Reviewing the Nokia E7 is tough, because it feels pointless. The software it runs, Symbian, has essentially been killed off by Nokia's new partnership with Microsoft. It's also the keyboard-toting twin to the Nokia N8, which was a disaster. And it's up against blinding competition from the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android devices.
Nevertheless, we can't ignore a phone from Finland's finest, especially when it's the company's flagship Qwerty handset, even if it will be demoted to ship's tender as soon as the first Nokia Windows phone comes along.
The Nokia E7 is available for free on a £35 per month contract. You can also pick the E7 up for around £500 SIM-free.
The E7 is a handsome, solidly built phone. It took us a while to figure out how to reveal the keyboard -- you have to gently push on the edge of the 4-inch screen to flip it upwards -- but we loved the stylish sliding mechanism and the way the display sits snugly against the keyboard. Combined with the sleek metal case and discreet buttons, including the grooviest sliding volume switch we've ever seen, the E7 exudes confidence and quality.
The keyboard itself is average, rather than spectacular. The buttons are large and well spaced out, but don't have much upwards and downwards travel. This is a keyboard that would suit someone with big thumbs, who struggles to get to grips with the tiny keys on a BlackBerry, for example.
There's no predictive text or spelling correction available when using the physical keyboard, but you should find you make fewer mistakes when using physical keys anyway. If you prefer slow and steady typing on a proper keyboard to tapping away madly on a touchscreen and letting the spell check sort out your mistakes, the E7 will appeal.
The keyboard is the E7's biggest strength in that it means you need never use the terrible on-screen keyboard. In portrait mode, it's the 12-key alphanumeric kind, rather than a full Qwerty option. It takes ages to type with, and you can't see the rest of the screen when it's in use.
Although it weighs in at a hefty 175g, the E7 is comfortable to hold. We enjoyed making calls on it, and they sounded reasonably clear too.
Stymied by Symbian
The E7 uses the Symbian operating system, which has struggled to make the transition from classic Nokia phones to its new role running touchscreen mobiles. If you love your Nokia now, you probably won't struggle with the E7's user interface, but it's not as straightforward as much of the competition.
For example, the on-screen navigation system can sometimes be confusing. We were often faced with a pop-up box that had two buttons -- one labelled 'cancel' and one that was blank. You'll see this unhelpful box when, for example, you click an album to play a song in the music player. The solution is to click the song name that appears in the box, rather than either of the buttons, but that's not obvious, and it's not good design policy to have a blank button anywhere in a user interface.
The E7 is also seriously slow. We felt like we were swimming through molasses rather than whizzing through tasks. For example, closing the slider causes the display to lock, but there's a pause before the screen turns black, so we often found ourselves tapping the lit-up screen to no avail. This is even more frustrating when you consider that sometimes closing the slider doesn't appear to make the screen lock.
Once we dug deeper into the phone's settings, our frustration increased. For instance, we want our contacts, calendar and email to be synchronised all the time, but you have to manually update your data on the E7 by default. That means we had to enter the confusing labyrinth of the E7's settings. We guessed that we had to set up a new sync profile, but the next step was to choose server version 1.1 or 1.2. What? Compared to other smart phones, which use clear labels to entice you into exploring menus, Symbian just makes you want to give up.
If you fancy jumping into the wonderful world of apps, the E7 isn't the best choice. Although the phone comes pre-loaded with a few apps, we found them slow and short on features.
Opening apps also feels slow. This is true even in the case of some of Nokia's own apps, like email. Apps that were designed by third parties, like the shockingly unresponsive Twitter app, are even more disappointing.
Nokia's Ovi Store app market offers plenty of apps that you can download. But the Ovi Store's shelves still aren't as well stocked as those of the Android and iPhone app stores. It also takes ages to open the Ovi Store on the E7, and it's clumsy too. For example, its splash screen reads 'Welcome to store'. That doesn't exactly indicate that the Ovi Store is packed with quality offerings. At least you can get Angry Birds in there, and the game runs smoothly on the phone.
You can also fill up the E7's home screen with widgets, which display live updates or provide easy shortcuts to applications. But several of the default widgets on our sample E7, like that for BBC iPlayer, were simply shortcuts to Web pages, rather than proper apps installed on the phone. They took up far too much space considering that they did so little.
On the flip side, the email and calendar widgets are handy for seeing what's in your inbox or on your agenda. But the tiny space allotted to them means barely any information can be displayed.
The E7's home screen doesn't manage to deliver either the flexibility of Android's complex widgets, or the simplicity of the basic icons served up by the iPhone and BlackBerry devices. After pruning the most worthless shortcuts from our sample, we were able to live with the E7. But it's another example of how the E7's software just doesn't live up to the competition.
Unlike the N8, the E7's camera doesn't protrude from the back. That gives the case a smoother feel and allows it to sit flat on the table with the slider open.
The E7's 8-megapixel camera still does an excellent job of capturing snapshots. Although photos don't look that impressive on the phone's screen, we were impressed with their sharpness and accurate colours once we moved them onto our computer.
The camera struggles to capture movement, and it also fails to focus well during close-ups. But, for the occasional photo in the middle distance, the E7 performs admirably. Its dual LED photo light also does a spectacular job of illuminating very dark rooms, although it will dazzle anyone caught in its glare.
Videos are exposed properly, but they look jerky, and compression makes some colours look off.
The N8's camera was so good that we had high expectations for the E7's snapper. The E7's camera doesn't quite live up to those expectations but it's still perfectly adequate as phones on cameras go. In fact, it's better than average, even if it's not very good at taking close-ups.
The Nokia E7's good looks reeled us in, but it doesn't have the brains to keep us interested. Symbian just feels more and more confusing as competing software becomes slicker, and this, together with the hesitant user interface, means the E7 is no fun to use, even if it is packed with features.
The E7 could still appeal to Nokia fanatics looking for a full Qwerty keyboard. But, for the rest for us, there are plenty of superior phones with keyboards. The HTC Desire Z is an excellent Android option, the HTC 7 Pro is a good Windows Phone 7 choice, and HP and BlackBerry offer Qwerty keyboards on a range of first-rate handsets.
Edited by Charles Kloet