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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