No, it wasn’t the Wi-Fi, the excellent browser, or even the 5 megapixel camera that wowed me. It wasn’t the FM tuner, the Symbian operating system, or the media player accompanied by Nokia’s media controller accessory. It was the TV-Out feature that made me think that this "phone" changed the game.
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Nokia calls the N95 a multimedia computer; I call it a lifestyle accessory. And more so than devices such as Treos and BlackBerries, the N95 could be the start of manufacturers understanding what people want to do, and putting it in a package that looks good in the office, as well as out on the town.
The N95 is just that cool. I was left with that impression when I first saw it at CES back in January, so I jumped when I was asked to review the device.
The N95 is the flagship multimedia computer/smartphone device by Nokia. Offering a drool-worthy list of features, it’s designed to do a lot in an extremely pocketable package.
And, at the same time, the Symbian OS and accompanying PC Suite software tend to give a soft edge to the cutting edge features found within the N95.
In my time with this device, I battled with it as a smartphone, and marveled at it as a regular phone. I "found" reasons to use the camera and Wi-Fi; and saw the reactions from others around me who gave reasons why such a device is both good and bad.
But when all was said and done with the N95, I gathered a level of respect for Nokia that I had not had before. And even more than that, I figured out what I need in my own personal computing device.
Thanks to Mobile Planet for providing the N95 for this review.
Is It a Phone?
Normally, when doing reviews of smartphones I like to take the perspective that some people are going to use it more as a phone in some situations, and more like a PDA in others. The N95 slightly changes that methodology for me, for reasons that will become clear as this review continues.
A quick glance at the specifications section at the end of this review shows that this is a world-class phone. About the only thing that it doesn’t have is the American flavor of HSDPA/UMTS. And even without it, the N95 performs just fine with the EDGE networks in the places where I tested it: the DC Metro and Charlotte (NC) Metro areas.
Voice quality was superb. People told me that I sounded very clear and that there was little to no echoing that could be heard. I noticed that voices sounded clear (albeit a bit high in tonal quality). The only nag when not using the headset was the whine from the LCD panel (similar to that which some Palm Treo 650 users have said happens with their devices). It was noticeable, but not annoying. The included stereo headset was good enough for some casual conversations, but picked up too much background noise. While working with my Jawbone Bluetooth headset however, conversations were nice and clear.
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In contrast to the Treo 680 (which is my daily phone), the N95 has a standard numeric keypad. The keys are spaced nicely and feel excellent to the touch. However the top level of keys is too close to the top of the slider and therefore can be difficult for some who might have large fingers. Dialing and texting is handled by either repeated taps or by using T9 input.
Above the keys, the most prominent buttons when the slider is closed are the D-pad and command buttons. The arrangement of the buttons are fine for all except the most demanding of tasks (games, and sometimes web browsing).
The D-pad has excellent feel, but the menu and application buttons that flank it on the left and right sides are too close for such a small directional pad.
Surrounding these are action buttons on the top left and right (corresponding to on-screen menus); call and end buttons on the bottom left and right; and edit (the pencil) and clear keys for text operations. Only the top action buttons were an issue, and normally only when unlocking the keypad (as there is a sequence of left then right button to do so).
As a phone the N95 is just solid. It does nothing spectacular, but just does the job well. Granted, battery life could be better when continually paired to my Bluetooth headset, but it gets through a good day so that is not a major issue. I am used to the threaded SMS on the Treo models, and the screen space in the SMS app seems wasted without it. But other than that getting a handle on T9 is just fine. Is it a super phone? No, not really. But, is it a capable one? Yes, and one that can do a whole to more once you slide things the other way.
Is it a smartphone?
The N95 has this really cool feature where if you slide the display to the top, you get the number pad and can treat it like a normal phone. But, if you slide the display down, you will see the music buttons, the display turns to landscape and the fun begins.
The display changes from the standard Nokia Active Standby front end (a Today-type screen in the Windows Mobile mold) to a slick interface giving access to several applications and features of the N95.
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Music Player: Just a standard music player. It is easily controllable by the slide-out buttons, or you can use the directional pad and other front-side buttons to control the music playing action.
Getting album art to work is a bit on the difficult side for someone who is not used to digging into the file system and moving things around, but it can be fixed.
The Music Player works well in the background while doing other applications, but because of the limited RAM of the N95 (less than 20 MB on startup), browsing or viewing a ton of photos and videos can stop the party relatively quickly.
SanDisk has noted on its web site that its 4 GB micro-SDHC card is compatable with this smartphone. While I haven’t been personally able to verify this on my N95, something from Nokia officially stating this would be advantageous to its billing of the N95 as a multimedia computer.
Gallery: One of the more pleasant user interfaces for a photo gallery that I have seen on a mobile device. The Gallery program lists all of the photos and videos that can be found in internal memory and on a memory card.
You have the option of viewing the small thumbnails, or clicking through each one individually. Only with the largest pictures was there any lag, and even then it was just two or three seconds.
Messaging: A bit of a can-do-everything kind of application. It handles SMS and MMS message, and can also be configured to grab your email from a POP or IMAP account.
The problem with this application isn’t the application (though threaded SMS would greatly help), it is the input methods. If you’re just doing a short text, T9 is great. It’s when you have the N95 syncing email that it becomes an issue that’s hard to overcome. Granted, I can’t see Nokia daring to add a QWERTY keyboard to the N95’s form factor, but if it did, this would be an ideal messaging device.
Personal Information Management: Contacts, calendar, and other PIM functions were handled by applications that are bundled with the Symbian OS and Nokia’s S60 user interface.. Despite my unfamiliarity with the Symbian OS, I found navigating through the phone book quite easy. Still, I did find myself wishing that I had a touchscreen so that I could get back and forth a bit easier on some of the menu and calendar items.
Nokia Web Browser: This is a fine bit of software here. Web sites rendered just fine unless I was using GPRS (for some reason using AT&T GPRS sent me through a proxy that made the images distorted).
Despite the N95 not supporting the U.S.’s version of UMTS/HSDPA, downloading apps, music and web pages were done quickly and without much lag.
About the only thing that I would wish were able to be adjusted is the option of viewing the handheld version of some sites. Some web sites that are mobile friendly are much more usable on the N95 than their desktop counterparts.
GPS: I had a bit of trouble with the GPS initially, but after a firmware update things seems to settle in. GPS was a cinch to setup and was generally quite accurate (within a block or so when in the middle of DC).
I liked that you could browse the maps that came with this smartphone, but if you wanted more features that you would have to subscribe to Smart2Go. This is a mapping service that provides you with some more maps and points of interest comparable to standalone GPS units.
Battery life did suffer when using the GPS, but then again, if I was not in a car, I did not find that I needed it any.
Is It Something More?
Nokia bills the N95 not as a phone or smartphone, but as a multimedia computer. So can it really replace your computer, or at least come through in a pinch? Here are a few of the other applications and features of the N95 that make for an interesting case:
- There is on-board video and picture editing software. No, not Photoshop good, but enough to make a quick movie and then upload it to a web site or home server.
- TV-Out is an option with the included A/V cable. It is the same 3.5 mm port that is used to house the stereo headphones, and gives excellent quality on a variety of TV and projectors. Essentially, you could use all of the features of the N95 on your home computer and never miss a beat in taking a call.
- The included QuickOffice office suite is not bad; but works well for editing non-complicated documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on the go. Upgrading to the latest version will cost some, but it offers better functionality.
- While input options are limited to T9 and multi-tap, pairing a Bluetooth keyboard is quite simple and only requires that you have the S60 3rd edition driver for the N95.
- The Symbian world does not boast the number of applications that the Windows Mobile and Garnet (Palm) OS worlds do, but there are sufficient applications to do everything from track your diet to be a personal media server.
- Speaking of media server, the N95 can use wireless LAN/UPnP to connect to some of the latest media devices in your home and then stream from the N95, or to the N95 and then also control those home devices.
With all of those features, you could gather that the N95 is possibly a really well designed smartphone. Well, it’s not really a smartphone. You see, smartphones are most definitely communicators first, and phones (and everything else second). The N95 is certainly a phone first, and everything else a close second.
That and its input issues raise a flag to anyone looking at the N95 to replace a BlackBerry or Treo. It could — and I think should — replace any other mobile though, and it will do so quite well.
As you can probably tell, the N95 packs a whole lot into one heck of a nice package. Nokia even ran a few Web ads talking about how the N95 helps you reclaim your pockets, and how people did computing back in the ‘old days.’
The N95 is truly a different kind of mobile device. One where there are literally no limits on how you can apply it. It does try to reach too far for some people, and yet, because it can, the N95 is a niche device of its own.
If the battery life were a touch better, and the user interface were a bit more refined, I could see this being an even better device than what it is now. But, even as it is, there is no under-stating the fact that the N95 is the best mobile device out there right now. Whether you want to call it a phone, smartphone, or multimedia computer, though, depends on how you will take advantage of its abilities.
The N95 can be purchased from mobile outlets such as the Nokia stores in Chicago and NYC, and online retailers such as Mobile Planet, where it goes for $750.
- Symbian OS 9 Feature Pack 3, S60 3rd edition
- WCDMA2100 (HSDPA), EGSM900, GSM850/1800/1900 MHz (EGPRS)
- Up to 160 MB internal dynamic memory for messages, ring tones, images, video clips, calendar notes, to-do list and applications
- Memory card slot supporting up to 2 GB microSD memory cards
- Nokia Battery (BL-5F) 950 mAH
- Speaker independent name dialing, Voice commands, Voice recorder, Integrated hands-free speaker
- T9 Predictive text input
- Up to 5 megapixel (2592 x 1944 pixels) camera, Carl Zeiss optics, Tessar lens, MPEG-4 VGA video capture of up to 30 fps
- Supported video formats: MPEG-4, H.264/AVC, H.263/3GPP, RealVideo 8/9/10
- Direct connection to compatible TV via Nokia Video Connectivity Cable (CA-75U, included in box) or wireless LAN/UPnP
- Front camera, CIF (352 x 288) sensor
- Integrated flash
- Digital stereo microphone
- Flash modes: on, off, automatic, redeye reduction
- Rotating gallery
- Online album/blog: photo/video uploading from gallery
- Nokia Lifeblog 2.0 support
- Video and still image editors
- Movie director for automated video production
- Digital music player
- supports MP3/AAC/AAC+/eAAC+/WMA/M4A with playlists and equalizer.
- Built-in GPS
- E-mail client with attachment support for images, videos, music and documents
- Nokia Web Browser with Mini map
- Java MIDP 2.0, CLDC 1.1 (Connected Limited Device Configuration (J2ME))
- Settings Wizard for easy configuration of e-mail, push to talk and video sharing.
- Data transfer application for transfer of PIM information from other compatible Nokia devices.
- WLAN wizard
- Integrated wireless LAN (802.11 b/g) and UPnP (Universal Plug and Play)
- Integrated Bluetooth wireless technology v.2.0 EDR
- USB 2.0 via Mini USB interface and mass storage class support to support drag and drop functionality
- 3.5 mm stereo headphone plug and TV out support (PAL/NTSC)
- Nokia PC Suite connectivity with USB, Infrared and Bluetooth wireless technology
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