Friday, May 6, 2011

A mini-review of Nokia E7 - the phone you'll love to hate

I have been using the Nokia E7 smartphone for ten days or so, and based on this huge experience I decided to write a kind of mini-review, to get rid of some of the frustration of using the device. It may be that my feelings change later on, as they have already: I now think that the map services work quite fine on the E7.

And even though this mini-review doesn't have much to do with photography, there is a connection related to how we use devices, of which I wrote earlier: "[H]uman beings use very simple models of themselves and the devices they use. For example, when we ride a bicycle, we don't use a model including all the hundreds of little details - instead, we rely on a cartoon-like model of the bicycle, which is enough for us to control it."

A touch phone is interesting as for the user it seems that she controls the device much more directly that with dedicated buttons or mouse or a keyboard. But of course this is a kind of illusion, as the touch control is actually implemented using an additional layer of abstraction: the device is trying to "guess" what the user is intending to do.

But lets continue to the mini-review...

A mini-review of Nokia E7 by Juha Haataja

The Nokia E7 could have been so great: a touch phone with a real keyboard, with all the best business productivity features you could wish for. But although the E7 makes a brave attempt, it fails in the end.

Nokia has already quite a lot of experience of touch phones, and this shows in the user interface of the E7. It responds (usually) promptly, and you get a feeling of direct interaction with the phone, quite a different level of connection than by just using buttons. The "shake" feedback when you activate something on screen feels (!) real good - on one could say that it is a good touch...

So, this is what is most sweet about the phone: an intuitive feeling how one can interact with a phone, as if it was almost part of yourself, responding immediately to your touch on the objects visible on the screen. Of course this is just what has made the iPhone such a hit - not having used an iPhone this was a novel experience for me, but now I know what is the big new thing.

Despite earlier being quite critical about the value of the iPhone or the iPad, I might some day buy an iPhone or an iPad just to get things done by touching the display, in a direct manner.

The E7 has a user interface with a lot of potential - when it works. But often it doesn't. (I'll come back to this.)

The touch interface works sometimes very well indeed. For example, when I touch the clock on the home screen, this brings up all the wake-up alarms etc. for easy check and update.

Or if I touch the date field, I get a monthly calendar view where it is easy to go to the desired date, for example for setting a meeting for the next month. Or when I touch the battery and network icons, I gain access to what wireless connections are available etc.

Also, the E7 has quite a lot of capabilities, for example the possibility of using the Eduroam wireless infrastructure, authenticated with 802.1x. Well, I have to admit it took quite some time (and help of a colleague - thanks, Pekka!) to get this working, delving in to the menus within menus within menus (almost ten layers of them), but it works.

And there are some very good apps in the Nokia Ovi store, for example Sports Tracker, which uses assisted GPS to monitor your training activities - in my case, riding the bicycle or walking in the woods. You get the precise track displayed on screen and all the timing you wish for, including an approximation of how many calories were consumed. One can also link a Polar heart rate monitor to this to get an even better analysis.

Using Sports Tracker I found out that my bicycle commute to work is 12.1 km and that it took today 38 minutes to get back home, with an average speed of about 19 km/h.

But after these praises, lets go to the drawbacks of the E7. And there are a lot of them.

Lets start with the hardware and design issues. One of the consistently irritating issues, at least for me, is caused by the round edges of the phone. This design makes the phone to look quite good, but in practice it doesn't work so great.

To get a good grip I need to curl my fingers around the edges, and this results in lots of unintended presses in the touch display. This gets annoying after a while.

Another thing is the poor camera. It does have promise, as the camera starts up quick and takes photographs with small focus or shutter delay. But the image quality is quite poor for a 8 megapixel sensor.

And worst of all, the closest focusing distance is 50 cm or so, which means that is almost impossible to capture handwritten notes. Or use an app like UpCode, which recognizes and reads in barcodes, QR codes, DataMatrix codes etc. Because the camera on the E7 can't focus close enough, UpCode doesn't work at all.

Another thing with the camera is the shutter button, which you easily press by mistake. A colleague has made an impressive collection of photographs of floors, as the camera is activated by mistake in the hand. Well, at least the floor is far enough for the camera to focus on, and the poor image quality shouldn't matter either.

But lets go to the real problems with the E7: poor battery life, unreliability and confusing user interface.

Battery life is terribly short. I have used all kind of battery saving tricks, such as using wlan/wifi whenever possible (thus, Eduroam), checking the e-mail only once every hour, etc. etc. But you still need to charge the phone daily, or every second day if you power off the phone during nights. This is quite a hassle.

Also, the phone has crashed almost daily. One day I got two crashes. My reason for switching to the E7 from the old E90 was that the E90 had one or two crashes weekly, resulting in missed meetings and phone calls.

But here I am with a new phone which has these issues almost daily. And the crashes result in settings being randomly reset. For example, I have re-set my home screens a couple of times, and made small fixes to the settings half a dozen times when they have been changed in the crashes.

And then there is the problem of the user interface differing from one app to another. When you think you have learned to use the phone instinctively, there appears a new app or setting, which is at first completely unfamiliar. You wonder, once again, how this is supposed to work.

It is as if each of the Nokia engineering teams had got a different set of instructions, for example because the originals have been translated first into Chinese, then into English/German/Japanese/... - resulting in complete confusion how things should work in the software.

So, as a summary: the Nokia E7 is a phone which you do like, but you also hate it. However, it could have been a really good phone.

Of course there are some issues with the design and hardware which can't be fixed. But I'm hoping that there will be a software update WHICH WILL FIX ALL THE SOFTWARE ISSUES. But will there be anything like that when Symbian is no longer a smartphone technology which Nokia is committed to?

But I'm still hoping...


Markus Spring said...

"Leaf and fly" is wonderful delicate.

Juha Haataja said...

@Markus: Here I was assisted by our youngest daughter, who threw the old leaf onto the water helping to generate the composition...

Anonymous said...


I'm really sorry for bothering you with this, but I've recently acquired an E7 and simply cannot connect it with eduroam in my college. I have it on 808.1x, using EAP-PEAP and EAP-MSCHAPv2 and I can get it to recognize the network, but it says the authentication fails.

Thank you for the review

Juha Haataja said...

@Anonymous: There were several tricky points in setting up Eduroam. Later I had to do it again after a software update, and it was once again tricky.

Have you got the required certificate? I'm using UTN-USERFirst-Hardware but yours may differ.

Then I have enabled PEAPv0, v1 and v2.

One tricky point was that in connection with the certificate I needed to give whatever@mydomain as the user name, in which "whatever" can be anything (no need for your real user id), but domain needs to be your home domain.

And then later with EAP-MSCHAPv2 one needs to give the real user name and password.

But this is really, really involved, and you may need to consult a colleague who has got this working with a Nokia Symbian phone (not necessarily the E7).