As our eyes pass across the dozen smartphones living in the CNET test labs, the E7 winks at us with its pleasantly different design. Even though our review unit is a charcoal grey colour, similar to the many black handsets around it, it still stands apart as having a unique look and feel — something that will appeal to anyone who likes to accessorise with a unique piece or two.
When we consider the E7 hardware, there are two features that really stand out. The obvious element is the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Like the N97, this hinge design slides the screen forward and then up on what appears to be a 45-degree angle. The keyboard is well-spaced and reasonably easy to use, with Nokia opting for a similar chiclet-style layout that we saw recently on the HTC Desire Z.
More eye-catching is the gorgeous 4-inch AMOLED display using Nokia's ClearDisplay technology. This screen is top-notch, with rich, deep blacks and vibrant colours. Nokia continues with its nHD resolution displays, and athough this is a mathematically lower resolution than most other smartphones in this price range, you'd be hard-pressed to spot the difference with higher-res screens.
E7 profile: the keyboard open at a 45-degree angle.
There are a couple of interesting design decisions made in the construction of the E7. For starters, the ubiquitous volume rocker has been replaced by a spring-loaded switch, though the functionality remains the same. Also, the aluminium unibody chassis is non-user accessible. This means that you can hot-swap SIM cards using a card drawer on the side of the phone, but it also means that the battery is non-replaceable. There's no microSD slot, either, which could pose a problem for anyone who doesn't find the 16GB of internal storage sufficient.
The E7 runs on Nokia's Symbian^3 operating system, and if you've read our review of the Nokia N8 then you probably know what we're about to say: it needs work. Symbian has three user-customisable home screens with six pre-defined segments for widgets. Some of these widgets look good and offer good information, like the date and time widget, but mostly these widgets struggle to offer usable functionality in the small slice of screen real estate they have to work with, and you'll wonder if they are worth the data they use to update themselves.
It's obvious that, since we reviewed the N8, Nokia has put some work into Symbian, but not enough to make it a fun, user-friendly environment. The system still feels sluggish in places, is prone to extended lag spikes and requires way too much user input to perform simple tasks. Still frustrating is that text input takes you to a separate screen requiring to confirm your input before returning to the original menu or web page.
We could have forgiven these annoying UI quirks if the experience of the UI had been slick and fast; however, it isn't. Swiping your finger across the home screen doesn't give you an immediate result; instead the phone vibrates, thinks then changes screen. It is these pauses, then seconds you lose with every interaction with Symbian that add up to an overall feeling of frustration when using the E7. All phones systems lag, even the most powerful Androids and even Apple's revered iPhone, but most smartphones do so infrequently. It is this element of the user experience, above all others, that Nokia needs to improve before it releases another Symbian device.
As an E-series device, the E7 joins a long line of communicator-branded handsets in what Nokia describes as its business range. So how does it fare for the busy professional?
At the core of this functionality, the E7's email and calendar offerings are good, but not exceptional. Nokia's email client has great support for a range of corporate and personal email servers and the ability to add up to ten email accounts, but the usability needs refining. The calendar could use a user experience tweak, but it also lacks important features like creating, accepting and rejecting meeting invitations.