Review: Casing the Nokia E90 Communicator
Of all Nokia designs, their flagship Communicator series has perhaps been the one which has consistently needed a really good means of protection and transportation. After all, you've just bought a device that costs more than a cheap laptop, it makes sense to spend a few quid extra making sure it stays safe and never gets left behind.
As with my other case roundups, there's a pretty mottley selection here, from an eBay case costing £2 to a handmade case costing 20 times as much. But how do they fare in real world use? The Nokia E90 has a pretty challenging form factor for an 'always in' case, but that hasn't stopped a number of designers from trying, while others have opted for a simpler pouch or holster....
Let's start with the prettiest and best made. Noreve (USA site) were first to send over a sample, with their E90 Tradition case. Both of us were impressed at first sight - the finish and feel are stunning, with beautifully finished leather and embedded metal frame.
The top cover has a magnetic catch that's just about strong enough. Although most of the cutouts are immaculately positioned, the ones in the top cover make access to some of the keypad keys tricky. The main issue we had with this case is that, in open mode, the E90's screen is only allowed to open to around 110 degrees before it fouls the rear edge of the case bottom. With great care, the E90's double-hinges can be manipulated to 'break' in a different order and, in this fashion, you can get most of the way back to 180 degrees. But you shouldn't have to do this, it's not the sequence in which the hinge was designed to work. Finally, there are no belt mounting options. In summary, according to Julie, "Frankly, it's pretty, but not much use!"
Scores: Style: 10 Protection: 7 Usability: 4 : Total: 21
3A Trading sent over their E90 case from their base in Germany. It's a fairly standard, but smoothly finished leather pouch with horizontal belt mounting, strong magnet closure and reinforced top flap.
The smooth leather used doesn't seem very rugged, but I had no immediate problems with fit or purpose. The problem with a horizontal mounting for the E90 is, of course, that the very length of the device means that the case is going to stick out and generally get in the way. The main belt clip spring was very strong and there was an extra overlaid flap for extra protection. Interestingly, the case also comes with screen protectors for both the E90's displays - a touch over the top but a nice gesture.
Scores: Style: 6 Protection: 9 Usability: 7 : Total: 22
Oh dear, oh dear. Another disappointment from Krusell, I'm afraid. They sent over their Dynamic case for the E90, immaculately packaged as always. It's Krusell's usual body-fitting mix of leather and transparent plastic. Getting the E90 inside is tough, really tough, but then it's designed to be left in place. The top's elasticated, to allow for the E90 opening procedure and there's the usual excellent Krusell belt clip/fastening, shown here with horizontal clip, but with other rotating/mounting options available.
We weren't convinced by typing through the extra layers of plastic, as with several other cases on test here. The numeric keys in particular weren't easy to press. The form fitting nature, together with the mass of intricate leather/plastic joins don't make for a very elegant case. And when fitted, the E90 doesn't quite close properly, which just looks horrible. The final nail in the coffin is that the belt clip arrangement makes it impossible to use the E90 in 'laptop' mode.
Scores: Style: 2 Protection: 7 Usability: 5 : Total: 14
Sourced from eBay for a few dollars, I couldn't resist throwing a 'Crystal' case into the mix. Unfortunately, these days 'crystal' usually means cheap plastic rather than high quality polycarbonite. As with the Krusell case, we struggled to fit the base part - it turns out there's a trick and you have to clip it on in a certain way. Once in place, as with the Noreve Tradition case, the screen sadly doesn't open fully. Once you go much past 120 degrees, the top part of the case starts to unclip itself.
Not surprisingly, given the price, the crystal case was not well finished (to say the least), a bit of sandpaper to smooth off the rough edges wouldn't have gone amiss... The cutouts on the cover mean that the soft keys are difficult to access. One positive (from Julie) is that the thickness of the case "will help stop me switching the phone off accidentally though - the on/off switch is positively difficult to get at through the cutout".
Scores: Style: 2 Protection: 6 Usability: 6 : Total: 14
Over to Proporta. Ah yes, the supposed 'Litchfield' case 8-) What actually happened is that the really nice people at Proporta asked for my suggestions for an E90 case and I pointed them in the direction of a vertical format pouch design, with a secure belt mounting. A few months later and the Proporta 'Pouch Type' is the result. How close did they get to my initial vision?
It's a simple, unassuming pouch with heavy orange stylised front/angles, and a top flap that is supposed to secure magnetically but which often doesn't quite sit down flush because the magnets aren't quite strong enough. The side cutouts (to help extraction) work on one side of the case but a stylised flap rather gets in the way on the other. Although the case itself adds little bulk to the Communicator, the Proporta standard belt mounting system does, holding the case a good inch or so away from your belt - we think it's high time this was redesigned along the lines of the slimline Krusell vertical belt clip. And Julie didn't like the fact that the only colour options were orange and er... orange.
Scores: Style: 5 Protection: 8 Usability: 8 : Total: 21
Also from Proporta is this Alu-leather Flip case. The trademark inserted sheet of aluminium isn't really needed since the E90 hasn't got a fragile outer touch screen, but hey, it's here anyway. The E90 sits with its main keyboard slid under a sheet of plastic and with an extra metal finger that fits around the back. The whole system's not exactly elegant, but at least your Communicator is fairly secure.
As with the other Proporta case, adding the belt clip makes the whole assembly just too bulky and with the belt stud attached you can't then lay the case flat for typing. With no belt stud, the case top flips underneath and provides a relatively stable platform, thankfully. The flip form factor works quite well, especially when wanting to use the E90 in closed mode. As with other keyboard-covered designs, typing is possible but you lose what little feel there is from the E90's keyboard, which isn't good for accuracy.
Scores: Style: 8 Protection: 8 Usability: 6 : Total: 22
From long-time case manufacturers PDair comes their 'book type' case. With the case staying on all the time and with virtually wrap around protection, this looks like a winner, but looks can be deceiving.
The E90 is a nice snug fit, with a transparent layer covering the main keyboard. Using the cover phone is possible, despite the thickness of the top flap, and using the main keyboard is likewise not a problem. But now come a series of issues. With the belt stud in place, the case won't sit flat for laptop-like typing. The case cutouts are in the wrong places, with the miniUSB port being partially obscured and the camera button hard to get at. Next, the magnets that hold the top flap down are very weak and I'd be concerned at how often 'catching' the phone on something might open up the flap. The belt clip, like the Proporta one, is VERY bulky, meaning that the E90 hangs quite a way from your belt. And the phone hangs upside down, which is a bit disorientating.
Scores: Style: 7 Protection: 8 Usability: 5 : Total: 20
Also from PDair is their traditional horizontal leather pouch, this time without a big top flap.
There's a nice slim and secure belt clip on this one and, of all the cases on offer in this roundup, the PDair pouch was deemed Julie's favourite and she marched off with it fairly happily 8-)
Scores: Style: 7 Protection: 7 Usability: 9 : Total: 23
The ultra posh (and with a 54 Euro price to go with it) AX-ALEX Leather Case for the E90 arrived in a wax-sealed box, containing a velvet pouch, in which is the case itself, 100% handmade and looking stunning, in a hard, shiny leather sort of way. They'd sent over the red version, probably because they've got more of these left, with the black version being more popular. The look is certainly striking, but I'd go for black (or brown) if I had the choice, too!
With an ultra-secure and slim belt loop, I (Steve) took to the AX-ALEX case immediately. The only bulk added is the necessary protective layers of leather and the side cutouts are fine for extracting the E90 one-handed in a hurry. Julie pronounced "it's no good for me as there's only a belt loop, no clip", but being a man I'm quite happy to go around looking like a geek all the time, so a loop is fine by me!
Scores: Style: 8 Protection: 9 Usability: 9 : Total: 26
From CarryMobile comes this book style 'Deluxe Leather case', along the lines of the PDair one:
Having fitted the E90 in place, you have wonder if the designers of these cases used real devices or simply plucked dimensions from the Internet. A real E90 simply does not fit! The keyboard slides in easily enough, but then the top flap doesn't stretch far enough for the front magnets to latch it down. As if that wasn't enough, the keyboard plastic is thick enough that what little haptic feedback the E90 keyboard does offer is completely ruined. And the plastic buckles horribly around the circular cutout for the navigator key. A screw-in belt clip wasn't supplied but I hated this case so much that nothing could have saved it.
Scores: Style: 4 Protection: 8 Usability: 2 : Total: 14
Also from CarryMobile was their 'Horizontal pouch', seemingly from a different designer, on a bigger budget and a very different kettle of fish. It's finished in top quality leather and the belt clip is nice and strong and with additional press stud flap protection:
The E90 is a really nice fit, not too tight and not too loose, and with handy cutouts for pushing the device back up out of the pouch. Four big magnets hold the pouch flap closed and my only rather picky complaint is that the thickness of the leather used adds a fair amount of bulk to the assembly. Plus, of course, it's a horizontal design, so you've got to like this arrangement on your hip.
Scores: Style: 8 Protection: 9 Usability: 8 : Total: 25
And so to Nokia's official E90 CP-181 Carry Case, a simple horizontal pouch that's unfortunately no use whatsoever:
I just don't know where to start with the design problems here. There are just so many. OK, the case is too tight a fit, you have to apply force to get the E90 in, usually activating a few keys, so you have to always remember to put keylock on. Now, the E90's in - but how the **** do you get it out again? There are no cutouts to push it up from! With extreme finger pressure I finally rescued my E90 from the CP-181's evil cluthes and vowed never to put it back in again. [update: apparently the top flap doubles up as an extractor - thanks to those that mentioned this - my review case came without instructions!! Still, I'm not convinced by the system...] Then there's the noisy velcro fastening and the wierdly padded belt loop - which just.... looks odd.
Scores: Style: 5 Protection: 7 Usability: 4 : Total: 16
Here's another budget tipoff - a no-name case for the E90 purchased for £7 on a phone market stall in Bracknell. No, really.... It's yet another horizontal pouch, finished in typical Far East cheap leather and stitching:
It's a great fit though, with a nice cutout at the bottom for easy device extraction and the case magnets hold the top flap down stylishly and securely. There's the usual clip and press stud loop on the back, adding as little bulk as possible. Not at all bad for the price, although you have to want a horizontal pouch and I doubt the case would stand up for more than a few months of heavy use.
Scores: Style: 7 Protection: 8 Usability: 7 : Total: 22
Another oddball source but with a familiar name. The Bugatti ComfortCase, which I could only find via First2Save on eBay and who we had to chase several times before delivering, is actually rather terrific. Handmade in smooth black leather, it's more or less the perfect vertical pouch, adding as little bulk as possible while offering good protection:
There are cutouts at top and bottom that are perfect for grabbing the E90 (and/or pushing it up from the bottom if needed), a further bottom cutout giving access to miniUSB, power and headset sockets, and a really sturdy belt clip. The only black marks I can raise against the Bugatti case is that the magnetic catch for the top flap is a little weak and that the flap doesn't always locate neatly, plus the fact that it's a belt clip rather than a loop means that it can ride up and slip off your belt when sitting down, if you're not careful. But general fit and ease of use is great.
Scores: Style: 10 Protection: 7 Usability: 9 : Total: 26
With the target audience for the E90 itself, it wasn't surprising to see an aluminium metal case arrive, from PDair. I have to admit that at first glance it looked like something from The Empire Strikes Back - this is the case an Imperial Stormtrooper would carry:
The main, hinged framework is exquisitely made, at least at first sight, with neoprene padding making sure that the metal doesn't scratch the E90. The dimensions are perfect, too, with every button or feature on the device accessible and even with slats in the case at the appropriate points to allow wireless signals in and out without too much attenuation. Unfortunately, there are several fundamental design flaws. The bottom hinges protrude further than the case's rubber feet; the E90 is secured in the case bottom using an adhesive pad - what is the user supposed to do when changing the battery, SIM card or simply doing a battery-out reset? And the metal catch that holds the top cover closed just isn't strong enough - the slightest touch results in the case top popping open.
Scores: Style: 8 Protection: 8 Usability: 2 : Total: 18
As I write this, several other cases had been ordered and had not arrived. I'll continue to update this roundup on an ad-hoc basis!
The verdict? A tie! Top scorers in the test, with 26 points, were the Bugatti ComfortCase, looking a million dollars but watch out when sitting down, and the AX-ALEX vertical leather holster, not quite so stylish but offering better protection - a tough call between the two. In third, with 25 points, is the CarryMobile horizontal pouch.
The relative failure of all the book 'in situ' designs isn't, I think down to their ambitions, but more to do with the build quality and design dimension problems - I'm staggered that some of these cases are being sold even though they don't fit the real device.
Steve Litchfield, AllAboutSymbian, review update 3rd October 2007
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at