Over the years, we've seen a steady stream of business and messaging-centric landscape QWERTY smartphones come and go, with HTC arguably leading the pack via its collection of Windows Mobile, Android, and WP7 devices featuring sliding keyboards and tilt-out displays. But few of HTC's offerings are as iconic or memorable as Nokia's line of Communicator clamshell phones -- starting with the Nokia 9000 in 1996, continuing with Symbian S80 models, and culminating with the Nokia E90 atop S60v3. The Nokia E7 is the latest Communicator in this distinguished series and the manufacturer's current flagship device, dethroning the Nokia N8 which continues on as the company's media mogul. A lot has changed in the six months since the N8 was introduced, including Nokia's recent partnership with Microsoft and the stunning announcement that it will be adopting Windows Phone for future high-end smartphones. So, is the E7 -- which is finally shipping in the US -- the greatest Communicator to date? Can it carry the torch for Symbian in the immediate future? And more importantly, how does it fare in today's shark-infested Android and iOS waters? Jump past the break for our full review.
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.
The tilt-out display and physical keyboard are the stars of the show. Nokia chose a hinge mechanism similar to the one it implemented on the N97 and N97 mini. Unfortunately, on the E7 this mechanism is universally difficult to open -- almost everyone fails the first time, and risks slipping and dropping the phone in the process. We eventually figured out a sure way to operate the hinge, but it's not intuitive, and requires the (preferably symmetric) application of the right amount of force in the right spot and at the right angle. Assuming you overcome this initial hurdle, the mechanism is spring-loaded in both directions and opens / closes with a satisfying "clunk". Once open, the touchscreen rests at a 30-degree angle from the keyboard, which is equally suited for typing as it is for watching videos. The hinge, back of the display, and base of the keyboard are all cast from a suitably light, strong alloy. We didn't detect any play in the mechanism even after using the E7 for a month, but we did notice that our older review unit was easier to open than the newer one. It's worth noting that the silver model features black accents, including the touchscreen, back of the display, hinge mechanism, keyboard, camera window and flat edges of the end covers.
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 features almost the exact same internals as the N8: a somewhat lackluster 680MHz ARM 11 CPU, a Broadcom BCM2727 GPU, 256MB of RAM, about 350MB of phone storage, and 16GB of internal mass storage. You'll also find a complete set of radios with support for UMTS / HSPA (pentaband, including AWS), GSM / EDGE (quadband), WiFi b / g / n, Bluetooth 3.0, and AGPS -- there's even an FM receiver. Unlike the N8, there's no MicroSD card slot for additional mass storage, no Nokia 2mm charging port for legacy power sources, and no FM transmitter to annoy your friends with on roadtrips. The E7 also shares USB On-The-Go with its sibling, which allows it to host a number of common USB devices such as flash drives, self-powered hard drives, keyboards, and even optional accessories such as Nokia's own Digital Radio Headset. Both the European and US variants ship with a USB On-The-Go adapter, HDMI adapter, stereo headset, micro-USB cable, and micro-USB charger.
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.
Under the hood Symbian is pretty efficient which helps with battery life and multitasking, and provides adequate performance even on run-of-the-mill processors. Unfortunately the E7 often still feels sluggish, despite being faster than most past Symbian devices. The Webkit-based browser -- which used the be one of Symbian's gems -- has stagnated into oblivion over the years, and is now a complete mess. You're simply just better off installing Opera and calling it a day. Email configuration is extremely unintuitive: by default, accounts are proxied on Nokia's servers unless you decline the terms of service during setup. Only then does the email client give you direct access to your account. But it's not all doom and gloom. To this day, Symbian still provides the most comprehensive Bluetooth functionality of any mobile platform. A few apps stand out as examples of what Symbian is capable of. Ovi Maps is an excellent alternative to the ubiquitous Google Maps that supports offline navigation and provides better mapping in most parts of the world. Gravity is a fantastic Twitter client that pushes the envelope of what can be done with Symbian in terms of UI design. It takes full advantage of push notifications and even includes its own on-screen QWERTY keyboard with a portrait mode, something that's still missing from the base OS. The photo and video editors are also quite noteworthy for being powerful and easy to use. But ultimately, these are just a few shining stars in a dead constellation.
After spending several weeks with the Nokia E7, there's absolutely no doubt that the it's one of the sexiest pieces of hardware we've played with in recent months. Perhaps it's not the greatest Communicator Espoo has ever bestowed upon us, but it comes close and offers the most balanced set of features of any Symbian device to date. This makes it Nokia's de facto flagship smartphone and Symbian's ambassador for the foreseeable future. Devoted Symbian fans will likely be unfazed by the official $679 asking price for the E7 (unlocked and unsubsidized) and will seriously consider picking one up (or its N8 sibling), but for the rest of us the E7 misses the mark. While providing excellent battery life, proper multitasking, and some unique functionality that will please power users, Symbian remains an unmitigated disaster, with a sluggish, frustrating, and cosmetically antiquated user experience. We just can't recommend the E7, especially in light of what the Google and Apple ecosystems have to offer. Dear Nokia, please give us an E7 with a higher pixel-density display, an autofocus camera, a current-generation processor, and a tasty serving of Windows Phone. Oh, and do it soon -- the sharks are starting to smell blood.