A Marvel or a Compromise? The Nokia E7

Posted on 09/12/2011

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Nokia is one of the few companies in the mordern smartphone industry that had always offered a wide portfolio that targets many different types of consumers. Contrast with Apple, with the only models available from Cupernito at any given stage being the current iPhone model and the previous generation at a lower price point. The only differentiator between a given OEMs Android device is also similarly mostly based on price, and the associated bump in specifications. Samsung’s Galaxy Ace and Galaxy Gio models for example just come across as less capable SIIs.

Nokia on the other hand has offered a range of models that target different consumer types. In the S60 days, there were the numbered devices (I used the 6710 Navigator for example), which were general all round devices, the multimedia creation powerhouses, the N-series devices, media consumption devices, X-series and the enterprise devices, the E-series. And despite generally being based on the same operating system, an N-series device could be quite alien to an E-series device. The different classes had contrasting application suites, and common services, settings and applications were more often than not never to be found in the same fork in the menu structure, essentially a whole new learning curve was introduced within the portfolio, bringing up a dreaded concept; fragmentation.

With the introduction of Symbian^3, there was much more of an alignment between devices. The categorisation still remained in place, with C-series, X-series, N-series and E-series, but at face value the differentiator was the complement of hardware components. The C6-01 for example lacks substantial storage, has a a small 3.2” screen, and sacrifices goodies like USB On the Go and HDMI output while the N8 is laden with the full gamut of S^3 paraphernalia.

And then there is the E7.

The Nokia E7 - A beautiful construct

In terms of pricing it is the flagship S^3 device. And when one marvels at the robust aluminium casing, the gorgeous 4” AMOLED Clear Black Display (CBD) screen, and the superlative hardware slide out QWERTY keyboard, it is clear why it is positioned as such. At launch, it was also uniquely THE enterprise device in the S^3 line-up, with full office document editing out of the box, intranet support, Vlingo’s voice command app built in, F-secure and Microsoft Communicator as part of the package. However, with the PR 1.2 update (PR 1.1 for the E7) and then Anna, that advantage was eroded, as the N8 first gained QuickOffice with editing capabilities and then the additional software that was only available on the E7.

Which leaves the E7 exactly where? It costs significantly more than the N8, with only the keyboard and the extra 0.5” of screen real estate (with CBD admittedly) as an advantage. The N8 on the other hand now matches the E7s enterprise suite, but additionally is the best camera phone ever released, has additional expandable storage, dual charging and the FM transmitter. It is also more compact and equally well built, and at 3.5” actually doesn’t give much away in terms of screen size. At face value it would seem to be a case of the E7s keyboard vs well the rest of the N8.

For the past weeks weeks, my N8 has been tucked away in its original packaging, coming out for the obligatory photography duties, and I have been using the E7 as my predominant device.

And what did I make of it?

A tour around the E7

No review is complete without the universal phone parade. Have a look at the little gallery below.

               

I must say, the E7 is a gorgeous phone. It’s hefty mind you, at 176 grams, but because of the large screen, the weight seems justified for a device of it’s size. In silver it is simply imposing (I wanted an N8 in silver as well). All the bits and bobs seem to be located in the right places. One thing I didn’t like was the centre oriented menu button. I actually find the off centre positioning on the N8 a bit more practical since I use the phone mostly in my right hand, and it’s just the right reach for my thumb. The lock switch has also been moved from the right had side of the device to the left. It is a bit cumbersome when held in landscape orientation as you essentially have to lock and unlock with the switch at the bottom of the device. The volume rocker is also not the best design Nokia has implemented . I prefer discreet up and down buttons, while this is more of a toggle.

Those are minor grievances that should not detract from what is a simply astonishingly well built device

Hello Anna!

The unit I received shipped with PR 1.1 (equivalent to PR 1.2 on other S^3 handsets) and thankfully the following day, I was prompted to update to Anna. While this is a review looking at the E7, it is important to look at the underlying software, especially given Nokia’s attempts with S^3 to have a much more unified software platform.  It is also important to stress that the long awaited Anna on a superficial level is not much different to previous version. Unlike the forthcoming Belle iteration, other than the introduction of the visually pleasing surround icon set, you need to do some digging around to spot any differences.

The setup is much the same as before; three customizable homescreens with six widgets per homescreen with space for up to 17 widgets, due to the fixed clock and profiles widget on the first screen. The widgets themselves are of a fixed height and width, practical in some cases, cumbersome in others. A push of the home button leads one to the familiar Symbian menu, a 4X3 grid of icons and folders, yes folders, those archaic storage mediums now adorning the likes of the iOS menu! Many see this as Symbian’s Achilles heel, but I find this a great strength of the system, as opposed to a flat app drawer. The image below shows my working menu, with predefined folders and icons, with fixed locations. I take the layout with me to every Symbian phone. Yes initially sorting my app might be a pain but on my N8 I’m sitting at around 140 applications, and on the E7 I stopped at 100. Finding apps in my system is far more practical than a unified app drawer or even a swipable menu.

A practical Symbian folder layout

As I said, if I put an E7 running Anna and one running PR 1.2 side by side, to the Average Joe, aside from the iconography there would be no discernible difference. Indeed from my experience, the differences are for the most part under the hood optimisations, mechanistical improvements, as well as some minor UI enhancements.

Performance Enhancements

  • General speed across the UI is improved. This is perhaps a vague observation, but homescreen swiping, aided by the now draggable screen is faster or at least will feel faster with the half a second delay gone, scrolling through lists is faster, and time to open menus and folders is faster, even the games folder.
  • Browsing: This was a biggie and don’t take my word for it. Rafe Blandford from All About Symbian showed browsing speed to be on average 25% faster than previously. This is not looking at benchmarks, scripting, HTML bonus points but something that affects the layman, time to load. It’s not on a par with Android  for example but it’s getting there.
  • Email: The email client was horribly slow when it came to presenting email. Coupled with improvements to the browser improvements (the browser engine capabilities affect HTML email rendering) fetching emails is noticeably faster.

Mechanistic and UI enhancements

  • Checking multiple items: This affects email, gallery and file manager. In mark mode checkboxes are present next to items. No longer does one have to tap on each item as was the case in the file manager for example
  • Email UI enhancements: Previously a star was used to show new emails. Now highlighting is used across the email client. Another improvement is in font sizes used. Email titles are bold and a larger font is used than the first line of the email
  • Browser UI: Far too any taps were required in the browser to get anything done. Now the address bar is always at the top and can be called by touching the top of the screen, and a perpetual back button  is ever present bottom left. Bottom right is an icon that toggles system setting. Couple with speed enhancements, browsing is now a far more pleasant experience with Anna.

The new Symbian browser

  • Gallery: In PR 1.2 and earlier, opening the gallery one was presented with folders first which was just weird especially considering most people I know don’t even make use of folders here. With Anna one lands up where you expected, your media, and the bottom toolbar, has icons for marking mode, toggle view (all, albums, tags) and share.
  • Loading indicator: A slight delay in any system when opening app is expected and exists in ALL platforms. What is annoying is when you need to figure out if an app is opening, or if a tap been registered. A simple loading circles now pops up when the system needs time to execute an action. Simple but necessary.
  • Split Screen Input and portrait QWERTY keyboard: Finally split screen input arrives. This seemed trivial at first until you use a chat application like Whatsapp, compose a long email and need to check some details I previous emails in a chain, or the dreaded captcha key. Should have been there from the start, but better late than never. The portrait QWERTY also arrives and again the option probably should have been there from the start. Not such a necessity in SMS for examples but makes composing gargantum emails a breeze for example.

As I said, the changes looked slight and even the list above might not seem extensive but in practice an S^3 device with the same app, email accounts, media etc running Anna is a completely different to use. Anna is not perfect however and here are some grievances to balance out the improvements

  • Split screen input and portrait QWERTY keyboard: Split screen input appears here because it is bizarrely not implemented system wide in Nokia’s own application suite and the situation is even more dire with third party apps. My wish here is that this should just be how the OS is coded, such that like Android, iOS and Nokia’s own MeeGo the keyboard is present in split entry mode. The QWERTY keyboard is decent on the large screened E7 is okay but still very narrow owing to the 16:9 aspect ratio of the screen. The layout is also fiddly. I just don’t like it. There are too many keys and the left alignment of the keys is annoying. Compared to the keyboard in Gravity for example, it’s a usability nightmare. The layout works fine in landscape and on the physical keyboard, but not on a narrow screen in portrait, even one as large as the E7s.
                                                                  
  • Mail for Exchange: Unfortunately Symbian even on Anna is still limited to the solitary MfE account, which is a dissapointment these days, as services like Google and Windows Live now support active sync. Exchange is not just for work anymore and I was hoping this would be fixed.
  • No multiple calendar sync support: Again a strange omission. The now discontinued Ovi Calendar was the only way to get multiple calendars on device. I’m not a particulary enterprise focused individual and I make use of multiple calendars, and from looking around the net so do a lot of people [EDIT: I didn’t mention that on device creation of multiple calendars is possible, however there’s is no native support for syncing to your favourite online calendar, and vice versa)
  • Gallery: There are two distinct applications called photo and video. The video application displays exactly the content you would expect. Why oh why, as late as 2011 does the ‘Photo’  app,say that again, ‘Photo’, display both photos and VIDEOS! Hopefully this is fixed in Symbian Belle. Either do away with the Videos app entirely or sort the filtering out.
  • Browser Performance: A 25% improvement on previous Symbian performance is all good and well until you use a browser on another platform…or watch the browser performance on an upcoming Nokia device, the N9, or use a web runtime application…which brings me to:
  • Nokia Social: Hopeless. Unfortunately it must be said that you have to be masochist to use this on a daily basis. I’ve tried a crude experience: open twitter on Social, open gravity, browse some tweets on gravity, return to Gravity, only to find that user avatars have still not loaded. And Facebook speed is even worse. It’s just not good enough and thankfully there are both free and paid third party options in Ovi Store to remedy this. It just worries me that considering the importance end users place on social networks, and Nokia’s great presence in the social realm, that the app they push for users to access these networks is so far behind the competition.

Overall, I am happy with what Nokia did with Anna. The Symbian UI is visually not everyone’s cup of tea, just like the iOS UI is visually not my cup of tea for example. But as long as it works well enough I think people can look past that, and that’s one point where iOS scores a lot of points. Anna has had her thunder stolen by the forthcoming Belle, which to me looks to have sorted the UI out in the looks department, ease of use and improved performance. For now Anna is a step in the right direction, a significant improvement in usability over earlier S^3 firmwares, and a nice stop gap with Belle due in Q4.

Living with the E7

Having looked at the gorgeous hardware and a look at the OS, the most important aspect is real world performance. We can’t look at the hardware or the software in isolation. As a unit is it workable. I’ve been a happy N8 user for 9 months now and wasn’t sure how I would take to the E7.

I was worried about the size of the device but that actually never bothered me. If anything it hit the sweet spot of how big a device should. I was using the Samsung Galaxy II in tandem during the review process, and while that particular device was bordeline, the E7 felt just right. It’s a serious device, a giant hulking beast, and like the current line-up of Nokia devices, has best in class build quality.

From a usability perspective I was very satisfied with the E7, particularly with the presence of the astonishing hardware. Text input, such an important aspect of usability on mobile devices, both in terms of communication, work and play, no doubt is one aspect where the E7 reigns supreme in the Symbian world and I would argue having used the SGSII at the same time in the mobile world. This is both from a speed and accuracy level. Emails, texts, instant messaging, note taking, general input from browsing, calendar creation etc, you name it, the E7 is superlative. I love having the cursor keys available to me in most applications, and something so underrated is the array of keyboard shortcuts available that I take for granted on the desktop.

As is typical with Nokia’s call quality was excellent. No dropped calls or that sort of thing. Connectivity was also pretty darn solid. No issues from that front. I did have some issues with WiFi router incompatibility. It is a curious and annoying case where the phone connects to the router and switches fine between 3G and wireless for two to three days then mysteriously fails to connect. The only fix and it’s a simple but annoying one is to reboot the router. The same issue exists with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7, but not S60 3rd FP2 devices like the N79 and 6710 Navigator, but afflicts the E63 and FP1 devices. It’s not a showstopper but a minor irritation though it could be the router.

Anna itself brings with it a new level of stability that I never experienced on s60 and the first three product releases of S^3. I have been surprised by the complete lack of debilitating system crashes with Anna. In my time with the E7, not once did the phone reboot to itself (this is easy to see as widgets will not be loaded on non-active homescreens if there has been a system reboot). Application crashes were also at a minimum and I must say a lot of the time it was primarily apps that were problematic to begin with like Wellness Diary.

The core apps, Nokia Social aside, are at this juncture completely usable due to the improvements that Anna brings. Yes I know I complained about the browser but I believe that for the average user the Anna browser is fast enough. I prefer Opera Mini for the data saving but I never felt the need to install Opera Mobile, a staple from before.

The E7 is marketed primarily as an enterprise device, and it really shines in this regard. I don’t make use of apps like Commnicator, intranet or VPN but I like to get organised and use my smartphone to a fair amount of its capabilities. With the E7 I found myself more productive than ever on device. I’ve sent more emails, captured more notes, used my calendar more often and even made use of the Office suite even more. This is just the sort of thing that this phone was built for, and I have no doubt that a serious user can get a heck of lot out of it, much more than what I extracted. I will however reiterate my disappointment at the lack of support for multiple calendars and the silly limit of one exchange account. From my understanding Symbian might just be the only platform with these limitations. Even the nascent MeeGo/Harmattan touting N9 does not suffer this unfortunate imposition.

Getting productive on the E7

One of the jewels in Nokia’s crown is the superlative Ovi Maps, soon to be rebranded Nokia Maps. The built in version is maps 3.06 but I’ve been using Map 3.08 from Nokia Betalabs. The app has evolved impressively since Nokia took away the subsciptions rates in early 2010 and now features, Maps, Drive, you can download Maps directly on device over Wifi, GPS based guides with Lonely Planet, Eventseekr, Map Reporter, Insight Guides and more, Check In and new in this release Nokia Weather, as well as live traffic updates for South Africa.

Nokia Weather

Live Traffic Updates

I was also quite happy to find that the E7 fits quite nicely in my Nokia CR-122 car holder. With the big screen, mounted on the windshield this feels like a real GPS unit, and with the quality of the mapping data, life traffic, and improved POI database it’s an almost flawless GPS solution. Also CBD really comes into play, with the screen perfectly visible at all times, though I was disappointed with the loud speaker which was much more quiet than the N8.

There are however compromises with the E7s design which as an N8 user you grow accustomed to, which I feel could for certain users impact on day-day use. Of course some of these are purely subjective and if you never make use of the features or have never been exposed to them it will not matter one iota. I only want to point these out because let’s face it, the E7 is a premium device and is priced as such, and with premium devices compromises are not very easy to accept.

I’ll get this out of the way first as it is very trivial but the decision to only make use of USB charging is a little disappointing. My N8 has a traditional 2mm charging pin and also makes use of USB charging. This would not matter if not for the fact that S^3 brought an amazing feature to the world of mobile, USB on the go, or the ability to read flash drives and most external hard drives. Now if you are charging your phone, well that connection is gone. I am surprised at how much I make use of this feature and I feel serious business users will also want to take advantage of it.

The lack of an FM transmitter has been a pitfall for me. Again, it’s something that once you use it for a prolonged period of time, you can’t do without it. I spent a lot more time in my car than is healthy, and I hate having to listen to the same CD or change while I’m driving. FM transmitter to the rescue! I’ve also found that the quickest way to get through my podcast is again to listen to them in the car, so imagine my horror when I tried to listen to a podcast on the first day I had the E7 only to have no ‘Play via Radio’ option. Gutted!

The E7 curiously also has no microSD slot and I guess for most people 16 GB will be more than enough. I have an 8 GB microSD car in my N8 and the total data spread across mass memory and microSD is roughly 18 GB at the moment. Of course I could compromise and just have less data on my phone but at this price point.

This might just be my subjective ears here, but on sound  quality, I am of the opinion that with respect to call quality, ie the earpiece the N8 is ahead of the E7. As I mentioned the loudskeaper is of inferior quality both in volume and clarity, particularly noticeable when using Nokia Maps in the car. Lastly sound through earphones is also not up to N8 levels. I tested this using the earphones that came with the N8 as well as my Sennheiser set that my wife has commandeered (true story). It’s crisp and reasonably accurate but doesn’t reach the volume levels I have grown accustomed to.

And finally we get to the camera. I’ve read plenty about the merits (or lack thereof) of EDoF and I reserved judgement until I got to use a device with this technology. Now I’m no camera expert, just a technically challenged enthusiast. I love taking photos but am not very good at it. With the N8 however I have been able to get to a level that makes my shots passable and all that credit goes to the phenomenal camera hardware on that device. There are upwards of 2000 photos on my laptop hard drive, even after culling unsatisfactory shots, most taken since I got the N8. As far as compromises go, despite the jump in size, in incorporating the large screen and the gorgeous keyboard, the camera has given way. The E7 is fitted with the same 8 megapixel unit found in the every other currently available S^3 device barring the N8 of course. On paper that sounds good, but one must remember not to be fooled by the megapixel myth, ie more pixels equal better pictures. The pixel count only affects the amount of detail that can be captured but not necessary the quality. In fact a high megapixel count can have quite the opposite effect if crammed onto a tiny image sensor. More important is the size and quality of the lens system, the image sensor, and how the image is processed. So yes a huge pixel count with the right hardware will make for excellent high detail shots, but poor hardware will have the oppositte effect with noisy low quality images.

Moreover the E7 camera unit is the famously derided extended depth of field (EDoF), a fancy way of saying it’s a full focus unit. So no blurred backgrounds, no macro shots, but with no moving parts this allows for a more compact unit to be incorporated into the phone. For more on EDoF read Steve Lithcfield’s brilliant explanantion.

With no focusing involved using an EDoF unit is quite literally a point and shoot experience. No need to wait for the focusing mechanism or to worry about two stage shutter keys. Having seen a number of people using cameras, their natural instinct is to point and shoot, so these units actually do the world a great service in that regard.

In terms of the actual output, I was not disappointed, but with a few caveats in place. The unit features a tiny sensor compared to say the N8, so conditions have to be ideal. Full focus here means 50 cm to infinity, so no macro shots and for those that makes use of cameras for this purpose, no document capturing. Lastly, small sensor equals poor low light performances. These are illustrated in the next sequence of images, document scanning first (N8 on the left and E7 on the right):

              

Next is a macro shot of a tap in my parent’s garden, showing clearly EDoF’s inadequacies for closeups (N8 on the left and E7 on the right):

    

Interestingly, because of the autofocus lens on the N8 I was also able to produce a shot with the background in focus and the tap slightly blurred. With EDoF you lose this flexibity. I had to stand way back to get a shot with the tap in focus with the E7.

Lastly a low light shot. For some reason I didn’t have the N8 with me so it’s just the E7 here.:

The E7 is of course not a camera-centric device but at that price I would have expected at least auto focus lens put in and Carl Zeiss optics. I would have sacrificed the higher pixel count for the flexibility that choice would have offered. Below are some other shots that I got with the E7 on a glorious sunny weekend in Pretoria, ideal conditions.

  

  

The E7s video is rather excellent it must be said. Just take a look and make up your own mind (remember to scale up to 720p):

The App Conundrum and Closing Remarks

So I have come to the end of my trial with the E7 and like any device, it comes with pros and cons as I have detailed above. Something that I need to mention is the app conundrum. App is the buzz word with smartphones. Apps make or break a platform as we have seen from the demise of the wonderfully designed webOS which sadly never gained developer traction and even HPs billions could not save it. Despite for a number of years being the biggest selling smartphone platform, Symbian has really never accelarated with apps like iOS and Android, with 20% the Android Market total and around 10% the iOS Appstore. It is the third biggest ecosystem by app volume though likely to be overtaken by Windows Phone marketplace soon, and though some of the stats are good, 9 million daily downloads for example, with the installed base one would naturallyhave expected a much bigger store to service the ecosystem.

The app argument against a platform is a crucial one. Primarily it is because the manufacturer cannot plug all the holes to service every conceivable use case for the device. And that’s where apps come in spawning that oft repeated saying ‘there’s an app for that’. And it is here that sadly the E7 suffers the most.

You use Evernote?

There’s no app for that.

Kindle? Nook?

There’s no app for that.

Google Docs?

Nope.

I could go on.

And where official apps exist, the seem like an afterthought as is the case with Foursquare or even when an app started out on Symbian, Android and iOS receive more substantive updates as has been the case with Sports Tracker.

Good news however is that there are lots of invigorated developers doing some good work on Symbian. There are now really good apps for Simplenote, Read it Later, Google Reader, Last FM, Tumbler, GetGlue, Flickr, as well as an array of utilities for getting the most out of your E7 or other Symbian device populating the Store. And lets us not forget the recently announced Microsoft Apps for the forthcoming Symbian Belle. I am actually more positive now about owning a Symbian device than I was this time last year, and the doom and gloom after the low point of the Feb 11 announcement has all but lifted. And that positivity extends to the E7.

SymNote: Flying the flag for new Symbian Apps

The Nokia E7, with Anna and later the Belle update is sure to continue to be a powerhouse and has a lot more left in the tanks. That amazing screen and the superlative keyboard makes this a serious use device. And with the forthcoming updates, it will have the software platform to take advantage of the hardware.

As things stand, though the impression I took out of the E7 is that this is definitely an all work and I get the feeling very little play device. I  ‘used’ the device a lot more than I did the N8 and it definitely enhances ones productivity. It demands to be used with the keyboard out. But the gorgeous large screen aside, the E7 fails a bit as a play device. To extract as much enterprise capability out of the device compromises have been made and that is why at the beginning I said that in the Symbian world the E7 is battling with a slightly inferior arsenal against the more expansive and flamboyant capabilities of the N8. Where the N8 cedes to the E7 it makes up in much more impressive and fun ways. I feel that the N8 can pretend to be the E7 far more ably than the converse.

That is not necessarily a bad thing as for a lot of people that would buy this device, those considerations would be further down the list. You are not going to buy an E7 and spend half the time playing Angry Bids. Or trying to put together an arty portfolio of shots. That just wouldn’t do justice to the device and would be overlooking it’s rather obvious strengths. It is much more than an expensive toy. This is a serious man’s weapon.  My father for example could not care less about the ridiculous detail I get from N8 photographs but was really wowed by the E7 keyboard. Likewise my mother in-law, a very gadget savvy woman is rather enamoured with the device, citing the large screen and the usability provided by the keyboard in everyday use as key factors, and showed a preference to the E7 over her recently acquired Galaxy tab.

I still feel however that the device is perhaps priced a little high for it’s feature set and should be closer to the price point of the N8. At it’s current price point I would find it very difficult to suggest an E7 over the N8. That is unless a device with a keyboard is a prime requirement. I can get by comfortably without a keyboard but some people can’t or don’t want to be without the option. A virtual keyboard is fiddly at best and when it’s not well refined as the Anna keyboard is, it will get annoying so it’s not for everyone. In those circumstances and when a 2.4″ screen like on the E6 is not an option, the E7 is an excellent choice, and will only get better.

So do I recommend the E7? Would I get one if it was my own money at stake?

Yes on both counts actually but only just.

The E7 earns The (Mobile) Tech Bishop’s Seal of Approval