We like Nokia's touch-and-type approach to a business smartphone, but there are still so many other smartphones available that are better than the E6.
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 hue.
It's near-impossible to take sharp photos with the fixed-focus lens.
Although some colours in this pic pop, overall most photos we took looked gloomy.
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 BlackBerry OS.
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.