Hands-on with the Nokia E62 for Cingular

Nokia isn't stupid. Holding nothing more than a sliver of the huge pie that is the US smartphone market, it only took a few BlackBerrys (with the occasional Treo or Q thrown in here and there) for the world's largest cellphone manufacturer to realize that a QWERTY-style device might just be S60's key to acceptance among fickle American consumers. Of course, it took a good long while for it to get here in an official capacity -- and along the way we've had to sit back and watch a slightly more capable sibling drop in S60-friendly Europe -- but the E62 is finally real for any average Joe willing to head down to their local Cingular shop and plunk down a reasonable amount of cash. WiFi or no, that's a refreshing change of pace for those of us used to getting our Symbian fix by paying through the nose for an import that may or may not work well on our carrier of choice. In practice, how does the business-oriented E62 fare in today's smartphone landscape? Are Americans ready for S60? For that matter, is S60 ready for Americans? Read on for our initial impressions.

First off, the E62 oozes business; you get that impression the moment you open the box without ever having turned it on. The device just has that straight-edge look, that Finnish style that only Nokia can pull off. For some, that's a negative, but for others (read: anyone looking for an understated smartphone that doesn't scream "I can play videos" or "I've got more memory than you do") this will come as a pleasant surprise. Sharp edges and a uniform color finish off the clean appearance, and thanks to some metal bits, the phone feels as good in the hand as it looks.

Speaking of feeling good, the controls on a device of this form factor categorically make or break it. A phone could rock 1GB of RAM, a 12-megapixel camera, and a teleporter, but without an effective means of typing the old-fashioned way, it's dead in our eyes. For the E62, we're happy to report that the results are mostly positive. The thumb stick is hands-down the best we've ever used in a phone; we actually liked it, and that's saying a lot coming from a reviewer that prefers virtually any other method of directional control. The keypad was usable -- we weren't able to master it in the short time we spent with the phone, but we envision that we'd become proficient on it in a matter of a week or so. It positively spanks the keypads offered by the Q and the Samsung i320, thanks mainly to its uniform key shape / spacing and the softly domed tops. We found the space bar a bit lacking in width, and it would've been nice if Nokia had provisioned a couple more millimeters of height for the send, end, and soft keys, but none of those issues were deal breakers for us. The dedicated Messaging button and side keys were also welcome additions not found on your garden-variety Nseries device. The Messaging button is decidedly a nod to the phone's business user target demographic, but why can't we get some side keys on our N80? Huh?

Turning the phone on, our attention is promptly drawn to the screen. In a word, it's gorgeous. Yes, we know, it's only QVGA, nothing to write home about -- especially considering that Nokia's got several phones kicking around with 416 x 352 resolution -- and perhaps we're just not used to seeing the S60 user interface on such a large, bright, crisp display. Nevertheless, color us impressed. Despite being found almost exclusively on portrait displays, S60 adapts easily to a landscape orientation; we couldn't find anything that looked odd or out of place from the change, and the home screen looked great. Our apologies for the embarrassingly poor image quality here; we think we're starting to understand why we get sent so many blurry, craptastic shots of unreleased gear.

S60 has come a long way from the days of the 3650 and 7650. It's more powerful, easier to use, and more visually appealing, particularly on the powerhouse Eseries and Nseries handsets. Even in its third generation, though, the platform has its fair share of quirks. One of the most painful is also one of the most easily solved: "out of memory" messages. These have plagued every galdarned Nokia smartphone we've ever used, the E62 sadly included. Nokia, please: we implore you to put the proper amount of RAM in your phones. We'll gladly pay the extra $5 or $10. Granted, they typically only happen with moderate to intensive web browsing, but there's still no excuse to pack in less than 100MB of RAM in the year 2006.

That being said, the E62's productivity apps are sufficient and compare favorably to a Windows Mobile Smartphone like the Q. Switching apps can be a bit delayed at times with some waits as high as 2-3 seconds, but users coming from a Wizard (like the Cingular 8125) -- or pretty much any smartphone, for that matter -- won't find the speed unbearable. We found S60 3rd Edition's layout and icons to be prettier than Windows Mobile 5 and about on par with a current gen Palm OS-based Treo, but that's very much a matter of personal taste. What isn't as subjective, though, is the pure goodness of the E62's KHTML-based browser -- when you're not getting out of memory errors, anyway. It suffers the occasional rendering hiccup, but the way the mouse pointer is controlled via the thumb stick combined with the inline page thumbnail is simply brilliant.

As hot as the E62 is at first glance, regardless of the fact that it comes with all manner of Office-compatible editors, Outlook compatibility, and a decent email client, it's still a tough stretch to think that the average Treo or BlackBerry user is going to make the leap of faith. After all, why would the average business user want to throw away everything they've learned about Windows Mobile or Palm OS to switch to a different operating system that might (or might not) work marginally better for them? Instead, we see the E62 appealing to two groups: 1) Symbian devotees who dig the benefits (low price, good support) of having the phone be officially offered through Cingular, and 2) a new generation of mobile warriors attracted to the E62's design when the lay eyes on it in the store. Ultimately, it's the second group that's going to make or break Nokia's renewed push for American acceptance of S60 in the long term -- we've got our fingers crossed.