Mobile technology should not be about cramming the office into your pocket but a way to enjoy your everyday life.

Nokia E90 in practice


Great hardware, not so great operating system. That pretty much sums it up. Or, to make a pun out of it: "mocha is the new beige".

I have spent the weekend testing the new Nokia E90, at least 20 hours actively using it: everything from downloading podcasts over WiFi to syncing with outlook, uploading images to flickr, failing to get the GPS to work and factory resetting it a few times.

I kept a tradition alive, photographing the new phone in its box, using the previous phone. For some reason, these photos tend to look like they have been taken hastily.

The Nokia E90 is a nice looking phone, looking much like any normal S60 phone. It sits well in your hand and feels very sturdy indeed, almost metal-like. The external screen is a large 240x320 vertical screen and it works just like the screen in any other S60v3 smartphone. For the first time in any communicator, the external and internal screen are two different displays for the same device - any open application will resize itself on-the-fly and continue to run on the other screen when the phone is opened and closed. Previously, communicators have had two very separate parts, the phone part with a simple user interface on the external screen and a PDA part with a more sophisticated user interface and very few resources have been accessible from both parts - usually only text messages and contacts.

The E90 looks very much like a communicator, but it is just a S60 smartphone with a large internal screen and a keyboard - in fact, Nokia does not refer to this phone as a "communicator" anymore.

So, what used to be the difference between a communicator and a smart phone, other than the larger screen and keyboard? Well, the operating systems in previous communicators were very much computer like, with more similarities to desktop computing than to mobile phones, having user interfaces designed for large screens (640 pixels wide in all previous communicators).

Now, the E90 just uses a normal smartphone user interface spread over a large screen. Nokia has made a good job hiding this fact by putting preview panels and other stuff into that 2/3 of the screen that is left over when the applications only makes real use of the left side of the screen. Still, the problem is visible everywhere with applications that makes poor use of the screen real estate and divides things into tabs when everything could have been put on the same screen.

Nokia's original idea was to have one operating system (Symbian) and different user interfaces (Series 40, 60, 80 and 90) for devices with different screen sizes. Unfortunately, they where unable to do this in a way that would have made the same applications able to work on all user interfaces and the result was obvious to any Nokia 9500 (Series 80) user: there was almost no software available as developers where unwilling to spend time making other version of their software than the Series 60 -version that was used on ordinary smartphones. To address this problem, Nokia introduced Series 60 version 3 that requires software to resize windows to different screen sizes and orientations - but apart from this, the user interface is very much the same regardless of screen size and orientation and regardless of the presence of a keyboard or not.

One application where the new 800 pixel wide screen really gets used is the web browser. No other pocket sized device can provide the same kind of web experience as the E90. The browser is not perfect and struggles with many complicated web pages, but it is far better than anything on other Symbian or Windows Mobile device.

In general, the E90 hardware is a capable successor to the Nokia 9500. The E90 has everything the 9500 had, including a camera, and it has all been improved. The E90 also has a few new things, like a built in GPS.

One of the few hardware features not significantly improved is the keyboard. In fact, the keyboard on the E90 is smaller than that of the 9500 and, although it has improved tactile feedback, is less touch typing friendly than the 9500.

Nokia keeps pushing the communicator/E90 as a corporate only device intended for busy executives. You know the image of a young man in a nice suit, sitting at an airport, reviewing spreadsheets on his mobile phone and so on. Right. Well, that is the marketing spin, but if you look at the hardware, you notice that they do realize it works well as a "lifestyle" phone as well, and they have now included an (almost) normal 2.5 mm headphone jack for listening to music. There is no referral to how this will improve your mobile productivity though. The inclusion of a GPS is also an example of it being a lifestyle device although the marketing material tells us it can be used to "locate meeting venues". Right. Still, these are nice additions. I bought my Nokia 9500 to use it as an MP3 player, among other things, and not have to carry several devices, but having to use the horrible pop port for my headphones forced me to buy a separate MP3 player. Now I might be able to leave that separate MP3 player behind.

The camera is another one of those lifestyle aspects of the E90. Those well dressed young men who review spreadsheets at airports will tell you business critical phones intended to improve your mobile productivity should not have cameras, but there it is. And the camera is quite good. It seems to be the same camera modules as the one used in the Nokia N90 although the "Carl Zeiss" marketing text has been left out. This camera has a real lens, one that is capable of focusing - not the cheep fixed focus lens construction that have been used in most mobile phone cameras up until now. Sure, images from even the cheapest real digital cameras are going to be noticeably better, but images from this camera (and similar ones in other new phones) are very usable indeed.

The built in GPS module has issues. Every review I have seen so far of the E90 and N95, the only Nokia phones so far with built in GPS, have all mentioned how long it takes for the phone to lock on to the GPS signal and actually start to calculate positions. I finally got it to work, but I had to wait 15 minutes for the phone to get a position. The "satellite status" window in the "position" application kept telling me it could see 5 satellites and that the signals where strong, but it still took 15 minutes for it to get a position. Hopefully it will not take as long the next time. Yes, if you are lost you are better of with a phone that can tell you where you are after 15 minutes than with a phone that can not, but the slow start up time means the built in GPS is not as useful as it could be. Perhaps future firmware updates will speed things up. Still, once up and running the Nokia Maps / Smart2go map application is a lot of fun.

All in all, the E90 is a very capable device even if the user interface is not able to make the most of the large internal screen.