Nokia's N95 was the swiss-army smartphone taken to its logical conclusion. If it didn't quite claim to be all things to all men, it at least claimed to be a phone/camera/media player/GPS/mobile messager/computer/games machine to them, which is pretty damn close. Some of these jobs it did well, some less well, but it's safe to say that there were a few areas where it fell down. Not wishing to be mean, it was a slightly cheap-feeling porker of a phone with poor battery life, and the design as a whole wasn't quite as well thought out and executed as it could have been. The N95 8GB update did a bit to correct this, and the true sequel - the N96 - does even more. The question is: is that enough?
I won't go into too much detail regarding the design, seeing as the esteemed Mr Bray covered this in some detail in his worryingly comprehensive N96 preview. The N96 isn't hugely different from its predecessor, retaining its chunky black shape, dominant screen and the two way slider mechanism that slides up to reveal the keypad and down to reveal a neat set of media playback keys. Strangely, Nokia has chosen to repeat the latter around the directional pad below the screen, possibly to make it easier to control playback one handed, though at the cost of the simplicity of the previous layout.
More positively, this is a slightly thinner and lighter device than the N95 8GB, weighing 3g less and up to 3mm thinner, though it's also a few mm longer and wider. Despite the new and slightly cheap feeling glossy plastics it feels like a nicer phone in the hand. The slider mechanism seems smoother and from the low-profile keys at the bottom to the media controls at the top, all the buttons have a solid and responsive action. The context sensitive backlighting on the keys, with individual controls glowing depending on whether you're listening to music, watching video or playing games, is still a nice usability touch.
More good news: one of the biggest criticisms of the N95 8GB have been dealt with in a decisive fashion. Not only does the N96 have double the onboard capacity at 16GB, but it also allows for expansion via a microSD memory card slot located on the left hand edge of the phone. Even given the demands of a device that takes photos and plays music, games and video, that should be enough to be getting on with.
For me, the only major disappointment is the screen. Yes, it's lovely and vibrant and those 16.7 million colours are all reproduced with real panache, but having been spoilt by higher resolution displays on phones from HTC, Samsung and - of course - Apple, the 2.9in 240 x 320 LCD screen on the N96 is a little underwhelming. Still, it doesn't affect everyday use that seriously and the switching between portrait and landscape modes, which happens automatically depending on which way you slide the screen, makes a lot of sense when you're browsing the Internet, watching video or playing games.