Some two years after its release, there are still plenty of people who'll swear up and down that the E71 is the finest phone Nokia has ever produced -- and for good reason. As a platform, S60 was the product of a simpler time when the smartphone market was dominated not by touchscreens, but by numeric keypads, and the E71 was arguably the last of a string of bona fide successes that Nokia enjoyed in the platform's heyday alongside pioneering handsets like the N82 and N95. Thing is, the E71 was different than those other models in a very important way: it was elegant. Historically, Nokias have typically favored function over form and saved the highest-quality materials for the Vertu line, but the E71 bucked that trend -- it was slim, sexy, chock-full of metal, and curved in all the right places. In fact, to this day, it remains one of the best-looking, best-feeling smartphones ever made.
Customers (and reviewers) made their love for the E71 clear, and Nokia sought to recapture the glory with the introduction of the refined, upgraded E72. For Americans, of course, the biggest problem with the E72 was that you couldn't buy it from a carrier -- and unlike the E71, it never got much traction as an unlocked purchase. That's where the E73 Mode comes into play, a mildly reworked version of the E72 with T-Mobile branding and, of course, support for 3G on T-Mobile's AWS bands. Put bluntly, though, this is still just a warmed-over E71 -- and in 2010, is there a market for that? Let's have a look.%Gallery-95094%
Having been nearly a year since we'd used an E71, we felt right at home the first time we wrapped our hand around the E73 -- it's obvious that Nokia put effort into preserving the magic that made the E71 such a great piece of hardware. For those of you who haven't played with an E71, though, you don't know what that means -- so allow us to wax poetic for a bit. The E73 clocks in at just over 10 millimeters thick, but for some reason, it feels even thinner; that's probably a result of some creative curves along either side of the back, a trick similar to the E71's. The battery cover is a solid piece of metal that looks and feels great, though it has a tendency to smudge and oil up very, very easily, so you'll want to keep a lint-free cloth (or, you know, a shirt sleeve) handy for when you're trying to keep appearances.
The E73 also shares what might be its single most important trait with the E71: rock-solid construction. Nokias -- even modern devices like the N97 and N900 -- have a tendency toward the plastic end of the spectrum, and creaks, squeaks, and wobbles aren't out of the question (the N95 was particularly notorious for feeling a little cheap). That might all change with the N8, but for now, the kind of monocoque shell employed by the E73 is still a bit of a rarity. It feels absolutely fantastic in the hand, perfectly weighted and contoured.
If there was a complaint to be levied against the E71's design, it'd have to be the keyboard; the rows were straight across rather than being curved upwards like most well-regarded portrait QWERTY handsets (BlackBerrys, for instance), and the keys -- while well-contoured -- didn't have quite enough "click" to them. The E73 adds a hint of curve, but the key design and feel remain the same. We're not huge on portrait QWERTY keyboards in general, admittedly -- but whereas we'd be able to get proficient on a BlackBerry Bold within a minute of picking it up, we never stopped regularly making typos on the E73. It wasn't disastrous enough to break the deal, but we do think Nokia could've made some minor changes here that would've helped immensely.
Similarly, the navigation keys above the keyboard are a little weird (albeit for different reasons). This is actually an area where the Mode has taken a small step backward from the E71, because the shortcut keys for Home, Calendar, Address Book, and Mail are no longer delineated. Instead, they share the same piece of plastic as the soft keys and the Send / End buttons, giving the functions far less positive feel than we'd like -- especially since they're mushy, to boot. The center is dominated by the d-pad, a four-way rocking ring with an optical pad in the middle. It seems Nokia got a little too ambitious here with the spec sheet; they should've picked a rocker or an optical pad, not both, because we found the pad uncomfortable to "swipe" when it's surrounded by a raised ring. It's not a huge problem -- we just turned off the optical pad and used the ring the same way you would on an E71 -- but we would've been fine with a properly-designed optical pad alone, too.
The screen is a landscape QVGA unit, a relic of days gone by -- but that's just a reflection of the underlying operating system as much as anything else. Using the E73 is a serious time warp, though it does at least manage to use S60 3.2, a bump up from the Eseries-customized build of 3.1 used on the E71. In practice, that means you'll enjoy some quaint screen transitions (which look pretty awful compared to the transitions on any current Android device or iPhone), a clock and third soft key on many screens, a new gallery app, and other refinements sprinkled throughout. The browser is typical S60 fare, which is to say quite good -- by 2007 standards, anyway -- employing a WebKit rendering engine along with Flash Lite 3.0 support. Sure enough, Engadget's full site, our gold standard for this sort of test, rendered just fine -- but it was painfully slow to complete and actually continued to periodically freeze up while scrolling even after loading had completed (probably Flash's fault, if we had to guess). Indeed, the E73's processor, just like the platform itself, is straight out of yesteryear.
On the bright side, T-Mobile has done a marvelous job of staying hands-off with the E73's software build, leaving it nearly bone stock (compare that to the debacle of AT&T's butchered E71x, for instance). Don't get us wrong, there's quite a bit of software in ROM, but it's actually all stuff you probably would've downloaded anyway, believe it or not -- no, seriously. Stuff like Google Mobile, YouTube, Adobe Reader, QuickOffice, Psiloc's Wireless Presenter, and Ovi Maps with free turn-by-turn nav is all bundled, and about the only two things you'll find with a whiff of T-Mobile influence are TeleNav and access to visual voicemail. Good stuff.
Nokia isn't really playing up the E73's front-facing camera, and it turns out there's a good reason for that. Strangely, this is one place where T-Mobile's ROM customization actually didn't go far enough, because the E73 lets you try to place video calls as though you were connected to a network that supports them (T-Mobile's network -- just like AT&T's -- does not). You do this just as you would on any other modern S60 phone, so it's obvious that someone just forgot to take out this menu item; clicking on it tries to make a call, followed by an error message a couple seconds later. Not a big deal, but it's a little sloppy. What bothers us more is that there's no great way to video call on the phone over Skype or a similar service; Fring is the only viable option that we're aware of, but it's awkward to use and (in our case, anyway) extremely buggy. We'd recommend sticking with voice until Fring gets better -- way, way better -- or another player like Qik gets into the game.
Speaking of the camera, the E73's primary shooter -- a 5 megapixel unit with LED flash -- wasn't half bad, especially considering that the phone is far from a multimedia-centric device. We'd love to have had a dedicated two-position camera key, but in lieu of that, we found autofocus and shutter lag to be pretty minimal. Picture quality was pretty solid, with little noise and a JPEG compression rate high enough to keep visible distortion to a minimum. Macro mode was a bit weak -- we couldn't focus nearly as close as we can on most modern handsets with dedicated macro modes -- but it still gave us an advantage for close-up shots over the standard setting.
As audio quality goes, the Mode's earpiece was crisp and very loud at the maximum setting; the loudspeaker less so, which surprised us considering the large three-hole grill to the left of the camera lens. It's usable in a room with little to moderate noise, but recently, we've noticed a trend toward very loud speakerphones on these devices that can nearly hold their own against traditional desk phones -- and needless to say, the E73 doesn't fall into that category. That might not be a big deal for many potential buyers, but considering the Eseries' traditionally business-heavy leanings, it's more of a consideration than it'd be otherwise.
Unlike T-Mobile's other recent Symbian offering -- the forgettable Nuron -- we're inclined to think that the E73 has earned its keep, and there are people out there for whom this phone legitimately makes sense. Don't get us wrong, anyone coming from a G1, myTouch 3G, iPhone, Pre, or the like is going to be troubled by S60's aged, tired feel, but at the end of the day, this is still a very capable, versatile platform that can do pretty much anything you need it to -- as long as you know how to coax it, you can figure out what software to download, and you've got enough patience to let that geriatric silicon plod along.
What ultimately makes the Mode a potential winner, though, is the price -- we're talking about $69.99 for a legitimate 5 megapixel smartphone that looks (and feels) like it's been wrought from a single ingot of steel. S60's still a tough sell against virtually any other smartphone platform in T-Mobile's lineup today, sure, but when you consider that throwaway dumbphones like the Samsung Comeback and Highlight are selling in the same price range, it becomes a more interesting proposition. Indeed, Nokia has made no secret of the fact that it's looking to Symbian to help push smartphone tech deeper into the low end of the market over the next several years -- and if that means gorgeous $70 hardware, that's just fine by us.