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September 22, 2008

Nokia E71

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My latest trial device from Nokia is the E71. This is one of their “enterprise” range, intended for business use. Consequently it has Exchange email support, office apps and other things your average business user would need from a mobile device. Given how I use mobile devices, and the things I was looking for in a PDA when I was looking a while ago it should be a good fit. Except of course I’ve now got a new mobile device. I’m afraid I’ve been “spoiled” by the iPhone, and while I would have written lots of complimentary things about the E71 3 months ago, now I just can’t. Sorry Nokia.

Physically the E71 is just a shade smaller in every dimension than the iPhone, and a little lighter, but there isn’t really a lot in it. The other obvious differences are that the nokia has a screen half the size and uses the space for a physical keyboard. Both have 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth, although the nokia does BT properly including the ability to use the phone as a modem. Both are nice to hold but the nokia feels more solid and robust through being a mostly metal case. And it does look nice. Nicer than the iPhone, even.

In use I was expecting to hate the Nokia’s keyboard because the keys are very small. In fact it works quite well. There’s enough key travel to give positive feedback and they are shaped well enough to help avoid mis-keying. There are some characters missing from the keyboard though, some of them quite irritating. Plus, it doesn’t have the same auto-correct feature that the iPhone keyboard does and I’ve got so used to that that I miss it. Typing is slower on the nokia as a result. Neither are great devices for mass text entry but the iPhone is marginally better.

The support for Exchanges works well enough. Pointing it at our Exchange server quickly populated the phone with contacts, calendar entries and emails. It even has a concept of “peak” and “off peak”, so you can keep up to date in real time while at work but shut it off (or slow it to a trickle) at home. I’d love the iPhone to have that. Also, the big button in the centre of the scroll pad has a nice, subtle heartbeat when there are unread messages. No need to unlock the phone to see if there are things to attend to. A really nice usability touch. Apple take note!

From here, though, things go downhill a bit. The Nokia’s screen just isn’t big enough. A few months ago I was giving serious consideration to getting an N82, and the E71’s screen is better than that, but after having used the iPhone there’s no going back. And it isn’t a touch screen. That is just so infuriating! The number of times I had to stop myself from stabbing my finger at the screen to press a button, or flicking the screen to scroll. And at the Nokia Open Lab, I wasn’t the only one. Again, once you’ve used a touch screen, anything less is just annoying. I even find myself wanting to do it to my laptop, so the E71 is in good company.

Those are my major comments, really. I have thoughts on lots of the details of the device, but for me the small screen and lack of touch makes the device uninteresting. It is a bit of a cliché, and probably lots of people disagree, but I think the iPhone has changed the game a little.

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