Editors' note: Ratings have been adjusted with respect to newer devices that have entered the market.
The Nokia N96 caused quite a commotion when it first debuted at GSMA 2008 in February, but as with most of Nokia's high-end phones, it took a little while for the smartphone to make its way to the United States. Consequently, new products have come out and stolen its thunder, including one from the Nokia family, the Nokia N97. Still, the N96 is an impressive all-in-one device that deserves some recognition, most notably for the whopping 16GB of storage it offers. It also features advanced multimedia capabilities and comes close to being a replacement for your MP3 player or portable video player. The N96 has a business side, too, with its productivity suite and various wireless connections. That said, aside from the additional flash memory and some tweaks to the design, it's very much like its predecessor, the Nokia N95, and doesn't necessarily warrant an upgrade, especially at its unlocked price of $776. And with the announcement of the Nokia N97, we have a feeling potential N96 buyers might hold off to see what the newest N series device has to offer. Don't get us wrong, the Nokia N96 is a powerful smartphone that blends work and play well, but at this point, the N96 feels more like an afterthought than a potential purchase.
The Nokia N96's doesn't differ that much from the N95 in the looks department. It keeps the same dual-slider design and candy-bar shape, but Nokia updates the N96 with rounder edges and a sleeker face. The smartphone measures 4.1 inches high by 2.2 inches wide by 0.7 inch deep and weighs 4.4 ounces. It's similar in size to the HTC Touch Pro, so while on the short side, it's a bit thick, making for a tight fit in a pants pocket. For such a high-end device, we think the handset feels a tad cheap, because of the plastic edges. We're also not huge fans of the plastic battery cover, since it feels pretty fragile and could crack if the phone took a tumble.
The N96 features a 2.8-inch QVGA non-touch screen that displays 16 million colors at a 240x320 pixel resolution, just like the 8GB N95. There's an ambient-light detector to adjust the backlighting depending on your environment, and in all, we found it was easy to read text and view images and Web sites on the smartphone. You can also customize the home screen with various themes and adjust the backlight and font size.
Below the display, you get a navigation array that consists of Talk and End keys, two soft buttons, a menu shortcut, a clear button, and a five-way directional keypad. Nokia added some new controls, though they're not readily apparent at first. When the backlight is on, you will see that surrounding the toggle are dedicated music controls--play/pause, stop track forward, and back. There's also a small multimedia menu key that will automatically take you to your music, videos, photos, games, and more. With the exception of the latter and the navigation toggle, all the controls are set flush with the phone's surface, which gives the handset a more updated and sexy look. However, we found that they're a bit stiff to press, and the menu key and clear buttons are cramped, wedged between other controls.
The rest of the phone's buttons take on the same style. You can access the alphanumeric keypad by pushing the screen up. While flat, the keys are large and wide, minimizing mispresses. However, the top row is set pretty close to bottom of the front cover and occasionally our thumb would hit up against the edge. By sliding the screen the other way, you get access to another set of media player keys--their functions are the same as the keys on the front (play, stop, and so forth). The main difference is that when you access the keys in this fashion, the screen orientation automatically changes to landscape mode, allowing you more screen real estate to enjoy videos and photos. Unfortunately, like the N95, the view doesn't automatically go back to portrait mode when you close the phone; instead, you have to slide the screen up and then back down again.
Other design features include a microSD expansion slot on the left spine, and dual speakers, a volume rocker, and a camera activation/capture key on the right side. The top of the unit has a lock switch, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a power button; there's a Micro-USB port and power connector on the bottom. Finally, on the back, you'll find the camera lens and flash, and a little kickstand that you can pull out to allow you to set the phone on the flat surface and watch movies, slide shows, and so forth.
The Nokia N96 comes packaged with a travel charger, a car charger, a wired headset and remote, video-out cables, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phones accessories, ringtones, and help page.
As with the design, the Nokia N96 only gets an incremental upgrade in the features department. Don't get us wrong; the N96 is a fully loaded smartphone, but it doesn't necessarily break any new barriers. The main headliner is the N96's whopping 16GB of internal flash memory--double the capacity of the 8GB Nokia N95. This gives you an amazing amount of storage on your phone. For example, you can store 40 hours of video (based on H.264 768-Kbps video at 320x240 resolution) or up to 12,000 music tracks (based on 3:45-minute tracks and 48Kbps eAAC+ audio) on the N96. Don't forget that the handset also has a microSD slot so you can expand your memory even further. The N96 has been tested to accept up to 8GB cards.