Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Review: Nokia E61 (first look)

A few days ago I purchased a Nokia E61 phone specifically to replace my Sony Ericsson P900. I want a phone that serves as an address book and calendar to similarly to a Palm. It must synchronize with Apple\'s iSync well to be useful.

The phone should also allow me to surf the web and occasionally check my emails. I specifically wanted a 3G (i.e. UMTS) phone so I can use it as a cellular modem from my iBook with tolerable speed.

I specifically do not want a camera because there are issues with some of my clients (a lot of facilities forbid cameras on site and therefore camera phones.) I also don't like the idea of spending money on something that I will never use because the quality is apalling. O.K, if you know of a camera phone that can keep up with even a mid-range compact digital camera, let me know.

There are only a handful of phones currenty (July 2006) on the market that meet this description:

  • Nokia E60

  • Nokia E61

  • Nokia Communicator 9300i

  • Sony Ericsson M600i

The Sony Ericsson M600i software currently has a lousy reputation on various internet forums because of the many, many bugs. After my experience with the SE P900, I am predisposed to believe this and struck the device off my short list.

The Communicator is a great device, but it is fairly expensive (currently € 520). There are a number of issues with it and iSync that I did not feel like getting into.

There is also the issue that Nokia appear to have decided that the Series 80 must be milked for what it is worth but not really improved. I do not see a vibrant future for this class of devices.

What sealed the 9300i\'s fate is the fact that it is not a 3G phone. I\'m tired of having to wait for ages for the bits too trickle in.

The E60 and the E61 are very similar in price (€ 320 and € 350, respectively) and feature set. The E60 is candy-bar shaped, the E61 looks more like a Blackberry with a large QVGA screen and a keyboard.

I could not find either at a local store to play with, so I decided the larger screen would probabyl be an advantage for web browsing and the keyboard for email, so I ordered an E61 intending to send it back if it did not please.

Physical Properties

My last Nokia phone was a 6210 (probably bought in 2000 or 2001) which I absolutely loathed because after a few weeks the back cover/battery decided to loose contact with the phone body every few hours, especially when in a pocket or bag, turning the phone off. Nokia was not helpful, so I swore to forgo Nokia phones until things got better. So, to say the least, I was very interested in build quality of the phone when I opened the box.

The physical quality of the device impresses me. It is just heavy enough to convey the feeling that I\'m holding something solid. All surfaces are smooth and edges are nicely curved so they are a pleasure to touch. The quality felt is, although very different in nature, similar in intensity to an iPod.

The back cover is made of aluminum and it fits very snugly to the phone body. The battery, SIM card, and optional MiniSD flash card all fit under the cover. To release the cover a button must be pressed fairly deeply. This looks like it will keep things securely in place.

The screen is absolutely gorgeous. It is crisp and bright, contrast is good, even in sunlight, and the writing on screen is easy to read.

The keyboard is adequate. I can type using two thumbs, but the keys are spaced too close to one another to be comfortable. My old Treo 270c had a much better keyboard.

The joystick is nice. It works exactly like I would expect. It is not as good, in my opinion, as a touch screen with a stylus, which I would prefer, but it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. I did have to actually read the manual to figure out how to copy/paste text using it. [If you\'re curious: hold the shift key while moving the joystick to select text. Then press CTRL+C to copy and CTRL+P to paste.]

I also had to read the manual to figure out what the four keys between the screen and the keyboard are. The soft keys are pretty well self-explanatory, but the button to initiate and the button to end a conversation really should be labeled with a pictogram. Even entry-level phones have labeled keys.

Basic Features

The basic phone features are all very easy to use. I won\'t comment on this any further except to say that this is actually a huge achievement for Nokia: the phone does not get into my way when I try to do something. I now see why some people claim that Nokia is the Apple of phones.
The address book is even nicer than the P900\'s: it features live searching for anything entered into the search bar, which is much better than the selection of the first letter of the last name and then scrolling down a list.

The calendar is very basic. I don\'t mind that there are very few bells and whistles (such as different categories for events), but an option to show an entire day on the screen in the weekly view without having to scroll is very useful to me indeed.

Synchronization with my Mac (OS X 10.4.7) was as easy as

  1. downloading and installing the plugin from mactomster.de

  2. enabling Bluetooth on the Mac and the E61

  3. pairing the two using Bluetooth Assistant

  4. starting iSync and initiating first sync

All data was transferred correctly. I am impressed.

Internet Use

The web browser is simply spectacular and unlike anything I have seen on a mobile phone to date (even though Opera is close). Based on the same KHTML engine as Safari, it supports HTML, XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Cookies. I did not find a website that works with Safari but fails to work with this beauty.

I like the ability to scroll around a large page using the joystick. This is more compatible than the way Opera reformats pages. It is also a bit more akward to use, but that is the price to pay ...

I really like the way a thumbnail of the page is shown both when scrolling the page and when pressing the BACK button. This makes it very easy to see where I am going.

Cookie handling sucks, but it does that on all browsers that I have ever seen except for iCab and Firefox. I would also like more control over which sites get to use JavaScript, but again, only those two browsers seem to allow this.

Email accounts are easy to set up, and they actually work! This is no mean feat, if the P900 is any indication ...

There is no instant messaging client for any of the usual IM services included, so I have not tested this yet.

I have also not tested VOIP yet.


I can get 3G service using the E61. I have not noticed a significant speed increase compared to the P900 using GPRS while browsing web sites. This may be due to the browser because downloading email is definitely faster.

In the near future I plan to set up the phone as a cellular modem for the Mac to test data rates.

The P900 totalled all the traffic coming to and going from the phone on every network profile. The E61 aggregates this information for a grand total and it allows me to see the traffic for every single connection. I could not find a total per connection.

This is a bad thing because I am charged by the kB on UMTS and GPRS but WLAN is free, but there is only a sum for both or only individual connection data which I have to total manually.


It is easy to set up the phone to use an 802.11b/g wireless LAN if one is available. This is nice because it allows me to use my free WLAN at home to download emails in the morning and then to just send replies and get new messages using the expensive mobile data services.

Setup is just as simple as on a Mac or PC, you simply enter all the different required information and the phone does the rest. Nokia's WLAN implementation in the E61 claims to support all of the currently used forms of securing wireless networks (WEP, WPA, EAP). I have only tested WPA-PSK because that is what I use for my network. It works like a charm.

Internet access appears to be faster than a 3G data connection, which is expected. The speedup is most noticable with email. The processing required for rendering HTML seems to be the limiting factor for web browsing, so the speed gain is not as noticable.

It does feel weird to access a LAN using a phone at first, but it is something that I am sure I will grow used to quickly. :)

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