- Gorgeous hardware
- Excellent battery life
- Strong camera performance
- Symbian is a disaster
- EDoF is a mistake
- Low pixel density
Let's make one thing abundantly clear: black or silver, the Nokia E7 is one gorgeous piece of hardware. It might not have the proportions of the Dieter Rams-inspired iPhone 4, but it's a handsome and refined phone that can definitely compete in terms of materials and build quality. The E7 design language mimics its N8 sibling, and consists of a flattened aluminum cylinder that features a 4-inch glass-capacitive touchscreen on one side, a glass window protecting the 8 megapixel camera and dual-LED flash on the other side, and tapered plastic covers hiding antennas and connectors at each end. From the front the E7 looks like a larger N8, but in order to accommodate the physical keyboard, the body is sliced longitudinally into two sections. The thinner "half" houses the tilt-out display and the menu key (centered below the touchscreen), the other "half" contains the keyboard, the camera, and most of the electronics. Without a camera pod sticking out the back, the E7 ends up being thinner than the N8 overall, and one of the slimmest landscape QWERTY devices we've come across.
The E7 feels hefty in a reassuring, confidence-inspiring way -- as a point of reference, it's almost the same weight and size as the HTC Thunderbolt, but about 6 mm (1/4-inch) narrower. Fit and finish are impeccable, and so is the attention to detail: there's a machined and polished bevel surrounding the camera window in the back of the E7 and lining the edge of every control on the aluminum body. The top cap contains a 3.5 mm headphone jack, the power / profile key, a mini-HDMI port (behind a plastic door), and a micro-USB connector with a charge indicator. At the opposite end, the bottom cap hosts a microphone and a single speaker. We found a few niggles here. While the headphone jack supports stereo accessories (3-pin) without any problems, it's electrically incompatible with most non-Nokia headsets (4-pin). The speaker is very loud and clear but is positioned such that it becomes muffled slightly as soon as the phone is placed face-up on any flat surface. On the right edge of the E7 you'll find a SIM tray (that's easily removed with a fingernail), a volume slider (which feels downright awkward), and the camera shutter button. The screen-locking slider benefits from the same excellent spring action as on the N8 but lives by itself on the left edge, where it's easier to access when using the keyboard.
We're really impressed with the keyboard on the E7. It's one of the best we've used in recent memory -- on par with the keyboard on the HTC Arrive, but with an aligned 4-row layout instead of a staggered 5-row design. Tactile feedback is fantastic despite the short key travel and, unlike the N97 and N97 mini, the space bar is centered properly.
The 4-inch ClearBlack AMOLED touchscreen is bright and beautiful, even in direct sunlight. Colors are vivid, and contrast and viewing angles are excellent, as you'd expect from this type of display. Interestingly, the US version exhibits a slightly warmer color temperature. Resolution is a different story, and pixel-density enthusiasts will be disappointed. With a mere 640 x 360 pixels (what Nokia calls nHD), the E7 makes even a 4.3-inch WVGA display look high definition. Of course, we realize this is a limitation imposed by software, but in this day and age of qHD devices, it misses the mark. We also observed some strange color banding on our European review unit (see here), which might be a manufacturing defect since the problem is absent from the other one. A sheet of Gorilla Glass protects the touchscreen and houses the proximity and light sensors, the earpiece, and a front-facing camera (VGA). Strangely our US model acquired a few small scratches on the display within hours of being unboxed, despite being treated gently, while the other one survived an entire rough and tumble week at CTIA unscathed.
The E7 and N8 come with the same 1200mAh BL-4D battery which is not user-replaceable, and without any visible Torx screws we're not even sure how to access the battery in a pinch. In our tests, call and reception quality lived up to Nokia's usual high standards and battery life was excellent for a fully specced smartphone. The E7 handily beat our Android handsets with almost three days of light duty -- usually about 30 minutes worth of calls, a dozen text messages, three email accounts and one Twitter account being monitored and tended to (that's hundreds of messages), plus the occasional photography (with upload) and music playback each day. Note that during our battery tests we enabled WiFi, turned off Bluetooth, and powered our devices down at night. Needless to say, this is exactly the kind of endurance you'd expect from a business-centric phone like the E7.
The E7 is equipped with an 8 megapixel EDoF (Extended Depth of Field) camera and dual-LED flash. In typical Nokia fashion the optics and sensor are top notch. This, together with superior image processing results in beautiful shots. As you can see in our sample pictures, color balance and exposure are excellent, and noise is kept under control without obliterating detail. While it's no match for the phenomenal N8, the E7 camera stands out amongst today's smartphones. There's however one massive, glaring problem -- the elephant in the room, if you will -- and that's the EDoF lens. Depth of field becomes meaningless with this camera. Sure, everything from 60cm (two feet) to infinity is perfectly in focus, but just like with a fixed-focus lens it's impossible to take closeup shots. Nokia waxes poetic about how EDoF means no moving parts, allows for a thinner device, improves shooting speed, and makes it easier for the average person to use the camera. We're reminded how the 8 megapixel sensor captures enough information that images can be enlarged and cropped without a huge impact on quality. This is all true, but we feel EDoF is too much of a compromise especially when it's combined with a decent sensor and optics. It just takes away an entire layer of creativity from the picture taking experience when compared to an autofocus lens.
When it comes to video recording, the E7 captures smooth 720p HD content at 25fps with great results. EDoF actually helps here since most phones don't support continuous autofocus during video recording, and instead rely on a sub-optimal preset focus, user-controlled initial focus, or touch-to-focus during capture (like on the iPhone 4). While EDoF precludes closeups, a digital zoom is available with little (if any) effect on video quality. As a bonus, audio is recorded in stereo and sounds very clear. Our sample video was recorded on the E7 and then edited with the bundled video editor. Sadly, this caused the audio to get out of sync, which is a known bug. The camera interface on the E7 is pretty much identical to the one on the N8 and is reasonably easy to use. Most controls are easily accessible, and additional settings are nestled within menus. There's no built-in panorama mode, but a separate app with that functionality is available to download for free from the Ovi Store (see sample here). We only have a couple minor usability complaints: the shutter key is hard to find by feel, and the camera window is flush with the body of the E7 making the glass prone to scratches when the device is resting face up on a flat surface. Overall, the E7 camera delivers strong performance, but we really hope Nokia ditches EDoF and reverts to using autofocus on future flagship products.
We're going to be frank here: Symbian breaks what is otherwise great hardware. Most of what we mentioned about the software in our N8 review applies to the E7 -- it's the same tired routine, a frustrating user experience that quickly becomes a burden day-to-day. Now, before you get up in arms, you have to remember that we've been Symbian users for a very long time, so we're well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of this once-glorious OS. The sad reality is that when measured against the other major platforms Symbian is no longer competitive, especially at the high-end of the market, and that's even more true today than it was six months ago after the launch of the N8. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's look at some specifics. Our European review unit was running what was formerly known as) Symbian^3 PR1.1 while our US model was one release behind at PR1.0, and both devices were using browser version 7.2. Other than the firmware, the most obvious difference between the two appears to be the bundled apps. Beyond the standard set of Nokia apps, which includes the Ovi Store, our US phone came preloaded with Quickoffice, F-Secure, National Geographic, Paramount Movie Teasers, OviMapsChallenge, Climate Mission, Psiloc World Traveler, Vlingo, and topApps. The European variant also included CNN Video and E!, but lost topApps.