Posted by: jjarmasz | August 26, 2011

Nokia: PLEASE get your act together and get the E7 form factor right!

So it’s been roughly a week since I sent back the Nokia E7 that WOMWorld had graciously loaned me for a two week trial and review. I’ve waited a bit to write up my final thoughts on it, partly because I’ve been busy, but mostly because I wanted to wait a bit to see if it had that elusive X factor – did I miss it when it was gone?

Short answer: not really, almost not at all in fact! That is, not until I need to write a long-ish email or start collecting thoughts for a blog post. Then… I start looking at prices of E7’s and other physical qwerty-keyboard equipped smartphones on eBay.

Here’s a somewhat longer answer:
Like I said before, my main phone is another Nokia, the N8. Same OS (Symbian), so the main differences are the N8’s smaller screen size (3.5” compared to 4”), its superlative and much-beloved full-focus 12 MP camera (whereas the E7 only has an 8 MP EDoF or “full focus” camera), and the E7’s fantastic keyboard. I have to admit that I was somewhat prejudiced going into the two-week trial with the E7: I assumed that, in day-to-day stuff, I would much prefer the E7’s large screen and physical keyboard to the N8’s smaller, touch-screen-only form factor, but would be sorely disappointed by the E7’s camera when I tried to take pictures. And I was wondering which factor – keyboard vs camera – would win out in my mind.

Things didn’t quite turn out that way, though…

Much to my surprise, I found the E7’s camera to be more respectable than I imagined. There is not a shadow of a doubt that it is not as good as the N8’s masterpiece. But for casual snaps and photoblogging on the move (e.g., uploading pics to twitter), it was more than adequate. Yes, it fails in low light, and yes, it can’t take good close-ups. But the fact is that even the N8 can’t fully compete with a good single-lens reflex camera under those conditions (comes close, though). And the E7’s digital zoom on the camera does compensate – to a degree – for the poor close-up performance, as you can see on these shots:

On the ferry

Attempted close-up with the E7.

On the ferry

Using the E7's digital zoom to fake a close-up

So I found the camera to be less of a negative than I expected. And the keyboard and screen were just great, as I mentioned in my previous post about the E7. What really disappointed me about the E7, as I also said before, were the weight of the device, and the poor battery performance. Put together, they actually made me feel a little uncomfortable being out of the house or the office with it, away from a power supply and back-up phones. I almost felt like I had to hold it very gingerly when it was out of my pocket, perhaps because of its large size (I don’t have huge hands), even though it is built like a tank.

Going back to the N8 this past week, I also found that the larger screen and physical keyboard of the E7, while providing a great experience, were not better to the point that they outweighed the N8’s advantages. For my typical daily activities, the screen on the N8 is just fine, the device feels perfect in the hand or pocket, and its virtual landscape keyboard is quite adequate for my needs (in fact it’s one of my favourite virtual keyboards on a phone – and yes, I have tried the iPhone’s keyboard). So, day-to-day, and somewhat to my surprise, I have not missed the E7 at all since I sent it back.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great device, and if an E7 were to magically find its way into my possession, I would happily use it, maybe even as a main device (maybe). But here is the thing about the E7: setting aside the whole issue of whether you should even buy a Symbian device now (I say it depends on your use case, but that’s another discussion), I think the E7 is actually done a disservice by its superb build quality and form factor. What do I mean? I mean that, when you pick up this hefty, rock-solid, unibody aluminum device with its glistening “Clear Black Display” screen, and you look at its hefty price tag, you really expect a device with a battery that will last for ever, with a super-powerful processor that will best anything in the industry, with a top-notch camera, and with masses of internal storage (either built-in or expandable). And the E7 doesn’t really have any of these. For a device commanding a high price tag, you expect something you know you will be happy with for a long, long time – 12 months at least! – and I am not convinced the E7 would provide that for anyone other than die-hard Symbian fans.

I think Nokia should have gone one of 2 ways with the E7 (or maybe both?) I think it should have either made it into more of a budget phone, at a lower price point, where its failings would have been easier to forgive (and maybe, with cheaper plastic materials, it might have been lighter too). Or it should have really been Nokia’s flagship phone, with the N8’s camera, expandable memory, and maybe an overclocked CPU. I can assure you that in either case I would have been scrambling to scrape up the cash and ordering the E7 from overseas (I live in that mobile phone wasteland that is Canada, after all). As it is, the E7, while a pleasantly solid performer in my case, still left me feeling a bit ‘meh…’

That said, every couple of days I feel like sending a long-ish email, or collecting some thoughts about a topic, maybe starting a blog post – and I am stopped by the fact that I refuse to do that on a touch-screen phone. And because of my workplace’s IT policies, I can’t typically do these from my work computer either. That’s when I start eyeing the auctions for E7’s on eBay and looking at the unlocked Androids with full size keyboards like the HTC Desire Z or the Motorola Milestone 3… which both have their issues as well. And to be honest all the slab-like phones coming out now are just boring. We need more keyboards, dang it!! And I know I am not alone (more proof) in thinking that.

So I am going to end my review of the E7 with this plea: Nokia – or any one else for that matter – please, please PLEASE get your act together, and keep this slide-out/tilt-up large screen form factor going! It’s a great form factor and it would be a home-run with the right internals and a kick-ass, modern operating system. Like that N950 you kinda-sorta released… but that also is a story for another time. Hopefully we will see more phones from Nokia with the E7 form factor, with Windows Phone or or whatever other OS they end up being, and similar designs from other manufacturers. Because the mobile world needs more variety!

And, before I go, I want to again express my deep thanks to the team at WOMWorld/Nokia for providing devices to ordinary folks like me who aren’t professional, or even just regular, tech bloggers. It’s nice to be able to have some close-up experiences with devices we would probably only ever see in shops or on the web. It’s a great way to reach out to the wider community, and I hope they keep doing it with whatever devices Nokia produces in the future.

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