Trust me, I really, really wanted to fall in love with the E7.
Back when it was launched, I’ve read numerous rather mixed reviews by esteemed, experienced mobile bloggers and smartphone geeks pointing out its flaws, and talking about how this device completely fails to meet their expectations. I have never used an E90 Communicator or any Series 80 device that came before it, nor have I been really hooked on Android, iOS or competing platforms, so I felt that my view of this N97-style side-sliding 4-inch Symbian smartphone would perhaps be different. I really wanted to love the E7, but honestly it’s been more like an early infatuation for me before the rest of the relationship turned out complicated.
I know that I’m reviewing this E7 just before it receives the big Symbian Anna upgrade, but that does not really matter in my opinion. By now, I think everyone reading this site knows exactly what Anna will bring to the table when it’s finally released (new icons, new web browser, new split-screen text input, new portrait QWERTY keyboard, improved calendar, so on and so forth), and how each of those additions and improvements will impact the overall user experience. To be honest, the most important bits in Anna in my opinion (the portrait QWERTY keyboard and split-screen text input), are not really must-have features on the E7 given the existence of the hardware keyboard. Let’s just face it, whether pre- or post-Anna the day-to-day user experience on the E7 will still remain largely unchanged.
In the beginning, I was honestly really awestruck by the E7. As I unboxed it and held it in my hands, I was amazed by the sheer solidity of the device. There are absolutely no creaks and rattling bits on the E7 – every single slider and button fits perfectly on the exquisitely-machined body, constructed from metal with plastic end-caps. The two halves of the E7 shut so tightly that you would never guess that the display can be flicked upwards to reveal the very best keyboard I’ve ever used on a phone. The E7 is a beautiful piece of hardware – no one can argue against that. And I haven’t even mentioned the well-engineered hinge mechanism; it feels so satisfying to flick the display upwards and is honestly a joy to use. The hinge also feels durable and well-built, like it can withstand months and months of constant movement, and I love the dramatic, definite way in which the screen tilts at an angle to reveal the keyboard. I could spend all day opening and closing the E7 without getting bored. The display hinge is that good.
The display itself is absolutely brilliant. Being a 4-inch AMOLED Clear Black Display, the blacks are really black, colours are rich and vibrant, photos are stunning to look at and the relatively low nHD 640x360px resolution never really was a problem. Maybe pixel density isn’t that big of a deal after all, as I honestly can’t take any issue with the resolution of the E7′s display. I do, however, have an issue with the over-sensitive ambient light sensor on the E7 that often drives the brightness of the display all the way down even in middling light. There’s no way to turn the automatic brightness adjustment off either. Come on Nokia, there’s an AMOLED panel on this device, let its user enjoy it! In addition, the 16:9 aspect ratio of the E7′s display may be great for movies and all, but it results in the 4-inch display not really looking that large when placed beside an iPhone 4.
Without a doubt, the Nokia E7′s pièce de résistance is its 4-row keyboard, complete with a triple-wide spacebar, Ctrl key for keyboard shortcuts and arrow keys. Although the keys look as if they have been nicked from a N97 at first glance, the press feedback on this thing is just superb – it’s precise with just the right amount of firmness. The keys themselves are arranged in a grid layout with spaces between them, and they are beautifully and evenly backlit in white and yellow. I’m pretty darn grateful for the inclusion of the arrow keys, because they make cursor adjustment a lot less clumsy. I also appreciate that the most important bits of punctuation (period, comma, apostrophe, question mark and @ symbol) are directly accessible on the keyboard without the need to press a function key.
In my experience, though, the E7′s keyboard isn’t perfect. For starters, I was confounded by how far the ! key (accessed by a function-key press) is from the ? key when compared to e.g. the E5′s keyboard. I could also never get used to the placement of the Ctrl key (below the Enter key) – it just looks odd over there. In addition, I feel like I’m not typing any faster on the E7′s large, spaced-out keyboard compared to my E5′s keyboard where the keys are tiny and arranged right next to each other. It’s not so much a matter of being not so used to typing on the E7 as opposed to the E5; I feel it’s more to do with how much more my thumbs have to travel over the keyboard with the E7. I do not have very large hands, so perhaps the E7′s keyboard isn’t that suited for me.
The battery life of the E7 has not been very stellar in my usage; the device is often left dead or dying even before the day is done, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the E7 packs in the exact same 1200mah battery that’s in relatively less power-hungry smartphones like the E5. Perhaps I’m pushing it too hard by having an always-active 3G data connection, but isn’t staying connected 24/7 the entire point of a device like this? This leads into one of my biggest gripes with the E7: the non-user replaceable battery. I know compromises have to be made to achieve the sleek hardware design, yadda yadda yadda. But when design gets in the way and takes priority over utility and usability, it’s bad design. Worse still, the only way to juice the E7 up is via the microUSB port; the 2mm Nokia charging jack is nowhere to be found on this thing. Why, Nokia, why? Don’t you know how prevalent your proprietary chargers are these days? Even in the transition to microUSB charging, why can’t you leave the option open?
There has been quite a bit of negativity about the lack of a microSD card slot on the E7, but I personally don’t really see it as that big of an issue for the mass market because the 16GB of mass memory is ample for most. The pros and geeks are certainly disappointed (ahem, well, that’s basically the E7′s target audience right there), and the constrained amount of storage means that despite the large and beautiful display, you won’t be watching that many movies on this thing if you’ve already got a sizeable music collection. What a pity, isn’t it?
The hardware issues with the E7 don’t end with the lack of expandable memory. The menu button on the front feels a little on the cheap and flimsy side, compared to the solid button on the N8. Press feedback is poor, and it’s hard to hit accurately when the E7 is used in anger. Even the blinking notification LED in the menu button does not look as elegant as the N8′s solution. Also, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I seem to mistakenly tap something on the lower edge of the E7′s screen when flicking the display up in landscape orientation half the time. In addition, I have no lack of unkind words for the volume slider switch on the right edge. It’s tiny, slow, clumsy and literally painful to use. The surface of the switch is so rough that it isn’t comfortable to one’s thumb at all. I have no kind words for the E7′s speaker either – it’s soft, tinny and so poorly positioned that it not only sounds muffled when the E7 is placed on a surface, it still sounds muffled when the E7 is held with both hands in landscape mode because a finger or two is sure to be covering the little slit. Was this aspect of the design even thought over?
The E7 has an 8 megapixel EDOF camera, which pretty much means it lacks autofocus and is completely useless at doing macros. Therefore, although there’s a weird insect on my bedroom wall as I’m typing this that I’d really like to show you, I can’t take a reasonable photo of it and send it up to Twitter with the E7. Again, the pros and geeks have been very disappointed, and so have I. And since the camera glass isn’t recessed in any way, it’s sure come in contact with every sort of surface the E7 is placed on and get scratched to hell. I’m sorry, EDOF apologists, but autofocus is arguably one of the most important bits of a usable, modern smartphone camera and the fact that the high-end E7 lacks an autofocus camera unit is unacceptable. No matter how many times you try to convince everyone that the photos of far-away subjects obtained from EDOF cameras really are comparable to those shot by autofocus cameras, the fact remains that EDOF is far less versatile than autofocus, so much so that it might as well be considered fixed-focus. And an EDOF camera is unacceptable on such an expensive, high-end smartphone, no matter how many times you try to convince everyone that it’s just fine. It really isn’t.
I am willing to make one concession though; for everyday use EDOF is mostly fine. For instance, I’m currently doing a ‘Nokia E5 Photo of the Day’ thing on Google+ where I shoot a photo each day with my Nokia E5 and upload it on Google+, and I’ve managed to achieve some pretty darn acceptable photos so far, with or without editing. But EDOF cameras are just so lacking in versatility that it’s hard to take them seriously; all they’re good for is spur-of-the-moment shots when you’ve got nothing better on you.
Rounding out the E7′s hardware, I do appreciate the little additions like the white LED next to the microUSB port indicating charging status, and the surprisingly good pair of in-ear earphones in the box that I’d actually use. But as far as the device itself goes, I guess Nokia has made some compromises too many with the E7 that, rather ironically, make this device unsuitable for the very audience it was aimed at.
The software side of the E7 is plain old Symbian^3. Since it is likely already a very familiar entity to readers of this site, I won’t go into great detail into the bundled apps, the user experience, the functionality and other specifics like that; instead, I’ll jump straight into what I like and dislike about this implementation of Symbian^3 on the E7. First of all, the hardware keyboard on the E7 really makes pre-Anna Symbian^3 usable; I’ve used the E7 with the keyboard exposed just about 75% of the time. I still love the always-present clock display on the E7, and have had quite some fun playing around with Nokia Sleeping Screen. I like the slickness and smoothness of the Symbian^3 UI, even though it’s rather dated-looking and uninteresting now. I feel that Nokia’s Qt push has started to pay off on Symbian^3; we now have apps like Molome, Kasvopus, LinkedIn, TwimGo, Moodagent, WordPress, WeatherHD and 4squick. I also feel that the gaming experience on Symbian^3 hardware is pretty much on par with the competition, which makes me quite happy after the no-hardware-graphics-acceleration and N-Gage Platform nonsense through the past few years. Features like multiple calendar support, scheduled sync, pinch zooming, 3D album art carousel in the music player, USB OTG, 18 widget slots across 3 homescreens and Ovi, no, Nokia Maps also make for a user experience that’s still rather enjoyable if you know your way around Symbian. But then the bad stuff begins.
Let’s start with Nokia Social. I had to upgrade the client to the latest version via a .SIS file procured off All About Symbian, but that’s not the point. It’s virtually useless, and even casual users would be better off using the Twitter and Facebook mobile sites through Opera Mobile. Yes, I’m serious. The homescreen widget is nice, but the rest of the app is balls. Scrolling is jittery, the entire app is slow as hell, the Facebook module lacks notifications view, the Twitter module lacks any ability to retweet and no longer pulls in DMs after Twitter’s policy change, there’s an utterly useless and time-wasting blue-green splashscreen, the virtual soft-keys are too large especially in landscape mode, it does not remember your passwords at all, the font size of the text in the app is either too large or too small, the menus don’t look good and even the graphics are non-standard and inconsistent. And can you guess why this is the case? Because Nokia could not be bothered to do this app properly. Nokia Social is so horrid it might as well not exist.
Moving on to the Ovi Store, I feel that it still isn’t as slick as I’d have liked. Sure, it now scrolls smoothly and looks pretty, but it’s still rather slow at transitioning between various parts of the UI and apps and game installations aren’t exactly reliable in my experience, having seen various Ovi Store install attempts fail. It’s a huge step up from Ovi Store on older Symbian platforms, but it still does not feel as slick and as dependable as I’d like. I’m still crossing my fingers each time Ovi Store loads up and each time I try downloading and installing something from the Store. It’s still not as good as I’d like, and the selection of apps isn’t really that great at all, even today. Many of the ‘top free’ apps in the Symbian^3 Ovi Store are also available for download on my E5.
But one of the E7′s biggest problems right now, as far as software is concerned, is that it really lets down the reputation that Nokia’s Eseries line has built up for rock-solid OS stability. I’m quite sure Anna will mitigate some of these issues, but the E7 has felt rather prone to lag and slowdowns during my usage of the device, and unexplained freezes have occurred. Weird errors like the music player refusing to play any music have also presented themselves, which I guess is really down to Symbian arthritis. Also, it is possible to run out of RAM on the E7, especially with multiple tabs open in Opera Mobile. The experience of having apps forcibly shut down by the OS is not enjoyable at all. Symbian^3 also suffers from issues such as the threaded SMS view in Conversations in Messaging flickering each time it has to be refreshed i.e. a message is sent or received, which just hints at it being a tacked-on afterthought that’s not really written properly. Also, there may now be 18 widget slots across 3 homescreens, but I can’t help but feel that there’s really a lack of compelling widgets available to fill all of these slots. What’s the point then?
It’s been a rather long read, but I can’t say I’m really in love with the E7 in the end. It’s a beautiful phone, don’t get me wrong, but there are far too many compromises and downsides that you’ll have to put up with, and it’s far too expensive even now for what it is. My favourite Symbian^3 device is still the first – although I’d be mostly happy to live with an E7 as my main smartphone, I wouldn’t buy one for myself. It’s just too bad really. I really wanted this device to be the pinnacle of Symbian technology, the device to love, treasure and hold on to even as Symbian rides off into the sunset. But I’m afraid that title, sadly, remains with the N8.