Reviewed August 6, 2006 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Editor's note, August 2008: Check out our review of the Nokia E71 that replaces the Nokia E61.
Thin is still in, but those of us who wanted a sleek and slim design in a smartphone, especially one with a QWERTY keyboard were out of luck until the Motorola Q came out on Verizon a few months back. What if Windows Mobile isn't to your liking, or you prefer a GSM world phone to Verizon's US-only offering? You were out of luck until Nokia surprised us with the sexy and capable E61 this summer. The E61 has it all: brilliant and roomy QVGA display, solid smartphone OS, WiFi, Bluetooth, a full QWERTY thumb keyboard and push email support including BlackBerry Connect, GoodLink, Seven and Visto. WiFi is particularly yummy since BlackBerries, Palm Treos and the Motorola Q all lack WiFi.
The E61 runs Nokia's S60 3rd Edition on Symbian OS 9.1 and comes with full PIM applications, email client, a superb web browser and applications to read, edit and create MS Office documents. Not only that, it looks really, really good and measures only .55" thin. In the US, the Nokia E61 is offered by CompUSA, Tiger Direct, some independent T-Mobile dealers (such as Skylight Wireless in the Dallas Metroplex area who supplied our review unit) and importers. Importers generally sell it for a truly affordable $350 unlocked with no contract while CompUSA sells it for considerably more. The E61 is a quad band world phone with EDGE and Euro-3G (not compatible with US 3G). You can use the phone with any GSM provider, which means Cingular and T-Mobile in the US. Since the E61 is a business phone, it does not have a camera, but the newer E61i adds a camera. The E61 is available in several localized versions for different countries and languages. All have full support for English but the QWERTY keyboard on the Middle Eastern one is bilingual with both English and Arabic in the case of our Middle Eastern review unit (which came with both English and Arabic manuals). The Spanish version adds a few non-English characters (this is the one that's generally cheapest and easiest to find on eBay as of this writing). So if you're buying sight unseen, check with the seller to see which version they're selling. Cingular is rumored to release the Nokia E62 later this year, which is the same as the E61 but it deletes WiFi and 3G.
In the Box
Nokia includes a 1500 mAh battery, world charger (prong adapter for US may be needed), USB sync cable (CA-53), software CD with PC Suite, thick and informative manual, mono Pop-Port headset and a 64 meg miniSD card.
Design and Ergonomics
Though very slim, the E61 is wide to accommodate the thumb keyboard and tall to fit the large display above that keyboard. It dwarfs several of the Nokia NSeries S60 phones such as the N80, but fits in nicely with the Palm Treo 700p / 700w, T-Mobile MDA (Cingular 8125), BlackBerry 8700g and other keyboarded smartphones and PDA phones. The phone is finished in silver and the casing is made of metal which makes for a sturdy device. Score one for the E61: none of its direct competitors feature a metal casing. It's thinnest at the keyboard end and gets a bit wider in the display area, with a gentle slope marking the transition.
The power button is located on the upper right face and it's so small that you'll likely never accidentally press it. The blue LED that indicates new email is at the upper left. Unlike Nseries Nokia phones, there is no LED that flashes when the phone is asleep. As you'd expect, the earpiece is dead center above the display while the loudspeaker (for speakerphone, ringers and alarms) is on the phone's left edge. The IR port is located somewhat oddly on the bottom edge next to the Pop-Port connector and the volume up/down and voice recorder keys are located up on the upper left side. The volume controls fall perfectly under your index finger when holding the phone to the ear with the right hand. The voice recorder button, though not raised, is too easily pressed when pulling the phone out of a pocket.
Below the display you'll find the usual Nokia selection keys which do different things, depending on context. You can change their home screen assignment in Standby under phone settings. The S60 programs launcher is located just to the left of the 5-way joystick and the email key is to the right. Call send and end buttons live just below the shoulder keys and the thumb keyboard takes up the remaining front face.
The QWERTY thumb keyboard's keys have good spacing and are domed so you can tell when you've homed in correctly on a key. The keys have very little travel which reduces tactile feedback and can lead to finger fatigue. That said, the keyboard is still very usable and we found ourselves adapting quickly. The number keys are located in the keyboard's center and are masked in blue so they're easy to pick out. There are two shift keys (one to the right and one to the left of the spacebar), Nokia' s usual Chr and Ctrl keys (think of Nokia Communicators such as the Nokia 9300 which use those two) and a blue key with an arrow to switch to numeric entry. You can lock the keyboard to prevent accidental button presses by briefly pressing the power key and selecting "lock keypad".
The E61 is a quad band world phone that will work anywhere GSM service is available. It supports the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands with GPRS, EDGE and UMTS on the 2100MHz band used in Europe but not America, hence you won't be able to use 3G in the US but the phone will automatically use EDGE (and GPRS if EDGE or 3G aren't available). As with most Nokia GSM phones, reception is excellent as are both incoming and outgoing voice quality and volume (we tested the 850MHz band with a Cingular SIM and the 1900MHz band with a T-Mobile SIM). The phone has a loud and clear speakerphone, speed dialing, photo caller ID and Nokia's voice command software which does true speech recognition rather than voice tag matching. Voice command works much more reliably than on the Nokia N80, and while it isn't perfect, it's serviceable. For data, EDGE speeds on T-Mobile in the Dallas area were very good at 100k/bps.
Messaging, the email client, is a powerful application that handles SMS, MMS, POP3 and IMAP email (with SMTP for sending email). Though it lacks a camera, the Nokia can both send and receive MMS messages. The E61 supports BlackBerry Connect, GoodLink, Visto and Seven's push email solutions as well, though we did not have access to those services to test them. BlackBerry Connect works best when you set the phone to check only your BlackBerry account rather than additional POP3 and IMAP accounts. Forward your POP3 and IMAP mail to your BlackBerry account to check all accounts, should you have problems.
On their first firmware revisions, Nokia S60 phones tend to be a little cranky with IMAP accounts. When set to automatically check and download email on a schedule, the phone sometimes failed to finish a check/download session (and the progress bar would forever spiral). This only happened with IMAP accounts set to check on schedule and didn't happen every time. Overall, Messaging is still better behaved on the E61 than it is on the N73.
Display and Multimedia
When we show someone the E61, their first response is always "really nice display!". The 320 x 240 landscape display is super-sharp, quite bright and has great color saturation. It's capable of displaying 16 million colors and has the same resolution as Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC and MS Smartphones which are in portrait mode by default with the exception of the Motorola Q. The display measures 2.8" diagonally which is similar to Windows Mobile and Palm competitors and is large enough to be easy on the eyes.
Though marketed as a business phone, the E61 has strong video playback capabilities and it had no problems with QVGA videos encoded at 500k/bps in MPEG4 format. The E61's Media folder comes filled with Gallery, RealPlayer, Nokia's Music Player and Flash Player for Flash Lite games and applications. It does not have the FM radio found on more multimedia-targeted Nokia phones. Though the E61 can output stereo sound through its Pop-Port connector, Nokia includes a mono headset so you'll need to purchase one of Nokia's stereo headsets separately if you wish to use the device as an MP3 player.
Horsepower and Performance
The E61 has a Texas Instruments OMAP 235 MHz CPU that's ARM compatible. While older Series 60 and first version S60 phones didn't fly, the E61, like other recent S60 3rd Edition phones such as the Nokia N80 and N73, has a fast and responsive user interface that's on par with the Palm Treo 700p and BlackBerry 8700g, and is faster than Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC phones like the Cingular 8125, MDA and iPAQ hw6915. The phone has 64 megs of flash memory available for storage and typically 22.5 megs of free RAM to run programs just after booting which is a lot by S60 standards. Indeed, the E61 runs out of memory less often than other S60 devices we've reviewed in the past year and it can even handle long and demanding web browsing sessions (something that can crash more memory hungry S60 phones).
We benchmarked the phone using FutureMark's SPMarkJava06 (a Java application that benchmarks the Java VM performance which is an indication of the phone's processing power, and both 2D and 3D graphics performance). Here are the results:
SPMarkJava score: 2113
2D game: 22.2 fps
3D game: 9.7 fps
fill rate: 3247k texels/s
polygon: 36.9k vertices/s
The E61 has a miniSD card slot for storage expansion and a 64 meg card is included in the box (with no adapter to use it in an SD card reader; for some reason Nokia never includes these). If you want to use the phone as an MP3 player, you'll likely want to get a larger card and Nokia states that it accepts cards up to 2 gigs. We tested it with a 2 gig SanDisk card and it worked fine.
Gone is the ubiquitous "My Own" folder. New programs are sent to the "New Installations" folder and like Series 80 phones such as the Nokia 9300, File Manager lives in the Office folder rather than in Tools. The E61 comes with a great software bundle including a GPS application that works with any Bluetooth GPS, a full Office suite which allows you to view, edit and create Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, the afore mentioned web and WAP browsers, Messaging, music (MP3) player, RealPlayer, Gallery, full PIM applications, a very cool golf game (Pro Golf Contest 2) and more. The PIM applications are as powerful as any PDA's, with contacts, calendar, tasks and notes, all of which sync to Microsoft Outlook. The contacts application supports every field in Outlook and has groups (categories), the calendar has week, day and month views with support for repeat events, alarms and all-day events. Since S60 3rd Edition isn't backward compatible with older S60 versions, you will need to find 3rd party applications that explicitly support 3rd Edition. Since it's so new, you won't find a large selection yet— something to keep in mind if you're a software junky.
WiFi and Bluetooth
Score big points for the E61 thanks to its WiFi 802.11b/g radio with support for WEP encryption (64 and 128 bit), WPA, 802.1x, SIP and VoIP. The E61 supports multiple connections over WiFi which means you can use the browser, an IM client and Messaging simultaneously on the same connection. WiFi is easy to set up and use, and the phone has good range, similar to PDAs (good, but not as strong as a notebook's). You can easily switch between WiFi and GPRS connections and the device puts up an icon at the top corner when WiFi is in use.
The E61 has Nokia's usual reliable and strong connections to headsets, handsfree devices, GPS and more. It runs Bluetooth 1.2 with support for file transfer/FTP, DUN and OBEX as well. We tested the E61 with the Plantronics Discovery 640 and Scala 500 both of which worked well and had good range.
The Nokia E61 is powered by a beefy Nokia BP-5L 1500 mAh Lithium Ion battery (that's the same battery found in the Nokia 770). That's a high capacity battery befitting a device with a large display, WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G and serious email features. The phone has excellent battery life for a device in this class, and can easily last 2 to 3 days on a charge in EDGE/GPRS coverage areas with light to moderate use. 3G does use more battery, so those of you lucky enough to reside in 2100MHz UMTS coverage areas, keep that in mind. If you're not using push email but rather have the device set to check the server on a schedule, expect shorter runtimes if you have it set to check every 5 or even every 15 minutes.
High style, a QWERTY keyboard, WiFi and durability have finally converged, thanks to the Nokia E61. The phone is stunning looking and happily it works just as well as it looks. It beats the BlackBerry on expansion, style, durability and multimedia features, though its keyboard isn't quite as good. While Palm OS is getting long in the tooth, Symbian OS 9 and S60 3rd Edition are much fresher and more powerful (faster networking, multitasking and more). And it competes strongly against Windows Mobile devices, being more responsive and perhaps a bit more secure.
Pro: Great looks, durable metal body, WiFi, EDGE, miniSD expansion slot, supports all major push email solutions as well as non-push IMAP and POP3 email. Fantastic web browser, good battery life and excellent display.
Con: Keyboard travel is nearly nil, sometimes flaky scheduled IMAP email checking.
Display:16 million color 320 x 240 (QVGA) display. Screen size diagonally: 2.8 ", landscape orientation.
Battery:Nokia BP-5L Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
1500 mA. Claimed talk time on GSM networks: 4.3-9.5 hours. Claimed standby: 13-17 days.
Performance:Texas Instruments OMAP 235 MHz CPU. 64 megs of flash memory for storage and typically 22.5 megs RAM available for running programs after boot.
x 2.74 x .55 inches (117 mm x 69.7 mm x 14 mm). Weight: 5.08 ounces (144 g).
Phone:GSM quad band world phone supporting the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands with GPRS, EDGE and UMTS on the 2100MHz band for Europe.
in speaker, mic and Pop-Port
jack. Mono headset included but will output stereo to Nokia's optional stereo Pop-Port headsets. Voice Recorder, Music Player (MP3) and RealPlayer included.
WiFi 802.11b /g and Bluetooth 1.2.
Software:Contacts, calendar, tasks, notes, Office suite (read and write Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents), PDF viewer, Navigator GPS application (requires optional Bluetooth GPS), Pro Golf Contest 2, memory card manager, Java VM, Messaging client (SMS, MMS, POP3 and IMAP email), Nokia PTT (Push To Talk), web and WAP browsers, voice recorder, Gallery, Converter, Calculator, File Manager, RealPlayer, Flash Lite, Zip Manager, theme manager, application manager, Transfer (transfer contacts, calendar and some phone settings to or from another S40 or S60 phone), music player, clock, printer managment app.