The N91 sees Nokia take two steps forward with functionality and one step back in its design efforts, making the phone suitable for feature-mongers but not so attractive to budding fashionistas.
The first thing to note about the N91 is that it's far from the most attractive phone on the market. It uses a "candybar" format but, with dimensions of 113.1mm by 55.2mm by 22mm and a weight of 156g, it's far bulkier than other candybar phones out there.
Suffice it to say, you'll struggle to fit this monster into a tight jeans pocket, but one advantage of its size is enhanced ruggedness. The body is constructed from stainless steel, so it'll certainly keep up with your active lifestyle. Don't be too reckless, however, as the screen is just as prone to scratching as any other phone.
The N91 is part of Nokia's new music phone range, and this is clearly evident in its design. Music playback undoubtedly takes priority here, and located on the front of the unit are hardware playback navigation buttons. This enables users to easily skip through tracks without necessarily having to look at the screen. Additionally, there's a "Hold" switch on top to lock the keypad for guarding against inadvertent button presses -- a feature that's found on most MP3 players but few phones.
Next to the hold button is a 3.5mm headphone jack that allows you to hook in the supplied pair of Nokia headphones, or any other headset that you own. This impressed us, as phone manufacturers commonly include a proprietary headphone connector that greatly limits compatibility with third-party manufacturers.
Sliding down the track navigation panel reveals the phone's numerical keypad. The keys are far too small for our liking, embodying the trade-offs that Nokia made when optimising the phone for music playback. On the plus side, the keypad is illuminated with blue LEDs, making it painless to use in the dark.
Menu navigation is accomplished using the integrated joystick, which is flanked by Answer/End keys and two quick launch buttons -- one for launching straight into the "Messaging" menu, and the other for launching the music menu. The left of the device offers up volume controls, while on the right there's a button to bring you straight to the main menu interface.
We've mentioned that the N91 is just as much an MP3 player as it is a mobile phone, and to aid in this cause Nokia has equipped the device with a monstrous 4GB hard drive (capable of storing up to 3000 tracks). This is a first as far as mobile phones go, and is partly the reason behind the phone's bulky chassis.
While the music player supports a wide range of file formats -- WMA, M4A, MP3, AAC, eAAC and eAAC+ -- it can't play DRM encrypted WMA files or songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store. That said, Nokia promises that it will release a software upgrade that adds support for encrypted WMA in the near future.
We were impressed with the N91's music management software, which is similar to that offered by dedicated MP3 players from Apple and Creative. It supports album art, multiple user-definable playlists and searching by ID3 tags.
An FM tuner is included for those times when you tire of your own music collection, and you're easily able to record radio broadcasts straight to the phone's hard disk.
Video playback is supported, and both Flash Player and Real Player are pre-installed by default. The quality isn't horrible, but it's not entirely smooth either and there are noticeable artefacts.
The questionable video playback quality is more a product of underpowered hardware than the quality of the display, which is crystal clear. It offers a 176x208 pixel resolution and supports 262,000 colours, making it one of the better mobile phone displays we've seen.
You can record your own clips using the integrated 2-megapixel camera, which supports resolutions of up to 352x288 when recording video and 1600x1200 for still images. Picture quality is superb, but the lack of a flash makes night-time shooting difficult. A self-portrait mirror is also absent.
Connectivity options are top-notch; the 3G phone supports GSM 900/1800/1900, WCDMA 2100, Bluetooth 1.2 and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, making it one of the most well-connected phones out there. Hooking up to a PC in order to transfer your music collection to the phone is simple with the provided USB cable.
Finally, the N91 boasts a number of personal productivity applications including a calendar, to-do list, calculator, converter (currency, area, energy, length, mass, power and so on), stop watch and voice recorder. You're also able to load your own Java-based applications onto the device.
One of the first things we noticed upon receiving the N91 was its slow boot-up time, which takes upwards of 30 seconds. Granted, this is only a minor qualm considering that the phone will for the most part remain switched on anyway.
Not so minor is the phone's sluggishness; applications rarely open up instantaneously, and take even longer to load when you're concurrently playing music files. This delay isn't often longer than five seconds, but it's still frustrating nonetheless.
As mentioned, we're impressed with the quality of the integrated camera, but not so impressed with the phone's video playback, which is slightly choppy albeit still perfectly watchable.
Conversely, audio playback quality is superb, and in our opinion up to the standards set by dedicated music playing devices. That said, we found the Nokia PC Suite application to be fairly clunky, and converting your MP3 files to the AAC format prior to transfer is a drawn out process.
Call quality on the Vodafone network in the Sydney Metropolitan area proved to be fairly impressive with less than a handful of dropouts, and we had no qualms with the volume levels or sound clarity.
The four hours of talk time and around six days of standby time impressed us, given the phone's feature-set. When used purely as an MP3 player you can expect around 10 hours of battery life from the N91, while under general use with an even mix of both talking and music playback we found that we only needed to charge the phone every two or three days.
The N91's high price and design flaws make it a tough sell given the quality of competing offerings, but if you plan to make extensive use of its wealth of features, we hardly think you'll be disappointed.