Office. Editing documents is a nice feature to have in a pinch, but don't see the E61 replacing a notebook for that kind of work.

Nokia's exemplary Web browser is included and it handles complex web sites without any problems. In addition to a few of my company's enterprise products I tested Salesforce.com, but I could not get cursor focus on the userID and password fields (when I tried a convention pop-up appeared) but that was the only challenge that I encountered. Nokia's browser has a great navigation feature for viewing pages -- it enables a nicely scaled full page view and highlights the area that you are looking at. This is the best mobile browser that I have tested.

The E61 is also a capable entertainment device for those long trips: Media capabilities include MP3, MPEG4, AAC, Real, and Flash.

Mobimate's superb Worldmate application is included with the E61 with a three year subscription. This is one of the best mobile applications -- period. Nokia including this with the E61 was a stroke of genius and it should insure that many new users are introduced to this addictive application. It is a great travel companion application that functions as a world clock but will also download weather forecasts and exchange rates.


Worldmate

On the topic of adding software: Nokia has supplied the E61 with catalogue applications for consumer and business-type applications. This makes it easy for you to download and install both free and bought commercial applications directly onto the phone. I have seen this type of utility on other phones, but Nokia's implementation is the best so far. One of the applications that I installed was a CNN news client that collects top headline and story summaries.

Some of the free Nokia applications I have been able to find for the E61 include a podcast application, an AvantGo/RSS meets Apple Dashboard application called Widsets, and an online search tool (powered by Yahoo).

There were no games on my E61 but Nokia has provided a free download of Golf Pro 2, a great looking simulator along the lines of Tiger Woods golf. This game really shows off the E61 screen.

So the E61 comes loaded with applications and Nokia is literally flooding the market with great tools or providing a means to get applications that can be downloaded for free. There is a lot of value to these applications. It reminds me of the free software Microsoft made available when Pocket PC first came out five years ago. Those were good times!

Stability and setup
Even after dumping a ton of dubiously tested freeware onto the E61, I was not able to crash or freeze it. My Treo 650 required several resets a day and I never pushed it as hard as I have pushed the E61. I would also rate its stability as better than my experience with the P910a and Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition.

A challenge for someone using the Nokia E61 on a carrier that does not sell the phone is finding and setting-up the right parameters for things like Internet, MMS, and so on. Thankfully, Nokia has thought of this and includes an application installed on the phone that will fetch the correct carrier settings for you. This is a great feature and eliminates the need to track down the settings and key them into the phone yourself. Setting up the E61 could not have been easier.

Wi-Fi setup was a snap -- in fact it took less time to get WPA setup on the E61 than it did my Windows laptop. When using any application that requires a data service, the E61 will prompt you for what data connection you prefer to use.

Display
I like the landscape orientation -- it seems more natural on a device like this than the portrait orientation. It's going to take developers a little time to get caught up and include the 320x240 pixel format in their applications, but that is the only drawback.

Text looks very good on the screen and there appears to be a font smoothing algorithm at work here.

There are some great looking themes for the E61, and you will want to select a light-colored one if you use this phone a lot outdoors. My preferred theme is very dark but still works in direct sunlight, but I would recommend S60 White.

The display looks like a giant target for keys and coins. You should leave the stock screen protector on the E61 or invest in some form of protection. In two weeks of testing I have yet to scratch it though.

Expansion
Nokia's penchant for adopting strange standards that no one has ever heard of seems to be subsiding. The E61 abandons the ugly stepchild of flash memory that Nokia has been promoting lately; reduced voltage RS-MMC -- in favor of miniSD. Nokia ships the E61 with a 64 MB card, but that won't be enough for most people.

For a capable device like this one, which comes with too little system memory, a boost is a good idea. Four gigabyte miniSD cards are just starting to come to market and coupled with the E61's media capabilities they make a great alternative to carrying around an iPod.

You can also expand the E61's capabilities through Bluetooth 1.2. An abundance of profiles makes the E61 compatible the usual array of headsets and GPS devices, but there is no support for Bluetooth stereo audio. Syncing the phone with a PC and transferring files between other mobile devices was a breeze. I found getting the E61 connected to a PC to be a very positive experience. In contrast, connecting a Sony Ericsson's P910a to the same PC took an inch off of my hairline.

Communication
This device is a communication powerhouse!

Nokia has outfitted the E61 with a fantastic array of radios. With quad-band GSM, EDGE, WCDMA, 802.11g, and Bluetooth 1.2 you really couldn't ask for much more.

There is a dumbed-down version of this phone coming out called the E62. It dumps the Wi-Fi and 3G support to lower costs and keep carriers happy (VoIP using Wi-Fi is seem as a threat to carrier revenues).

As you would expect from any Nokia, the E61 is very tenacious when it comes to holding a signal. I live on the outskirts of a city -- where the urban sprawl ends abruptly. I had no problems making calls with the E61. It should be a dependable phone/email device wherever there is a signal -- even a faint one like where I live (many phones fail to work at all there).

Email and Internet speeds using EDGE are quite good -- but with data plans costing so much these days my needs are not too demanding -- I only use a couple of megabytes per month. Sending a small album of images and some sound recording was quick and painless. I like the fact that Nokia's connection manager makes it easy to view per session data usage.

As mentioned earlier, the E61 supports Blackberry and Mail for Exchange. It also supports Visto, Good, and Seven -- all of which offer similar push email solutions. Applications and utilities to enable these platforms can be downloaded from Nokia as required. You will, of course, need to have Blackberry or a related service enabled on your cellular account to take advantage of these features.

The E61 also has support for Push To Talk (if available on your network), SIP VoIP calling (not Skype), Internet Messaging (Wireless Village IM -- not the ICQ, MSN, or AIM that you probably use) and more. In fact it is packed with so many features invariably I will forget to list something. Feel free to keep me honest by posting in the comments section.

Overall the combination of so many communications options and the great PIM features made the E61 a perfect fit for my routine.

Audio
Incoming and outgoing voice quality is good and the speakerphone works great. Other Nokia's I have tested in the past have shared these characteristics, so the E61's performance is no surprise.

I found the default volume setting for the speaker to be a little low. It might be how the phone was positioned near my ear. It is always hard to get used to these non-standard phone shapes.

Battery
For a small device packed with this many features, the E61 has very good battery life. With moderate calling and Wi-Fi usage I managed to get four days from a single charge. MO For folks that are having a tough time getting maximum life from their E61's battery, here is a tip: The phone will search for a 3G network unless you explicitly tell it not to. This can eat up a lot of power and will have a negative effect on battery life. You might as well leave this off unless you are in an area with WCDMA 2100 coverage. Access this feature from Settings / Network / Network Mode.

Compared to other smartphones and PDAs that I have used, I found the E61's stamina to be among the best. That is a good thing because a larger battery is not yet available for the E61.

Conclusion
When it comes to phones, I am pretty transient. Over the past few years I have owned a score of devices until the limitations of each one eventually forcing me to move on to something new. But my luck seems to have changed. The E61 is pretty close to the perfect device for a user like me. It gives me lots of options in terms of connectivity, platforms and ways to use the phone.

When Nokia designed the E61 it is my guess that in order to make up for lost ground it decided to make a device that would appeal to everyone. When companies try to do be all things to all people they usually fail, but not this time. With a few quirky exceptions, I can not imagine a mobile professional that would not want the E61 over a Palm or Blackberry (and maybe even a Windows Mobile) device. Why? Because the E61 does everything that those devices are known for and does them well with a minimum of compromises.

What are the quirky exceptions? Number one is Pop-Port. I hate it. A single USB cable could accomplish what Pop-Port does and more. Number two is the lack of a standard audio jack. Both of these items need to be addressed from the perspective of IT support -- if you want to penetrate the enterprise market one of the worst things you can do is force a proprietary standard down people's throats.

After using the E61, I can see a bright future for Symbian and Nokia's E-Series. I might just keep the E61 until Nokia releases its successor -- and that is really saying something coming from a gear freak like me.

Pros:

  • Nokia design
  • Solid construction
  • Great display
  • Abundance of software
  • Terrific connectivity
  • Platform agnostic: Blackberry, Exchange, Good, Visto, Seven support
  • Good battery life for this class of device
  • Easy to use keyboard
  • Easy sync software setup
  • No camera

Cons:

  • Pop-Port
  • No 2.5 mm audio jack
  • USB 1.1

Bottom Line:
Is the E61 the best smartphone available? It might be, but I can safely say that it's certainly the best that I have tested.

Visit Brighthand.com for more mobile device news and reviews.

This was first published in August 2006

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