Thoughts on S60

reflections on the most popular mobile operating system worldwide

Cumulative Review: Nokia N96

with 7 comments

It’s been 5 days since I received the Nokia N96 from WOM World and I’ve certainly put it to the test. I’ve tried my absolute hardest to use it as rigorously as I would any of my other S60 devices and not make any excuses for it. So, without further ado, grab yourself some coffee, sit back, and enjoy. If you have any questions about anything I haven’t covered, please drop me a message or leave a comment. Click on any of the pictures to be taken to my Ovi channel dedicated to Face the Task and the N96 where you’ll find a ton more pictures in all of their original resolutions.

Hardware

Slider

There’s a lot of things I really like about the hardware and a lot I really don’t. The first thing everyone’s interested in is how the slider performs. In my experience, the slider is acceptable for the materials used. It feels spring-assisted as it’s slid in either direction with a definitive snap and has a very small amount of play in every position. For some solid-slider enthusiasts, this may not be acceptable, but I didn’t find it to take away from the feeling of quality at all. With the N95-3 put right next to it, the N96 feels much more solid when it’s slid, and my N95-3 does not have any play at all.

Materials

The materials used feel a bit plasticky, which is to be expected. Overall they feel absolutely fine, but there are a couple areas on the back cover that creak when pressure is applied. I thought we would’ve figured out how to avoid that after the soft plastic on the N73? Guess not.

Buttons

I absolutely love the media buttons on both the front of the device around the D-pad and on the media slide. When using the music player, you’re no longer presented with the D-pad controlled menu anymore. Instead, everything is operated by the hardware keys depending on which way you have the phone open. This makes is absolutely fantastic for controlling your music while you’re doing other things with the keypad slid out without having to navigate back to the music player every time.

With the exception of the keypad, every button is separated enough by different components so as to not accidentally press one you did not intend. The Send/End keys are completely independent and their placement separates the left softkey/menu button and right softkey/clear buttons very well, respectable. I have only once pressed the multimedia key accidentally, which is almost a daily occurance on my N95-3. It seems Ricky and Rita had a very similar experience with these keys as well.

With all the good out of the way, I have to say I HATE the buttons on the outside of the phone, which often turn out to be the most used. All of the keys are flush with the design of the phone so they must be pressed very hard in just the right spot to get a response, the keypad lock slider require a very well placed finger (or usually fingernail) to slide properly, and it’s often hard to tell if the camera has been pressed enough just for autofocus or if it was pressed too hard and forced a photo to be captured before it was focused properly. I’ve never heard anyone complaining about protruding buttons on previous phones getting caught on pockets or anything like that, but I guess Nokia liked the look better.

Screen

The screen is in line with what you would find on most other S60 devices with screens of the same size. The more noticeable difference is the way the screen is set into the casing since it is flush with the housing of the device rather than set in like you would find on the N95 or older devices. The LCD seems very close to the case of the phone itself and projects a nice, bright image that’s visible enough in direct sunlight.

Other hardware quirks

Like the E71, the N96 has a breathing light that illuminates around the D-pad in standby mode and blinks in various fashions if there’s any alerts that require the users attention. The kickstand does very well as an alternative to a separate desk stand and I find myself using it anytime I’m working at a bench or desk. The placement of the headphone jack, charging port, and microUSB port are excellent for their functions and the overall feel of the device is just good. A lot of people have said that the phone looks and feels very bulky which I can completely understand, but given the thinner profile it has compared to recent devices I’ve used, I would have to disagree. It certainly isn’t as thin as a RAZR, but it’s definitely not going to make your pockets bulge.

Battery Life

The second feature everyone’s been curious about with this device is the battery life. I’ve been using a lot of different functions to try to see if I could tax the battery more than I normally would to really get a feel for how well it performs. I’ve got to say, for a measly 950mAh, it really did very well! This phone is still going to be something you’ll need to charge every night, but it’s nothing like the N95-1 was when it came out with the same battery.

My best example of its endurance was from my long work day on Monday. I took the phone off the charger in my car around 9:30am. From then to 8:30pm, I spent the day connected to the wireless network nearly the entire time, actively using the connection for web browsing periodically, took a couple phone calls, texted with my girlfriend and a few other people, swapped the WLAN connection for an EDGE connection to browse the web on lunch, watched all of the short clips preinstalled on the device, and listened to an album of music. It wasn’t a light day by any means, but it held up very well.

My only reserve is that I don’t know how well the phone would’ve performed if it was using 3G bands supported in my country or perhaps using the DVB-H. This device was built to eat a lot more power in a different country and I can’t test it the same way someone else can living in that target country. I can only speculate that with 3G browsing and calls and use of the DVB-H tuner would yield significantly less battery life, but I can not be certain.

Software/FP2

Although I previously ranted about FP2 not being that much of an upgrade, I’ve been pleasantly surprised several times by how the N96 reacts to different things with the new feature pack. I’m going to list them in bullets and try to keep each point brief because there are a LOT of changes.

  • Automatic access points now automatically detect the best connection for using data based on the connections available (though this takes a while if are not in range of a wifi network and you just need it to use network data).
  • Large caller pictures for incoming and outgoing calls with added in-call effects (finally!)
  • Most menus show all relative status icons, including the time
  • Timed profiles are now natively supported (though I still rely on Handy Profiles for automatic profile switching)
  • The 3.5mm headphone port has a new profile called Line-out for direct music output
  • Battery saver mode now available when the power button is pressed to save on battery usage (this automatically turns on when the battery is low)
  • Every menu now has an option to pull up the native task manager labeled “Show open apps”
  • Due to popular demand, images and videos are now separated in the Gallery and their is a nw application just for images called “Photos” (presumably to tie-in with the Nokia Photos desktop application)
  • The alarm now allows snooze length to be changed instead of an automatic 5 minutes
  • Unrecognized files can be downloaded natively in the browser (just like I found in the 5th Edition emulator)
  • The home screen displays several calendar entries instead of grouping them
  • The home screen can now also use a vertical bar of applications against the left side as well as the traditional background menu and active standby
  • The phone is filled with new notifications such as unplugging the charger from the wall when the phone is finished charging to save energy, the center button displaying text based on its function like the soft keys, and a lot of the other typical notifications have been fixed to make more sense.
  • Message creation is now under one single message type and automatically changes based on what content is added
  • The native file manager and all areas that access the file information are shown in a much more logical fashion (13.3 gb in stead of 13300mb) and the phone backup tool is now integrated into the file browser application.
  • USB 2.0 transfer speeds make transferring any data from a computer an absolute breeze as it should have been since day-1

Performance

I thought this review deserved its own section for performance simply because of how poor it really is on the N96. A device that is being touted as a flagship simply should not be as slow as it is, even after all of the precautions have been taken to improve it.

I know I just ranted about how I don’t feel Nokia is doing enough to keep themselves ahead of the competition, but this doesn’t even compare to the year-old N95-3. The keyword that really sticks out to me is waiting. When you use the N96, you’re always waiting for it to do what you asked. This occurs when opening applications, switching between messages, connecting to various access points in all data-oriented applications, drawing thumbnails in the gallery, rendering images when viewing them, loading web pages, you name it. Everything just takes more time. Another fun issue I’ve seen more frequently than on any of my recent devices is a high frequency of random restarts for no apparent reason. The average has been around 3 per day, even after the hard reset and firmware update.

I spent a lot of time trying different things to fix this issue including update to the newest firmware and reformatting the device to start from scratch, but I found the real reasons behind the noticeable difference after digging around a bit. After installing Jbak TaskMan, I found that the device only has a little less than 40mb of available RAM free for applications at any given time compared to your typical 80-90mb found on other newer S60 devices. Several other sources I’ve read about the N96 also indicate that the device is using either a slower processor or the same as other high end devices, but clocked slower for some odd reason. I suspect that these two things are the reason the battery life is so much better than expected, but really, if it’s going to sacrifice the speed and overall performance of the device, I’d rather have the faster processor and more RAM (or another phone altogether).

Click the thumbnail to see a video of just how slow the N96 performs in standard operations (I apologize for the blurriness in advance).

10312008008 - Share on Ovi

(note, with the same applications running in the background shown in the video, the N96 decided to restart on its own)

Couple this with the all of the buttons taking a bit more effort and pressure and the the end result is a device that feels excessively sluggish and yeilds a very unacceptable overall experience. I’ve been tempted on multiple occasions to keep my SIM in my N95-3 and just use the N96 in Offline mode for the Nokia viNe challenges.

Camera

This is one aspect I thought I would be really excited about when I was first told I’d get a chance to trial the device, but it doesn’t seem to have any significant improvements over the N95-3. It starts barely faster than my N95-3, the dual-LED flash seems to make very little difference in night shots (they’re still all terrible), and there doesn’t seem to by any boost in quality at all. I don’t know if I am supposed to expect any difference if they used the same camera module as previous devices, but I don’t think it would be too much to ask for a gain in operating speed with FP2 under the hood.

There are a few things I did particularly like however. The N96 appears to have a bit wider of a viewing angle that can be seen in the sample shot of the stone arch below and colors and detail are captured a little bit better than on similar 5mp handsets. The camera on the N96 also supports geotagging automatically in the camera application itself so images can record location data as they’re snapped. (All of my N96 shots show the position information in Ovi, if you take a look).

Here are a couple comparison shots between the N95-3, N82, and N96.

N95, outdoors, no flash:

N82, outdoors, no flash:

N96, outdoors, no flash:

N95, outdoors, no flash:

N82, outdoors, no flash:

N96, outdoors, no flash:

N95, outdoors, no flash:

N82, outdoors, no flash:

N96, outdoors, no flash:

N95, outdoors, no flash:

N82, outdoors, no flash:

N96, outdoors, no flash:

N95, low light with LED:

N82, low light with xenon:

N96, low light with dual-LED:

N95, low light with LED:

N82, low light with xenon:

N96, low light with dual-LED:

N95 macro shot, no flash:

N82, macro shot, no flash:

N96, macro shot, no flash:

The video recorder on the other hand performed much better than on previous devices. Recording starts and stops without any stuttering as soon as the shutter button is pressed, there is no skipping during recording and saving to mass storage (as made typical by the mass storage of the N95 8gb), and there is an option to use the dual LED’s as a light for recording. Very impressive stuff performance-wise. Quality seems to be unchanged among any of the VGA-30fps recording devices I have available to compare, so I don’t think any samples are in order (email me if you really want some).

Music

Playback has been something I’ve been very pleased with on the N96 compared to other recent devices. I’ve been using my S60 devices as all-in-one’s for music, GPS, and calls in the car since my first N95, so I place a lot of emphasis on how well they perform these functions under heavy conditions.

I was pleasantly surprised when I took the N96 for its first test drive as an MP3 player on my way to work. Playback seemed a bit louder than my N95-3 and did not pickup nearly as much interference (my N95-3 loves to whistle and whine when the car charger is also plugged into it). I also noticed that lower tones are brought out much more dominantly and really boost bass in areas I didn’t notice it before. I often toggle between FM radio and playing my own music in the car and always notice the higher quality of the radio; this is not the case with the N96 in the least.

The other features I mentioned earlier about line-out for the options of the 3.5mm headphone jack, USB 2.0 transfer speeds, and the excellence of the music playback keys on the slide and around the D-pad make for a very well-rounded MP3 player in the N96. 16gb of built-in storage and my 8gb Class 8 microSD card (for a total of 24gb for storage) certainly help too. 🙂

GPS

If you’ve used Nokia Maps 2.0 on any other S60 device, it’s the exact same on the N96. It uses GPS information from satellites with options for A-GPS through your data connection and is able to lock very quickly indoors as well as out.

(insert picture of N96 running Nokia Maps oudoors)

Unfortunately, I haven’t been using GPS too much on any of my devices as of late because I haven’t found a need and when the rare occasions do arise, it’s not worth it to pay for any length of subscription. I was excited to see that my trial N96 came with a 30-day subscription to Nokia Maps, but I was disappointed to discover that it’s only for the European region. Not much good to me here in the States. 😦

Overall Impressions

With a 30-day Nokia Maps subscription that will not work in my country, EDGE-only speeds my only resource for uploading data on the go due to incompatible 3G frequencies, less than 40mb of RAM available on boot, slow phone performance, even slower performance when using NokiaviNe, and journeys not uploading to viNe properly, using the N96 to complete the tasks is turning out to be the only real challenge of this trial more than anything else.

I believe the concept of this device and how it actually performs in real situations are two completely different things. Nokia has managed to repackage the N95 into a more contemporary, sexy black housing with notable improvements to several aspects of both the hardware and the software, but with the steps taken backwards for the processor and available RAM, all they’ve done is managed to cripple everything that would make this device worthwhile. It is enough to give S60 newcomers a bad taste in their mouth due to the very poor experience.

At an unreasonable price range averaging $699 unlocked for the Euro 3G version, I can’t recommend this device to anyone when the N85 and the older N95-2/3/4 perform significantly better for less money.  Unfortunately, Nokia really needs to follow suit like they did with the N95 variations and release an updated version with these performance problems fixed, faster processor, double the RAM, and a bigger battery for good measure. A firmware update is never going to be enough to fix all of the issues that plague this device.

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Written by Jonathan

October 31, 2008 at 4:30 pm

7 Responses

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  1. So only 40 megs of ram on boot compare to 85 on my n95-4? That sux
    Can you USB charge it?

    pachi

    November 1, 2008 at 5:16 am

  2. Even though the available RAM is low, I think it still performs well. I also don’t believe you can charge through the USB.

    Good review. Seems this device is decent, but doesn’t necessarily warrant a purchase.

    newtype2011

    November 1, 2008 at 11:30 pm

  3. nice review. The pictures that the n96 takes looks good, a tad bit sharper, but in low light seems to have a strange hue.

    tim

    November 2, 2008 at 5:21 am

  4. […] FULL REVIEW […]

  5. No USB charging, which I’m okay with for now.

    I did find that by default, video sharing is turned on in the settings and turning it off helps the speed of the phone a bit, but it doesn’t help enough to save it.

    JonnyBruha

    November 2, 2008 at 6:46 am

  6. Just as you suggested I am going to wait for the N96-4 😛 or something of that nature to come out. I owned the original N95-1 and it was a great phone until the other variants came out and updated RAM, build, etc. Its a shame that Nokia couldnt outright come out with a beast of a unit before the holidays. I almost laugh that this phone is being marketed so much considering the Samsung 8510 and other devices trump it in most categories.

    tim

    November 2, 2008 at 6:59 am

  7. […] Bruha brings us his considered thoughts on the N96, and after a few days of rigorous testing, he has plenty of thoughts to […]


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