Nokia E71 Review : A Near Perfect QWERTY Smartphone?

I am writing this review of the Nokia N71 on the smartphone itself. This is a test of my patience as well as the device's ability to behave as a suitable mainstream modern handset.

The main reason why we reviewed it today is that it can be had at a bargain price. We've tested the E71 on 3's network where the handset is available for £20 per month on an 18-month contract complete with a 2GB microSD card.

This gives you 200 minutes, unlimited texts and internet as well as free skype on top of unlimited 3-to-3 calls. In comparison, the SIM Free version will cost you £250 at play.com (both at the time of writing).

The phone is also available from Vodafone on a rather tasty 10 months half price contract with 600 minutes, unlimited internet and unlimited texts. That will cost you £17.50 for the first 10 months, followed by 8 month at £35, a saving of £175.

Nokia is marketing it as a QWERTY enabled smartphone for business users worldwide who might be put off by the price and complexity of RIM's Blackberry range.

The phone - which was released last year - has received a number of accolade from experts inlcuding the Editors and Readers' Choice from Cnet.co.uk, Phone of the Year and the Best Smartphone at the 2008 Mobile Choice Consumer Awards and WIRED Magazine's 2008 Best of Test.

The first thing you notice about it is how different it is from the run of the mill Nokia family, even when compared to the more expensive Nokia N series family. The E71’s chassis has more metal parts than any other phones I’ve used before and this, combined with its classy chrome finish, means that it looks much posher than its price would lead you to believe.

It also means that it feels heavier (129g) than one would expect if it was made from plastic. Otherwise, it keeps the familier Blackberry-esque format while going further than RIM when it comes to sheer thickness.

Its dimensions - 114mm x 57mm x 10mm makes it flatter than, say the Blackberry Curve 8900 which is slightly shorter at 10mm but wider (60mm) and at 13.5mm, 35 percent thicker.

The E71’s screen has a 2.36-inch diagonal but can display 240x320 pixels in 16 million colours. It makes it far sharper than on the average phone and we found the colours to be vibrant and well-defined.

But it is the smartphone’s keyboard that we found the most compelling. It felt sturdy, solidly built and appeared unlikely to snap at the first fall. The keys have a slight bulge which makes pressing them distinctively light and bouncy.

To some extent, this will alleviate issues that people with big fingers might have, bearing in mind that the E71’s keys are quite small (5 mm x 6mm roughly).

If you are swapping a normal keypad-based phone for the E71, this will entail a slight learning curve during which you will need to get used to the idea that each key is assigned at most 2 characters (rather than four or more).

At the back of the smartphone are the lenses for the 3.2 megapixel camera and a LED flash. Photos taken with the E71 appear to be well balanced although you should not expect the quality to come near stand alone camera especially at night.

It can also record videos in MP4 or 4GP formats either in VGA format (640x480x22fps) or QVGA (320x240x30fps). On the top are the on/off button and the speaker. Placed on either side of the E71 are the USB connector, volume controls, a 2.5mm headphone socket and a microSD card reader.

The E71 uses the same power adaptor than many of its siblings like the Nokia 6220 Classic. We liked the fact that Nokia judiciously chose to bundle a 2GB microSD card (at an estimated cost of 10 pounds) but we do question the decision to NOT to include the universally accepted 3.5mm earphone input.

The fact that the E71 is significantly larger than your average phone comes with one big advantage, that you can throw in a bigger-than-normal battery.

In this particular case, a 1500mAh model; in comparison the iPhone 3G had a 1150mAh battery. Talk and standby times were therefore significantly better than on other similar mobiles we’ve encountered, falling short of Nokia’s theoretical maximum though (10h30 in GSM and 4h30 in WCDMA).

Speaking of connectivity, the device comes with 3G, HSPDA and WLAN connectivity which means that you are well covered when it comes to accessing the internet on the move and using hotspots where possible.

Add IR and Bluetooth 2.0 EDR and there's not much to improve on when it comes to sheer connectivity. The E71 also comes with Nokia Maps and integrated assisted GPS - works like a charm although not ideal on the 2.4-inch screen.

Weirdly enough, the E71 gave us some invalid SIM message randomly which we couldn't pin down. Nokia also released a new firmware a few days ago; version 300.21.012 introduced a few improvements including enhanced mail for Exchange, Internet Radio added, improved USB flashing and better usability.

The E71 uses S60 3rd Edition and comes with the feature pack 1 based on the Symbian OS v9.2. The smartphone come with a wealth of applications by default and describing them all would be too cumbersome especially if you were to throw Nokia's OVI in there.

The E71's main appeal is its strength in the messaging segment: It will support IMAP, POP and SMTP email protocols, as well as Nokia Intellisync Wireless Email.

Attachments are supported plus the Quickoffice application lets you view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Nokia has even bundled its own Mobile Virtual Private Network for more secure messaging.

Should you go for the E71? It depends on a number of things. If you plan to get a smartphone to fit into an existing entreprise environment, then it is very likely that any Blackberry model will be the probable choice.

Otherwise, it is a tough call as there are a number of great Blackberry Curve bargains available for around £20 albeit on 24 month contracts.

All in all though, we feel that the E71 is an excellent all rounder that's available at a great price. And the future? well, there's already the E72 which has been launched last month with improved specs and that 3.5mm audio jack.