Home > Product Reviews > The Nokia E7: How Far Symbian has Come

The Nokia E7: How Far Symbian has Come

Introduction
This is intended to be a review of sorts with the first few months of my new E7 use.  Coming from the N900, there will be a lot of comparisons drawn and some things may surprise you.  Before I go any further – let me state right off the bat that Symbian is not Maemo.  I know it and I understand it.  I am well aware of the perceived limitations compared to Maemo/Harmattan.

People that know me know that I am an avid fan of Nokia devices.  This may change once Microsoft is firmly entrenched in Nokia-land, but for now I will continue to proudly carry my Nokia devices.

Nokia has always produced great hardware.  My very first phones were Nokia cell phones.  I own the entire U.S. released communicator line.  I also own several Maemo-based devices. In 2007, I purchased the E90 communicator which ran Symbian 60v3.  In 2009, I purchased the N900 running Maemo.  Well seeing as I seemingly spending two years with each phone, the time came again for me to get a new device at the end of 2011.  I was presented with the opportunity to pick up a new phone but was undecided as to what I should get.

From where I was standing, I had several options to pick from.
a. iPhone (yeah like that would ever happen)
b. Something with Android (they are all the same as far as I am concerned)
c. The Nokia N9
d. The Nokia E7
e. A WebOS phone


How I came to my decision

Everyone knows that I am happy with the N900.  I feel that with just a little more polish it probably would have been the best phone ever released.  As it stands right now, especially with the strong developer community, it has grown in functionality and is better than ever.

A few months ago, I was able to pick up the HP Touchpad running WebOS when HP decided to clear out their inventory.  This is a wondeful tablet and I really cannot say enough good things about the platform in general.  WebOS is so nice in fact that I did strongly consider picking up a Palm Pre phone.  I also have Android running on the Touchpad via dual boot so I can have my pick of WebOS and Android.

During the last year, my wife’s phone broke.  She was using the LG-KT610 which is a clamshell running Symbian S60v3 (like a small communicator minus most of the power 🙂 ).  Having to replace her phone and wanting to keep her with something familiar, I picked up a N97-mini for her. So here I am moving away from the N900 to a new device.  My sole requirement was that whatever I decided on needed a physical keyboard.  I have somewhat large fingers and do a lot of mobile typing so virtual keyboards do not cut it for me.  I almost threw a friends iPhone out of a window for that reason.  This basically eliminated most of the Android devices as well as N9 (which is a shame because I really do hear good things about Harmattan).  So left with the choices of a keyboarded droid device, the E7, and a WebOS device, I decided to go with the E7 mostly due to the nice design.

My last experience with Symbian was with the E90 and it was a positive one.  I also spent quite a bit of time setting up my wife’s N97 so I got to play a lot with Symbian S60v5. This combination proved beneficial initially with Symbian^3.


Unboxing

The E7 arrived in a small relatively plain box.  I opted for the blue model because I liked the color.  Inside the box in addition to the phone and some paperwork was a micro-USB wall charger, data cable, mini-HDMI cable, and USB on-the-go cable.  Overall it was a basic but nice package.  There was no included CD as the Ovi Suite installer was on the device itself.

The E7 Box

My initial impression upon picking up the E7 out of the box was how heavy it was.  I held my N900 in one hand and the E7 in the other and the weight was almost the same.  I wasn’t expecting that.  My second impression was how thin it was.  Man this thing is slim – so much in fact that I had a hard time holding it initially (more on this later).

Much has been said about how the slider was difficult to open and people were dropping their phones the first time they tried to use the slider.  For me, the slider was fairly similar to the N97-mini so I had no problem with that.

As with all of my devices, as soon I took it out of the box, I applied a ‘ClearProtector’ brand screen protector.  These are great and I cannot say enough good things about them – very highly recommended.


Hardware

The build of the E7 is very nice.  It is made of solid metal save for the two end caps.  The slider is solid and feels good and strong.  The keyboard is probably one of the best if not the best I have ever used on a mobile device.  Key spacing is good and keys have excellent travel.  You can touch type on the device with relative ease and it just feels good in your hands.

The E7 shown with keyboard

The screen is a 4-inch AMOLED capacitive touch screen with a sheet of gorilla glass on top which is just absolutely stunning. Here are some hardware specs for those interested:

Processor: 680mhz ARM11
Display: 4-inch 360x640px AMOLED w/16 million colors featuring clearblack display
Memory: 16gb fixed storage, 256mb RAM, 1gb ROM
Connectivity: Pentaband 3G, Quadband GSM, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0
Cameras: Front VGA, Rear 8mp fixed focus dual-LED flash

As I mentioned earlier, the device is slim and it took me a while to get used to holding it.  Well, the first night I had the phone, I went to grab it from a coffee table and sure enough it slipped out of my hands and landed face first on a ceramic tile floor.  It was about a 10 inch drop. As a result, I have some small scratches in each corner of the front faceplace where the paint has been scratched away and you can see the unpainted metal underneath.  Had I known the device was so prone to scratching, I might have opted for the silver version instead to hide these kinds of scratches.

Anyway – just a word of caution on this.  I have ordered some cases and will try to find one that will at least provide me with some grip. UPDATE: I did receive several cases that are very good.  I am currently using a Nokia made plastic shell that covers the back of the phone.  It provides enough thickness and grip that I no longer feel the device slipping out of my hands.  I have also received some hard-silicone rubber cases (similar to the one I use with my N900) and they are excellent as well.

There are a few downsides to the device.  The first and most important is the lack of a memory card slot.  With the device memory fixed at 16gb, and no way to add additional storage space short of using a USB thumb drive, this can be seen as a major design flaw.  It bothers me that the Nokia N8 has a memory card slot but the E7 does not.  Just moving my photos/video/documents and music from my N900 to the E7 has left me with just under 4gb of free space remaining.

The second drawback is the non-removable battery.  Now I must say that the battery life on this phone is outstanding and I can easily get more than a full day out of a single charge.  With the N900, I struggled to get 12 hours and that was with the phone mostly idle.  With the E7, I can easily get 2 days with the same mostly idle usage.  Heavy use will get me about 16 hours – again very good and more than enough for my needs.  I watched a teardown video of the E7 to see what the battery was and I was a little surprised to see that it was just a standard retail Nokia battery.  I know that Nokia batteries tend to lose a bit of capacity after a year or so which means that eventually the time will come when this phone will need to have a new battery in it – not so easy if you are not skilled enough to take it apart.

With everything said and done, the hardware is excellent and typical of Nokia.

The E7 with Nokia Sleep Screen
Let’s take a closer look at the hardware and software of the E7 and how it compares to some other devices.

Screen
The screen is a large 4-inch display.  While the resolution is not the highest (and you feel it when using the web browser the most – especially when coming from the N900), it works well enough to the point that I can easily do what I need to.

As for the display quality, the only thing I can say is that there are mobile phone ads on TV that always have a caption to the effect of “screen images simulated”.  Well on the E7, those screen images do not need to be simulated.  This thing is bright, clear, and just looks phenomenal.  Everyone who I have shown it to thus far has been impressed and this includes iPhone and Android users.

Probably the most impressive thing is the sleep screen.  Due to the low power consumption of the AMOLED screen, it is possible to keep a constant screen saver active (similar to older Symbian phones except with a back-light on).  Nokia provides their ‘Sleep Screen’ app which makes this screen very nice looking while providing notifications (i.e. # of missed calls, texts, upcoming calendar events, etc…).


Symbian^3

Upon first booting up the device, I was treated with Symbian^3. Being familiar with S60v3 and v5, it did not take me long to adjust back to Symbian.  One thing Nokia has always excelled with is their upgrade paths and this phone was no different.  I was able to move my contacts and calendar entries effortlessly from my N900 to the E7 via bluetooth.  So impressive was this in fact that several iPhone and Android users in the room with me were watching over my shoulder in disbelief as my new phone immediately had all of my contact and calendar data synced up without using a computer or network connection.

I played a bit with Symbian^3 to see how the OS behaved and it was generally a positive experience.  Menus were similar to S60v5 for the most part.

Once my contacts, etc… were moved over, my plan was to upgrade to Symbian Anna.  I fired up the software update only to find that Anna wasn’t available for my device.  Apparently I have a U.S. specific model that Anna was not released for (which is interesting because there are no branded E7s being sold in the U.S.).  Making use of NaviForm and Phoenix, I was able to flash my phone to Anna (I will not be going into the details of doing that here).

Symbian Anna
So how does Symbian Anna fare?  Pretty good in my opinion.  It is a huge improvement over S60v5 and it’s nice to see that Nokia *finally* got a lot of things right with it.  Here I will take a look at some of the pieces of the OS from a software perspective and how they work.

Right off the bat, I will say that the phone is feature complete.  Everything is here from maps, to voice dialing, to full bluetooth, and MMS support.  Portrait, Landscape, etc… all working fine.  Way better than the N900 and even the N9.  You can see just how mature Symbian is as an operating system.

Anna (as well a Symbian^3) gives the user 3 home screens that can be used to hold widgets and shortcuts.  The shortcuts are kept in sections of four but can be customized to open any program on the device.  The next iteration of Symbian (Belle) due out something in 2012 allows six homescreens with different sized widgets and more customization.

There is also a notification area available by tapping the top-right of the screen.  Note: This has been changed in Belle to be more like Android with a pull-down menu.

Everything works well in both portrait and landscape mode and switching between the two is effortless.  The OS/UI is smooth and generally does not lag at all. Anna is a refresh of Symbian^3 and it shows.  The icons are the newer rounded style and it really makes a difference from an aesthetic point.  Nokia really put a lot of work into bringing Symbian in line with the likes of Android and their efforts show nicely.

Anna also adds a true portrait QWERTY keyboard.  Symbian^3 only had an alphanumeric portrait keyboard which is just silly.  The keys are small but having come from the N900 portrait keyboard, it was not a big adjustment. Swype is available and supported but I have never tried it.

Browser
Symbian^3 includes the same browser that appeared on the N97-mini.  It’s not a bad browser but left room for improvement especially with it’s dated and gaudy menu system.

Anna brings a new browser with a newer rendering engine. Honestly, I don’t find it that good and I feel like the older browser was better from a browsing perspective.  In any case, I am primarily using Opera Mobile on the E7 (which is fantastic).  Belle is supposed to bring more browser improvements so we will see how that works out (UPDATE: It still sucks compared to MicroB on the N900).

Music Player
I finally feel like Nokia got the music player right with S^3. The music player includes coverflow, EQ, and a lot of other features missing from the N900 and S60v5 players.  Some people are not happy that Nokia chose to combine Albums and Artists into a single view versus separate listings for Albums and Artists.  I don’t care much about that so for me the music player is excellent.  Audio quality is great and the player is smooth, fast, and polished.

Photo Viewer
Another area where I feel Nokia finally got it right is in the photo browser.  Again it is light years ahead of where we were with S60v3/v5. It’s also better than the N900 photo viewer as well.  Very fast, smooth, and efficient.  Photos are sorted by date and it really is nicely organized and easy to browse.


Email Client
The mail client is pretty good and does a good job handling my multiple POP accounts.  I also use Mail-for-Exchange for my work email and it performs well.  I am pleased that you can now select folders other than the Inbox to sync (which is something I used a lot of on the N900).

Calendar
The calendar on the E7 is comparable to the calendar on the N900.  It supports multiple calendars and various mechanisms of syncing.  Anna introduced a split-screen view to the calendar and it is handled nicely in the UI.

Conversations / Messaging Inbox
One thing that really worried me coming from the N900 was that I really liked the concept of conversations and how they were implemented on the N900.  I know that S60v5 does not have conversations and resorts to the traditional inbox approach for handling incoming SMS/MMS messages.

When I received my first text on the E7, it was in the inbox and I was disappointed.  I did however find that in the messaging section there is a ‘Conversations’ option which presents the messages in a conversation view.  This has made me very happy.  Coupled with a separate icon as well as a notification widget, I am pleased with the functionality.

Creating a new message allows you a wealth of message attachment options (pretty impressive actually).

Settings
The settings section received a graphical overhaul with the Anna update.  It appears to be more
‘Android’ like in appearance and it works well.  It also helps that some of the more confusing S60
options were consolidated or eliminated.  This makes it a better experience overall.  After using my E7 for a few weeks, I had to help someone set something up on an E90 and I could not for the life of me find the setting that needed to be changed. It just shows how far Nokia has come.

Ovi Store
One of the areas I was concerned about was the number of apps.  To be honest, and maybe it is because I am coming from the N900, I find the number and variety of applications to be fine.  There is a good selection of games, utilities, and other things.  Pretty much everything I have looked for I have been able to find so far.  Plus I am very excited to have a good internet radio player again instead of the crippled one on the N900.

The Nokia store client is adequate and does a good job with installs and updates.

The nature of QT means that there is a good amount of cross-development going on between Symbian and the N9.  For example, I have installed the Symbian version of cuteTube (a YouTube player/downloader I used a lot on my N900) and it works perfectly.

Nokia Belle
On February 7th, 2012, Nokia released Belle which is the next (last?) version of the Symbian/Nokia OS for the E7.  The upgrade requires a full reflash through Nokia Suite but it does do a backup/restore during the installation.

The Belle install was not quite smooth for me.  While there were no major issues, there were several places that I received installer errors on my phone (Installer already in use).  In any event, it took some time but I was able to get Belle installed and mostly configured.  Fortunately, most of my data was retained properly.

First Thoughts
My initial impression of Belle is that it is a nice evolution from Anna.  There are things that I like about it and things that I do not like.  The included widgets are colorful and friendly but some of them *cough* email widget *cough* are entirely too large and should be re-sizable. Other widgets such as the conversations notifications vanished altogether which is a shame.

Like the N900, Belle supports custom widget and shortcut placement (albeit snapped to a grid) in both landscape and portrait modes.  The placement of the widgets, shortcuts, etc… can be defined separately in each orientation.

The status bar area has been redesigned to be very slim and the time is always present on top (thank you!).  You would be surprised how much I relied on that with my N900.

Having up to six homescreens can mitigate the issue with placing widgets somewhat as you can just split things onto more than one screen.  However for those of us who grew up with the S60 Active Standby screen, it hurts to not be able to fit clock, email, calendar, and a row of shortcuts on a single homescreen.

  

Belle also introduces a pull-down type notification menu similar to what you see on Android.  It works fine for what it is and is very smooth and easy to use.

What you can’t see in screenshots…
The included sound notifications such as the welcome note, email notification, incoming SMS, etc…  are childish.  They sound like they were created on a Xylophone by a two year old and really serve to cheapen the overall experience.  Over the years, we have grown accustomed to Nokia expanding their default beeps and bloops with more and more elaborate orchestrations.  Here they take a GIANT step backwards and it says something.  They really should have left the sound effects from Anna in place.  The included sound effects are more like something you would find on a cheap knock-off Nokia phone.

Improvements
Many of the default applications have been improved upon.  Virtually all applications now share a common menu interface system.  The music player has been modified quite a bit.  It now does a much better job reading album art covers than the previous version and it looks a lot slicker.

The new Music Player widget, while quite large, is nice to look at with the big album art displayed on it.

The new app menu is reminiscent of the N900 app menu with the desktop background faded in the background. It is attractive and fluid. You can also search for applications directly from the menu.  All apps are presented in a single screen (no separate ‘Applications’ folder).  You can create folders if you want to however.  You can also freely arrange the app icons.

I mentioned the browser earlier when talking about the Symbian Anna browser.  The Belle browser has been tweaked again.  While it is definitely better than the Anna version, it still in my mind pales in comparison to MicroB (but then again – what doesn’t?).

   

Thankfully it is now possible to open multiple windows/tabs which was not possible on the S60v3/v5/S^3 browser.

The camera UI was changed between S^3 and Anna.  It was changed again between Anna and Belle.  While I do not have any screenshots of the camera app, it has been changed for the better and works just fine.

Messaging has been changed as well.  There is no longer an ‘inbox’ type view shown as the default.  It has fully taken the form of a conversations type view for messaging (this is a good thing).  It is still possible to access the message folders, but it’s not the out-of-the-box setting.

Final Conclusions and Thoughts
It’s hard not to feel angry when you see just how far Nokia has taken their original Symbian OS only to just cast it aside in favor of Windows Phone. Belle is a worthwhile update to Anna and really does bring Symbian/Nokia in-line with current OS offerings such as iOS and Android while retaining much of the power that made Symbian unique.

For how feature rich and complete Belle is (especially when compared to other competing mobile OS platforms), it really is a shame that Nokia is just letting this all fall by the wayside. I can only hope that they come to their senses sooner than later.

As for a phone, the E7 is great.  Within 2-3 days of using the E7, I retired my N900 and have not needed to go back to it since.  This is a testament to how well the E7 works for me.  I really hope to see some non-Windows based Nokia devices with physical keyboards like this again in the future.

And that’s all I have to say about that.
-DJ

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