Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nokia N95 Review

Having been fortunate enough to be part of Nokia�s Blogger Relations Program for some time, I�ve had my share of N-Series phones to use and review. Most of the world � especially North America � doesn�t live this way, and it�s always fun to use phones that are not in the mainstream or even available here yet. They sure get people�s attention, and I�m not shy to talk about what�s great and not-so-great about these high-end phones. Anyone who has used these devices knows that calling them �phones� is a bit misleading. In fact, as you�ll see from my review, the phone seems like an afterthought in some ways.

So, I�ve had the Nokia N95 for ages, it seems, and takes over from my last Nokia phone, the N93, which I reviewed here. The N95 is a very different device, and true to form, Nokia continues to innovate and explore various designs, features and form factors. This review will be pretty straight-up; I�ll start with the strengths, and move on to the shortcomings.

What�s great about the N95

First off, the form factor is really nice. It�s slimmer than the N93, and unlike earlier N Series phones, it has more rounded edges and is less boxy. In other words, this is a phone that I can see appealing equally to both women and men. Definitely couldn�t say that about the N90.

Aside from being slimmer, it just fits in the hand very easily. You really don�t need two hands to use it, and it fits nicely in your jacket pocket. That�s much different from the N93 flip phone design, and the Rubik�s Cube features of earlier N Series models. I�m not really huge on the slider design, but it definitely has some advantages. It certainly makes for a larger screen display, and as video becomes more the norm, this is a good thing to have. The only drawback here is that with such a large exposed screen surface, it becomes easily smudged and open to scratches.

The phone actually slides in two directions, which is really neat. Slide up, and you get the keypad for dialing and texting. Slide down, and the phone converts to a media player where you can view your photos and videos in full screen mode and navigate all the various media options. The dial pad, by the way, is another plus. You really need to push down on the buttons to make them work, which means no accidental pocket calls. It only works when you are clear about what you want to do. This may seem like a small thing, but with the iPhone being so popular, I�ll take the manual keyboard any day over the touch screen keypad.

Let�s move on. The next really great feature is the camera � a 5 megapixel Carl Zeiss lens. Doesn�t get much better than that for a camera phone. The N93 was pretty good at 3.2, but 5 is just fantastic. Never had such good quality photos on a phone. And the kicker for me is the lens cover. Finally � Nokia has added this feature. Seems like such a logical thing, with the lens cover being exposed all the time. Well, the 95 has a great little switch that discretely slides a cover over the lens. Very James Bond-like � like something out of Dr. No. Love it. And of course, the photo quality is really great � same for video. As with earlier N Series phones, there�s a nice variety of photo settings � I especially like the night time settings, as I often have to take photos in low light conditions.

It seems old hat at this point, but I should also add that the Bluetooth and WiFi features are great, and really showcase the full range of what the N95 can do. It�s easy to get used to these features when phones like these are the norm, but of course, most phones aren�t wired this way. But they�re getting there. To be fair, I really haven�t taken advantage of the N95�s higher end features like WiFi, mobile blogging, or Web browsing, so my review doesn�t do justice to the full package. My uber-geek son, Max, is much more at home here, and I�ll steer you to his N95 review for that perspective.

One other positive to share with you. The phone is easy to navigate � it�s not just intuitive and responsive, but it�s easy to do with one hand. This seems simplistic, but for all the multi-taskers out there, this is an important consideration. Often, we only have one free hand when using the phone, and the toggle button in the middle of the phone is easy to locate � even in the dark � and works very well with just a thumb doing all the work.

What�s not great about the N95

Ok, so before you get too comfortable and run out to buy one, let me give you a more complete picture of what it�s like to live with the N95 every day.

For all its cool gadgetry and stylish design, this is NOT a very good phone. Isn�t that Nokia�s business? I don�t get it. How can they get all these things so right, but the phone itself is so lacking? Maybe it�s the triumph of the iPhone and the whole smartphone thing. We don�t really use these devices as phones � that�s really secondary to multimedia and using this as a proxy for a mobile PC, personal entertainment center and email client. Fair enough. That said, I�m pretty old school, and always thought these things were phones first, and everything else was a bonus. Wrong.

I can�t complain loudly enough about what I consider a FATAL DESIGN FLAW. Anybody listening? I really doubt it, as I haven�t heard anyone else raise this issue. Ready? Ok, so, this is slider phone, right? When the phone rings, you have the option to slide the top panel up to answer the call. Pretty standard for any slider phone. I don�t know about you, but when I use a phone like this, I�m usually holding it in one hand. And being a pretty regular guy � black hair, brown eyes � guess what � I�m right-handed � like most of you.

Well, when I answer a call � in my right hand � my thumb instinctively latches on to the phone to push the slider face forward. I can�t help it, but my thumb naturally rests on the right corner of the phone to do this, and as I slide it forward, guess what happens? It�s resting directly on top of the button with the red icon. You know, the one that means HANG UP. Duh!!!! How dumb is this???

To this day, the vast majority of incoming calls never get answered because I inadvertently hang up on the caller. How embarrassing. I don�t receive enough calls to have conditioned myself to change my natural response, so this keeps happening over and over. But that�s really beside the point. I shouldn�t have to change my habits � good design takes this into account.

Of course, if I was left-handed, I wouldn�t have this problem. In that case, guess where my left thumb would naturally land when sliding up the cover to answer a call? On the green button � not the red button. You know, the ANSWER button. Isn�t that the way it should be? Is it just me, or are the only people out there smiling the lefties? Sorry, but I don�t care how great all the other features are, this one is a killer for me. I have no regrets about moving on from this phone to my next Nokia, which is the N81.

I should also say, that I don�t think it�s just me. I�ve tested this with dozens of people. I try it out on everyone I show this phone to, and in most cases, they have the same result. To be fair, there are loads of people who don�t have this problem, and don�t push the slider to answer the phone. However, it is often just as likely that I�ll hang up an incoming call simply by the act of reaching for my phone to pick it up. Often, my phone is in my coat pocket or out of sight when it rings, so I usually just reach for it blindly. For whatever reason, invariably, my fingers somehow end up touching the red button, and just like that, the call dies. It�s just too easy for this to happen for my liking. So, either all the Nokia engineers are left-handed, or they assume too much. Maybe they should hire me to be a product tester....

While we�re talking about the phone, I should also add that it�s not the easiest phone to actually use. You have to be really precise about lining up the phone to your ear. If it�s off-center just a little bit, you can�t hear a thing. I�m not big on walking and talking, but when I do, I really have to concentrate on keeping the phone in a tight zone, otherwise you can�t hear a thing.

I also find it�s not that simple to make a phone call. You can�t just open the phone and dial away. It goes into lock mode almost instantly, and you have to unlock the phone to start dialing. It doesn�t take much, but it�s another little step you�d rather not have to take to make a simple phone call. And then, of course, you can�t just dial a call. You have to click through a few options to place the call. Is it a voice call or a video call? Jeez � just make the call � too much choice is a bad thing. I know the phone has tons of advanced features, but making a call should be pretty easy and intuitive.

Enough on the phone. It�s ok at best, but this is Nokia after all. These issues � both big and small � just shouldn�t be in the equation. I�d love to hear your take on this. I don�t know about you, but if I was buying this phone � the better part of $700 � I would not be a happy customer.

What else? Well, the other stuff is minor in comparison, but still worth mentioning. As good as the camera is, it�s really only good for staged photos. No question about the quality of results � what�s not to like about 5 mega pixels? However, this is not an SLR, so there has to be some give and take here. The N95 isn�t very good for quick-response point and click situations. It takes time for the shutter to kick in, so if your subject is moving, chances are you�re going to miss the moment. I often have to take many shots just to get one I can use, but that was also my experience with other N Series phones. Nothing new here, but still an issue. For me, the N95 is a camera as much as it is a phone. I really love being able to just shoot in the moment, but if there�s a lot of motion involved, the results can be very mixed.

Similar story for the camera features. The zoom is pretty good, but it takes a while to do. By the time I�ve set up the shot, it�s too late. Oh well. More troubling is the positioning of the toggle switches on the top of the camera. Ready for this one? On the far right is the clicker to take the photo � or activate the video. There are two other switches on the top � a zoom toggle on the left and a photo/video mode toggle on the right - just next to the shutter clicker. Again, being a rightie � as most of us are � wouldn�t you think that the zoom would be on the right? No --- it�s on the left. So, just when you�ve decided a close-up would improve the photo, guess what? You�ve switched from photo to video mode. Arghhh!!! And � it takes a while to switch from one mode to another, and of course, by then, it�s way too late � the moment has long passed.

Finally, two small points that seem to be common to N Series phones. First, the battery life can be short, and more annoying is how it can go from 3 bars of power to zero in no time. Just when you figured you have another hour or so, it dies with no warning. Second is the limited memory that comes with the phone. This one came with a 256 MB micro chip, but that just doesn�t take you very far with a device this sophisticated. As with N93, I had to buy a chip with more memory, and once I did that, it�s worked just fine. A small thing, but still a reality any user will have to live with.

All told, definitely a mixed bag. I�m not a power user, so I don�t really get the full benefit of the N95, and you�ll have to read other reviews for a more comprehensive assessment. However, for my everyday needs, it�s got some great strengths, but some significant shortcomings. I realize many people think this is the best Nokia yet, and it probably is. I�m certainly glad I�ve had a chance to experience it, but it�s not a game-changer for me. Time to move on the N81 � I�ll let you know if the story will be different there.

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ipcom said...

Posted by: Pieter

Being left handed I don't suffer from inadvertently hanging up. I tried it with my right hand and see what you mean. My complaints about my N95 8GB (firmware 15.x.x.x):
1) battery life is absolutely terrible. Even more when you have an (inactive) SIP link over 3G or a wifi link. Apparently the tiny periodic SIP keep-alive packets are enough to totally drain the battery faster then you can say "where's my charger".
2) Nokia's SIP implementation is terrible. If you register with 2 SIP servers and stick those in 2 different profiles then the Nokia will autoselect (usually the wrong) from-URI which will result in a failed Internet call. It should off course ask which profile and "from" address you would like to use before making the call. How difficult can that be? Did they actually test this stuff?
3) IMAP just does not work. Most people I know have a bunch of email folders in which they sort their email. Same for me. My N95 does not even get past the "Folder subscriptions" phase when contacting my IMAP server which has for example 35 nested folders in one of the main folders. It just hangs there with the progress bar implying that it's doing stuff. Not. I checked with a LAN sniffer and it's doing jack. Updating mail boxes does not work either. Hello Nokia?! Isn't the N95 supposed to be a business phone? Did you actually test IMAP?!

Hopefully the next firmware release will fix some of this annoying stuff. If it doesn't well... I've been burned by Nokia before and the N95 is the last chance I am willing to give them. If they don't deliver with the next firmware release they will be banned from my shortlist and I'll happily dust off my Sony Ericsson K750i which works like a charm and will wait for the iPhone 3G. You choose Nokia.

ipcom said...

Posted by: Lanre

ok maybe you should learn to put your thumb on the side of the phone like you're supposed to. I dont see how placing your thumb at the right corner is instinctive. It's one thing to use a phone and it's another to USE IT PROPERLY. I don't think this is a design flaw. You need to be realistic and know that no phone can cater to everyone. And as for reaching for your phone blindly and accidentally ending the call, maybe you should explore further the settings on this phone. You can actually set your nokia N95 to lock the keypad automatically when you shut the slider and unlock it when you open slider. So as long as you slider is shut when you get a call you dont end it before opening the slider. A little knowledge goes a long way. I bet you never tried to see you could circumvent some of your problems instead you want to whine and blame nokia. Face it dude! you have a bad habit. blame yourself not nokia!

ipcom said...

Posted by: minamito

Nokia N95 Video
Nokia N95 Video blog
Nokia N95 spot blog
Nokia N95 - GPS Demo blog

ipcom said...

Posted by: matthew

how do you activate so that the slide answers and cancells calls cos at min mine only answers calls???? thanks...

ipcom said...

Posted by: Perla

I have upgraded my phones quite often in the past year, I started with the Pink Motorola RAZR which SUCKED at only 6MB storage and no memory slot, after that I chose Nokia, the pink 7373 to be more accurate and I realized I love Nokai phones, it was great and I just kept going, I got myself the N80 but it was so boxy and uglyt that at 4'11 98lbs it just didnt look feminine enough for me, I tried other phones,the pink Samsung 250, a dual SIM card TV phone but nothing compares to my N95, it rocks beyond beleif, my bf got the N73 but this like the N80 has WLAN, great feature especially when traveling and staying at hotels as often as I do.
The battery time, yeah ok sucks but come on now people, that's why they sell extra batteries, spare and car chargers, it has tons of features and is bound to use up battery faster then you can say "Where's my charger?".
I recommend this phone whole heartedly, unless your a guy with huge hands, in that case do the N81 and deal!
By the way...low memory??? I baught mine in Iraq and it came with 2G, 1 internal and a 1 G SD card which I can upgrade to 2 if and when I like so I dunno what the difference is between this in the states and here.

ipcom said...

Posted by:

i have really nice experience with my n95 ..but i have to admit that the battery has low life comparing to other.

ipcom said...

Posted by: Jon Arnold

Thanks for the comment, N95pic. Sounds like you're not the only one with concerns about the battery life. Glad you like it otherwise.

ipcom said...

Posted by: Mark

I have to agree with Pieter. You need to learn how to use the phone, hanging up calls is your own fault and is not a design flaw, if you don't like it return the phone and go find one that better fits your needs.

ipcom said...

Posted by: Jon Arnold

Thanks for the comment Mark. I agree with the point both you and Pieter made - learn to use the phone. I'll be upfront and say I haven't explored the full range of features, as I'm not a gadget guy. Some people love to do this, but I'm using this phone in a basic way - much the way an average person would. Of course this is no average phone, so that logic only goes so far. However, my point is such basic problems should not be so easy invoke. Sure, I could explore ways to change the settings to avert these, but I shouldn't have to do that. If these problems are happening so easiliy and frequently, I think that's a design shortcoming. However, since the phone isn't being targeted to the mass market, Nokia won't see it that way, and that's fine too. You're also right about how you can't cater to everyone. If you want an idiot-proof phone, get a Motorola, right?