Any handset make with a music phone on the market will now have to face the inevitable comparison to a certain computer company's newly unveiled entry into the mobile marketplace. However as flashy as the iPhone looks to be, companies like Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and LG have been equipping cell phones with digital music players for quite awhile now.
Nokia's N91 is something of a breakthrough product in that its one of the first mobile phones to pack an onboard hard drive for media storage that measures in the Gigabytes, not Megabytes. With 4GB of onboard storage (an 8GB special edition model is also available), the N91 has the same capacity as an iPod nano, making it a true contender to the "Holy Grail of Convergence" sought by manufacturers looking to replace your phone and music player with one device.
Problem is, as good as the N91 looks on paper, it doesn't quite deliver in hand. The handset isn't lacking in features, what with WiFi connectivity, a 2MP camera, and Symbian Series 60 smartphone capabilities. But it just doesn't have the look and feel of a true contender to the music phone throne. Combined with its hefty pricetag, the growing capacity of flash memory cards ? and yes, the flash and dazzle of the iPhone ? Nokia's N91 feels like a great idea in need of some serious updating.
In a previous review, I called the Nokia N80 "a little brick of a cell phone." If the N80 was a little brick, then the N91 is something approaching a cinder block. To be fair, portable electronics have become so small and light that my frame of reference is no doubt skewed. But compared to today's other state-of-the-art mobiles, the N91 is downright clunky. Measuring 113.1 x 55.2 x 22 mm
and weighing 164g, this slider phone is long, wide, thick, and heavy (though not quite as thick as the aforementioned N80). Add to that a housing that flares out even wider at the top and a control panel that slides down even longer at the bottom, and you've got a phone that won't get lost in your pocket or purse, anyway.
The front of the N91 shows a 1.3 x 1.6" display flaned by a small speaker grille to the top and a row of controls - four buttons and a joystick - below. Beneath the controls is a sliding panel with a five-key music control pad on its surface. Sliding the panel down reveals a fourteen button dialing keypad beneath. Despite the handset's ample size, the dialing keys are rather small and may pose some inconvenience for people with large fingers.
On the back of the phone, the 2MP camera sensor is the sole visible feature. The bottom portion of the back panel slides off to reveal the battery and SIM card slots.
A single button on the top panel of the N91 controls power and profiles and sits adjacent to a lock switch, and a dual headphone/remote control jack. The headphone jack is sized at 3.5mm, so it's compatible with standard stereo headsets. The included in-line remote plugs into both jacks and replicates the front panel music controls as well as the 3.5mm headphone port. The bottom of the handset has a single port for use with the included AC adapter.
Side panel features include a volume rocker switch and mini-USB port on the left and a battery release button on the right. While I was pleased to see the inclusion of a standard USB port for connectivity, I was somewhat surprised by the lack of a dedicated camera button.
The N91's housing is made largely of steel parts, which gives it a solid feel that would be luxurious on a more sleekly designed handset. Same with the silver chrome and grey color scheme. As it is, the phone has an undoubtedly well constructed air to it, but its overall bulk and oddly-flared shape render it more gangly than sexy overall.
Of course, much of the bulk can be attributed to the onboard hard drive which at the original time of the N91's conception was the only way to get 4GB of storage into a mobile handset. With flash memory formats such as Sony's Memory Stick Pro series now available in 4 and 8GB models, however, that storage can easily be matched in a much smaller and lighter device. Sony Ericsson's w950i Walkman phone features 4GB of onboard storage in a 15mm thick, 112g package, and the forthcoming iPhone promises up to 8GB in an 11.6mm thin package. Nokia certainly could - and, I think, would do well to - release a flash memory based update to the N91 if they're serious about competing in the high end music phone space.
All of Nokia's N-Series handsets are multimedia monsters. The N91 is the most music-centric of the phones, but still retains the smartphone functionality of all Series 60 Symbian devices.
The N91's music player does basically everything you'd want a digital music player to do - with the exception of displaying album art and certain flavors of copy-protected tracks. The N91 can handle mp3, AAC/eAAC+, WMA and FM stereo audio, and processes metadata to organize your collection by artist, album, track, genre, and so on. Music quality was on par with Sony Walkman phones - and rivaled that of my iPod - with quality earphones and use of the built-in graphic equalizer. The music player also supports playlist creation and importing m3u playlist files, which is a handy feature.
Syncing music to the N91 is an easy task, thanks to support for USB 2.0 data transfer and both Windows Media Player for WIndows XP and iTunes for Mac OS X. After downloading a plug-in from Nokia's website, I was able to hook the N91 up to my Mac via USB and sync/manage its music just like I do my iPod - from inside of iTunes. Very nice. Protected content including tracks purchased from the iTunes Music Store will not play back on the N91 (that's Apple's doing and not Nokia's).
On the non-music side of multimedia, support is included for mpeg4 and Real video, Flash animations, and jpeg photos in individual or slideshow views. Videos and still images alike looked good on the display, though they didn't pop like they do on the high-resolution displays found on the N73/80/93.
Personal Information Management (PIM) features on the N91 are extensive, and the Calendar and Messaging apps particularly benefit from the Series 60 UI's Active Standby feature. A row of application shortcut icons is displayed on the standby screen above a list of timely alerts (appointments, new messages, etc.). Both sets of information are, of course, customizable. The N91's contact manager can also store more entries than you're likely to ever need, thanks to it's limitless design and the 4GB of onboard memory.
While the N91 is tailored for music fans out of the box, the flexibility of Series 60 allows for near-endless customization by way of user-installable applications. With some downloading and tweaking, the N91 can be rendered as powerful a mobile office device as it is a mobile music player. The built-in WiFi connectivity is a huge boon to the phone's potential as a smartphone solution for music fanatics.
Reviewing the N80, I wrote, "Nokia. why a 3 megapixel camera but no auto-focus? Why, I ask you, why?" The lack of autofocus on the N91's two megapixel shooter is a bit less egregious, I suppose, but none the less frustrating.
Also missing from the N91's camera functions are a dedicated access button, flash or assist light, and most software features and settings one would expect to find on a "serious" camera phone. While I'm sure Nokia had its reasons, I'm perplexed as to why they bothered to build a 2MP sensor into the N91 while leaving off many of the useful, largely software-based accessories? Other models in their range (N93, N90, N73, etc.) already feature good camera controls, so it's not like Nokia R&D would have been building them from scratch for the N91. Just port 'em over!
That being said, image quality on the N91's camera was pretty good. Under good lighting conditions, a steady hand and keen eye can certainly capture good photos using the phone. But those used to the more imaging-centric offerings in Nokia's N-Series (or SE's k750, w800, or k790/800 models) will likely miss auto-focus, flash, and more advanced photo adjustment options.
The N91 can also record video at resolutions up to CIF (352x288) using the main camera. Video is recorded with sound, and length is only limited by the amount of free memory available on the device - which should be ample unless you have the hard drive loaded to the max with music. Video quality was impressive for a phone, and playback looked sharp on the handset's display.
The display on the N91 is good, but pales in comparison to screens found on other handsets in its price range, including those in Nokia's own N-Series. I'm not quite sure why Nokia built the N91 with a 176 x 208 display when they'd already released the N80 with an ultra-high resolution of 352 x 416. Reading text and viewing icons, images, and videos on the N91 is fine, but not on par with the experience yielded by the N80 or even higher-resolution E70. Again, for a phone display the N91's screen is just fine - but for a high-end multimedia handset, it left me wanting a little.
Nokia's Series 60 interface is clean and easy to navigate, offering a more PC-like experience than most mobile phones. Menus are viewable as lists or grids, and submenus are intuitive and logically laid-out. Themes, wallpapers, and text are all user-customizable, as is the previously mentioned Active Standby screen. The phone also features an ambient light sensor which automatically adjusts the screen's brightness to suit external conditions.
I tested the N91 on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. Audio was clear on both mine and the other end of calls, and the phone had volume to spare whether on standard or speakerphone mode. The lack of an 850 band means that some GSM subscribers in the US may experience reception issues with the N91, though I had no such problems.
The speakerphone also worked quite well, which wasn't surprising considering that this, is Nokia's top of the line music phone. Music playback on the speakers was good for a phone, but not nearly as satisfying as listening on headphones or wired up to a stereo system.
The N91 comes with a wired stereo headset with an in-line remote control and microphone that worked quite well for voice calls and also pumped out pretty good stereo music. As mentioned, the 3.5mm jacks found on both the remote and the handset itself allow for the use of any stereo headset, and my tests with Etymotic ER-6i earbuds yielded excellent results.
Bluetooth headsets are supported, though A2DP stereo over Bluetooth is not, which is a testament to the N91's original design/announce date of Spring 2005. The N91 paired easily with a headset and voice quality during calls was quite good.
Like other Series 60 devices, the N91 has support for SMS, MMS, and IM messaging. Messaging is available through cellular service as well as WiFi WLAN networks. Use of the pre-installed IM client requires a bit more configuration than what's necessary on your standard T-Mobile or Cingular branded phone, but the third-party Agile Messenger client for S60 provides "off the shelf" support for AOL, Yahoo!, MSN, and ICQ instant messaging.
Composing SMS and MMS messages on the N91 was straightforward, but the somewhat small buttons on the handset's keypad could make for some slippery typing. Nokia's predictive text input system worked well and provides a handy display of how many characters as you're composing a message.
The included Email client supports multiple POP3 and IMAP accounts, though it does not support BlackBerry Connect push email. The messaging application will, however, continuously check for and download new email headers if you leave it running in the background. Several S60-compatible third party email solutions are available for download and installation.
While the N91 is designated as a music-centric device, its 802.11b/g WiFi connectivity and support for EDGE cellular data transfer gives it the speed to handle Internet-related tasks. The Series 60 Web browser is based on Apple's Safari browser, and while it doesn't render as sharply here as on the higher-resolution displays on other Nokia handsets, it's still a joy to use.
A tri-band GSM handset, the N91 supports the GSM 900/1800/1900 bands as well as GPRS and EDGE data transfer. The N91 also features support for UMTS. The phone is suitable for use abroad on T-Mobile and other GSM networks, and comes with a European voltage charger that requires an adapter for use in American households.
The N91 also features integrated WLAN connectivity with support for 802.11b/g networks including WEP encryption and WPA. Connecting to any available network was easy via the Connections Manager application, and WiFi reception was quite good for a mobile device. Note that extended use of the WiFi antenna does put quite a strain on the battery.
Bluetooth includes support for mono audio devices as well as file transfer and syncing. I had no trouble pairing the N91 with a mono headset or my computer. The phone features dedicated AC adapter and USB ports - a welcome change from Nokia's usual PopPort solution.
The phone has 4GB of onboard storage by way of a 3,600 rpm hard drive. The N91 Music Edition handset features an 8GB hard drive.
Things change quickly in the world of cellular telephones. When the Nokia N91 was first announced just a year and a half ago, it was revolutionary for packing a staggering 4 GB of storage space into a mobile handset. What you gave up in terms of form you got back in spades with one of the first phones that could truly double as a music player you could load up with an iPod-esque quantity of songs.
Nowadays four gigs isn't even the max for flash memory cards. Ignoring for a moment Apple's potentially game-changing iPod/phone hybrid device coming down the pike this Summer, Sony Ericsson has the N91 bested in terms of size and style with its w950 Walkman phone, not to mention its myriad lower-cost handsets that can be expanded to 8GB of storage space via Memory Stick Pro cards. As such, the N91 quickly turned from revolutionary device to a relic reminiscent of those giant "Car Phones" found in Mercedes and Rolls Royces back in the 1980s.
The N91 is solid in terms of its performance, connectivity, and sound quality, and it even bests other music phones with its combination of Symbian OS smartphone capabilities and a 2 megapixel camera. However, the N91 needs a serious makeover if Nokia wants to keep it as a competitive player in the music phone marketplace. Especially once the iPhone and its slim profile and touchscreen interface comes onto the scene. With the advent of low-cost flash memory and it's new Web-based music recommendation system, I wouldn't be too surprised to see Nokia unveil a new music-centric addition to the N-Series this year. They'd should, for the N91 has the potential to be a great device if it can get some new industrial design.