Nokia’s N Series has always been pushed by the company as multimedia entertainment devices on the edge of technology. Starting with the camera-centric N90 and N93, Nokia has continued to push forward in trying to integrate as many features into phones as possible.
After several months of waiting, Nokia’s latest N phone has arrived in Australia. The N95 slider continues with the latest camera technology, featuring a five megapixel sensor with Carl Zeiss optics. Optical zoom has been left out though, likely due to size constraints. In its place though is a built in GPS module, bringing navigation abilities to the phone. Bundled with Nokia Maps, the N95 is able to find its location and guide you to a destination. It can also search for nearby points of interest as long as it can access the internet.
The N95 also pioneers a new form factor – a dual direction slider. Opening it one way reveals the 12 button number pad like any other slider phone, but you can also slide it in the opposite direction to reveal four music operation keys.
The N95 ships with the latest version of the Symbian operating system running S60, allowing access to several Symbian applications. It also runs fast, unlike earlier S60 phones. Other features include 3G HSDPA connectivity, Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth, microSD card slot, FM radio, Nokia’s HTML web browser and large, QVGA colour LCD screen.
The N95 marks Nokia’s first foray into the GPS navigation sector as it carries a dedicated GPS module. This allows to receive signals from GPS satellites to work out exactly where in the world it is. It uses this with mapping data obtained over the air to show the user where he or she is and the best way to get to a preferred destination. With a voice guidance subscription from Nokia, the N95 can be made to give directions the same way in-car navigation systems do.
The N95’s camera is another cause for attention. It’s the first module to be featured in an Australian phone with a large five megapixel sensor size, allowing pictures to be saved with 2592x1944 resolution. Such pictures can be printed onto A3 size paper with no loss in quality. The camera also has plenty of customisation goodies to play with and takes good pictures too, although it does have a few bad points.
Finally everyone will appreciate the large functionality of the S60 user interface running on Symbian, while the large range of connectivity abilities allows you to get online no matter where you might be.
The N95 is a rather large, stubby slider phone, keeping length short in return for some thickness. Still, it’s not as large as your typical, high end 3G handset from last year and we can’t forget just how many features the N95 boasts over them. Measurements are 99 x 53 x 21 millimetres, while weight is kept under control at 120 grams. The phone’s shell is made of plastic alone in a two layer design, with both layers coloured differently. Our test model was coloured in silver and purple. The antenna is kept inside the phone, meaning no ugly protrusion poking out from the side.
Being a slider (and a bi-directional one at that), there’s much more space for buttons and screens and such to take up. More than half of the front of the phone is occupied by a large 2.6 inch (6.5 centimetre) LCD. To my surprise, this screen is exposed directly to the elements and doesn’t have any plastic cover. One would hope the screen is quite durable because of this. Above the screen is the earpiece, a light sensor (explained in the Display section) and the front-facing CIF video call camera, while below it lie the navigation keys. They consist of a small five directional joypad, flanked all around by a menu key, multimedia key, send and hang up keys, two soft keys, S60’s pencil key and a clear button.
Moving the slider upwards reveals the rest of the keypad (the 12 button number pad), while sliding it downwards exposes four multimedia keys used to play, rewind, fast forward or stop music and videos. While the 12 button keypad works well enough in practice with tactile keys, the four multimedia buttons are very poorly implemented. There’s little to no feedback when pushing these buttons and sometimes it’s hard to get the phone to realise you’ve pushed one at all. I didn’t use them when operating the phone’s multimedia applications.
The N95 keeps ports and buttons all over its body. On the left is one of the two stereo speakers, a 3.5mm jack used for more than just headphones, the infra-red port and the microSD memory card slot. On the right is the other stereo speaker, two volume rocker keys, a gallery (file browser) shortcut button and a camera shutter key. On the phone’s top is a lone power/profile shortcut button, while on the bottom is Nokia’s new smaller power socket and even newer miniUSB port, which is gradually replacing the old proprietary PopPort socket. There’s also the microphone and a wrist strap socket here.
The main camera is located on the back of the device, protected behind a lens cover easily opened by the sliding rocker switch nearby. There’s also a bright LED flash here too. The nearby battery cover can be opened to reveal the battery, while the SIM card slot is hidden below it.
User interface & display
The N95 makes use of a 2.6 inch TFT LCD screen with your typical 240x320 pixel resolution, but not so typical 16.7 million colour support. The huge amount of colours equals that found in a standard desktop LCD monitor for computers, which will please many people who prefer to view their pictures on mobile phones. The 240x320 pixel resolution is good, but considering Nokia had a 2.1 inch 352x416 pixel screen only a year ago, the use of a smaller resolution on a physically larger screen is quite puzzling. Screen brightness is automatically adjusted by the phone depending on the brightness of the area it’s being used in. This is possible thanks to the light sensor on the top-front of the phone, which measures the ambient light and adjusts screen brightness to suit. It works very well, dimming the screen when indoors or brightening it up to make it visible outdoors under bright sunlight.
Being the top-of-the-range Nokia model, the user interface used here is the latest version of S60, previously known as Series 60. If you own a Nokia smartphone you should recognise the screen’s layout, even with the internal changes that have been made to the UI. The standby screen features an active standby system that lists new messages, calendar entries, Wi-Fi status and other alerts. Critical status icons such as reception and battery power appear at the top of the screen alongside the operator name, time and date. The time can be displayed as an analogue or digital clock. There are also six icons that shortcut to useful functions and they can be customised in the settings menu. The two soft key shortcuts on the standby screen can also be customised.
The screen is able to display in both portrait and landscape modes. It will stay in portrait when the keypad is exposed, but if you slide the N95 the other way to reveal the multimedia keys, the screen will change to and stay in landscape mode.
The main menu is accessed through the menu key. By default the main menu displays as a scrollable grid of icons, although this can be changed to list format in the settings menu. This menu displays the important applications in the phone, including contacts, messaging, GPS maps and the music player. The more trivial applications are kept in folder sub-menus divided into three different types – ‘Tools’, ‘Applications’ and ‘Office’. Sub-menus are also displayed in icon format and in both types of menus, the number keys can be used to shortcut to a particular icon. While 12 icons can be displayed at once in grid format, oddly only six items can be displayed in list format. In some menus only four items appear at once – very strange for such a large, high resolution screen.
Menus and colours can be customised through the use of themes. Five different themes are preset in the N95 with the option to download more from Nokia’s website (although none were available at the time of review). The preset themes present a variety of different colours that should satisfy many tastes.
For an S60 device, the N95 is rather speedy. One of my biggest problems with the S60 interface has been response speed, with menu loading times of one to three seconds being very typical with Nokia S60 devices. But the N95 seems to have finally solved the problem with seemingly enough processing power to make things work quickly. The newer version (Third Edition) of S60 is probably written more efficiently as well, adding even more speed.
Language wise our test handset came only with support for English, Indonesian and Filipino. There are only T9 dictionaries for these three languages and none other. Font wise there’s support for Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic letters, but no Asian ones. Considering the large multicultural population of Australia, one could consider this a disadvantage. Besides, the N95 has plenty of memory to support more languages and considering its smartphone nature, an option to download them from Nokia’s website would be a great idea.
Making and receiving calls
The N95 is able to connect to both UMTS and GSM networks. It only has a single band (2100) radio for UMTS, but it can tune all four GSM bands to work with any GSM network worldwide. We tested it on Three’s UMTS 2100 network and found reception to be great, on par with my Sharp 903 and bettering it in some locations.
Calls can be held in one of four different methods - regular speaker, loudspeaker, included stereo headset or a Bluetooth headset. In regular mode call quality was great, while the loudspeaker played loud and clearly. I was particularly impressed with the speakerphone – it’s easy to activate with just a single button press, while it was very sensitive to my voice and relayed it clearly on the other end.
The N95 has an advanced phonebook without a fixed memory limit. Several fields exist for new contacts including phone numbers, email addresses, business details, birthdays and other anniversaries. Specific ringtones or pictures can also be assigned to a contact. The fields are largely similar to those found in Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. Speed dial is also supported but configured from a separate application in the N95. There’s also group support for sending messages to several people.
Several ringtones are preinstalled in the N95, with many designed for different tasks – voice calls, messages, calendar reminders, alarms etc. All tones can be assigned to any type of task, with volume adjustment and vibration options available as well. Nokia’s standard profile system is also present with the same customisation options as above. There are six different profiles already created with different themes (General, Silent, Meeting etc.), but you can create your own customised ones as well.
The N95 supports all the major messaging formats – SMS, MMS and POP3/IMAP4 email.
SMS messages are easy to type on the N95. Long messages are supported and composition doesn’t slow down when you write a huge one. It looks like those days are behind us now. The typing system makes use of T9 predictive text; while you can add custom words to the user dictionary, the dictionary itself doesn’t seem to be accessible, meaning you can’t edit words you’ve added in. If you accidentally spell a word incorrectly and add it, it can’t be removed and there’s a good chance it will be suggested as a word candidate if you type something with similar letters.
The MMS composition screen is rather similar to the SMS, but this time you can add pictures, sound and video to it. Menus allow you to add pre-existent files or create new ones using the camera or voice recorder. Slides are also supported, allowing you to create a multimedia slide show. Maximum attachment size support is 300 kilobytes.
Email allows even more flexibility. You can attach any type of file to an email, while there doesn’t seem to be a maximum file size limit for attachments. You can however specify how you download emails – whether you download headers only, parts of the email (in kilobytes) or the whole thing – as well as automatic retrieval parameters that go as far as specifying which day and which hour emails should be downloaded. You can also set up notifications only without downloading anything, saving on packet data costs.
The N95 is well equipped in the connectivity department. Apart from single band UMTS (2100 – for European and Asian countries), quad-band GSM allows the N95 to access any GSM network worldwide. The data protocols on each network type are vast – for UMTS there’s Class 6 HSDPA, allowing speeds up to 3.6 Mbps. On GSM networks the N95 can take advantage of both GPRS and EDGE protocols, achieving speeds of up to 48 and 177 Kbps respectively. For fast, yet localised data access the N95 features 802.11b/g wireless connectivity, enabling up to 54 Mbps download speeds.
In order to help connect to a new network, the N95 comes preloaded with all the settings for each Australian operator and will even activate them all just by changing your SIM card. No manual configuration is needed whatsoever, making the changing of networks a breeze.
For local connections the N95 sports all three methods – USB data cable, infra-red and Bluetooth. All three methods allow connection between the N95 and a PC for data connection, while infra-red and Bluetooth helps connect the N95 to other peripherals as well. The phone supports most Bluetooth profiles, including A2DP for music streaming. The N95 ships with Nokia’s standard PC Suite synchronisation software. I don’t usually have problems with Nokia software and the N95 was no exception. Installation went smoothly from inserting the CD to opening the software up. The software was able to synchronise contacts and calendar data between the N95 and PC, as well as facilitate file transfer and dial-up connections to the internet.
As you can see, the N95 is a solid performer in both 2D and 3D areas. Our test handset already had two games loaded (coded in Symbian rather than Java) – an ultra-modern version of the Snake game and a futuristic racing game demo called System Rush.
The music player application is accessible directly from the main menu. It searches for all music when it’s opened before allowing you to choose songs by category (playlists, artists, albums etc.). Repeat and shuffle playback modes are included, as well as an equaliser that works on presets (such as rock, ‘bass booster’ and classical). The effects aren’t really noticed with the external stereo speakers (although their general playback quality is quite impressive for such small modules), but the stereo headphones make the differences obvious. Visualisations can also be activated to give you something to watch while you listen to the music. For video playback, Real’s RealPlayer application is preloaded. RealPlayer handles both videos on internal memory and streamed video from the internet. We were able to view streamed content from Three’s network properly, such as Sky news streams.
The N95 is also equipped with an FM radio, which requires the bundled stereo headset to be connected to tune FM stations. Up to 50 stations can be saved, while the tuning frequencies can be changed depending where you are (Japan and the US use different frequency ranges to the rest of the world). Oddly RDS is not supported.
Being an S60 device, the N95 is able to install native Symbian applications coded for S60. However, they have to be coded for Third Edition; older applications simply can’t be installed onto the N95 because of the underlying change in Symbian operating system. We tested Java performance using the JBenchmark test suite:
||HQ: 934, LQ: 970
One of the most anticipated features in the N95 could be the new GPS functionality. The phone comes equipped with a GPS module and a basic mapping application with support for several countries worldwide. Perhaps because of this far-reaching footprint, the maps application is not very concise. It provides basic mapping and guidance around roads and such, but voice navigation the likes of which you find in a car isn’t included by default. It can be purchased online however, although pricing gets expensive the longer you decide to subscribe to the service. Subscriptions can also only be made per world region or even per country in some cases.
In terms of GPS operation, the phone takes a fair bit of time to figure out where it is using GPS satellites, but it manages well once it does this. As long as you have an active internet connection of some sort, it’s easy to find a hotel, car park, train station or any other type of place you might need to go to. Incidentally battery life is affected when GPS is running, so if you plan to use the N95 as an in-car navigation system, you’d best bring a car charger along.
Being an S60 device there’s plenty of PIM applications to make use of. The calendar allows you to set appointments of different types and an alarm helps you remember them. You can also display the calendar in different time layouts – day, week and month. The task list will simply remind you about upcoming events without using the calendar, while a simple calculator is also included. A converter application can change between different types of units in several fields, including currency, length, pressure and even power units. The viewing of office data files is supported by the QuickOffice software suite, letting you view Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. Adobe PDF files are handled by Adobe Reader LE. I also found a barcode reader application on my test handset, which can read QR codes and convert them into webpage links. Other applications include Nokia’s LifeBlog picture blogger and a voice recorder.
While at first I felt the N95’s build quality was excellent, after using it for a few days I’ve found places that could use some improvement. The slide mechanism is ever-so-slightly-loose, being particularly noticeable when I pushed on it near the hang-up button. Another problem is the awful rattle the vibrator produces, the result of some piece of plastic being loose somewhere in the phone. The rattle vanishes if I squeeze the phone tightly. Otherwise, everything else is firmly fixed, including the battery cover.
The battery is the N95’s biggest weakness. It’s quite large at 950 mAh capacity, but for some reason in our tests the N95 struggled to last more than a day if it was actively used and kept connected to a network. Without these two requirements, it lasted closer to two days. Under our test regime, we fully charged the N95 and left it on continuously until it ran out of power, including throughout the night. During the test I used the phone like I would my own, running exactly 30 minutes of calls through the phone each day to simulate moderate call usage. I used a combination of regular and speakerphone call methods to do this. I also sent a moderate amount of SMS messages while accessing the internet and playing games to kill time whenever necessary. In practice I did this for approximately 10 minutes each day.