- Review Price: £488.80
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.
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.
GPS facilities have been enhanced over the old N95 models with the addition of assisted GPS for a better lock and an improved version of the Nokia Maps application that now provides instructions for pedestrians as well as drivers. Getting a decent and constant signal isn’t particularly easy in my corner of the South West of England, and the N96 wasn’t the best device I’ve come across in doing so, but when it worked it worked pretty well, though potential buyers should be aware that they’ll still have to pay extra for voice-guided car and pedestrian instructions.
Now to the games. Nokia has been pushing its N-Gage service as a premium gaming platform to match more conventional handheld platforms like the DS or PSP, but I’m still not convinced. With the screen slid to reveal the multimedia keys – now posing as action buttons – the form factor of the N96 is perfect and the built-in speakers make sense. However, the more ambitious 3D games still fail to run at any decent frame rate while the less ambitious 2D games, though entertaining, feel like products of a bygone era. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the action puzzle game Reset Generation, but for now I’d hesitate to recommend that any game enthusiasts pick the N96 over any other phone, particularly when the iPhone seems to be gathering more momentum in this area.
Finally, the camera. Again, it’s a 5-megapixel job, this time with two LED flash lights, and the results are generally very good, if not quite up to the standard of recent camera phones from Sony Ericsson or Samsung. Colours are bright and the auto exposure and focus systems competent, and the Carl Zeiss lens copes well with objects viewed close up. Sadly, two persistent issues recur from the N95 and N95 8GB. First, there’s still no cover for the lens, though Nokia has turned part of the frame surrounding it into a funny little stand that holds the handset at a suitable angle for watching video. Secondly, there’s still an annoying lag between pressing the shutter and taking the picture that makes it hard to capture anything that’s moving at any real speed. Otherwise, the N96 doubles as a fine point-and-shoot camera with more manual control than most.
Nokia made a controversial decision in returning to a 950mAh battery with the N96, apparently to keep the size and weight down. Apparently, software optimisations should ensure that battery life in normal use isn’t badly affected, but while Nokia claims 230 hours of standby time and 230 minutes of talk time I’d take those figures with a pinch of salt, particularly if you’re planning to use GPS and WiFi. The specification claims 5 hours of video and 14 hours of music playback but I topped out at a little over nine – not quite on a par with Nokia’s estimate, but not a bad result.
Still, generally speaking the news is good. In terms of physical design and overall performance the N96 is an improvement on its popular predecessors. The bad news is that this is no longer enough to make it a must-have mobile. The N96 does an awful lot of things and it does them very well, but in every category there are other devices that do the same thing better. It’s not an exceptional camera phone, it’s not a particularly great web device and it’s not an incredible media player. As a games machine it’s better than many other mobile phones, but a long way behind the console quality experience Nokia has been promising.
Worse, in a field now dominated by touchscreen phones the N96’s design is beginning to feel a little staid and conservative. The interface is functional, but low on ‘wow’ factor or real innovation. While everyone else is trying to catch and beat the iPhone – and a few are coming very, very close to succeeding – Nokia has merely bashed out a slightly better N95. If you loved the N95 that’s not a disaster: it’s a pretty sure thing that you’ll like the N96 even more. If not, however, there are other, more exciting phones out there for this kind of money.
In all respects the N96 is an improvement on the already good N95 8GB, handling all its functions well. However, Nokia’s new flagship lacks the glitz and glamour of rival smartphones and doesn’t excel in enough areas to justify the high price tag.
Score in detail
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