Could it be that at last there is a worthy successor to the Psion?



For years I have been trying to find a PDA which matched the speed, intuitiveness and reliability of the Psion, the best PDA manufacturers of the nineties. Unfortunately Psion pulled out of the hardware market in 2001 leaving a vacuum to be filled by inferior products. Numerous PDAs from numerous manufacturers have come and gone. I've tried Windows CE, Windows Mobile 2003, WM5, Palm 5 and Blackberry and while all have their good and bad points, none matched the information management capabilities of the Psion range.

The obvious successor was a Nokia Communicator as the Communicator range followed a similar form factor and ran Psion's own Symbian operating system, an updated version of the Epoc OS which ran so well on the Psion hardware. With that in mind I splashed out on a Communicator 9500 in 2005.... and was promptly disappointed. Within five months the 9500 was sold on an online auction site in disgust and I had defected to the XDA IIs running the Windows Mobile 2003 OS.

There were numerous problems with the 9500 – but is it possible that Nokia's new E90 can overcome them and, at last, provide the platform ex-Psion users can happily migrate to?




I'm going to review this by comparing the E90 to it's predecessor (the Communicator 9500) and it's counterpart, the V1640 – aka the XDA Exec, HTC Universal, iMate JasJar, Qtek 9000, MDA Pro, SPV M5000 (does every mobile company have to brand this differently??!) I have no experience of the Communicator 9300 or 9300i so I won't be drawing a direct comparison with that.

The E90, like other Communicators before it, has a clamshell form factor. The case on the E90 looks good. No brick-like appearance, no flimsy plastic hinges (a problem on the 9500) and not one but TWO luxurious screens. The keyboard provides good tactile response to presses although it's not the quickest PDA keyboard I've used as the rubbery keys have a stiff feel that works better with thumb typing than finger-pushing. Don't expect to touch type as easily as on a Psion 3c or 5. There is a backlight button which enables or disables the gentle white backlight and two configurable softkeys for launching your application of choice. By default, one opens the calculator, the other opens the MP3 player.



Although I haven't used a Communicator 9300 myself, I spotted a contractor using one at work and managed to take a couple of snaps for comparison.....



This snap shows size comparisons with the Blackberry 8100 (Pearl) and Blackberry 7130. The actual dimensions of the E90 are 133mm x 57mm x 20mm.


The E90 appears tiny compared to my last PDA phone, the V1640....



The Communicator range has always had a rather dorky appearance when closed (perhaps with the exception of the 9300) with previous models having small buttons and screens bunched close together looking more like a small mobile in a large case (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia_9110_Communicator as an example). The 9500 was more styled but very large and brick-like. The E90 fares much better in looks partly because it has a larger outer screen and smaller casing than it's predecessors so better use is made of the available space on the outer case. It still looks like a huge mobile phone when closed and may raise a few eyebrows with the kids but the styling looks good for a Communicator as it lacks the awkwardness in its looks. It's a lot more comfortable to hold than the V1640 as it doesn't have so much width. Slipping it in and out of a pocket is more practical too. In terms of weight, my kitchen scales clock the E90 at 214g while the V1640 notches up a hefty 289g.

The clamshell case is well designed with a solid quality feel. The screen flips open to first one stop-position and then to any desired angle to the point where it's completely flat and opened 180 degrees. Unlike the previous Communicators, opening the screen past the first stop-position does not cause it to become top-heavy and fall backwards. It's also stiffer than the V1640 which had a steeply angled stop-position and had a habit of snapping back to this position sometimes when you tried using it at a different angle. The case has a lack of easily-pressed buttons around it's outer edge and so doesn't suffer the same problems as it's Windows-based counterparts whereby removing the phone from your pocket results in hitting a button and launching an unwanted application. The voice speed dial button on the V1640 used to drive me bananas as it was always launching and asking me to speak into the microphone! The outer edge of the E90 has just two buttons which are rubberised and not easily hit. One button takes pictures when the digital camera is launched and the other opens the voice recorder.

In the box you get the handset, charger, stereo headphones/wired handsfree, software CD, manual, USB transfer cable and a 512MBMicroSD card with SD adaptor.

My biggest bugbear with the Communicator 9500 was the tortuously slow speed of launching/switching between applications and accessing information from files. Communicators are not touchscreen devices so all navigation is via the softkeys and keyboard. Happily, speed is of the essence with the E90. This device is fast. The E90 quickly switches between documents and applications or through the menus without pause for thought. It's also a lot faster than the V1640.

There are only two softkeys on the E90 unlike the four softkeys on the 9500. This means menu options may be more embedded but I haven't found it hindering my navigation. A 'D' pad is used to navigate through the icons or to control a cursor when in the web browser allowing you to navigate around web pages. As I recall the pad on the 9500 was awkward to use for browsing, but it works well on the E90. The cursor doesn't travel across the screen in a linear fashion, instead it jumps to nearby links, buttons and boxes on the screen which speeds up navigation. Simply placing the cursor in a text box allows for text entry (no need to click into the box like on a computer).

Scrolling through the applications. The blue circles indicate an open application.

I've mentioned there are two screens. The outer screen has a 240x320 resolution while the internal screen runs at at a resolution of 800x352 pixels. The screens are super sharp with bright glossy colours and look superb. They are reflective and so can be seen in bright sunlight as well as backlit for viewing in poor lighting conditions. The outer screen on the 9500 provided the basic functionality you'd expect from a normal Nokia phone such as searching contacts, making calls and sending text messages. This is not the case on the E90 as the outer screen does *everything* the larger inner screen does. All of the applications or menus which work on the larger screen will resize for the smaller screen when the unit is closed or when the open application is selected by holding down the menu button. This is great for accessing information on the move. Being able to jump into your mailbox and download your messages for example, with one hand without having to flip open the unit is very convenient.




(Above) The summary screen as it appears with the clamshell open and closed. Whatever application you're in will resize for the screen you're on. Holding down the menu button when the E90 is open or closed allows you to switch between open applications like ALT-TAB on a computer.

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