Ever since Apple and RIM began their touch-screen smartphone/multimedia device/third-party app store pas de deux, other smartphone makers have been trying to fill the small niche formed by users not satisfied by these two smartphone giants. Nokia’s unlocked E63 (a surprisingly inexpensive $279 at nokiausa.com) represents the now-familiar fusion of a smartphone with an “open” operating system, a speedy Internet browser, a messaging device and a multimedia player, yet there is something off from each of these that becomes annoying. But a lot of these paradoxes are overcome by superior call quality and above-average battery life. In other words, we’ve used iPhones and BlackBerrys – and the E63 is neither.
Features and Design
On its surface, the slate-like Nokia E63 offers everything a young mobile propeller-head would need: messaging and email capabilities with a full QWERTY keyboard, an above-average music player, a swift Internet connection, especially when connected via Wi-Fi, and access to Nokia’s Ovi third-party application and cloud server Web site, all in a package that’s a little bigger the Blackberry Bold.
As usual, the Symbian S60 user interface looks and feels like a more intuitive version of Windows Mobile, but contains a lot of unnecessary tech doublespeak. For example, there’s a listing for “Session Initiation Protocol” or “SIP” in the Connections settings menu. How would the average user know what that means, or what it does? We’re not even sure we understand it.
The roomy home splash screen contains icons for your most-used apps, which you can customize. Open apps are listed as well; when the music player is active, the current song title is displayed.
The LCD screen is big and bright, but in direct sunlight it polarizes, washing out details.
When the screen backlight goes off, the screen doesn’t fade completely to black. It looks more like a mirror in a dark room: You can see only faint remnants of on-screen icons. We found the keypad unlock sequence – hit the soft “unlock” key, then the function key – annoying, especially since we often had to do this blind. The screen frequently refused to re-light until after this unlock sequence has been executed.
Physically, the E63 is smooth all over, except for the QWERTY keyboard and screen on its face. At nearly 5.5 inches tall, it’s longer than most phones in its class. Its height, however, makes it easier to grab, and less likely to flop on its side in a shirt or jacket breast pocket.
The outer perimeter is devoid of buttons, which is a bad thing. You adjust call volume by toggling the navigation control under the screen either left/right or up/down, instead of the more conventional and convenient spine control. On the rear is a 2-megapixel lens and LED video light/flash.
Between the 2.36-inch screen and the keyboard are convenient keys for direct access to home, calendar, contacts and messaging.
The keyboard is comprised of easy-to-punch, humped keys. The numbers occupy the middle keys, offset in a dull gray, barely enough of a color differentiation. The zero is placed not below the 8 as standard would dictate, but counter-intuitively to the right of the 9 key.
Ports & Connectors
Talk about the bare essentials. The left spine has a micro USB connector, just above the microSD card slot. On the top is the 3.5mm headphone jack, and a speaker vent that improves bass response. On the bottom is a pinhole power connector.
Can a phone serve as a workable PMP?
Since the E63 is an unlocked phone, you don’t have access to any carrier’s video offerings, just what you sideload, or what is offered at Nokia’s Ovi site. The couple of RealPlayer video clips we watched looked crisp, clean and colorful with only a hint of LCD pixel lag.
While it’s no iPod, the E63’s music player is excellent. Instead of dedicated transport controls buttons, the navigation array doubles to manipulate pause/play, skip/fast forward and skip back/rewind and volume. The music also plays in the background while you navigate and use other apps, but you’ll have to circle back to the player to adjust volume or pause play. The included earbuds offer only a call switchhook, no music controls.
Speaking of earbuds, we tried plugging in a pair of iPhone earbuds to try to gain some music control and get better sound, but got an “accessory not supported” on-screen message after plugging them in. With one set, the E63 crashed and rebooted.
As per usual, the FM radio requires you plug in a pair of headphones, tell the phone your geographic location, then download the stations. Instead of having to scan up and down the dial, you get a list of only those stations the phone can receive, which you can then whittled down to only your favorites. But in our opinion, these are unnecessary steps. The phone should know where it is, and list available stations without user assistance.
The E63 is one of the best-sounding phones we’ve used (at least on AT&T’s network in New York City). It emitted near landline-like clarity, with crisp tones, deep and resonant vocals thanks to the vent at the top of the phone, plenty of volume, and hardly any of the usual cellphone echo.
Unfortunately, the E63 has an unforgiving earpiece. If you don’t have the speaker situated right on the ear canal opening, you hear only a faint echo. You’ll constantly be shifting the phone to maintain an unimpeded sound beam from phone to ear.
As noted, the odd placement of the zero key can confuse while dialing, and the lack of a spine-situated volume toggle makes adjusting the volume on the E63 awkward.
Although the E63 is a smartphone, there is no easy way to sync your contacts and calendars without registering (for free) at Nokia’s Ovi site. The box does not include Nokia’s DIY syncing PC Suite software. But during our review period, the E63 wasn’t listed on the Ovi site, so we couldn’t test syncing.
Filling in your own contacts is easy – you’re asked for the uncluttered basics (name, phone numbers, email address, company name). If you want to add any other info, such as snail mail addresses, you have to “edit” the entry.
Once LAN scanning is turned on, the E63 will scan your locale for Wi-Fi connections. The problem: We could not figure out how to turn off the Wi-Fi.
No matter where we were, home or away, the E63 kept trying to connect to the mobile Web via Wi-Fi. Unable to find it, the phone frustratingly did not default to the 3G cell network. Instead, it just pouted and produced a blank white screen. We tried turning the LAN scanning off, and disconnecting from Wi-Fi, but Web access still defaulted to connecting via Wi-Fi. We only hope this is just a glitch in our test model; if it isn’t, we consider it a fatal flaw.
Before connecting to Wi-Fi, sites loaded in around seven to eight seconds on AT&T’s 3G network, faster than most EDGE phones but slower than most HSDPA connections.
After switching over to Wi-Fi, pages whisked onto the screen faster than any HSDPA or EV-DO phone. CNN and Facebook mobile pages popped in view in around four seconds, The New York Times mobile site and the notoriously thick ESPN mobile page each in five seconds flat. Full HTML pages take a lot longer, though; IMDb took nearly 20 seconds to completely load.
Pictures taken with the E63 look poor, which is disappointing considering Nokia’s myriad of high-quality, high-megapixel models. Images produced by the 2MP imager are big enough, but they’re grainier than produced by other 2MP cameras we’ve used, and tended to tint an obnoxious green.
Indoors shots are surprisingly blur-free, even without the flash. But the flash also produces the sickening green tint.
QVGA videos, captured at 15 frames per second, are also slightly greenish, but free of the usual pixilation often found in cellphone videos.
In our usual unscientific tests, we pulled 4.75 hours of talk on AT&T’s 3G network, which is about average for a 3G phone.
The maddening combination of being unable to turn off the Wi-Fi to Web surf, and blind keyboard unlock sequence caused us to start hating the E63. That’s a shame, because while it’s not an iPhone or Blackberry, the E63 performs all the other smartphone functions well enough to fulfill those with less exacting needs. But with the G1 Android phone already out and the coming Palm Pre, Nokia will have a tough road to hoe in the smartphone arena without near-perfect performance. We hope the WiFi and unlock glitch can be solved via a software update, otherwise the E63 will be returned in droves.
- WiFi connectivity
- Landline-like sound
- QWERTY keyboard
- Excellent music player
- Large, bright screen
- No way to disconnect WiFi connection
- Overly technical settings menus
- Poor 2-megapixel camera
- No music controls on included earphones
- No included PC PIM sync software