Cell phones that double as cameras are the James Carville/Mary Matalin of the tech world, a mismatched marriage that seems to work. But thanks to poor ergonomics, plastic lenses, and low resolution chips, cell cams aren’t good for much more than casual snaps in bright light. Nokia has taken a couple of steps in the right direction toward a true merging of the two disparate gadgets with its N90. Both the lens and the LCD viewfinder rotate to solve some of the N90’s inherent combined-capability ergonomic problems, Carl Zeiss optics improve the quality of your snaps, and a 2-megapixel imaging chip helps “up” the resolution. However, the N90’s bulk suggests that two devices have been taped together rather than merged. Also, the N90 isn’t available through any of the major cell carriers; the N90 is an “unlocked” phone, which means that it will theoretically work on any GSM network with the insertion of the appropriate carrier SIM card. But since the N90 isn’t available from any national carriers, you are unlikely to find contract rebates (which you’ll want and need since the N90 is expensive–usually priced north of $500, twice the price of a phone with twice the capabilities).
Features and Design
While the N90 has a plethora of camera features, you’re buying it because it is first and foremost a tri-band (900/1800/1900) world-band EDGE cell phone. It also is endowed with the Symbian Series 60 operating system, which supports the phone’s varying PDA functions.
From the outside, you wouldn’t guess that the N90 is a cell phone or a digital camera. Except for the 1.5-inch LCD screen, there are no distinctive external clues to the N90’s primary or secondary functions.
At 4.41″ x 2″ x .94″, the N90 is around a third larger than most modern cell cams, and at 6.1 ounces, nearly twice as heavy. But this camera phone also has more moves than Kobe Bryant. Atop the clamshell hinge is a rotating camera lens, which swings around nearly 360 degrees. When you twist the camera top, the camera is automatically activated with the external screen acting as viewfinder. To see what you’re shooting, though, you’re better off separating the two clamshell halves, which splay out from closed to nearly flat (like a cheerleader’s split), and then twisting the 2.1-inch 262,144-color LCD top half up and around so it’s perpendicular to the keypad bottom half. With these swiveling parts, you can capture all the weird shooting angles your aesthetic senses allow.
Unlike most cell cams, there is only one set of camera controls, on the left spine next to the RS-MMC memory card slot. This positioning is perfect for thumb control when you open up the N90 to use the inside LCD as the view screen. But it you keep the phone closed, the positioning is on the top left, which forces you to use the camera like a southpaw and requires some gripping dexterity so your left fingers don’t block the lens.
Equipped with an f/2.9-5.5mm Carl Zeiss lens and a 24-bit, 16.7-million CMOS color imaging chip, the N90 shoots 1600 x 1200 pixel 2-megapixel stills, lower resolution 800 x 600 (.5 MP) and VGA 640 x 480 (.3 MP) JPEGs, and 30-second to one-hour, 15-frames-per-second, 352 x 288 pixel MPEG-4 video clips. There’s an 8x digital zoom, white balance, and a self-timer, but only a small flash. You can also play QuickTime and Real video clips, as well as MP3 and unprotected AAC audio tracks, but not WMA. However, the N90 does not play stereo through the proprietary headphone jack or through the ridiculously tiny speaker on top of the lens, so all those music playback options are useless appendages.
You do get plenty of storage for whatever digital data you shoot or import into the phone–31 MB of built-in memory, supplemented by an included 64-MB memory card. The N90 is equipped with Bluetooth and PictBridge and includes a USB cable, any of which can be used to transfer photos from phone to PC or printer.
Even with the generous geography available on the inside surfaces, the plainly laid out and white backlit dialpad keys are no larger than those on phones half the N90’s size.
Image Courtesy of Nokia
While perhaps appropriate for a camera, the N90’s ergonomics can be awkward for a cell phone. True, the swivel top enables you to mold the phone to match your ear-to-cheek-to-mouth contours, but it’s difficult to hold and maintain this odd position, and you have to be conscious that your finger could smudge the camera lens.
The N90’s performance belies this clunkiness, however; reception on Cingular’s network was consistent and calls sounded soft and gentle on the ear. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get our SIM card to work with the phone’s Web capability.
The Symbian OS look and feel of the phone also keeps things simple, at least at first. Instead of the usual jumble of dozens of confusing icon functions, the main menu screen lists only the N90’s five primary functions: phone book, messaging, calendar, gallery, and image print. But once you get past these initial options to each function’s secondary options, you will find them arrayed in the now-familiar jumble of icons. However, both the two soft menu keys and the circular navigational array can be programmed to get you directly to the frequently-used function of your choice.
The N90’s digital pictures were spectacular–or, at least, spectacular when compared to other VGA or 1.3-megapixel cell cam photos. You see plenty of detail and bright, vivid colors at the top-of-the-line 1600 x 1200 resolution in shots taken in bright sunshine. But even with the N90’s impressive photo technologies, you’ll still want to take a more serious digital camera with you on vacations or for other important occasions. Shots taken inside or in less than sunny conditions were still superior to most lower resolution cell cam candids, but were bleached and fuzzy in comparison to pictures taken by a run-of-the-mill, standalone, 5-MP camera. As you’d imagine, the flash is useless in the dark and nearly useless for anything other than close-ups and shadow fill. If you plan on e-mailing your shots, you’ll have to step down the resolution, resulting in a still lower-quality snap.
Unfortunately, video quality is only 15 frames-per-second and is as herky-jerky as old silent films.
Despite the large LCD screen, the 4.5-hour talk time and 10-day standby battery life is on a par with less-endowed cell cams.
Image Courtesy of Nokia
The N90 is clearly an evolutionary step in the merging of the cell phone and camera, rather than a destination. A number of 2-MP cell cams with superior ergonomics and better optics are beginning to make their way into stores, and this trend will continue until manufacturers happen upon a successful design. Because of this, and because of its awkward size and weight, we say skip the N90 and wait for the next generation of less expensive cell cams offered directly from a carrier that will include stereo capabilities.
- EDGE compatible
- High quality 2 MP pictures
- Carl Zeiss optics
- Rotating camera lens and LCD screen
- RS MMC memory card included
- Large and clunky
- Awkward cell phone ergonomic
- Proprietary headphone jack