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Just as a phone and messaging device the N96 has a lot going for it. Call quality is excellent, POP3 and IMAP4 email accounts are ridiculously easy to setup and I had Google Mail up and running within seconds. While the N96 no longer has a pre-installed VoIP client it still supports SIP and you can easily download a Fring client from the Download! Menu item on the phone itself, along with Nokia's Mail for Microsoft Exchange client. 3.6MB HSDPA, GPRS and EDGE connections are all catered for along with 802.11g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Without a QWERTY keyboard or touchscreen the N96 can never be as useful an email and chat phone as Nokia's own E71 or the iPhone, but if you're more concerned with checking messages than writing long ones, it's certainly up to the job.
And it has to be said that the S60 OS, here in its third edition with feature pack 2, makes the N96 a far more responsive and intuitive handset than the vast majority of Windows Mobile smartphones. There are no long waits while you flick between applications and barely a hint of slowdown when you have multiple apps at work simultaneously (though connection speed also has a part to play here). I have a few doubts about the browser - even in landscape mode with a neat picture-in-picture page map to navigate with, it's not quite as desktop-like a Web experience as Safari on the iPhone or Opera on Windows Mobile - but it's still pretty good and handles complex, flash-heavy sites surprisingly well.
All this said, you don't buy an N96 for its efficient GUI - you buy it for the functions and the multimedia bells and whistles. Media playback was a key strength for the N95 handsets and the same is true here. Video encoded in H.264 MPEG-4 or WMV plays back at a fluid 30fps and looks great on the N96 screen, and a composite video adaptor is provided to pump it out at SD resolutions to an external screen. Again, more recent touchscreen phones with larger screens have a slight edge here, but I'd happily watch an episode of House on this one.
Audio playback is similarly good; not up to the standard of a dedicated PMP from iRiver or Cowon, but certainly better than you'd get from most mobile phones, with a clear, defined high end and a strong, punchy bass. Not every phone does justice to The Hold Steady's boisterous Boy's and Girls in America, but the Nokia dishes out the right raucous mix of rolling piano, drawled vocals and storming rock and roll guitar. The supplied headphones - a two part affair with remote controls - produce a bearable noise, but if you prefer a sound with a bit more body and depth then you can always plug your own in to the 3.5mm socket.
Sadly, while radio listeners get FM and Internet radio (over the Wi-Fi connection), we in the UK won't get as much out of the DVB-H digital TV support as our European chums. Possibly to make up for this we do get BBC iPlayer support built into the phone, enabling you to browse and enjoy the last seven days of output provided you're in reach of a friendly Wi-Fi access point. It's a shame it doesn't work over HSDPA, but the bandwidth consumption would be an issue and I imagine carriers aren't keen to have that sort of thing clogging up their networks.