- 800-by-352-pixel main display
- Usable mini-keyboard
- 3G and GPS
- Supports document and spreadsheet creation
- Dual cameras
- Bulky and heavy
- Many other keyboard-equipped devices available
Nokia’s Communicators broke new ground when they first appeared back in 1996. The original clamshell-format Communicator 9000 was extremely popular among mobile professionals, helping to create a market for mobile email devices from the likes of BlackBerry, Palm and Microsoft's Windows Mobile hardware partners. A decade on, the Communicator has to survive in a much more competitive ecosystem.
Nonetheless, Nokia has stuck with the concept, and has consistently, if at a leisurely pace, released new products. The last Communicators to appear were the 9500 Communicator and the 9300 Smartphone, which we reviewed in late 2004 and early 2005 respectively. The E90 Communicator has been a long time coming, then, and is newly positioned in the E-series range aimed at professionals. So does the E90 have a place in today’s mobile device market?
The E90 Communicator is sizeable compared to much of its competition, measuring 132mm by 57mm by 20mm. It feels very chunky in the hand, but perhaps more significantly it weighs 210g — twice as much as many mobile phones.
At first glance, the E90 Communicator looks like an outsized mobile phone, with an area of unused fascia beneath the number pad. Even so, the number keys are fairly big, and those with larger hands should have no trouble using them.
Above the number pad is a bank of shortcut buttons — Call, End, two softmeu keys, Clear and the Nokia menu button. The navigation pad comprises a raised frame around a large central select button. This frame, and a larger frame around the fascia, is silver; the remainder of the E90 Communicator's livery is brown.
The external display has a standard 240-by-320-pixel resolution and measures 2in. from corner to corner. Although this screen is clear and sharp, it appears quite small because of the E90's bulk.
The reason for the E90 Communicator’s bulk, is course, its clamshell format, which opens up to reveal a wide-screen display and a QWERTY keyboard. The internal display has a resolution of 800 by 352 pixels and measures 91mm wide by 40mm tall. This screen does not occupy the entire width available, as it's flanked by two pairs of buttons — Call and End buttons to the left and softmenu buttons to the right.
The keyboard comprises a QWERTY keypad with a number row above. Its keys are 8mm square and raised at the front, making for a distinctive look. The keys require definite pressure, and some might find them rather stiff. Certainly the keyboard action takes a little getting used to. The space bar is four keys wide and to its left and right are seven keys for accessing special characters and device features.
Above the number row sits a row of eight keys mapped to various applications (contacts, messaging, web, notes, calendar) plus a user-programmable key, the Nokia menu key and a key labelled ‘Desk’ which returns you to the E90's main screen.
To the left of the keyboard a column of five wide buttons provides access to features including a second user-programmable key, plus shift and tab keys. To the right is a large Enter key, a Delete key and the navigation key — another silver frame surrounding a central select button (as on the fascia).
Needless to say, this keyboard is not large enough to use for serious typing at speed, but for writing emails or otherwise generating text we found it to be pretty fast to use both when holding the E90 Communicator in both hands and tapping with thumbs or when hunched over the device when it was sitting on our desk.
The clamshell has a locking position when opened at 90 degrees, at which point the hinging mechanism switches slightly to allow both parts of the clamshell to move. It's a neat design that helps keep the overall size of the E90 Communicator down. The hinge is stiff enough that the screen will hold at any position between 90 and 180 degrees, enabling you to get a good viewing angle for the screen.
The E90 Communicator ships with a stereo headset, a USB cable for PC connectivity, PC Suite software, a mains power cable, a 512MB microSD card plus a quick-start guide and a full manual.
Nokia has abandoned the Symbian Series 80 software that it used for its previous flagship 9500 Communicator. Instead, the E90 Communicator runs on Symbian OS 9.3 (the latest release is version 9.5) and the S60 3rd Edition platform. This brings it into line with other Symbian smartphones and from Nokia’s point of view offers a more attractive development cost proposition. From an end-user perspective it should open the device up to running the wide range of third-party software that's available for S60 (as well as Java applications, which it also supports). Although some will bemoan the demise of S80, the switch seems sensible.
The E90 Communicator is a quad-band GSM device with 3G and HSDPA support for data transfer speeds up to 3.6Mbps. This opens up the possibility of video calling, and there's a small VGA-resolution camera next to the internal screen for this purpose (the main camera, whose lens is on the back of the device, is a 3.2 megapixel unit). Perhaps more importantly for business users,3G/HSDPA also enables reasonably fast web browsing, email and file exchange.
Nokia has provided plenty of storage. There is 128MB of free memory and Nokia adds a 512MB microSD card for good measure. This lives in a slot on one of the short edges of the device, and is securely protected by a hinged cover.
This much memory might seem a touch over the top, but as an S60 device the E90 Communicator includes more than competent music-playing capability as well an integrated FM radio. It also has an integrated GPS receiver, allowing it to be used for navigation. Nokia’s Smart2Go software allows you to download of memory-hungry maps and do navigation planning for free — you only pay if you want turn-by-turn instructions, and can 'hire' this capability for periods as short as a week at a time. We have tested this functionality in some detail on another Nokia handset, the N9 (which we understand has the same GPS receiver), and found it to be erratic in built-up areas; even so, if nothing else, offline trip planning is an excellent 'freebie'.
Bluetooth (2.0), Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) and infrared (up to 115Kbps) are all present. Like the Nokia E65, the E90 Communicator includes a WLAN scanning utility that can be set to look for networks and report its findings on the main screen.
For the mobile email user there is support for a range of solutions (POP3, IMAP4, SMTP) and on-board viewers for PDF and Microsoft Office documents. The device can turn email, MMS and SMS messages into the spoken word — another feature increasingly available on Nokia handsets, although not one we particularly enjoy using. Nokia also includes the QuickOffice suite, which allows you to create Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.
The S60 platform also includes calendar and contact manager applications, both of which can synchronise with a PC, and a web browser.
Performance & battery life
Although the E90 Communicator is bulky and heavy, it's definitely among the best of the current crop of mobile devices if you need a keyboard. Nokia has certainly made good use of the space available to it.
The internal screen does a better job of displaying information such as web-based content than other mobile devices thanks to its 800-pixel width — although inevitably we'd have liked more depth as well.
To assess battery life, we asked the E90 Communicator to play music continuously from a full battery, which it did for 9 hours and 40 minutes. The screens turn off rather quickly to help conserve battery power, and if you're a heavy user of the internal screen, 3G and/or Wi-Fi, then you'll get less battery life than this. Nonetheless, most users can realistically expect to get through a day away from the office without requiring a recharge.
Nokia has thrown everything in its arsenal at the E90 Communicator. Although it's primarily aimed at business users, there are plenty of multimedia features on offer too, from the music player and FM radio to the dual cameras. It won’t appeal to everyone, but the E90 is a worthy successor in the Communicator line, despite the fact that there are now many keyboard-equipped mobile devices available.