19th Aug 2007 | 23:00
Arguably the best-specified smartphone money can buy
The furious pace of change in the mobile phone world ensures that even the smartest, most function-rich mobiles are soon superseded by something smarter, thinner and more feature laden. But one mobile phone design that doesn't seem to heed the vagaries of fashion is the family of Nokia Communicators, of which the latest in the line is the E90.
The Nokia Communicator range is now 11 years old, and has had a dozen revamps along the way. But you'd be mistaken to think the E90 is just some old-school design - the E90 is arguably the best-specified smartphone that money can buy.
The original Nokia 9000 Communicator was one of the first phones to successfully meld a mobile phone and a palmtop computer. The concept was simple, from the outside it looked and handled like an oversized cellphone. But open it up like a book and you got a PDA that looked and handled in much the same way as the Psion devices that were so popular at the time.
In the intervening decade, the world has become a completely different place but the attraction of the E90 still remains the same. Unlike so many super-sophisticated smartphones, this is a device that is ever so easy to use as a mobile. In fact, this is something that has vastly improved with the new device.
You can now access every application from the outside of the shell and not just the standard mobile feature set. And you get a high-quality 16-million colour, 320 x 240-pixel screen to do this from. This makes the unit a much more integrated device - and one that is a lot easier to use than before.
The change in ergonomics has been made possible by yet another change in operating platform for the device - this time, the E90 is using the immensely popular Symbian S60 system.
It's not a move that everyone will be happy with. It means a new suite of software, for instance. But its advantages far outweigh its disadvantages. The S60 platform means that there is a huge catalogue of software that can be made to work on the new E90. More importantly it is an operating system that has already been proved capable of working with all the latest mobile phone features. The result is that the E90 is not just a Communicator for today - it is a Communicator without compromise.
When the 9500, the previous model in the Communicator dynasty, was launched three years ago, it was already out of date. It was the first in the range to offer GPRS and Wi-Fi, but it its Series 80 operating system could not offer the 3G connectivity that many users wanted, and its VGA camera was not up to the quality expected.
The E90 has no such specification issues. It has a 3-megapixel autofocus camera, and a camcorder facility that can compete with the best thanks to 25-frame-per-second VGA capture. It becomes the first 3G-enabled Communicator, but is also one of the best connected devices that you will find with miniUSB socket, Bluetooth 2.0, and infrared.
The icing on the cake, however, is the built in GPS aerial which when used with Nokia's free Maps service means that you need never get lost. Pay for the full over-the-air navigation service, and it means that the E90 could also make your TomTom redundant. Now that's what we call convergence.
The specification of the E90, in fact, is remarkably similar to that of Nokia's N95 - probably the most coveted phone released in the UK so far this year. This is not just proof that the E90 has it all, it also proves that it is just as useful for work and play.
Some corporate buyers may turn their noses up at the built-in camera, but for those of us in the real world a decent photo facility is a must. And this one certainly delivers. It has slightly less resolution than the N95, but the pictures can still be first rate.
We found the autofocus to be a bit temperamental, and often needed to be coaxed to lock onto a subject. But when it did, images were very sharp. What's more there is a close-up facility that will allow you to focus down to just 10cm from the subject - perfect for detail shots, or for "photocopies" of sections of a printed page.
Overall picture quality, in fact, is probably slightly better than on the N95, as onboard sharpening is not overused to the same degree.
The camcorder facility is also very useful. You don't get an AV lead to connect to your TV, but the footage can be replayed with no trouble on your computer. A 512MB MicroSD card is supplied with the device, but 2GB memory chips can be used. A built-in digital image stabiliser means that the image quality of your footage is much steadier than it might have been.
Despite the GPS aerial, the E90 does not come with pre-stored maps to the UK roads. Instead, you get Nokia's own Maps service, which allows you to download (using Wi-Fi or a 3G link) the cartography that you want for the part of the world that you are in or are travelling to.
It's an ingenious system, and much less expensive than other satnav systems. Even the subscription-based navigation option - which provides you step-by-step instruction to take you from A to B - is very economically priced.
It is not a perfect routing solution, as we noted when we reviewed the N95, it fails to recognise some non-through roads, but it will get you there. It is certainly a very good solution for those who only occasionally require GPS guidance.
We were very impressed with the musical ability of the device. MP3 tracks played back through the speakerphone were very good, with vastly better tonality that you would usually find using the handsfree facilities found on other phones. The supplied headset is connected through a standard 2.5mm socket, and delivers impressive clarity and dynamic range.
Impressively, the phone's built-in programs have been specially modified to take advantage of the huge 4-inch 800 x 352-pixel screen that you find inside the device. Frequently you get a main screen and sub-screen displayed simultaneously, side by side - allowing you, say, to see a full month calendar view, as well as seeing the entries for the day currently highlighted.
In similar fashion, you can see a list of names in Contacts, as well as the full details for the entry your cursor is currently hovering over. Such customisation is another demonstration that the move to S60 is a sensible change. It also shows what software manufacturers could do if they chose to produce special versions of their programs for this phone.
You do, of course, get a full suite of office applications built-in. The most obvious utilities are covered by the popular QuickOffice suite. Word processing is particularly appealing with this unit, because fo the well-sized Qwerty keyboard. The keys may not be as big or as well-spaced as on some previous Communicators, but it is still more typing-friendly than many other smartphones.
A full console of keys also invaluable for texting and emailing on the move. The E90, of course, is capable of supporting a wide range of push email services, but is equally as happy with hooking up to pull your messages whenever you want them.
The web browser does an extremely good job of displaying a wide variety of internet content in a digestible fashion - although as ever with portable devices the proportions of the screen and lack of support for every designer function mean that it will occasionally fail to correctly render a page.
Despite all the phone's virtues, it still has its obvious faults. The most significant of these has put off potential buyers for a decade: despite everything, the Communicator is still a relatively huge phone, and a substantial smartphone. But you can argue that given the feature set and facilities that the 210g weight and its dimensions are justified.
The device is also not particularly good looking. The curious mix of silver and coloured plastic is not appealing; a more classic design might have been better. However, there are no complaints about build quality. This is a solid unit with a well-engineered hinge mechanism that keeps the screen at an angle to suit you as you type.
It is also rather an expensive phone. At £650 SIM-free it costs more than many laptops. And although most interested buyers will get a good amount of subsidy with a suitable contract tariff, this is still no give-away.
Despite all this, the E90 is a superb all-in-one device because it does what it sets out to do so well. Firstly, it offers everything that you could possibly hope for in such a device (with the possible exception of a touchscreen interface), with a wealth of features that will appeal to any gadget fan. But most importantly it does not forget that a smartphone is first and most frequently a phone - and as a mobile it is faultless.
Ease of use 7
Call quality 9