In February 2007, we brought you the first review of a prototype E90 unit on the Internet. Now we are back with update of the review based on a production unit, V 07.22.4.0, 01-06-2007.
10 years, 10 Communicators...
It's hard to believe but it's been 10 years since the first Nokia Communicator was announced in 1997. The E90 is the eleventh Communicator model, following the 9000, 9000i, 9110, 9110i, 9210, 9210i, 9290, 9500, 9300 and 9300i.
Nokia Communicator users and fans got used to always having to wait several years for a new model and always being slightly disappointed by the lack of some important features and reduced performance of new models compared to e.g. S60 smartphones announced/released at the same time. The 9210, the first Symbian OS based Communicator released in 2001, came with no GPRS and no Bluetooth, even though simple Nokia phones had both. 9210i and 9290 haven't changed much and we had to wait 3 years for the 9500 which finally delivered Bluetooth and GPRS/EDGE but (in 2004/2005!) still no UMTS, low-res camera and slow(ish) 150 MHz processor, compared to 220 MHz clocks of S60 smartphones (e.g. the 6630) announced at the same time... The 9300 and the 9300i provided improved WLAN connectivity but still the same processing speed and no UMTS support...
History often repeats itself.... but NOT THIS TIME! The E90 has almost everything you could dream of and provides the fastest processor currently used in Symbian OS smartphones and the largest operating memory (RAM) capacity ever used in a Symbian OS based device, with the recently announced UIQ3 based Sony Ericsson P1i being the only smartphone to offer the same amount of RAM. Yes, it's true, Nokia has finally created a Communicator that is as fast as other high-end Symbian OS devices and as powerful (and MORE functional) than high-end PocketPC Phone Edition devices! The rumor that cheap web hosting companies use Nokia E90 for their servers is not true :) Read on.
PART I: HARDWARE
The E90 comes in a small and elegant box. It contains the following items: the Nokia E90 Communicator (in my case the beautiful red one), BP-4L 1500 mAh battery, 512 MB microSD memory card with SD adapter, HS-47 stereo headset, DKE-2 USB cable, AC-4E charger, user's guide, quick start guide and a DVD disc with E90 presentation and PC Suite software. Unfortunately, the box does not include desk stand or carrying case.
The E90 weighs 210 g. The size? Perfect combination: the same width as the 9500 (57 mm) and the same height (132 mm) and depth (20 mm) as the 9300/9300i. It's large enough to provide space for its really huge screen and superb keyboard but small enough not to be called a brick. Think of it as of a slightly wider 9300(i). The only parameter that remains on the 'hardcore' side is the weight - 210 g - but hey, it's a high-end PDA and not a toy, and it's still almost twice less than Windows Mobile based devices providing similar functionality, e.g. the HTC Advantage weighing almost 400 g (!).
How does it look? Shortly speaking, it's SUPERB. It's very professional and extremely stylish at the same time. Depending on colour version, it's dark brown (almost black) or red is with shiny silver frame surrounding the display and black keypad, silver rocker key and (chromium plated) large and very solid metal hinges. Forget about those weak and easily breakable plastic hinges known from earlier models. And it's not just the hinges - the whole device is very well built using high quality materials. I haven't experienced any squeaking sounds or weak/loose parts.
The E90 doesn't seem to be supporting the exchangeable Xpress covers, but two available colour versions give you a good choice. Back in December 2006 I've also tested an all-silver version that didn't make it into production, but maybe there will be other colour versions as well.
The external screen's resolution is QVGA (240x320 pixels, 16 million colors) and the physical dimensions are 30x40 mm. For the first time ever, the external screen is not just a simple "cover UI" supporting a very limited set of telephony-related functions but now it's fully functional, providing access to all functions and applications of the device. It means that on the external screen you can not only access all your data and run all system applications (e.g. Calendar, Web browser, Messaging) but also all installed 3rd party applications. There are absolutely no restrictions, the external display simply gives you access to EVERYTHING you get on the large screen inside. Switching between the screens couldn't be simpler: open the lid and the application you worked with on the small screen becomes visible on the large screen, and vice versa. There is also a setting that lets you configure the device to always automatically switch to the Activity (standby) screen when you close the lid so that you can quickly dial a number without having to switch to the Activity screen manually. Switching between screens is almost instantaneous - one second or so. The user interface is fully scalable and all applications and UI elements adjust themselves to different screen sizes and proportions fully automatic and almost imperceptibly. My dreams have just came true! It's also worth mentioning that the screen is bright and pixels are very small providing high picture quality. Using the "Bulb" key on the internal keyboard you can adjust the brightness of the internal screen (4 levels). The brightness of the external screen can be configured in Settings using a slider (4 levels).
The external phone keypad has large rectangular keys, very slightly convex in the centre. They are much better than 9500's shaky and irregularily shaped keys but IMHO slightly worse than 9300/9300i keypad having larger keys and more space between them. But overall it's a good keypad with decent tactile feedback. The Zero key has a wireless internet symbol (long press activates Web browser). The hash key lets you quickly switch between the currently enabled and the silent profile. It also serves as the Edit button letting you highlight (using the rocker key) and Copy/Paste text. On the right side of the external display there is a small light sensor controlling backlight of the phone keypad.
Right below the screen there are two soft keys, menu and "C" buttons, the usual Green/Red Send and End buttons and a 5-way rocker in the centre. The 5-way rocker button consists of a square(ish) silver frame and a large black central button. It's very convenient to use, definitely much better than on previous Communicators and also much better than joysticks found on most of S60 smartphones.
The Power button located right above the external display is used to switch profiles and to turn the device on and off. Unlike in previous Communicators, now the Power key turns on/off BOTH parts. If you want to only switch off the GSM radio and keep working with the PDA, select the "Offline" profile instead (you can still enable Bluetooth and WLAN in the Offline mode and the external display will remain fully functional).
The back side of the E90 is mostly occupied by the battery cover. The battery is the new 1500 mAh BP-4L providing 5 hours of talk time and up to 14 days of standby. And it does its job very well: one hour of Web browsing or GPS navigation on the large screen with max brightness will only consume one bar (out of seven) on the battery indicator. It's worth mentioning that unlike in 9500, you don't need any special techniques or tools to remove the cover and the battery; now they can be removed quickly and easily. The battery cover is made of metal.
Above the battery cover there is a 3.2 Megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash, and two stereo speakers. The camera provides VERY HIGH quality of both still pictures (2048x1536 pixels) and video (VGA, 640x480 pixels @ 30 frames per second). Shortly speaking, you can expect digicam quality of pictures and true TV quality of video clips. For more details and sample images and videos please check the 'Mutimedia' section of this review.
The bottom part of the phone is occupied by USB Mini-B slot (USB 2.0 Full Speed, no USB charging), charger connector and audio connector (2.5 mm jack). Even though called A/V connector in some official Nokia press releases, the connector only provides audio output and the E90 does not have TV out, which is a real shame, especially on a device of this kind. Right below the connectors there is a MicroSD memory card slot (with hotswap support) protected with a spring-loaded cover. On the right side of the phone there is an infrared port and two buttons: Voice dialling/Push-to-Talk button and the camera button.
OK, let's open the lid and take a look at the heart of the Communicator - the internal screen and the full QWERTY keyboard. And that's what you'll love the most about the E90. With the resolution of 800x352 pixels (24-bit, 16,7 million colors) and physical dimensions of 90x40 mm (4" diagonally) it's one of the largest screens you can find on a smartphone. Even though 800x352 is less pixels than 640x480 (VGA), the wide proportions make the E90 screen much better for web browsing and editing documents than what you experience on Windows Mobile VGA displays.
E90's screen is not touch sensitive but it doesn't have to be as the S60 platform used in the E90 is optimized for keyboard control. Communicators have always had large, wide displays optimized for web browsing, messaging and word processing, but the one in the E90 is a true monster. You'll love the size, sharpness and clarity it provides. Working with it is a pleasure, even in direct sunlight, thanks to its anti-reflective coating. My E90's screen contents are still clearly visible in lighting conditions making the screen of my laptop almost completely useless.
On both sides of the internal screen there are buttons. On the left side you can find the usual Send/End buttons used to start/receive/reject/end phone calls. The Send button, depending on active application, can also be used to quickly invoke the "Send to" function. The red "End" button lets you quickly switch to the Activity (standby) screen while closing all active applications at the same time. On the right side of the screen there are two soft buttons serving the same purpose as two function buttons located under the external screen - their function changes and depends on application. On the left side, above the Send/End buttons, there is a secondary low-res (QCIF) video camera for video calls only.
Opening the cover has two "stops": at about 90 degrees and fully flat at 180 degrees, but the cover can be set at any angle you wish and it'll stay in the chosen position thanks to the solid all-metal hinges. I usually set it to about 110 degrees for writing (when I place the device on a desk) or open it fully flat for reading or playing games while holding the E90 in my hands. As the lower part of the E90 is much heavier than the cover, you can safely set the lid at any angle and it won't overturn the device.
Only good words can be said about the keyboard. It has the same height as the keyboard of the 9500 and the same width as the keyboard of the 9300(i). And, just like with the dimensions of the device, for me it's a PERFECT combination. What's more, in contrast to 9500's and 9300's flat keys, the keys in the E90 are slightly convex and shaped in the way that makes you clearly feel where each key begins or ends. Additionally, the main part of the keyboard with letters and digits is slightly elevated. The Enter key is very large and almost square - you just can't miss it.
The tactile feedback of the QWERTY keyboard is VERY GOOD, much better than of any older Communicator, additionally supported by the relatively long "travel" of about 1 mm. You'll always feel that you pressed a key correctly. And the keyboard is finally BACKLIT! The backlight can be easily switched on or off using the "Bulb" key (the same key when pressed with Chr lets you control screen brightness). The keyboard also contains two "My own" keys letting you quickly launch favourite/frequently used applications and provides shortcuts (working with Chr key) to Bluetooth on/off, Infrared, Multimedia volume and call volume control and Profiles.
The internal keyboard has the same beatiful and professional look as the entire device: it's all black with white letters and blue symbols and the QWERTY part is separated from the Application shortcut buttons (Desk, Contacts, Messaging, Web, Notes, Calendar, configurable My Own button and the S60 Menu button) with an elegant shiny silver stripe. The internal 5-way rocker key also consists of a shiny silver frame and a large black central button. I must say that both the internal and the external rocker key are the best controllers ever used in Communicators. They are stable, precise, sensitive (but not too sensitive like the joystick in the 9300) and very convenient to use, with the central button clearly separated from the 4-way frame surrounding it. Both rockers provide very good tactile feedback and very clearly perceptible clicks. It's very important, especially that the E90 keyboard doesn't include separate arrow keys, which means that the rocker is the only controller.
The E90 is not just a great looking device with big screen and superb keyboard. It's first of all one of the most advanced mobile devices ever made, providing high processing power and supporting almost all modern mobile technologies. Forget about those unbearable delays (white screens) when launching applications on the 9500 - the UI of the E90 works smoothly and switching between applications or menu screens is instant; finding a contact no longer takes 40 seconds; data transfers are no longer limited to EDGE speeds...
The E90 is powered by the modern TI OMAP2420 processor (ARM11 architecture) running at 330 MHz. It's the same processor you can find on the Nokia N93 and N93i, the N95 or the powerful N800 Internet Tablet. And it's really fast! GLBenchmark shows almost identical CPU performance results for the E90 and the N95 (CPU Float Performance 893 vs. 894, CPU Integer Performance 3615 vs. 3617). The E90 seems to be slower than the N95 when it comes to graphic tests but it's still at the very head of available smartphones.
More good news: the E90 has more free RAM memory than any Symbian OS device ever made, if not the most of all smartphones released up to date. Only the recently announced Sony Ericsson P1i has the same RAM size, but it's not available yet. The total operating memory (RAM) capacity is 128 MB of which.... almost 80 MB is free! Read: mutitasking at its best, navigation with super-detailed maps, no problems with large PDF or Word documents, browsing the Web without virtually any restrictions... and even all of them at the same time if you only wish so, and with nice MP3 music playing in the background. If you have the P990 and your web browser quits every time you try to open Messaging due to lack of free RAM then you can be sure that it's something that will never happen to you with the E90.
While we are at memory, the internal storage memory (disk C:) is about 136 MB, with about 128 MB available for the user. E90 supports hot-swappable MicroSD cards (available with capacities up to 2 GB) and ships with a 512 MB card.
Let's take a look at supported connectivity options. As mentioned earlier, it almost became a tradition that the most modern (and thus the most desired) connectivity technologies were always missing on the previous Communicator models: the 9210 lacked USB, GPRS and Bluetooth (i.e. everything but infrared!), the 9500/9300(i) lacked UMTS. The E90, again, is a major breakthrough as it provides all connectivity options you can dream of. It not only supports GPRS/EDGE (Class A, MSC 32) and UMTS but also HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) with transfer speed up to 3.6 Mbps making the E90 a 3.5G device. UMTS/HSDPA support (and the secondary VGA camera) also mean that video calls and IP telephony are finally available for Communicator users.
The E90 is a quad-band GSM (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) and WCDMA 2100 MHz device. It remains unknown if a separate American version supporting American UMTS bands will be available at a later date... For now, the E90-1 model only supports 2100 MHz frequency.
The E90 supports WLAN (WiFi) 802.11 b/g (up to 54 Mbps) and UPnP (Universal Plug and Play). Bluetooth 2.0 EDR implementation on the E90 is now faster and includes A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) support providing compatibility with stereo Bluetooth headsets. USB 2.0 via Mini USB type B port provides mass storage class support for drag and drop desktop functionality.
E90 Communicator is the second Nokia smartphone and the first Communicator equipped with built-in GPS receiver. It is the same GPS as in the N95 based on the NaviLink technology from Texas Instruments. It works with the preinstalled mapping/navigation software: the standard Navigation / Landmark apps found on most S60 phones and the Smart2go (Nokia Maps) software. Unfortunately, existing third party S60 3rd Edition mapping/navigation applications cannot be used with the built-in GPS as all programs were 'hardcoded' for external Bluetooth receivers and they can't see the internal device. Developers will have to release new versions of their applications making proper use of the system Location API providing access to the internal receiver.
So far so good... now it's time for bad news (at least for some of us): the E90 does NOT support fax. Considering that fax has always been an integral part of every Communicator model since 1997, it's certainly a huge loss. Obsolete technology, one might say, but fax still plays an important role and is in daily use in many countries or businesses... What a shame.
Even though aimed first of all at business users, the E90 provides very rich and powerful multimedia capabilities, making it an attractive choice for people looking for a device which not only allows editing documents or browsing the web but also provides high quality playback of movies and audio files.
As mentioned earlier, the E90 is equipped with stereo speakers (it even has the 3D Ringtones application), 2.5 mm jack connector for stereo headphones and A2DP profile support for high quality audio streaming over Bluetooth. It also features a loudspeaker mode which activates automatically when you open the cover and switches audio back to the earpiece when you close it.
The Camera on the E90 is a 3.2 Megapixel CMOS with LED flash and autofocus. There is no Carl Zeiss logo on it, but so what? The pictures definitely aren't worse than the ones taken with e.g. Nokia N93, which means that the E90 can replace a basic standalone digicam. Max supported resolution is 2048x1536, which is enough for prints up to 25x20 cm (10x8"). The shutter release button is located on the lower right side of the device. And this is where I have to complain a little bit. The Camera button is very imprecise and doesn't work as it should on an autofocus camera. There should be two clearly distinguishable steps - the first step (pressing the button halfway) to activate autofocus and the second one (all way down) to take a picture. On the E90, however, the Camera button is too soft and you can't clearly feel them. Additionally, only the right side of the button can be pressed while the left side doesn't move at all, which makes the button even harder to use. Because of this, you'll be often pressing it too softly (in this case the camera won't even start focusing) or too hard (it'll take a picture straight away, without properly focusing first). And there are problems in the video recording mode, too. You can never be sure if pressing the button will start/stop recording or not. When watching some of the sample videos available below, you'll hear several static sounds at the end of the clips - it's me pressing the damn button mutiple times, trying to stop the recording, without much success. This hardly working Camera button is probably the worst of the very few annoying things about the E90.
The secondary camera (for video calls, QCIF resolution) is located on the inner side of the cover, on the left side of the internal display. It (obviously) only works when the cover is open, unlike the main camera which only works when the cover is closed.
The E90 records video clips in MPEG-4 format with AAC audio (48 kHz mono). Max supported quality is VGA (640x480 pixels), 30 frames per second. Digital video stabilisation helps reduce unwanted vibrations. Video quality is superb - please see the sample clips below. They're clear and free of compression artefacts and the VGA resolution is only a tad smaller than standard PAL or NTSC resolution which means that you can watch your clips on a TV set or burn them onto a DVD disc without any noticeable quality loss. So the E90 can replace a basic camcorder, too (with the only exception being the lack of optical zoom). And if so then the 210 g it weighs really shouldn't be considered too much... I'm not sure if any Windows Mobile based device provides video recording quality that comes close to what the E90 offers.
To make the E90 a 100% multimedia computer, Nokia has also included FM radio. Like in all smartphones, it requires connecting the 'wired' headset (serving as an antenna) to the 2.5 mm jack connector. Unfortunately, FM radio does not support RDS.
Oh, did I mention that the E90 is the first Communicator with vibra alarm? And it's quite strong despite large weight of the device. Hooray!
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