Trying hard to like the N96

For the past month or so I’ve been using the Nokia N96. I have the N96-1 which as Nokiaphiles know is the Euro edition so no 3G for the US. That has not been too much of an issue because I’ve had regular overseas trips. For the first time since I started writing about mobile technology I’ve been able to fully test the capabilities of a device in a very global context.

The N96 has been a very mixed bag. On the surface it’s a really good looking mobile handset. The hardware design of the Nseries line has evolved considerably since the N70 and particularly in the N9x line, Nokia’s flagship tier of Nseries, there’s a great deal of power in your hand. The N96 continues in the same line as the N95 and shares many functions and even specs. The screen is gorgeous and makes watching video a pleasure in either portrait or landscape modes. As good as the hardware is is pretty muc exactly how unreliably the software has performed. I’ll go into some more detail, but in many situations, I’ve found the software has actually defeated the potential experience I could have been having through the hardware’s capabilities.

First the good.

The N96 is the current headliner for the Nokia Nseries line and has some very serious specs to boot! Coming from an N95 you’ll notice that the media keys around the navi-wheel (which does not offer scrolling) appear and disappear contextually when the media player is enabled and the slider is either up or the device is unlocked and in the closed position. The landscape slider reveals the media keys on the side which also change with (I think they are OLED) as you move between music or video and N-Gage when the center two become your game-pad standard A/B buttons.

The screen is a 2.8″ QVGA display which works great indoors or out. I have the N96 set to auto-rotate which I really like though it can stick for a few moments longer than you might like. Auto rotation uses the sensor to detect the orientation of the handset and rotates the UI accordingly. The side of the device does NOT include the gallery button next to the shutter which is annoying as I used that daily on the N95. I think the lack of a covered lens on the 5MP Carl Zeiss camera is the bigger miss. Why offer such a high quality camera and make it so easy to scratch? There’s a kickstand hiding in the border of the camera lens which flips out to let you place the N96 on a table (or airplane tray) to comfortably watch video. There’s a keypad lock switch next to the 3.5mm headphone jack and after a day of use I wondered why this had only existing on the Nokia Tablets until now.

On the inside, the N96 offers a relatively low (128MB if I remember correctly) amount of RAM, but there’s a 16GB drive to compensate. I saw low only because I’ve run out of memory with a few apps open failry frequently. 128MB used to be cool, but apparently no more in today’s multimedia multitasking world. I’ve also loaded an 8GB MicroSD card so I’m able to carry a whopping 24GB of data in my pocket! USB 2.0 Hi-Speed makes it painless to move large files back and forth with your mac or pc. I’ve been using the N96 as my main media player and have been generally very pleased with the results. Sound quality is solid and I’ve used both my Shure 420 Earphones as well as the Nokia BH903 Bluetooth headset in regular rotation.

The N96 is the first Nseries with DVB-H which means you can receive digital TV over the air in countries in which this is supported. I’ve only gotten a signal and reception in Frankfurt Germany and Helsinki, Finland. The N96 has been with me in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, London, Germany, Ireland, and by the time this post goes live Copenhagen (only had 30 min to run through the airport). DVB-H is definitely cool though aside from the limited market penetration (no fault of Nokia) there are only a few channels of video and then typically a few more of music. I can’t see using it that frequently though I suppose if I lived in one of the active markets it might be quite nice on the bus or train to and from work.

The N96 runs the Feature Pack 2 version of S60 like the N78 released before it. I’ve shown how FP2 works previously and I have only seen one additional feature in the N96 by comparison which I’ll address shortly. A key benefit of FP2 is over the air non-destructive firmware updates! This is a huge enhancement as you can FINALLY update your device as new releases are available without having to start over by reinstalling all your applications.

Now the bad …

The new feature within the N96 is a power saver mode available from the profiles menu (press once on your power key if you don’t use it that way). You might be wondering why the N96 would need a power saver … well allow me to share my disappointment in Nokia’s choice of the BL-5F 950Mah battery. This is the same crap battery that’s in the Nokia N95-1. When I saw and asked about this back in February at Mobile World Congress, I was told there were software enhancements that would enable the N96 to be more power efficient with the same battery. Sadly, I’m not seeing that at all. This is definitely a device that needs to be charged during the day if you use it as it was intended. I’ve found using power saver combined with offline mode on planes definitely helps things out if you are just doing media playback… When the low battery warnings start coming you can get close to an hour of additional use. On the flip side, the battery charges back up qui

I’m on my third N96. I believe the retail unsubsidized price of the N96 is around $900. For that much money my expectations are that I’ll be blown away by both the specs and the performance. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to make it through a day without multiple freezes and restarts. My skill at removing the battery cover to remove the battery while walking is unparalleled!

I’ve also noticed that the N96 is without a doubt the slowest mobile device I’ve ever seen start up. There’s anywhere between a 1-5 minute wait on start from when the homescreen appears and the battery and signal meters become active. This delay can actually take even longer and is rarely on the low end of the range. Every other device I’ve ever used has been ready to go within seconds of a cold start. Until this happens the N96 appears to be stalled — Key presses are not recognized and you are unable to make or receive calls. Because the N96 tends to need a restart more than once a day, this aspect of things is particularly annoying.

My first N96 was apparently an early release – not a proto – but a very early model off the line. I swapped that out for the next one which received a new firmware update soon after to remedy some of the issues, but these issues remained. The third device and the one I am currently using has the most current firmware available officially – 11.101 23-09-08. I’ve heard some rumblings about v12 which can’t possibly come soon enough.

Final thoughts

Until this particular device arrived, I was not able to find the Transformers movie which has been touted on all three boxes. Clearly someone missed fired on the printing before the software was ready. I have watched the movie a few times now on various flights and it looks and sounds excellent! The negative here is the forced inclusion of subtitles which are on by default with no way to remove them (at least none that I could find). I’m not sure why you’d want subtitles on the small screen – especially given the movie is in English and easy to hear.

Nokia Care has taken excellent care of me here and I have to really call attention to the team there and to the blogger relations program which has enabled my priority access to support. At this time though I would have a hard time recommending the N96 to someone looking to make a purchase. I’m hopeful that another firmware release will fix things up. I do recall a similar process with the original N95, though I would have expected past lessons to have been learned for this release. The N85 which was just released and something I hope to test soon will definitely give the N96 a solid run for attention.

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8 comments for “Trying hard to like the N96

  1. Hugh
    11/18/2008 at 4:48 am

    It's hardly a ringing endorsement is it? I know the kit is sophiticated but once again the software is lacking. Someone showed me the much vaunted Samsung Omnia yesterday and all sorts of things didn't work on that either (maps etc.).

    The experience with the iPhone is seminal in comparison. It is such a league apart in terms of how it works with email, mobile me, the web, the app store etc.that when I have had to go back to a S60 device, everything seems clumsey and generation-1. Yes the camera is poor, and there's no flash but everything else is so bang on the money.

    As Samsung, LG, HTC and others have proven; just adding a touch screen interface is not enough. The software is the thing….and until Nokia catch up and surpass Apple, I think their market share is going to continue to be under pressure.

    This is a shame because the euro centric, open source, developer led style of innovation has worked well up until recently.

    Furthermore, the choice of devices from all the vendors is far too complex. Nokia can barely differentiate between the 10s of devices they offer. It almost shows a lack of confidence in every single one being able to address a broad market segment.

    Apple on the other hand have a single product.

    Even with 174.1 million iPods sold, they only really have ever had four classes of product (shuffle, nano/micro, classic, touch).

    Maybe Nokia could learn something and simplify it down to types based around simple (3110), advanced (N78), emailer (E73) and uber-device (N96+). Think of the cost savings!! Having less product might make software management issues less of a strain enabling them to focus on innovation.

    (The N810 doesn't count as it's not a phone)

  2. 11/18/2008 at 7:32 am

    I use an HTC handset and I am planning to switch over to N96. Thanks for your post. How is your experience with internet sharing (connecting your laptop to the internet using the mobile) – and the email (outlook) integration part?

    – David.

  3. 11/18/2008 at 10:04 am

    No problems with DUN, though it definitely uses a the battery as you should expect in that kind of circumstance. I use Mail for Exchange for connecting to my work email and pim and it's great. You can also connect over usb or bluetooth to your local machine if you prefer.

  4. 11/18/2008 at 10:05 am

    I hear you … UX is very important, though there really are far more than 4 types of users out there and with the number of markets and the penetration Nokia seeks it seems more complex.

  5. Hugh
    11/18/2008 at 12:00 pm

    Indeed, but there are also probably more than four types of iPod users too!

  6. 11/19/2008 at 1:58 am

    The N96 has been a very mixed bag. On the surface it’s a really good looking mobile handset

  7. Artificial
    11/19/2008 at 6:58 am

    The N96 has been a very mixed bag. On the surface it’s a really good looking mobile handset

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