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Nokia N78 (unlocked) review: Nokia N78 (unlocked)

Nokia N78 (unlocked)

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
9 min read

First introduced at GSMA 2008, the Nokia N78 is finally making its way to the States. Like the other N series models, the N78 has a heavy focus on multimedia, boasting a 3.2-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, the ability to record video at VGA quality, an MP3 player, and an FM transmitter that allows you to stream tunes to an FM radio. The N78 is also outfitted with GPS, and what's really cool is that the smartphone's GPS and imaging capabilities work together so you can geotag your photos. It's also well connected, as the quad-band phone offers Bluetooth 2.0, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), and HSDPA support. Clearly, it's well-stocked in the features department, but how does it perform? Overall, we'd say fairly good. The GPS and geotagging capabilities were definitely the highlight; the tracking abilities were impressive and being able to geotag your photos was a feature we came to love. That said, we were disappointed that the picture quality wasn't the greatest and call quality could have been better. Still, we imagine many gadget hounds will clamor to get their hands on this high-end multimedia phone. The Nokia N78 is expected to be available online and at Nokia flagship stores starting next week for around $550 unlocked. Also, be sure to get the Nokia N78-3 model as this version supports U.S. 3G bands.


Nokia N78 (unlocked)

The Good

The Nokia N78 features a 3.2-megapixel camera and integrated GPS for navigation and geotagging capabilities. The smartphone also offers U.S. 3G support, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

The Bad

The N78 didn't have the best call quality, nor did it produce great pictures. It's also expensive.

The Bottom Line

As with all Nokia N series smartphones, the Nokia N78 impresses with its high-end features, especially the new geotagging tool, but we were slightly disappointed by the spotty call quality.

The Nokia N78 features a design similar to the Nokia N82 with its candy-bar design, but it's slightly thinner and lighter at 4.4 inches tall by 1.9 inches wide by 0.6 inch deep and weighing 3.6 ounces. The compact handset will easily fit into a pants pocket, and it's comfortable to hold and use as a phone. It also more modern-looking than the aging Nokia N73 with its black lacquered face. You can also choose from three colors (only on the back plate): pearl white, cocoa brown, or blue lagoon.

The Nokia N78 (left) takes after the styling of the Nokia N82 (right), but it's lighter and thinner.

Up front, there's a 2.4-inch QVGA display that displays 16 million colors at a 320x240 pixel resolution. It's bright and sharp, and we were able to read it in various environments, though the screen tends to wash out slightly in bright sunlight. One new functionality is when you activate the camera or view your photos, the screen orientation will automatically switch from portrait to landscape mode, so you get more viewing room. Note that this isn't like the accelerometer feature of the iPhone, so it won't automatically switch back when you turn the phone upright again.

Below the display, you have an interesting navigation array. You get all the standard controls: two soft keys, Talk and End buttons, a four-way navigation toggle with center select button, and a shortcut to the multimedia menu. The N78's toggle is a bit different from other N series models; in addition to pressing it up/down/left/right, it's also touch sensitive so you can navigate through various menus by using your thumb to make a clockwise or counterclockwise motion like a scroll wheel. For the most part, it worked, but it could be temperamental, not responding to our touch at moments and then being oversensitive at other times. In standby mode, a purple ring illuminates and pulses for a cool effect. Aside from the toggle and multimedia key, which are highlighted in silver and slightly raised, none of the other controls are visible until the phone is backlit. While sleek-looking, these controls are completely flush with the phone's surface and a bit stiff, making them difficult to use.

The N78 has a curious alphanumeric dialpad, but despite its looks, it's not that hard to use.

The alphanumeric dialpad is also peculiar. Instead of individual keys, you simply get four rows of single lines (see image above). There's no spacing whatsoever to separate the buttons and while you might think this is a major design flaw, the dialpad is surprisingly not that bad to use. It's a bit uncomfortable, but we didn't have too many mispresses or errors when composing text messages. It might be a problem for people with bigger thumbs, though.

On the right spine, there's a volume rocker and a camera activation key, while the left spine holds a micro USB connector, a microSD expansion slot, and a power connector. The micro USB port is a minor inconvenience since mini USB is more standard. Both sides are equipped with speakers. The camera lens and flash are located on the back, and there's a power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the unit.

The Nokia N78 comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a 2GB microSD card, a set of earbuds, a software DVD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phones accessories, ringtones, and help page.

As an N series device, multimedia is, of course, at the top of the highlight reel but one of the other main attractions is integrated GPS, which you can use navigation purposes or to geotag photos. The assisted GPS allows you to get real-time position tracking and the N78 comes preloaded with the Nokia Maps application. The navigation software offers plenty of tools, including satellite and hybrid maps, pedestrian and bicycle modes, and the ability to send your location to others via multimedia message or Bluetooth. Now typically, for turn-by-turn directions, you would have to pay $125.77 for a one-year license or $13.96 a month right off the bat, but with the purchase of the N78, you get a three-month complimentary subscription.

The geotagging feature works in conjunction with the N78's 3.2-megapixel camera, but in order for the smartphone to record the location of the photo, you must go under the Options menu (while in camera mode), navigate to Settings, and then turn on "Record location." Once you snap your photo, you can view the coordinates of the photo location (provided that you had a GPS fix at the time) under the Details section or have it shown on the Nokia maps app. Also, when you upload to the photo to the Ovi service, it will actually display a street address as well. (See the Performance section for more on this function.)

The camera has a lot more to offer as well. It has Carl Zeiss optics, up to 20x zoom, and autofocus. For still photos, there are five image qualities, eight scene modes, and five color tone options. There are also controls for white balance, exposure, sharpness, contrast, and light sensitivity. For video, the N78 can capture VGA quality (640x480) clips at 30 frames per second, with your choice of five video qualities, two scene modes, and white balance and color tone settings. Once you are all done capturing photos or video, you can upload them directly to your blog or to the Web. The N78 includes direct access to your Flickr, Vox, and Nokia's own Ovi if you have an account. You can also send them via multimedia message or e-mail.

The N78 comes equipped with a 3.2-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and up to 20x zoom.

Picture quality was actually disappointing, as colors looked washed out, and there was a hazy effect to the images. It definitely wasn't what we expected from a 3.2 megapixel camera, let alone an N series device. Recorded video looked decent. Again, colors weren't very bright but the picture was pretty clear and there wasn't as much pixilation as we've experienced with some other camera phones.

Unfortunately, we were disappointed by the hazy photo quality.

Rounding out the rest of the Nokia N78's multimedia capabilities is a built-in music player that supports MP3, WMA, W4A, AAC, AAC+, and eAAC+ files, as well as OMA DRM 2.0- and WM DRM-protected songs. The music library categorizes tracks by artists, albums, genres, and composers; you can also create playlists right on the phone and adjust the sound with the built-in equalizer. You can listen to your favorite podcasts or listen to Internet radio. If you'd like to watch other videos, you can use RealPlayer to check out 3GPP and MPEG-4 files. And while there is a direct link to the Nokia Music Store and N-gage game service, they are not yet fully functional in the United States. There's about 70MB of user-accessible memory, but you always have the microSD expansion slot, which accepts up to 8GB cards.

Oh, and how about this? The Nokia N78 is a phone. Yes, behind all the flash of the entertainment features, the N78 is a competent phone, offering quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, speed dial, conference calling, voice-command support, a vibrate mode, and text and multimedia messaging. The phone's address book is only limited by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts), and each entry can hold multiple phone numbers, work and home addresses, e-mail addresses, birthday, and more vitals. For caller ID purposes, you can assign each contact a photo, one of 35 ringtones, or a group ID.

The N78 is also supports U.S. 3G bands. As we mentioned earlier, be sure you are getting the N78-3 version, and also be aware that the smartphone works on the 850/1900 HSDPA bands, which means it will only work for AT&T and not T-Mobile's 3G network, which operates on the 1700/2100 bands. Other wireless options include Bluetooth 2.0 and Wi-Fi. The smartphone supports a number of Bluetooth profiles, including mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, hands-free kits, dial-up networking, and file transfer. Our review unit had no problem finding and connecting to our test access point. As with other N series phones, the N78 supports Universal Plug and Play, which lets you use a Wi-Fi connection to hook up with a compatible PC, printer, or home entertainment system, but the number of UPnP devices is limited at the moment.

Finally, the N78 runs the third edition of the S60 platform on the Symbian operating system for your productivity needs. An application called QuickOffice lets you view Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, but if you want any editing capabilities, you'll have to upgrade the preloaded copy of QuickOffice. For messaging, the smartphone supports IMAP4, POP3, and SMTP e-mail accounts and comes with a full attachment viewer. The N78 works with a number of push e-mail solutions, as well as Microsoft Exchange Server synchronization, but this is dependent upon your service provider and company's e-mail solution, so check with your IT department if you have any questions. Other productivity applications and PIM tools include Adobe Reader, a Zip manager, a calculator, a notepad, a measurement converter, a clock, and a voice recorder. For more software applications for your Nokia N78, please check out CNET Download.com.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Nokia N78 in San Francisco using AT&T service and call quality was mixed. On our end, audio sounded soft and muffled at times, and there were periods of patchy call quality. We could still carry on a conversation and use an airline's voice-automated response system, but the sound just wasn't pristine. Meanwhile, our callers were impressed by the clarity, though one friend said our voice sounded slightly digitized. The speakerphone also yielded mixed results. No major complaints from our friends, but we heard a bit of an echo and tinny quality to voices. We had no problems pairing the N78 with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active headphones.

The N78 was generally responsive. We experienced smooth transitions when navigating the phone and didn't suffer any system crashes. Some features, such as opening documents and multimedia apps, could take a little longer than others, but it wasn't anything crippling. We surfed the Web using both AT&T's 3G network and Wi-Fi, and enjoyed swift download times. Music playback through the phone's speakers was pretty weak. We listened to some MP3 and AAC files and Internet radio, and the sound quality always sounded tinny. In addition, at higher volumes, the sound was blown out. Watching video was OK in short spurts, and pictures and audio were always synchronized.

With the assisted GPS, which uses the aid of cellular towers and Wi-Fi hot spots to get a fix, the N78 was able to get a read on our location in less than a minute, and did a decent job of tracking our location. The geotagging feature was also very cool. The widespread adoption of the technology might be up for debate, but we think it's a pretty neat and easy way to document memories of a trip or spontaneous moment. Plus, it doesn't require any work on your part, other than taking a picture, so why not?

The Nokia N78's 1,200mAh battery has a rated talk time of 4.3 hours and up to 13 days of standby time. We are still conducting our battery drain tests, but we will update this section as soon as we have final results. According to FCC radiation charts, the N78 has a digital SAR rating of 1.26 watts per kilogram.


Nokia N78 (unlocked)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7