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Shortcomings of the Nokia E51

I put the Nokia E51, which I had previously acquired, onto Ebay last night, and it sold within minutes. Even though I made a 50€ loss on the whole affair, this made me very happy! The phone is crap in so many ways that it made me quite angry. I now consider those 50€ the investment I had to make to bring you this post:

First of all, the reason why I bought the phone was because it sports wireless LAN as well as Voice-over-IP. Since I've recently gotten into VoIP, I was looking for reasonable VoIP phones and even though the Siemens C450IP DECT phone works very well, it only does so at home, or where I find a switch port for it. So my theory was to get this Wifi+VoIP phone and be able to use my VoIP infrastructure from anywhere around the world. Penny has the Nokia E65 and loves it, so I went for the E51, a newer model that promised to address some of the issues she had with hers.

All of the following is based on the E51 with the 100.34.20 firmware dated 29 September 2007, which runs the (crippled) Symbian S60r3 operating system.

Good things

Let's start with the few good things up front: the E51 comes with a regular USB jack, allowing you to plug it into any computer and use it as mass storage device without the need for any Nokia-specific cables.

I also liked the remote lock functionality: in the event of a stolen phone, you could send it a pre-defined "passphrase" that would cause the phone to lock itself. Also, the phone could be configured to lock itself (like a screensaver) after a given amount of idle time.

Other than that, I could not find anything outstanding, so let's turn to the downsides, of which there are many more:

VoIP/SIP shortcomings

I had previously dismissed the E series phones for good reasons, but both the E65 and the E51 improved their SIP clients a fair bit, and with the SIP VoIP settings utility, it was even possible to configure STUN. But unfortunately, the SIP client, while a nice toy, ended up being unusable in production. Here are some of the reasons:

I got VoIP working at home and in some other places, but definitely not everywhere. It may be that some of those networks blocked the SIP port (5060/udp), or that the phone didn't feel well on the day, but in the majority of cases, I could not get the SIP client to connect. And there was no way to find out what was going on, as the client would just claim that "registration failed" without any additional information. It was also hard to retry, often requiring the phone to be restarted. Whenever if failed, the client would helpfully tell me that it "could not establish a connection to the connection network".

To get the phone to log on to the SIP server automatically, I had to define a home network for the SIP profile. Changing the access point for that network required a phone reboot to get SIP working again. It was possible to define multiple SIP profiles with different access points and add them all to the one, global VoIP profile, and theoretically get auto-login to work across multiple Wifi networks; unfortunately, I cannot say that this worked, there were always some problems requiring me to change defaults and shift things around. Also, after I had defined a few of those profiles and needed to make a change to the SIP settings (move the SIP port to 53/udp), I had to modify all profiles in turn; it was not possible to share settings. On the other hand, NAT traversal settings and timeouts, which can only be configured with the aforementioned SIP VoIP settings utility, applied to a VoIP profile and thus to all SIP profiles, without exception.

I found it mildly annoying that I couldn't use # and * as part of the number/SIP address to call, nor was it possible to dial single-digit extensions — the phone will ask you to associate a "quick dial" number with the key, even if "quick dial" has been explicitly disabled). I could also not "dial" a SIP address ad-hoc — if I wanted to call sip:someone@sip.somewhere.org, I had to define a contact and add the "Internet phone" address.

One can define "Internet calls" to be the default call type, thus routing all calls via VoIP if available. Unfortunately, once I dialed a number, the event was hardwired to the call type: I could not redial a number used previously for a VoIP call when all I had available was GSM coverage.

Gripes with the IMAP client

The IMAP client, while an interesting addition to my day, turned out to be pretty unusable. The first mistake I made was to tell it to synchronise all messages in some of my larger mailboxes, which caused the phone to take tens of seconds until it switched a folder, and a few seconds just to scroll to the next screen in any given folder. I found that once any mailbox accumulates more than 100 messages, the client turns useless (Nokia's default is to synchronise 30 messages).

I could tell the client to synchronise every hour, but only if I locked it to an access point, the "home network". If I roamed to a different Wifi network, I could no longer connect to the IMAP server, as this access point would not be found. The phone would not let me use a different access point unless I changed the home access point, but changing that turned off the automatic mail sycnhronisation.

If I say mail synchronisation, I mean header synchronisation. Even though there is an option for "Headers only", it only applies to POP3; it is impossible to have the phone download message bodies automatically, only manually and then only per-message or per-folder, not for all folders at once.

The IMAP client could delete messages, but it could not move a message to a different folder, nor create or delete folders.

And even though I could turn off the message tone the phone would play when it received new email, it insisted on vibrating nevertheless.

The only other IMAP client I found for Symbian phones is ProfiMail, which looked interesting and much more powerful, but which would randomly crash on me while browsing or operating on larger mailboxes.

Connection hiccups

While the an application was running that was using the network, the Wifi connection stayed open, but I could not make it stay open between sessions. The phone would obtains an IP, do what I asked it to, and then immediately close the connection. From a power management perspective, this makes sense, but not from the usability angle.

I could not make the phone connect to a Wifi network that advertised both, WPA and WPA2 and had to disable WPA at home to let it connect.

At times, it was not possible to reuse an existing connection. I haven't been able to figure out the details, but it seemed to me that whenever an application like the IMAP client was locked to an access point, it would be unable to make a connection to the IMAP server, even if e.g. the VoIP client was connected to the server by way of exactly the same access point. The phone would just say that "a connection was already active" and that I should "close it and try again".

I had a really hard time working with SSL-enabled websites and IMAP servers, because even though the phone presented me with the server certificate and offered the choice of accepting it permanently, it didn't and would ask the question again and again (which made the phone pretty unusable if the IMAP client was running in the background). Only after I had found out how to import the CACert root certificates, did this problem become irrelevant.

Other pet-peeves

The phone came with a lot of smaller issues that made me ask the question of whether its designed ever had to use it too often.

Possibly the most annoying aspect of the phone was its speed. It's a lot faster than the E61, but it still takes on the order of seconds to update screens or display simple text messages.

Speaking of text messages, I am a little spoiled by the Sony Ericsson K610i (to which I now return), which would offer the contacts with whom I'd recently interacted instead of presenting me with the full list, like the E51 does. I could filter the full list, but only by typing the start of the name — substring matching was not implemented.

It was impossible to receive text files via bluetooth and have them put onto the filesystem. On receipt, the phone just said "text file saved", and it took me a while to figure out that it had stored them into the notepad, from where it could not be exported. To get my SSH identity onto the filesystem for PuTTY to use required me to access the phone via USB.

The phone could receive vCards with new contacts, but it only offered to import the first contact, even though the standard allows for an arbitrary number of contacts per file. What's even worse though is that the phone silently failed to import contacts with non-ASCII characters in their name, such as Ä or Å — they just didn't show up even though the phone gave every indication of a successful import; creating such contacts on the phone worked, on the other hand.

Each time I started the phone, the Nokia greeting screen would show up, accompanied with the Nokia tune, which could not be disabled. Enough said.

The last problem I feel worth mentioning is hardly a Nokia or Symbian problem: battery life. With Wifi turned on, the phone would last about 24 hours on standby, which makes it pretty unusable for roaming Wifi or even VoIP usage.

Summing up

I am happy to have sold the phone and look forward to returning to my Sony Ericsson K610i. After checking out the E61/E71 a bit, playing with the E65, and trying the E51 out for several weeks, I can conclude that Nokia has a long way to go before they can offer a usable smartphone with Wifi/VoIP capability.

It would be a good step forward if they would open-source the Symbian operating system, but until that's done, I am going to look at the OpenMoko FreeRunner next. The E51 once again made it perfectly clear for me that proprietary software is no alternative for my use case.

NP: Fat Freddy's Drop: Live at the Matterhorn