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