Nokia's flagship handset, the N95, rests at the top of their N-Series line of multimedia computers. This long awaited mobile literally does it all, from phone calls to GPS-enabled driving directions, music to video, Bluetooth to WiFi, and then some. The N95 also represents the state of the art in camera phone technology, featuring a five megapixel auto-focus shooter with a full 30 frames per second video mode - the best specs on any handset currently available for use in the U.S.
All of this technology doesn't come cheap - N95 is available only as an unlocked handset, and at $750 (list) it's the price of a budget laptop computer. So is the new king of Nokia's lineup worthy of its pre-launch hype and still-lofty price tag? Well, I'll put it this way: The N95 is a viable replacement for your current cell phone, camera, mp3 player, Web browser, and GPS unit all in one. It's not quite as good at any of those non-phone functions as a true stand alone unit would be, but it's pretty close. If you can afford it - and don't mind charging the battery every night - the N95 might just be the answer to your consumer electronics convergence dreams. Just don't expect a QWERTY keyboard.
Special thanks to Corey over at Mobile Planet for providing the sample N95 for this review.
The N95 is a candybar slider with a large display, thick profile, and unique bi-directional sliding mechanism. While the handset measures 99x53x21 mm, the sliding portion is quite thin and somehow makes the device as a whole feel a bit smaller than it really is. In the closed position you have access to the phone's large display, front-mounted camera (for video calling overseas) and navigational array featuring a D-pad surrounded by an array of buttons: menu, multimedia, call, cancel, input mode, clear, and two softkeys. Nudging the top layer forward reveals a standard dialing layout, while sliding the layer back uncovers a row of media controls aligned for use with the phone in widescreen mode. A front-mounted ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the N95's display brightness to suit external conditions, which is a nifty feature.
While certainly not unreasonably large, the N95 is a rather squat, stocky handset. At 19mm thick and weighing 120g, this is one of the larger candybar phones on the market right now. Then again, it does more than any other handset out there, and features one of the biggest, best displays you'll find on a phone, so the size isn't really that big of an issue. The phone is finished in plum with silver accents, and features a soft-grip plastic on the sides and back panel that gives it a somewhat similar look as Nokia's N73. N95 is shorter and thicker than N73, but retains the same "luxury high-tech" aesthetics. However, the N95 doesn't feature the same solid build as N73 - where the 73 felt like the mobile handset version of a BMW 7-Series or Mercedes S-Class luxury cruiser, N95 feels just a little underwhelming in hand. Part of it is because the slider is a bit wobbly when extended in either direction and was too easily nudged out of "locked" position when being slipped in or out of a pocket. Another part of it is that chromed plastic buttons on the face of a $750 gadget just seemed a little "off" somehow. I didn't have any problems with the slider (or any other moving parts) actually breaking down - rather, I just expected a little more in the way of build quality out of a flagship "multimedia computer" from a company known for building some of the most solid-feeling handsets out there.
It'd almost be easier to list the features that this phone lacks than to try and catalog everything it can do. There's the camera, the video camera, the gallery, slideshow, and media blogging software, the media player, the GPS functionality, the Web browser with EDGE and Wi-Fi ... and the list goes on.
The N95 does everything it does quite well. RealPlayer handles video playback while Nokia software takes care of listening to music and viewing images in gallery or slideshow mode. Integrated software lets you upload photos direct to your Flickr account or Nokia's Lifeblog service. Visual Radio adds to the entertainment value, and the included suite of office software provides basic functionality for dealing with email attachments and documents on the go.
Series 60 users already know there's a ton of add-on software available out there to extend their smartphone's functionality. While the N95 I tested did suffer from the occasional lag when switching applications, or if I had too many things running at once, in general I was able to multitask and do all of the other things power users are used to. Be forewarned, however - extended use of the phone's many functions will run the battery down in a relative hurry. Expect to charge your N95 every night if you make full use of its media player, WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS functionality.
Voice Command functionality is pretty extensive but doesn't work all that well. I'm not a big voice command user, but during my testing I had some trouble getting the N95 to recognize what I wanted it to do. A quick hunt around the Web revealed similar results from several other users and reviewers.
Speaking of GPS, Nokia's implementation of location-based services on N95 is generally excellent. While turn-by-turn navigation is only available on a fee-based subscription basis, the included Maps application runs right out of the box provided that you have an active Internet connection. I tested the functionality while connected to T-Mobile's EDGE network, and while the initial downloading of maps data took a few minutes, the GPS receiver itself was quick to connect to a satellite and mark my location on the map. Basic searches across categories ranging from "Bars/Pubs" to "Landmarks" and "Public Transit" were speedy and accurate, and the system correctly plotted routes based on active GPS data and the many destinations available in the online database. Detailed guides for many major cities across the globe are also available for purchase and download for use with N95.
The 5 megapixel camera built into the N95 is about as state of the art as it gets - at least for the time being. No, it's not perfect, but it is the best camera phone I've ever seen, and brings camera phones into the realm of stand-alone digital shooters for the first time. An autofocus lens with Carl Zeiss optics and mechanical shutter is backed by an LED diode flash assist light, and protected by a sliding lens cover. What's funny is that over the few weeks I was testing the handset, on more than one occasion when I took it out of my pocket, a friend cried out, "Cool camera!" They were all momentarily stunned when I gently informed them that this was actually a phone ... with a "real camera" glued to its back.
While a hint of graininess can be spotted in a few of the photos I snapped with the N95, in general the results were very impressive. Colors were by and large rich and vibrant, details sharp, and only really suffered in poor lighting. Even in bad lighting, the N95 outdid other camera phones, performing on the level of an entry-level standalone camera. The LED flash helped a little, as did the handset's automatic ISO adjustment, but ultimately dim lighting remains the downfall of even the best camera phone.
The N95's video mode is equally impressive, capturing VGA (640 x 480) movies at a full 30 frames per second with stereo audio. While this phone isn't going to replace your $500 camcorder just yet, it's a far better alternative than any cell phone that's come before it (or at least the equal of Nokia's own N93). An included video cable lets you hook the phone up directly to a TV set for playback of videos and still images on the big screen. As with still photos, lighting is everything when shooting video on N95 - particularly when played back on my 32" TV, clips shot in dim light looked a bit washed out and grainy, while those shot in optimal daylight really looked great. The wow factor of shooting a colorful daytime scene on your phone, and then hooking that phone up to a TV set for playback really can't be denied.
A big drawback to the N95's camera functionality is that it makes you wait. When you open the lens cover you wait a few seconds for the camera to boot up. When you line up a picture, you wait a beat or two for the sensor to focus. When you snap a shot at maximum resolution, you wait a good four or five count for the image to write to memory. On the one hand, given how much functionality is packed into such a small gadget, it's reasonable to expect the handset's processor to take a few moments to switch modes or write a few megabytes worth of data. On the other hand, when you miss a Kodak Moment because your $750 camera phone takes three seconds to get ready, it's pretty annoying.
Don't just take my word for it when it comes to the N95's camera, though. Check out a whole bunch of photos on flickr taken with N95s all across the land: http://flickr.com/cameras/nokia/n95/
Nokia's high-end N-Series phones all sport quality displays. The screen found on the N95 is the best of the bunch though, oddly enough, it's slightly lower-resolution than the company's E70 business handset. N95's 2.6" TFT display is capable of QVGA (240 x 320) resolution at 16 million colors, and a built-in light sensor automatically adjusts its backlighting for optimal viewing and energy conservation.
The screen is really a pleasure to look at, and is well suited to the handset's myriad multimedia capabilities. Still and moving images render crisply and vividly on the display, and text, icons, and graphics are equally easy on the eyes. A "rotate screen" option available on the Web browser and media player activates landscape viewing (as does nudging the slider to reveal the media controls), which is great for video playback and Web browsing in particular. However, the display doesn't always auto-rotate back to portrait orientation when it's supposed to, which is an annoying - if easily rectified - bug.
As with all Series 60 handsets, Active Standby mode lets the user customize the home screen with his choice of application shortcuts and at a glance previews of the day's appointments and to-dos. Active Standby has come to be one of my favorite features on Series 60 (and Series 40) Nokias, as it provides for a basic level of smartphone-like functionality while retaining a clean look and one-click ease of use.
An included a/v cable also allows the N95 to be connected to a television or monitor with RCA jacks for big-screen viewing of photos and video clips (or most anything else on the handset, actually). The cable plugs into N95's headphone jack on one end, and features composite video and L/R stereo audio connections on the other end, which also makes it easy to connect the handset to a stereo system for music listening. This is a pretty nifty feature, but be forewarned that any imperfections in photos or videos shot on the camera phone will be magnified on the big screen. Good photos looked great on my 32" LCD panel, but video clips shot in low light looked grainy on the larger screen.
A second, front-mounted camera is intended primarily for video calling, though that feature is not currently supported by any carriers in the US. This camera is capable of CIF resolution images.
I tested the quad-band GSM N95 on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Audio quality during phone calls was generally excellent, with voices coming through loud and clear on both ends. The phone's integrated speakerphone, headphone jack and Bluetooth connectivity allow for several hands-free calling options, all of which worked quite well. I was able to pair the handset with mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, and also used standard stereo earphones (in conjunction with the phone's built-in mic) for calling.
I did run into one hitch when I was able to hear a caller, but she couldn't hear me. I'm still not exactly sure what happened, but apparently the phone's microphone had been disabled - perhaps because I had used a wireless headset earlier in the day? At any rate, enabling speakerphone and then switching back to "handset" mode fixed the problem, but only after we'd tried calling each other back a few times.
Music stored on the N95 may be played back via built-in stereo speakers or through the phone's headphone jack or stereo Bluetooth connectivity. The internal speakers sound pretty good for a cell phone, but really aren't meant for listening to music for any length of time. I used the phone as a music player connected via the headphone jack to my home and car stereos and also with a few different pairs of headphones. Music quality was generally quite good, though I did notice a higher level of background hiss than I've heard on other music phones. Using my favorite canalphones - Ultimate Ears' super.fi 5 pro - really exposed hiss coming from the phone itself (and not from poor-quality music files), and I'd have to say that the same tracks sounded a little better on my iPod - and on a Nokia N76 or even my old Sony Ericsson w800i - than on the N95. I was a bit surprised by this - hopefully Nokia can address the situation with a firmware update.
The extensive messaging features found on all Series 60 handsets are present on the N95. SMS and MMS messaging and email are all managed by the Messaging application, which can handle POP3 and IMAP email protocols. Setting up email access was relatively painless, and the application will automatically retrieve new email at preset intervals if you leave it running in the background. The email client is best configured to retrieve headers only (and then re-retrieve the bodies of emails you actually want to read), given the constraints of EDGE data speeds, memory capacity, and scrolling through your Inbox on a 2.6" screen. I was also able to access my Webmail via N95's Web browser.
No instant messaging client come pre-installed on the N95, but the flexible Agile Messenger application is available for download. Agile supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo! instant messaging, but they do charge a monthly subscription fee.
If you're within range of an open WiFi network, the N95 can hop on the Net that way with its built-in 802.11b/g connectivity. The WLAN scanning software works quite well, and is directly accessible from the handset's home screen. VoIP calling is also an option if you've got a compatible account and are on a WLAN network. Of course, prolonged WiFi use is a surefire way to drain a cell phone's battery, and battery life is something of an issue with the N95.
The Nokia N95 is a quad-band GSM phone suitable for use with T-Mobile or AT&T in the United States, and a number of GSM networks worldwide. The phone can connect to GPRS and EDGE data networks in the US, and also to high speed HSDPA networks overseas. 802.11b/g (WiFi) and UPnP connections are also supported for WLAN networking.
Nokia built Bluetooth v2.0 into the N95, 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. Bluetooth printing is available with compatible printers, and printing and file transfer is also supported via the integrated mini-USB 2.0 jack. The N95 can also be used as a data modem for laptop tethering via Bluetooth or USB.
If you're a Mac user (like me), note that Nokia is the most-Mac friendly cell phone company this side of Apple themselves. I was able to download an iSync plug-in from Nokia.com that enabled flawless iCal syncing, and Nokia now offers an OS X application for easy media management on compatible handsets including N95.
Nokia's N95 was one of the most anticipated handset launches of the past year or so because of its extensive functionality and unmatched (on paper) 5 megapixel camera. While the handset's UI and software capabilities weren't bound to be much of a surprise to anyone who's used a Series 60 3.1 device, questions about image quality, battery life, form factor, and GPS capabilities made getting one of these babies in hand quite exciting just the same.
After a few weeks with an N95 in tow, I have to say it's met or exceeded all expectations with a few minor caveats. The camera is excellent, but it lacks a real flash. The display is beautiful and the form factor isn't too bad, but the build quality just a shade off from Nokia's high standards. The 3.5mm headphone jack is a music lover's dream, but the music player exhibits a little more background hiss than other quality music phones. The WiFi and GPS functionality work well, but there's no US-compatible 3G data option and some GPS features require a paid subscription.
Still, the N95 is the most full featured cell phone that you can use in the US, and it nudges closer to the holy grail of a camera phone so good it'll replace your standalone digital camera and camcorder all in one. Add to that full Symbian smartphone functionality, HTML Web browsing with integrated WiFi, and a versatile media player, and you've got yourself a true multimedia computer that also happens to make phone calls.
Is the N95 worth that hefty $750 price tag? Personally, I'd have to be pushed pretty hard to spend more than $350 or so on a phone right now. Technology moves so quickly that other 5 MP camera phones are bound to hit the market before too long, and once they do prices should drop across the board (note how 2MP is now the standard for mid-level phones on US carriers, whereas 1.3MP was the norm only a few months ago). Also, the lack of a true camera flash and the handset's 21mm-thick profile are slight turn-offs for me, the latter especially considering the lack of a QWERTY keyboard. Would those minor issues be deal-breakers on a $200 handset I otherwise really liked? Probably not. But when the sticker reads $750, everything had better be as close to perfect as possible. For some power users and early adopters out there, the N95 is close enough to perfect to warrant the big cash outlay. For me, it's an amazing piece of kit (as the English say) that I'm glad I got to try out. But I think I'll pass on the phone and hang on to all that cash for now.