Nokia’s N96 is a throwback to a bygone era of smartphones – a few years ago, really – when pinstripe cases complemented buyers’ handmade Italian suits, mobile e-mail was for sealing million-dollar contracts, and the phone’s $895 unsubsidized price barely fazed would-be owners. Now that this particular segment of phone is as prized by mallrats as the execs who own the stores they shop at though, the N96 still holds its own, but only as a niche device. Though all the handset’s vital stats have the right numbers in front of them, the lack of more powerful user inputs on the N96 and its powerful-but-confusing Symbian interface make taking full advantage of that hardware difficult.
Features and Design
On paper, the N96 stacks up right alongside with or above nearly every other smartphone on the market in terms of the sheer hardware Nokia has been able to fold inside. Start with 16GB of internal memory, add a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash; media player; FM radio; GPS; Wi-Fi; Bluetooth; and even a TV tuner on the Euro-spec version, and you have some idea what this phone is capable of. Pretty much everything, in other words…
But despite this wealth of features, you wouldn’t immediately notice upon picking up Nokia’s flagship smartphone that you’re holding about $895 in hardware. There’s no trace of polished metal around the edges (like the iPhone), no high-end plastics (like the HTC Diamond and Touch Pro), and no ultra-vibrant, high-resolution screen (like the Blackberry Bold). Instead, there’s just a 2.8-inch display with meager 320×240 resolution, framed in the same silver-flake plastic you might expect on a $30 Bluetooth headset. The only portion of the mobile phone’s construction that begins to belie its price tag is the back cover, which has a slick, scalloped pattern on dark blue, with a smooth, glassy finish.
The N96 is a slider phone, but not on the way you might expect. Shoving the screen upwards reveals the typical number pad (covering a very condensed area that’s only about an inch tall), while sliding it down reveals another ledge of multimedia keys up top: Fast forward, rewind, play, pause and stop. Fortunately, the sliding action defies the cheap look of case by feeling solid and trustworthy.
The face of the phone also has multimedia controls, clustered around a square directional pad where they’re easily accessible. You’ll additionally find the more typical answer and hang-up buttons, along with unlabelled shoulder buttons for making menu selections. More unique to the N96, there’s a dedicated application button for bringing you directly to the app-switching screen and a C that works as a catch-all backspace/clear button as well.
Up top, you’ll find the typical power and hold buttons, while the left-hand side has an easily accessible slot for a microSD card of up to 2GB. The bottom has a USB micro jack for data and a circular power jack that accepts a needle-like power cable. Both, unfortunately, are rather uncommon, and will ensure you won’t be borrowing cables from friends in a bind any time soon. The right edge offers a standard volume rocker as well as a dedicated camera button, and stereo speakers built into the shoulders – a rather unusual add-on to boot.
Nokia’s Symbian S60 operating system has drawn a cult-like following of power users, many of whom will pay drastic premiums and go far out of their way to import phones with the coveted OS. But much like other “Old Guard” platforms like Windows Mobile and PalmOS, it’s not clear whether this version of Symbian can truly compete with newcomer’s like Apples iPhone OS, Google Android, and the soon-to-come WebOS from Palm.
From a purely technical approach, it should be able to hold its own. We were able to connect to Wi-Fi, surf the Web, get directions on a map, and all the other day-to-day smartphone tasks you might accomplish with an iPhone or G1. But using the device just isn’t easy. In fact, it might even be one of the first phones whose manual we had to break out to discover how different features work, rather than just figuring it out via the usual process of hands-on trial and error.
One of our biggest pet peeves was Symbian’s incessant nagging for permission to use different connections. Seemingly every time we used a different program or feature, we had to click yes to accept that it would use a wireless LAN connection or cellular Internet to retrieve data. That may have been wise during the days of pay-per-byte Internet when this software was conceived, but it’s nothing more than a hassle in today’s all-you-can-download world.
Of course, there are several rewards as a tradeoff for suffering through Symbian’s complexity: Namely stability, speed and the depth of the features it offers. For instance, though it’s tougher to bring up maps, and slightly less intuitive to navigate them than using a multi-touch display like on the iPhone, you can manipulate them in additional ways, too. Want to drop the view down to a 3D perspective? Sure. Feel like switching into a GPS-like driving view? Got for it. Need to take a screenshot of the map? Not a problem. Want to copy and paste? Hey, the N96 has got you covered.
It all happens at about the same speed you can click, and we didn’t experience a single system crash or hang throughout the entire testing experience.
Overall though, existing Symbian users will likely find the N96’s hardware a perfect complement to their operating system of choice, but new users are unlikely to fall in love with its ease of use and graphical flare, as they might with next-gen OSes.
For a phone with as many bells as whistles as the N96 has, you really don’t get too many options for controlling it all. For example, the usual staples of high-end smartphones – either a full touch screen or QWERTY keyboard – are both absent. (The mere fact that the next-gen N97 will have not one but both should be a good indicator that these options are sorely missed in the current version.) It’s an interesting anomaly, considering that many lower-end Nokia phones get a full keyboard… and a major hang-up for anyone looking to input much text.
The center directional pad is the closest thing you’ll find to salvation for the N96, which does the majority of the legwork for navigation and works about as smoothly as can be expected. Tertiary front buttons on the front lack the tactile feedback for users to press them confidently, however, and are packed tightly enough together that you’ll need some nails to do the clicking.
The slide-out multimedia controls provided on the top of the phone may seem like a boon for music listeners, but they’re actually doubly redundant as well. You get the same controls around the (more accessible) directional pad on the face, and again on the (even more easily accessible) headphone dongle, which has all the same controls built into a tiny tab. They’re really only useful when they turn into N-Gage controls, which is a rare event. Thank you, Nokia, but we could actually do with a bigger dial pad on the bottom portion. At only about an inch tall, and with numbers separated only by razor-thin lines, it’s one of the least satisfying we’ve used thus far.
There’s a commonly held marketing fallacy that more megapixels always equal better pictures, which is far from the case. But on the N96, the quality Carl Zeiss optics combined with a good 5-megapixel sensor do produce solid images. Autofocus also helps eliminate those sloppy snaps, and a wide range of settings that are easily accessible from the shooting screen help you stretch the feeble cell camera to take better pictures. While outdoor shots surprised us with quality colors, indoor shots didn’t look all that much better than what you might expect from the average cell phone – which is to say they were dim, slightly coarse and dull.
Though Nokia pushes the N96 as a productivity phone, compatibility with Nokia’s N-Gage gaming platform undoubtedly holds some appeal for those free-time hours, too. The platform’s wide array of titles and refined interface for downloading them makes it quite easy to pile games aboard, but the lack of an onboard video processor (the iPhone has its own) limits the visual intensity of what you’ll be able to play. Whereas Tetris and other cell phone staples play fine, 3D racing games like Asphalt 3: Street Rules chug along at a just-barely-playable rate.
A dedicated media button on the face of the phone, as well as access to multiple video sites (not just YouTube) and 16GB of internal storage make the N96 a competent multimedia machine. Nokia even includes a tiny kickstand on the face of the camera for propping it up on a tabletop to watch longer videos without holding it.
Access to both forms of media is fairly streamlined using the aforementioned media button, which brings up a sheet in the foreground with all the options for different categories (ex. music, movies, Web). Shifting left and right cycles through different sheets, while up and down selects the option. Adding movies and music is a simple drag-and-drop operation, and compatibility runs the gamut from common formats like MPEG-4 to more niche formats like WMC and RealVideo QCIF files.
Movies look fairly crisp on the 2.8-inch LCD, if not overly large, and music sounds great through both the headphones and internal speakers – which are some of the loudest we’ve ever heard. Tinny? Of course, but you won’t have any trouble hearing it, which is more than can be said for 90 percent of cell phone external speakers.
As a nice touch, there’s also an FM radio that has been cleanly integrated with the rest of the multimedia options, all the way down to a channel retrieval for certain markets via the Web, so that you can browse through radio station names instead of frequencies. As with most cell phones with FM radio, you’ll have to have headphones plugged in (which act as an antenna) to make use of it.
The N96 is bursting at the seams with potential, and the hot hardware to make it happen. But without a full QWERTY keyboard, touchscreen, or even the feel of a nice phone, it has a hard time justifying its lofty $895 price tag. This being the case, we would recommend that all but the most diehard fans of Symbian pass on the N96 in its unlocked form, unless a major U.S. carrier picks it up in the near future and begins offering a major subsidy. In the long term, take heart knowing that its more-accessible brother, the N97, is still in the pipeline, and should both remedy many of the anachronistic defects of the N96 as well as bring out the full potential of the N-series at a later date.
- Fast OS
- Large storage capacity
- Wide multimedia options
- Respectable camera
- Stratospheric price
- No touchscreen
- No QWERTY keyboard
- Slightly obtuse operating system
- Nonstandard power and data jacks
- Surprisingly poor build quality