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Nokia 6820 messaging phone

Yes, the one with the fold-out keyboard

Review Nokia's 6820 might seem an odd choice for review here because it isn't a fully-featured smartphone. Although Nokia is promoting it aggressively in Europe as a business phone with RIM's Blackberry Connect email software (as the 6810), we typically look at phones that match or exceed PDA functionality, that run Palm, Microsoft or Symbian operating systems and are open to third party applications. Forget about multitasking, or running Opera or Salling Clicker on this device: it's limited to 64 kb Java applets. The user interface is the current evolution of Nokia's NaviKey, which is used on hundreds of millions of handsets. Nokia's fold-out messaging phoneNo, the Nokia 6820 is here because of one characteristic, its keyboard. Nokia first debuted this ingenious design a year ago in the 6800 model, and it transforms the phone into something that's at the same time a little more useful and a little less capable than a PDA. The phone looks like a traditional candy bar handset, only the front flips up to reveal a full 51-key QWERTY layout with the phone rotated 90 degrees. It promises to solve one of the dilemmas of a mobile device: they make for reasonably good devices for viewing material in some circumstances, but are lousy for entering text. Attempts to improve keyboards inevitably compromise the size. At one end of the market, Nokia's Communicator series has proved that a demand exists for mobile devices with full-sized keyboard that dominated the market in the first half of the 1990s, such as the Psion Series 3,5 and Revo, Sharp's Zaurus ZR and HP's Palmtop range. On the other hand, this is very much a niche market, and the Communicator remains more expensive and bulky than most users are prepared to carry. The 6820 is designed to encourage text entry but without the dweebish stigma of a posh smartphone. So how did it stack up?

The 6820 as a phone

Simply as a phone, 6820 model we tested is already one of the most fully-featured of Nokia's low to midrange Series 40 models. It features Bluetooth and infra red, a 4,096 color screen, a camera, and supports EDGE data speeds.

The phone is less obtrusive than its predecessor, the 6800, which featured an FM radio but no Bluetooth or camera. (At 100g, the 6820 is 18 per cent lighter, and a centimeter shorter and narrower). As a consequence, the QWERTY keys are a little smaller too. However the addition of a joystick makes for a dramatic improvement in usability. John C Dvorak recently wrote a scathing smartphone summary concentrating on the Nokia 6600 and concluding that the UI was designed by someone who liked pressing buttons far more than a normal person should. He has a point: for almost every practical purpose, the Nokia 6820 was easier to use than the Series 60 models we have tried, PalmOne's Treo, and Sony Ericsson's P800 and P900. To a large extent this is because functionality is limited: there are fewer things to do and fewer ways of doing them.

Nevertheless simple tasks were accomplished quicker, even with Series 40's sluggish interface. Nokia's original NaviKey user interface only gave users two paths to navigate: forward and back, or yes and no. The addition of a five way rocker expands on this much more neatly than the richer Series 60 user interface. Time and again, and here experience shows, the rocker's default Select push took us where we wanted to go. From the home screen, with a directional push the rocker can bring up the calendar (right), the contacts list (down), start the camera (up), or take you to a blank new text message. In default mode, pressing Select takes you to the familiar Series 40 menu (which can be the traditional list or a grid), while a customizable left key displays your favorites. This 'Go To menu' can include individual Profiles (such as Silent), frequently accessed tasks (eg, 'Make a Note') or WAP bookmarks. However the phone doesn't allow individual Java applets to be placed in the Go To menu, so starting Bounce takes three clicks.

Nokia has sacrificed keyboard usability for style or space on some recent models. Our review of the 6600 phone found the keypad fiddly for texting, and early reports of the 7610 suggest that it's even worse. It's a relief to find that something that should be as simple is dialing a number isn't hampered on the 6820.

This not-so-smartphone has other advantages, too. Call quality was outstanding, thanks to support for the 850Mhz frequency, and not having to power a large, bright screen the phone outlasted more powerful rivals. (The 6820 has a 128x128 screen, and a 352x288 camera). It powered through a four-day camping trip where there was no access to a mains outlet. The contact book is limited to 500 addresses, which may be a clincher for professional users, especially since the 6820 syncs with Outlook. That needs to be expanded if this is a serious business item.

As a PDA

For the most basics of personal information management, the 6820 scored a surprising hit. The calendar was easy to access and view, and notes and to-dos easy to find. Given the limitations of the platform, the lack of a clipboard proved annoying. But the real test was how did the keyboard shape up?

Like the Treo, the 6820's keys are small and unforgiving: more travel and a little spring would make typing much easier. Danger's Hiptop keyboard can also be concealed, uses less space, but feels considerably more comfortable. Like its rivals, the 6820 can only really be worked with your thumbs. However it was a relief to find a full keyboard, with two space bars, and the ampersand and dashes exactly where they should be. (Well, for a European user anyway.) So unlike the RIM (33 keys) and the Treo (35 keys) you don't need to memorize function key combinations. The 6820 adopts phone conventions for shifting between lower and upper case, which makes it familiar to regular texters, and it uses a lazy shift key which means that the modifier doesn't have to be held down along with the target key. An extra key brings up a list of characters that you won't find on the keyboard, such as the forward slash, square brackets and curly braces.

Unlike the 6800, the backlight is manual, and only stays on for a few seconds of inactivity. Nokia has replicated the green and red call keys on the QWERTY keyboard inside, and we found it rather too easy to nudge the red call key which is placed next to the right space bar. If you've opened the keyboard to take a note during a phone call (the phone automatically switches to Loudspeaker mode) and hit this, then the call is terminated: probably not what you wanted.

In terms of application support, we were unable to test the built-in Instant Messaging application on our early test model, and found Java compatibility to be disappointingly uneven. The award winning WebViewer and EmailViewer applications both exited with "Java.lang.NegativeArraySizeException" messages. However Idokoro's excellent ssh client for Series 40 made logging into a shell account a breeze.

Nokia provides a large bundle of tools under the umbrella name PC Suite. Although our Macintosh recognized the 6820 at once, lack of support in iSync prevents it seeing iCal and the OS X Address Book. More importantly, you can only install applications from Windows.

Weights and Volumes


Perhaps the most telling impression of the 6820 is that we returned to Nokia's 6600 with some frustration. Although this is a very limited device compared to more fully featured smartphones, there's much than it accomplish as both phone and PDA with greater ease than its rivals. Nokia has succeeded in putting a full QWERTY keyboard in a tiny and unobtrusive device. Like Danger, it deserves to be rewarded for this innovation. We'd like to see this format allied to a Series 60 device, which would really unleash the power of the of the platform. After some time, we were wondering if someday all phones will have a QWERTY keyboard hidden under the cover. ®

Nokia 6820
Rating as a phone: 90%; as a basic PDA: 55%
Pros — the amazing fold-away keyboard trick
— rock solid phone with good familiar, UI
— dependable wireless modem
Cons — underpowered for jobs such as heavy duty XHTML-browsing
— the low-quality camera is redundant
Price $349 unsubsidized; With contract: $199 [AT&T Wireless, after rebates]
More info Nokia USA web site

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