First Look: Nokia E7

Nokia's E7, despite being pitched off the back of the Communicator line, is mildly reminiscent of the N97, a flagship handset that veritably sunk into the depths of smartphone obscurity.  Although the E7 - part of Nokia's Enterprise line of devices - wants to be adopted by business, we can't helping thinking it is as much a consumer handset.

A large side-sliding QWERTY device, with a 4-inch capacitive touchscreen display rivals the likes of the Motorola Milestone. The styling overall owes a lot to the N8, a phone that Nokia have been showing off for some time, but is only just coming to market.

Both phones share the same operating system - Symbian 3. Symbian 3 is Nokia's latest version of their platform, that up till now hasn't made it the high street. As an OS we have heard a lot, it's been talked about a lot, but it hasn't had the real world testing that will let us know whether people will like it or not.

Some things are clear though: Nokia has preserved some of their identity, so as soon as you look at Symbian 3 on the new devices launched today, you'll recognise it as Nokia, with a consistency that carries on from the replaced S60 OS. That's good for Nokia users, but for new customers, one cursory glance may be all it needs to turn them away.

Anssi Vanjoki, Executive VP and General Manager of Nokia's mobile business, addressed this very point in today's launch of the E7 at the Nokia World 2010 event in London. He suggested that critics base their judgement on using the device, rather than what they see on the surface. Sage advice indeed, but Vanjoki can't stand in every high street retailer to cajole customers into delving deeper, and that may be a problem.

But there is something special about the E7. The build quality for starters is excellent. The brushed metal body feels great in the hands and the screen pops-out with real purpose after a decent nudge from your thumb. And what a screen it is too.

Despite having a resolution of 640 x 360 pixels, the AMOLED display looks sensational. Apple have slapped the "Retina display" label on their devices, Nokia are slapping the label ClearBlack Display. Marketing jargon aside, it looks great from the time we've spent with it at Nokia World. You can't get away from the fact that it has a pixel density around 183ppi, lower than many smartphone rivals.

In real terms that means content won't look so sharp, you won't have the same details in images and video and it won't be able to render text as small as something like the iPhone 4. The operating system looks good enough though, having been designed to fit the phone.

Making a slight departure from your usual business specs (and one of the reasons we're not overly convinced this is a business phone) you'll also find an HDMI port on the end, with support for Dolby Digital Plus, so you'll be able to output your content in glorious surround sound. Using an HDMI cable you'll be able to play back HD content you've stored on the device or captured with the 8-megapixel video camera on the back. We've seen some sample shots from the N8 (and we'd guess the E7 would offer the same camera performance) and they looked great, but we'll have to test whether it lives up to Nokia's billing when we get the phone in for a full review - and the same applies to video.

The keyboard feels sensational however and this is an area that will really win it fans, being the largest keyboard of this type that Nokia have made. We found that we were up to speed typing messages in no time at all, although again, it may be hiding some quirks we didn't detect during our hands-on time.

You'll also find that the on-screen keyboard is pretty slick, with a landscape offering that is large enough and seemed responsive enough. Flipping the phone to portrait sees the phone swing into a standard 12-key keypad offering, with the usual predictive text. Strangely there are no portrait keyboard options, you have the keypad and that's it. The E7 copes well on landscape and portrait, with most menus switching around to suit the aspect of the device - some smartphones won't re-orient the menus, so this is a neat touch.

Another impressive feat of the E7 is the 60fps screen. This allows faster scrolling than you might have seen elsewhere thanks to the graphic handling under the skin. Flicking through a catalogue of album art was really slick, even if visually it appears to have found its inspiration in Cover Flow.

The real nitty gritty of the Symbian 3 OS we'll have to wait to discover, but from what we've seen, it looks easy enough to navigate and easy enough to find and change settings and the like. As we've said already, familiarity with previous Nokia phones makes the E7 fairly easy to get to grips with. Customisation of the home screens is a breeze, letting you add shortcuts to your favourite apps and widgets galore.

That said, we found the three home screens on the devices we saw to day to be a little cluttered. In an attempt to cram in information, there is a risk that everything becomes a bit of a blur. Flicking though your social network updates is nice, but we've questioned the value of such apps elsewhere. Do you just sit and wait for something interesting to happen? These info boxes do at least give you quick access to the application in question, which is a bonus.

Social networking is handled by a core app and we saw it running with Twitter and Facebook, which appeared to be the only networks available. You can integrate people with your contacts, although in comparison to the rich contacts experience you get from HTC Sense, the Nokia offering looks a little bland. You can also add events to your calendar, so a Facebook party can be added, but this is nothing unique and most Facebook clients offer calendar integration on rival devices.

You get Ovi Maps, naturally, as well as everything else that the Ovi Store offers. It perhaps lacks the profile of the Apple App Store and the Android Market, but Nokia has designed Symbian 3 to be developer friendly. Essentially, attracting high-profile developers to get premium apps into the Ovi Store is what it will take to really drive the success of Nokia's new devices.

Connectivity issues at the Nokia World 2010 event meant that we didn't get to see much of the browser in action, with Nokia confirming to us that it supported Adobe Flash Lite. We'll have to have a look at how it handles video at a later juncture.

Generally navigating around the device didn't leave us too impressed. Scrolling the three home screens from side-to-side lacked the purpose, speed, and fluidity we'd like to see. We also found that things were a little busy - icons here, icons there, and at times there was a delay in opening applications that we didn't expect. Perhaps it was the intensive scrutiny the devices were under, or not quite final software, but it lacked the impetuous - at first glance - to be really impressive. 

And that's perhaps Nokia's problem. The E7 - like the other devices - does most everything you'll ever want. The same was true of previous handsets that weren't well received. Although we're told a lot has changed under the skin, we wonder if Nokia has done enough on the surface to change direction.

Verdict

Nokia says that the fightback has started. They know they are lacking the adoption in the smartphone end that they want, with the likes of Apple and Google taking bites out of what was once Nokia's stomping ground. Nokia put on a show of strength today, claiming that they were launching multiple devices to suit different budgets and tastes. 

There is no doubting that the E7 looks sensational. It feels great in the hands and the keyboard is excellent to use. But some unexpected sluggishness in the new operating system takes the shine off things, hopefully down to pre-release software. We're almost disappointed not to be blown away, we want Nokia in the game, but we can't help feeling that not enough has changed.