The Nokia N96 is this company’s multimedia flagship smartphone. As its name suggests, it is the successor to the Nokia N95, and uses the same dual-slider design and includes many of the same features: Symbian S60, 3G, Wi-Fi, etc.
This is not a model that will probably catch the eyes of many in the U.S. these days. It doesn’t look as if there is much with it, but the N96 is a sleekly designed smartphone that offer some pleasant surprises… and some not so pleasant.
Inside this Review
The N96 is an evolution of the dual-slider design Nokia released with the N95 two years ago. However, compared to the initial N95, the N96 is not as thick, though it’s wider. The slider is more taut, and there are fewer gaps in the build.
This model has a 2.8-inch, QVGA screen. While not a touchscreen, it does offer striking color and a great balance between indoors viewing and outdoors needs.
The screen and buttons area can slide up to reveal the 12-key numeric keypad, or slide down to reveal the multimedia keys, which can double as game controllers with some N-Gage games.
Looking around the outside of this smartphone, the top has a 3.5 mm headset/TV-Out jack, and power and key-lock buttons. The left side is pretty bare with just the covered microSD card slot. The right side, on the other hand is fairly busy with stereo speakers on the top and bottom. the volume up/down buttons under the top speaker, and the camera button above the bottom speaker.
The rear of the N96 houses the Carl Zeiss and dual LED flash-equipped, 5 megapixel digital camera. The single-piece back panel covers the 950 mAh battery.
The bottom of the N96 has the microUSB connector and the Nokia charging port.
Other hardware features include:
- 16 GB of built-in internal memory
- microSDHC card slot supporting up to 16 GB microSDHC cards
- VGA video camera for video calling in supported markets
- Quad-band GSM, regional support for UMTS/HSDPA (the model I have supports European 3G, though there is a North American 3G supported version)
- Built-in GPS
- Wi-Fi 802.11b
- Bluetooth 2.0+EDR
- DVB-H digital TV tuner
Overall, the N96 contains more refined hardware features than its predecessor, and pushes the idea of a top-of-the-line smartphone into more of a multimedia computer. The only downsides are a smaller battery than some other recent Nokia devices and some hardware that’s unsupported in the U.S., such as the digital TV feature.
With all of this hardware in one’s pocket, it’s almost impossible to believe that the N96 doesn’t suffer any as a phone. This is largely because while the operating system is new, Symbian S60 Feature Pack 2 (version 3.2), the user interface mostly remains the same from Nokia mobiles of old.
Some of the new tricks picked up with Feature Pack 2 include better power management (hence the smaller battery) and better wireless management options. However, the normal Nokia phone UI still remains intact.
Features such as Call Log, Contacts, and switching profiles are easily accessible via hard buttons.
Voice quality is of the usually high Nokia standard. Accessing phone functions such as additional calls, speakerphone, and muting calls is handled easily when in a call. There’s not much to be learned in terms of how to use it because the user interface is so familiar to many users.
At the same time, this familiarity doesn’t seem to fit well with the device. The UI shows its age, no matter what themes are chosen.
The Active Standby screen houses seven shortcut icons, a calendar, search, and Share on Ovi widgets, and the Wi-Fi discovery utility.
Battery life for phone calls is tolerable. You can expect to get through 3 hours of calls pretty easily. However, at this stage of the software’s development, some on-screen interactions such as bringing up SMS messages seems to take longer than the 332 MHz processor would indicate.
Thankfully, a few firmware updates since I’ve received the N96 has made for some snappier performance for day-to-day usage. That being said, it would have done Nokia well to do more with the user interface and phone aspects.
Where usually I’d take the time to talk about PIM and multimedia separately, the N96 makes no such distinction. Its focus is on multimedia, though it offers the normal suite of organization tools that Nokia’s mobiles are known for.
As noted by Kevin in our preview of this device, the N96 is much more a multimedia computer with a phone attached. Looking at the what comes with the device, Wi-Fi, GPS, 16 GB of space, etc., there’s a lot to take advantage of.
Starting with the wireless connectivity options, there’s Wi-Fi. Using the new Destinations feature in Feature Pack 2, Wi-Fi becomes this automatic switching connectivity option. And while the Nokia SIP has been removed from Feature Pack 2, there’s still a number of VoIP clients that can step up and utilize the Wi-Fi connectivity for more communicative tasks.
Then there’s the very stable and versatile Bluetooth implementation. From dial-up-networking, to A2DP, to file transfers, things are pretty slick and easy to setup. The 2.0 implementation is as solid as any other Nokia devices. My Motorola Bluetooth headphones pair easily, and the sound is a bit clearer than what I get from the N95.
And let’s not forget about the cellular wireless aspect of things. The version that I have is the European model, and therefore the 3G (900/1900 MHz) are not usable here in the US. That being stated, EDGE speeds are a bit faster than what I’ve seen with other EDGE-only mobile devices. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s a U.S. version of this device; I just don’t have it.
The GPS is built in, and applications such as Nokia Maps 2.0 can easily take advantage of it. Lock times are fast outdoors when stationary, averaging about 10-30 secs for a lock. The GPS also takes advantage of A-GPS which makes locking to the satellites faster.
That 16 GB of built-in internal space comes in handy for storing maps. You can download tons of maps to that space, in addition to whatever else you can fit there. And unlike the N95 8 GB model, you actually get to take advantage of the USB 2.0 speeds offered by Feature Pack 2 and the micro USB connector. The microSDHC slot can take up to 16 GB memory cards and transfer at the same speeds as well, making the Nokia PC Suite software look really good for installing applications and multimedia.
Unfortunately, this is where the usable or efficient multimedia ends. The Music Player has not been changed from the previous Symbian OS version. Its really too difficult to add album art still. N-Gage is pretty cool, as are the included games with it. Some of the games are good with portrait or landscape, but the use of the multimedia buttons is iffy due to their stiffness.
Thankfully, the camera doesn’t disappoint. The 5 megapixel, Carl Zeiss-equipped camera has good color balance and quick shutter speed. The integration with the GPS for geo-tagging is pretty slick (when there is a GPS connection). Share on Ovi and Flickr also integrate well with the camera abilities. Given the amount of space on the camera though, it would seem like the N96 should be even more of a multimedia workstation.
The dual LED aspect to the camera seems to work best for video recording, as it gives a better and whiter light to those situations. Night pictures are not that bad, though not as good as the Xenon light that one gets with Nokia’s N82.
The main issue with the N96 has to do with the kernel of its marketing. While it is a very good multimedia device, the digital TV and video aspects are not as exploited as they could be. Sure, part of this has to do with the lack of DVB-H support in the U.S., the difficulty of viewing some sites like Hulu, and a general feeling that the N96 is too early for its time, but the multimedia focus just loses ground to the more polished mobiles out there right now.
That being said, there are some mobile video services that do fit the N96, and they bring to light just the capacity that Nokia probably had in mind when it came to the N96’s video abilities. One service that I tried was the Amazon Video on Demand (VOD) service. With this, you download a video to your PC with Amazon’s Unbox player, and then transfer it to your smartphone. With the video-accelerated graphics of the N96, playback was generally smooth. The only downsides were the inability to directly download videos over a Wi-Fi connection, and the loading speed of the Video Center application once more than a few videos were loaded on to the N96.
Much like the N95 that came out two years ago, the Nokia N96 presents a lot more than what many people will ever want in a mobile device. And at the same time, it represents where mobile devices are going. More than just a simple communications device, it’s a multimedia station and a digital landmark. The N96 just does a lot, and for many people, it might be too much.
It doesn’t help that many of its abilities need polish. From the questionable battery life, to the unpolished user interface, and several performance issues from earlier firmware versions, the N96 more stuttered than stormed out of the gate. As an $800 device, one could expect more, one should expect more.
It’s feature packed, very future proof, and frankly just amazing. However, the N96 leaves you wanting more than what it currently gives. Given Nokia’s history with other models, it might mean that the N96 is a diamond just waiting to be unearthed.