too many words by laura lemay

notes on a new toy, part 1: cell phones, convergence,and the Nokia E70

(warning: this is the first in a series of obsessively geeky gadget posts)

I’ve been wanting to buy a new cell phone for a while now. I’ve had a Nokia 6600 for a few years, and its been a good run, but its showing its age. Its a big, fat, dated-looking phone, and its running kind of slow. The screen is getting hard to read. Its time to retire the poor thing.

Most of the people I know with cellphones run into two schools and split about half and half. There are the folk who use phones as phones, nothing else, they just make phone calls and just can’t understand all this newfangled technology stuff (email on your phone? why??). The other half are the convergence folk who are deeply into phones + PDAs + music + cameras + email + fulltime connectivity +++. They all have treos. I also know two or three people who are anti cell phone altogether but they’re just kind of weird in an offbeat endearing way. Oh that’s joe, he lives in a shack and writes manifestos. He doesn’t have a cell phone.

I’ve always been kind of weird amongst my peer group because I’m in the convergence crowd but my 6600 is my convergence device. Its always been a sleeper that way. While all my cool friends were goggling over the coolness of their treos — and having trouble getting them to sync right, and cursing them when they crashed all the time, breaking keys, uninstalling software, and sending them back to palm to be replaced under warranty — my 6600 gave me perfect syncing, web browsing, email, IM, a camera, lots of software to download, all totally reliably with nary a scratch even though I regularly beat the phone to death in my usual hard on gadgets way. The 6600 always did everything I needed. (note to friends with treos: I know YOUR treo has had no problems at all).

The one thing the 6600 didn’t have, however, that I really wanted, and that I did envy my treo friends for, was a keyboard. Try as I might I could not get used to T9 typing on a standard number pad. I can muddle through in an emergency — I’m actually halfway good at it — but I don’t really like it. The lack of a real keyboard meant that I just didn’t use the 6600 as much online as I would have. So when I started thinking late last year about the next phone I would buy, I was definitely thinking: querty phone. Phone with keyboard.

At the time there wasn’t a lot to choose from. Sidekicks were on the menu, but jeez, they’re huge, and not well supported on the mac. Ditto blackberries. There were a lot of phones with keyboards announced but not launched yet — a bunch of HTC phones, all of which ran Windows Mobile (bleargh), and the Motorola Q. And there was the treo, both the old 650 and the rumored-at-the-time 700, but as you might have guessed I’m kind of predjudiced against the treo (actually even if it worked right I don’t really like the form factor; its blocky and the keys are too small). Nokia had some older “communicators” but the flip-up style looked kind of cheesy to me, like those old sharp wizards everyone had before PDAs became popular. I wanted something new and different. I waited and hoped that something good would be announced.

And then about eight months ago I was in a big conference room for something — I forget what — when I heard a ringtone chirp and a woman a few tables away pulled her phone out of her bag. It was an ordinary smallish candybar phone, like mine. She looked at the screen, and then she unfolded her phone, the long way, in a way I had never seen before, and started typing on it with her thumbs. I boggled. There was a keyboard inside her phone!

A wave of intense gadget lust seized me, yanked me right up out of my chair and dragged me across the room. I introduced myself to the woman with the phone and found out that her phone was a Nokia (yes! yes! yes!) and that she was from China (damn!). The phone itself — a Nokia 6800 — looked just like a plain candybar when folded up — keys on the bottom, screen on the top — but when unfolded the keys were on either side of the screen, butterfly-style. The screen orientation would automatically switch from portrait to landscape when you unfolded the phone.

I went home and straight to google. The phone wasn’t available in the US but I had heard dark rumors about “unlocked phones” — that you can buy a non-US phone and get it unlocked and that it’ll work semi-legally on your US carrier’s service. But I didn’t know how this worked or how to go about it, and for this I would need to do much research (more in a later post). Even if I could get the phone and get it to work I was torn about it — the butterfly phone was actually an older model than my 6600, so it would have fewer features, a smaller screen, a worse quality camera. I waffled.

And then while I was waffling, a miracle happened: Nokia announced an updated butterfly called the E70.

(more soon…)