Despite its quirky ?1960s scientific calculator? looks and lack of US-band 3G support, the Nokia E61i is one of the best smartphones in the world. The combination of a strong WiFi antenna, the flexible power of the S60 Symbian operating system, and what might be the best QWERTY keypad to be found on any phone makes the E61i a workhorse mobile communicator equally at home in the board room and on the road.
While many would-be Nokia smartphone users may have been put off by the pokey Cingular-branded E62 last year, the E61i is definitely worth a look if you like the feel of a Symbian smartphone. The E61i features numerous cosmetic and internal upgrades over the E62 that make it a true powerhouse of a smartphone. If you?re a global traveler, you?ll also appreciate that the E61i is an unlocked quad-band GSM handset with support for UTMS 2100 MHz band, which means it?ll fly along Europe's 3G networks when you?re abroad.
There's a lot of competition in the smartphone world right now, and carrier-supported offerings like the BlackBerry Curve and HTC Mogul and Tilt provide stiff competition to the E61i. Still, if you?re a Symbian fan or simply in need of a top-notch smartphone, this Nokia is definitely worth a closer look.
Special thanks to Corey over at Mobile Planet for providing the E61i loaner for this review.
Nokia's never been known for the slickest handset designs on the block; instead, their mobiles aspire to something of a more pragmatic, rugged aesthetic. The E61i is perhaps the pinnacle of Nokia's ?form follows function? philosophy. While I can see a certain retro executive sort of appeal to the handset's design, it's not what I would call slick or modern.
The handset is housed in a silver and brown casing that's a bit more visually interesting than the all-silver E62. The brown plastic trim offsetting a silver metal casing reminds me of a luxury car fitted with a wood dashboard - there's something either understated and elegant or really square about the look, depending on your personal tastes. Measuring 117 x 70 x 14mm, the E61i is a big but thin phone, and some users may find it a bit too long and wide for comfortable one-handed use. Possessing somewhat large hands myself, I appreciated the fact that the design afforded a roomy display and keypad while being thin enough to tuck away in a jacket or jeans pocket. The phone is also a little on the heavy side at 150g - I enjoyed its solid heft, but Blackjack users may find it too heavy for their liking.
A 2.8? display dominates the top half of the E61i's front panel, and a spacious navigational button array and QWERTY thumb board are arranged on the lower half. As mentioned, the QWERTY board is probably the most comfortable to type on of any smartphone I've tried. The keys are large, finished in a rubbery texture for easy gripping, and provide great tactile feedback. Nokia also spaced the QWERTY keys out a bit more on the E61i as compared to the E62, which makes for fewer typos.
The navigational array above the QWERTY layout is typical S60 fare. From left to right there's a softkey, Call key, Contacts and Menu keys, a raised, center-mounted d-pad ring surrounding a select button, Messaging key, Multimedia Menu key, and another softkey above a Cancel key. I found all of the buttons fairly easy to work with, though the D-pad ring is relatively thin and might take some getting used to.
A volume rocker key and voice recorder button grace the left side of the phone, and a camera sensor on the back panel is the only other adornment to the casing. Part of the back panel slides off to reveal access to the battery, SIM card, and microSD slots. It's a shame that Nokia didn't make the microSD card slot accessible via a side panel; having to remove the back cover to swap memory cards is a drag.
Befitting a device with such a great keyboard, the E61i features support for viewing and editing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents via the QuickOffice suite. Document editing isn't a given on all of today's smartphones, so this feature shouldn't go under-appreciated; Nokia even makes it easy to present those PowerPoint presentations using a projector with the Screen Export function.
While it's a business phone through and through, the E61i's Symbian Series 60 roots add plenty of entertainment options to the mix for those who want a little fun to offset all of that work. A pre-installed media player handles a variety of audio and video files, and the image gallery lets you browse and view images snapped with the handset's camera or loaded via Bluetooth, memory card, or Web download.
PIM functionality is good, and business users will appreciate the Nokia Team Suite, which adds support for organizing information around 'teams.? You can gather your team members, conference call info and documents together in one place for easy access when you need to communicate with the rest of your team.
Series 60 users already know there's a ton of add-on software available out there to extend their smartphone's functionality. The OS is also more than capable for multitasking and doing all of the other things power users are used to. And while S60 devices aren't generally the fastest smartphones around, I found the E61i's performance to be sufficiently speedy.
Nokia's implementation of cameras across their high-end handsets continues to frustrate me. Though I understand the marketing thought behind differentiating feature sets in order to push consumers to spend more money, I swear Nokia offers several dozen variations of 'two megapixel cameras? on their mobile phones - some have auto focus, some have a flash assist light, some have both, and some have neither.
The two megapixel shooter found on the E61i is of the bare bones variety. There's no flash assist light, no self-portrait mirror, and the quality is below average for a 2MP sensor. Photos taken with the handset tended towards blurry, with somewhat muted colors. Given that the E62 doesn't have a camera at all (many business users prefer camera-less phones, for corporate security reasons), I suppose any camera on the E61i is an upgrade, but still ... Nokia put killer cameras in the N95/93/73 handsets, so clearly they know how to do it. Why bother fitting your high-end handsets with mediocre cameras, Nokia?
The E61i's camera does feature a handful of quality and resolution settings, a night mode, and 4x digital zoom. Video capture is also supported at CIF resolution @ 15 frames per second, though the quality of video clips wasn't much better than that of stills. Videos also were rather pixelated upon playback.
The E61i's 2.8?, QVGA display is very good, if not quite state of the art. While 320 x 240 pixels is a good deal of real estate for a mobile handset, other devices in the E series line now feature higher resolutions, and more pixels could certainly be used to good effect on a display nearly 3 inches diagonal.
Text, graphics, and images all render brightly and crisply on the screen, and graphics and photos appear clear and rich over the 16 million colors the display supports. Performance was good in all but the brightest of direct light, and anyone who's ever had to squint to read tiny text on a mobile phone will appreciate the overall big, clean feel of the E61i's display.
Display options include customizable themes and wallpapers - minus any of the carrier branding found on the E62 - and the Active Standby home screen keeps calendar reminders, message alerts, and application shortcuts conveniently and orderly arranged at all times. S60 has been described as more ?Mac like? than the Windows Mobile user interface, and while it is almost infinitely customizable, new users will face a minor learning curve in gaining access to all of its settings and details.
I tested the quad-band GSM E61i on both AT&T and T-Mobile's networks in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Performance was excellent on voice calls on both networks. The handset exhibited virtually no hiss during calls, and people on the other end came through loud and clear without exception. The built-in speakerphone was pretty good, as well - not the loudest I've ever tried, but certainly better than average.
The E61i can also be used with wired or wireless headsets, but does not support stereo Bluetooth for music playback. The included wired headset is connected to the handset via Nokia's Pop-Port connector, which isn't as convenient as the standard 3.5mm headphone jack found on the BlackBerry Curve. Nokia does make a Pop-Port to 3.5mm adapter for use with your own headset or earphones.
Both voice and music came through loud and clear over wired headsets, and combining a Nokia adapter with my own high-quality earphones turned the E61i into a top-notch portable audio player. I also had no trouble pairing the E61i to a Bluetooth headset (I tried several), and voice calls made via Bluetooth came through loud and clear, though quality of course was dependent on the earpiece being used.
The extensive messaging features found on all Series 60 handsets are present on the E61i. SMS and MMS messaging and email are all managed by the Messaging application, which can handle POP3 and IMAP email protocols. Since this is an unlocked phone, there are no carrier-branded Email or IM clients to be found. That's good in the sense that you?re not being nudged towards any specific solution or provider, but bad in the sense that there are no handy-dandy wizards to help configure your email accounts.
Still, setting up email access was relatively painless, and the email app does a pretty good push email impersonation if you set it to check for new messages at preset intervals. The E61i also supports Email attachments - a great productivity feature combined with the QuickOffice document viewer and QWERTY board. I was also able to access my Webmail via the handset's Web browser.
Nokia's predictive text system is solid and well implemented on the E61i. I hardly noticed it, though, as the QWERTY board is so great for thumb typing that I was able to compose messages in a ?normal typing? frame of mind, tapping out words and punctuation much as a I would on a personal computer.
The E61i has one of the best Web browsers you?ll find on a cell phone anywhere - the S60 browser is built on the same Webkit technology as the Safari browser on Apple's iPhone. You can browse full HTML Websites on the E61i, and the zoom and minimap features make it easier to get navigate them. The browser also supports RSS feed subscriptions, a feature that more and more seems like it was custom made for cell phone-based information retrieval.
While the handset doesn't support 3G data in the US, Web browsing via EDGE wasn't too bad - the excellent browser software sped things up on the processing and rendering end, which helps. When in range of an open WiFi network, Web browsing on the E61i is a thing of beauty, as the combination of terrific hardware and software with broadband data speeds makes for a true mobile computer experience.
Being an unlocked Series 60 handset, the E61i is also ready for all kinds of upgrades via user-installable applications. Browse some Symbian users? sites on the Web and you?ll find plenty of Internet utility software, from chat applications to programs for FTP, SSH, and other high-tech, acronym-y kind of stuff.
The Nokia E61i is an unlocked quad-band GSM phone compatible with AT&T, T-Mobile, or any other GSM network in the United States and overseas. The phone can connect to GPRS and EDGE data networks in the US, and 3G UTMS networks on the 2,100-MHz band abroad.
WiFi data connections via 802.11b/g are also supported, and the handset's connection wizard and 'sniffing? features are impressive. The E61i will seek out open WiFi networks, connect to them, and save the configurations for later use, all with the greatest of ease (or at least the greatest ease you've seen on a mobile handset).
Nokia built Bluetooth v1.2 into the E61i, including support for voice calls, file transfer, and dial-up networking. I was able to transfer files back and forth between the handset and my computer, and also sync my contacts and calendar data. File transfer is also supported via a Pop-Port to USB cable. Depending on your carrier and data plan, the E61i can also be used as a data modem for laptop tethering via Bluetooth or USB.
It's no wonder that Nokia is one of the most successful mobile phone companies on Earth. They make solid devices that generally work well and are comfortable to use from both a hardware and software perspective. The E61i smartphone is a great example of Nokia's prowess in designing and manufacturing handsets - while it may not the slickest, shiniest, or lightest smartphone available, it's one of the most functional and useable devices you?ll find. From its best-in-class QWERTY board to excellent WiFi implementation to built-in business tools and expandable S60 platform, the E61i does just about everything a business user could want, and it does all of it quite well.
The problem facing a US customer interested in the E61i is two-fold. First, the E61i doesn't support any 3G data networks here in the states. While the combination of EDGE and WiFi isn't all that bad (just ask any iPhone user), with a range of 3G-ready smartphones now on the market, choosing EDGE is a difficult thing to ask of a road warrior. Second, the E61i isn't supported by any US carriers, so you?re going to pay a pretty penny for it as compared to those contract subsidized offerings.
Still, if you like the feel of the S60 user interface, value the comfort of an excellent QWERTY board, and want an unlocked GSM device capable of traveling the world with you, the E61i is an excellent choice. As AT&T rolls out their national high speed network, perhaps they?ll see fit to tap Nokia for a US-spec 3G upgrade to this solid smartphone.
Again, thanks to Corey at Mobile Planet for providing the handset used for this review.