Nokia N93 Review

In many ways, the Nokia N93 is the first cell phone of the 21st century.
In many ways, the Nokia N93 is the first cell phone of the 21st century.
In many ways, the Nokia N93 is the first cell phone of the 21st century.

Highs

  • GSM EDGE/WCDMA compatibility; excellent 3.2 MP camera; near-VHS 30 fps video

Lows

  • Expensive; bulky and clunky; non-standard headphone jack; WiFi set-up confusing

Summary

Nokia’s N93 is the Swiss Army knife of cell phones, a teeming tenement of technologies. A 3.2 MP digital camera and a 30 frame per second (fps) camcorder are a combination available on no other phone besides the N93 (at least, not as this is being written). This phone also has camcorder-like ergonomics with a swivel-up-and-around 2.4-inch LCD screen, WiFi connectivity, an MP3 player with stereo Bluetooth, and lots of included multimedia software that turns the phone into a pocket PC. And as a tri-band EDGE/GSM 900/1800/1900 phone, the N93 is compatible with high-speed EDGE networks all over the world.

However, the real dichotomy of this phone is its availability. Most phones in the U.S. are “locked,” meaning they can be used only with the carrier that sells it. The N93, however, like phones in the rest of the world, is unlocked, which means you can slip in a SIM card from any GSM carrier (e.g. Cingular or T-Mobile, in the U.S.). But because it’s unlocked and not available through a U.S. carrier, it’s not subsidized by a carrier who sells most handsets at below cost, making up the loss via your long-term service commitment. As a result, expect to pay around $700 for this not-so-tiny wonder.

As n incentive, when you buy the phone, you get a 512MB miniSD card containing a full-length “Mission Impossible III” that can only be watched on the phone.

Features and Design

As noted, this phone is loaded, almost overwhelmingly so, and is arguably the most feature-laden phone on the market. The 3.2 MP camera uses Carl Zeiss optics rather than the normal cheap plastic lenses usually found on cell cams, and there’s a tiny lens cap that you should tie the included cord to immediately. The camcorder encodes in RealVideo VGA 640 x 480 at 30 fps, but can play back MPEG-4 H.264 AVC — high definition video. The N93 also is UPnP and PictBridge compatible.

While you can’t use the phone and its WiFi capabilities as a PC modem, you can use your home network or free hot spots (rather than expensive cell data minutes) to connect to the Web, and you can transfer or stream music, movies, and photos to and from the phone to a PC or the Web using SimpleCenter. However, SimpleCenter is “pull-only” software. If you’re in a hot spot and can configure the phone, you can “pull” PC multimedia content, such as streaming music or pictures, to your phone. Unfortunately, you can’t “push” (or transfer) new pictures or video from the phone to your PC from a remote locale; WiFi phone-to-PC transfer requires close physical proximity, similar to Bluetooth or IrDA. This could change, though, because the SimpleCenter people say “push” technology is on their product development roadmap.

If you like your connections more physical, the phone comes with a composite video/stereo cable like the kind you get with a camcorder, so you can view your photos or videos on your TV. It also comes with a USB data cable.

The N93 is also capable of making video calls, but you have to have access to a UMTS network and, presumably, the other caller has to have a video call-capable phone. Unless you call someone from your contact list, you are asked every time by the N93 if you want to make a video or voice call; this is an annoying extra step, considering the unlikelihood of ever making such calls. If you ever forget about this step, once you hit “Send,” you’ll put the phone to your ear expecting to get connected, but you won’t hear anything. You’ll then take the phone down and look at the screen, only to find that the phone is still waiting for you to make the choice between video and voice calling.

Nokia has also included several multimedia software programs with the N93, such as Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0, Nokia Music Manager (software that lets you rip CDs and transfer music to the phone), and Nokia Lifeblog 2.0 to share your personal multimedia content.

Nokia N93
Image Courtesy of Nokia

Design and Features Cont’d

For storage, there’s a hot-swappable miniSD slot and 50 MB of internal storage. As an alternative to stereo Bluetooth, Nokia includes a pair of wired stereo headphones with inline mic in the box.

The N93 may have an impressive array of features, but where do you carry it? At 4.7” x 2.2” x 1.1” and 6.3 ounces, this is likely the largest and heaviest non-QWERTY phone in the market. It’s too bulky for a pants pocket, and it makes a shirt breast pocket sag awkwardly.

Nokia N93The N93’s most distinctive feature is its Transformer-like design. The front flap can flip up vertically, like a normal clamshell, or horizontally, like a little laptop. Or, you can flip it up vertically and twist it down and around, perpendicular from the body, which automatically activates the camera/camcorder. In this position, the camera/camcorder controls conveniently lie in perfect thumb position.

Considering all these goodies, the N93 still looks like a cell phone. The black keypad includes bright white backlighting. Along with the familiar send and end keys, there’s the familiar navigation pad and twin soft keys. Confusion begins, though, with the phone’s four function keys between the keypad and navigation array, whose icons don’t always reveal their intent: a pencil that toggles between symbol and alpha mode in message mode, Nokia’s odd, circular menu key, a diamond icon that activates navigation array feature shortcuts, and a “C” clear/back key.

Outside is a 1-1/8” x 5/8” blue backlit LCD that displays the usual time and phone/network status information, as well as music track information when the MP3 player is running. Below this screen is a speaker.

Of course, cramming all these disparate technologies into this cramped space does create some minor ergonomic difficulties. There’s no spine volume control, for instance. To raise or lower conversation volume you have to counter-intuitively toggle the navigation pad left or right. Fully open for calling, the phone measures nearly eight inches long, and the microphone is actually an inch below your mouth — not necessarily a bad thing, just odd considering most cell phones only reach mid-cheek. But when you’re on a call, you’ll start to swivel the top to conform with your face, which automatically activates the camera. Assumedly, this will eat battery power and could result in accidental image capture. Although none of these are insurmountable ergonomic difficulties, the phone’s physical size does prompt a caveat.

Performance

The N93’s performance is exemplary on almost all counts. On the phone front, sound quality is about a B+; a little thin, but clear with plenty of volume. The problem is that the earpiece has to be precisely placed on your lobe for optimum clarity. Accessing Cingular’s EDGE network, however, was as quick and painless as it would be on any native Cingular phone.

Where the N93 excels is image capture. Pictures are comparable to any standalone 3 MP camera, and they’re the best pictures we’ve seen from a cell phone, although the flash is a bit weak in comparison with some other multimegapixel cameras, such as the Sony K790i. (There is one nice feature of the video light, though; you can use it as a small flashlight without activating the camera.) Similarly, the 30-second 640 x 480 videos rival VHS and iTunes video quality as long as you don’t digitally zoom, which adds an annoying level of jaggies.

The music player is easy to use and continues to play while you use other applications, but the stereo Bluetooth connection was not as consistent compared to other stereo Bluetooth phones.

We had trouble getting the WiFi to work. Finding the app in the phone was a problem (the setup is divided between the Connection menu under Tools and the Home Network menu under Connections), the configuration GUIs weren’t clear, and the manual’s lack of basic blow-by-blow instructions were as short-sheeted as Steve Martin’s guide to not paying taxes on a million dollars: “First, get a million dollars.” With able assistance from the Simple Center people (detailed phone and PC set-up instructions should be on their website by the time you read this), we were able to set up an N93-PC connection. But N93’s WiFi is not for the technically faint of heart.

Surprisingly, the N93 is rated at 5 hours of talk time and up to 10 days of standby, but using the myriad of multimedia features substantially reduces these lifespans.

Nokia N93
View images or video by connecting the N93 directly to your TV

Conclusion

In many ways, the Nokia N93 is the first cell phone of the 21st century. It is likely that as the decade proceeds, there will be equally or even more extensively equipped cell phones that will be less bulky and less expensive. But until these phones appear, the Nokia N93 stands out as the best-equipped cell phone available.

Pros:

• 3.2 MP camera
• 30 fps camcorder
• Carl Zeiss lens
• 2.4″ swivel screen
• MP3 player
• WiFi
• Stereo Bluetooth
• FM radio
• E-mail, text messaging
• MiniSD slot

Cons:

• Bulky and clunky
• Expensive
• No spine volume toggle
• Proprietary headphone jack