It has been a year since we originally reviewed the Nokia N95, though the model we saw last year was an unlocked version with mostly Euro-centric network bands. Now we’re taking a look at the Nokia N95 8GB NAM model, which adds not only support for AT&T’s fast HSDPA network, but also bumps the internal memory to a whopping 8GB. Last year, the N95 was the reigning king of multimedia phones, but since then, we’ve had plenty of time with the competition, especially Apple’s iconic iPhone.
Design – Good
Let’s get this out of the way first, because this is definitely the Nokia N95′s low point. The design on this phone needs a serious overhaul, onscreen and off. The hardware is a true brick, an almost-rectangular phone with few curves, though we definitely like the soft-touch black paint to the silver we saw on the earlier model. The screen, now 2.8-inches diagonally, is gorgeous, a sparkling, 16-million color display. The buttons are standard Symbian OS fare, strange squiggles and symbols that don’t correspond to intuition. The keypad is very well designed, with a nice hump to each row of keys that made them easy for multi-tap typing. The slide opens the other way, as well, revealing a thin column of multimedia playback keys. These were actually a nice touch, and we wish the iPhone had similar hardware playback control.
The Symbian S60 interface is not only aging, it wasn’t great to begin with. Basically a polished-looking grid of icons and folders, we’re not fans of any of it. The icons often don’t represent their corresponding app, like the two side-by-side cubes that stand for “Download!,” and the menu structure isn’t organized well. We did a lot of digging and sidestepping menus to find the options we wanted. We dug through seven layers just to change the phone’s theme, for instance. All the while, we missed touch. We’re not fans of touch sensitivity as a gimmick, but on a multimedia smartphone, it can certainly make navigating the interface much easier. Calling – Very good
Call quality on the Nokia N95 8GB North American model was just as good as we remembered on the older edition of this phone. Calls sounded crisp and clean, with a microphone that was among the best we’ve used. Battery life on this model was somewhat diminished, down to just under five hours, but we suspect that the HSDPA radio, which was not active on our last test phone, could be the culprit (it usually is). The phone also packs all the features we like, including speaker independent voice dialing, Bluetooth for handsfree use, conference calling and an excellent speakerphone.
Synchronizing our contacts with our desktop was a frustrating task. It took a couple installations and multiple restarts before the Nokia PC Suite correctly grabbed our phone book from Outlook and synchronized with the phone. Strangely, we had success in a Bluetooth pairing before a proper USB sync. The Nokia PC Suite has been improved since we last saw it, it’s now organized better and looks more polished. But it’s still a buggy piece of software, and not up to par with a Windows Mobile phone synchronized with Exchange ActiveSync.
Messaging – Good
The Nokia N95 is a capable messaging phone, but you’ll have to do a bit of work setting things up, first. Basic POP and IMAP accounts will be fine, but the phone wasn’t able to automatically setup our accounts, so we had a lot of manual entry on our hands. Also, the phone doesn’t ship with an IM client for AOL, MSN or Yahoo, though with the wide-open Symbian platform, surely such options are out there. The phone really shines with MMS messaging, though. Not just with standard MMS, so much, but Nokia also offers plenty of options for sending, printing and uploading photos to various first- and third-party services.
Multimedia – Very good
In terms of sheer capabilities, the Nokia N95 8GB definitely trumps the iPhone. It can handle more music formats, notably WMA formats, as well as Real Video files, which gives it more options for video downloads. Music also sounds great on the phone. The speakers may be tiny, but they are stereo speakers, and sound better than most phones we’ve used. Also, we like the 3.5mm headphone jack, and had no trouble pairing the phone with our stereo Bluetooth speakers.
For music management, users can choose between Nokia’s PC Suite or Windows Media Player. In fact, we chose both, and transferred a handful of songs using each app. Neither was as easy or intuitive as iTunes, either for transferring or organizing music on the phone. Also, transfers were very slow on this device. A 350MB transfer took us almost 10 minutes, which is very pokey, about half the potential speed for USB 1.2, and a fraction of what USB 2.0 should be capable of.
In terms of video, MP4 files worked just fine, though took an awfully long time to translate and transfer to the device. A DiVX-encoded .avi file we sent to the phone got stuck in the transfer software. It took almost an hour to translate the file into an appropriate format and aspect ratio, then another 10 minutes to synchronize to the phone.
Camera – Very good
The Nokia N95 8GB has one of the best cameras we’ve ever used on a cell phone. Unfortunately, that isn’t saying very much, but the N95 could definitely replace a cheap point and shoot. Images were good, even viewing them at their full 5-megapixel resolution. We still found plenty of issues, though. Images had a generally grey cast to them, and we found plenty of digital artifacts and over-sharpening in our pics. Also, the LED flash helped more in shooting video than in still photographs. In all, though, a more impressive lens than we’ve found on most phones, including many so-called cameraphones.
Web browsing – Very good
The browser on Nokia N-series devices has always been among our favorites. Pages look very good in the browser pane, close, though not exactly like, their desktop counterparts. The Safari browser on the iPhone looks more accurate, with better text and layout handling, but the Nokia browser is a close second. We also like the browser’s mini-map feature, which helps you navigate by showing a thumbnail-size version of the page with your current location, coupled with the phone’s responsive buttons, which helped us scroll through large, complicated pages very quickly. Also, with the N95′s North American networking bands, pages loaded very quickly.
Navigation – Very good
The Nokia N95 now comes with Nokia Maps 2.0. The navigation software is much better than the carrier-supplied navigation software, like VZ Navigator or TeleNav on AT&T’s phones, in almost every way. It looks better, scrolls much smoother, and tracked us better through our entire route than most carrier phones have. The device was wise about walking versus driving directions, and we found the point of interest database to be well-stocked, though certainly not perfect, as it missed the ATM at the end of our block and sent us further on. Voice navigation sounded good, and downloading new voice languages, as well as capabilities like pedestrian directions, was easy over Nokia’s service. Avoid the city guides, though, as the New York guides we downloaded were poorly stocked and not worth the extra expense.
Laptop sidekick – Very good
After some initial trouble with setup, Nokia’s One Touch Access proved itself an easy tethered modem app. Similar to the cellular carrier’s proprietary apps (though not quite as buggy), we had trouble getting the program to set itself automatically for our AT&T SIM card, but some Internet digging found the answers we needed. Then, the phone had us surfing the Web on our laptops at speeds close to 1Mbps, with uploads regularly topping 300Kbps, an even more impressive feat. We’re still curious as to why none of the phone’s we’ve tested on AT&T’s supposedly faster HSDPA network could top the Sprint Mogul by HTC running on Sprint’s Rev. A EV-DO network, but we were happy with our results on the N95 nonetheless.
Odds and ends
In testing the phone for the second time, we were again struck by all the features it has, especially those which the iPhone lacks. Here are the most significant, in no particular order: stereo Bluetooth; GPS with turn-by-turn voice navigation; 3G networking; built-in stereo speakers; FM radio; 5-megapixel camera, with autofocus and flash; video recording at DVD-quality resolution and framerate; front-facing camera; voice dialing and MMS messaging. We could also mention the hardware media keys or the real 3.5mm headphone jack, as opposed to the iPhone’s hidden jack that requires an adapter. If anything, this shows not only how much the iPhone lacks, but also how far a great interface design, like Apple’s can get you.
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