December 13, 2008

The British Gas saga continues...

On December 3rd I posted an article here describing the unhelpful way in which British Gas dealt with a complaint we made after their deceitful methods of trying to increase our so-called protected price plan by 131%.

It was agreed after our last call to them on November 29th that they would reimburse us the £31 over-payment made on the gas bills. We were told that the funds would be transferred to our bank within 5 working days. Even allowing for the slowness of the UK banking system, where a money transfer can take up to 5 working days to appear on the recipient's statement, we should have seen something appear by today and, needless to say, we've seen nothing appear.

So, as well as being incompetent, British Gas are economical with the truth. It seems fairly obvious that they have no intention of paying up.

Obviously, this blog entry will be updated if something does turn up.

Update: The £31.75 appeared on the bank account on Tuesday Dec. 23rd. So, they promised us around £160 on Nov. 13th and we got less than a quarter of that after six weeks and two calls to chase them up. How's that for efficiency…

December 06, 2008

Review of the Nokia N96

The Nokia N96 was launched in the UK early October 2008. Its specifications having already been made public, it was eagerly awaited by present and future customers of most of the UK's mobile networks. Conspicuous by its absence among those networks was O2, who decided not to sell the N96 because they had spent all their subsidy budget on the iPhone 3G.

I gave my first impressions of the N96 back in October, on the day after I took delivery of mine to be exact. Just over two months have elapsed since then so I'd like to give a more detailed write-up now.

To be fair to Nokia, I think the N96 is a great handset that has, however, suffered from a few bad decisions. Firstly, given the sheer amount of technology that's been packed into it, it's something that must have been a long time in the making. My impression is that someone at Nokia must have thought it was taking a bit too long, maybe, and people were encouraged to get it out the door sooner rather than later. This shows in some of the firmware bugs, which really shouldn't be in a production phone and which were certainly corrected in new firmware releases very shortly after the phone was let loose on the market. Since that release, there have already been two firmware updates and a third is expected any day now (Update: the new firmware was released on Dec. 8th, just 2 days after publishing this post). In short, I think the software was rushed out and consequently botched to a certain extent. At least it certanly wasn't tested thoroughly. The bugs I encountered were bugs that anyone who bought the phone for whatever feature in which the bugs appeared would have found.

Secondly, the aesthetics. A shiny, black phone looks good, there's no doubt about that. For about 30 seconds. The minute you touch it, it's the last time it'll look really good because it will collect fingerprints and face grease at an alarming rate. You can clean it if you want, and it'll look good again for another 30 seconds, but for no longer. Some kind of carrying case or pouch is a must for the N96. Without it, you'll get the phone dirty and/or scratched, which will seriously affect the retail value of the phone in the event that you decide to sell it on one day and get something else (I must say that the recently announced N97 looks tempting!). The choice of themes provided in the firmware is also utterly boring and monotonous, and themes designed for earlier phones running S60 3rd edition with or without Feature Pack 1 are not fully compatible with this S60 3rd ed. with FP2 device. The back cover and the D-pad seem a little "cheap" in their design for a phone in this price range (around £500) in that they tend to creak a lot in normal use. The slider mechanism in the N96 of a friend who obtained his at the same time as I did mine has worked much more loose than mine has. It really seems to be the luck of the draw as it is with virtually every other slidephone on the market. The phone is 103mm high by 55mm wide and 20mm thick at the thickest point, and weighs 125g. For the metric-challenged, that's 4.06"×2.17"×0.79" and 4.4oz. Some may think that's a little too large and heavy. I quite like the proportions in that you can't not have the thing in your pocket and not know it, and it isn't a significant weight to carry around. Furthermore, with the slider open while you're talking on the phone, the microphone is close enough to your mouth for people on the other end to hear you clearly without too much background noise.

Finally, the speed and autonomy. It's a trade-off between the two. Like the N95, the N96 has twin processors, but they are clocked slower than in the N95. The N95 has ARM-11 chips running at 330MHz while the N96 has ARM-9 chips running at the slower speed of 264MHz and no 3D accelerator chip for the graphics. It is reasonable to assume that the reason for this is in order to save power. One of the big problems with the N95 was its insatiable appetite for power and the comparatively small BL-5F battery it used. The N96 uses that same BL-5F battery with only 950mAh capacity, and yet it outruns the N95 easily thanks to the choice of processor. The downside to this is the fact that the whole user interface is far less "snappy" than on the N95 or on other similarly-powered devices such as the N82 for example. The N96 "feels" more like an N73 from that point of view. Unlike the N95 and N82, though, the N96 has hardware decoders for MPEG4 and WMV video.

So, the N96 is an otherwise great handset, which is let down by buggy firmware, unwise aesthetic choices and a slow user interface that's necessary to give the phone a semblance of autonomy.

The good news is that the firmware and power management are things that can be worked on after the product has been released. We saw exactly the same thing with the N95. Its firmware versions V10, V11 and V12 left much room for improvement. Then along came V20 and V21 and they increased the battery life of my N95-1 by some 30%. V30 was even better, and the recently released V31 has yet to prove itself (I only installed it a couple of says ago). The progress made by the N95's firmware gives me high hopes for the N96's future.

One good thing to say about the N96 and firmware updates is that this is one of the few handsets that's able to update itself without the need for a computer, using so-called "FOTA" (Firmware Over The Air). It connects via the Internet to Nokia's update servers and, if there are any updates, downloads them and applies them all on its own. You can download either using a wireless network or using your mobile network operator's packet data service (check with your operator for tariffs). The size of the update from V10.065 to V11.018 was about 3 megabytes of data. V11.018 to V11.101 was merely a few hundred kilobytes and V11.101 to V12.043 was about 2.5 megabytes. Also bear in mind that updates may not be available to you if you have an operator-branded phone.

Network sensitivity is pretty good. If available, the N96 will use HSDPA (High Speed Download Packet Access) at a theoritical maximum of 3.6 megabits/sec. HSUPA (High Speed Upload Packet Access) is not yet available on Nokia phones, which is a shame because many networks have now put in place the infrastructure. My own network (T-Mobile UK) rolled out HSUPA nationwide this Summer, with an uplink speed of up to 1.44 megabits/sec. That's faster than my cable Internet connection, and I'd definitely use it to upload large data files to the various servers I manage. If you live in an area where 3G coverage is patchy, it can drain the battery faster if the phone is constantly trying to re-acquire a 3G signal and switch back into UMTS mode. Therefore, if you use your phone mainly for calls and messaging, you might want to set the phone to work in GSM mode only. It'll save significant amounts of power.

Speaking of messaging, at first I thought I'd have great difficulty with the keypad because it is now flat. The keys are not domed like they are on most handsets. In actual fact, this doesn't matter in the least because you get used to the keys pretty quickly. For one thing, they're rather large because the N96 is quite a chunky, albeit well-proportioned, phone. There's enough width to spread the keys out. The backlighting is also reasonably bright but not too much. It won't dazzle you in the dark. Nor will the screen, for that matter, because there are light sensors hidden in the front plate that adjust the screen's backlight according to the level of ambient light. The more ambient light there is, the brighter the screen's backlight. Reduce the ambient light and the screen's backlight will dim and the keypad illumination be switched on.

Unlike the N95, where you have separate "new text message" and "new multimedia message" commands, both are grouped under "new message" on the N96. The messaging application will default to text message but switch automatically to multimedia message if you enter text into a subject header, if you attempt to include multimedia content, or (on firmware versions up to V11) if you attempt to send an identical SMS to 20 or more individual contacts. The pseudo-intelligent handling of the message type takes some getting used to but works out extremely useful in fact. The trick is to have the subject header displayed permanently (see in the options when writing a message) and leave it blank for a normal SMS. If you insert a photo, for example, then the N96 switches the message type to "multimedia" automatically. If your SMS is getting long (the N96 displays how many individual SMS messages will be sent for a long, multipart message) and it would work out cheaper for you to send it as an MMS, then all you have to do is enter something into the subject header and the phone will convert the message to a multimedia message this way too.

The N96 also has e-mail capability. It'll pick up mail using POP3 or IMAP4 and it can both send and receive using SSL. There is, however, one annoying bug with the e-mail application. Once you have entered the connection settings and told it which access point to use in order to connect to your mail servers, you cannot change that setting. If you want to use a different access point you have to delete the mailbox and re-create it with different settings. Update 08/12/2008: This bug is fixed in version 12.043 released via FOTA today.

Moving on to the media functions, the front of the supplied remote control is also flat, meaning that you don't always know exactly where to press in order to stop, start, pause playback, skip forwards or backwards, or take an incoming call. You have to stop and look at the remocon, while I think taking a call is something you should be able to do by feeling your way around it and without having to look at it.

Of course, the remocon's primary function is to allow you to plug earphones into the phone and listen to music or watch video footage, and in this area the N96 rates pretty high. In fact, the "killer" application on the N96 is, in my opinion, the BBC iPlayer (available only to UK residents), which allows you to access online, and download for local viewing in some instances, BBC TV and radio programmes from the previous 7 days. The N96 comes with 16 gigabytes of on-board memory for storing these programmes, and there's also a microSDHC slot on the left hand side of the phone. The 2.8" LCD screen is large, bright and sharp enough for comfortable viewing at arm's length and the default system font is displayed large enough to be easily readable yet not too large so that it looks awkward on-screen. This is an improvement on V30 firmware for the N95 and N82, in which Active Standby objects sometimes spilled over on to 2 lines. There is still room for improvement in the playback quality, though. Every 15 seconds or so the playback will stop for a fraction of a second and restart. Depending on what you're watching, it's barely perceptible. Sometimes, though, it sticks out like a sore thumb (FIXED in V12.0.043). Also, pausing a video in order to see how far through it you are can be enough to lock the phone up completely in a few rare cases leaving you with no choice other than to remove the battery in order to regain control. Hopefully, these issues will be resolved in future firmware releases.

There's a kickstand on the back of the N96. In the form of a ring around the camera lens, it swings out enabling you to stand the N96 inclined on a flat surface so that you can watch video content comfortably without having to hold the device all the time. It's very thoughtful but I have doubts about the kickstand's durability. Also, it cannot be adjusted, so if the angle doesn't really suit you then that's tough luck. You have to hold the phone anyway.

You definitely will want to use earphones for video footage and for music. The built-in speakers can't perform miracles. They're small and consequently give out no bass, precious little mid-range and mostly treble. This is to be expected.

The audio quality of the music player blew me away. There is no perceptible hiss during playback like there is on earlier phones like the N95 and, to a lesser extent, the 6280. There is no audible click when the sound switches off at the end of a track and when it switches on again to play the next track. The gap is still there, though. Nokia has not yet mastered gapless audio playback, which can be a little annoying when listening to live recordings and ambient music with transitions from one track to the next. Whichever type of music you want to listen to, you'll want to dump the earphones supplied with the N96 and use your own. I use earbuds from Creative that have soft rubber buds that fit inside the ear blocking out external noise pretty efficiently.

Also, the 3.5mm socket is on the top of the N96, like it is on the N82 and many other media-oriented Nokia handsets, instead of the left hand side like on the N95. This is a great improvement since it makes it possible to use the provided kickstand.

As with previous versions of the music player, the phone extracts the usual frames from ID3V2 tags embedded in MP3 files in order to sort your music tracks by artist, album and genre. Album art embedded in an APIC frame is also processed as long as its type ID is 3 (album front cover). How to ensure that the picture is embedded correctly depends on the software you're using to do this.

There are four media manipulation keys (back/rewind, skip/fast forward, stop and play/pause) around the D-pad. If you slide the slider downwards it reveals another four media keys, those around the D-pad are deactivated and the ones just revealed replace them. OK, it's handy having dedicated media keys on the front, except that they take up valuable space meaning that the remaining keys are a little cramped. The N95 used the D-pad to control the music player ands that was perfectly adequate, although it would only work from within the music player itself. When not in the music player you can always use the controls on the remote control or the dedicated media keys revealed by sliding the slider downwards. In short, the media keys around the D-pad are unnecessary and use up precious real-estate.

One annoying bug of the music player is that it forgets about the physiological corrector, aka "loudness" control, as soon as playback stops, including between two tracks. This function's purpose is to boost the bass and treble when the sound is at a low level in order to flesh it out. When playback stops, the correction is disengaged. If you change the volume level, it is engaged again. Another annoying bug is how, on very rare and unpredictable occasions, the sound will suddenly become garbled. Pausing and re-starting playback solves the problem, although it shouldn't occur in the first place.

Once all the music files present in the phone have been indexed, they can sometimes get in the way. For example, my music library currently contains 1462 tracks, and they will all be listed as choices if I decide to change the phone's ringtone! This means firstly that it takes a long time to populate the list of choices for the ringtone, and secondly that it can take a long time to scroll to the one you want to use. It would make things a lot easier if, instead of lumping all the tracks together, it first makes you choose between the phone's internal memory (C:), the mass storage (E:) and the memory card (F:) if one is installed. In fact, in earlier phones such as the N95 and the N82, if there were enough music files in the phone, it would prevent the list from being populated at all and you'd simply be given the opportunity to download ringtones. In this case, the work-around was to eject the memory card before attempting to change the ringtone. You'd think Nokia would have learned from that. This said, the default tones for the alarm clock, calendar reminder, etc. are pleasant enough and I've seen little point in changing them.

Still on the subject of media applications, one of the accessories provided with the N96 is a video cable, which connects to the same 3.5mm socket as the remote control. On the other end there are 3 RCA plugs (composite video and stereo audio), which plug into a TV or other AV device. The output resolution of the circuitry is VGA resolution, 640×480, which enables you to show off on a large screen videos and photos you've shot.

Another useful application that I use frequently is the Internet Radio. There are numerous radio stations preregistered with the application, stations playing back many different genres in various languages via shoutcast protocol (HTTP). Access to these stations is recommended using a wireless network connection. It'll work perfectly well using your network operator's packet data service but there can be frequent drop-outs since the network connection is not necessarily very solid, and you can rack up significant charges if you don't have an unlimited data plan.

The media applications provided with the N96 also include an FM radio (with RDS now, unlike FP1 and earlier phones), RealPlayer and Flash Lite.

The built-in camera can snap pictures at up to 5 megapixels (2592×1944 resolution), and video at VGA resolution and 30 frames per second. The phone does, however, lack a lens cover. Scratches on the lens window won't affect the quality of captured images that much, but smears and fingerprints definitely will. You will always want to have a clean cloth or paper handkerchief with you in order to make sure that the lens window is free of grease before shooting anything.

A bug in the firmware means that the gain on the microphone will be pushed far too high when the sound level is low, resulting in a very loud hiss being recorded. This is the case for the video recorder and for the sound clip recorder.

Location tagging of captured photos and videos is now natively embedded in the phone's firmware instead of a stand-alone add-on application. For those with FP1 and earlier phones, the stand-alone location tagger application is still available from betalabs. The built-in GPS seems pretty sensitive and accurate and acquires a fix sometimes within seconds of being fired up. An on-screen indicator in the camera application lets you know if the GPS has yet acquired a position. If it has, that position will be embedded in the media captured and can be used by media presentation sites such as share.ovi.com and flickr.com to place the media on a map at the location where it was shot. Location tagging can be deactivated easily if you're worried about privacy issues.

The multimedia menu present on the N95 has been replaced with a carousel regrouping the video centre, the photo album and a few other frequently used functions of the phone (music manager, Ngage games, Nokia Maps, Internet bookmarks, Contacts). The multimedia button on the front of the phone fires up this carousel, which is a time-saver, although I have to admit that the only elements of it that I use are the video centre and the photo album.

New media added to the video centre by connecting the phone to a computer in mass storage mode and copying it across, or by downloading it from the network (iPlayer, for example), doesn't show up in the video centre for several seconds. This can be a little confusing and the phone can become a little unstable and sluggish while the indexing process is under way. Also, the photo album takes quite a while (up to several minutes) to location-tag captured images and videos.

The wireless network adapter seems to be less sensitive than in earlier models and there have been several problems reported demonstrating incompatibility with Netgear wireless routers supplied (and branded) by Sky Broadband. For my part, I have a Netgear WG602v4 wireless access point and I do sometimes have difficulty connecting to it if I'm too close or if I'm upstairs in my bedroom (connection is much easier since the firmware V12.043 update). I never had any such difficulties with my N95.

Bluetooth seems to be a little odd on the N96, too. Even though my software for sending data to the phone by bluetooth has a record of the N96 and its BD address, the phone has to be set as "visible to all" for any transfer to work. The 6280, N73, N95 and a Motorola RAZR V3 phone all accept bluetooth file transfers even if set to be "hidden".

Speaking of bluetooth, I used the "switch" application to transfer my data from the N95 to the N96 over a bluetooth connection. The operation was not entirely successful. While my calendar events were transferred entirely, the same cannot be said about contacts. First of all, the contact groups were not transferred, so I had to define them and populate them manually. Secondly, defaults for each contact were not transferred either (contacts can have several numbers and e-mail addresses, and you can define which ones to use as the default for a phone call, which one to use as the default for a text message etc.). Not only were the defaults lost – imagine what it must be like for someone with several hundred contacts in their contact list – but it was impossible to set them again. If you opened a contact for editing and attempted to set defaults, the contacts application would crash and you'd be sent back to the phone's standby screen. There is a work-around for this. You have to export all your contacts to the mass memory or to the memory card, select them all from within the contacts application, delete them and re-import them from the location where you exported them. While this works, you shouldn't have to do it. I only discovered it by trial and error.

According to the changelog, there's a new, improved "Switch" application in V12.043 firmware. Hopefully this will solve some of the problems I encountered.

One thing I did notice about bluetooth is the stability of the connection with a wireless earpiece. All my previous Nokia phones would have great difficulties maintaining a connection with a bluetooth earpiece for more than about 90 seconds unless I was able to place a call within that time frame, in which case the connection would remain stable. The N96 has no difficulty keeping that connection rock-solid right from the beginning.

The N96 comes with a selection of Ngage games for you to try out. You can then choose which one you like best and you get a free license to use it. The infrastructure needed to play Ngage games is already installed in the phone's memory, which makes playing the games that much easier. The downside to this is the amount of space used up on the phone's C: drive. One of the first things I did was to remove everything to do with Ngage and it got me an extra 15 megabytes of space or thereabouts. Even so, I still only have about 55 megabytes free space, and that's with only one third-party theme installed and very little extra software. It's always a good idea to install themes and software into the phone's memory (C: drive) rather than the mass memory (E: drive) despite the much greater space of the latter because of the speed at which the phone can access them. The same applies to ringtones. If the phone cannot read in and start playing back the ringtone within a set time, it reverts to the standard "Nokia Tune" ringtone. In order to avoid this, your ringtone should be short (preferably under a megabyte in size) and stored in the phone's C: drive.

The last niggle I'd mention with this phone is really a minor niggle and is more the responsibility of Symbian than of Nokia since it concerns a design choice that was made before Symbian was wholly owned by Nokia. In most applications, the last entry in the "Options" menu is "Exit". It was very easy to exit applications simply by pressing the "Options" key, scrolling up once and selecting "Exit". You could do it without even looking at what you were doing. With the advent of Feature Pack 2, scrolling up once highlights the "Show open apps." option, so you have to scroll up a second time to reach "Exit". The "Show open apps." option is unnecessary because you can access the same function quicker by pressing and holding the menu key just like on S60.3 FP1 and earlier phones.

A great improvement of FP2 over earlier versions is what's known as "Network destinations", which are accessible from the connection settings. With previous systems, you either had to set network-aware applications to ask you which network access point to use each time they needed the network, or you had to define a default access point for them to use each time. So, assuming you have a wireless network at home, you'd tell the Internet telephony application to use that in order to make free calls. But what if you leave the house? Your own wireless access point is no longer available and the Internet telephony application becomes useless all of a sudden because it can't connect to the Internet. So, you can always change its settings and tell it to use the free hotspot available at your local shopping centre or your mobile network operator's packet data service, but you also have to remember to switch it back when you get back home. There's plenty of scope for error there! Network destinations solve the problem elegantly. Your access points are grouped under headings called "Destinations", such as "Internet" and "Multimedia messaging", and each destination can have multiple access points defined. Each one is assigned a priority. If the access point with the highest priority (your home WLAN for example) is not available, it tries to use the next one on the list (free hotspot at the shopping centre), and if that isn't available then it tries to use the next (packet data), and so on.

Most mobile phones nowadays have what's generally known as "profiles", which are groups of settings concerning ringtones, volume level, keypad tones, vibrator, message alert tones etc. Different groups of settings can all be applied en masse simply by switching profiles. Thus, I have a profile I call "Night" in which the ringtone is toned down, no alert is given for inbound messages and only certain groups of callers will actually make the phone ring in the first place. One feature from earlier S40 phones that was missing in S60 until the 3rd edition with FP2 is the concept of a "timed profile". You could switch from one profile to another easily enough but you had to remember to switch back afterwards. With the timed profile, you can set it to revert to your current profile at a given time. So, when I go to bed, I set up the "Night" profile so that it reverts to "General" at 9am. I no longer end up missing customers' calls by forgetting to switch the "night" profile off in the morning!

Another feature of the N96 that I find very useful is the "breather". In order to save energy, the N96's display switches off altogether after a set time, which can in fact be only a few seconds if the "energy saver" is engaged as happens automatically if the battery gauge drops to a single bar. A consequence of this is that you no longer know if you have any new messages or missed calls without waking the phone up and wasting more energy. There's a light around the D-pad that glows every 10 seconds or so to let you know that the phone is still switched on and connected to a network. If there are any events that require your attention, the breather glows twice instead of just once. It's only a small LED that's glowing here, and it's only glowing for a second or so every 10 seconds, so only 10% of the time, and even then not always at full power. It uses up hardly any energy, certainly less than keeping the LCD screen switched on otherwise it would somewhat defeat its own purpose.

Transferring data to the phone via USB is faster than it used to be on earlier models. The transfer would max out at around 1 megabyte/sec on the N95, while I've clocked the N96 at nearer 4 megabytes/sec.

The modem facility works as advertised. Connect the N96 in "PC Suite" mode to a USB port and you'll have, among other things, a standard ACM modem. Set it to dial the number "*99#" and use the login and password as provided by your mobile network operator, and you can use their packet data service to surf the Internet on your computer. Check with your operator regarding tariffs and exactly what you can and can't do with this service. Terms and conditions vary from one operator to another, but one thing you're advised to do is take out an unlimited data plan. Also pay attention when using this service abroad. Roaming data charges can be horrendously expensive and are not usually covered by your data plan.

In no particular order, these are the main criticisms that people have made of the N96:

It's slow and unstable
To start with, it's true. However, once the N96 has been used for a while it's had time to index all the multimedia content in its memory and it no longer needs to process it in the background. All the computing power of the device then becomes available to you again. Give it time. Also, you can improve things by deactivating unnecessary gizmos such as theme effects and menu transitions, and make sure you've not left applications running that don't need to run (contacts list, log, music player etc.)

It has no battery life
This is a major problem with a device of the complexity of the N96. A lot of power can be saved by optimising software, and indeed the update from V10 to V11 did prolong the battery life in mine. If I listen to music and/or watch some video when I go to bed, send some text messages and talk for maybe 20-30 minutes during the day, I can expect to have to recharge the battery every 36 hours. I would have had to recharge every day using the N95 in the same way, so at least some progress has been made. It is still a shame that Nokia decided to use the same BL-5F battery as in the N95-1 instead of opting for the BL-6F used in the N95-2 with its 1200mAh capacity. It would have made a big difference and not made the phone that much thicker.

It freezes when opening messages
This bug was corrected in firmware version 11.018. Update if you can.

I can't hear it when it rings!
There's a feature called "3-D ringtones" in the N96. It alters the sound of ringtones to make it sound like the source of the sound is moving around, presumably to catch your attention better. Except that there was a bug in firmware V10.065, which basically made the ringtone inaudible when the 3-D effects were switched on. This was corrected with firmware V11.018.

It's always that default Nokia tune that goes off!
As mentioned earlier, the ringtone has to be short and stored in the phone's memory rather than in the mass memory or on the memory card for best results. It works every time.

Video ringtones don't work!
Well... err... maybe. I prefer to answer the phone when it rings rather than to watch it play back a video. This really is a non-problem. Grow up.

The Internet telephone has disappeared!
True. The SIP stack is still there in the phone and I can, for example, set up a profile that connects and registers to the Asterisk server I have here. However, it is useless because there's no front-end application that uses the API to place or receive calls. There are some third-party applications but they all use their own protocols instead of the built-in SIP stack and tunnel the communications through vendor-specific servers. Nokia has since released a small "VoIP Settings" application which restores functionality to a select few S60.3 FP2 phones such as the N85 and the N79. The N96 is not among the lucky few, so I think it's safe to say that there will never be a real SIP client for this phone, which is a crying shame.

One feature of the phone I've not mentioned until now is the DVB-H receiver. Mainly because it is totally useless here in the UK since nobody is broadcasting DVB-H and most likely won't be doing so until the switchover from analogue to digital TV is complete. That won't be until 2012 sometime. When we do start receiving DVB-H transmissions, the N96 will be able to act as a kind of digital VCR and record TV programmes as they're being broadcast. Whether or not we'll be able to view them via the TV-Out circuitry is another matter if DRM gets in the way. It is impossible to view in this manner, for example, TV programmes downloaded by the iPlayer.

In conclusion, I do think that the N96 is a great phone. I enjoy using mine and see plenty of potential. It was, however, released too early and without sufficient testing, which has annoyed many early adopters. The silver lining to this cloud is the fact that most of the problems encountered are software-related and can therefore be put right in time, even if many are problems that should never have escaped the testing labs in the first place.

If I were granted three wishes for this phone by the Nokia genie (God knows I rub the phone enough to clean it so a genie should appear from somewhere, right?), they would be:

1) Get SIP working. Putting in only half the stuff needed when there's nothing available to complement it and actually make SIP telephony functional is a waste of time and memory space.

2) (WISH GRANTED!) Fix the bug that makes it impossible to change the access point used by a mailbox without deleting that mailbox (and all the mail it contains) and re-creating it.

3) This would be hard to ask in fact because there are many trivial things I can think of, none of which really stands out as particularly important like the first two wishes. If pushed I think I would ask for more varied themes to be provided in the firmware instead of or as well as the boring ones already there. Granted, there are thousands of themes all over the Internet, but very few of them are designed for FP2 and are therefore not fully compatible.

If I now had to give the N96 marks out of 10, I'd give it two different marks. Firstly, based on the current state of the handset with its numerous bugs and stability issues, I'd have to award only 6 out of 10. Secondly, based on the phone's potential, once Nokia have ironed out the bugs and if they finish what they started with VoIP, I'd award 8.5 out of 10. The phone loses 1.5 points because of the creaky fingerprint magnet of a case, the absence of a lens cover and the general slowness, which can't be corrected in software.

Update 08/12/2008: The bug preventing you from changing the access point associated with mailbox connectivity is fixed in V12.043 firmware. The phone is also able to connect much faster to the wireless network than before. In the light of these fixes and the greatly improved stability of video playback, the marks I'd give the N96 are now 7.5 and 8.5 out of 10 for its current and potential state. As soon as Nokia fix the VoIP issue, this will truly be a great phone.

Photos © Copyright Nokia. Available from the Nokia press site.

December 03, 2008

The British Gas saga

How do they get away with this? It is simply daylight robbery and the Energy Ombudsman is completely and utterly toothless.

It started in August 2008. British Gas must have spent a huge amount of money (at least we know where they're getting it from) on a massive publicity campaign, both on the television and in leaflets through letterboxes, urging customers to sign up to the "Price Protect 2011" tariff. The principle of this tariff is certainly attractive: no matter what happens to the cost of energy, your energy bills won't go up until 2011.

Sounds good, right?

We were already on the "Price Protect 2009" tariff and there was nothing to indicate that the "2011" scheme was anything other than an extension of what we already had, so we called British Gas and signed up for this new thing. A few days later we received confirmation through the post that we were now on the "2011" scheme. So far, so good.

Late September we received another letter stating coolly that our monthly payments for electricity would be going up from £29 to £67. That's a 131% price hike! Where's the "Price Protection" in that? We called British Gas to complain, saying that we simply couldn't afford that kind of price increase, that some kind of solution had to be found and that we were looking forward to a proposal through the mail. British Gas "justified" the increase in terms of an increased tariff (wasn't ours protected until 2009?) and an adjustment due to the fact that we were in fact around £50 in debit for the whole year...

Needless to say, no proposal was forthcoming so we complained to the Energy Ombudsman and copied the complaint to British Gas. The Energy Ombudsman sat heroically on the fence saying that this was a commercial issue that should be resolved directly by the complainant and the energy supplier. What use is an ombudsman that directs complainants back to the organisation against which they're complaining?

In early November, however, British Gas responded by placing us back on the "2009" tariff as a "commercial gesture". That's fair enough. We couldn't complain about that. On November 10th they sent us revised statements of account taking into account the old, lower tariff, and it emerged that we were about £160 in credit. Really needing that money to go towards a new fridge/freezer, microwave oven and washing machine, we asked for a refund around November 13th, as soon as we received the new statements of account, and were told that the refund would be effected within 7 to 10 working days.

On November 30th, seeing that nothing was coming through from British Gas, we called again and were told this time that no refund would be possible without providing a meter reading. We gave electricity and gas readings there and then, and now British Gas is singing a completely different song. We're now about £6 in debit on the electricity and only £31 in credit on the gas. What was a £160 credit has turned into a £25 credit. Why was this?

The statements of account we received on November 13th took into account payments made until November 5th but only meter readings until September 5th. Why were we not asked for meter readings when asking for the refund that day? Furthermore, why were we left in the dark that no refund was forthcoming after all? Had we not called again a few days ago we would never have known that British Gas was holding back.

The whole thing has been badly dealt with by British Gas.

More about these "Price Protect" schemes, though. In actual fact, what they do is project what the cost of energy will be at the end of the protection period and start charging those rates throughout. In other words, they're not worth it. You are conned into a false sense of security, thinking that you're going to save money if prices go through the roof, yet you're paying over the odds every month.

Meanwhile, American-owned (which probably explains a few things) Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, is posting record profits of around £900m. This conjures up images of some fat cat in a cozy office sucking on a cigar with his feet up on the desk, watching reports of people dying of cold because they can't afford to heat their houses, and not realizing that his opulent lifestyle is ultimately responsible for their demise.

October 02, 2008

First impressions of the Nokia N96

Late Summer 2008 I was lucky enough to secure a Nokia N96 smartphone. That particular model hadn't been officially released in the UK by then so I had to wait to take delivery of it. It was sent straight from Finland on September 30th and I signed for it yesterday just after midday.

The purpose of this blog entry is just to give my first impressions of the N96 as a seasoned N95 user. I won't be giving a detailed write-up here just yet, I'll wait for a few months until I'm well and truly used to this phone like I did for my review of the N95.

If you look at the Nokia Support Discussions forum you'll see quite a bit of negative feedback about the N96. First of all, let's put this into context. While there may be some valid causes for complaint, let's also bear in mind that the NSD forum is usually the first place people go to find a solution for a problem they're experiencing, which means that 99% of the people in that forum are grumbling about something or have a real problem. As such, you're not going to find many positive reviews of anything.

Secondly, people tend to forget what goes on inside a phone of such complexity as the N96 when it's used for the first time. The perceived instability and sluggishness that many have complained about are only temporary.

Thirdly, maybe people are simply expecting too much. I've seen reviews saying that people are better off sticking with their N95 8GB rather than splashing out £500+ on an N96. Hellooooo... To put it simply, the N95 8GB is already a high-end smartphone worth in the region of £400. By spending £500 on an N96 do you really think you're going to get £500 worth of improvement? No, you're going to get £100 worth of improvement.

Right, so let's move on to what I first thought of this phone. As I usually do I'm going to break things down into those that I liked and those that I didn't like.

Starting off with those that I didn't like... As many have rightly pointed out, the N96 is a fingerprint magnet. Both front and back. At least it's easy enough to clean being so smooth, but if, like me, you have greasy skin anyway, you're going to deposit a load of grease on the screen each time you bring the phone to your face. Invest in a soft, dry cloth similar to what you use on your glasses. Remember that the N96's front is plastic, so keep solvents well away from it.

Unlike the original N95, there's no retractable lens cover, just a plastic window. A scratched lens window won't actually affect the quality of pictures you take that much but it certainly will affect the retail value of the N96 if you decide to sell it on later and get a better phone when Nokia releases one. Unless you're meticulously careful about how you handle the phone and what else is in your pocket, briefcase or handbag with it, you should invest in a pouch of some kind or a carrying sock in order to protect the bodywork and lens window from scratches. You also have to remember to wipe the lens window clean whenever you want to use the camera. While holding the phone naturally, your forefinger is right over the window and covering it in grease.

With the media keys on the front of the phone around the D-pad, that area has become a little crowded. You have to be careful not to press the wrong key when navigating around menus, web pages etc.

The main keypad that's revealed when you slide the phone open upwards (it's a dual slider, so you can slide it downwards as well to reveal a set of media keys) is flat. The lack of tactile feedback will definitely seem strange. The same applies to the keys on the front. You won't be able to feel your way around the keypad any more.

I found a firmware bug related to the menu display. If you opt to have the menus displayed in "horseshoe" format you can't get rid of it later. You can go back into the menu and select "grid" for example, and the menu will reflect that choice if you go back in afterwards, but the menus themselves are still displayed in horseshoe format. The only way I found to revert to normal grid format was to issue a "revert to factory default settings" command (*#7780#). This may be corrected with a firmware update. One has already been released but not yet for the particular product code I have (N96-1 Nordic version, PC 0573582).

The last "bad" thing about this is only a minor nitpick that is in fact easily corrected with third-party themes. There are three themes provided on the N96. All of them have the same black and gray background with geometric shapes, much like the N95 8GB. There's no real variation like there is with the themes provided on the N95.

I've seen quite a few complaints about the phone being sluggish and unstable. This state is only temporary and only occurs when the phone is in its pristine factory state. There's a lot of preinstalled content on the phone, videos mainly, but a few video ringtones, a bit of music and some photos too. All of this has to be indexed by the various applications that manage it, and this eats up CPU cycles leaving less of them available for whatever you're trying to do. This results in the user interface appearing unresponsive from time to time, video playback jittering or the whole phone freezing up entirely in some cases. Don't worry about it. Just let the phone do what it has to do and after a while, once all the data is indexed, things will settle down again. Remember, if you transfer media of your own to the phone, this will have to be indexed too, so expect a little activity for a few minutes after you enter the application that manages the media you uploaded. Photos and videos taken by the phone's built-in camera are indexed as and when they're taken so there's no real impact on the phone's performance in this instance.

I'll reserve judgement about the battery until mine has been though a few complete charge/discharge cycles and reached its optimal capacity. Some say it was a mistake to use the same BL-5F battery as in the N95, which is a bit of a gas-guzzler of the phone world, while others say that optimizations made to the N96 make it far more energy-efficient in the first place.

Now for the things I liked...

Firstly, the feel of the phone. Even if a plastic cover might seem a little cheap and tacky for a phone in this price range, the metallic frame and slide mechanism easily make up for it giving the phone that reassuring, "chunky" feel, yet keeping it light enough not to make it uncomfortable. The slide mechanism itself is smooth and quite firm.

The screen seems huge. At 2.8" it is only 0.2" larger than the screen of the N95 I've been using since January. It makes a bigger difference than you'd think. It's a bit like back in the old days of computing when a 14" screen was pretty much the standard. Those who were lucky enough to be able to upgrade to a 15" screen saw a huge difference in size. Going from a 2.6" screen to 2.8" is a comparable increase in proportions.

While the main keypad is flat, it is also significantly larger than that of the N95, the action is similar and the inscriptions are larger and clearer. I had no real difficulty getting used to the N96's keypad after exchanging a few texts with a fellow N96 owner who lives nearby and, in fact, quite like it. I did think that the white backlight wouldn't be as pleasant as the blue backlight of the N95 but it is sufficiently toned down to make the key inscriptions perfectly legible without dazzling you in the dark. I do have to slow down a little, though. I've noticed that some keystrokes are happening maybe too fast for the N96 to pick them up so you have to be careful if you're a confirmed txter.

Once the phone has settled down and finished indexing its content, the user interface seems fairly snappy to me. You just need to turn off theme effects which, in my opinion anyway, are a bit of a waste of CPU cycles on something that should be functional rather than aesthetic.

I was able to connect my laptop to the Internet using the N96 as a modem with absolutely no need to change anything in my existing software setup.

Transferring my content from the N95 to the N96 over a Bluetooth connection was almost painless using the built-in "Switch" application. I was able to transfer my calendar entries, contacts and messages, but not my Internet bookmarks. There were no user files in the phone's memory, everything was on the memory card. Of course, one big advantage of the N96 over the N95 8GB is, as well as 16 gigabytes of on-board memory, there's also a slot for a microSD card (SDHC-compatible), so I was able to insert my 8 GB card and simply copy its contents into the N96's on-board memory and re-use the memory card in the N95.

One thing that delighted me was the return of the "timed profile", a feature from older S40 phones that was hitherto missing in S60 (although maybe present in other S60v3 FP2 phones such as the N78 or 6220). For the uninformed, "profiles" are just sets of settings such as ringtone, volume, message warning tone and the like that can be installed all together for different situations such as normal use, silent (if you don't want to be disturbed), outside (louder so you can hear it above the traffic), in-car etc. I also have a user-defined profile that I called "Night" in which message warning tones are switched off, the ringtone volume is lower and the phone only rings for certain groups of callers. The "timed profile" feature allows you to switch from your current profile to another and revert to the original profile automatically at a set time. This is particularly useful for me because I can switch to "Night" profile when I go to bed and have it revert to normal profile automatically in the morning. I have missed clients' phone calls in the past by forgetting to set the N95's profile back to "General" in the morning and thus filtering them out.

The music player on the N96 is essentially the same as on the N95, so I can use it easily enough. The big difference with this newer phone is the sound quality. While the N95 sounds fine once the music is loud enough, there's an awful lot of background hiss that is perfectly audible with quiet music. Also, there's an audible click when the player stops playing one track, a silent pause, and then another click and more hiss when it starts playing back the next track. There is no perceptible hiss with the N96, which is a very welcome change. There are no clicks while the player moves on to the next track either, but the pause between tracks is still there.

The kickstand is a nice touch. In the form of a ring around the camera lens, it swings out and provides a stand to prop the phone up so you can watch video content without actually having to hold the phone all the time. A brilliant idea on the face of it. I don't know how durable it'll be, though.

So, these are just my first impressions. As mentioned earlier, I'll do a more in-depth review once I'm more used to the phone.


Photo above (c) Nokia, available from Nokia's Press site

August 20, 2008

We're none of us getting any younger

Back in 1984, when I was still going to school, my parents noticed that I sometimes ended up holding text books a bit close to my face and wondered if I needed glasses. So, I was bundled off to an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed me with a mild astigmatism. An astigmatism is a disorder of the eye whereby the image formed on the retina is "squashed" and a ghost image also appears. This "double" image appears in the same axis as the "squashing", and it makes focussing difficult.

I did use my glasses for a while in school. The whole point of them was, of course, to make it less tiring to look at books all day long and I think they did achieve that goal. However, the astigmatism was mild enough for me to be able to live more or less normally anyway without them. In hindsight this was probably a mistake. Then again, find me a 16 or 17-year-old who doesn't make mistakes...

Fast-forward to early 2007. I'd been working with computers and therefore squinting at computer screens, some of better quality than others, for the past 18 years. Of course my eyes had taken a beating over the years, especially as I hadn't really been taking care of them properly by using my glasses. The inevitable happened and it became clear that correction was going to be needed.

The only problem is that the whole eye-care thing in France is a closed market. Opticians cannot prescribe corrective lenses, so you have to go to an ophthalmologist. You have to make an appointment up to 3 or 4 months in advance and you end up paying this specialised medical practitioner a fee comparable to the price of a pair of glasses in the UK. It's expensive because many people have top-up health insurance, which will foot the bill. Once you have the prescription you go to an optician to have your glasses made. You then pay a high price for the frames and lenses. All in all, the consultation with the ophthalmologist and the glasses from the optician can cost the equivalent of several hundred pounds, and that's just for plain, monofocal lenses. Bifocal, varifocal, photochromic, coated and polarized lenses cost a load more.

Paying that kind of money wasn't really an option, so my only choice was basically to carry on working while I could or until I had a lucky break and was finally able to afford glasses.

The lucky break came in late 2007, when I finally moved back to the UK. The removal and trying to get my business (I'm self-employed) back off the ground kept me extremely busy for a while and, since I could still see relatively well at least with my left eye, the glasses had to be put on the back burner.

Fast-forward now to August 2008. I have a bit of money in my pocket from a web site commission so I called Specsavers in Bolton and made an appointment for an eye test. I went in in the morning of Monday 11th. The eye tests take place on the first floor, and I was seen dead on time (you try seeing an ophthalmologist in France less than an hour late) by a young girl who performed a few preliminary tests, asked a few questions and photographed my retinas. A few minutes after that was done I was taken into a cubicle for the eye test proper. Within 15 minutes the exact nature of the correction needed in each eye was established and I walked out of there with a prescription and went downstairs to choose the frames I wanted. In the end I went for a pair at £75 and, as luck would have it, there was (and still is) a special offer on whereby you get the "reactions" option (photochromic lenses) free on specs at £75 or above. It's another £49 otherwise… I had had my eyes tested, got the prescription, chosen my frames, placed the order and paid my £92 (£75 for the specs and £17 for the eye test) all within ¾ of an hour and was told that the specs would be ready for collection the following Monday (18th) with the possibility that they'd be ready before then.

Anxious to have the specs and get used to them as soon as possible, I called on Friday afternoon (15th) on the off-chance that they'd be ready by then and I was in luck! So, I trundled off back to Bolton, a 25-minute bus ride, and went to have the specs fitted. My first reaction was, wow! The effect on my left eye was immediate and very positive. I'd forgotten how it felt to see that clearly! The right eye is a different matter since the correction required is greater, but I decided to leave it a few days before asking if it was right.

Yesterday morning, I decided to go back just in case there was something wrong with the right lens because vision was still rather blurred and the ghost image was now on the opposite side of the main image to where it used to be. I was wondering if there was maybe too much correction. I was seen shortly by a lady who checked the specs to ensure that they were indeed as per the prescription, which they were. She then took a look at the prescription itself and explained that a lens of the strength needed for my right eye (which is now rather severely astigmatic and short-sighted to boot) can easily take up to 2 weeks to get used to. I was obviously thrown for a loop by the immediacy of the effect in the other eye and thought that it would be quicker than that.

36 hours after seeing the optician again I have to agree with what I was told. The acid test for me is looking at the TV screen and at this laptop's screen. I can see a definite improvement even since Sunday evening and expect to be well and truly used to these specs by the end of this week. All I have to get used to now is the things steaming up whenever I have a cup of coffee or do any cooking!

July 20, 2008

Six months with a Nokia N95

Six months ago, when I decided that I was pretty much settled back over here, I took out a mobile phone contract with a UK operator. I do use mobile communications quite intensively and a contract does work out much cheaper than "pay as you go" for someone with a usage pattern like mine, so it made sense. I looked at the contracts sold by the various operators and acquired PAYG SIM cards in order to test out their network coverage in the places I frequent. I ended up plumping for T-Mobile's "flext 30" deal with, you guessed it, a Nokia N95.

Basically, for £25/month, I get a monthly allowance giving me up to 450 minutes of calls to UK land lines and mobiles, up to 900 text messages or up to 450 picture messages, or any combination of part of the three. To that, I added £7.50/month for T-Mobile's "web'n'walk" data plan, which allows me unlimited Internet access on the phone. Well, not quite unlimited, but as near as dammit for most users. You can't use it for VoIP communications, nor can you use it as a modem for your computer, and there's a 1 gigabyte cap on the amount of data you can use. But anyway, "flext 30 + web'n'walk" is what fitted best my needs, so that's what I went for, and my shiny new N95 (which didn't cost me anything up-front in fact, but I will be paying subscription fees until June 2009 at least) arrived through the post in the first days of January 2008.

The best way to go about this write-up is, I think, to go through the phone's features, splitting them into things I liked and things I didn't like. I'll start with those I didn't like.

The N95 (or N95-1 to give it its full name) is a device running Symbian S60 3rd edition with Feature Pack 1. This is a considerable improvement in many areas over the older, but arguably easier to use Nokia OS S40 present on lower-end phones, but there are, however, a few areas where S40 was more useful than S60. A few I can think of right off the bat are the message counter, contacts management, a "recently used" journal for messaging and the way the media player handles playlists.

Some contracts allow you 'x' number of free text messages in the month. A very useful way of keeping tabs on this in S40 phones was the message counter, which would (as its name suggests) count the number of SMS and MMS messages sent and received since the counter was last reset. Furthermore, multipart SMS messages are accounted for so you knew exactly what was going to end up on your bill. This very useful feature is no longer on S60 phones but can be reproduced using third party software.

Contacts are managed differently. In the early days of GSM mobile phones, it was common practice to store your contacts on your SIM card. Indeed, at the time, one of the selling points of mobile network operators was how many contacts they'd let you store on your SIM. I think the first one I had back in 1997 or thereabouts had enough memory for about 25 contacts... SIM cards have since evolved and most allow storage of at least 200 contacts now, but that is still not enough for some people. The phones themselves now store contacts in their own considerably more capacious memory and with far greater detail than is possible in a SIM card memory slot. It is now possible to store more than one number for a contact, one or more e-mail addresses, a picture that is displayed on the screen when that contact calls you etc. Older S40 phones allowed the user to have the contacts stored in the phone's memory and/or those on the SIM card displayed in the contacts list. Newer S60 phones only allow those in the phone's memory to be readily available and if you want to use those on the SIM card you have to go through a bit of extra gymnastics. It is not possible, for example, to write an SMS and have it sent to the number of a contact on the SIM - by that I mean you can't search for the number in the SIM contacts but you can always enter it manually if you know it by heart. Of course, you can always copy contact details between the phone memory and the SIM but there's nothing new in that, it's been possible since phones could store contacts in their own memory.

According to a friend currently trialling an N78, this oversight has been corrected in more recent phones running S60 3rd edition with Feature Pack 2.

Storing people's birthdays is another thing that has regressed in S60. The S40 calendar application allowed the user to store birthday reminders along with the year the person you want to be reminded about was born. When the time comes, you get a reminder which, based on the current date and the year of birth of the person, includes that person's age. The workaround in S60 is to create an anniversary containing the person's name and year of birth, and you work out their age yourself. OK, it's not a feature of crucial importance, but it is useful all the same.

Another useful feature in S40 phones was the "recently used" list. If you send SMS messages to a handful of people regularly, there's no need to look them up in your contacts each time you send them a message - the number is added automatically to your "recently used" journal whenever you send a message so that you can retrieve it from there easily next time you want to send one. This feature is absent from S60 phones, more's the pity.

The music player in my old 6280 (an S40 phone) was far more flexible than the one in the N95. For starters, I had encoded most of my CD collection to the Apple M4A format usually used in iTunes (MPEG4 AAC audio in an MP4 container) and I could simply stuff an album onto the memory card in the form of a directory containing one file per track. I would then fire up the music player and simply tell it to play back the contents of that directory on the memory card. This no longer works because the S60 music player cannot be pointed to any given directory on the memory card and it doesn't seem to have the required codecs to play back my M4A files. Instead, you have to embed id3v2 tags in MP3 files, which are then indexed and sorted by artist, album, genre etc. when you "refresh" the music library, and you then tell it to play back whatever album by whatever band. So, not only did I have to transcode all my M4A files to MP3 (thus losing some audio quality along the way) but I also had to find a way to batch process all the files I have and insert the required id3v2 metadata. I got there in the end but whenever I buy a new album I now have to do twice the work to get it in a format compatible with 2 varieties of phone, and I have over twice the volume of music files on my computer's hard disks as well.

Connectivity is meant to be one of the strong points of the N95. The (provided) USB cable lets you plug the phone into a computer and thus exchange data: upload music to the phone, back up your contacts and other user data, use the phone as a modem for your laptop, even update the phone's embedded software (firmware). The software update bit is the only one that requires a USB cable, all the other functions can also happen using a bluetooth connection or infrared. The N95 even has built-in 802.11b/g WiFi. The bluetooth connection also allows you to connect a wireless headset for wireless hands-free operation. Or at least it should. I have both an expensive Sony-Ericsson earpiece and a cheaper model of some unknown brand. Both pair flawlessly with my Motorola RAZR V3 phone, both have difficulty pairing with my Nokia 6280, N95 and N73 phones, and when they have paired, the connection is dropped after anything from a few seconds to maybe 90 minutes. Once the connection has been dropped, the only way to re-establish it is to switch off both the earpiece and the phone, switch them back on and start over. Not very practical. If, on the other hand, you do manage to place a call before the connection gets dropped, the pairing subsequently remains reasonably stable.

The N95 is touted as a "multimedia computer" rather than a phone. One of the multimedia functions it has is an FM receiver. Don't bother. It really lacks sensitivity and you'll hardly ever get stereo reception. Why? because FM receivers only use the subcarrier containing the difference between the left and right audio channels if the signal is strong enough. If it isn't (which is most of the time), you just get the basic monoaural signal. The N95's FM receiver also lacks RDS.

Time management is pretty braindead on this phone. Unlike S40, where you just have one alarm that goes off every day at the same time until you deactivate it, with S60 you can set multiple alarms that go off just once or on set days every week. Sounds good, right? You just wait until you change to or from daylight savings time. When you switch to DST, the alarm time gets set an hour later so you're late for work, and when you go back to standard time, your alarm is set back an hour for some reason best known to itself so you're woken up at the crack of dawn.

The stopwatch and countdown that were in S40 have disappeared too. I don't have much use for the stopwatch personally but the countdown is extremely useful for many things, not least of which cooking. I bought a third party application for that.

One major gripe that many people, myself included, have with the N95 is its poor battery life. Nokia's website claims something like 200 hours standby time, or roughly 8 days. I don't think so, unless hours and days on planet Nokia are much shorter than here. The most I can get out of my N95 is 48 hours, and that's if I don't use it. A more realistic figure is nearer 24 hours if I happen to make or receive a call, listen to some music on it or send a few messages. There's a small application called "Energy Profiler" that you can download from Nokia's site. It gives you an approximate idea of the power your phone is sucking out of the battery and how many hours' operation you can still expect (or hope?) to get out of it. One tip regarding Energy Profiler: never use it while the phone is charging! If you do, the phone will become extremely unstable and the only way of switching it off will be to pull the battery out.

There's a mini-USB socket on this phone. You can connect the phone to your computer with a standard mini-USB cable. Many phones, a few other Nokia models included, draw power from the computer's USB port in order to charge the battery when connected to the computer. This is not the case with the N95, nor with the great majority of Nokia phones, which is rather silly.

The last gripe I'd mention is the way the log and contacts applications work. The classic use for either of these applications is to look up a number, either in the address book (contacts) or in the recently placed, received or missed calls (log), in order to call it. So, you locate the number you're after, press the "call" button, chat away and then hang up. That's all very well until you realize that the application you used to locate the number you just called is still running in the background! Another application running in the background means more memory being hogged for nothing useful and yet more power being drained from the battery, reducing even further the phone's autonomy. While it's true that there have been vast improvements in energy management in recent firmware versions, it's still a good idea to close those applications manually once you've finished your call. This is something the user really shouldn't have to think of all the time, and it's also something that new users of this type of phone who have not been forewarned of the problem certainly won't think of.

With the "cons" out of the way, let's move on to the "pros" now.

The first thing that struck me about this phone is the mechanics. Yes, there is a little play in the slide mechanism when it's "closed" (there is in all slide-phones except the most expensive like the 8800 Arte at roughly £900) but the slide itself is reassuringly solid in both directions. Yes, it slides both ways. Slide it up to reveal the usual keypad, or slide it down to reveal multimedia playback control keys and the display rotates 90° clockwise. There is no play (yet) in the mechanism when locked open in either position.

By placing some keys on the side of the phone (volume/zoom control, direct access to the gallery and shutter release) Nokia has managed to keep enough off the fascia to make those remaining big enough to press and to leave enough room for a 2.6" QVGA (240×320) screen. The action of these keys and of those on the main keypad revealed with the slider locked open in the upwards position is softer than usual on mobile phones, yet not so soft that the whole thing feels "mushy". It makes text input comfortable.

Secondly, there's a mind-boggling amount of third party software available for this platform. Nokia is not the only mobile phone manufacturer to sell phones based on S60, Sony-Ericsson is another, as are (I believe) Samsung and a few others. That means there's a huge user base and therefore also a huge developer base, and that means loads of software out there. I mentioned the lack of message counter earler, well there's software out there that'll give you that feature back if you find it absolutely necessary (I don't). Then there's the stopwatch/timer application that I did download and install. There are productivity suites available for S60 (QuickOffice, for example), there's an official PDF reader from Adobe, the screenshots you can see on this page are grabbed with a piece of third party software called "Best ScreenSnap", there's an S60 version of a piece of software I use (PuTTY) to log into the various servers I manage. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Themes are also a form of software and there are literally thousands of them if you know where to look. My favourite themes are by an artist in, I think, Algeria who goes by the name of Taieb. Loads of others are available from sites such as zedge.net, although I prefer Taieb's because he also supplies versions in which the icons used throughout the menus haven't been messed with. Almost invariably, when a theme designer decides to design new icons to incorporate into a theme, they're not as good or as clear as the original icons.

Networking with the N95 is great. It's a 3G phone with full support for HSDPA, which gives burst download speeds of potentially up to 14.4 megabits/second. My own operator has recently rolled out a 7.2 mbps service and I've frequently seen bursts of up to 5 mbps. That's pretty fast for a mobile device.

Like most devices in its league, the N95 has a built-in mail client. This allows you to send and receive mail on the move. Not everyone has a use for that, but those who do find they can't live without it once they've tried it. With the phone's high speed connection, e-mail messages with large attachments are not a problem.

Of course, using the phone to access the Internet can quickly become expensive without a data plan, even more so when roaming, so the alternative is to use your own Internet connection at home, and that's where the built-in WiFi adapter comes in handy. If you have broadband at home and you've rigged up a wireless router, or a simple wireless access point in a wired network, then you can have the N95 use that to access the Internet instead of racking up data charges. Some public areas like hotels, pubs, and fast-food outlets also put wireless Internet access at your disposal. Basically, if you can use your laptop with a built-in WiFi adapter in these places then you can use the N95 as well.

The browser included in the N95 takes a little getting used to but once you are used to it, it's pretty easy to use. It's based on Apple's Safari browser and therefore subject to the same quirks in the way it understands CSS, for example, and the JavaScript Document Object Model it uses too. It is, however, compatible with AJAX, which makes it fairly powerful. Now, if only the Nokia webmasters could get the Nokia Discussion Forums working on it, the whole thing would look a bit less stupid... Don't expect to be able to do with the browser everything you can do with the one on your desktop or laptop computer, you never will. It is a mobile device after all with a limited user interface, which means limited controls and limited screen real estate.

Update: Nokia's Forums were fixed on September 10th and now work on the S60 browser.

Another thing I find extremely useful in the N95 is the built-in SIP client. My whole phone system at home is based on VoIP. I have a machine running Asterisk, which acts as a software switchboard, and there are three phones connected to it over the network. One of them is my N95. Whenever someone calls my land line number or an 0845 (local toll rate) number I have set up, the call gets routed over the Internet, and winds up at my Asterisk server, which then makes the network phones in the house ring, including the N95. I can also use the N95 to place calls over the wireless network. The beauty of it is, it doesn't cost me a penny on my mobile phone bill to place calls to France, for example, where my father and many friends still live, and the VoIP charges are almost negligeable, around 1 penny per minute to a land line.

There's a slot for a microSD memory card in the side of the phone. In fact it accepts microSDHC cards, which means cards of 4 gigabytes or more. The official specifications given by Nokia say that the N95 will accept cards of up to 4 GB, but that's most likely because the largest cards available at the time the specs went to press was just that. Since then, cards of 6 GB and 8 GB have appeared on the market and, indeed, I have an 8 GB SanDisk card in my phone. 12 GB and 16 GB cards should be on the market shortly and there's every indication that they will work as well. That's a lot of memory for stuff like music, videos, pictures etc. When you connect the N95 to a computer, you're offered the choice of several "modes" to which the phone can switch. One of the choices is "mass storage". In this mode, the phone behaves like a simple (but expensive!) pen-drive, allowing you access to the content of the memory card currently in the phone's slot. That is how you can get your data to and from the phone. Many phones implement proprietary communication protocols and therefore require proprietary software in order to access the data in the phone's guts. Nokia phones don't on the whole, they observe an industry standard adhered to by pen-drives, external hard drives and such which make devices connected to your computer appear as ordinary disk drives to/from which you can copy files with no need for any additional software. This makes the phones compatible with any operating system, including GNU/Linux, which I have been using for many years now. The only criticism I'd have of the way this was done in the N95 is the lack of speed. The N95 communicates over USB at the slower speed of 12 mbps while many other phones and pen-drives adhere to the USB 2.0 standard and communicate at the much faster speed of 480 mbps.

The camera on this phone is great and has a decent lens cover which, when opened, wakes the camera application up. The N95 was one of the first phones to integrate a 5 megapixel camera, and although more pixels doesn't always mean a better picture, the Carl Zeiss optics and mechanical focus on this camera mean that the picture quality is pretty good. Click on the picture of the cat here to access a page where you can see the photo in full resolution.

Not only does the camera take good still shots, but it shoots reasonably high quality video as well. On paper it says that the N95 will shoot VGA resolution (640×480) at 30 frames per second, and they call it "DVD quality" on the marketing blurb. OK, it's good, but the images are not as well-defined as those on a DVD-Video even if the frame size and rate are comparable to an NTSC DVD. Don't get me wrong, though, it is good. An otherwise empty 8 GB card is enough storage space for several hours of footage at so-called DVD quality. The software won't allow you to record more than 59'59" in one go, though. Probably because it would kill the battery.

There's a second camera on the front of the phone. You can use it to take a quick self-portrait to send someone if you're that way inclined, or you can use it for its original purpose: video calling. The N95 is a 3G phone, and that is one of the things any self-respecting 3G phone will do. Except the iPhone 3G...

Another feature I like is the so-called "Active Standby". It enables you to program the two soft-keys for whatever purpose you like and gives you six other programmable functions you can access directly. It also displays upcoming events programmed into the calendar, shows you the status of nearby wireless networks if scanning is enabled (it isn't by default because that would drain the battery even faster) and provides a search facility to find content in your phone and online. The menus of an S60 phone are pretty complicated, so anything that allows you to get at the phone's functions this directly can only be a great time-saver. Furthermore, since the 6 icons at the top of the screen and the two soft-keys are entirely programmable, you can adapt the interface to suit the way you use your phone.

I mentioned using a USB cable to update the phone's firmware a few paragraphs back. Provided the computer you use to do this has a fast enough Internet connection and is powerful enough, it's easy to do and takes about 15 to 20 minutes. I updated my own phone's firmware a couple of months ago and noticed a marked improvement in responsiveness, in stability of the wireless network connection and in energy efficiency. I'd recommend the procedure as long as you're willing to accept responsibility for your actions and won't blame anyone but yourself if you don't heed all the warnings given to you and perform the recommended backup before proceeding with the update.

The USB cable also allows you to use the phone as a USB broadband modem. It is in such a configuration that I was able to measure the speed of the downlink I have at roughly 5 mbps. Since signing up with T-Mobile I've upgraded my data plan to their "web'n'walk plus" which does allow me to use the phone as a broadband modem and raises the cap to 3 gigabytes (but still doesn't allow VoIP), so in fact I'll be using my laptop with the N95 as a modem in order to upload this text and the related images to my blog. Note that your traffic goes through a proxy in order to optimize (reduce) the image data you download, and sometimes establishing a network connection to a remote host can take some time. On the whole, though, the quality of service isn't that bad. It has come a long way since the days of WAP, where the phone would download data at a dizzying 9600 bps while tying up your line since it would dial into the network just like an old analog modem.

Once the initial problem with the music player that I mentioned earlier is overcome, it becomes quite easy to use. It's simply a question of copying your MP3 files over to the phone, refreshing the music library, and you're done. The phone comes with a remote control unit and a standard pair of earbuds. At long last, Nokia have seen the light and fitted a standard 3.5mm jack on the side of the phone so that you can plug any standard earbuds in and use them instead of the Nokia earbuds which, to be honest, aren't that good. The remote control also has a 3.5mm jack on it. If you want to use it, you plug it into the earphones jack on the phone and you plug your earphones into the 3.5mm jack on the remote control. It has buttons to control the volume, to skip tracks and fast-forward or reverse, to pause and resume playback and to take an inbound call. There's a mic in it so you don't have to use the one in the handset to talk to someone while using the headset and the remote.

The phone also comes with a video-out cable that plugs into the same socket as the remote control or the earphones. Plug the three RCA plugs on the other end (video and left and right audio channels) into a TV set or AV amplifier and you can show off your pictures and video footage on a big screen.

In conclusion, this is a phone that gives its user plenty of potential. Its camera is good enough for everyday shooting, the music player is easy enough to use and, with a big enough memory card, will give you plenty of choice of stuff to listen to. If you do like to listen to the radio and the built-in receiver doesn't work well enough for you then you can always use the version of RealPlayer included in the phone to stream online content from the radio stations' websites provided you have a data plan that allows it or you're within range of a WiFi hotspot you can use. The video footage it takes is of a quality comparable to that of old S-VHSC camcorders, which isn't too bad when you consider that it's a phone after all, and the included RealPlayer and Adobe Flash-Lite can cope with most content you care to throw at them for playback. So, the multimedia bases are covered.

On the productivity side, the N95 comes with a "light" version of QuickOffice, which allows you to view, but not edit, Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. An upgrade allowing document creation and modification can be purchased and installed directly on the phone. PDF files can be viewed. These files can be both sent and received by e-mail. Business users may bemoan the lack of integration between the calendar and the other productivity functions, but it's good enough for everyday use. Your calendar, notes and contacts can be synchronised between your mobile device and other mobile or fixed devices using software that's compatible with SyncML. Nokia's "My Backup" service is great for this.

The basic functions of a mobile haven't been forgotten either. Text input when writing out SMS or MMS messages is very easy, especially if you invest in a bluetooth keyboard such as Nokia's (overpriced in my opinion) SU-8W unit. The only let-down for the average user used to a basic phone rather than a smartphone such as this is the comparative awkwardness of the address book and log.

On the whole, though, this is a really wonderful piece of kit with a good feature set already built in, particularly in the networking department, and endless possibilities for extension and customisation. It is only surpassed by the N95-2, its "big brother", the so-called N95 8GB with more system memory and 8 gigabytes of on-board mass-storage memory (but no card slot or lens cover) and possibly the N82 with its slightly more recent operating system and, above all, the xenon flash. The soon-to-be-available N96 has 16 GB of on-board mass storage and a microSDHC slot but still no lens cover, and the SIP client (for making VoIP calls) has disappeared, as it has in the N78.

So, if you are thinking of switching to a Nokia phone when renewing your contract then the N95-1 and N95-2 should be definite candidates for consideration. If you already have one and want to upgrade then you might as well wait and see what's going to be released soon. I don't think the N95-2 or the N96 offer enough "plus" for me to want one as a contract renewal, and in fact the lack of SIP client is a bit of a deal breaker for me since, as I said, my entire home phone system is VoIP-based.

I'm happy with the N95-1, it does what I want, and there are few other phones that do!


Copyright notice: the image of the Nokia N95 device at the top-left of this article is Copyright © Nokia and is available from Nokia's press site.


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