Making more of less: Pimping the Nokia E61i and smartphoning on the cheap?

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In an epic tale of heroism and 'making do', I lead you through a series of hopefully thought-provoking segments, showing that perhaps there's more to a smartphone than feeling compelled to buy the latest £400 hardware. In the process, I point out the potential benefits of one of Nokia's unsung heroes, the E61i, my main smartphone through the summer of 2007 and a device to which I was recently reintroduced. Reality bites home in the end, though, and I conclude that there's an equal acknowledgement to be made in terms of progress made by Nokia and Symbian over the last few years.

Functionality, not specifications

After my lengthy two-part (look 'em up) piece looking at the functionality (for me) of the Google Nexus One compared to the Nokia N97, I was struck by how many commenters still misunderstood my intentions. I was explicitly looking at real world functionality, not raw specifications. So, for example, I would talk about music playback or secure databasing or video watching and I would get back comments like "But, dude, the Nexus one blows the N97 away, it's got a 1 GHz processor and capacitive screen!". Totally missing the point. Great specs are important, but they're not the end of the matter when it comes to your smartphone helping you get through your daily life.

The point was also reinforced later in the week when I was reintroduced to an old friend - the Nokia E61i. You'll remember that this has something of a unique form factor in that it was quite a bit wider than the current generation of qwerty candy-bars, enabling a 2.8" display and enough room for a keyboard with distinct spaces between the keys. The E61i (and E61 before it) were also indestructible.

I had one for ages back in 2007 but had to give it back to Nokia eventually - and sadly. But fancying at least trying out the form factor again, and having made some enquiries around my Twitter following, I was happy to be on the receiving end of a gift of Jonathan Quirk's old E61i. Impressively bearing up the 'indestructible' claim, this E61i had been dropped from a variety of heights, submerged in water at least twice and generally used, scratched and battered to within an inch of its life. There's even a suspicious dent on the back which was either Jon using the E61i to hammer in a nail or else it saved his life when he was shot at by the Mafia.

The E61i - bruised and battered

Bruised and battered, but still fully working, the indestructible E61i

And yet this plucky E61i insists on working fully, as well as the day it was bought, back in early 2007, three years ago. The metal chassis has a lot do do with this, of course, but the general build quality and simplicity of form factor also help, with no moving, sliding parts. Can you imagine an N97 after 3 years of intensive use? I'm guessing it wouldn't have fared so well.

In fact, its fully-working status got me thinking. Having just been working out whether a Nexus One could replace my own trusty N97, how well could the E61i cope? The form factor's superb, maybe even better. And on the one hand, the internal electronics are more primitive, but then much of today's smartphone functionality is provided by software not hardware, and surely this could be retrofitted to the E61i by me, the informed and obsessive geek? I love a challenge...

In the process of trying, I learned two things, albeit slightly contradictory:

  1. Despite what the tech media would have you believe, S60, Symbian and Nokia smartphone hardware have come a long way in the last 3 or 4 years. From the low spec levels of the E61i - 2mp fixed focus camera, very slow processor and disk electronics, no GPS - to the now seemingly unbelievable absence of (decent) MP4 and WMV video codecs - or any kind of Nokia Maps compatibility, the N97 (despite its own hardware woes) knocks the E61i into a cocked hat. Nokia and Symbian haven't been standing still, you only have to try loading up an older device and the improvements are immediately apparent.
  2. You really don't have to have the latest and greatest piece of smartphone wizardry, costing an arm and a leg, to experience the smartphone lifestyle. This is probably stating the obvious, but I can't repeat it enough: with a degree of software pimping and common sense, even something as humble as the E61i, now available second hand for as little as £30, can be an effective smartphone that can have you twittering and pulling in feeds almost as productively as someone with an N97 or an iPhone 3GS costing well over ten times as much.


Introducing the E61i, my 2007 guinea pig

So, having determined to take the old (and in this case much battered) E61i as my example, let's take a closer look at it. The uniqueness of its form factor stems from the width - at well over a centimetre wider than the newer E71, E63 and E72, there's room for a far larger 2.8" display, equalling that on the N95 8GB and N96, but in the generally more business-like landscape aspect. The keyboard has got more room too, with chunky keys that have room all around - the keys have a good millimetre of travel and are quite firm, making it a bit of a shock after the soft-touch minimalist key feel of the N97 - but that shouldn't count against it. Finally, there's the metal chassis and full stainless steel back - paraphrasing the allusion above, if you were to be shot and the E61i was in your breast pocket, I think you might just come out alive.

Nokia E72, E61i and N97 mini size comparison

Size comparison with the modern equivalent, the E72, plus the E91, errr.. I mean the N97 mini....

On the downside, the device hails from a pre-N95 era, so there's no built-in GPS and the camera's a serviceable but ultimately limited 2 megapixels, with no flash. More worryingly, the E61i runs vanilla S60 3rd Edition, this was one of the last to do so before Feature Pack 1 was introduced, so there are a number of software and codec limitations, which I'll come to below. And there's the slightly clunky way that a 'Services' WAP browser gets launched some of the time - the later Feature Pack 1 was where Web integrated all online access, you'll remember. Finally, in common with the devices of the era, there's relatively low free RAM - in comparison to modern smartphones. So there's only around 23MB free after booting. This is enough for the basics, but (for example) trying to run something really hungry from 2010 (e.g. Skyfire) just hits the buffers quickly and you're in trouble.

But all is not lost, this is still a very capable smartphone and one which, given help from me below, can get up to around 75% of the functionality of the flagship N97. And most of what follows is equally applicable to any other S60 device of the same vintage. The camera-less E61, for example. And, to some degree, the N80, N93, and so on.

Let's get started.


Bringing the E61i kicking and screaming into 2010

Having trailed the idea for this piece, I've received several emails asking for a blow by blow account of exactly what I installed. So, in approximate chronological order, here's how the 'pimping' of the older smartphone went(!)

  • I checked for latest firmware. Not surprisingly, there haven't been any updates for over a year, but the E61i did at least have the last one (v3.0633, if you're counting). Now, something this old certainly hasn't got User Data Preservation, but when a smartphone gets old enough and updates cease, at least you haven't got to worry about reinstalling everything again and again - what goes on this device can stay on it until it dies of natural causes.
  • I examined the memory card. The E61 had miniSD, but the E61i was one of the first to use the 'newfangled' microSD format, thankfully. However, SDHC support wasn't written into S60 until Feature Pack 1, which means that the E61i is limited to only 2GB. Which sounds horrendously small in 2010, but have a think for a moment: most of your current storage needs are based on large video files (video support on the E61i is appallingly limited out of the box - see below for more on this), on having pre-loaded roads for the Ovi Maps countries of your choice (Ovi Maps requires at least FP1, so again the E61i need not apply here either), and on keeping your music collection with you at all times (music file organisation and playback in the Eseries S60 3rd Edition phones is notoriously spartan and klunky). In short, provided you can reconcile yourself to just keeping a dozen or so digital music albums with you, there's still plenty of room for other small media items, podcasts (see below) and more.
  • In view of the aforementioned lack of compatibility with any version of Nokia/Ovi Maps, at least there's no arguing on the mapping front. The latest Google Maps 4.0 ( works very well here, providing network and Wi-Fi location, along with all the other layered Google goodness including the latest poster child, Google Buzz. And as I needed the extra piece of precision, I dug out one of my old Bluetooth GPS accessories and paired that with the E61i. And, for extra good measure - and just to see if it was compatible - I installed Maps Booster as well - this too, worked first time. Soooo many ways of determining my location! Result: full, modern Google navigation - and when the big G enables real time voice navigation outside the USA, this old E61i will then have the same capabilities as every other cutting edge location-capable smartphone in the world. Which is pretty remarkable.
  • Also courtesy of Google is voice-driven search. It's something that comes along with Google's Mobile Search shell for all S60 phones ( again) and, not surprisingly, since all the work is done server-side, works just as well on the E61i as on the latest Symbian or Android devices. Just use your natural voice to ask a question or search for something and bang,  there's your answer.
  • While on the Google mobile site, I grabbed Google's Java-based but feature-rich Gmail client - this hasn't changed for years and works well on the E61i, with the landscape screen, although the speed of startup of the Java runtime on vanilla S60 3rd Edition is painful, at almost 10 seconds. The only other problem was juggling my apps to leave enough RAM free to keep it running all the time. As an alternative, I entered the Gmail settings into S60 Messaging (not to be confused with the latest 'Nokia Messaging' service), itself a capable standalone email client. A degree of tech knowhow is needed to set up IMAP access to Gmail in the first place (SSL security etc), but this only takes 5 minutes and you're then set for life, as it were, and makes the E61i a pretty awesome push Gmail machine. 
  • You'll have gathered from my other pieces on AAS that I'm a bit of a podcast nut - I have them playing while I cook the family tea, while I drive and while I drift off to sleep at night. Nokia's Podcasting tool didn't appear in Eseries device firmware until the E71 hit, but thankfully there's a standalone download on Nokia's site that will achieve the same end. In theory as useful as Podcasting on other S60 phones, I found it curious that podcast download speeds were several times slower than on newer devices - I'm guessing there were major optimisations made which the E61i will have to do without. I was able to speed up access to the Podcasting application itself by assigning it to the 'My own' hardware key - a useful feature, even though the firmware didn't have the E71's later 'long press' ability.
  • Playing back these podcasts also reveals another primitive aspect of the E61i's 2006 firmware - a Music player with the interface from hell. It's as if the team thought "how can we maximise the  number of keystrokes needed to perform the simplest tasks"... There are a number of third party music players which can help here, but I had something else in mind altogether...
  • ...You see, I was also wrestling with how to watch videos on something this old. Yes, MMS-grade 3GP videos played (grainily) and yes, some undemanding MP4 videos played OK in RealPlayer, but most MP4s didn't and neither did FLV (Flash videos), let alone anything fancy. The solution turned out to be dipping into my Rafe's wallet to purchase a license for the ubiquitous CorePlayer Mobile. There's no trial version and this was actually the first time I'd tried the product. I was somewhat blown away - performance on the E61i, previously thought not to have enough oomph under the bonnet for multimedia, was excellent and, coupled with the E61's loud loudspeaker, made mobile video viewing a pleasure.
    CorePlayer Mobile playing full-frame rate videos
    Yes, there's CorePlayer Mobile's not insubstantial ($30) purchase price, but then it also plays music well, with a playlist-orientated interface that works far better than vanilla S60 (circa 2006)'s Music player. So, in my mind, it's worth factoring into the overall cost - and it's not as if someone buying a device this old will have spent much on the hardware in the first place?
  • Staying with multimedia, there's one jewel that I was looking forward to re-acquainting myself with: Nokia Internet Radio. Having been using S60 5th Edition for well over a year, I'd almost forgotten how good this was. It's a free and easy download for the E61i and works tremendously - a world radio with 500 stations wherever you happen to be. Why this was never ported to S60 5th Edition is utterly beyond me. 
  • For all the above, there was also the issue of the physical connectors to worry about. The E61i dated back to Pop-port days (remember those?) and yet I've never been a fan of the 'lodge-in-the-outer-ear' 'phones that usually ship with devices. And the default E61i headset was mono, in any case. So it was onto eBay to buy a Pop-port-to-3.5mm adapter (for £3 with free postage) so that I could use my favourite 3.5mm in-ear stereo headset. After which music sounded great - the older device had no problems rendering audio superbly.
  • Onto more serious matters: staying in touch with what's going on in the world. Twitter is my first port of call for things that are going wrong (or right) across the globe. Gravity would normally be my first choice on S60, but a) we'd blown the budget on CorePlayer Mobile and b) Gravity's fonts aren't ideal on the 2.8"-screened S60 phones, so I turned to an old favourite, merely setting up a Web bookmark to - if you haven't tried this yet, it's a well-crafted mobile interface onto the full Twitter experience. And S60 Web's choice of fonts for it is nigh-on perfect. And it's free, of course.
    Dabr makes a great Twitter web-based client
  • With email already taken care of, syncing my PIM data (Contacts, Calendar) was another priority. As you might expect, this was fairly easy, since Nokia's phones have had 'good enough' syncing to most PIM systems for years. The same can't be said about syncing to online servers, but then back when the E61i was launched, noone used online data, it was all local (Outlook, etc). On my Mac, a download of the appropriate iSync plug-in and I was in business, with the same data as on my other phones all neatly synced to this older device. And with the hardware key for Contacts and with one-handed entry of names on the thumb keyboard (e.g. while on a landline using your other hand), the E61i made for a very useable communications hub - surprisingly so.
  • One method of communication I use a lot is Skype instant messaging - it forms the hub of the AAS virtual office - but it seems that the E61i is too old to register on the Skype mobile site. I'm sure I could have dug out a beta Java-based version that worked here, but there wasn't really much point because the excellent Nimbuzz handled Skype messaging without requiring anywhere near as much RAM, an efficiency that's just as important here as on the much newer N97.
  • Another central part of my smartphone world is my secure database - I've been rather locked into Handy Safe Pro's world for the last 5 years simply because it's so hard to get my data out of their phone/desktop system in one piece(!) - but while it works well, I'm not going to complain. And the application works just as well on the E61i, with Epocware being past masters of handling different screen aspect ratios. Even nicer is that the same reg code works on all my phones, so the high purchase price can at least be divided up among all the Symbian devices you're going to own.
  • Being able to write while out and about is an important factor for me. The E61i, like almost all Eseries phones, comes with the full editing version of Quickoffice, in this case v3.6. However, this is such an early version that it misses out on the 'free upgrade' to the latest v6.2 that was announced by the Quickoffice folks, in conjunction with Nokia. It's good enough for knocking up quick Word documents though and (thanks to the folks at Quickoffice) I did at least verify that the commercial v6.2 would install and run happily on the device, to satisfy my curiosity.
  • Enough serious stuff, on with some fun. I was determined to find a way of playing YouTube videos on the device, despite the fact that doing so in its day was unheard of. YouTube itself offers up ( again) a Java-based client that struggles to play smoothly, the quality's not fantastic, and there are the RAM requirements and slow startup to think about. Mobitubia didn't work at all, my usual thought on an older 3rd Edition phone. CorePlayer Mobile (above) to rescue again - it claimed to handle YouTube and indeed played the low quality (MMS grade) YouTube streams fine. So at least I had a solution of sorts. I hate being defeated!
  • Casual games are also part of my requirements in a smartphone, but I prefer sports-based titles. Rather impressively, Micropool plays faster and more smoothly on the ancient E61i than it does on the latest N97 - which I really can't get my head around. In fact, several of the games I tried (Oval Racer was another) played faster on this Eseries oldie than on the much newer N85 and N79, so I guess vanilla 3rd Edition was good for something else after all. In case you were wondering, Micropool plays sideways, i.e. you have to hold your phone horizontally, so be prepared for a few strange looks from passers by! 
  • Finally, I wanted to try out the Ovi store experience from such an old device. Nokia, it seems, don't offer a version of the store client for handsets for which Web runtime hasn't been implemented, the one rather depends on the other - but the mobile web version of Ovi Store works almost as well as the usual, modern client - and in some ways better, as it doesn't try to second guess you about re-downloading something else which you've grabbed before (the client can detect part of a previous installation and refuse to play ball). So no issues here either.


Back to the Future: in summary

As indicated earlier, the two things I learned from all this rather contradict each other. Yes, I was able to get most of my smartphone basics working on the older hardware with a little (ok, in some cases, a lot) of Tender Loving Care. And, for those basics, the E61i is a useable device. So, in this sense, my 'making do' experiment has been a success and proved you don't need something that costs £400+.

But the world has moved on. Every year, more and more functions get 'converged' into our phones - who'd have thought when the E61i was launched that the 2010 smartphone would be everyone's de facto sat-nav, music player and part-time TV? In addition, web sites and web services have grown in terms of their complexity and RAM requirements. For example, the Skyfire browser, popular in other parts of the modern Symbian world, just wouldn't start most of the time on the E61i - there was rarely enough free RAM. What was sufficient in 2006 and 2007 for PIM data, office editing and a little light web surfing, is looking pretty meagre in 2010.

Of course, you could also argue that modern devices likes the N97 are also affected by low RAM - but not quite to the same degree - the v21 N97 boots with almost 60MB free if you set it up intelligently, well over twice the free RAM of the E61i. Even leaving aside this aspect, the progress from 2007 to 2010 is very noticeable. On both the specifications and software front. On my N97:

  • I'm freed from worrying about storage space (currently running with 25GB free - combining the free space on my mass memory and microSD)
  • I'm largely freed from worrying about media compatibility (almost any video that's mobile-friendly will work without issue)
  • I'm compatible with almost any web service and widget
  • I can leave a standalone camera at home
  • I don't have to worry about keeping a Bluetooth GPS charged up in the car

And so on.

N97 vs E61i !

It's a bit galling that, three years after the E61i and around eight since the first S60 smartphone (the 7650) appeared, we still don't have any device in the world that's remotely close to being 'perfect', but then the world around us is forcing change at every turn, expectations are always changing and new aspects of convergence are being toyed with. And, as Tim Salmon and I keep saying on The Phones Show Chat, if a perfect device ever did arrive then, as pundits, we'd all be out of a job.

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 2 March 2010