The Nokia N96 ($775, unlocked) caused a lot of international buzz when it debuted earlier this year. Finally, ten months later, a U.S. version has shipped, but it wasn’t worth the long wait: Though this model has the same excellent multimedia and camera features as its predecessor, the Nokia N95, the N96 just doesn’t stack up to the competition at this point. The N96 lacks a touch screen and a full QWERTY keyboard, in contrast to the T-Mobile G1, the HTC Touch Pro, and the BlackBerry Bold. Another issue: This model feels more cheaply made, which we don’t expect from a premium phone that costs nearly eight bills.
In the design, very little has changed between the N95 and N96. The 4.0-by-2.2-by-0.7-inch phone is just a smidgen larger and heavier (at 4.4 ounces) than its predecessor. The handset is bulkier than many of the models on our Top 10 Smart Phones chart, though it doesn’t feel bulky in the hand. It retains the N95’s dual-slider design, but the screen size is 0.2 inches larger diagonally. The slider design is easy to move one-handed, but the mechanism now feels somewhat flimsy–likely due in part to this phone’s use of plastic components instead of metal. The phone’s plastic encasing seems a bit cheap overall; I was afraid that if I dropped the phone, the back would completely shatter.
In my hands-on tests, the quad-band Nokia N96 had very good call quality in San Francisco. Voices sounded loud and clear enough, with no static and hum. On a few calls the voices sounded slightly hollow, as if somebody were speaking in a tunnel, but that happened only occasionally. For the most part, people on the other end reported clear voices with very little background noise.
Nokia rates the phone’s battery for up to 160 minutes of talk time on 3G, and 200 hours of standby time. We’ll update this review with a final rating once the PC World Test Center completes its battery-life tests.
The biggest difference between the N96 and its predecessor is its 16GB of flash memory (the N95 had merely half of that). This is a huge boon, because the N96 has excellent video and music capabilities. You can store up to 40 hours of video and up to 12,000 audio tracks in the on-board memory. Not enough for you? The N96 also has a microSD slot on its left side for more storage.
Video looked spectacular on the N96’s 2.8-inch QVGA screen, which displays 16 million colors at a 240 by 320 resolution. Though the N96’s screen is quite a bit smaller than the 3.5-inch screen of the 3G iPhone and the 3.2-inch screen of the G1, I found watching video quite enjoyable. Colors appeared bright, and playback was smooth.
The N96’s Video Center contains all of your video content, including your personal videos, Internet videos, and video podcasts. The N96 supports a solid variety of video formats: MPEG-4 Part 2 (H.263/SP), MPEG-4 Part 10 (H.264/AVC), WMV9, and RealVideo with playback at 30 frames per second.
As an audio player, the N96 is equally as flexible, supporting MP3, AAC, eAAC, eAAC+, and WMA files. The music player behaves in a fairly standard fashion: You can create playlists on the go, view album art on the now-playing screen, and browse songs by artist, album, genre, or composer. The N96 also has some nice audio bonuses, including built-in 3D speakers, a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (which really shouldn’t be a bonus, but a lot of smart phones lack one), and an FM tuner. Unfortunately, U.S. customers won’t be able to use the Nokia Music store to browse and purchase tracks.
The phone’s dual-slider design enhances its multimedia-playback features. You slide the display portion of the phone up to reveal a numeric keypad with slippery, flat, but easy-to-press keys. Slide it all the way down, and the screen and button orientation shifts to horizontal–and at the top of the phone, you see four multimedia-playback buttons (for Play/Pause, Forward, Back, and Stop).
The N96’s 5-megapixel Carl Zeiss lens is located on the back. The N96 has a variety of advanced features, such as seven shooting modes, a flash with red-eye reduction, five quality settings, and options for brightness, white balance, ISO light sensitivity, color tone, and contrast adjustment. You can also shoot VGA video at 30 frames per second.
In my hands-on tests, I took pictures in a wide range of environments, including a darkly lit restaurant, the rainy outdoors, and a brightly lit office. The Nokia N96’s image quality impressed me; it was on a par with that of some other high-quality camera phones we’ve tested, such as the Motorola ZN5. Color looked great, and the images were sharp in most of the environments.
The N96 runs S60 3rd Edition, Feature Pack 2 on the Symbian operating system. The user interface was clean, well organized, and easy to navigate. Running multiple applications sometimes made the N96 sluggish, but overall I found the handset zippy enough.
You get a variety of applications, including Nokia Maps (with stand-alone and assisted GPS), QuickOffice (where you can view your Microsoft Office documents), Adobe Reader, and a .zip-file manager. For e-mail, the N96 can access POP3, SMTP, and POP3 accounts, as well as MMS and SMS messaging.
My biggest gripe with the N96 is how difficult navigating through content and messages is. Without a touch screen or a QWERTY keyboard, navigating and messaging are a pain.
Nokia addresses that issue with the N96’s already-announced successor, the N97, which has both features. And though a U.S. version of the N97 isn’t currently available, I imagine we will see one at some point. The N96 offers a strong feature set, but it isn’t worth its hefty price given its omissions–especially when something much better is already on the way.