Nokia’s E73 Mode smartphone doesn’t differ radically from its predecessor (the E71), but it has one great advantage: The new phone sells for just $70 when purchased through T-Mobile (along with a two-year contract), making its price tag far more appealing to consumers than the $500 that an unlocked E71 went for in 2008.
We gave the E71 a favorable review back then. Though we had some reservations about it, but by far the biggest one was its price. At $70, the E73 seems like a lot of phone for the money. It even looks kind of like a BlackBerry.
A Serious Phone
Physically, the E73 feels slim and sturdy. It’s wrapped in a shell of hard, matte-black plastic, and you won’t find any wobbly plastic buttons on it. In my hand, the 4.5-ounce E73 felt solid and substantial–like a real piece of technology, not a plastic toy.
The 3mm headphone jack and power key are situated on the top edge of the phone. On the right side are the volume keys and a voice command/mute key. On the opposite (left) side you’ll find the USB slot and a microSD card slot. The speaker and a 5-megapixel camera occupy the back.
Voice calls on the E73 had adequate volume but lacked the sound quality I’ve heard on other new phones. During my test calls, I could easily understand the voice at the other end, but it had a brassy, bleating quality. My voice, I was told, sounded clear but somewhat thin and tinny.
I heard no jitter or delay during my test calls while connected over the T-Mobile 3G network from work. At home, however, I had significant trouble getting and keeping a solid 3G connection. T-Mobile elegantly addresses this common problem, however: The E73, detecting the spotty 3G connection, automatically failed over to the Wi-Fi connection in my apartment.
Another utilitarian addition to the E73 is a preloaded visual voicemail service (contributed by T-Mobile), which can automatically transcribe your incoming voice messages for you.
Keyboard and Navigation
Initially, I worried that the E73’s slim design would constrict the width of the keyboard too much to permit easy typing. But after using the keyboard awhile I found that the keys’ rounded tops compensated to some extent for their thinness. So typing was easier than I expected it to be, though I found myself using my thumbnails to do all the work.
Above the keyboard Nokia supplies various physical buttons that give you tactile control over such operating-system functions as the home screen, contacts, calendar, and messaging; theE73 also provides dedicated “soft keys,” corresponding to the menu prompts, at the lower part of the screen on both sides.
The Symbian OS supports two separate desktop setups, so you can easily switch back and forth between “home” mode and “work” mode by clicking an icon on the home screen. That’s why Nokia calls this phone the Mode.
Browsing the Web
The S60 (Webkit-based) browser does a reasonably good job of displaying Web content in a very small (320-by-240 pixel) space, and it provides some fairly intuitive tools for navigating in the absence of a touchscreen. To get around on a page, you either brush your thumb across the optical navigation ring at the center of the phone or depress one side of the ring to move incrementally in that direction on the page. The navigation ring lets you scroll quickly through the Web pages that you’ve opened in the current browsing session, which I found helpful. The Page Overview feature shows you the whole Web page and gives you a red square that you can move around to target the part of the page you want to zoom in on.
On the downside, the phone seemed to take a long time to begin receiving data from the Web (a characteristic known as “high latency”); and when the packets started coming in, they arrived slowly. Also, the processor in the phone seemed to have trouble rendering graphics-heavy pages quickly.
Setting Up E-Mail
Setting up my personal Gmail account on the phone was a breeze. I just entered the appropriate mailbox settings (four of them), and the phone displayed my account. I tried to set up a client for my work e-mail in Google Apps, too, but had less luck with that effort. You might need a little help from your IT person to get this done. Failing that, a T-Mobile support call might be in your future.
I was fairly impressed with the Telenav GPS service suite that comes preloaded on the phone. Out on the street, I tested several walking and driving routes; in each case, the service connected quickly with the GPS satellite overhead (even when the sky was overcast), and quickly rerouted me when I diverged from a specified route.
When I attempted to enter addresses by voice, the phone had no trouble understanding the city I wanted, but it took me two or three tries to get it to understand specific street names. Typing the information into the phone works, too, and this method wasn’t too much of a hassle.
Overall, the navigation menu structures are intuitive, but I found it hard to tell which menu selection I was hovering over–a difficulty attributable to the odd black-and-white color scheme used in the dropdown lists. Finally, the E73’s speaker isn’t loud enough to provide audible directions when there’s street noise around.
Apps Aren’t Us
The phone comes with a basic set of apps, including Google voice search, YouTube, Ovi Maps, Telenav, Where (local search), and Facebook.All of these apps were nicely optimized for the phone’s small screen and menu-based navigation.
Finding additional practical or fun apps, however, wasn’t easy. The Ovi app store pales in comparison to the apps stores for iPhone and Android. And though you can find a few useful apps like Vlingo (mobile voice recognition for messaging) and Bloomberg News, other favorites like the New York Times, NPR, and Scrabble are nowhere to be found. The look of the Ovi store on the E73’s screen doesn’t exactly entice you to hang around searching for apps, either.
The music player uses an iPod style of organizing media–by genre, artist, album, song, and other criteria–and simplifies the task of forming playlists from the phone’s music files. I had little trouble using the navigation ring button to browse, locate, and play music. The sound quality of the audio files wasn’t great, but it was adequate and definitely loud enough: I give Nokia props for building a powerful little amplifier into the E73 and for including a simple eight-band equalizer.
High-quality YouTube videos streamed over the T-Mobile 3G network were predictably blurry and pixelated, with a few stops along the way for buffering. Not fun. Though image quality improved when I watched the video over a Wi-Fi connection at home, the E73’s small screen precludes watching anything more than short videos like news and viral stuff.
On two occasions when the video stream stopped (while on Wi-Fi), the whole OS hung, forcing me to remove and replace the battery to start up the OS again.
The E73’s 5-megapixel camera is a nice improvement over the E71’s 3.2-megapixel offering. In fact, the photos I shot with the E73 compared well with photos I shot with the 8-megapixel camera on the HTC EVO 4G phone. The E73’s images were a bit grainier and less sharp, but the colors were true and the lighting levels were accurate. The video I shot with the E73 looked nice, too. You can share both pics and video via the Ovi app on the phone.
Nokia built a front-facing camera into the phone, but it didn’t include any native videoconferencing software on the phone; the currently available videoconferencing apps are hard to use and don’t communicate terribly well with other types of clients such as Skype. At some point, this function may become usable on the E73, but it’s not a factor now, and the small size of the E73’s screen makes me wonder how practical videoconferencing on this phone will ever be.
Nokia’s E73 Mode is an old-school smartphone, with no large touchscreen and no sexy OS. Nevertheless, users with utilitarian needs will find that this phone performs basic tasks (calling and messaging, GPS navigation) well and makes a respectable effort at handling the fancier stuff (Web browsing, video streaming).
If you are coming from the BlackBerry tradition and aren’t enamored with today’s new wave of touchscreen phones, you may find a solid communication tool in the E73–and at a nice price, thanks to T-Mobile.
[Ginny Mies is a assistant editor for PCWorld.]