Nokia Surge hands-on
We can't help but start our evaluation by focusing on the motif. Nokia has managed to pull off a distinctly creative and atypical design on the Surge, and while some may pass it off as mildly unsightly at first glance, we're actually big fans. The recessed "lip" at the bottom provides a great spot for sliding the screen up in order to reveal the spacious QWERTY keyboard, and the gliding motion is nothing short of delectable. The handset is sufficiently small, thin and light, though we do feel that it's one of the more sturdy featurephones we've had the pleasure of handling.
The glossy black finish is a fingerprint magnet, though the glowing backlit keys more than compensate. We will say, however, that Nokia could've stood to insert a slightly larger screen here. We mean, look at that bezel! There's more than enough room around the current LCD to have expanded things a bit, and considering that this thing's rocking Symbian S60, more pixels would've certainly been appreciated. That said, the combination of buttons on the main screen and the QWERTY keyboard underneath allowed us to navigate the OS sufficiently well, though we found ourselves tapping the screen on numerous occasions in a futile attempt to magically turn the non-touchscreen display into one that heeded our every finger press.
As for the button layout, we were generally pleased with the hard shortcuts (MEdia Net, main menu and Messaging) on the front of the device, though we would've loved for the central square "Enter" button to support scrolling. As it stands, the button only understands downward pressure, not swipes in any direction. Around the horn (read: edges), there's a volume rocker that could stand to be more pronounced, a dedicated camera button, a woefully small 2.5mm headphone jack, an external speaker, an AC input and a USB socket. Sadly, you'll have to remove the rear cover in order to access the microSD slot, but at least you don't have to remove the battery / SIM card.
Upon sliding the screen upwards, you're presented with a majestic, backlit QWERTY keyboard that puts most other text-friendly phones to shame. We'll just go ahead and say it: the Surge's keyboard is the best QWERTY board we've ever used, and considering just how long we've been pecking on those vertical iPhone and BlackBerry keyboards, that's saying something. It took next to no time for us to fully adjust to the landscape layout, and within a few minutes of getting ourselves acclimated to the spacing, we were in texting heaven. The key travel is perfect, the spacing is utopian and unlike the XPERIA X1, the top row isn't encroaching too heavily on the top of the display. It's one of the first mobile keyboards that we've really felt comfortable using for long periods of time, and we honestly started dreaming of things to say just so we had an excuse to text yet another member of our contact list. If you're one of those folks who puts out 10,000+ texts per month, you owe it to yourself to try the Surge.
Software and features
Despite the fact that Nokia gifted the Surge with just a 2.4-inch 320 x 240 resolution display, it still went ahead and loaded up S60. We can't say that we didn't find ourselves wishing for more screen real estate, but there's plenty here if you're willing to compromise. Put simply, using S60 was a pure joy on the Surge. Flipping the phone open and closed (and from horizontal to vertical) yielded screen refreshes that were startlingly quick, and we couldn't find even a hint of lag anywhere in system. Every single application we opened was ready to rumble within a matter of nanoseconds, and unlike HTC's Hero, we really felt as if the hardware was plenty capable of keeping up with the software. Even when flipping from the camera to the Messaging screen and onto the web, each transition was alarmingly quick. We never witnessed even a hint of lag while texting / banging out emails, and the general responsiveness of the entire OS had us marveling.
Of course, it's not like everything was peaches and cream. S60 still has quite aways to go before it's as robust as Apple's iPhone OS 3.0 and Google's Android, and the overall dearth of applications was evidence of that. Plus, the built-in email setup only supported a handful of clients, none of which were Gmail. We still managed to get our Gmail account established via a far less glamorous method, and while it's certainly better than not having mobile access to your email, it's definitely an antiquated system that looks more like something suited for SMS / MMS than unadulterated email.
To its credit, S60 handled all of the basics with class. Music playback was sufficient, IM / SMS / MMS was more than adequate and the MEdia Net web browser was perfect suitable for viewing web pages that were hand-crafted for use on mobile devices. Unfortunately, the cost of having access to these luxuries makes things entirely less appealing, a point we'll harp on more in the next section. We must say, the 2 megapixel camera on the Surge left a lot to be desired. Particularly in house light / low light situations, it was borderline unusable. In broad daylight you can probably get the point across, but this definitely isn't going to be your next P&S backup.
Nokia Surge camera examples
The thing that really puts a damper on the Surge isn't the design, the software or the lackluster web browser that isn't good for much of anything outside of checking mobile news pages. No, it's the obscene data plan price forced upon you by AT&T. You see, users can purchase this phone sans a data plan for $129.99 on contract, but you won't see the fully subsidized price of $79.99 unless you also tack on a $30 per month unlimited data plan. On Apple's iPhone, the $30 per month is (barely) understandable given its robust email client and best-in-class web browser, but on a featurephone that will literally use only a smidgen of data compared to the average iPhone user, it's just senseless.
When trying to buy this phone through AT&T's website, the elusive $15 unlimited MEdia Net data option is nowhere to be found; you're stuck with the same $30 / month 'PDA Personal' plan that BlackBerry and iPhone users have to select, which totally kills the value proposition. The web browser here is so antediluvian that it can hardly render any non-mobile webpage on the entire internet, and the email client is so unembellished that you'll probably never use it with any sort of regularity. In other words, asking $15 per month to access the Surge's limited web-connected applications suite would be justifiable, but once you hit that $30 mark, you might as well drop $99 on an iPhone 3G (or $49 if you're okay with refurbished wares) or select your favorite BlackBerry -- both of which will absolutely take advantage of a $30 data plan more so than Nokia's Surge.
As a phone sans a data plan, the Surge is still a winner in our eyes. The keyboard is phenomenal, the OS is snappy and texting fiends will undoubtedly adore it. It'll be tough knowing you have a functional email client and a ho hum web browser there that you can't use without being charged eleventy billion cents per kilobyte, but at least you won't be forking out $30 per month for a data plan that's really too rich for what the Surge offers in terms of connectivity. If you could somehow figure out a way to hook this bad boy up on a $15 / month MEdia Net plan, however, it's pretty much the perfect phone to get for those not quite willing to shell out the big bucks on a full-blown smartphone. Good luck with that.