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Nokia N96 review: Nokia N96

The Nokia N96 is one of this year's most eagerly awaited mobile phones. Packed with the kind of features that would make MacGyver giddy, this handset will appeal to anyone with an addiction to bleeding-edge technology. With 16GB of onboard memory and a 5-megapixel camera, this phone has it all

Frank Lewis
4 min read

When the Nokia N95 was released it took the world by storm as it managed to pack pretty much everything the hardened gadgeteer could need into a pocket-friendly device. Since then it's been joined by other do-it-all phones such as the iPhone 3G and T-mobile G1. The N96 signals the start of Nokia's fight back as it promises smoother video playback and some other neat extras. But has Nokia done enough to make the N96, which is available for around £500 SIM-free, an attractive upgrade for the owners of the N95?


Nokia N96

The Good

16GB memory with the option to expand; GPS; HSDPA; 5-megapixel camera; table stand.

The Bad

Chunky, plasticky build; some N95 users may have expected more; Web browser not as good as Safari.

The Bottom Line

The N96 has everything a gadgeteer could want, including vast amounts of memory, a good camera, great video playback quality and built-in GPS. But its build quality is a bit iffy and it's not as easy to use as the iPhone

Looks-wise, the N96 isn't a radical departure from previous designs. The handset still has quite a bulky frame, but instead of the matte finish, it comes with an altogether more stylish-looking high-gloss exterior.

The slide mechanism has also been tweaked and now feels much smoother and sturdier, but the unique dual keypad arrangement has been retained. If you slide the screen upwards you're met by the standard numerical keypad, but when you slide it downwards a column of four media playback controls (play, stop, fast-forward and rewind) are revealed.

On the top of the N96 there's a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can plug your cans straight in without an adaptor

Nokia has paid close attention to video with the N96. In order to add support for the DVB-H standard (more on that later) Nokia has had to kit the phone out with new video acceleration. This speeds up decoding of video formats like h.264, the most common standard for video on mobiles.

The advantages this brings are clear when you download the iPlayer application from the BBC's Web site. It works like a dream -- the streamed video looks incredibly smooth and artefact-free on the N96's excellent screen. Nokia has even added a kick-stand to the rear of the phone so you can easily rest it on a desk when you want to watch a few episodes of your favourite programmes or a couple of music videos.

Similar to the N95, the N96 is a dual slider with a keypad on one side and multimedia keys on the other

Up until now, the N81 was the king of the nGage gaming handsets. But that's all changed with the N96's arrival -- sliding down the screen when an nGage game is loaded transforms the media controls into additional gaming buttons for two-handed control. It helps game-playing immensely and makes the phone feel like a real portable games machine.

The camera is pretty much a direct carry-over from the N95, but as it takes such good shots that's no bad thing. The five-megapixel sensor captures plenty of detail and the Carl Zeiss optics make sure that everything remains pin sharp. Although there's still no Xenon flash, you do get dual LED photo lights to help in dim conditions.

As ever, connectivity is absolutely top notch. As well as support for HSDPA, the phone has onboard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth complete with A2DP support, so you can stream stereo audio to a pair of wireless headphones. Naturally the A-GPS features have also been carried over from the N95, and you get three months of free subscription to the Nokia Maps 2.0 service for satellite navigation.

On the back of the N96 there's a 5-megapixel camera with auto-focus and dual-LED flash

A phone with such a rich line-up of features will require plenty of memory to make the most of it. Thankfully, Nokia has taken this on board and instead of the 8GB of memory offered on the premium version of the N95, the N96 doubles this to a massive 16GB. If this isn't enough, you can always add extra storage via the MicroSD card slot found on the right-hand side of the phone.

One of the N96's key new features is its support for the DVB-H mobile television standard. DVB-H is sort of the mobile equivalent of Freeview. The idea is that operators will broadcast channels over the air and users will tune in via their phones. But no UK operator currently offers this service, and as far as we know, none has any plans to introduce it in the future. As a result, this key extra functionality is all but useless in Blighty.

Another issue is the build quality of the phone. For all its glossy finish there's no getting away from the fact that the N96 feels quite cheap and plasticky. For example, Nokia has added a kick-stand to the rear of the phone just under the lens cover. But it's extremely flimsy and feels like it's going to break at any moment. Additionally, when you pull it out of its recess, sometimes the whole rear of the phone comes off because the plastic backing is only held on by a small catch.

Those who used the iPhone will also be decidedly underwhelmed by the browser that's included here. It does support a wide range of video formats and can also show some flash content. But when it comes to usability it's miles behind the iPhone, especially when you want to zoom in and out of a page to read columns of text.

The biggest issue the N96 faces, however, is that it just doesn't look and feel like it's much of an improvement on the original N95. Essentially, you're getting the same phone with some more memory, a slightly tweaked design and some video acceleration. While all of these additions are welcome, we just wish there were more of them.

The N95 was a truly revolutionary product -- and the N96 is simply a different evolution of the same thing. It's a still a great phone that's bursting at the seams with top-notch features, but it's not a huge update on the original. Most importantly, it doesn't provide anywhere near as good a user experience as the iPhone.

Edited by Marian Smith