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Nokia N86 review: Nokia N86

Nokia N86

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
10 min read

The Nokia N86 8MP first made its appearance at GSMA 2009 and stepped up as the most advanced camera phone in the company's N series of multimedia smartphones. Nokia even went as far as to say that it could replace your standalone point-and-shoot camera. We can't say we agree with that statement 100 percent but we will say that the N86's camera functions are certainly impressive and it delivers in quality. Not to mention that Nokia made some really nice design improvements, and there's the fact that you also get the capabilities of a smartphone in this compact package. However, it's not the only high-end camera phone on the block. The Samsung Memoir and the Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot C905 also sport 8-megapixel cameras (the C905 actually has a 8.1-megapixel lens) and comes at a much lower price point with carrier contracts. The Nokia N86 8MP is available unlocked for $500. Also, while they might not match the N86 in megapixels, you've got smartphones like the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre that also take pretty great photos and also feature high-resolution touch screens and more advanced operating systems. The N86 is a perfectly fine smartphone with an excellent camera but at $500, it'll be a hard sell for most consumers.


Nokia N86

The Good

The Nokia N86 8MP features an 8-megapixel camera that takes excellent pictures and include advanced options, such as a wide-angle lens and variable aperture. It's also a capable smartphone and offers Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and 3G support.

The Bad

The N86 is expensive. Compared with the competition, the phone's display is a bit low resolution and the software feels outdated.

The Bottom Line

If you can afford it, the Nokia N86 8MP is one of the more advanced and better camera phones on the market today, but there are cheaper alternatives.

The overall look of the Nokia N86 8MP isn't too different from Nokia N series models of the past, but a closer examination of the phone reveals some nice improvements. For one, the N86 has a higher quality build and a more solid feel than any of its other N siblings, thanks to new hardware refinements like metal edges and tempered glass on the face of the device. The one trade-off is the phone is slightly heavier at 5.2 ounces (compare that with the Nokia N85's 4.5 ounces). That said, we're willing to deal with those extra tenths of an ounce if it means having a more durable, sturdy handset. Plus, the N86 is still fairly compact, all things considered, measuring 4 inches tall by 2 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick in its closed state.

Other areas of improvement include the slider itself and the phone's buttons. Starting with the former, the N86 features a dual-slider design just like the N85 and the Nokia N96. The difference is that the sliding mechanism on the N86 is stronger than the others, so the screen doesn't fidget or move when you're simply trying to handle the phone or use the navigation controls below the display. In fact, you have to give the screen quite a forceful push downward to access the dedicated multimedia/gaming controls. Meanwhile, sliding the screen up reveals the alphanumeric keypad.

The Nokia N86 8MP is slightly heavier than the N85, but it also has a higher quality build.

Speaking of which, both the dialpad and the media buttons are much easier to press, thanks to the fact that the keys are now raised above the surface and have spacing between them. They're also easy to see in darker environments with the bright backlighting and lime green and white coloring. We have mixed feelings about the navigation controls below the display. The array consists of the standard soft keys, Talk and End buttons, a main menu shortcut, a back button, and navigation toggle, and like the others, the controls are now elevated instead of being flush with the surface, so they don't feel as stiff, and the phone doesn't creak when you press down on them as it did on the N85. Our only thing is we're just not huge fans of the tiny buttons.

The N86's dialpad is much easier to use than its predecessor's since the buttons are raised above the phone's surface.

Above the navigation controls is a 2.6-inch Active Matrix OLED (AMOLED) nontouch display. While not a touch screen, the AMOLED display helps provide a sharper picture with better contrast and draws less power than regular LCDs. However, we wish it was slightly higher resolution since the QVGA (320x240) screen doesn't look quite as smooth as its competitors. On the bright side, the smartphone has a built-in accelerometer, which was quick to change screen orientation when we rotated the phone. Like most Nokia handsets, you can customize the home screen with various themes and wallpaper, and also adjust the backlight.

On top of the device, you'll find the power button, a 3.5 millimeter headset jack, and a Micro-USB port. The left side houses a slider lock switch and on the right, there's a volume rocker and the camera activation/capture button. The camera is located on the back and the lens is protected by a sliding cover. There's also a flash and a kickstand that you can use to rest the phone on a flat surface while watching videos or slide shows. We thought the kickstand felt a bit flimsy, however, so take care not to be too forceful with it. Last but not least, you'll find the microSD expansion slot behind the battery door on the right side.

Our Nokia N86 came packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired headset and remote, a software DVD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

The Nokia N86 8MP's main attraction is obviously its imaging capabilities. The smartphone features an 8-megapixel camera, which is the highest cameraphone in the N series, though certainly not an industry first. The Samsung Memoir and Samsung Innov8 also have 8-megapixel cameras, while the Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot C905 squeaks past everyone with an 8.1-megapixel lens. Getting back to the subject at hand though, the N86 8MP features a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens, dual-LED flash, 20x digital zoom, and video recording at up to 30 frames per second.

The N86 features a 8-megapixel camera with a wide-angle lens, variable aperture, and a dual-LED flash.

The phone shares a lot of the same advanced editing options of the N85, such as eight shooting modes, sequence shots, ISO settings, and red-eye reduction, and includes some new tricks like panorama mode, variable aperture (F2.4, F3.2, F4.8), and a 28-millimeter wide-angle lens. The latter two features are pretty rare to camera phones, and provide the means for controlling the depth of field and light exposure, which will surely please camera enthusiasts. On the flip side, the N86 doesn't include some features like face or smile detection, which are present on the Memoir and Cyber-shot C905. The lack of these functions certainly isn't a deal breaker, but for a device that claims to be a replacement for your point-and-shoot digital camera, it would be nice to have them.

Picture quality was very impressive.

Most importantly, though, the N86 8MP delivered in picture quality. We took multiple shots: indoors, outdoors, and at night, and the N86 always delivered with sharp images and vibrant colors. The camera did fine with macro shots as well as landscape and portraits. The only instance where there was a slight hint of a problem was with nighttime shots when there was just a bit of graininess to the photo, but even so, it's very impressive for a camera phone. Video quality was also good with very smooth picture and playback.

Once you've captured images, you can enhance the pictures with the built-in photo editor where you can add various effects, text, clip art, and more. There are numerous options for sharing your photos with others. You can, of course, send them via e-mail or multimedia message. You can upload them to the Nokia Ovi Service, Flickr, or Vox, and if you enabled the geotagging function, you can plot your photos on a map. In addition, you can view the photos in a slideshow or send them to a networked printer. And don't worry, the N86 offers plenty of storage with 8GB of internal memory and a microSD expansion slot that can accept up to 16GB cards.

Of course, the bonus of the Nokia N86 8MP is that it's not just a camera; it's a smartphone that includes voice capabilities, the mobile Web, productivity tools, and more. The N86 8MP runs Symbian OS version 9.3 using S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2. The user interface is fairly intuitive, though as we've said in the past, it looks pretty outdated compared with some of the smartphones on the market today. You can choose from four menu options (grid, list, horseshoe, and V-shaped) and create new folders. You can also view and toggle between open apps, but its multitasking in this way isn't very sophisticated or smooth.

For personal organization and productivity, there's a calendar, a zip manager, a measurement converter, a PDF reader, a calendar, a clock, a calculator, and a text-to-speech message reader. The Quick Office Suite lets you view Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, and it optimizes the pages for the phone's screen, so you don't have to scroll all over the place to read text. There are some nice shortcuts to jump to the top or bottom of the page to reduce the up-and-down scrolling, and there's also a search function. However, if you want any editing capabilities, you'll have to upgrade the preloaded copy of QuickOffice. You can purchase more apps through the Nokia Ovi Store, though we had problems accessing the catalog.

For messaging, the N96 can access IMAP4, POP3, and SMTP e-mail accounts and comes with a full attachment viewer. It also supports a number of push e-mail solutions, as well as Microsoft Exchange Server synchronization. There's a wizard that can help you with setting up your e-mail and in-box synchronization.

As a phone, the N86 offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, and text and multimedia messaging. The address book is only limited by the available memory and the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts. Each entry can store multiple phone numbers, work and home addresses, e-mail addresses, a birthday, and more vitals. For caller ID purposes, you can assign each contact a photo, a ringtone, or a group ID. Bluetooth 2.0 is also onboard, with support for mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, hands-free kits, dial-up networking, file transfer, object push, phone book access, and more.

Connectivity options include Wi-Fi and 3G, though the N86 only supports AT&T's 850/900MHz HSDPA bands, and not T-Mobile's 3G network, which operates on the 1700/2100MHz bands. The Nokia Web browser features a mini map option that helps you navigate pages by providing a page overview and the capability to point on a site and zoom into the specific spot, instead of having to tediously scroll up or down. Aside from navigating the Web, you can navigate the streets thanks to the phone's integrated GPS/A-GPS and preloaded Nokia Maps application and a built-in digital compass.

Finally, if you're craving more entertainment, the built-in media player supports MP3, AAC, eACC, eACC+, and WMA files and offers repeat and shuffle modes and a built-in equalizer. You can create playlists on the fly, and the smartphone will display album art if available. In addition to your personal library of tunes, the N86 offers podcast support and an FM radio, provided that you use the included earbuds since the tuner is built into them. You can also play a variety of games with Nokia's N-Gage gaming service. There are a number of trial titles included on the phone, such as FIFA 09, Tetris, and Asphalt, and with the purchase of the N86, you get an activation code that will allow you to download the full version of one game for free. The N-Gage platform also has a community component to it, and you can create a profile, build up points and status, and interact and play with other N-Gage members.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Nokia N86 8MP in San Francisco using AT&T service and call quality was OK. Voices sounded just a bit hollow on our end and the audio cut out a couple of times, but the latter wasn't a constant problem. We also never had to hang up on a call because the sound was so bad. Meanwhile, our friends reported excellent call quality and had no complaints. They also said they could barely tell the difference between speakerphone calls and regular voice calls. Unfortunately, we thought the audio was a bit high-pitched on our side and the speaker wasn't very strong. We were able to pair the N86 with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

The N86 8MP is powered by an ARM 11 434MHz. Overall, the smartphone was responsive with minimal delays. We played a trial version of Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D and the gaming experience was clean and quite fun. We watched a couple of video clips and playback was smooth with synchronized audio and picture, but again, the N86 could benefit from a higher-resolution screen, which became particularly evident when watching videos. We also used our Bose On-Ear Headphones and enjoyed rich-sounding music with a nice balance of treble and bass.

The phone's GPS capabilities were quite impressive. The phone consistently found our location within 2 minutes or less and accurately tracked our position as we drove around San Francisco. We plotted a course from the Golden Gate Bridge to CNET's downtown headquarters, and while Nokia Maps provided an accurate route, its route recalculation capabilities were slightly annoying. Though it was fast to come up with a new route, the new directions were a bit circuitous and often instructed us to make a U-turn to get back to the original itinerary instead of coming up with new directions based on the current location. In some cases, making a U-turn might be the only option but we knew of several alternative methods that we could have taken, so the repetitive commands to make a U-turn got to be annoying.

The Nokia N86 features a 1200mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 6.3 hours (GSM)/3.9 hours (3G) and up to 13 days (GSM)/11 days of standby time. We are still conducting our battery drain tests but will update this section as soon as we have final results. According to FCC radiation tests, the N86 has a digital SAR rating of 1.01 watts per kilogram.


Nokia N86

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7