Nokia Smart Phone Can't Handle the Basics

Sometimes even a 1-cent phone isn't worth the money.

Nokia ( NOK) recently redipped its toe into America's smart-phone waters with the sexy new E71x ($99 with service) through AT&T ( T). While far from perfect, the phone seemed like a good alternative to the duopoly of Apple's ( AAPL) iPhone and Research In Motion's ( RIMM) BlackBerry.

Smart Phones

The E71x has become a prominent part of the AT&T marketing juggernaut, taking on the keyboard-based products of LG and Samsung Electronics sold through Verizon Communications ( VZ). Amazon ( AMZN) went as far as to offer the phone for 1 cent.

Based on the buzz, my assistant and I deployed the E71x in our little digital world to see how it behaves in small-business terrain. It was immediately clear that this device isn't small-business ready.

What's wrong with it: In the store, the E71x finds and connects to networks easily. But in the real world, the automated network access was clumsy at best.

Common smart-phone tasks like checking e-mail and viewing maps are a challenge on the Nokia E71x.

The unit found several network options in any location, whether it was on a highway in rural Connecticut or inside a home in suburban Boston. Once it spotted networks, it prompted me to choose one. The problem was that it labeled them with vague names like "operator," "Internet" or "MMS." I could never reliably tell which option would get me service.

If I was between hot spots, I could attempt to connect to AT&T's network, the one labeled "operator." However, it I was near a wireless hot spot, the phone would set the "Internet" network as its default, rendering the "operator" button unusable.

In short, my applications crashed -- e-mail, mapping tools, Web browsers. You name it. It wasn't stable.

And productivity took a major hit. I couldn't reliably do what even the most basic iPhones and BlackBerrys do: check e-mail and then link out to, say, a Google ( GOOG) map. I recently drove a van full of teenagers to a series of volunteer projects around the Northeast, and every half hour I asked if one of them could look up maps, radar images or Web pages on their iPhones.

Bottom line: Nokia will eventually evolve into a serious smart-phone player. But for now, its E71x can only handle the simplest of tasks - calls, texts and photos. Unless you prefer your phones to be more limited, stick with vendors that know how to navigate American cell phone networks better.

As it stands now, the E71x feels more like a randomly generated Sudoku networking puzzle. And who really has time for that?
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.