Back in January 2007 I had the chance to tour Nokia’s N-Series Pavilion at CES in Las Vegas. The buzz was all about the N95, Nokia’s then-unreleased flagship device with its 5MP camera, GPS, and extensive list of other features. But the N75 also caught my eye for two main reasons. First, it was by far the sleekest, sexiest handset I’d ever seen with the Nokia name on it. Second, it was being demoed with big ol’ DJ headphones hooked up to its 3.5mm audio jack.
A sexy Nokia with a real headphone port? Running Series 60? I couldn’t wait. Fast forward several months and the N76 is on the streets as an unlocked GSM handset compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile networks here in the US. While it’s still the slimmest Nokia I’ve ever seen, and has a lot going for it under the hood, two big problems with the N76 led to some major disappointment as I tested it out over the course of a few weeks. First, that slim body necessitates a slim battery, and that slim battery wasn’t always enough to power all of the functionality that comes with an N-Series device. Second, whoever decided to put the headphone jack on the phone’s hinge needs to head back to design school. More on that later ...
The N76 is basically a sleeker version of the N75, but it drew a lot of comparisons to the Motorola RAZR when I showed it to friends. At 106 x 52 x 14mm, the phone is long and flat like the iconic RAZR, and also features an etched metal keypad inside. My review sample was black with silver and chrome trim (a red version is also available), and while I didn’t care much for the silver band that wrapped around the outside front of the handset, I have to give kudos to Nokia for trying to step outside of their normal “practical” design aesthetic. On the down side, the glossy finish used on nearly all of the phone’s external surfaces is amazingly fingerprint-friendly. Use the N76 regularly and you’ll simply give up on trying to keep it smudge free.
An external display and three media player buttons grace the outside front cover of the phone, while the back panel features the camera sensor and LED assist light and a sliding battery panel - separated, of course, by said sliver colored accent band. A covered microSD card slot and uncovered AC adapter jack are found on the left edge of the N76, while its right panel houses volume controls, a shortcut key, and a dedicated camera button.
Open the clamshell and your reward is a huge, bright 2.4” LCD screen on top and that RAZR-esque etched metal keypad on the bottom. The standard 12-key dialing layout is augmented by additional buttons found on all of Nokia’s S60 handsets: beyond the five-way D-pad and Call and Cancel, you’ll find two softkeys, and four more buttons for menu, multimedia, edit, and clear. The shiny keypad was responsive and easy to use - typical Nokia functionality despite the fancy etched metal.
The back of the N76 is the site of the phone’s biggest design flaw. There on the hinge, next to the miniUSB port, is the 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. 3.5mm jacks are the bane of my existence as a phone reviewer - so many of today’s phones are marketed as “music phones,” and so few of them include this one 50-cent part that makes it easy to actually use the thing as a music player. Built-in 3.5mm jacks mean access to your favorite headphones without the need for silly adapters or expensive stereo Bluetooth accessories. And yet, so few of today’s handsets have standard headphone ports.
So what does Nokia do? They build their sleekest smartphone with a 3.5mm jack. Hurrah! But they go and put it on the hinge so when you’ve got headphones plugged in, you can’t flip the phone open. Seriously - the plug on your headphones gets in the way of the top part of the phone as you open it, so the best you can do is get the thing part-way open. Same goes for the USB port. Unbelievable.
Display & AudioLike it’s big brother the N75, the N76 sports two displays and both are excellent, though they’re both prone to fingerprints and smudges. On the outside there’s a 1.3” display capable of 160 x 128 pixels of resolution across 262,000 colors. Nokia gave this display pretty comprehensive capabilities, moving beyond the standard “external status display” to include camera viewfinder and music track and EQ information capacities. This display was bright and legible under almost all lighting conditions.
On the inside, the 2.4” display is a pleasure to look at. That’s the upside of the N76’s long form factor - there’s plenty of room for the main display. Though I wish they’d given this display the higher resolution found in handsets like the E60, at 320 x 240 over 16 million colors, this screen is nothing to sneeze at (or on ... sorry, couldn’t resist). Text, images, and video clips all looked crisp and bright in all but the harshest of lighting conditions. And an ambient light sensor adjusts the screen’s brightness according to external conditions.
Display options include customizable themes and wallpapers - minus any of the AT&T carrier branding found on the N75 - and one of my favorite Series 60 features, the Active Standby screen. Active Standby displays a row of application shortcuts and reminders of upcoming appointments and tasks on the home screen along with time, network, and messaging (voice, SMS, and email) information. If you’re like me and rely on your cellphone’s calendar to keep you on task and schedule, a feature like Active Standby is a huge plus.
I tested the quad-band GSM N76 on both AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Performance was excellent on voice calls on both networks. The handset exhibited virtually no hiss during calls, and people on the other end came through loud and clear without exception. The built-in speakerphone was pretty good, as well - not quite as amazing as the N75’s, but certainly better than average.
The N76 can also be used with wired or wireless headsets, and supports both stereo Bluetooth and standard headphones with 3.5mm connectors. Again, I was really disappointed to discover that plugging a pair of headphones into the jack makes it impossible to fully open the phone’s flip. Grrr. And while the music player includes a fully customizable graphic equalizer, the EQ settings can only be accessed when the phone is open. Grrr.
However, music playback with a quality set of stereo headphones was excellent. Nokia’s music player application is easy to use and pretty comprehensive, and after adjusting the EQ settings to my liking I had a near-iPod experience listening to my AAC and mp3 music files (WMAs are also supported). Music played back through the built-in speaker was loud, if quite tinny.
I had no trouble pairing the N76 to a Bluetooth headset (I tried several), and sound quality was quite good using both mono and A2DP-compliant stereo headsets. Voice calls made via Bluetooth came through loud and clear, though quality of course was dependent on the earpiece being used.
Messaging, Internet & ConnectivityThe extensive messaging features found on all Series 60 handsets are present on the N76. SMS and MMS messaging and email are all managed by the Messaging application, which can handle POP3 and IMAP email protocols. Since this is an unlocked phone, there are no carrier-branded Email or IM clients to be found. That’s good in the sense that you’re not being nudged towards any specific solution or provider, but bad in the sense that there are no handy-dandy wizards to help configure your email accounts.
Still, setting up email access was relatively painless, and the email app does a pretty good push email impersonation if you set it to check for new messages at preset intervals. The N76 also supports Email attachments (a handy feature combined with the QuickOffice document viewer), and I was also able to access my Webmail via the handset’s Web browser.
Nokia’s predictive text system worked pretty well on the N76, but I tend to prefer those found on Sony Ericsson and Samsung handsets a bit more. Whether it’s my usage habits or actually unavoidable, I wind up needing an extra button press or two to choose from word matches or add my own words to the dictionary on Nokias. Tapping out messages on the handset’s etched metal keypad was pretty comfortable, though not as plush as the experience using the N76’s giant buttons.
It’s a Series 60 device, so the N76 has one of the best Web browsers you’ll find on a cellphone anywhere. Okay, it might not be iPhone’s multi-touch Safari browser, but it’s actually built on the same technology. If you’re used to WAP browsers meant only to show mobile optimized sites, like those found on most carrier-branded handsets, the S60 browser will blow you away. It shows real Web pages and features a nifty mini map that lets you scan a thumbnail of the active page for easier navigation on cell phone-sized displays. The browser also supports RSS feed subscriptions, a feature that more and more seems like it was custom made for cell phone-based information retrieval.
Being an unlocked Series 60 handset, the N76 is also ready for all kinds of upgrades via user-installable applications. Browse some Symbian users’ sites on the Web and you’ll find plenty of Internet utility software, from chat applications to programs for FTP, SSH, and other high-tech, acronym-y kind of stuff. With an N76 and a data connection, you can do a lot, believe me.
The Nokia N76 is an unlocked quad-band GSM phone compatible with AT&T, T-Mobile, or any other GSM network in the United States and overseas (check with AT&T for global roaming information). The phone can connect to GPRS and EDGE data networks in the US, and 3G UTMS networks abroad. Lack of US-spec 3G data makes for slower Web browsing, but I found it fast enough for checking Email and occasional forays onto the Net.
Nokia built Bluetooth v2.0 into the N76, including the A2DP profile for stereo audio. I was able to transfer files back and forth between the handset and my computer, and also sync my contacts and calendar data. File transfer is also supported via a Pop-Port to USB cable. Depending on your carrier and data plan, the N76 can also be used as a data modem for laptop tethering via Bluetooth or USB.
ConclusionI commend Nokia for breaking out of their “rugged, functional, not so sexy” design mold with the N76. Though it’s easy to knock it as a RAZR knock-off, I still think it’s notable that Nokia built a slim flip phone without compromising any functionality. Series 60 OS, music player with external controls and 3.5mm headphone jack, 3G data (in Europe, anyway) -- this is a powerhouse of a handset packed into a tiny little body.
Problem is, packing all that functionality into that tiny body led to two design decisions that really hamper the N76. Slim phones have slim batteries, and the N76’s gets drained fairly quickly if you make use of the music player, stereo Bluetooth, and those S60 apps. I was able to regularly get a full day’s use out of the phone without much worry, but I know that’s not enough for folks used to charging their mobiles every other day (or even less frequently). So battery life is one knock against this Nokia.
The other knock is that darned headphone jack. Such a good idea, but such bad placement. It would have been hard, I know, but I think Nokia’s engineers could have found a way to move the jack to a side or bottom panel - anywhere to get it out of the way of the flip mechanism. But, alas, there it is on the back hinge. It’s not entirely unusable, but it’s a much bigger nuisance than it should be.
With higher-tech music phones like iPhone, Sony Ericsson’s Walkman line, and even the new Motorola RAZR2’s already on the market, it’s hard to justify N76’s premium price - especially in light of these design flaws. Still, it’s great to see Nokia pushing the style envelope a little. Their handsets have so much going for them under the hood that hopefully the N76 is a harbinger of great things to come from Nokia in the realm of form meeting function.