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A review of the Nokia E71

by Joel Spolsky
Friday, August 22, 2008

When Apple’s iPhone 3G came out, I was pretty sure I’d get one. It had all the features I was waiting for. But the lines just weren’t going away.

searched Twitter. For a week, then two, every day brought fresh reports of five-hour waits.

And then the reports of bugs started coming in. The Exchange synchronization features weren’t up to snuff, I heard. The phone crashed regularly, I heard. Basic operations were painfully slow. Battery life was abysmal.

Adam Curry suggested getting a Nokia E71. I had never heard of this thing. Nokia? Really? For years I had always thought that Nokia made chunky Europhones that were always just one button short of a usable user interface.

But, no, the more I investigated, the more it seemed that the E71 was a truly credible alternative to the iPhone 3G. The reviews coming in from Europe were stellar. There was one hitch: it didn’t seem to be on sale over here.

There was one last hope. Around the corner from the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, Nokia had opened a pricy boutique where they sold unlocked, unsubsidized cell phones, mostly to foreign tourists who invaded New York to take advantage of our banana-republic currency.

“Do you have the E71?” I asked.

“I have a demo model you can look at,” the guy said.

It seemed very sleek. Smaller than the iPhone, all metal, nothing chintzy… with the best keyboard I’ve ever used on a phone.

“They’re not on sale until tomorrow… if we have any left after tonight’s super-exclusive launch party. Which is invite only,” he emphasized.

I’m shameless. “How do I get invited?”

“Well, um, put your name on this list.” He gave me a blank piece of paper. “And come back at 6 pm.”

Which I did. There was a short line of a dozen Nokia fans—a somewhat ghetto version of the five hour iPhone lines. Within minutes, I had my E71, and they even helped me with the arduous task of popping in the SIM.

Plink! It worked!

I’ve been using it for a month now, and I’m completely sold. This is the best phone I’ve ever had. I love it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think the iPhone is brilliant. The Apple iPhone is truly an inspired piece of design that pushed the state of the art and then went about ten steps further. If the iPhone competed in the Olympic swimming tournaments, Michael Phelps would have just retired on the spot and given up swimming for life.

For many people, the iPhone 3G is perfect. I thought that it meant “game over” for all the other handset makers. But Nokia is a fantastic company and they weren’t going to give up that easy. Their new E71 is a fantastic phone, clearly inspired by the competition, and the game is not over.

There were three reasons I was looking to upgrade.

  1. I wanted a phone with a decent MP3 player, so I don’t have to carry two devices.
  2. I wanted to be able to use the phone’s internet connection to get online with my laptop on the train out to the Hamptons (there’s tolerable 3G coverage on AT&T for the first two hours of the trip).
  3. I needed great Exchange synchronization, not just an IMAP client. For the last few weeks I’ve been desperately trying to get Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero concept working and you need a great Exchange client, not a 1.0 Exchange client.

The E71 met most of these requirements. It’s got a decent music player, a built-in podcasting client (so I can download podcasts directly instead of going through my desktop PC), and it’s even got an FM radio. There’s a third party software app called JoikuSpot which uses the 3G connection and the WiFi in the phone to turn your phone into a mobile hotspot so you can surf from your laptop. When I tried JoikuSpot, it kept dropping the connection, so I can’t say that was the perfect experience, but I’ll keep trying.

Nokia’s built in Exchange synchronization is very 1.0. It doesn’t know about folders, which means there’s no way to get things out of my inbox into an archive folder after I deal with them. This was unacceptable. It meant I would have to go through all those emails again when I got back to my desk. But there’s a third party app, DataViz RoadSync, which handles Exchange synchronization and does support folders, and that works perfectly.

There are some other great features I discovered when I really got into this phone.

The GPS is great fun. It doesn’t work indoors. It doesn’t work in the city where the sky is a distant memory. But it works when you’re out in the country, and it’s really fun to get Google Maps satellite images showing exactly where you are. That is, if you’re not so far out in the country that there’s no cell reception. Combined with the 3 megapixel camera, if you’re really lucky, you can snap pictures and then upload them directly to your Flickr account, and the picture will be tagged with its exact location. You have to be pretty lucky for this to work: getting the GPS to find enough satellites is not always possible.

The pictures are, um, well, cellphone quality. I uploaded a few sample pictures. It's for snapshots and memories, not photography.

The fit and finish of this phone is amazing. It’s the slimmest Nokia I’ve ever seen: smaller in every dimension than an iPhone. It feels solid. The keys on the keyboard are really clicky and extremely easy to type with, especially combined with the predictive word autocomplete. (Why don’t desktop word processors have autocomplete yet?)

The battery lasts a couple of days under heavy use, and is easy to replace, so I keep a spare around for those days when I forgot to charge the phone.

The call quality is the best I’ve ever experienced. After years of using junky phones I literally did not know cell phone calls could be this good. The external speaker (for hands-free operation) is the loudest I’ve ever heard. The phone will announce your callers by name using a synthesized voice. There are probably dozens of other features buried in here which I haven’t found. I think there’s a second camera in front for video calls but I’m way too old to figure out how to make that work.

The music player is adequate, but not great. It’s amazing how something as simple as playing MP3s is so fraught with minor problems… Apple makes it look easy to build an MP3 player, so when someone else tries, it’s always surprising to see just how hard it is to get right. On the E71:

  • The sound quality is not quite as good as Apple
  • It takes too many steps to shuffle music
  • You hear unexplained static in the headphones when no music is playing.
  • The volume control has exactly ten choices. It reminded me of those old AT&T public telephones with three amplification choices for the hearing impaired. You have to choose between too soft and too loud.
  • When you’ve listened only to a part of a long podcast, the phone doesn’t remember where you were up to, so if you go back to it, you have to search around for the point where you left off.

The built-in browser was decent, but ignore that… just install Opera Mini, which is stellar. I still haven’t found a website which doesn’t display respectably on this phone with Opera Mini. There's a built in GPS map application, which always freezes. Ignore that, too. The free Google Maps is better.

This phone is inevitably going to be compared to the Apple iPhone 3G, so I might as well list the big pros and cons of each.

  • The iPhone has a bigger, touch-sensitive screen, which makes the browsing experience better. On the other hand, the Nokia E71 has a fantastic physical keyboard that makes it very easy to reply to email. This is just a tradeoff; you’re going to have to decide whether the browsing or the typing is more important to you.
  • The iPhone apps are easier to use and simpler. Apps on the Nokia tend to have more features (for example, there is true multitasking, so you can listen to podcasts while working on email and downloading web pages in the background, and then you can take a picture without losing a beat). In general I think that geeks will prefer the Nokia for its functionality, while the iPhone is totally the phone for people who are less technical and don’t want to spend any time setting up their phone and downloading software to get it exactly the way they want it.
  • The Nokia has a replaceable battery and a replaceable storage card which may make it fit your lifestyle better if you’re a heavy user.

In any case, it’s the best phone I’ve ever had and I’m loving it.


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