When Nokia launched thelast summer, it was little short of revolutionary: a 3G, 3-megapixel handset with a 3x optical zoom, camcorder styling and Wi-Fi to boot. But it was also large, heavy and complex to get to grips with -- a real Rubik's Cube of a phone.
But after revolution comes evolution, so can a slimmed-down, blinged-up successor, the N93i, celebrate its successes and fix its faults?
At first glance, the N93i seems to have little in common with its predecessor. Where's the functional matte black housing? Where are retro plastic keys? Colour LEDs and a stylish OLED display wink out seductively from beneath an oh-so-fashionable mirrored exterior, edged with chrome details. Around it, a two-tone body pits subtle silver tones gently against a body shell that can only be described as 'midnight aubergine' in colour. Honestly.
Pick it up (carefully! The mirror attracts more fingerprints than an episode of CSI) and the illusion begins to fade. The N93i remains a very substantial handset, tipping the scales at 163g -- less than an AA battery and lighter than the N93. And while Nokia has trimmed millimetres from the body all round, it's still a handbag (or manbag) phone rather than a slimline pocket rocket.
But this is no ordinary clamshell. Flip up the mirror and the N93i's main, 61mm (2.4-inch) display flashes into life. This has the same resolution (320x240 pixels) as the N93, but is now capable of displaying 16 million shades for genuinely photographic-quality framing and playback, with punchy -- even arresting -- colour reproduction.
'Improvements' to the keypad are less convincing. Gone are the bulbous ZX Spectrum-alike keys, replaced by a distinctly sub-Motorola etched metal pad. This feels tinny and suffers the common problem of uncertainty over which key you're actually pressing. The Razr V3 has a lot to answer for.
The N93i's selling point -- and the feature that accounts for a large proportion of its bulk -- is its hinge-mounted 3x optical zoom camera. You access this by twisting the main screen through 90 degrees then pulling it towards you. Hey presto! Your bulky phone is now a slim vertical camcorder, with a huge widescreen viewfinder.
The transformation is convincing: your thumb falls naturally on to a large record button, surrounded by an intuitive zoom rocker. The soft keys on the display access shooting options and a tiny thumb-stick lets you zip through menus. The only downside is that you might have to shift your hand to avoid covering up the tiny LED flash/video light, mounted just beneath the lens.
The screen also folds right round to lie flat on the keyboard: it's a good position for viewing video clips but makes accessing some buttons (including the media player) awkward. Try not to get too annoyed by the camera's separate lens cover -- it's so small and fiddly that you'll lose it within days.
The N93i is all about the camera: a generous 3x optical zoom with autofocusing, a useful (but not excessive) 3.2 megapixels of resolution and a video mode (VGA, 30fps) to rival standalone digital cameras. Pictures are best saved to the 1GB miniSD card supplied, which is easily accessed through a side-mounted slot.
The zoom is simple, if slightly jerky, to use. On-screen icons let you swiftly switch scene modes (including macro and night portraits), adjust colour and tweak white balance or exposure. Delve into the menus, though, and you'll find nothing beyond a self-timer. Unlike Sony Ericsson's Cyber-shot phones, there's no burst mode, no image stabilisation, no red-eye reduction and, crucially, no real flash.
The tiny LED light under the Nokia's lens is just acceptable for taking very close-up portraits in the dark, but miles behind Sony Ericsson's powerful Xenon flash.
Video shooting is equally easy to master, but even lighter on features -- just Auto and Night scene modes and exposure tweaks.
Being an N-series handset, there's a host of high-tech extras on board. Top of the list is Nokia's excellent Web browser -- especially useful in conjunction with an all-you-can-surf package from 3 or T-Mobile, or with the efficient, easy-to-set-up Wi-Fi connection.
The browser spurns cut-down WAP or i-mode sites, tackling real Web pages with aplomb. A handy Mini-Map function aids navigation, and it gets easier still if you flip the screen into landscape format. The N93i is confident on multimedia, too, streaming BBC's Listen Again radio shows without a murmur of complaint, although it does baulk at YouTube videos.
Other features worth seeking out are instant-blogging links to Flickr and Vox, QuickOffice and PDF Viewer for work stuff, and some surprisingly good games, including an excellent 3D racer.
Still images from the zoom lens are much better than most camera phones, with reasonable exposure, recognisable detail and lively colours. But you'd never mistake the N93i's pictures for those from a real camera -- complex detail is smeared, there's softness and distortion at the edges of the frame and white balance is erratic. Reds, in particular, are over-emphasised, leading to scarlet skin tones that suggest sunburn or excessive drinking.
Video clips are better, with smooth, rich colours and crisp edges, though again little real detail. The zoom, however, is noticeably jerky and sound recording ebbs and wanes like waves on a beach. With or without the LED light, low light filming is grainy.
Media playback is more professional, with fine video performance and light, bright sound through the supplied headset. Connecting the N93i to a TV is quick and easy. But we did have some problems. The handset would occasionally flash up an 'Out of memory' warning during video slideshows and once froze up completely.
Loud ringtones, distinct vibration alerts and clear, if somewhat distant, audio make voice calls relatively painless.
But all this multimedia action -- and that huge screen -- put a strain on the N93i's battery. We found it needed charging pretty much every evening, after just a modest amount of photo and video shooting, and a few calls and texts.
If you want a camera phone to replace your digital camera, you've got two main choices: the N93i with its zoom lens or (and soon ) with real flash, although Nokia's all-singing N95 nav-phone (with 5-megapixel resolution) is probably worth checking out.
The N93i's 2.7x zoom lens is easy to use and certainly adds flexibility. Question marks, however, remain over the quality of both still photos (white balance, softness) and video (jerky zooming). Despite its fantastic range of multimedia features and unparalleled connectivity, the N93i remains just a shade too lumbering to recommend without reservations. Try before you buy.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield