Review: Nokia's Thousand-Dollar E90 Communicator Cell Phone

If you're looking for the Grand Poobah of smartphones, look no further than Nokia's new $1,099 E90 Communicator.

As opposed to Nokia's multimedia-focused N-series, the E-series focuses on messaging. In Nokia-speak, that basically means these devices have QWERTY keyboards.

The reality is that this unit is quite capable as a multimedia device, just as the company's N-series phones are also excellent e-mail handlers, despite their numeric-only keypads.

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The unlocked E90 is a much-improved follow-up to the clumsy 9300 and 9500 Communicators. Along with stellar voice quality, the E90 includes dual screens, dual keyboards, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0 and GPS, plus an entire suite of applications that would cost significantly more with other smartphones.

Any way you slice it, this is a precision-engineered instrument for those who can spare more than a grand and have extra-large pockets.

The E90's sturdy matte aluminum-and-plastic enclosure feels great in the hand. At 5.2 by 2.2 by 0.8 inches (HWD) and a hefty 7.4 ounces, you certainly won't mistake this beast for a slim RAZR2.

The E90 may be a big phone, but all that bulk is put to good use. On the outside, there's a 2-inch QVGA screen with 320-by-240-pixel resolution. Its backlit numeric keypad sports large, clearly labeled keys with just the right amount of resistance.

The horizontal flip-style handset opens to reveal a lovely 4-inch, 800-by-352-pixel widescreen and a luxurious, five-row QWERTY keyboard. There's also an extra row of shortcut keys across the top for contacts, messaging, the Web, and other tasks.

The E90 uses a smooth two-position hinge mechanism so you can flip the device open 90 degrees like a miniature laptop, or lock it at 180 degrees for easy handheld use.

Unlike the numeric keypad, the QWERTY keyboard isn't backlit — but that's its only flaw.

With its excellent feel, dedicated symbol buttons, large space bar and Enter keys, plus dedicated numbers across the top, I was able to type very easily on the E90, though it's a little too wide to hold comfortably for long periods.

Unlike the AT&T Tilt, the device lets you type (with two fingers) while it's sitting on a flat surface, as if it's a mini-laptop. Neither of the E90's screen supports touch, but the five-way navigation pad is accurate and has a crisp feel for moving the display cursor.

The E90 is a quad-band GSM phone (850/900/1800/1900 MHz), making it useful for world travelers, although it supports only the 2100-MHz band for 3G data speeds overseas.

Here in the U.S., we're still stuck with EDGE, the same network used by Nokia's two-year-old 9500 Communicator. That's forgivable on the $449 Nokia E61i, our current Editors' Choice for unlocked handsets, but not so easy to pardon on a $1,099 smartphone.

Its built-in Wi-Fi radio works with WPA and WPA2 networks, and I had no trouble connecting to my own protected WPA network. The E90 practically flew over Wi-Fi, with test speeds ranging from 1750 to 1825 Kbps.

The E90 is one of the best-sounding cell phones I've reviewed: I could hear perfectly clearly and folks on the other end thought I sounded great. Two separate callers even thought I was using a landline.

The device's excellent noise rejection meant that I could walk outside on a windy day — or even right past a road construction crew with a jackhammer, in one case — and continue a conversation.

Reception was also top-notch, and calls were loud and clear through an Aliph Jawbone Bluetooth headset.

The E90's speakerphone is loud enough for outdoor use. It can make VoIP calls in a Wi-Fi hot spot, but my review unit wasn't activated for that purpose, so I wasn't able to test this function. The handset also includes push-to-talk capabilities for those who enable it.

Since the E90 is a Symbian Series 60 3rd edition phone, it will work with thousands of third-party applications. My testing software, JBenchmark ACE, detected an ARM9 processor running at 244 MHz; in use, the E90 felt a bit sluggish compared with a BlackBerry or Palm OS device.

The included Nokia PC Suite software lets you back up data, use the E90 as a slow EDGE modem for your laptop and move files back and forth from your computer.

You can also do the latter with microSD cards up to 4GB in size. Keep in mind, though, that the E90 doesn't support higher-capacity microSDHC cards.

The E90 also sports a built-in GPS radio along with Nokia Maps and Landmarks applications.

The built-in music player had no problem with a variety of MP3, WMA, AAC and even iTunes Plus AAC files, which were a problem on earlier Nokia smart devices like the E61i.

Nokia bundles a set of earphones that sounded poor with music tracks. The E90's volume control also lacks range, and with the included earphones, files recorded at lower levels played back too quietly even at the maximum setting.

Paired with a set of stereo Etymotic Ety8s, I heard clear sound with decent bass and none of the usual swirling audio artifacts I usually hear over stereo Bluetooth. A built-in FM radio and voice recorder round out the unit's audio capabilities.

For video, there's a built-in RealPlayer client that supports MPEG-4 and 3GP in addition to RealPlayer video files. Test video files — including full-length movies — played perfectly smoothly, even when expanded to fill the internal screen.

The E90 employs two cameras. The main camera is a 3.2-megapixel sensor with an LED flash and Nokia's software autofocus. My test unit took colorful, detailed images with low contrast. Unfortunately, the adjustable LED flash had virtually no effect.

I was able to record fuzzy but well-lit 640-by-480-pixel video files at a smooth 30 frames per second. There's also a VGA QCIF camera on the front of the device for video calls and self-portraits.

Many Nokia smartphones feature sophisticated e-mail handling, and the E90 is no exception. You get support for POP, IMAP and Nokia's free Intellisync application, which synchronizes messages, calendar and contact information with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino and also adds push e-mail.

There's a text-to-speech message reader app, along with a PDF reader and Zip Manager for handling e-mail attachments.

The built-in IM client is far from user-friendly. Instead of including profiles for AIM, MSN and other popular services, it speaks in terms of servers, access points and Web addresses, and is unnecessarily difficult to configure.

Nokia bundles in a copy of Quickoffice, which lets you create, edit and save Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, a boon given the E90's incredibly comfortable input features. Its widescreen makes editing spreadsheets a cinch.

Test worksheets, Word documents, presentation files and PDFs all looked accurate, although the built-in Quickword can't deal with Track Changes mode. You'll need to upgrade to Quickoffice Premier 4 to gain that ability.

There's also no video-out for giving presentations or watching movies.

Nokia's enterprise support for the E90 is robust. Along with the aforementioned e-mail capability, the device includes a bar-code reader that uses the built-in camera as a scanner. You can also secure memory cards with passwords, and lock the handset remotely by sending a text message to the unit.

With a T-Mobile SIM card, the E90 lasted a solid 11 hours 23 minutes in a talk-time rundown test, which is plenty of time for long flights and days of endless meetings.

At an eye-popping $1,099, the E90 certainly isn't for everyone. It's a bit larger and heavier than just about any other smartphone on the market, but given the device's extensive capabilities, I didn't mind that so much.

At 7.4 ounces it's still significantly lighter than hybrid devices such as the 12.6-ounce HTC Advantage, which falls somewhere between a laptop and cell phone.

That makes the E90 infinitely more suitable as your only phone, and one that could also suffice in lieu of a laptop for short trips, as long as you don't need it for writing long documents or giving presentations.

Nokia should have added HSDPA 3.6 support for the E90 in the U.S., not only because of the device's stratospheric price, but also because its long battery life would likely fare better than the Nokia N95 (U.S.) did on our 3G-enabled endurance test.

Still, the E90 is a jewel of a gadget. There are plenty of less-expensive handsets with dual keyboards, including the powerful AT&T Tilt and nonsmart models like the LG Voyager.

But globetrotting corporate mavens of means can buy this smartphone with confidence — and know it will pretty much do it all.

Editor's rating: Three and a half out of five stars.