Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nokia E55 review

The Nokia E55 is the sister model of the E52. Both are the successor to the great and indestructible E51, which itself was the successor to the E50 (another brilliant device). In fact, this line of candybar E-series business phones owes its heritage to the hugely popular 6310i, a now classic phone that still commands a following by dedicated users. They share the same classic monoblock design, has understated and yet classy designs that can stand the test of time.

For such a slim phone the E55 has plenty of features that would make bigger more expensive phones blush with envy. Firstly it is a proper world phone with quad-band GSM support and dual band 3G HSPA (10.2Mbps download and 2Mbps upload). It features a 600Mhz ARM11 CPU, which is quick for S60v3, and 128MB RAM (47MB available after boot). In addition, it comes with WiFi 802.11b/g with WPA2, UPnP and DLNA support, built-in GPS receiver with A-GPS feature, digital compass, Bluetooth v2.0 with A2DP, FM radio with RDS, noise cancelling microphone, 3.5mm audio headphone jack, a 3.2 megapixel EDoF fixed focus camera with LED flash and a massive 1500mAh battery.

The E55 runs on the now open sourced Symbian 9.3 OS with Series 60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 (S60v3 FP2) user interface. The UI retains a resemblance to the original Series 60 UI, but has some enhancements. Most of the new features and optimisation are under the hood though. For one, it is much faster than the E51 (which ran on S60v3 FP1). It also supports menu transition effects - though something I suggest disabling as it is nothing more than a gimmick. S60v3 FP2 also supports over-the-air firmware updates, though I could not test this as there are no new firmware updates as yet. It also has support for remote locking and wiping. Overall S60v3 FP2 is a mature platform that is fast and stable, a much improvement over the N80 era when Nokia decided to ship a powerful platform with a limited processor and RAM.

A typical active standby screen and the S60 user interface

Incidentally the amount of RAM available to the user on the E55 is about 47MB. Not a lot, but still a fair amount compared to the amount Nokia shipped with the first edition of the N95 (18MB! for goodness sake). I can consistently run up to ten different applications in the background with no issues. The only memory issue I encountered was when running multiple applications alongside Opera Mobile 10 beta. The processor here is based on the outdated ARM11 platform, but is quick enough for a QVGA device. In fact the E55's 600Mhz processor is actually quicker than the one powering the 5800XM and N97. The only other Nokia mobile phone that has a faster processor than the E55 is the N900, which has a 600Mhz ARM Cortex CPU.

This is the first Nokia mobile phone to feature a 20-key keypad. As far as I know, RIM was the first to market a phone with such a keyboard which they dubbed the SureType. Sony Ericcson also had something similar with the P1i and M600, at least in looks (they actually work very differently). Nokia calls this the half-QWERTY. Whatever it is called, this sort of keypad design is relatively rare and takes some getting used to.

The E55's half-QWERTY keypad is multi-tap and supports both predictive text and auto-word completion. The learning curve will highly depend on the user. Those accustomed to a standard T9 numerical keypad like I am (over a decade of experience) may find it difficult to adjust. Even after two weeks of owning the E55 I find myself occasionally hitting the wrong key because of this, especially when trying to type some punctuation marks. Despite that I have found myself to be typing faster than I normally would with a numerical keypad, though I am still quickest with a QWERTY thumboard.

The design of the E55 and E52, dare I say it, is an improvement over the E51. It features a larger 2.4" screen (compared to the 2" screen), though the resolution remained the same at QVGA. The QVGA screen is disappointing as such a resolution has been standard on mobile devices for almost 10 years now. Regardless Series 60 UI works well utilising the screen real estate so it isn't a major issue on most fronts except web browsing. Screen legibility isn't an issue as the screen remain readable outdoors. Below the screen are the metal soft keys, metal d-pad, answer/reject keys (also made of metal), three application keys (down from the four keys in the E51) and one cancel key. The calendar and messaging application keys can be defined between long and short presses.

The E55 and E52 also features a body slightly wider than the E51 - which is no doubt the result of getting a larger screen and battery to fit. Speaking of battery, the E55 features a massive BP-4L 1500mAh battery - the same one that powers the E71, N97 and E90. Despite this. the E55 still retains a slender slim profile (only 9.9mm thickness), and even weighs less (98g) and has 7cc less volume than the E51. Unfortunately in order to get the E55's weight south of 100g, the stainless steel body and battery cover of the E51 has been ditched in favour of plastic and light weight aluminium. The built quality is great, but it isn't as tank proof as the E51. It certainly would not stand up to the abuse that my old E51 had to endure during its 1 1/2 year of servitude.

On the back resides the 3.2 megapixels fixed focus camera with a single LED flash and a single loud speaker, which is pretty darn good sounding. The power key can be found on the top nestling next to a 3.5mm headphone socket (yay!). On the right you will find the volume keys and camera shutter key, which is located inconveniently halfway up. The microphone and lanyard hole can be found on the bottom. Finally a micro-USB 2.0 slot resides on the left hand side. The micro-USB slot also moonlights as the device's sole charging slot.

The E55 retails for £300 at the Nokia Shop, but can be found online for much lower. This is much lower than the initial price of the E51. The move from stainless steel to aluminium isn't the only thing Nokia has done to lower the initial cost - the retail box only features a 2GB microSD card, charger, micro USB adapter for old Nokia chargers and a USB data cable. It also ships with PC Suite on the microSD card. You are best just downloading the latest version of Ovi Suite or PC Suite. Speaking of Ovi Suite, the latest version is brilliant as it combines all the previous Nokia PC applications like Nokia Maps uploader and updater, Software Updater etc. into a single suite. The suite itself is still a rather bloated application, but it does have sync connectivity with Outlook for those who find it important.

The battery life of the E55 is simply amazing. For example last weekend I was able to leave my GPRS connection connected (3G is useless in the UK as the operators constantly cap speed on pre-paid tariffs, so best to use GPRS for e-mail and Twitter live feeds), whilst using WiFi and GPS navigation occasionally, two hours of e-book reading, listening to music about 3-4 hours a day as well as the odd voice calls and text messages. By the end of the weekend the battery bar only dropped by two! This is nothing like the N97 (which shares the same battery and is actually slower) - which can drop dead after barely a day of usage.

The firmware seems to be stable enough. I have read about some issues with the E55, but my unit is stable and I have had no crashes so far apart from a single time when I was running an outdated camera software. Not all applications works with the new keypad. For example all Java apps I have tried crashes everytime I attempt to key in a number using the long press method. The only way for me to key in numbers and punctuations is by using the FN key. It isn't a huge issue and I was expecting more apps to disagree with the new keyboard. Fortunately I have had no problems with the majority of native third party applications. I also have had no problems with the quality of voice calls from both ends. The E55 supposedly contains a active noise cancelling microphone that is able to cancel out background noise. Murmuring on the interweb indicates that the feature does not work, but I have had no problems with it even whilst talking in a busy high street next to a construction yard.

The 3.2 megapixels camera here isn't auto-focus. Instead it features a new fixed focus technology called Extended Depth of Field (EDoF). Regardless of whatever it is called, auto-focus isn't here and some may bemoan it. Personally I do not care. Auto-focus on camera phones tend to be much slower than their digital compact equivalent so to me having a fixed focus camera here is beneficial as snapping stuff up is as simple as pressing down the shutter key and not having to wait 2-3 seconds for the lens to focus. Still the lack of auto-focus also means that macro mode is out of the question as anything closer than a feet or so is blurred. Panorama stitching is also available and it works really really well. Some form of manual controls are present and video capturing is supported up to a resolution of 640x480 pixels at 15fps. Co-ordinates can also be embedded onto images and videos in the form of GPS geo-tagging.

Here are some resized but otherwise unedited samples:

100% crops:

f/2.4, ISO 100, 1/239 sec

f/1.4, ISO 319, 1/20 sec

f/1.4, ISO 400, 1/11 sec

Recent E-series phones have received the same amount of attention as the N-series phones when it comes to their multimedia powers. The E55 is no different. The music player is the same upgraded one featured on the N86 and offers an audio quality output that can rival many dedicated DAPs (a more detailed review of the E55's musical capability can be found here). The E55 also features an FM radio, though it lacks the FM transmitter seen in some N-series devices.

YouTube videos can be viewed in two modes: one via the built-in web browser (yes, it supports flash video playback) and another through a native Symbian YouTube application which can be downloaded freely from YouTube's mobile site. Unfortunately the E55's picture gallery is based on the one from the N-series, which while being faster than the one on the E51 - still insists on lumping every single image on the phone together. Fortunately there are third party image viewers that does a better job than the built-in Gallery application.

The E55 also has a built-in accelerometer. The first Series 60 phone to have an accelerometer was the 5500 Sport released way back in 2006 but its uses was limited to a number of applications, and the E55 expands on the number of features that makes use of the accelerometer. The most obvious is the ability to auto-switch the screen's orientation. You can also reject phone calls and snooze alarms by flipping the phone over. Nokia Step Counter, despite not being certified as working on this, works well though it does have some bugs when it came to measuring distance. Used along side Sports Tracker (which uses the GPS receiver - far more accurate at measuring distances), the E55 (and other compatible devices) is a brilliant tool for serious walkers and joggers.

The E55 can be connected to a PC via a number of ways, including Bluetooth. Using the USB cable however offers the most convenient method as it allows you to connect via different protocols - each offering different functions and performance. PC Suite allows for synchronisation (including PIM data and media via MTP). Selecting Mass Storage mode will connect the external microSD card as an external drive similar to a USB card reader. Image Transfer mode will allow the phone to simulate a digital camera and finally 'Connect PC to Web' mode will just do that - allows you to use the phone as a modem for your PC or notebook. This is probably only useful if you have a large data allowance that allows tethering.

Like the E71 and E66, the E55 also features a built-in GPS receiver with Assisted-GPS feature. Cold fix is quick averaging about two minutes or so to gain a fix. The first time I ever ran it, it took less than 10 seconds to gain a fix (with A-GPS disabled) but I gathered that it was just a freak fluke and was never able to repeat it. It never repeated that outrageous performance ever again but it isn't too bad either. Enabling A-GPS will quicken the fix a little bit (recommended from a cold boot). It takes about 3-5 seconds to regain a hot fix.

The E55 comes with the latest Ovi Maps 3 with lifetime pedestrian license. Voice guided navigation requires a subscription payment though it does come with a trial license that can be activated when you need them. I have always liked Nokia Maps when compared to TomTom and Ovi Maps 3 further cements my admiration for the application. As a user who does not own a vehicle and therefore walks more than usual, the built-in digital compass is very useful when attempting to navigate my way around an alien part of London as it rotates the map in whichever direction I am facing.

The best thing about Ovi Maps is the ability to pre-download mapsets in advance onto the memory card. I know Google is getting a lot of coverage over their Map application, but they still require a data connection in order to stream datasets onto the phone, not an advisable thing if you have a low tariff or is on a pre-paid tariff. And what if you happen to drive through an area with patchy or, worse, no cellular network at all (like much of the Lake District and areas of Scotland)?

Ovi Maps 3.0

Ovi Maps 3.0 supports vector mapping, satellite and terrain layers. It allows you to view the map in 2D and 3D mode (you can change the angle of tilt manually which I find a very impressive feature). GPS positioning and compass can be independently switched on or off. Finally there is a feature that allows the user to capture a screenshot of the map which they can then e-mail or keep as a reference. It supports for 6-7 digit UK postcodes as well as co-ordinates input. A number of POI are included within the dataset and user are free to upload their own (which Nokia dubs as 'The Good Things').

All in all, the GPS receiver on the E55 is more than adequete for most people's need. The 2.4" screen isn't ideal for car navigation so I suggest getting a phone with a larger display or dedicated satnav. One final note, th E55 supports ViewRanger, my favourite S60 application. Any S60 owners who calls themselves a hill walker or mountain biker should consider buying the software as it is simply a brilliant topographical software that in many ways offers more functionality than dedicated rugged GPS receivers. The latest ViewRanger supports a wide variety of topo mapsets (this isn't a paid advert BTW - I just love the app) including Ordnance Survey in Britain, NatGeo topo in the United States and French IGN. Read my review of ViewRanger for a better understanding on why I believe ViewRanger to be such a killer app.

Ordnance Survey maps as viewed on ViewRanger (not included), and the brilliant panorama mode

As a business device the E55 has an improved e-mail client that first debuted with the Nokia E75. The only issue I had is it is slower than the normal Messaging application. It works with most popular e-mail services such as Gmail and Yahoo!, as well as the new Ovi push e-mail service. For most part, the e-mail client will automatically configure the settings for each e-mail account. Simply enter the username and password of your webmail account and Nokia's server will fill in the rest. IMAP sub-folders are also supported. It also supports Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes Traveller. Finally the built-in Message Reader can read your message. Useful when driving.

As a side note, Mail on Ovi is pretty impressive even if it is only limited to 1GB of storage. It can also be accessed via the Ovi Suite client. Ovi mail can also be used with other e-mail client such as Outlook and Thunderbird, or even other mobile platform like Windows Mobile.

The e-mail client and the Talking Theme

QuickOffice and Adobe Reader LE

Gravity (not included) and Psiloc World Traveller

YouTube can be accessed either via a native standalone app or the S60 webkit browser

Music player and the Music Store

Psiloc Font Magnifier and Handy Taskman (not included) displaying the amount of free RAM after boot

Search and Destinations (an access point organiser)

Converter and Dictionary

FM Radio and Calendar application

Nokia has also included some software enhancements to compliment the enterprise side of the phone. A full license QuickOffice is included with free update to the latest version with MS Office 2007 support. File support includes doc, docx, docm, txt, xls, xlsx, xlsm, ppt and pps. Pdf files can be opened via Adobe Reader LE 1.5. A copy of Psiloc Font Magnifier and World Traveller (already a freeware but it is always nice to have) is also included - the former is a great utility for adjusting font sizes and the latter a wonderful weather/currency converter and flight assistant program.

The standard S60 web browser is powered by a Webkit engine. It is brilliant and is one of the better mobile browsers I have ever had the opportunity to use. Not quite as fast as Opera Mini, but then again Opera Mini has the advantage of server side rendering. The Webkit browser here has full flash support and is capable of opening many flash sites and play back flash videos as used by sites like YouTube. Not everything works particularly games and visual heavy sites. BBC iPlayer for example does not work. Due to the limited resolution, a mini-map is required to scroll through large and complex sites. Key shortcuts are available making browsing a much more fluid experience than on touchscreen phones. Pressing '7' for example will toggle fullscreen view. Javascripts, flash, images and pop-ups can be suppressed which will help with data cost and download speed.

ViewRanger and Artrepublic as viewed on the S60 browser

The S60 Webkit browser is able to open and edit Google Docs, Mini-map mode

Desktop version of Gmail and WOMWorld

El Reg and

I have no regrets obtaining the E55. My E51 has been showing signs of aging and while the E55 is a step backwards when it came to built quality and material, the E55 is a massive improvement on all fronts. Some of the features could have been better executed. The E55 would sometimes insist on connecting to the network despite being in the vicinity of a Wireless Access Point. I am also baffled by the lack of vertical active standby menu. There are some features that should have been included. For example the E55 as a business device should have been fitted with a TV-out port and the QVGA display should have been upgraded to a HVGA or VGA screen. I also see no technical reasons why the E55's camera can't handle recording VGA 30fps videos.

If you are replacing your bomb proof E51 then please be aware that the E55 and E52 will not come close to its built quality. I have never used a case with my old E51, but decided to get one for the E55 due to its 'fragile' look. If you do not mind using it with a case like I do, then go ahead get the E55 or E52. Whichever version you decide to get will definitely be based on your preference on the keypad. The E52 is definitely the safer choice, but if you are willing to unlearn years of numerical keypad use then go for the Nokia E55. Incidentally, the QWERTY-based Nokia E72 will be released in the next couple of weeks. This is another S60v3 smartphone that should be considered, particularly if the built quality and stainless steel material of the E51 and E71 is important.

The E55 is a featurerich, powerful and productive phone, as well as multimedia savvy enough for most people. The audio quality is brilliant and the messaging capability of this phone is serviceable for most people. Sure the half-QWERTY keypad takes some getting used, but once mastered you will wonder how on earth people managed with a standard numerical keypad (mind you I am sure people with QWERTY phones will be thinking the same about this). A delightful nippy phone that I am sure many would have no regrets investing in.

+ Quick and nimble
+ Class leading battery life
+ Slim and light design
+ DAP-like audio quality
+ Mature and stable firmware
- Reduced built quality and material (in comparison to the E51)
- QVGA display is so three years ago
- No TV-out

1 comment:

nintendo dsi r4 said...

It's a little slimmer and it has loads of storage, but Nokia's latest flagship model has little to justify its top-shelf price tag.