- Solid support for over-the-air email, both for corporate and individual users
- strong software bundle
- support for memory expansion cards
- generally good hardware design, with a high-quality screen and usable keyboard
- superb battery life
- Frustrating Web browser
- no camera for 3G video calls
- large and a little heavy for carrying in a pocket
Research in Motion (RIM) currently dominates the mobile email market with its BlackBerry devices, but there's now plenty of competition and Nokia, for one, is seeking a piece of the action. The company's new E-series handsets are designed with this goal in mind: there are four Series 60 Symbian phones in the range, with the E61(reviewed here) the most BlackBerry-like in look and feel.
With its large landscape-oriented screen and full QWERTY keyboard, the E61 is reminiscent not only of the classic BlackBerry design but also of the recent Motorola Q. The E61's weight (144g) and dimensions (69.7mm wide by 117mm deep by 14mm high) make it too big to sit comfortably in a shirt or trouser pocket, but that also goes for its main competitors.
Although the E61 looks straightforward at first, closer inspection shows that Nokia has put considerable effort into its design.
There is no BlackBerry-style wheel for moving around within and between applications. Instead, you use a mini-joystick for moving around the screen, and for making selections via a press.
The joystick is flanked by two tall, narrow buttons, one of which takes you to the Nokia menu area with its familiar folders, which you open to access the software within. The other button takes you directly to the messaging software, where you can read and create SMS, MMS and email messages. Outside the email and menu keys are two pairs of long, thin keys: two of these map onto various softmenus, while the other two are the familiar Call and End keys.
The 320-by-240 pixel TFT screen is clear, sharp and bright; it makes a much better job of displaying complex information such as calendar entries than the smaller screens of other Series 60 handsets. Although we had issues with the Web browser (see below), the landscape-format screen generally works very well indeed.
Nokia has clearly worked hard on the keypad. The keys are as large as the width of the casing will allow, are taller than they are wide, and are significantly raised from the surface of the device. This makes tapping out text with two thumbs as easy as on any similarly sized device.
Annoyingly, our review model had no '£' sign, instead offering a '$'; generally, though, we found the keyboard relatively easy to use. The device is intelligent about guessing when you want to use letters instead of numbers: for example, when the main screen is showing, simply pressing one of the keys that double up as number and letter keys calls up a manual dial window.
Nokia has left the edges of the E61 largely free of buttons. There's a volume rocker on the left edge, along with a button that on a short press activates the built-in sound recorder and immediately begins a recording session, and on a long press starts the voice control software.
On the bottom edge Nokia’s Pop-Port and the mains power connector share space with an infrared port. The right edge houses a miniSD card slot, but this is only visible -- and accessible -- if you remove the battery cover. The top edge is completely clear.
The manual that came with our unit was one of the worst we’ve ever seen. It's not short on information, but was printed at half A5 format and looked as though it had been produced by a reducing photocopier on its last legs. Fortunately, the PDF on the accompanying CD ROM repeats its content far more legibly.
The E61 has just about every connectivity option currently available. The phone is quad-band GSM, with GPRS, EGPRS and 3G support. Infrared, Bluetooth (1.2) and Wi-Fi (802.11g) are all present, and you can use Bluetooth for local synchronisation and file sharing if you prefer this to a cable connection.
Although this is a 3G handset there is no camera -- almost certainly because Nokia’s first port of call with the E61 is the business sector, where camera phones can be regarded as potential tools for industrial espionage. The absence of even a relatively low-spec VGA camera on the front means that 3G video calls are clearly out of the question, although you can still receive video messages.
The E61 runs on Symbian OS 9.1 Series 60 3rd edition, and the range of pre-installed applications is vast. As you would expect from a serious smartphone aimed at the business sector, there are good contact management, calendar and to-do list applications.
These programs can be synchronised over the air or locally using the provided PC Suite software, but Nokia is keen to cater for over-the-air email and data synchronisation, and to that end the range of clients supported runs to IntelliSync, Visto, GoodLink, Seven and even BlackBerry Connect. Microsoft ActiveSync is also supported, as are POP, IMAP and SMTP email formats.
Over-the-air email for the business users is worthless without the ability to read attachments, and the E61 includes viewers for Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents as well as PDFs. Going further, the barrage of applications includes document editing tools for Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as an application called Screen Export that will send the screen of the device to a projector. We have not tested this, but in theory you should be able to create a presentation on the E61 and deliver it without going near a notebook. The extent to which you can work with the small keyboard and cope with relatively basic PowerPoint slides will determine your success here.
Other applications include a picture viewer (despite the absence of a camera), a voice recorder, text notes manager (this is separate from the document editor mentioned above), calculator, unit converter, Web browser and a music player.
There is 64MB of built-in memory, and you can expand on this with miniSD cards. Nokia provides a 64MB card to get you started.
Performance & battery life
Nokia's first attempt at this style of connected handheld is mostly a success. The screen is large and for the most part performs well: our main gripe here is with the way the Web browser fails to render pages into its width, requiring horizontal scrolling. On the plus side, the keyboard is as usable as any we’ve tried on a device of this type.
Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and infrared mean that all local wireless connectivity bases are covered, while the E61's 3G support should ensure that over-the-air updating and Web browsing are both slick.
The Symbian OS 9.1/Series 60 3rd edition bundle of applications, augmented with the ‘office’ suite, should cater for the needs of most professional users.
And, most importantly perhaps, battery life is amazing. We performed an MP3 looping test, with the screen set to time out after 30 minutes and the light timeout set to 60 seconds, both of which are the maximum available. We got an amazing 14 hours 11 minutes of battery life, and the music output was extremely loud.