Review: Nokia E7, part 3 - Multimedia and Gaming
In part 1 of our Nokia E7 review, Rafe looked in detail at its hardware and gave first impressions of using the device. In part 2, I looked at the E7's 8 megapixel EDoF camera in detail. In this, part 3, I am looking at using the E7 for multimedia, video playback, gaming and more... In part 4, coming up next week, David Gilson will look at the E7's core competencies: email, messaging, Office document handling and so on.
(As you might expect, some of the material here is in common with the appropriate review part(s) for the Nokia N8, everything is included here for completeness)
As we saw on the N8, Symbian^3's media handling is top notch, with better codec support than any competing smartphones. And in terms of hardware, this is where the dedicated Broadcom graphics acceleration chip (GPU) really stretches its legs - in terms of raw benchmarks, it's as capable as the chipsets in any other device on the market.
And the E7's form factor plays a surprisingly big role in playing back multimedia content. For starters, the 4" screen's amazing. Displayed contents look like they're a printout on a shop dummy, they're that bright and clear. Watching videos on the CBD (Clear Black Display), especially with headphones plugged in, is utterly immersive, like watching the very best TV set in terms of colour and contrast.
In addition, the very action which slides the screen up to reveal the QWERTY keyboard also props that incredible 4" screen up for watching videos. Using the E7 around the house and office, playing back live TV streams or prerecorded videos, having that ready made angled screen is simply wonderful. It beats a flimsy kickstand and it certainly beats looking around for a pepperpot or stapler to act as a makeshift stand every time you need to go hands free and get on with something.
As on the N8, the huge (and I mean huge) vagaries of digital video, wherein the 'container' file format often has no bearing on the actual content encoded inside and where every encoding method has half a dozen variants and bitrates and resolutions vary wildly, are a subject for another day, but suffice it to say that of the dozen movie trailers I grabbed in AVI, MKV and DivX 'form', ten played perfectly, while one of the ones that didn't turned out to be in full HD format and even my newish Mac wouldn't play it properly. Plus my existing collection of thirty or so MP4 and WMV films and music videos all played perfectly.
Great though the E7 is for playing back videos, there's no microSD slot in this phone. Given that the built-in 16GB mass memory has to cope with all your photos, podcasts, maps, documents, music files, etc., it's unlikely that you'll have much room for pre-recorded video content inside the phone - rather sadly. You'll therefore have to reckon with taking the supplied USB-on-the-go adapter in your pocket or briefcase, along with a memory stick containing any video content. It's a cool use of technology (especially when sending this video out to an HDMI TV using HDMI out at the same time) but it's a bit of a palava, to be honest. Far better to have a nice large microSD card with videos on it and then output via DLNA (still to come to Symbian, it seems....) - oh to be totally wireless here...
One curiosity of Nokia's media management has recently been that videos get lumped together with photos in 'Photos', the argument presumably being that you're going to want to view all your media from a recently captured event in the one place. Which is fair enough, though you'd have thought the app should be renamed appropriately. As it is, there's the usual mix, plus a dedicated Videos application that just err.... shows videos, and in an old-fashioned textual list. I'm not complaining unduly that there's more than one way to browse videos, but the current setup isn't exactly elegant.
Both Photos and Videos use a degree of organisation, into 'Albums' in the former's case and between 'Captured' and 'Other clips' in the latter's case. And in both, there's the usual Symbian^3 long-press facility, bringing up a pop-up, contextual menu, for 'Delete', 'Details', 'Copy', 'Move', 'Send' or 'Mark'. It's a lot faster than going down into the 'Options' menu every single time. And yes, there's a 'Mark multiple' mode, for going through and choosing several videos to delete, perhaps to save space.
Tapping on a video immediately brings it up full-screen in landscape mode, with the usual playback controls, time bar and volume controls one tap away, plus a 'Details' pane available to give you the nitty gritty on bitrate, resolution, encoding, and so on:
Interestingly, there's no mention of 'Realplayer' at any point - the video player in Symbian^3 seems to be brand new and GPU-aware - it's certainly far more capable in terms of performance than the old Symbian licensed solution.
As with the N8, there's support in the E7 for Dolby Digital Plus Surround Sound, although it's unlikely you'll come across too many suitable sample videos with this embedded at first. Still, maybe there will be movies available to buy with DD+ in the future?
Web TV and Video streaming
As with the N8, there's also 'Web TV', bringing in third party video applications and feeds, TV-style. It hasn't really taken off as a publishing system though, and the content's limited at best and gimmicky at worst.
Video is of high quality, with H.264 encoding being standard and with nHD (as on Symbian^1 and Symbian^3) being the minimum resolution.
As on the N8, there's no mention of YouTube here - instead, this appears as a shortcut at the bottom of the main 'Videos' page, linking through to the excellent mobile version of the YouTube web site: videos start playing immediately when their page is loaded, though it's not obvious that users need to double tap them to bring them up full-screen. Still, once you discover this 'trick' then YouTube becomes very workable.
Our review E7, straight from Finland(!), didn't have BBC iPlayer pre-installed, but apparently UK retail units will. As usual, it's trivial to go via Web to (for example) bbc.co.uk/mobile/iplayer/ and access the programmes and DRMed downloads that way - these days, iPlayer's just a bookmark, effectively.
Brand new for the Symbian^3 is a custom video editor. You'll remember from part 2 of this review that the E7 takes stunningly good video clips at 720p resolution? Here's where you can put them together quickly - but clumsily.
Photos and videos can be added to a kinetically scrolling storyboard, rearranged as you want, each clip can be cropped to just the frames you want included, titles added, background music added and transition effects inserted. And all of this is quite happy working with full 720p video footage. Is there a catch? Well, yes and no.
For simple video assembly, the Symbian^3 video editor is competent. But - and it's something of a big 'but', there are two caveats. Firstly, there's no concept of saving your mini project for later reworking - so you can spend 15 minutes tweaking your movie, save it to a file and watch it - and then there's no way back into the editor to correct a typo or add an additional scene - you have to start from scratch.
Secondly, although there are transitions, these are implemented very clunkily. Rather than seamlessly merge one video clip into another, the first one is frozen, the first frame grabbed from the following clip, and then the transition is applied to the two still images. After which the second clip is played. Even this would be acceptable if it weren't for the fact that the audio from each clip is stopped and started suddenly, there's no concept of fading one out and the other in, let alone merging the two. In practice this caveat produces uncomfortably awkward movies and you're best off forgetting about 'transitions' altogether.
In fact, apart from the aforementioned 'fun'/simple use above, you're best off forgetting about the Video editor altogether. To be fair, it's working with full 720p video at well over 10Mbps and, importantly, doesn't reduce the quality of any of the footage in the editing, i.e. there's no resampling or re-encoding going on. But don't be under any illusion that you'll use it for anything serious - and your desktop video editing software isn't going to be put out of business anytime soon.
Photo browsing and display
Photos, mentioned above, is fully multi-touch-enabled, in that you can splay your fingers on an image to zoom in on that point in real time - or pinch to zoom out. In addition, you can obviously drag the photo around while zoomed in. Zooming performance is good, considering the size of the images (up to 12 megapixels) and the E7's CBD AMOLED screen does an amazing job at displaying images to their best advantage.
Nokia Social networking, present in its 1.2 version on the review E7, puts up a 'Share' icon in Photos (the 'v' shape with nodes), for sending images up to Facebook or Twitter. Fine as far as it goes, though v1.2 downsizes all images in the process, annoyingly. Again, we're all waiting for Nokia to roll out their v1.3 update for all Symbian^3 devices, at which point the E7 will gain full resolution upload.
Accessed either from 'Options | Edit' in Photos, or through a dedicated Photo editor shortcut, this is an evolution of the existing photo editing in S60 5th Edition phones, itself a port of that in the Nseries phones of the N95 era. Thirteen icons lead to basic edit functions, some of which are new and overhauled compared to what's gone before.
Here's what available:
- Rotate, Resize, Crop (as they sound, same as in previous devices)
- Clipart (curiously, a different collection to that previously)
- Fun (a morphing/bending tool, for warping faces and figures)
- Draw (a basic line drawing and pen-painting tool)
- Bubble text, Frame, Red eye (as they sound, same as before)
- Stamp (clip-art-like coloured stamps, only ten currently included)
- Effect (colour styling, art effects and filters, all quite impressive)
- Tuning (auto, vertical/horizontal comparisons, brightness/contrast, highlights/shadows, RGB colour, saturation, sharpness and de-noise)
- Animation (adds thirty or so clip-art like simple 'fun' animations)
As usual changes are saved to a new image, so you don't lose the original. It's true that the more serious fiddling options here are best suited to N8 owners, but E7 photos will still benefit from the more 'fun' editing functions, as shown below:
Music player has been revamped for Symbian^3, with the home page now a kinetically scrolling list of artists and albums - what most people will want to see first, with the full song list, playlists, genres and 'podcasts' now on the Options menu and a tap away. As in many other screens on the E7, the extra screen real estate is used, in conjunction with the slightly smaller system font, to display more items per screen (when compared to the N8 and C7). A prominent 'Shuffle' legend on this home page acts as a toggle to turn this feature on and off, along with companion menu options in any of the other screens during playback - as you'd expect, random tracks are chosen from your library after each song ends.
The building of the music library still takes a while, as on S60 5th Edition, but is a bit faster due to the faster processor - as is finding tracks in general. No complaints for general use.
Album art remains as enigmatic as ever on Symbian^3 - there are three completely different industry schemes for embedding or attaching this and I don't altogether blame Nokia or Symbian for not supporting my Apple library of iTunes-ripped CDs on my Mac, in terms of handling the iTunes artwork, but would it have been too much to ask for a menu option 'Get album artwork' and a link through to the appropriate Gracenote database from within Music player? Now having artwork isn't a showstopper, but it all looks a bit patchy if your chosen desktop music scheme isn't one that's fully supported by Symbian.
File decoding compatibility is again excellent, as you might expect. The quoted support list is "MP3, WMA, AAC, eAAC, eAAC+, AMR-NB, AMR-WB, E-AC-3, AC-3", which again encompasses anything you're likely to come across.
There's a graphic equaliser built-in, as on the N8, with six presets, including the default 'flat' one, though there's no way to edit a preset or create a new one, disappointingly. The headset, a WH-701, is of reasonable quality, with in-ear design, though its frequency response can't match a really decent pair of third party 'cans'. You can swap it for a traditional 3.5mm set of your choice, but you'd lose the ability to take calls from the headset, of course.
The WH-701 isn't a 'multimedia' headset (play/pause/fwd/back etc), you just get a call pick-up button in the (stereo) headphone lead. Thankfully, the phone (like all Nokias?) does work with a multimedia headset that you get from another Nokia handset (or bought separately), you just don't get one in the box. Another option is to use any stereo Bluetooth headset, some of these now include multimedia controls, but I've never been a fan of having my encoded and then decoded MP3 and AAC music getting re-encoded and re-decoded just to make the journey 30 cm from my pocket to my ears...
As with the N8, there's no Podcasting client on board, so head for Symbian Podcatcher instead. This works very well, with only a couple of minor bugs at the time of writing.
With only the 16GB mass memory on the E7, space may be a little tight, so it's good that there are music streaming options, in addition to local playback facilities. Nokia has now released Internet Radio (in the Ovi Store) for Symbian^3 phones and this works rather well to give streaming access to tens of thousands of music and spoken word radio stations across the world. In addition, there are a number of third party streaming radio apps in the Ovi Store, dedicated to a group of stations, or even offering alternative generic Internet radio functions.
If you're into Spotify (a commercial custom streaming music service) then note that there's a Symbian client that works well, though it's not in the Ovi Store - you have to be a member of Spotify Premium first (see m.spotify.com).
For music purchase, there's the Ovi Music client, a Web-based online store for buying and downloading Nokia's (now DRM-free) music. 30 second samples are available for most tracks and play with one click from the album pages.
As with most handsets from Nokia, there's an FM radio included too, working using the headphone lead as the main aerial, with a station list downloaded over the air for your area, as determined using your Internet connection. And, as usual, its usefulness depends entirely on where you live and how strong the signals are. In Berkshire, UK, I typically only get a couple of local stations, but your mileage will vary.
With the new Symbian^3 handsets, Nokia has given gaming on Symbian a big boost by incorporating a dedicated OpenGL 2.0-compliant graphics processing chip. The Samsung i8910 HD and S-E Vivaz also had a GPU, but those two handsets weren't big enough sellers to attract games developers- Nokia's devices have been a different story. The N8, C7, C6-01 and E7 will sell in their millions over the next six months (no matter what the future of Symbian from 2012 may hold), and the top games developers have come onboard to offer titles that rival some of the top titles on even the iPhone.
For example, GT Racing: Motor Academy HD, shown below, which in its scope, feel, graphical intensity and frame rate rival anything else in the world. The circuits are full 3D, complete with gradients and camber and throwing one's car around is quite an adrenaline rush.
More of these 'HD' titles are being released each month (I think we're up to well over 20 now - see our Ovi Gaming for reviews), all of which take advantage of the graphics power on offer. (Plus the usual assortment of hundred of generic Symbian and Java casual games, of course.) Here's H.A.W.X:
Traditionally, Nokia's Eseries devices have lagged behind their Nseries brethren when it comes to multimedia. Videos, audio, photos, all were secondary to the all important QWERTY and messaging functions. With the E7 sharing the same internals as the N8, we've now got an Eseries flagship that can hold its head high in terms of multimedia and gaming. Even more so since the combination of naturally angled display and a large 4" Clear Black Display screen mean that it's just so pleasant to use for these functions.
Which is not to say that the E7's perfect. The biggest limitation is the somewhat weedy mono speaker on the E7's underside - imagine if Nokia had included stereo speakers, either side of the display? Ah well. Just make sure you watch videos and even play games with headphones or a set of portable speakers plugged in.
Also ultimately limiting is the lack of microSD card expansion. Not just because you can't swap media cards with another phone owner, but because you'll fill the 16GB mass memory fairly quickly once you head into multimedia territory. And you can't add more, as you would on almost every other phone. Yes, there's USB on the go, but if you're 'on the go' then you probably don't want to have to remember to lug around the special cable or various microSD-to-SD-to-USB adapters.
In part 4 of our review of the Nokia E7, David Gilson will look at communications and Office functions - in theory, one of the E7's strongest suits!
Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 17 Feb 2011
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at