Nokia E90 Communicator Preview

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Rafe looks at the Nokia E90 Communicator. A legend reborn? Undoubtedly feature packed and technically impressive - but is there still a market for the qwerty clamshell form factor?

The E90 is Nokia's new top end enterprise-focussed device. However, as with the multimedia-focussed N95, Nokia have packed in an impressive number of features. The connectivity options include quad band EGSM, 3G connectivity (WCDMA and HSDPA), WiFi (802.11g), Bluetooth (including stereo audio support), infrared and USB (2.0 full-speed). There is also a 2.5mm audio jack for headsets, a FM Radio, a 3.2 megapixel camera with auto-focus and DVD-quality recording, and an integrated GPS chipset. All this in the standard Communicator clamshell form factor, which this time boasts an external QVGA screen with number keypad and a wide (800x352 pixels) internal screen with full QWERTY keyboard.

E90 Open

The E90 is effectively two phones in one, but with a common data store and computer between them. With the clamshell closed, the E90 is an a fairly standard, if rather large, S60 smartphone. There are the usual control keys and number keypad, and 16 million colour QVGA screen. The external keypad is perfectly usable, although it doesn't measure up to that found on the N93. The usual S60 applications are present and it is possible to carry out every function of the phone in this mode, from writing emails and watching films to making phone calls. However, opening up the device reveals a decent sized QWERTY keyboard and a gorgeous 800 x 352 pixel screen. The inside also runs S60, albeit with the UI appropriately reconfigured for the screen size. The impressive part is that the phone will switch seamlessly between the two screens and maintain application state. This means you can, for example, beginning to compose a message in closed mode, but decide to continue it using the full keyboard without the need for any user interface intervention. The switch generally takes about a second, although I would expect this to get better nearer the release date.

This dual S60 functionality sounds simple, but it makes a big difference to the user experience and is one of the best features of the device. Traditionally, using a QWERTY keyboard form factor device meant sacrificing some of the speed and ease of use that comes with number keypads. With the E90 you can use whichever form factor is most appropriate. If you are sitting on a train then the clamshell open mode is going to work best, but if you're walking along the street the closed mode will be easier to use. The clamshell form factor allows for a bigger keyboard although in the case of the E90 I'm not sure whether this is used to its full potential.

The QWERTY keyboard is good in comparison to most thumb keyboards, however for most people is likely to remain strictly 'hunt and peck' when on a desk, and a thumb keyboard when held. There is simply not enough space to touch type and the keys themselves do not help as they feel quite solid. The E90, in my opinion, almost matches the Nokia 9500 and will give the fastest input speeds of any modern (S60) Nokia device, but I would estimate it is only going to be 20-30% faster than input of the E61i. Keyboard feel and performance in such devices, beyond a certain point, is subjective and a full assessment will have to wait for final hardware and real world usage.

The E90 runs S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 on Symbian 9.2. This brings UI enhancements and onboard application updates. One of the improved applications is Web, which now support both WAP and Web pages from a single application, has rearranged menus and a handy pop up toolbar. The E90, thanks to its wide internal screen, shows off the power of the S60 browser brilliantly. The 800 pixel wide screen allows the majority of sites to be displayed clearly without any shrinkage and the E90's powerful processor and fast connectivity options means web pages load quickly, a marked contrast from earlier Communicator models. New to Feature Pack 1 is support for Flash Lite in the browser which means some flash content is now accessible (e.g. navigation elements) although most video content (such as that found on YouTube) will probably not work. Unfortunately, the implementation could be better, an extra two clicks is required to activate any Flash content.




The standard S60 applications are present. This includes the PIM applications, which is one area where some users may find the E90 under-powered compared. The most obvious example is the lack of (Outlook) category support. How much of an impact this has depends entirely on the user. We (Rafe and Steve) happily use the standard Calendar on other S60 phones and for us the functionality is fine. Power PIM users, especially those coming from earlier PDAs and Series 80 devices, may be disappointed. The Messaging application is clearly an important part of the E90 proposition and support for Nokia's impressive Intellisyc software; Blackberry, and Microsoft Exchange Active-sync should keep most users happy. There is room for improvement here too, better support for HTML email is one area that should be addressed.



Also present are a number of extra applications that were trialed on earlier devices and are now becoming standard across the S60 range. These include the Team application for coordinating communication within a team, the WLAN Wizard/Locator for easy WiFi usage and Search for on device global search. The latter of these is particular welcome and was an omission from earlier models. File opening, editing and viewing capabilities are provided via a number of applications, including the extremely capable Quickoffice Suite (found here as version 3, in full editing mode for Word, Excel and PowerPoint files), Adobe's PDF Viewer (Nokia should use faster Pdf+ instead!) and Epocware's Zip Manager.


In clamshell mode, many of the application views have been modified to take advantage of the extra screen real estate. In most instances, the left hand portion of the screen remains the same as when running in QVGA resolution, while the right hand portion is used to display extra information. This saves at least one UI interaction as it is often no longer necessary to click through to the next view. For example, in the week view of Calendar the right hand side of the screen displays the contents of the Calendar for that day, while in Messaging the contents of the current Inbox or Folder is shown. Despite these optimised views, the original UI path is maintained so as not to upset users familiar with S60. Overall, good use is made of the extra space, although I'm sure there is room for improvement before the retail release. This use of screen real estate is best illustrated in the screenshots below.



Messaging Open  

Messaging Open

A side effect of running S60 is that is there are now only two right-of-screen command keys (the softkeys). On the Series 80-powered 9500 there were four command keys and a menu key. While the loss of the two additional command keys is a shame the major impact comes from the loss of the menu, especially as there is no access to the menu from the keyboard. In effect all command functions go through the uppersoft key and inevitably this means it will take longer to access some functionality. One mitigating factor is that the famed S60 ease of use means that the  centre of the D-Pad is often mapped to commands such as Open etc. Without long term usage it is unclear how big an impact this will have - as with many devices, real world experience may paint a different picture than first impressions. This issue will certainly be noticed by ex-Series 80 users, and this single point of entry for commands together with a shortage of keyboard shortcuts (though this will hopefully be corrected in later software, and it's worth noting that standard text editing shortcuts like ctrl-A, ctrl-C DO work) is likely to be the biggest complaint from users upgrading from the 9300 or 9500. The problem is a result of running S60 on a device for which the UI is not optimised. S60 may be an excellent platform for one handed phone-type devices, but with the E90 moving towards laptop-like usage, at least in clamshell mode, problems are inevitable. The use of hardware application shortcut buttons (Desk, messaging, Contacts, etc.) along the top of the keyboard helps a certain amount and there are software tweaks that could help too. It is also worth noting that a large proportion of day to day S60 usage happens without using the menu. 


The Communicator range has always put business first and leisure second. The E90 retains a business focus but it is also a powerful multimedia beast. The audio capabilities are impressive - there are stereo speakers which produce excellent output (at least the equal of the Nokia N95); an FM Radio is included, and there is a 2.5mm audio jack for wired audio and Bluetooth for wireless audio. The on board music player (WMA, MP3 and AAC) is the most recent revision of the S60 Music Player; it can be controlled from the directional controls in either mode. Video playback is provided by RealPlayer as usual and includes support for the H.264 MP4 video codec; in playback, video is smooth and looks fantastic on the internal screen. The 2.5mm jack includes composite TV support and final E90s should ship with a proper TV out cable.

The camera is also well specified at 3.2 megapixels; crucially, it also has auto focus, which will allow for sharper and cleaner looking photos and video capture at full VGA resolution is also supported. Subjective tests indicate the E90's camera will produce similar results to the Nokia N73 in still mode and to that of the N95 in video mode. Outside of the software platform, it's the single biggest improvement in the E90 compared to the 9500. The camera is best used in closed mode with the external screen used as a viewfinder (with an array of on-screen camera controls) and there's a dedicated capture key on the side of the device.

E90 Sample ImageE90 Sample Image 2
Sample Images from the E90 Camera (prototype hardware)


The E90 will ship with Nokia's Maps application (a version of their Smart2go software) and this, together with the built-in GPS adds navigation capabilities to the E90's feature set. Given the target market of the Communicator family, this is a sensible addition. There are many business users who will welcome the ability to navigate and find out about (via the City Guides) a strange city with ease. The GPS also opens up the possibility of some interesting location-based and tracking enterprise applications, this is definitely an area developers will be looking to explore.

E90 Maps

Much of this multimedia capability is driven by the inclusion of Imagination Technologies' PowerVR chipset technology in the E90's processor (Texas Instruments OMAP2420). This is the same chipset used in the Nokia N93, N95 and Motorola Z8. This also makes the E90 a capable gaming device - it will ship with a racing game that shows of some of this prowess, and could (at least in theory) support the next generation N-Gage gaming platform. Quite what the boss will make of that is another matter!

There is 128MB of on-board memory, but this can be expanded (up to 2GB) using the microSD memory card slot at the base of the device. The E90 ships with a 1500 mAh battery, which Nokia say will provide up to 14 days standby time. In practice, it is likely that the device will manage 2 days with moderate usage, which should be enough for most users. The E90 is the first Communicator that will have two colour variants, Nokia believe this will broaden the appeal of the device. Although it is a minor cosmetic change, it is a welcome one.

Nokia 9500 vs Nokia E90

Nokia's Communicator line has a rich heritage; one that stretches back 10 years to the Nokia 9000 Communicator and to a time before smartphones. Is the Communicator line still relevant and how does it measure up in the smartphone jungle? In a world where software platform phones and multimedia computers are common place, the E90 may not stand out as much as its predecessors, but it is still an impressive device. It packs in more features and modes of use than any other device I can think of. With the addition of 3G connectivity and the use of the S60 software platform, the Communicator line is bought bang up to date with a vengeance.

Moreover, the addition of a GPS, a powerful graphical chipset and a terrific camera bring true multimedia convergence to the Communicator family for the first time. Indeed this element brings a whole new side to the family, the E90 is about a lot more than working and communicating on the road. It manages, to a large extent, to marry the abilities of Nokia's 'multimedia computers' to an extremely capable enterprise device.

However, I wonder how big a market is left for such a device. It is almost twice as heavy as most smartphones and about 50% bigger in the dimensions department (though it is much closer to the 9300 than the 9500). However you are going to be hard pressed to make this particular from factor any smaller or lighter without sacrificing a great deal of usability - anyone who wants this kind of device is going to find the device impressively sized. For many users, a device such as the E61i will do many of the same jobs (PIM, email, music, apps) in a more pocketable device for half the price. Of course for the true power user only the E90 will be good enough.

The move to S60 brings many benefits, but has not been trouble free; many of the most ardent Series 80 users will be disappointed by the changes in menu accessibility and by the on board applications. New users and existing S60 users are likely to be happier since they will suffer less from ancestral memory and benefit more from the new catalog of applications that is available from launch. Overall though the move must be considered a positive step.

There are many existing Communicator users who will be looking to upgrade, but the number of new users who will be attracted is more open to debate. Perhaps the irony here is that the Communicator, by virtue of its success, helped to create the very smartphone market that may stifle its success this time round. 

But perhaps this doesn't matter? The E90 remains a hugely impressive device, one that represents the breadth of Nokia's technical ability and vision. It will inevitably face criticism, and may only be suitable for a small number of people, but the E90 Communicator really is a legend reborn and I welcome its appearance at the very top of Nokia's range.

Resources / See Also

Steve's further comments and screenshots from the E90  

Nokia E90 Photo Gallery from 3GSM

Steve answers your question about the Nokia E90

Ewan - Enough about Psion

Steve - From Psion 3 to the E90

 E90 vs (500