Review: Nokia E71

I’ve been putting this one off for a while, but it’s time you youngsters learned about this lovely little device. It’s the latest in Nokia’s E series of smartphones, and as you will learn by clicking above and/or below, it’s a bit of a conundrum. By the way, that part of the video review is supposed to be boring.

First, the good news.

The Good News

This phone is a magnificent piece of work. Everything about it screams “quality” from the texture of the keys to the styling and heft. Everyone I saw, be they users of iPhones, BlackBerries, flip phones or what have you, everyone thought it was a beautiful piece of hardware. It’s well constructed, uses a fair amount of real metal, and has a weightiness to it that seems out of keeping with its slight frame. And it is slight: it’s nearly as thin as my old Samsung Trace, and it’s narrower than a BlackBerry.

So with limited space, you’d think there would be compromises. If there are, I didn’t notice them — at least after a little use. If I’m honest, the keyboard could be a little larger, but it didn’t affect my typing once I figured out the layout. Trouble is, there isn’t a staggered layout like a regular QWERTY: Z is directly below A, which is annoying until you get used to it. Also, the modifier keys are small and right next to each other, so you may find yourself typing a capital letter instead of a number every once in a while. Still, I’m being more hard on it than it deserves. It feels great, and I know I could get even more words per minute out of it if I tried a little harder (we bloggers are a lazy lot). Locking and unlocking the phone was a little more trouble than I’d like, but it was nice having a main button for all major actions — the top button allows you to change modes, turn it off or on, hit up airplane mode, lock the keypad and more.

The screen is very sharp and fairly bright, and does that thing where you can see it in the sunlight, but it looks kind of weird. I’m not winning any prizes for eloquence there, but you know what I mean. It works. The graphics were occasionally not up to the screen’s capabilities; the 3.5G indicator especially was a bit fuzzy, and I learned to recognize it by its indistinctness.

Basically, all the hardware and industrial design aspects of this phone are outstanding.

So much for the good news.

The Other News
Is it bad news if the phone is too good for its OS? It is if that’s the only OS you can use on it. Let’s be real here: Symbian is the old guard. It’s been retrofitted and retrofitted and retrofitted, and now the capabilities of phones are just beyond what can be made convenient in S60. Support is there, certainly, for every function of the E71, but it’s not elegant and it’s certainly not fun. The list of things this phone can do is like a page long, but each thing has its own page-long description of how to get to it, configure it, and so on.

I’m getting off track and criticizing S60 here, but this phone deserves more! Switching modes is supposed to counterbalance the fact that you can’t fit everything you want to do on one home screen. But that’s basically admitting that this is too much phone for this OS.

One more thing: messaging. Setting up e-mail was a breeze in the built-in e-mail app, but oh my god is it slow. Even in 3.5G zones it would take ages — ages! — just to open messaging, go to my inbox, and open a single short message. Configuring it to take advantage of different wi-fi spots was annoying; you don’t want it to ask every time, of course, but you also don’t want it to just fail when the default isn’t available. A popular replacement app, Seven, worked all right but is still not reliable enough to use full-time, and having it on true push tends to kill the battery due to how long the thing wants to take to check a message.

Other things worked great: GPS worked like a charm most of the time, although I’d recommend Google Maps over the built-in maps program (which is passable). The browser is old school but actually was pretty quick. Browsing was easy, relatively fast, and downloads are blazing when you have good coverage. Installing apps is easier than finding them, especially when the E71 isn’t totally supported yet by many developers, but I found plenty of good stuff. Tethering was easy and browsing via the phone was pretty fast — way faster than checking e-mail.

So what’s the bottom line?
I think I can pretty easily recommend this phone to anyone who uses Symbian. It’s certainly the loveliest phone out there running S60 and a worthwhile upgrade from the earlier entries in the E-series. Trouble is, it’s difficult to find. I think AT&T might be picking it up, but it’s still going to be expensive as hell. So if you’re looking to invest in one last Symbian phone before moving on to the next big thing, this is really your best option.