Nokia N96 (unlocked) review: Nokia N96 (unlocked)

Nokia N96 (unlocked)

Bonnie Cha

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.

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10 min read

Editors' note: Ratings have been adjusted with respect to newer devices that have entered the market.


Nokia N96 (unlocked)

The Good

The Nokia N96 features 16GB of storage and advanced multimedia features, including a 5-megapixel camera. The smartphone also has integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and 3G support.

The Bad

The N96 froze on a couple of occasions and can sometimes be sluggish. Nokia's Ovi services aren't fully activated in North America, so you can't take advantage of those extra capabilities. It's also expensive.

The Bottom Line

Though the Nokia N96 is a powerful all-in-one smartphone with an impressive amount of user storage, it's not a significant upgrade to the N95 and is outdone by new devices coming to market, including the Nokia N97.

The Nokia N96 caused quite a commotion when it first debuted at GSMA 2008 in February, but as with most of Nokia's high-end phones, it took a little while for the smartphone to make its way to the United States. Consequently, new products have come out and stolen its thunder, including one from the Nokia family, the Nokia N97. Still, the N96 is an impressive all-in-one device that deserves some recognition, most notably for the whopping 16GB of storage it offers. It also features advanced multimedia capabilities and comes close to being a replacement for your MP3 player or portable video player. The N96 has a business side, too, with its productivity suite and various wireless connections. That said, aside from the additional flash memory and some tweaks to the design, it's very much like its predecessor, the Nokia N95, and doesn't necessarily warrant an upgrade, especially at its unlocked price of $776. And with the announcement of the Nokia N97, we have a feeling potential N96 buyers might hold off to see what the newest N series device has to offer. Don't get us wrong, the Nokia N96 is a powerful smartphone that blends work and play well, but at this point, the N96 feels more like an afterthought than a potential purchase.

The Nokia N96's doesn't differ that much from the N95 in the looks department. It keeps the same dual-slider design and candy-bar shape, but Nokia updates the N96 with rounder edges and a sleeker face. The smartphone measures 4.1 inches high by 2.2 inches wide by 0.7 inch deep and weighs 4.4 ounces. It's similar in size to the HTC Touch Pro, so while on the short side, it's a bit thick, making for a tight fit in a pants pocket. For such a high-end device, we think the handset feels a tad cheap, because of the plastic edges. We're also not huge fans of the plastic battery cover, since it feels pretty fragile and could crack if the phone took a tumble.

The Nokia N96 is similar in shape to the HTC Touch Pro: short and stout.

The N96 features a 2.8-inch QVGA non-touch screen that displays 16 million colors at a 240x320 pixel resolution, just like the 8GB N95. There's an ambient-light detector to adjust the backlighting depending on your environment, and in all, we found it was easy to read text and view images and Web sites on the smartphone. You can also customize the home screen with various themes and adjust the backlight and font size.

Below the display, you get a navigation array that consists of Talk and End keys, two soft buttons, a menu shortcut, a clear button, and a five-way directional keypad. Nokia added some new controls, though they're not readily apparent at first. When the backlight is on, you will see that surrounding the toggle are dedicated music controls--play/pause, stop track forward, and back. There's also a small multimedia menu key that will automatically take you to your music, videos, photos, games, and more. With the exception of the latter and the navigation toggle, all the controls are set flush with the phone's surface, which gives the handset a more updated and sexy look. However, we found that they're a bit stiff to press, and the menu key and clear buttons are cramped, wedged between other controls.

Overall, the alphanumeric keypad is easy to use, but the top row feels a bit cramped so close to the screen's edge.

The rest of the phone's buttons take on the same style. You can access the alphanumeric keypad by pushing the screen up. While flat, the keys are large and wide, minimizing mispresses. However, the top row is set pretty close to bottom of the front cover and occasionally our thumb would hit up against the edge. By sliding the screen the other way, you get access to another set of media player keys--their functions are the same as the keys on the front (play, stop, and so forth). The main difference is that when you access the keys in this fashion, the screen orientation automatically changes to landscape mode, allowing you more screen real estate to enjoy videos and photos. Unfortunately, like the N95, the view doesn't automatically go back to portrait mode when you close the phone; instead, you have to slide the screen up and then back down again.

By pushing the screen down, you can access the N96's dedicated media controls.

Other design features include a microSD expansion slot on the left spine, and dual speakers, a volume rocker, and a camera activation/capture key on the right side. The top of the unit has a lock switch, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a power button; there's a Micro-USB port and power connector on the bottom. Finally, on the back, you'll find the camera lens and flash, and a little kickstand that you can pull out to allow you to set the phone on the flat surface and watch movies, slide shows, and so forth.

The Nokia N96 comes packaged with a travel charger, a car charger, a wired headset and remote, video-out cables, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phones accessories, ringtones, and help page.

As with the design, the Nokia N96 only gets an incremental upgrade in the features department. Don't get us wrong; the N96 is a fully loaded smartphone, but it doesn't necessarily break any new barriers. The main headliner is the N96's whopping 16GB of internal flash memory--double the capacity of the 8GB Nokia N95. This gives you an amazing amount of storage on your phone. For example, you can store 40 hours of video (based on H.264 768-Kbps video at 320x240 resolution) or up to 12,000 music tracks (based on 3:45-minute tracks and 48Kbps eAAC+ audio) on the N96. Don't forget that the handset also has a microSD slot so you can expand your memory even further. The N96 has been tested to accept up to 8GB cards.

On top of the 16GB of internal flash memory, the Nokia N96 has a microSD expansion slot.

How will you use up all that memory? Well, don't worry, the N96 has plenty of multimedia offerings to keep you busy. The built-in music player supports MP3, AAC, eACC+, and WMA files and allows you to create playlists on the fly. It also supports album art, and there's an equalizer to tweak sound. With the included wired headset, which has a built-in tuner, you can also listen to FM radio on the N96. The smartphone is also built to support the Nokia Music Store where you can browse and purchase tracks, but unfortunately, it has yet to fully launch in the United States.

The phone's video capabilities are also quite impressive. The N96 features a Video Center that acts as a hub for all your video content, including Internet videos and video podcasts. The handset supports MPEG-4 Part 2 (H.263/SP), MPEG-4 Part 10 (H.264/AVC), WMV9, RealVideo video codecs and formats, with video playback at up to 30 frames per second (fps). The smartphone includes a DVB-H receiver, which allows for live TV streaming, but as with all things cool, it's not supported on this side of the pond.

On back, you'll find the N96's 5-megapixel camera.

To capture videos and images of your own, there's a 5-megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens. (Carl Zeiss was an optician who first started manufacturing lenses for microscopes and then used his expertise for camera lenses.) It's the same camera as the N95, but it still offers a better lens and more advanced features than are found on most camera phones. For example, you get a choice of seven shooting modes, ranging from close-up to sports to night portrait, and five quality settings. There's a flash with a red-eye reduction option, and you can adjust the brightness, contrast, white balance, color tone, ISO light sensitivity, and exposure value.

For videos, the camera can record clips at a maximum VGA resolution (640x480) at 30fps, though you also have a choice of four other quality settings. There's a handy timer that shows you how much video time you have left based on the memory and the quality setting (this feature is available in camera mode as well). Editing options are a little more limited in video mode: you only get two shooting modes (automatic and night) and white-balance and color-tone settings. In addition, there's a video stabilization feature to help reduce camera shake as you're recording video.

The N96 took excellent photos with impressive sharpness.

Picture quality was good. The sharpness of the photos was most impressive, and overall, we were pleased with the color, though some images tended to have a grayish tone. Recorded video looked quite decent for a camera phone. All that said, we did run into a couple of problems using the camera. The first time we launched the camera, we got a black screen and had to exit out of the application. Then when we restarted the camera, the viewfinder would only show the image in portrait view and not landscape, so we restarted again. Finally, the third time was a charm and everything was right.

As for the N96's phone features, it offers world roaming, a speakerphone, speed dial, conference calling, voice commands, a vibrate mode, and text and multimedia messaging. Though push-to-talk capabilities and video calling are listed as features, they're not supported here in the United States. The phone's address book is only limited by the available memory, and the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts. There's room in each entry for 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, and file transfer.

The N96 is also 3G-capable, supporting the 850/1900MHz HSDPA bands, meaning you'll get the benefit of 3.5G speeds only if you use an AT&T SIM. (T-Mobile's 3G network runs on the 1700/2100MHz bands.) The N96 also has integrated Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), giving you alternative means of connecting to the Web.

For navigating the streets, the Nokia N96 has standalone and assisted GPS, so it uses both satellites and cellular triangulation to find your position. The smartphone also comes preloaded with the Nokia Maps application, which offers color maps, route planning, and points of interest. For real-time, turn-by-turn directions, you'll have to upgrade the application, but Nokia is now offering a complimentary three-month trial of the turn-by-turn service. Afterwards, you'll have several purchase options, including a one-year license for $125.77 or a one-month license for $13.96.

Finally, the N96 runs the third edition of the S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 on the Symbian operating system for your productivity needs. An app called QuickOffice 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. 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, 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.

There are a number of other productivity tools on the phone, including a zip manager, a measurement converter, a PDF reader, a calendar, a clock, a calculator, and a message reader. There is a shortcut to the N-Gage gaming platform from where you can download and interact with other gamers; but like the Nokia Music Store, it's not fully operational yet in the States. For more titles and other applications for the N96, check out Download.com.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; HSDPA 850/1900) Nokia N96 in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was good. On our end, we enjoyed mostly clear audio, but voices could sound just a bit hollow at times. Still, we had no problems carrying on conversations and using an airline's voice-automated system. Our friends were much more impressed by the clarity and good sound quality on their end. Speakerphone quality was decent. As expected, the quality diminished slightly, as there was a bit of a hollowness to the call, but volume was loud and we were still able to talk to our friends. We successfully paired the N96 with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones

The Nokia N96 is equipped with a 264MHz ARM 9 processor and 128MB RAM/256MB system memory, and the smartphone just didn't feel all that snappy. There were a couple of instances when we launched an application--including the video player and camera--and the phone froze so we had to power on/off. When the applications finally did launch, the multimedia features were great. Music playback through the phone's dual speakers sounded rich and full. We always like it when a handset comes equipped with a 3.5mm jack so you can use your favorite pair of headphones. We plugged in our Bose On-Ear headphones and enjoyed great audio; and given the huge amount of storage on the N96, it could double as your MP3 player. We also checked out a couple of videos and were impressed by how clear and smooth the picture looked; the quality was much better than that of a majority of the smartphones we've tested to date.

The Nokia N96 features a 950mAh lithium-ion battery with a rated talk time of 2.5 hours and up to 8 days of standby time (3.6 hours and 9 days on GSM). 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 tests, the N96 has a digital SAR rating of 0.96 watt per kilogram.


Nokia N96 (unlocked)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 6