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First Look: Nokia N96

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For anyone who wants their phone to be all things to all men, Nokia's flagship N95 ought to have been the answer to their dreams. It had a five megapixel digital camera, fast internet, POP3 and IMAP email support, plus decent music and video-playing capabilities and a built-in GPS. But we were concerned with just too many things for it to win us over completely. Build quality, for one, felt too cheap for a phone so expensive, battery life was short and it was pretty chunky, too.
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Nokia improved things with the release of the N95 8GB, introducing a higher capacity battery, more memory and better design, but this also had problems, too, not least a lack of memory expansion. And now, at last, it's the turn of its successor, the N96. This phone is set to be launched in August and, surely, this time Nokia has got it right. Hasn't it? I've got my hands on a preproduction sample to find out if Nokia has finally fixed the problems and turned its flagship media phone into the desirable handset it always deserved to be.

It didn't start too well, however. As I lifted the N96 excitedly from its packaging and turned it over in my hand, I felt a profound sense of disappointment. Now, it's a preproduction sample so I was expecting the odd creak and rattle, but some things are unlikely to change in production units.
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The rear of the phone, for instance, eschews the soft-touch plastic of the N95 8GB, and replaces it with a shiny, patterned plastic panel similar to the one on the N78 and N82. I don't like it - it feels cheap on those phones and when the N96 hits the shelves in August it'll feel cheap on this handset too.

The rest of the phone's chassis feels similarly plasticky: the numeric keypad is flat and glossy, the front fascia flat too, and the edges wrapped in silver plastic too. A quick glance around the web reveals pre-order, non-subsidised prices for the N96 hovering around the £600 inc VAT mark, so it's surely not a case of Nokia manufacturing the the N96 down to a budget.
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Other changes have been made. The button panel on the front, below the screen now has dedicated music controls - skip forwards, skip backwards, play/pause and stop buttons all surround the N96's directional pad, adding to the usual pair of soft keys, start and end call, menu and back buttons. But again I'm not convinced that this is a good thing. It serves to clutter what was previously highly-usable layout yet adds little, as the N96 boasts dedicated music controls elsewhere. As with the original N95, slide the screen down rather than up and a narrow band of media controls are revealed above the screen with exactly the same controls on it.

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