Nokia E61 smart phone
The Finnish firm's would-be BlackBerry beater
Review It has taken the major handset makers some time to respond to the success of Research in Motion's BlackBerry. Having tried to convince buyers that what they really want is a regular handset that can also send and receiver email, phone makers like Nokia have just had to accept that there is a demand for devices with big screens and keyboards. Announced last year, the E61 has finally begun shipping as Nokia's answer to the near-ubiquitous RIM email tool...
The wedge-shaped E61's layout will be familiar to BlackBerry users but feels a wide affair if you're used to more traditionally styled phones and even if you've used a Palm Treo. The phone's face is dominated by a gorgeous 320 x 240, 16m-colour screen and the QWERTY keyboard. Between the two sit the joystick, dedicated menu and email buttons then the soft menu keys and, below them, the call make and break buttons. All the keys are kept apart and well-placed for two-hand and single-hand usage. It's a little weighty, perhaps, but not prohibitively so.
Above the screen sit the power key and the incoming email alert light, both symmetrically placed either side of the earpiece. The speaker grille is on the phone's left side, next to the volume control keys - alas, they're not Nokia's answer to the BlackBerry's jogdial - and a third key which activates the voice recorder.
The base of the handset is home to the infrared port - do people still use these? - and Nokia's Pop-Port connector. And that's it - the rest of the phone is entirely featureless. There's not even a camera on the back. Part of the back-panel slides off to expose the battery compartment, the SIM slot and the handset's memory card bay. The SIM slides in sideways and is held in place by the battery itself. The MiniSD card - there's a 64MB unit in the box - is hot swappable and could have been made accessible without having to remove the back-panel had the cover been sculpted with suitably sized hole. Presumably, Nokia believes E61 users aren't the kind to swap memory cards in and out on a frequent basis. Not that removing the back-panel is hard, and at least this way the card is kept safe from accidental removal and loss.
Starting up the E61 for the first time with a new SIM forces it to determine which network you're using and install appropriate data connection codes. Clearly, if you buy your E61 through a carrier, all this will have been done for you. The handset runs Nokia's Series 60 (S60) front-end to the Symbian OS - version 9.1 here - and you've the customary array of PIM and messaging applications. These are joined by Nokia's new browser and a set of office applications: Document, Sheet, Presentation and Screen Export, the latter used to control a plug-on projector connection module.
Nokia provides PC-based synchronisation tools, but I hooked the phone up to my MacBook Pro using Bluetooth and Apple's iSync software. Pairing the devices was straightforward, but with the current version of iSync pre-dating the arrival of the E61, I was forced to hack the application to allow it to recognise the new handset. This done - the information's available on the Mac OS X Hints website - I was able to add the E61 to iSync's list of maintained devices and copy over more than 300 contacts and a dozen or so calendar entries.
The E61 is a 3G device, but I tried it first with a GSM/GPRS SIM from O2. The E61 also has Wi-Fi connectivity, but Nokia hasn't done a good job of making it easy to use. Out of the box, the phone provides no indication it's within range of a WLAN access point. A visit to the phone's applications menu reveals a Connect. folder, but while there's a clearly labelled Bluetooth app there, you won't find a Wi-Fi or WLAN icon. There is Connection Manager, and opening this you're presented with a 'Availab. WLAN' option, which lists all the local access points. But it doesn't let you connect to any of them, offering instead the opportunity to define the highlighted network as an "Access Point".
Nokia defines an Access Point as any connection source. This is a crucial distinction and one that hints at how the E61 manages multiple connectivity technologies, but is nontheless confusing to folk used to reading 'acess point' as an alternative to 'base-station'.
But back to Wi-Fi. Selecting 'Define access point' from the Options soft menu asks you to confirm that this is indeed what you want to do. Press 'Yes', however, and you're told you have to go to an entirely different application, "Conn. Settings", to do so. It doesn't take you there, you have to go and find it.
It's not part of Connection Manager - you have to go to a completely different folder, Tools, and select Settings, which has a Connections entry. Clear as mud. Here, there's a 'Wireless LAN' option, but its only entry is 'Show availability', set by default to 'Never'. Changing it to 'Yes', produces a second setting, 'Scan for networks', which lets you specify the polling frequency: you can choose between 1, 2, 5 and 10-minute periods.
Now you get a tiny icon at the top of the screen: four small squares arranged in a square. This is apparently supposed to convey the presence of Wi-Fi base-stations in your vicinity. Still can't connect to any of them, though. To do that, you have to go into Connections' 'Access points' option, where you'll see the carrier-specific GSM, GPRS etc links installed when you first powered up the device. From the Options soft menu, you have to select 'New access point', from which you can manually select a WLAN connection type then search for a network you can use and enter the appropriate WEP, WPA, WPA 2 or 802.1x security settings.
Phew - got there at last. Now, go to another location and you have to go through the entire process all over again to connect to a different network. If Windows Mobile can simply display a list of local WLANs and allow you to connect to one - security policy permitting - there's no reason why S60 can't.
The method to Nokia's madness is the Access Point Group, which allows you to bring together connections and define the order in which the device will try to connect to them. The idea is that you define a list of connections the E61 can step through until it finds one that allows internet access. This way you can always make sure it tries the high-bandwidth connections rather than simply defaulting to GPRS every time.
Alas, the implementation fails to deliver. Name an Access Point Group 'Office', and you can add the now-defined office WLAN access point and perhaps your GPRS link as a back-up. You can have multiple groups, but no single connection can reside in more than one group. So, if you want a second group, entitled 'Outdoors', which will contain just a GPRS link, you can't, unless you create a new Access Point that mirrors the one already defined. If an Access Point isn't in a Group, it won't be used
The upshot is that you may as well have just a single Access Point Group containing all your IP connections, from WLAN down to GSM dial-up, and leave the E61 to work its way through this list. If it can do that in response to a list you've defined, it can do so automatically in response to a list it maintains internally, saving you all the bother. Unfortunately, it doesn't.
The E61's pitched as a messaging device, so let's look at the Messaging app. As Reg Hardware's review of Nokia's E70 noted, Messaging has barely changed through the years - much like all the other S60 apps. Certainly, it didn't feel any different from the version running on my old Nokia 6600. The E61's large display makes working with email much easier than it is on the E70. You can't adjust or re-order the columns, but at least the list of emails is a darn sight easier to read than it is on Nokia's smaller-screened devices.
Incidentally, not every Nokia app works this way. Remember the 'Connect.' folder and 'Availab. WLAN' menu option I mentioned before? The full-stops indicate a truncated word. They're cut short because on older Series 60 displays they won't fit. Fine, but on the E61 there's plenty of space. Why didn't Nokia hasn't made full use of it? An S60 limitation, presumably - or it simply couldn't be bothered to recode the apps' strings for this device. Either way, it's a poor result.
Back to Access Point Groups. When you set up a mail account, you can specify a group to use, and the Messaging application will indeed run through each connection until it finds one available to access. This, like writing and receiving emails themselves, works fine. The trouble is, it takes an age to set up, and like as not you'll have defaulted to one connection for email and another for web use before you figure out you can group these connections together to ensure the E61 takes advantage of the best connection available in a given location.
And then you find Nokia's web browser, unlike Messaging, doesn't support Access Point Groups. You set it to operate on a specific Access Point, which means that you have to change it whenever you enter a new wireless network, if that's the method by which you're connecting. Or you can simply have it pop up a list of Access Points - not, you'll note, pre-crosschecked for availability in your location - and choose one.
Oh, and there are two copies of the browser on the phone, one called Web, the other branded Services and used by some apps to process URLs, like ones embedded in emails. They don't share settings files, so you'll have to do the set-up all over again...
Using Wi-Fi on the E61 isn't difficult but it could certainly be easier - this is one area where Nokia could learn a great deal from Windows Mobile 5.0. But maybe Nokia simply doesn't want you to use Wi-Fi. Don't blame the carriers - after going through the song and dance you need to perform to get connected, I found the E61's WLAN support to be largely not worth the effort.
At home, for example, I was frequently unable to get the E61 to talk to the internet. I tried it in a variety of locations all of which have proved connectable using a range of devices, including all the HTC-made Windows Mobile devices I've used. When double-checked, the E61's WLAN sniffer showed my network's presence with a full, three-bar signal strength, but the Messaging and Web apps couldn't or wouldn't connect. Often when I did manage to get a connection, it would be lost later, a victim, I think, of the systems power-saving system. Quite often the apps wouldn't reconnect correctly, at least not without shutting down and restarting the app. Sometime I had to restart the E61.
This is very poor stuff, particularly for a business-oriented handset. It's also a real shame. Nokia's web browser works well on the E61's screen, and I found myself taking to its thumbnail-based page navigation system: start scrolling and up pops a tiny version of the webpage to help you move around it. Pressing the Back soft menu brings up a set of page thumbnails to make it easier to go straight to the page you want without having to render all the intermediate pages. Web allows you to zoom out from webpages as well as reduce the text size, making it easy to find a still-readable size to minimise scrolling.
But yes, it is buggy, particularly when it comes to maintaining and initiating connectivity, and after long surfing sessions you will run out of memory, even though the E61 has plenty - up to 64MB. I also found Messaging would lock-up remarkably often, which meant even more restarts, grrrrr.
Nokia's office tools are adequate, but at a stage DataViz' Documents To Go app - created to view and later edit Office files on Palm devices - reached two years or more ago. Formulae results are not displayed in situ, for example, and the code will zap your formatting.
As a phone, the E61 rates highly - I found its call quality to be very good and generally got a decent signal strength wherever I went. The battery life's not bad either. I charged the E61 up on Friday morning and didn't need to do so again until Monday evening, despite pretty intensive usage in between.
While I would have preferred an externally accessible MiniSD card slot, and I'd have liked to have been able to use a BlackBerry-like jogdial or scrollwheel, I'd still say the E61's design is excellent. The screen is superb and the keyboard a pleasure to use. Bluetooth works well - I found I could maintain my Jabra X10 earpiece connection while syncing the handset with another Bluetooth device.
That said, once or twice, the Jabra was spontaneously disconnected, only to reconnect a few seconds later. I've used the headset with other devices but never witnessed this behaviour.
In its favour, the E61 is relatively cheap. Expansys, which kindly supplied our test unit, wants £260 for it, which is a lot less than many of the better 3G-enabled Windows Mobile 5.0 devices on the market. But that's the SIM-free pricing - buy any of them from a carrier and you'll pay a lot less.
Speaking of 3G, what about the E61's UMTS support? I also tried the handset with a Vodafone data-only 3G SIM. It worked reasonably well - as did GPRS, incidentally - but clearly isn't as fast as WLAN, which makes the poor Wi-Fi support so galling. The E61 isn't an HSDPA device, so if you want fast internet access on this device you must connect to a hotspot. If you can...
I ought to like the E61 more than I do. The screen is superb and the keyboard likewise. Size apart, it's a good mobile phone. GSM, GPRS and 3G connectivity are good, and for a smart phone the three-day battery life is remarkable. Against these advantages, you have to set the poor, overly complicated Wi-Fi implementation, and the occasional restart requirements, though I believe they're ultimately result from WLAN usage. Ignore that, and the E61 becomes a decent proposition. But not one RIM need lose any sleep over. ®