By December 8, 2008

Nokia N96 review

Introduction

I’ve been waiting on this one for a while! Having had an almost exclusively Windows-mobile phone history, in January I bought an N95 8GB. I know that probably won’t make me any friends here, but for the past year, I’ve enjoyed a bug free simple phone, but with all the extras as well. Texting and calling is simple and easy – and without a touch screen (a big PLUS in my eyes).

N96_main 

The Nokia N96

 

The 10 second review:
Device: Nokia N96
Cost: SIM free only: £459.99 (Inc VAT).
Available to pre-order from: eXpansys (Go and buy one from here)
Summary: A good phone, which a year ago would have been fantastic. The problem for Nokia, is the bar has been set so high by their own past devices, they now find themselves struggling to keep up momentum.
Best of: BBC iPlayer and 16GB of built in memory
Worst of: Poor battery life (compared to N95) and cramped keypad

 

What’s in the box?

Like the N95, Nokia haven’t skimped:

  • Nokia N96 Handset
  • AC Charger
  • Car Charger
  • Wired Headset/Inline remote
  • Battery (BL5F)
  • USB Cable
  • Video Out cable (with stereo)

Have a look at Matt’s Nokia N96 unboxing video for more details.

Nokia N96 Specification:

  • Quadband EDGE
  • Dualband HSDPA 850/2100 MHz
  • DVB-H Class C
  • 92 cc volume
  • 125 gram weight
  • 103 x 55 x 18 mm
  • 16 GB internal memory AND a microSD slot;
  • 950 mAh battery
  • 6.1 cm (2.8 inch) 320×240 display with 16 million colors
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack
  • WiFi (802.11b/g)
  • AGPS
  • 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens that also does VGA video recording at 30 FPS
  • Dual LED flash that can also be used when video recording!
  • S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 (Flash Lite 3 enabled web browser included)
  • microUSB

 

More @ http://europe.nokia.com/A4797549

GENERAL

Let’s start with a quick look around the device, which is thinner, but slightly taller than its predecessor. That said, the general layout and design of the phone is not too far away from the original N95.

The front panel of the phone is almost completely flat. Gone is the “stuck out” front facing camera from the N95, and in comes a smaller smooth camera lens, alongside a very similar speaker cover, and minute “N96” branding.

N96_back

N96 back view

 

The screen is the same size and shape, but appears to have a slightly glossier screen, which produces slightly better contrast and colour in full screen videos. The lack of widescreen is still disappointing though.

It’s all change below the screen though – the soft keys haven’t changed much, but there’s now another set of media controls around a slightly fiddly direction pad. The menu button is still slightly lost, to the left, while its symmetrical counterpart on the right becomes the ‘C’ key. The Call and End keys are squashed in either side, along the edge of the device, and the splendidly pointless 3D swish menu thing that no one uses, has its own dedicated button, plonked on the right, ruining the symmetry. All the buttons are flush against the device.

N96_keypad

N96 keypad

 

Sliding open the phone is exactly the same as the N95, although the mechanism does feel slightly more rugged. The keypad itself is slightly cramped, with wide, but not very high buttons.

The reverse slide is another N95 similarity – and inexplicably, Nokia have gone back to completely flat media buttons, despite fixing this issue on the N95 8GB.

N96_media_controls

N96 media buttons

 

On the left hand side, the micro-sd card slot makes a comeback, despite the 16 GB of onboard memory. A matching silver plastic cover fits nicely to finish the side well.

N96_left

N96 left side

 

The right hand side of the phone is a lot busier – with a speaker top and bottom (or left and right if landscape). I’m not sure on this. While it’s better for movies I’m sure, I like the N95s setup with a speaker either side.

N96_right

N96 right side

 

Between the speakers, towards the top, is the volume rocker switch. Again probably due to software constraints, this cannot be used for anything other than volume control.

Probably due to Nokia’s “comes with music” rubbish brand, the 3.5 headphone jack is location on the top of the phone, which is definitely not an idea stolen from Apple 😉 Alongside this, is the obligatory power button, and a key lock slider switch. That last one is a new one on me as well – at least on Nokia phones.

N96_top

N96 top view

 

Finally to the bottom end of the device, where the power adaptor jack is found, and the USB port – which is sadly no longer normal micro-usb

N96_bottom

N96 bottom view

REVIEW

I’ve been on at Matt about the N96 for a long time, mainly because he doesn’t like anything not running WM, but also because the N95 was such a step forward 2 years ago, I was hoping for another major leap forward.

In a lot of ways I’m disappointed though. The N96 is great fun, and is packed with features. However, there’s not a lot it can do that my trust N95 8GB can’t.

The new slimmer design is a plus point, and it feels a lot lighter too. Side by side, the N95 does look dated, and in terms of looks, there’s no doubt about Nokia improving things. There are some design flaws apparent though. The slider mechanism is a LOT firmer, and hopefully won’t suffer like my N95 did over time. However, the thing just doesn’t slide enough – meaning the keypad is woefully small – though wide, which makes for a difficult texting experience.

N96_closeup

N96 keypad

 

I chose my N95 last year because I wanted a bells and whistles phone that could do the simple stuff well. Basically, I wanted a phone I could speed text on. Sadly the N96’s keypad is bad enough to mean I absolutely will not upgrade to it.

That in itself may well be a problem of the phone itself anyway. It’s marketed clearly at the business end, and the area of the market that probably already have an N95, and I’m not quite sure what the N96 adds.

It does of course include DVB-T, the digital-terrestrial TV for mobile standard, but in the UK, this shows no signs of being used anytime soon. Other new features and few and far between, although the newer version of S60 does seem speedier, less prone to slowdown, and lockups are almost unknown.

Another Nokia oddity comes is their choice of battery. The BL5F was the much-abused original N95 battery, which was replaced in the N95 8GB with the BL6F. I have no idea why this is the case, and although the usage is quite good, I just can’t understand why the BLF6 hasn’t been used. The battery cover is also a seemingly weak point. Its flimsy, doesn’t click into place well, and seems poor quality compared to the rest of the unit.

After all this negativity though, the N96 does have a great party piece – BBC iPlayer is included in the UK release – and Nokia have been really pushing this in their advertising. In truth, it works damn well, and in truth far far better than the iPhone. All of which makes the lacklustre screen an even bigger shame. Don’t get me wrong – the screen is of excellent quality, but the lack of widescreen, and the same resolution just don’t do the iPlayer justice. That said – the BBC software, and Nokia’s implementation of the licensing stack is exemplary, giving you the chance to stream or download programmes as if you were in front of your home PC.

The iPlayer clearly takes up a lot of space, so Nokia’s decision to jump to a straightforward 16 GB chunk of onboard storage is a good one – and a shot in the eye of Apple. Actually this is one area of significant improvement. The N95 8GB storage was fantastic – but terribly slow, but on device, and via USB Data Storage. I’m not sure of the setup which regards to storage but something really killed performance. Luckily the N96, while not exceptional, has improved this no end, including transferring to and from a PC.

Nokia maps are – obviously – included, and appear to run a lot happier on the N96 than the N95. I’m not sure why, as there are very little differences hardware wise. Maps is a nice free-include, but you’ll probably download Google anyway?

The S60 software bundle is as usual plentiful, with latest version of the built in browser seemingly quicker than ever. Opera Mini is still a must-download, but I often find a mix of the 2 browsers is for the best – and gives you access to almost any site. The inbuilt browser is almost always better for those pesky free-wifi spots that insist on you clicking through a “login” page before connecting – Opera doesn’t seem to understand this, but to be fair, nor do I.

I really thought I would love this review, but in reality I’m struggling to pad it out – it’s a simple choice for new purchasers. If you don’t have a Smartphone, or are coming over to the dark side from Windows Mobile – then go and buy the N96 – right now. Go!

If you are already an owner of an N95 8GB – or possibly even a N95, I see no real reason or need to upgrade.

The N96 is a great phone, but the disappointment stems from the lack of progress. The N95 re-defined Smartphone’s completely, with a pigs-might-fly feature list that truly broke the boundaries. The N96 just bumped into them slightly and apologised. It’s good, but it’s no groundbreaker.

Highlights

  • BBC iPlayer support is absolutely fantastic
  • Lightweight, modern look
  • Earphone socket location
  • 16 GB onboard storage

Lowlights

  • What’s new?
  • Squashed, hard to use keypad

Conclusion

A tired horribly overused cliché to end on then: Evolution not revolution. If you want a non-WM smartphone, buy this. There really is no other option in the business world, and the N96 is, despite the disappointments, a great device. If you upgrading from an older N-series – think carefully before handing over your dollar.

This is a good phone, which a year ago would have been fantastic. The problem for Nokia, is the bar has been set so high by their own past devices, they now find themselves struggling to keep up momentum.

 

Review by: Mark

[Post tag(s): smartphone blog, Pocket PC blog, Windows Mobile blog, Nokia N96, Tracy & Matt]

Posted in: Reviews

About the Author:

More than 20 years in the IT industry. Blogging with a passion and thirst for new technology since 2005.
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