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Nokia N95 8GB

June 7th, 2008
A very feature-rich phone marred by difficult software.

Nokia has often saved its best smartphones for Europe -- and it's a move that has cost the company North American marketshare as the iPhone and other devices pass it by. The N95 8GB North America Model (NAM), however, is evidence that the company is making amends for slacking off -- especially now that the phone is finally available through an official carrier (in the form of Rogers Wireless) and has all its features exposed. Putting this penultimate version of the N95 through its paces reveals a very powerful and flexible phone that nonetheless feels somewhat hamstrung by Nokia's legacy.

design and build quality

If there has been a common complaint about Nokia smartphones, it's been thickness. While there is evidence Nokia is starting to mend its approach, with the upcoming E71 likely to fix many of these problems, the N95 8GB seemingly epitomizes Nokia's willingness to push the sheer number of features over a pocket-friendly design.

This phone is thick -- so much so that it's bulkier than the already thick Sony Ericsson K850i. While that lends it a certain easy grip and reassuring weight that a lot of phones lack, the size is enough that it effectively rules out the phone for anyone with especially crowded or tight pockets. There are technical reasons behind this, such as the namesake 8GB storage, the 5-megapixel camera and even stereo speakers, but few would argue that the N95 8GB is a physically elegant replacement for a fashion phone or a new wave of devices like the 3G-capable iPhone.

All the same, the layout does demonstrate careful attention to real-world details. Aside from the dominating and vivid 2.8-inch LCD -- whose only real flaw is the likelihood of smudging such a large screen -- the phone also offers surprisingly comfortable controls. Most buttons on the directional and numeric pads are large enough to hit reliably and are also designed to work well in landscape mode; Nokia's "stretched" select buttons make them easy to strike when the phone is on its side. However, the company's presumptions about media use also affect control. Both the dedicated media controls (through the unique two-way slider) and camera button assume the phone is in landscape mode, which can be counter-intuitive when you simply want to skip a track or take an impromptu photo.

Nokia wisely chooses to equip the phone with a lot of industry-standard connectors, including a mini-USB jack (for sync) and a full-fledged, 3.5mm headphone jack. Too many companies, including Apple, rely heavily on proprietary connectors that virtually guarantee an expensive replacement if cables are lost or break. A decision to remove the microSD card slot is definitely unfortunate, however, and seems arbitrary when the similarly sized N96 holds 16GB built-in while still finding room for expansion cards.

What's less than impressive is the fit and finish of some buttons. The 8GB model is tangibly better than the original version and has a very solid number pad, but still falls a bit short in the quality of its directional pad. These controls have a slightly hollow feel and will squeak slightly when pressed. They aren't likely to fall off, but the comparatively flimsy feel is a bit disheartening for a phone that costs $400 even on contract.

media playback and a note on Rogers VISION

The primary reason to buy the N95 8GB over the silver first-run model is, arguably, its media playback. Having 8GB of storage equates to nearly 2,000 songs of storage and is a welcome relief compared to many phones where having any kind of permanent storage is still considered a luxury. For the most part, the N95 lives up to claims made in this area

Nokia's built-in media players are comparatively easy to use and actually enjoyable in most cases, at least for those not spoiled by touchscreen devices; navigating tracks occurs with little fuss and offers a few very useful touches that are often overlooked on other media phones, like a collection-wide track shuffle mode. Quickly navigating tracks in mid-play is possible with the device itself, though the company thankfully bundles a wired remote with the N95 8GB that makes it much easier to pause or skip songs (and answer calls) without fishing the phone out of a pocket. Unusually, though, it requires that any copied music be "imported" into the collection even after being transferred with an official app.

The same can't be said for the media player supplied by Rogers Wireless. It's the same basic player as found on far simpler phones and is decidedly more limited than what Nokia itself offers. Worse still is that it's set as the default player for the music shortcuts on the device: there may well be users who never see the more powerful player hiding just underneath. While it's easy enough to get in the habit of manually launching the built-in software, it's an unnecessary complication and seems designed to steer inexperienced users towards buying songs from Rogers' own music store.

Rogers does contribute positively to media features through its VISION service; the Canadian carrier's N95 8GB is likely the only Nokia smartphone on the continent to officially support two-way video calling, which gives it a decided edge over simply buying an unlocked version for those who want the feature. A definite catch of the service, though, is the vicious circle of support. With relatively few phones supporting the feature on Rogers' network so far, most people aren't likely to sign up for VISION and spur their friends on to buying a similar device; until a lot of phones are already on the network with video call support, the front-facing camera isn't likely to get as much use.

Audio output is straightforward with this handset. While the pack-in earbuds are nothing special, both the built-in headphone jack and the remote will accept any portable earphones you happen to have. The quality is enough that most mid-range audio equipment (including some in-canal earbuds and studio monitors) can produce a meaningful difference. The stereo speakers are also an unusually welcome twist: their bass is almost absent, but they're loud, clear, and perform well enough that they can be used for an impromptu personal jukebox or the incidental music that often creeps up on some websites.

Finally, kudos should also be given to Nokia for its media sync support, especially on the Mac. While loading the phone is relatively simple on Windows as well, Nokia's Media Transfer app is the closest most non-Apple cellphones will get to a seamless experience transferring content. The software loads nearly every unprotected music and video format that the N95 8GB will play, and includes some very convenient settings for power users that let them auto-compress media at a certain bitrate (for when it might not leave enough free space) or automatically open Aperture or iPhoto to offload images. The N95 is one of the few phones tested here that has been easy to fill to capacity, and the significance can't be overstated.

the Symbian Series 60 OS and web browsing

Given that it's an extension of a previous model, it shouldn't be surprising that the the N95 8GB uses a largely standard implementation of Symbian S60 as its platform, which is a double-edged sword for a media phone. The OS is genuinely capable of multitasking and is powerful enough to handle 3D -- Nokia Maps and many advanced games use it -- but many features beyond the surface level can be arbitrarily difficult to use.

Settings are especially complex; it's not always clear which panel is meant to control a given function, logical options are missing, and automation rarely exists. The recently reviewed BlackBerry Curve 8330 could auto-configure nearly any mail account with very little information; with S60, setting up a simple Gmail address requires extensive steps and troubleshooting and still doesn't work as effectively as Research in Motion's design.

At least in Nokia's implementation, S60 also makes curious choices as to text entry: by default, it often insists on predictive text for certain areas, even when the feature is unlikely to make a proper guess. It had to be switched off entirely as it frequently made entering addresses into contacts or GPS all but impossible.

S60 is also one of the least stable mobile operating systems tested yet. While no OS is flawless, the N95 8GB occasionally freezes when an app monopolizes the processor. There were also periodic crashes which would force a hard reset of the phone. Rogers' media software was a particular source of trouble as it was the most likely app of the mix to completely freeze the device.

Web use is still very much the same as for past Symbian devices, which itself is similar to most phone browsers. While it's more accurate at drawing web pages than Internet Explorer 6 on Windows Mobile phones, it's still prone to incorrect formatting and curiously leaves relatively straightforward web features such as Javascript switched off by default, if likely for security reasons alone. The 3G and Wi-Fi access at least make page loads very quick while in those areas with HSDPA (High Speed Download Packet Access) networks.

One potential consideration over other phones, even other Nokia models, is plug-in support; the 8GB edition supports Flash Lite video out of the box, which makes it one of the few devices that can handle YouTube or some sites without needing a separate client (as with the iPhone) or a download. This isn't available with the original N95's default firmware; it's less essential when both phones can now share the same features, but it may be important given Rogers' customization work and the frequent need to reinstall apps after a firmware patch on Symbian phones.

call quality, reception, and battery life

Despite all its extra features, the N95 8GB would still flounder if it didn't have at least decent call quality. In testing, voice quality seemed above average, though not as clear as for the Sony Ericsson phones previously tested; calls were just slightly less vivid. Background noise wasn't a significant issue, however, and the quality still rose above most of the CDMA phones tried at Electronista so far.

The N95's ability to catch and hold on to a signal is very good, albeit with one caveat. While it held on to a signal very well, even towards of the inside of some cellphone-unfriendly buildings, the signal strength meter Nokia uses is harder to grasp than on most any other phone we've tried. It's an odd vertical meter that feels arbitrary compared to the simple multi-bar representations on most phones.

Longevity is also a weak point, with just 3.5 hours of calling time. That's owed partly to the use of 3G, which quickly saps battery when in use, but even idling can cause problems. Nokia's phone simply can't be left on standby overnight if it's been used significantly the day before; it either has to be plugged in or switched off entirely. Admittedly, this is less of an issue than it might otherwise be, as most smartphones often need daily recharges; it's also explainable given the existence of GPS and Wi-Fi in the same device. It's still a stark contrast to the BlackBerry Curve 8330, however. That smartphone can be in standby for days at a time before needing a battery top-up and is definitely the better choice for users who want to keep charging to a minimum.

GPS navigation

An indisputable edge for any N95 is the GPS navigation, and it's still true with the 8GB model. Nokia Maps, the built-in app, is decidedly more powerful than BlackBerry Maps; it includes built-in voice navigation (though only for driving), a pedestrian mode, and helpful toggles for enabling data assist for the GPS receiver. Unlike the Curve, the N95 can explicitly use its Internet access to speed up the mapping position lock. Turn notices are also easier to read than on its rival.

Rogers users also have access to TeleNav's subscription navigation service; this wasn't an option for testing, but it's potentially a more effective option for users who regularly depend on the phone for navigation. The costs of downloads for map data (a necessity for both apps) aren't factored into Rogers' standard data plan but come as part of the standard TeleNav service.

Neither mapping tool completely escapes the problems common to most cellphone GPS services, however. Without a permanent copy of the map set stored on the phone, the GPS navigation quickly becomes useless when wandering outside of data coverage or prohibitively expensive if roaming on an outside network. The receiver also isn't especially quick, and even with data assist can take upwards of two minutes to find your position. If quick and always-available routes are important, a dedicated GPS unit is still much more preferable to what's included.

the camera

Expectedly, the 5-megapixel camera that lords over the back of the phone is one of Nokia's chief marketing features, and it doesn't disappoint.

The added resolution over most cellphone cameras is a help of its own, as the review of the similarly 5-megapixel K850i attests, but the N95 8GB's other features are simply in a class of their own. High-quality optics help eliminate frequent cameraphone artifacts that still creep up in Sony Ericsson's handset, like purple fringing on high-contrast objects (a fault of a small, sharply curved lens) or the "haze" of sub-par glass or plastic. The LED flash is also bright enough to cut out most noise artifacts and capture dark scenes well.

If there was a complaint about image quality, it's tied to the inherent limitations of the size. The N95 behaves more like an inexpensive 5-megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera than the ultra-zoom or digital SLR some would hope for; besides resolution, there's still evidence of a small amount of noise even in bright shots. Even so, that photos feel more like shots from dedicated equipment than the near-throwaway quality of some cameras is a testament to Nokia's engineering.

Software adjustments for the camera are some of the best seen yet; it's possible to adjust color temperatures, exposure compensation, white balance, and other frequently off-limits settings before taking the shot. The N95 still isn't a replacement for a professional camera in this regard, as most fine-tuning is limited, but it's flexible enough to please hobbyists or others who would rather keep to one device when on the road. It's certainly more capable than the frequently hands-off cameras of most less expensive phones.

wrapping up

The N95 8GB is a difficult phone to review, as there are so many features one wants to like: in essence, it serves as the Swiss Army Knife of cellphones. If it weren't for the lack of a QWERTY keyboard, the phone could be capable of nearly any heavy-duty task and certainly stands out as one of the best choices for those who want a many-purpose device.

Buying the phone makes the most sense for those who intend to make use of the media features. As a phone and media player hybrid, it's one of the few that works well on a day-to-day basis. It's not as simple as on an iPhone but is simple enough to be largely painless after a few hours' use -- as long as one avoids Rogers' built-in player, which unfortunately has just a fraction of the features and quality of Nokia's own program. As a cameraphone, it's second to none and should definitely be on the short list for those who want a single device for calls and photography.

With the exception of standard calling and standard GPS functions, though, Nokia's end product feels rough and unpolished. No phone owner should have to wrestle with menus or reboot a phone one or more times a week to keep it functional for the rest of the day. The thickness of the phone and the low battery life are understandable, but they won't help sell the phone to someone who wants to use the phone at all hours of the day.

More importantly, the cost of the phone and its timing could also make it hard to recommend the device. Americans have had the N95 8GB for a few months, but the May launch of the handset in Canada could prove dangerous: with an official Canadian iPhone announced and likely just weeks away, the normal $400 price of Nokia's phone may be enough to push many new and existing Rogers users to wait for Apple's hardware to gauge its worth.

Compounding the matter are Rogers' restrictive data plans. While a $7 monthly plan provides unlimited web use, virtually every other feature, including GPS data, non-Rogers downloads, and even other web browsers -- racks up a high per-kilobyte cost. Wi-Fi helps soften the blow, but the phone was designed from the start to download and run many Internet-aware apps -- and without those, it becomes an expensive media phone rather than the inexpensive mobile computer it was meant to be.

- Excellent camera for a phone.

- Surprisingly capable Nokia media player; Mac software a big help.

- Fast 3G and Wi-Fi.

- Stronger GPS features than BlackBerry.

- Good call quality.

- Expensive, even on contract.

- Symbian S60 unstable and at times difficult.

- Rogers media software forced on users and less capable than Nokia's.

- Short battery life.

- Video calling nice, but unlikely to be used so soon in North America.