One of the hottest areas of growth in the mobile device market has been the smartphone communicator segment. This is where QWERTY thumb boards, an emphasis on messaging, and all around usability are the keys to success. Devices such as RIM's BlackBerry 8700/8800 and Palm's Treo 680/750/755p models head out this group as the benchmarks for usability and style.
The E61i was released in an effort to correct issues with the original E61, and also to give the world audience something not named Treo or BlackBerry to consider when looking for a solid smartphone communicator.
Thanks to Mobile Planet for providing the E61i for this review.
As a phone
Unlike RIM's email focused devices, or Palm's organizer focused devices, Nokia tends to make devices that are phones first and everything else second. As a phone the E61i was a mix of great voice quality and battery life, and frustrating navigation and a need of some polish.
Voice quality is something all phones should do well, and the E61i is no exception to this. In both speakerphone and handset modes, callers sounded clear and there was only a little distortion when the volume was maxed out. The microphone is especially sensitive in speakerphone mode, catching background noises such as wind and other conversations.
Battery life was probably the most striking aspect of the E61i. I don't know how Nokia managed to build a phone so thin with a 1500 mAh battery, but it did and the E61 responds extremely well. I could go easily 2 or 3 days on a charge (with mail for Exchange running and Jaiku connected online all the time). That is just flat out impressive and made it a pleasure to take a weekend trip and not worry about carrying one charger.
Although voice and battery life were positive, there were some aspects of the phone side of the E61i that were not as smoothly done. The keys, while redesigned from the E61's Chicklets, had a horrible feel and the blue color used against the gunmetal background made for some difficulties distinguishing symbols in dim light settings.
The navigation buttons also suffered from being too crowded and not distinctive enough. For example, the directional pad is nearly flush with the send/end/function buttons, and you can easily slide onto one of those buttons when trying to just navigate left and right. I would have also preferred that the send/end buttons were easier to distinguish for one handed driving operations.
The screen was excellent in all light settings. The Nokia Active Standby screen (similar to the Windows Mobile Today screen) was easy to read and offered immediate functionality to several functions. Where I was misled was wanting to touch the screen. It's so big and nice it just begs to be touched.
Similar to other Symbian/S60 phones, navigating through menus is done via the directional pad. It's not easy to find items, but some aspects of the phone, such as customizing wireless settings, are somewhat buried but easy to find again once you've found them the first time.
Overall, it's a classic Nokia phone. Nothing extraordinary, but functional and gets the job done.
As a communicator/PDA
The E61i is billed as Nokia's communicator device. Thanks to its QWERTY thumb board, 2.0 mega pixel camera, desktop quality web browser, and included Office applications, emailing, texting, browsing, and multimedia features are not just usable features, but highly functional ones.
I commented before on the feel of the QWERTY keyboard, but I should also note that, when compared to thumb boards on all but the largest of smartphones, its spacing and ease of use is quite up there on the scale. If the keys were not as mushy and a bit more legible it would be better, though.
One thing that I did notice is that because of the slim profile, extended typing periods (email, blogging, etc.) were uncomfortable. The width of the E61i plus the feel of the keys made my hands get tired faster than typing on my Treo 680.
The 2.0 mega pixel camera takes slightly better than average pictures. Similar to the previously reviewed Nokia N95, a number of features such as picture type, while balancing, and switching to video mode are easily done from the camera screen. Also similar to the N95, however, is a slightly slow shutter capture. For pictures where nothing is moving this is fine, but when the subject is moving, prepare for some disappointment.
The E61i also uses Nokia's Webkit-based Web browser. Supporting nearly every web standard, and even handling some Flash, it is well suited for the QVGA screen. However, the browser's undoing comes in hardware. The navigation buttons just are not good enough to keep you from being overwhelmed by the scrolling. They are just too small, and you end up hitting function buttons. RSS feed integration and a history-by-thumbnail mode round out this well made browser. It certainly fits the E61i's motif as a communicator.
Other applications that around out the E61i are QuickOffice, Adobe Acrobat LE, Adobe Flash Player, ZIP Manager, Nokia Search (for entire device searching), and the usual Symbian/S60 PIM suite (contacts, calendar, to-do, and notes). Compared to other smarpthone platforms, Symbian/S60 does not have a lot of 3rd party software, but other than Jaiku (social networking), a S60 Reader, and Mail for Exchange, I didn't see a need to add much.
Email and texting are handled by the Messaging application. This has folders for any number of personal mail accounts, text messages, and an Exchange mail account. Similar to Versamail on the Palm Treo models, these are all separate accounts, but navigating through each is easy.
The text messaging application is similar to nearly any found on mobile phones (threaded messaging would be great for this type of device). Setting up mail accounts takes only 5 minutes and then you are ready to use either your GPRS/EDGE (or UMTS outside of the US) or Wi-Fi connection to download messages and respond.
The E61i had the same Gallery application found on the N95. This scrolling application shows thumbnails of your still and video pictures while you scroll through them. This looks really good on the E61i.
Overall, the use of the E61i as a communicator/PDA is a solid one. As with the phone, it is not the software that holds things back as much as it is the hardware. But this is a substantial improvement over the E61/E62, and because of the included applications, this smartphone should be given a look by those looking for a world phone that can handle work and play.
Here are a few other points about the E61i that I found cool/interesting:
- When you put your SIM in and turn the E61i on, the Settings Wizard comes up guiding you through the process of setting up the data features of your phone. The only niggle here is that some carriers might be asked for gateway information that most users just do not know.
- Microsoft Exchange integration comes through Nokia's Mail for Exchange. This is a free download, and will sync calendar, contacts, and email with your Exchange Server. It also supports direct push. I liked using this program, and it made it feel just like my Treo as soon as my calendar and contacts were synced over.
- The E61i connects to your computer thru PC Suite. This is a complete device manager as you can even go as far as removing contacts from your phone or making a full backup of your contacts and other data. It will sync, install, connect to Nokia LifeBlog and update your E61i software if there is an update to be had.
- Bluetooth (BT) functionality was simple and tenacious. Between my jawbone BT headset and my Moto BT headphones, the E61i would get a hold and not let go. Because it supported A2DP, it was just as simple as pairing the headset and then I could hear music over it.
- The E61i takes microSD cards. I liked that it could take the cards, just not that I had to remove the battery cover to get access to the slot. Once the cover was off, I could remove the card without having to remove the battery (which is not the case for the SIM card). Much like the recent reports of the N95 supporting SDHC, I would hope that the E61i also gets this support, because having a number of fingernail-sized memory cards is not a good proposition.
- Much of the E61i is made of a hard plastic, but the battery cover is made of metal and feels no different than the rest of the device. Compared to even the N95, the E61i feels like an expensive device, and a sturdy one.
- As with many mobile devices, the E61i uses a proprietary interface connector for syncing, the Nokia pop-port. Much like Palm's multi-connector, this is a sure connection, but can make you uneasy when trying to take the cable from the device. A synchronized up and out motion seems to be best, but that didn't work all the time either.
I leave the E61i feeling a bit like it was a great meal but my utensils were dirty the whole time. The device itself was great. It crashed once, and other than that was very rock solid. I could overlook some of the UI items such as looking for wireless settings and finding multiple ways to get there. But it was the feel of the device that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The function, navigation, and thumb board keys made this device feel a lot worse than it is.
That being said, I would recommend it, especially if you aren't in a BlackBerry shop and are looking for something a bit less PDA-ish than a Treo or Windows Mobile device. The battery life and included applications make the E61i a much better showing in the smarpthone communicator field; doing a better job overall, but also showing where some other devices are better.
The E61i is currently sold through the Nokia Stores in Chicago and NYC, and through Nokia retailers. It cannot be purchased through a phone carrier in the U.S.
Visit Brighthand.com for more mobile device news and reviews.