Straight talk on the Nokia N95

I’ve been using the N95 for a few weeks now. I moved from the N80i so this is my second shot at a Nokia wi-fi enabled phone.

In a lot of ways the N95 is big a improvement over the N80i (which I review here). It’s MUCH lighter, thinner, and has a bigger screen. It also has a nifty two-way slide function with a “media mode” where it tries to be an MP3 player, and the normal keypad slide-out mode similar to the N80 (portrait orientation) for use as a phone.

With Om’s recent post Sometimes, a phone is just a phone, we are reminded that “a sizeable number of people just want a mobile phone to stay in touch on their own terms” as noted by John Barry, Director, Mobile Phones, Nokia. If you’re looking for a phone that is simple to use, small, lightweight, can store all your contacts, will last several days on standby and has good audio quality, I don’t think anyone can beat the Nokia 6610. The original 6610, IMHO, is the best mobile phone ever produced. It is no longer made, apparently, but the 6610i is still available (I believe). I put together some simple criteria in the following comparison table, and as you can see, when it comes to the basics, the 6610 beats the N95 at any price:

N95
6610
Winner
Size:
99 x 53 x 21 mm
106 x 44 x 19 mm, 72 cc
6610
Weight:
120 g
87 g
6610
Display Size:
240 x 320 pixels
128×128 pixels
N95
Standby Time:
(observed)
12-30 hrs
3 – 5 days
6610
Talk Time:
(observed)
Less than 1 hrs
Approx 3 hrs
6610
Ringtones:
Audio clips
Polyphonic
N95
Speakerphone:
Good
Excellent
6610
Basic Phone Functionality Winner
6610

Actual size comparison
6610 on left vs. N95 on right

(Note that the battery life figures above differ from the Nokia site. Nokia claims the N95 will last up to 228 hours on standby and 6.5 hours talk, but I have no idea what they’re smoking to get those figures.)

Those willing to spend $700 on an N95 probably want more than basic phone features. Of course the N95 wins hands down in the areas of Connectivity, Imaging, Personalization, and Internet/PC Integration over a basic phone like the 6610. At the same time, it’s important to know what one is giving up to get these other benefits, specifically: battery life, weight, size, simplicity, reliability, ruggedness, and IMHO, speakerphone and overall audio quality.

Nokia will also tell us that the N95 wins in the Media department, and of course it does. That said, for me, this is not very significant. I can sum up why the N95 is totally useless as an iPod replacement in one word: iTunes. What I think a lot of people don’t understand is iPod has little to do with the hardware. Anyone can throw some chips and plastic together. What makes iPod different is the integrated iTunes experience. Without iTunes compatibility, the hardware is of no import. This is the real reason why all the various other Mp3 players are failures compared to iPod, even if they are vastly less expensive, and frequently more capable hardware-wise. To paraphrase, it’s the software, stupid.

Getting back to the N95’s strengths, it has a terrific screen, very big and bright. It is also light and thin for such a feature-rich, wi-fi capable phone. The browser is very capable for a micro-screen environment – no flash, as far as I can tell, but many sites, even many sophisticated ones (or buggy, depending on how you look at it) work fine on the N95. The 5 megapixel camera is also quite good, although the user interface is cumbersome. What happened to good old point and shoot with one-click? If I hand the N95 to someone to take a photo, I have to spend 5 minutes explaining how to do it. That’s very frustrating and annoying – and gives a crumby first impression of the phone.

Finding and connecting to wi-fi hotspots is perhaps a bit easier with the N95 than it was on the N80i, but it’s still too hard IMHO. There are still too many screens, menus, and clicks (and flaming hoops) required to find and connect to a WLAN, especially if you want to use a new hotspot with a SIP VoIP service other than Gizmo or Truphone.

The native SIP stack on the N95 seems to be more robust and reliable than that of the N80i. I don’t really know if this is true, and have not been able to confirm it with Nokia, but it at least seems to be more reliable and robust. It works with PhoneGnome (see Using PhoneGnome service on the Nokia N95). Nokia has been fairly close lipped about the built-in SIP capabilities of the N-series phones (i.e. what it can do without a “helper” app like Gizmo or Truphone). This will be the subject of a future post.

Finally, it should be noted that when reviewing early production, cutting edge devices like this, one should not be surprised to find a few kinks and warts.The N95 I have does crash more frequently than one may like. In particular, web browsing and VoIP calls seem to produce crashes occasionally. These are the kinds of things that get worked out as the firmware evolves, but you may want to be aware that the N95 should still be considered “bleeding edge”, and as such, isn’t rock solid yet. That said, I’m not ready to give it up due to these inconveniences – it’s just too addicting!

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