Full screen QWERTY hybrids: Nokia E90 vs Nokia N97 mini vs HTC Touch Pro 2 vs Motorola Milestone

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In another of my periodic hardware head-to-heads, I pitch a variety of full-screen, full-qwerty hybrid smartphones against each other, ranging from the 3 year old Nokia E90, still supported but hard to find for sale now, through to the spanking new Motorola Milestone. Which devices punch the heaviest when the rubber really hits the road?

Rafe and I have often pulled out the 'hybrid' form factor as the one offering the best of all worlds. i.e. a screen that occupies most of the plan form factor of the phone, with a qwerty keyboard that does the same, made possible through a sliding, pivoting or folding mechanism. Yes, there's a level of mechanical complexity which might prove unreliable in the long run, but the benefits are huge.

And yes, touchscreen-only fans will point out that a 'slate' device (e.g. Samsung i8910 HD, HTC HD2, Google Nexus One) can pop up a landscape keyboard when needed, to also give the best of both worlds, but I'd also argue that:

  • with such a virtual keyboard on-screen, the display area left is much reduced
  • even on the best virtual keyboards, you don't get the mechanical feedback of thumb-typing on real keys - this leads, ultimately, to faster, more satisfying text input

This head to head isn't exhaustive, of course, I've limited it to just four interesting devices. The idea is both to compare hybrid solutions from different platforms/ecosystems and (in the E90's case) from a different era. And to provoke discussion and debate, of course!

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

  Thumbnail graphic Thumbnail graphic Thumbnail graphic Thumbnail graphic
  Nokia E90 HTC Touch Pro 2 Nokia N97 mini Motorola Milestone/Droid
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 sliding QWERTY underneath Partly metal full-face resistive touchscreen with pivoting QWERTY underneath  Mainly metal, full-face capacitive touchscreen, plus sliding QWERTY
Display 4" transflective, great in sunlight, 800 pixels by 352 3.6" TFT, poor in sunlight, 800 pixels by 480 3.2" TFT, very poor in sunlight, 640 pixels by 360 3.7" TFT, poor in sunlight,  854 pixels by 480
Keyboard Full five row keyboard with around 1mm travel, plus punctuation keys and numerous application shortcut keys Five row keyboard, with nominal key travel, punctuation via a Fn key Three row keyboard, with nominal travel, punctuation via long key presses or Sym key  Four row keyboard, punctuation and numbers on ALT keystrokes
Weight 210g 176g 150g 170g
Operating system and interface Symbian OS 9, S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1, firmware updates now ceased Windows Mobile 6.5, future updates uncertain Symbian OS 9, S60 5th Edition, firmware updates planned Android 2.0, updates planned
Free RAM, free user memory, expansion for apps and media 90MB free RAM, 135MB, microSD, apps or media can be on any disk 80MB free RAM, 288MB, microSD, apps or media can be on any disk 50MB free RAM, 50MB, plus 8GB mass memory, microSD, apps or media can be on any disk 100MB free RAM, 256MB (all apps have to fit in here), microSD for media
Processor, chipset notes ARM11, 332MHz, OMAP2420 graphics acceleration  Qualcomm MSM7200A, 528MHz  ARM11, 434MHz ARM Cortex A8, 550MHz
Use one-handed if needed Excellent external d-pad and numeric keypad, though screen is small at only 2" Clumsy through one-thumb operation because of size Many operations possible with one thumb due to slim form factor Clumsy through one-thumb operation because of size
Camera/Camcorder 3 megapixels,  wide aperture, good photos, only single LED flash, VGA videos of subjects rather good, thanks to pre-set focus of a metre or so 3 megapixels, poor aperture and sensor, no flash, VGA videos, poor quality 5 megapixels, Carl Zeiss lens, wide aperture, great photos, dual LED flash, VGA videos of subjects spoilt by infinite focus  5 megapixels, poor aperture and sensor, dual LED flash, video capture at 720 by 480 by 30fps
Application load-out highlights (out of the box)

Nokia Maps, Quickoffice Premier (editing), Ovi Store

Microsoft Office Mobile, Google Maps Ovi Maps, Ovi Store, Photos (editing)  Google Maps, Google Mail, Google Calendar, Android Market
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. Includes both Pocket Internet Explorer (clunky) and Opera Mobile (slick, non-standard interface). Plenty of options here for the user, even if none are perfect. 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. Like S60 Web, the browser here is Webkit-based, but the faster, more capable processor makes for faster browsing speeds and the larger, higher resolution screen helps sites be seen as they would 'on a desktop'.
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. Messaging and email is somewhat complicated by HTC's front-end software, but underneath has superb Microsoft Exchange support and Outlook sync, as you'd expect. Comes with Nokia Messaging (which I still rate as being in beta, though works well for many), plus a multitude of Web 2.0 widgets and shortcuts. Powerful once you've set everything up. Excellent email experience for Google account users, solid email and messaging for those on other email platforms. Plenty of add-on social media widgets and apps.
Audio out 2.5mm, plus loud stereo speakers  Proprietary extUSB port, plus loud mono speaker 3.5mm, plus tinny, quiet stereo speakers  3.5mm, plus loud mono speaker 
Battery capacity, life 1500mAh 1500mA 1200mAh 1400mAh
Connectivity notes Quad-band GSM, 3.5G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Infrared, GPS Quad-band GSM, dual band 3.5G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS  Quad-band GSM, Tri-band 3.5G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS Quad-band GSM, dual band 3.5G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS 
Video apps and capabilities RealPlayer, handles Flash video,  H.263/H.264/AVC MP4, 3GP etc.  Windows Media Player plus HTC TouchFLO media player, WMV, MP4, 3GP, ASF, some limitations. YouTube client built-in RealPlayer, handles Flash video,  H.263/H.264/AVC MP4, 3GP etc. Video playback of H.263/H.264 MP4, 3GP files. YouTube client built-in
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  Windows Mobile software is extensive, but there are plenty of compatibility issues (mainly screen size) with older software S60 5th Edition software scene now established, though just as weak on games as 3rd Edition  Android marketplace established and populated 

It's a measure of how equal many of these hybrid devices are that the green (and yellow) highlights are fairly evenly spread. And that, within an attribute, it was a tough decision in many cases as to which should be classed as 'winner'. In truth, any of the four would probably do me (or you) proud for all serious road warrior use.

The surprise, and my starting point for this head to head, was that the three year old 'obsolete' Nokia E90 can still hold its head high in contemporary company. As a (somewhat artificial) guide to the accolades given above, let's award 2 points for a 'green' and one point for a 'yellow':

  • 12 points - Nokia E90 
  • 11 points - Nokia N97 mini
  • 10 points - Motorola Milestone/Droid
  • 9 points - HTC Touch Pro 2

By a gnat's whisker, the obsolete device just wins out when looked at in this way. Is it possible that hybrid smartphone design hasn't been advancing as much as you'd think? The biggest gotcha with the Nokia E90 is the heaviest device here (by some margin) and, arguably, the bulkiest. Making it the phone you'd perhaps least like to have weighing down your pocket. It's also the least 'sexy' (a factor for some). But then it's also possibly the one that gets closest to laptop functionality and feel. 

Overall though, the four devices highlighted here come out remarkably equal - if you were a new user trying to choose, you'd be able to apply your own 'weighting' to the attributes and capabilities above and would no doubt end up with slightly different 'scores'. Comments welcome if you'd like to share your hybrid full-width-screen/qwerty experiences.

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 12 Jan 2010