Nokia has taken last year's E61 to the guillotine and, after a few simple strikes, has returned with one of the most attractive smartphones on the market at this time. Interestingly, this is where the smartphone market is finding the battle-lines drawn. The list of available specifications has become somewhat stagnant, and with Apple teasing the competition with the super-desirable iPhone, everyone else has been forced to play dress ups to catch the eye of fashion hungry business types.
In this regard Nokia has travelled down a more conventional path with its latest E-Series offerings. Devoid of the glossy piano-black casings of the N-Series, the E71 has a striking stainless steel finish, and avoids being the magnet for fingerprints most mobile phones tend to be these days. At only 10mm thick, the E71 is also one of the most portable smartphones available.
The most obvious concern for such a taut, trim business phone is how to pack a full QWERTY keyboard onto a device that still travels well in your pants pocket. Nokia has found a decent middle ground with its 37-button pad. Each of the keys is raised with a gentle pyramid shape distinguishing them from their neighbours. These keys are tiny, and miss-hits were a common occurrence for us during testing, but the more time we spent with the E71 the better we got. We had more trouble with the five-way navigation button where hitting the menu buttons to the sides by mistake opens new applications and menus and does become very tedious.
On-screen the latest Series 60 home screen and menus seems like a step back in time; the simplified graphics immediately reminded us of using Windows 3.11. This is obviously a deliberate move by Nokia to sacrifice visual flare for speedy performance, and as you'll read later, this trade off pays off.
As a combination of hardware and software, Nokia's E71 is one of the best featured smartphones we've seen this year. Indeed, smartphone hardware advancement is reaching a plateau with most of the phones in this category featuring a very similar combination of HSDPA data speeds, Wi-Fi and A-GPS connectivity.
Where the E71 really impresses is the raft of included software tools. Like Windows Mobile, Nokia's Symbian Series 60 operating platform has enticed hundreds of developers to create a wide variety of interesting and useful third-party applications, but all too often this software is tucked away on the internet. Browsing the pre-installed software on the E71 is a very pleasant experience with discoveries like pre-programmed voice-commands, a business card scanner, a QR barcode reader, Windows Live and Yahoo Go messaging clients, a dictionary, measurement converter, plus several more.
In regards to enterprise specific features, the E71 has all the major bases covered including support for Microsoft Exchange for syncing email, contacts and calendars with Microsoft Outlook, plus the ability to access the virtual private networks (VPN) set up in your office. Similar to trends in other major smartphone operating systems, Series 60 now supports automatic retrieval of personal settings from your remote mailbox service, meaning that when you set up a new email address you only have to punch in your address and password and the E71 takes care of the rest.
When the working week is finished and you feel like escaping from the stranglehold of business messaging, the E71 features a profile switching mode to change not only the phone's appearance, but also active email accounts and settings. This profile switching is fast enough that you could switch over to your personal profile at lunchtime and respond to your mate's emails on your GMail or Yahoo accounts.
Reading the white sheet for the E71 you may think this new Nokia is drastically underpowered. Its 369MHz ARM processor and 128MB RAM seem underwhelming on paper compared with the 620MHz processor Apple use in the iPhone and the 192MB RAM HTC has crammed into the Touch Diamond. However, spec-crunching aside, the E71 keeps up with its competitors with lightning fast navigation and processing, even when multitasking. Lag spikes are infrequent and the Series 60 operating system has been impressively stable during our tests.
Some people may disagree, but we've found the E71 offers one of the best Web 2.0 browsing experiences we've come across in recent smartphones, and this includes the touchscreen handsets which are tailor-made for online activity. Whether we used Wi-Fi or HSDPA network data, we found Web browsing to be very fast, and page rendering for standard sites to be mostly accurate and zippy. Navigating sites with the five-way nav key may not seem as intuitive or accurate as using fingers on a touch display, but we've had a much more pleasing online experience than with the competition.
A-GPS is relatively new to Nokia's E-Series (the E90 features inbuilt GPS), but Nokia is certainly no stranger to GPS chipsets, as is obvious from its stellar performance. Similar to our impressions of the GPS in the iPhone, the E71 finds satellite signals in record time. Coupled with Nokia's impressive Maps 2.0 software and Nokia's Mobile Holder CR-106 (not included), the E71 may just be the phone that has you listing your TomTom on eBay.
With its smaller display, some handy power-saving options and its massive 1500mAh battery, the E71 manages a handy three days of battery life between cycles. To replicate everyday use we maintained a 3.5G connection, left Wi-Fi scanning on, activated push email, and listened to at least one hour of music a day in addition to moderate calling and messaging.
When we saw the E61 last year we loved it: a BlackBerry-esque handset that connects to anything and everything. Nokia steps it up to the next level with the E71, improving its connectivity with A-GPS, adding a camera, improving the 3G speeds to HSDPA and managing to slim the handset across all dimensions. This is exactly what we expect to see in the successor to a popular product line.
Perhaps the most astonishing fact is that on top of E71's list of improvements, Nokia has also trimmed the price with its RRP listed at AU$709. All things considered, this is an absolute bargain for one of this year's best smartphones.