By Carl HoweIn my spare time when I wasn't involved in the recent Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone frenzy, I recently had the opportunity to use a Nokia (NYSE:NOK) E61i as my primary phone. Now the E61i feature list is what many people say is what the iPhone should have had: quad-band compatibility, full QWERTY keyboard with physical buttons, WiFi, Bluetooth, HSCSD/CSD (3G) data transfer, WCDMA, and EGPRS/GPRS support, and a replaceable battery.
It further boasts an add-on memory, an infrared port, a widely-supported OS (Symbian 60), Push Blackberry email (via add-on software), Microsoft Exchange support (also via a Nokia add-on software), and an infrared port. And given its relatively open development environment and hundreds of applications available from places like Handango.com, it should be an iPhone killer, or at least iPhone competitor, right?
Actually, not so much. Sadly, the E61i is much less than the sum of its specs.
Now make no mistake, the phone is much better than my ancient Nokia 3650 that it replaced. The phone itself is wide, but thin enough to fit comfortably in a shirt pocket. The screen is lovely to look at (if a far cry from the wide-screen delight of the iPhone) and bright. And the radio and call audio quality are up to typical Nokia standards. So what's there not to love?
Well, here are a few items that spoil the experience:
Strange connectivity choices. With an open WiFi network available, why does selecting a bookmark to browse send you off to the cell network by default? Try as I might, even using access point groups and other machinations, I could never get the Web browser to use WiFi without it asking if that was the right access point. Even when I said yes, many times it would go off and use the cell network anyway. Yes, it may have been a configuration error, but I spent days with the phone and its manual and never changed its behavior other than to have it explicitly ask what network to use. UPDATE: I finally determined that the problem here is that bookmarks store their network access points with them. That means that if you bookmarked the Yahoo! Mobile site on the cell network, it will use the cell network even if you now are in a WiFi hotspot that has more than 10 times the bandwidth. Just who came up with that crazy idea? Outright networking bugs. In trying to work around the above problem, I told the phone to always ask me what network to use. After choosing a WiFi network from the Web browser, about half the time, it would stop browsing with an error message, "General, Memory Full, Close some applications and try again." And that was with only the Web browser open. Similarly, if I had two different WiFi networks I could join, when I selected one to use from the WiFi scanner on the front page, it would invariably try the other one and complain when it didn't work. Limited Internet [IP] implementation. 25 years after the Internet was born, there is no excuse for a company deploying an incomplete IP protocol stack. Yet the "access point" system the Symbian OS uses can't accommodate such IP configuration needs such as assigned IP addresses or configurable name resolving that are required inside many companies. Painfully slow browsing. Even on a 56 Mbps WiFi network which should be blazingly fast, even a simple home page like Google's takes many seconds to load. Complicated pages take much longer. And while the pages render largely as expected (a nice change from most cell phone browsers), the browser then falls short again by ignoring simple browsing conventions like forward, back, and home buttons.
The network connectivity chaos between WiFi configurations working and not and the cell network was so bad that I would have switched over to the GSM/EDGE network full-time for a guaranteed connection -- if I'd had an unlimited data contract, which I don't. The result: I felt constantly cheated by the phone because it promised so much and didn't deliver.
Looking past the WiFi and Internet connectivity issues, other issues included:
Primitive media capabilities. On paper, this phone does it all -- it both records and plays audio and video, takes pictures, allows image browsing, the whole nine yards. But the user experiences for all these functions are just so DOS-like as to be ridiculous. You browse images, videos, and music by name, not by thumbnails or posters. And while the music player covers basic music playing functions, it's far from an iPod in terms of ease of organizing tracks and music -- especially when it's all text-based. And then you run into the second media challenge, namely.... Nonstandard audio output. This is a Nokia trademark -- no matter what wired headset you own, it won't work on your new Nokia phone. This one is no exception: any wired headset has to connect in through the proprietary docking port on the bottom of the phone. That may be no big deal in today's world of Bluetooth headsets for phone use, but this phone is supposed to be usable for playing music and watching videos. Anyone who expects to pull out their favorite headphones, be they be audio earbuds or Bose QuietComfort 3s, is going to be sorely disappointed that they can't use them on this phone. Poor responsiveness to the user. Even exclusive of the browsing features noted above, the phone isn't exactly what I would call responsive. Features that are particularly slow are those that involve customizing profiles and managing applications. It also has a bit of what I call "The Windows Alert Disease"; it provides you with dialogs such as "Refreshing..." or "Connecting using Networkname...." that you can't do anything about, but must simply observe until it's done doing them. Disorganized application settings. This is as much a Series 60 critique as the E61i, but why are settings scattered about the phone in a zillion different areas? Want to set up a means for the phone to get to the Internet? Sure, that's setting up an Access Point in Menu > Tools > Settings > Connection > Access Points. But if you want to set up Bluetooth, that's in a completely different place: Menu > Tools > Connect > Bluetooth. Want to manage your Web Bookmarks? Strangely, that's not under Web or Services, but under Media.
Now on positive notes, I love the fact that this phone actually has a decent, standards-compliant Web browser. I also love its solid, metallic case. And the keyboard, while heavy and slow to use, does feel solid in the hand. The Google Maps application looks gorgeous on the phone. The phone also comes with applications that integrate it with Microsoft Exchange and Blackberry email systems, which would be important to those trying to integrate the phone into large enterprise email installations. Sadly, though, ordinary POP and IMAP mail, which are the bread and butter of the Internet, felt like afterthoughts and ran afoul of the Internet connectivity challenges listed at the beginning.
But at the end of the day, the E61i software feels only incrementally better than what Nokia was putting out five years ago. It's a worthy competitor to phones that run Windows Mobile and it runs rings around today's Motorola (MOT) phones. But like it or not, any buyer forking out $450 for an Nokia E61i will shop it against Apple's entry level iPhone that is only $50 more. And with Apple completely rethinking today's mobile consumer experience, incremental improvement just isn't going to be enough to win that comparison.
Disclosure: The author is long Apple.