Nokia E61i Review

By guest editor Steven Nersesian

The day my beloved Nokia E61 was stolen was a sad, sad day in my life. I had grown oddly attached to its alluring screen, quirky buttons and its uncanny ability to hunt down open WiFi spots. The killer was that it never played nice with iSync on my Mac so I rarely backed it up to my PC. So alas, I lost enough data and contacts to make a sizable dent. Like I said, it was a sad, sad day.

It didn’t take me long to start hunting for a replacement E61…. burning the midnight oil… searching Ebay (you know the drill). But when I saw the announcement of the Nokia E61i, I resolved to wait it out. The long list of new phone offerings distracted me… first the iPhone with it’s tempting touch screen… then the Blackjack with it svelte profile… and who could resist the Blackberry Pearl… and I have to admit that the Sony Ericsson W880i teased me with it’s uber-clean looks but I stayed away from them all… and I am proud of myself

I will confess, however, that I was given a loaner Nokia N93 and had a blast tinkering with the video cam. This was sufficient to sustain me until the E61i was released.

But the past is the past. Today I’m talking about my experience with the E61i which can only mean one thing… that I HAVE the E61i in my grubby little hands. Now before you start judging me, let me say that although I am exaggerating my obsession with this device I am quite sane. Just ask my friends… they’ll prove it (please guys!!!).

The specs are impressive… the most useful being WiFi. It easily finds open networks and has a connection wizard to save it for future use… very fast… very convenient. All of a sudden, quickly checking websites feels like I’m at my home office. Or if I am at home but not next to my computer, it’s no big deal to grab my phone and get a stock quote or check what the weather is going to be like on Sunday.

My first impressions of the E61i’s aesthetics were mixed. I missed the monotone silver grey of its predecessor… it was a clean, resilient finish that held up nicely to daily use. I was wary about smudges given the black painted aluminum/natural stainless steel combo. And the off-white plastic chassis underbelly shows itself on the very top surface and along the bottom surface around the I/O which is very visually discontinuous. But the color combination quickly grew on me. It is a classy, distinguished look that works in concert with the graphics. I was ecstatic that the mini-joystick was replaced by a shiny chrome 4-way pad + center button. And the quick keys on either side are well laid out and very useful (contacts, menu, email and one user configurable key… which I love, by the way). My favorite part about the redesign is, without a doubt, the keyboard. It was nice on the E61 but they were wobblie. The E61i’s keys are much more consistent, more crisp, yet still easy to actuate. I have seen complaints that the product is too wide. I like the width because it enabled them to get a wide screen and good sized keyboard in the product. The screen is vivid and large. I never squint looking for information on the screen. As is the case with every Nokia product, the fit and finish are outstanding. The battery cover is stamped stainless steel which slides onto the inner aluminum and plastic chassis and fits like a glove. The phone feels solid in the hand, no creaking when I tried man-handling it, yet feels slim in my pants’ pocket.

Out of the box this phone has a solid feature set…. quick email and SMS client, calendar, contacts, fantastic web browser (who’s interface feels the most desktop-like I’ve experienced in a mobile)… plus some very nice tools like a world clock with an alarm, Quick Office to Open Office docs, Acrobat Reader, Zip… as well as some more obscure stuff like voice command and voice recorder. And did I mention that they added a camera? The quality is pretty good. It’s not going to replace my dedicated digital camera any time soon but it is great for capturing shots or a reminder to do something later (like look up something from a newspaper ad, billboard, etc.).

But we expect this kind of feature set from our smart phones…. at least I do!

One of the least talked about feature of the Series60 phones is the seamless IP telephony feature. I tried the first version on my old E61 but it was difficult to configure and I never felt like I got is working predictably. But two things have happened since… the OS has been upgraded and my VOIP provider (GizmoProject) has a configurator that automatically puts the correct setting in the right boxes. And it works great! As long as I am on a WLAN I can make calls (free to other GizmoProject users and negligible cost to landline/cell phones). I love it! And GizmoProject gives me a distinct phone number that the person I’m calling can recognize as me. The cool part is how easy it is. If I am close to a network that I have already saved as an approved WLAN access point, from within my contact manager I can select the user, select “options” and scroll down to “internet call” and it routes the call through my SIP account rather than my cell. It’s great.

This product really showed its versatility and utility when I started loading on some of the add-on apps (many of the most useful ones are free) that I found through the help of sites like http://www.e-series.org and Nokia’s software guide for the phone.

I’ll start with my favorite… Navigation: Google Maps changed the way we look up addresses. Nokia’s Map application could change the way we look at GPS. You may have seen the hooplah about integrated mapping on Nokia’s N95. All you need to get that same functionality on other Nokia phone is an external GPS receiver, linked to your phone via Bluetooth. It is fantastic. I have played around with my share of dedicated GPS systems and this version has nowhere near the amount of data that a Garmin or TomTom have (like traffic, etc, etc) and not as quick but it does the basics and it’s only a matter of time before Nokia catches up. The external GPS receiver will set you back $100. But the coolest thing is that you can download any/all/wherever/whatever maps that you want from Nokia for free!!! I have traveled a lot and every time I have wanted to get a navigation device or add maps for a device I already own takes an act of God to accomplish (for some reason they won’t sell me a map for the UK and ship it to the US, or bill to a credit card with a US address. If someone knows the reason, I’d be grateful for your contribution). And even if I was able to, it would cost upwards of $300 per country! That’s on top of the device itself that I bought for $500, unless I have the nice, speedy one which would cost me over $1000!!! So with Nokia’s Navigation option, I can download maps for free (need an app called MapLoader from Nokia that runs on a PC only [insert sad Mac face here]) and plan routes, check distance, etc, etc. They charge for turn-by-turn and voice navigation by period and region. For instance, I am going to France and Spain shortly and to upgrade for 1 week will cost me $10, and $15 for a month… $90 for a year. Not bad, especially for short trips. I have used it quite a bit locally. Last weekend it charted a route between two points that I had never taken which turned out to be quite scenic. I also get a kick out of not turning where it tells me to so that it needs to recalculate the route…. I know, I’m twisted.

Let me formally thank Google for their efforts in bringing rich content to mobiles (I am sure they are listening and appreciate my gratitude… yeah… right). I have heard that the E61 was very popular among Google employees (true/false… anyone?). Google Maps for Mobile is fantastic! It was first there that I discovered the traffic overlay. I often find myself wonderin
g what traffic is like and now it is automatic for me to launch GMM and turn on the overlay and modify my route based on the data. Yes I could get SMS’s or text based status on traffic but to graphically see it is so much more intuitive. And it is still so amazing to see the satellite imagery of a particular area. I only wish that GMM could grab my coordinates from my GPS or from my cell triangulation data and let me know where I am at. Currently I have to jump back and forth between Maps and GMM to visualize this as I have found that browsing the region where I am at more intuitive on GMM than on Maps. I can only imagine that it is a matter of time and clean implementation before GMM adds these features. And if so, watch out GPS navigation companies!!! There is also a dedicated app to connect to my Gmail quite easily. The interface is very limited relative to Gmail on a desktop browser but it is very quick and much, much nicer than the experience on the mobile browser. This is possible on many phones but the E61i’s screen really makes it a glorious experience.

Widsets are the newest addition to the S60 software family. Basically widgets for mobile. I have found the offerings to be very limited relative to those on the desktop but that is just a matter of time and since it is open source, it is easy for people to write their own and post them for everyone to enjoy. My favorites are weather and news feeds from BBC. The weather widset gives me current conditions and lets me see the forecast for the next 5 days. On the news feeds, only the summary of the news stories are available but you can bookmark it and when I get home open my Widset bookmarks on my desktop and go to the full length article.

This past week I discovered Fring. It aggregates my Skype, GoogleTalk and SIP phone contacts (as well as MSN if I had it) into a single application. From this contact list I can choose to chat with a contact or choose between a SkypeOut call, a SIP call or standard GSM call. It is pretty cool to be able to interact with my business contacts wherever I am, connected to a WiFi network or even on my packet data connection.

Another communication option is a service/app provided by Globe Dialer. It is basically a virtual calling card for calling abroad. When I signed up and bought credits they sent me an SMS link to download their Java app. Launch their Java app and it allowed me to import your contact list. When I feel like calling overseas, I simply select the contact to dial. The app automatically dials the access number (which you cannot modify) and my “pin”, then the contact’s phone number. Globe Dialer automatically deducts from my credits. It is quite convenient and inexpensive. Note that you can only use this in the US and Canada at the moment. I would LOVE a universal program that would allow me to buy a calling card overseas, input the appropriate local access numbers, put in a local SIM card and dial away! Or maybe Globe Dialer could just go global and I wouldn’t have to bother!!!

The last, but certainly not least, intriguing app is Podcasting. The standard list has a great selection including a large number of NPR feeds and even has a video podcast directory. I easily created my own directory and directed it toward a podcast not listed in the directory. It was a bit of effort transcribing the URL into the app. There is a search function which is useful but slow. You can configure it to automatically download new podcasts that you subscribe, not unlike iTunes…. but beware of memory space. You can quickly fill up the internal memory or your microSD card!!!

Note that these apps are not exclusive to this phone. They can be added to any Nokia or S60 phone. But as I have said before, the size, clarity of the E61i’s LCD and responsiveness of the processor makes them come alive.

The Good

  • Voice quality. As usual, Nokia delivers call clarity on both sides of the line.
  • Keyboard. This has been improved over the E61 and it is great. Key feel is responsive and the soft texture of the keys feels good (I disliked highly polished keys). The backlighting is well done… not too bright… very readable.
  • Web browser. I am a big fan of the integral web browser. Their mini-map technique to scroll around the page is very well done. And the ability to go toggle back to previous pages is useful. I found the rendering of web pages to be quite accurate and felt very desktop like.
  • WiFi. It is very nice to have high speed WLAN to grab app’s, check email, Google Map for traffic, whatever. I have found that it decreased the number of times I go to my computer to check information.
  • iSync (thank you Nokia). Nokia recently posted a ton of iSync plug-ins for the Mac. Finally great integration between the two platforms for contact, calendar, notes and to-do’s.

On The Fence

  • WiFi. I really like the network connectivity but now that I have had a taste of connecting at high speed on my mobile, I want it everywhere. Having to drop back down to EDGE/GPRS is painful.

The Bad

  • SMS limitations. Why, oh why, can’t they save a list of the last 10 people that I SMS’d? It seems so simple. And un-threaded SMS? Come on… live a little… is it really that hard to integrate? Everyone else is doing it? And the add-on app accomplishes this but is completely graphically out of character with the rest of the interface.
  • No touchscreen… with a screen this vivid, I see what I want on the screen and I want to touch it to go there… not scroll around with my 4-way switch until I am hovering over it. I am a big proponent of touchscreens and have been every since the first components were being offered to my customers. Back then they were expensive. Today that isn’t an excuse as the price have dropped.
  • HSDPA in US not supported. When are we going to understand that we are one big connected world and it serves no-one to have proprietary protocols.

Bottom Line: Just a quick pre-qual. I am not a newbie to mobile computing. I’ve had my fair share from luggable PC’s to untethered PDAs to a Newton, then a host of Palm’s including Treos. This is one of the first cell phone centric devices that are starting to be quality connected mobile device. It feels like I am extending my connectivity wherever I am PLUS it gives me tools that I don’t want or need on my computer (like GPS). As more and more rich Java apps are being written for mobile devices the large screen that the E61i sports is really impressive.

I give it an enthusiastic 8.5 out of 10 stars.

More reviews by Steven Nersesian:
MotoMing A1200 Review, Nokia 770 Review

This article was filed in Homepage > Cellphones > Reviews and was tagged with Hands-On.
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