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Nokia E6 - Workhorse goes touchscreen

tech reviews Updated: Aug 12, 2011 11:11 IST
NOKIA

The Nokia E6 is an evolution of a product line that has won Nokia may fans. It started with the launch of the Nokia E71, which was loved by users and reviewers alike and sold millions of units worldwide. It was loved for its slim and stylish design, comfortable QWERTY keypad, powerful smartphone features and a solid battery life. Backed by the Nokia brand name the phone was an instant hit. It was followed up by the excellent E72, which improved upon almost every weakness of its predecessors and was again met with a positive response.



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Fast forward to 2011 and the candy bar QWERTY form-factor is slowly dying away. But it seems Nokia isn’t quite ready to let it go and neither are many of the users of the E71 and E72 who have been holding on to their phones all these years despite the growing temptation from competing brands. They have probably been waiting for a suitable upgrade to a phone they bought years ago and trusted Nokia to come up with another winner for them to spend their money on. But has Nokia managed to do that? Read on to find out.



Design & Build


The Nokia E6 maintains the basic design of its predecessors. An untrained eye will probably mistake it for the E72. But look closely and you will see subtle differences such as the lack of soft keys below the display and rearranged shortcut keys which makes the area look considerably less cluttered. The D-pad also looks different. The D-pad and the QWERTY keys are the only parts of the front that are raised and everything else is flush.



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The back looks completely different than its predecessors, with a less flamboyant battery cover and camera lens. On the top is the headphone jack, power button and the microSD card slot. It has the micro USB port at the left and the traditional Nokia charging port at the bottom. Recent Nokia phones sport USB charging ports but Nokia understands that the E6 buyers will mostly be old Nokia customers and hence are likely to have the old Nokia chargers lying around.


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The new phone maintains the slim profile of the older phones and feels nice to hold in the hand. It also feels very solid and there is a nice heft to it. However, not everything about the design felt right. The battery cover was slightly shorter than the slot it was in and hence would slide up and down by about half a millimeter, which I personally found annoying. The plastic cover at the top creaked when I pressed it.



Another thing about the design that bothered me was the LED under the USB port cap. It lights up when the phone is charging, which is fine if you are charging through a USB charger but if you use a standard charger that Nokia supplies, the port remains closed and the LED then shines awkwardly from underneath it. The overall build quality and attention to detail then, it seems, has taken a step back from the older E-series phones.



Keypad


The keypad on the E6 is standard QWERTY affair and is mostly identical to those on the previous phones, which is to say it is comfortable to use. The keys below the display are also well spaced out on this phone and easy to use too.



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The right side seems a bit busy due to the presence of an extra button between the volume control keys. The volume keys are backlit but I don’t feel that was particularly necessary. Volume keys are hardly looked at before operating and Nokia should have made them more tactile. I often pressed the middle button when I wanted to pressed one of the volume keys.



The button in between the volume rockers actually activates voice commands. You can press and hold the button and then speak the name of an application or file or contact to open it. If you press it during a call, it mutes the mic.



The sliding phone lock key on the right feels bit awkward to use because of its position. As on the E7, you can press and hold it to activate the LED flash on the back to be used as a flashlight.



The E6 lacks the soft keys found on the older phones since it has a touchscreen now. Users of these older phones will have to condition themselves to this new arrangement before they get used to it.



Display


The Nokia E6 has a 2.46-inch display, which is slightly bigger than its predecessors. Nonetheless, the resolution has quadrupled.



Having 650x480 pixels in such a small area has given the E6 display tremendous pixel density. In fact, at 326-PPI, it is the same as the iPhone 4's Retina display. This makes the display very sharp and clear.



Also, unlike its predecessors, the E6 has a touchscreen. Unfortunately, 2.46-inch is not quite the ideal size for a touchscreen and it does feel cramped. This is particularly noticeable in the browser and the image gallery when you try to pinch to zoom.



Even if you remove the touchscreen out of the equation, the display still feels very small and not worthy of a modern smartphone. And I'm not sure if it was the resolution or the fact that I'm used to a much bigger display but my eyes hurt after looking at the display for more than a few minutes. This is one of the biggest shortcomings of this form factor, wherein the display size will always have to be compromised.



Hardware & Software


The Nokia E6 runs on a 680MHz processor with 256MB of RAM. In today's day and age, these specifications seem very outdated and I know that Symbian fans would say that the OS is very efficient. I can tell you for a fact that the E6 feels sluggish, particularly when it comes to launching applications or switching between them.



The E6 runs on the latest version of Symbian named Symbian Anna. Anna brings a few useful features to the table, such as an improved web browser and a portrait QWERTY keypad (not present on the E6 for obvious reasons), along with more subtle ones such as home screens that follow the movement of your finger as you switch between them and a brand new set of icons.



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The updated browser, although new to Symbian, doesn’t offer anything that you haven’t seen in other browsers, such as the ability to create new windows and search from the address bar. Even those have their limitations; you can't have more than three windows at a time and when you enter a term in the address bar, the browser will think it is an URL and try to open it instead of doing a web search. The performance was disappointing as well -- with sluggish page scrolling and occasional crashes. The download manager continues to be sad and the Flash lite plugin is not as good as the full Flash 10.3 player on Android devices, which itself is not as good as the one for desktop computers.



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On the applications front, you have the Ovi Store to download apps from but it can compete in neither quantity nor quality of applications on the iOS or Android application stores. Worst of all, it refused to show me the paid apps for some reason.



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In the end, Symbian Anna is Nokia’s futile attempt at putting lipstick on a pig. Despite what the fans might argue, Symbian is an outdated OS that is further burdened by a mediocre hardware. It can’t do basic things like multitasking and opening applications properly and the application support is a far cry from what you get on other platform these days. Even the built-in apps are mediocre, a prime example of that being the new browser, which is still far behind the browsers in every other modern smartphone OS. It’s no wonder Nokia decided to dump it and move on to greener pastures.



Multimedia

Camera


The Nokia E6 has an 8 megapixel camera with fixed focus that Nokia calls “EDoF” or Extended Depth of Field. This system has a few advantages over a traditional auto-focus system. First of all, unlike auto-focus systems, EDoF can have a lot more area in focus, usually from a meter away to infinity. This is done using a special asymmetrical lens and a lot of software tricks. This system also works a lot faster than traditional auto-focus systems making it truly a point and shoot. It’s also thinner, lighter and more cost effective. The disadvantages to this system are that you can’t click macro shots and that it doesn’t work so well in the dark, where it just turns into any other standard fixed-focus camera.



On the E6, you don’t have a dedicated shutter button and you click using the D-pad. Since the display is already in landscape mode, you don’t need to turn the phone around. Just point the camera at the subject and click the button to instantly capture an image.



The image quality, overall, is above average. The details are available thanks to the 8 megapixel sensor but the phone software ends up over sharpening the edges, which wasn’t quite necessary. Noise levels are kept impressively under control and the colors come out well and look natural. The EDoF system works well and everything is in focus, unless objects are close to the lens. They get blurred.


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The quality of the HD video was very good, however. The EDoF system works here as well and everything looks perfectly clear. The videos are also smooth with very few compression and motion artifacts.



Music


The music player is essentially the same as in other Symbian^3 phones, except here it is perpetually in landscape mode, which is why you see the Cover Flow style album viewer all the time. Leaving aside the disappointment that it does not support FLAC and gapless playback, the music player is fine otherwise.



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The audio output of the E6 is excellent through the headphones and it can also get pretty loud. Unfortunately, the supplied earphones sucked. I wonder why Nokia did not provide its much superior in-ear earphones with the E6, especially since they also have built-in audio controls on some models, which come in very handy. The loudspeaker performance is disappointing. At high volume, music tends to sound garbled and indistinct. However, in other applications the speaker sounds fine.



Images and Videos


The images can be viewed through the Photos application which, weirdly, also houses the videos. The videos can also be watched through a separate video player. So, I wonder what might be the need to have videos in the Photos application. Or, why not just call it Photos and Videos and discard the Videos application? Anyway, the image viewer is pretty straightforward. You can now pinch to zoom but, as mentioned before, the display is not big enough to allow you to do that comfortably. The phone managed to open images pretty fast, even high resolution ones and zooming and panning was smooth too. Ironically, the Photos application itself took long to open.



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The video player is a bit of hit and miss affair. On the catalogue, it claims to support a lot of codecs and containers such as DivX, Xvid, AVI, MP4, MKV, WMV, etc. up to 720p resolution but in practice it doesn’t always work out well. Sometimes, the videos in supported formats failed to play for reasons unknown. At other times, there was no audio, usually when the files used AC3 audio codec. In case of WMV, standard definition version of the videos played fine but the HD versions didn’t.



In any case, the display was too small to watch videos comfortably. After about 30 minutes, my eyes felt like I have been threading a needle all this time and possibly stabbing myself in the eye while doing that.



Battery Life

Despite what people said about Symbian phones, there was always one area where they performed better than others - battery life. But it seems they have started giving up on that department as well. The older E71 and E72 easily lasted more than two days on a single charge. The E6, however, only manages a day and a half.



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My usage mostly involved a few calls and messages and a lot of web browsing and other apps that use the Internet connection on the phone. Add to it a couple of hours of audio and video playback and I think it comes fairly close to the general usage of most smartphone users these days. The E6 still did better than most Android phones and even the iPhone, to some degree, but I think that the high resolution touch screen did more harm than good, particularly to the battery life.



Verdict


Modern smartphone users like me will dislike the new E6 from the word go. The touch screen is too small, the keypad occupies far too much space when not in use, there are too few apps and the UI looks and feels dated. There is not much to like here, save for a marginally better battery life and even that doesn’t feel like a lot when you consider what you lose in the bargain.



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But the E6 is clearly not targeted at people like me. It’s a phone designed for those who have stuck around with its predecessors, hoping for a better phone to upgrade to that is not a lot different from the one they currently have. In that case, the E6 does seem like an upgrade. You are getting a better display, a better operating system and better multimedia performance. But then, you also lose a bit in terms of build quality and a lot in terms of battery life.

Frankly, I think it’s time to move on. This form factor was great four years ago, but not anymore. Going with the E6 is like refusing to believe that we are now in the year 2011. It’s time to move on to better platforms and better devices. It’s time to condition oneself to a touchscreen because that is the future. I was a die-hard fan of physical QWERTY keypads but once I got used to touch screens, physical keys seemed awkward and complicated in comparison. If you are afraid of switching brands, you won’t even need to. Nokia itself is coming up with better phones on other platforms. Just go with them and see what you have been missing all this time.

Pros -
1. Good design and build
2. High resolution display
3. Comfortable keypad
4. Free turn-by-turn voice navigation
5. Decent camera performance

Cons -
1. Display is too small
2. Build quality could have been better
3. Symbian is an under-performing and outdated OS which lacks quality applications
4. Close-up shots from camera come out blurred
5. Battery life is unimpressive
6. Expensive compared to what it offers

Price: Rs. 17,999
Rating: 3 out of 5