Hands On Review: Nokia E7 – Symbian's last big Hurrah?

There is a lot of talk that Nokia being past its prime, and that their days are numbered. This has primarily to do with Symbian, its age old smartphone operating system which many of us have dealt with at some point during our smartphone-carrying lives. Luckily Nokia did announce that it will be using Windows Phone 7 in its future devices, but they are still rolling out Symbian devices until then. During Symbian’s history it has gone through many iterations, starting off as a rather complicated mess, and then finally moving towards a touch based, more elegant experience as we see today in the Nokia N8 and E7. The thing is – Nokia probably would not have made these changes if the iPhone and Android did not force its hand. But lets not spill the beans on the E7 just yet.
Physical Features:
First off – the Nokia E7 might be one of the best looking phones I have ever used. Believe me, pictures do not do it justice. I used the silver one, and the look is similiar to a tiny Macbook Pro – all steel and glass. I have played around with a particularly striking pre-release orange one a while back, but apparently only the silver and black versions are heading to SA. The screen is bigger than the Nokia N8, to make the keyboard fit in beneath it. The funny thing is most people would not recognize the difference between the E7 and it’s keyboard-less brother. When closed its thin and unassuming. Pop it open and it looks all business.
It feels good in your hand – no hard edges, and smooth. Like the iPhone it also uses a sealed battery, which might bother some, but does make it thinner and lighter. On the front you will find a large sheet of glass and find just one button like that “other” phone, with a power button on top. The volume button on the side is a slider instead of buttons, which does take some getting used to. The rear of the device is also pretty sparse, save for the camera portion. One thing I did not like about the older Nokia N8 was that it had a bump on the rear to house its 12MP camera. The E7 only has 8MP, but it does away with the awkward bump, meaning you can place it flat on the table, pop it open, then use the hardware keyboard.
Normally I avoid any phone with a mechanical slide or pop-open anything. The slide on the Nokia E7 does feel better than most however. Because the E7 has such a minimalistic symmetry it’s a little difficult to figure out how to open it at first, but you do get the hang of it quickly.
The keyboard is a class act. Sure, people love their tiny Blackberry keyboards, but this one just works better than any flip phone I have used in the past. My reference point for these keyboards are those HTC ones that have hardly any feedback or key travel, and badly positioned keys. The Nokia N97’s keyboard was also a disaster. The E7 is different – it has a proper clicky feel, and doesnt feel like you are typing on some membrane, and the keys are well spaced and in the right places. There is small beveled bumps on the sides of the keyboard which might look awkward, but makes the device easier to hold when typing.
In terms of connectivity, the E7 does not use the old legacy Nokia charger tip anymore, and shifts to the Micro-USB standard. The phone has a standard 3.5mm earphone jack, and also has a HDMI port, and supports “SUB on the Go” which allows you to connect USB devices to the E7 like Flash drives. I am pretty sure there a few people who does want this functionality, and the E7 ships with all these connectors in the box.
My regular phone is an iPhone 4 at the moment, so I have some pretty high standards when it comes to phone displays. While the E7 does not come close to the “Retina” display with resolution (the E7 has 640 x 360 pixels), it beats it hands down for simple pop and pitch dark blacks. I like these types of displays because it does make reading at night a little easier (hands up if you also read on your phone just before going to bed). During daylight the display was also crystal clear, something which is quite unusual for AMOLED displays in my experience. It apparently uses scratch resistant Gorilla Glass, and I did not get any scratches on it after a few weeks use. I have to mention that I am a bit more caring of my gadgets, so your mileage might differ.
Nokia doesn’t mention what processor the E7 uses, but if you dig around you will find that the E7 ships with 680MHz Cortex unit, same as the Nokia N8, and 256MB of RAM. Compared to today’s 1GHz + phones, and some with dual core processors, this looks disappointing. But its not always about specs, its about usability.  The N8 got a lot of criticism for its poor performance, but Nokia seems to have done some optimizing of the OS, and the device definitely feels more speedy. While by no means blistering, it is a hell of a lot more stable and usable than the N8. Apps open instantly, and multitasking is quick and painless. There was no freezes or hangups while  I used the device, but I have to say I always updated the device whenever there was an update available.
Battery Life:
These days you can be pretty happy if a smartphone can reach a full day when used heavily, and luckily the E7 reaches this easily. With push-email enabled on Exchange, the phone lasted about a day and a half with a few calls here and there. I am pretty sure without push enabled, it should last around two days. Much better than the N8 I used in the past.

OK, so the Nokia N8’s big claim to fame was its 12MP camera. However, it is the perfect example of how megapixels are used purely for media hype these days. Yes, the photos were good, but not especially better than say the iPhone 4 with its lowly 5MP shooter. The E7 still carries a 8MP camera, and the images look fine. It is however not a full autofocus lens like you get with many other samrtphones. It uses something called Extended Depth of Field, which means that everything is in focus. You do not get quite the same control in images – especially with regard to aperture and depth of field. But seeing as the Nokia E7 is a business orientated device, it is a trade off I can live with. But then again, I am the type of person who only occasionally uses a phone camera – if I want great photos I use something that is made for that…
Like I mentioned before, the E7 does away with the bulge on the back of the phone, and the camera is housed neatly within the frame. If it was up to me I would have given the Nokia N8 the same camera, it just makes the overall device shape better.
Depending on your history with phones, here is the one potential problem with the E7. The E7’s implementation of Symbian is the best yet, and they did finally make Symbian a lot more touch friendly (anyone remember that Frankenstein implementation on the “touch” 5800 Xpressmusic?). The interface is smooth and a lot easier to use now, and small changes like the improved multitasking switching is great.
The problem is that this is not good enough. If you have spent any time with a iPhone or Android device, the Nokia E7 will disappoint you. The problem is that Symbian has such a large legacy base to support – users who have used Symbian for years will feel at home yes, but there is really a lot of holes in terms of usability. Simple things – like say changing your ringtone is a multistep process that requires the user to really have experience of the platform.
The one thing that I do like about the Nokia software setup is that the device ships with decent navigation software. While it uses streaming data for caching a route, you can go and download full map sets for any country, free of charge. The interface is easy to use, and the routing is good in my experience. It does not ship with Ovi Music Unlimited however, which I really liked in the Nokia N8.
All smartphones these days ship with “appstores” (yes I know its a trademark), and the Nokia Ovi store has improved a lot. Many of my favourite apps I could find easily, but I was disappointed to not find a official Dropbox app. I reckon a lot of developers might have been holding back now. Nokia has pretty much kicked Symbian to the curb recently (although there will still be a few Symbian phones being released), and have decided to shift its allegiance with Microsoft’s beautiful Windows Phone operating system. Very good move in my opinion.

The Nokia E7 is a strange device – its feature rich and beautiful, yet its software makes a person wonder whether it is worth the investment. I think it comes down to Nokia wanting to say goodbye to Symbian by focussing the phone on its Symbian fans. And yes, there are still a lot of Symbian fans out there, although they might not be found amongst the regular readers of a site like Bandwidth Blog.  Next time you see someone using a Nokia N8 or E7, ask them why they dont jump ship to Android or iPhone. Their answer is normally around the fact that they do not want to relearn an operating system, which I guess might be a good enough reason.  As a bonus, the E7 does is quite a bit cheaper than many business orientated smartphones.
And for many people that is exactly what they want from a phone. And a smart one at that.
But you know what I want Nokia? A Nokia E7, with Windows Phone 7…
Build Quality: 10/10
Performance and Responsiveness: 5/10
Aesthetics: 10/10
Display: 7/10
Camera: 6/10
Score: 7/10
PS: If you are avid Nokia smartphone user, you might want to get the Bandwidth Blog App from the Nokia Ovi Store. You will be able to stay updated with Bandwidth Blog wherever you go!