I'm been been enjoying the Nokia E73 loaner that I got at WOMWorld's E73 Mode Beach Party Saturday. It's a pretty and very useful little device. I especially like the keyboard which I think is the best I've ever used on a pocket size device. The things that make it so good are:
- Single handed operation. The phone and keyboard's small size means you can easily hold it in one hand and reach every key, something that's difficult or even impossible with a larger phone like the N97, N900 or any of the side sliding Android devices.
- Easy to type accurately on. Even though the keyboard is tiny, the keys are nicely domed and I've have no problems hitting the wrong key or two keys at once.
- Easy access to to common punctuation keys and numbers. Unlike the otherwise excellent keyboards on recent BlackBerrys, the E73 has the period, comma, question mark, explanation point, @ sign and apostrophe on un-shifted keys. Having all these commonly used keys readily available makes typing a lot more fluid than on a phone where you have to press two or more keys to get to them. The numbers and the *,+,=,/,(,) and & characters can be typed with long press on the appropriate key, unlike the BlackBerry where you have to press the Alt key and then the key with the punctuation mark or number.
Besides the keyboard, the E73 has some other good things going for it. It's very thin and slips easily into a pocket. The transflective screen is as readable on the beach in glaring sun as it is in a darkened room. Materials and construction are first rate. The back cover is metal and has a secure latch. The front of the phone is all metal and glass except for the keys. The plastics used for the keys, sides and top of the back have a slip resistant satin finish and a quality feel. There are no creaks when pressing on the phone and the keyboard operates silently unless you turn on the key beep. In the dark, the keys are illuminated evenly with no light leaks on the front of the device at all. The E73 exudes quality and looks and feels like an expensive phone.
I've been using Symbian phones since the Nokia 3650 so the OS is second nature to me. Traditionally Symbian has a bit of a learning curve and hasn't been noted for the consistency of its user interface. Nokia has made some welcome UI improvements in the version running on the E73 (3rd Edition, Feature Pack Two). The default menu structure seems flatter and more logical. There are a lot fewer prompts and nags when starting and installing apps. This is particularly true when using the Ovi Store where you you only get a single prompt to accept that the app does certain things that might cost money. There are still a few areas like connection management that are a bit gnarly but overall I don't think this version of Symbian is any worse than Android or BlackBerry in terms of overall usability.
The one of the best things about Symbian is the huge library of apps that are available for it. I get a little angry when I hear so called "experts" claiming that Symbian doesn't have many apps. That's utter nonsense. Sure if you only look at the Ovi Store there may not seem to be that many. But if you search with Google or use a third party app store like GetJar you will find thousands of native and tens of thousands of Java apps that run on Symbian 3rd and 5th edition phones. There's the full version of QuickOffice, which comes bundled with the E73 at no extra charge and includes a Microsoft Office compatible word processor with integrated spell check, spreadsheet and presentation app. Or Gravity, the best Twitter client on any mobile platform. There are games, advanced file managers, alternate browsers, email programs and IM apps galore. And there's a choice FTP, VPN and SSH clients, eBook readers, PDF viewers and screenshot apps that don't require hacking your device to use.
Of course every phone has it's faults and the E73 is no exception. There is not as much RAM as I would like, about 40 MB free at startup. The phone does seem to use it's limited RAM more efficiently than older Symbian phones. I was able to reliably run Gravity, Nokia Email, Opera Mini and the camera simultaneously. Even Opera Mobile, which is very memory intensive, ran well by itself with up to three browser windows open at once. However, when the E73 gets into a low memory state it becomes sluggish to the point where switching between and closing apps becomes difficult and I've had to resort to hitting the power button a couple of times. But as long as you are avoid runing too many apps at once the phone is responsive and stable and multi-tasks beautifully. Still I wish this phone had 80 MB of free RAM like the E71 and N95 8GB. That would make it perfect.
Some people might call the small non-touch screen a negative. But I don't. The front facing QWERTY design, which is my preferred form factor, does limit screen size. The E73's screen is big enough to be perfectly usable for writing, web browsing and watching videos. A significantly larger screen would impact pocket-ability and ease of one handed use. As for touch, I tend to agree with Steve Litchfield that it's overrated. It's much easier to type on a real keyboard and it's easier use the tiny buttons and clickable icons found on many web sites with a d-pad than by touch. Still touch is nice quick scrolling, games and navigating touch optimized webapps. I'm hoping that Nokia will eventually offer a phone with a front facing QWERTY, lots of RAM AND a touchscreen. That's my dream device.
All in all though, I'm really in love with the E73. Its strengths out weight its weaknesses by a wide margin and I'll be using it as it my main device. I'm secretly hoping the WOMWorld forgets to ask for it back.