Nokia's Symbian platform is within a
transition this year, shifting from the critically panned Symbian^3 version 1.1
installed on last year's Nokia N8 to the
apparently improved Symbian Belle platform (Symbian^3 version 3) due for
release at the end of 2011. In many ways, the E6 is the piggy in the middle,
running an in-between version of Symbian on last year's hardware.
Do you fondly remember the Nokia E71? You're not
alone. The E71 was a huge hit for Nokia Australia back in 2008, and, in a lot
of ways, not a lot has changed between now and then. The E6 shares its
predecessor's dress sense, with a slick business aesthetic. Our review unit is
a combination of glossy black surfaces and a subtle stainless-steel border
running around the edge.
Unlike the E71, though, the E6 has dual
input methods. There is a full QWERTY keyboard, as before, but now you also get
a 2.46-inch colour capacitive touchscreen to tap away at, too. This is a smart
addition, although it's limited greatly by the space that Nokia allocates to
it. Perhaps we've been spoiled by the growing number of 4-plus-inch displays
that we've seen across the Android range this year, but this screen seems tiny
to our ageing eyes. Of course, its fine for the basics like entering phone
numbers before a call, or sending and receiving SMS, but it really is too small
for more complex smartphone functions, like web browsing and email.
The keyboard is still very much the
centrepiece of this experience, and it's an experience on par with previous
releases. The keys are tiny and packed in tightly to the space provided, and we
found that it took us a few days before we were confidently typing on the E6.
Each key is raised to a soft hump in the centre, which helps to differentiate
the keys, but only just.
As we said earlier, Nokia's user experience
is in a time of great change, and what you get with the E6 is the halfway point.
Nokia calls this version of Symbian Anna, and it includes some of the
useability improvements that Nokia intends to implement in its platforms by the
end of the year, but not all of them. The UI looks nicer than before, with
rounded edges and a new colour palette, and there are some standout
improvements, like the way that Symbian handles text entry in forms (read: the
way everyone else does it), but if you've been struggling with Symbian, then
you'll agree that the improvements don't go far enough in this release.
The home screen feels better to use now
than it did last year, with smoother scrolling animations between screens
giving it a faster feel. It's a shame, then, that the space for widgets on each
of these screens is broken into rigid segments, which are really only useful
for application shortcuts. Stranger still: these app shortcuts can only be
displayed in rows of four — you can't just grab an app from your main menu and
dump it down on the home screen. Hopefully, Symbian Belle gives more control to
users to make their phones look and work the way they want them to.
In the last 12 months or so, Nokia camera
phones have been split into two distinct categories. There's the traditional
camera with an auto-focus lens, usually with Nokia's excellent Carl Zeiss
optics, and then there is Nokia's fixed-focus solution, with no auto focus, but
a near-instantaneous shutter speed. The camera on the E6 is the latter. There's
no auto focus, but the camera does take pics in a half-second, by our count.
We saw the same fixed-focus camera hardware
in the Nokia C7 a while back, and, unfortunately, our opinion on this approach
hasn't changed much between then and now. The photos we've taken with the E6
are more often out of focus than in focus, suggesting that the super-fast
shutter is still not fast enough to eliminate slight movements in our hands.
There doesn't seem to be much in the way of post-image processing, with the
camera capturing what you see through the viewfinder before you take a shot,
and this tends to be a pretty cold representation of colour with a soft blue
Tools for trades
Nokia's E-series is the company's
business-focused offering, and, as such, the E6 comes pre-loaded with a swag of
useful business software. There are the basics, like Quickoffice for editing
Microsoft Office documents, a PDF reader, a ZIP file expander, a dictionary and
a calculator, etc. But this collection of business tools goes further still,
with F-secure security software, a text-to-voice app for reading messages while
you're driving, a voice recorder and Microsoft Communicator for staying in
touch with the rest of your team. Road warriors will also love the full, free
Nokia Maps with turn-by-turn navigation.
In the "connectivity" settings of
the E6 are a few more business-friendly additions to take note of. There is the
option to pass your internet traffic through your office VPN so that you can
access your company's intranet, though it would be fair to say that setting
this up is far more difficult than it is on an iPhone. There's also an option
to connect to a remote drive over a secure web connection, which would be handy
for a road warrior who sends data back to a central location in the office.
The tool most useful to business and
personal users alike will be the web browser, and although Nokia has made some
important enhancements in this current version, the web browsing experience on
the E6 is way behind our experience with most other smartphones this year.
Loading the desktop version of CNET Australia takes just over
30 seconds on the E6, while only taking 12 seconds or so on the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy
S II. Once the page is loaded, the E6 does a decent job of displaying our
content, but scrolling stutters unpleasantly and the browser is confused by
certain AJAX-powered fragments.
There's something about the appearance of
the Symbian platform that gives off the impression that the system is lean and
therefore fast, but, sadly, this still isn't the case. For the most part, the
system on the E6 keeps up with user input well, but there are parts of the
system that take way too long to get from A to B. Opening the Ovi Store app,
for example, takes 25 seconds before it is usable, which feels like forever
compared with the seven seconds it takes an iPhone 4 to load the iOS App Store.
One of the key factors behind the
performance issues that we encountered is Nokia's decision to use a 680MHz
Broadcomm processor in the E6, and 256MB of RAM. This is the same hardware that
Nokia built last year's N8 on, and it performs very much like a smartphone from
12 months ago or more.
The only upside to using this hardware, it
seems, is that the battery in the E6 lasts for days at a time. During our
tests, we found that we needed to charge this phone at the end of the second,
or sometimes even third, day, and Nokia estimates standby battery life of up to
a full month. This is vastly different from the barely single-day battery life
of most touchscreen smartphones of this year.
We don't want this to read like we're
taking any pleasure in rubbing salt in Nokia's very public wounds, but the E6
just isn't a very good example of what you should expect when buying a
smartphone in 2011. The touch-and-type approach is novel, and Nokia's styling
is impeccable, but the Symbian platform is still crippled with complexity
harking back to older versions of the software, and while many of the features
that business users will expect are available, Nokia's solutions just aren't as
elegant or as user friendly as the same solutions found in iOS, Android or the
There are a couple of strong elements to
this proposition, though: the keyboard is still great for users who demand this
as a feature, and the basics work well. Plus, there is the month of standby
battery life, which is absolutely unheard of across all other smartphone
systems in 2011, although the cynics in us believe that the amazing battery
life has something to do with the fact that you just won't use the E6 as much
as you might use an Android smartphone with a lovely, big touchscreen.