In search of the Ultimate Nokia Communicator

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The Nokia Communicator marque strikes a chord for most of us, especially those who have been here since 2001 or so. The original 9210 was a break through device, offering most of the functionality of our old Psion palmtops, with a large full colour screen and phone and connectivity built-in. In many ways it was ahead of its time, as was the Psion before it. After ten years, how close are we now to the 'Ultimate Nokia Communicator'? Not very. Let's look at the background to the question and examine a few contenders.

The vision for the Communicator has always been to offer absolute convergence - the best of a small laptop with the convienence of a normal phone and as many incidental convergence functions as can possibly be squeezed in at the same time. I'd say that size isn't necessarily an issue - it didn't stop the 9210's designers - but of course that has increasingly become an issue, as evidenced by some of the form factor and functionality decisions in the E7.

But after a tongue in cheek comment about the E90 here and after my own amplification of this in Phones Show 132, along the lines of the four year old E90 outgunning the brand new E7 in several key areas, I thought it well worth pitching the two head to head. 


E7 and E90
The Nokia E7 and E90, 2011 and 2007 Communicators respectively

Even better, I also wanted to include the missing link - something that could bridge the four years between the two devices. I chose the much-maligned N97 (you'll remember that I commented at the time that the N97 mini felt like an Eseries device?), with a display that's almost as large and a full QWERTY keyboard that's almost as good. OK, the N97 is very much an 'almost' device all round, as in it's 'almost' got enough internal memory, but I'll leave other comments for the table below.

As with previous head to heads, where appropriate/possible, I've shaded in a 'winner' in green for each attribute, to give a visual guide to possible superiority. 


  Nokia E90 Nokia N97 'classic' Nokia E7
Form factor and input method Mainly metal clamshell with traditional numeric keypad and QVGA screen, plus widescreen and QWERTY inside  Partly metal full-face resistive touchscreen with pivoting QWERTY underneath on metal hinge Aluminium shell with pivoting Gorilla glass display on metal hinge. Lovely hardware, lovely form factor, amazingly thin for the keyboard size
Display 4" transflective, great in sunlight, 800 pixels by 352 3.5" transflective, acceptable in sunlight (resistive layer dulls clarity), 640 pixels by 360 4" CBD AMOLED, pretty good in sunlight, 640 pixels by 360 
Keyboard Full five row keyboard with around 1mm travel, plus punctuation keys and numerous application shortcut keys Three row keyboard, with nominal travel, punctuation via long key presses or Sym key  Four row keyboard, nominal key travel but excellent feel, punctuation via long key presses or Fn/Sym keys
Weight 210g 150g 176g
Operating system and interface Symbian OS 9, S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1, firmware updates now ceased Symbian OS 9, S60 5th Edition, firmware updates now ceased Symbian^3, firmware updates just beginning 
Free RAM, free user memory, expansion for apps and media 90MB free RAM, 135MB free on system disk, microSD expansion 50MB free RAM, 50MB free on system disk, plus 32GB mass memory, microSD. Despite the huge mass memory, both RAM and system disk size are an issue for all except geeks, since regular Nokia updates and software quickly consume resources Over 140MB free RAM, over 330MB free on system disk, 16GB mass memory, no expansion. The absence of microSD expansion not only limits capacity, it also takes away a means of transferring media between devices. Partly to compensate for this, a USB on the go system (via supplied adapter) means that USB sticks/disks can be connected.
Processor, chipset notes ARM11, 332MHz, OMAP2420 graphics acceleration  ARM11, 434MHz ARM11, 680 MHz, plus Broadcom BCM2727 graphics acceleration
Use one-handed if needed Excellent external d-pad and numeric keypad, though screen is small at only 2" Many operations possible with one thumb due to slim form factor Possible but limited, due to screen size 
Camera/Camcorder 3 megapixels,  wide aperture, good photos, only single LED flash 5 megapixels, Carl Zeiss lens, wide aperture, great photos, dual LED flash, camera glass protection 8 megapixels EDoF (i.e. full focus, no macro), dual LED flash 
Camcorder VGA videos of subjects rather good, thanks to pre-set focus of a metre or so VGA videos of subjects spoilt by infinite focus  Excellent 720p video with digital sound
Application load-out highlights (out of the box)

Nokia Maps, Quickoffice Premier (editing), Ovi Store

Ovi Maps with free navigation, Ovi Store, Photos (editing)  Ovi Maps with free navigation, Ovi Store, Quickoffice editing suite, Photo and Video editors
Web browsing/working on the Internet Great to have full Flash (Lite) support and to see web pages at almost full resolution, but zooming in is very limited (to 125%) - this can make some sites very hard to use in terms of on-screen fonts Flash Lite means that you get full web sites, including video, but this very fact can slow web browsing down while Flash objects are loaded. S60 Web is limited in speed somewhat by the device's processor and by the VGA-width screen Web as per the N97 and E90, but with multitouch support. Interface is dated and multi-stage page rendering now clumsy with 2011 Megabyte+ web pages 
Messaging, Email S60 Messaging reliable but basic by modern standards, although Nokia Messaging (push email) is an easy install and works well. Plenty of third party apps to help here, too Comes with Nokia Messaging, which quickly pollutes the C disk and is best avoided. Use a third party email client instead. There's also a multitude of Web 2.0 widgets and shortcuts. Powerful once you've set everything up and if you know what you're doing Nokia Email (nee Messaging) works pretty well, albeit a little slow. Many people find bypassing Nokia's servers (by declining the terms of service) improves things a lot, using IMAP directly 
Audio out 2.5mm, plus loud, quality stereo speakers, though have to use an adapter to use 3.5mm headsets 3.5mm, plus tinny, quiet stereo speakers, FM transmitter built-in 3.5mm, plus tinny mono speaker 
Battery capacity, life 1500mAh, Li-Poly, many days, 2mm charging 1500mAh, Li-Poly, several days, microUSB charging 1200mAh, fixed with no user access at all, recharge each night, microUSB charging 
Connectivity notes Quad-band GSM, 3.5G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Infrared, GPS Quad-band GSM, Tri-band 3.5G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS Quad-band GSM, Pentaband 3G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS 
Video apps and capabilities RealPlayer, handles Flash video,  H.263/H.264/AVC MP4, 3GP etc.  RealPlayer, handles Flash video,  H.263/H.264/AVC MP4, 3GP etc. Symbian^3 video player, handles H.263/H.264/AVC MP4, plus DivX, WMV and many other formats and variants. HDMI out to compatible equipment
Application ecosystem S60 3rd Edition software scene now very mature, but weak on games and there are some issues for some titles when dealing with the extra-wide screen  S60 5th Edition software scene now established, though just as weak on games as 3rd Edition  Plentiful software, including HD GPU-aware games, weak area is cloud service integration apps 


Somewhat refuting the claim that the E7 isn't any better than the E90 is the 'score' here of 11 greens to 4. However, it's telling that there were in fact still four areas where the 2007 device bests the brand new E7, which has had several functions curtailed due to form factor compromises.

Also noteworthy is that the much loved/hated (delete where applicable) N97 also manages to best both the E90 and E7 in three areas in the table, proving that smartphone advocacy is rarely black and white!

Is there an 'Ultimate' Communicator? Not really. At least, not yet. If the E7 had been 2mm thicker, with a BP-4L battery bay, auto-focus camera and microSD slot then we'd be in the right territory. As it is, the E7 is also, for the true Communicator buff, an 'almost' device, sadly.

Nokia 9500

For Communicator fans it was probably the one you fell in love with first. In my case, the 9500 (above) was the one that nailed it for me, for over a year, back in 2004. It's also very relevant that the user interface has changed over the years. There are many, many people who were sad to see the keyboard-driven Series 80 interface (used in the 9210, 9500 and 9300) slip by the wayside in favour of a widescreen version of S60 (on the E90).

Which was/is your favourite Nokia Communicator, and do you still own it? 

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 18 Feb 2011