Having announced the Nokia N96 some 6 months ago, we’ll forgive you for being surprised that the handset has only just made it into the shops. So should you be rushing for it, or has that 6 months wait meant something better has come along?
Rather than replace the N95 as expected, the N96 sits above it as its genetically engineered and improved sibling. The N96 is a considerably more refined product though with smoother, curvier lines, although at the core it’s very much the same.
Just like its predecessor the N96 sports HSDPA connectivity, a 5-megapixel camera, GPS, the Symbian S60 operating system and that dual slider screen that hides the keypad and dedicated music controls depending on which way you move it.
The new phone sports slightly bigger dimensions all round with a larger screen, up by 0.2-inches to 2.8 over the previous 2.6-inches on the N95. The overall design now features more curved edges and so gives the impression that it's actually smaller, although it's by no means a small handset.
Around the back you'll find the 5-megapxiel camera that now features a kickstand around the lens, allowing you to perch it on a desk for convenient viewing. Additionally the N96 also features a 3.5mm headphone connector, as before, and built-in 3D stereo speakers so you can share music on the go.
Inside there aren't too many changes either, certainly not for UK customers, and while the new model features the ability to receive DVB-H broadcasts to access Live TV on the go, it will be of little use to readers in the UK as currently nobody is broadcasting in that standard.
In an attempt to counterbalance this, Nokia has signed a deal with the BBC to have the corporation’s iPlayer onboard from the get go and using the app you can watch anything on iPlayer on your phone. Probably due to operators worried that the system will cripple the network, you'll only be able to access the streams via a Wi-Fi network, removing the ability to watch stuff on the bus. In our tests, accessing the content after we had hit the play button took a surprisingly long time.
What will be of use, however, is the increase of internal memory up from 8GB to 16GB and this keeps Nokia on a competing level with Apple's 16GB iPhone. The storage capacity of the Nokia N96 can be further expanded with an optional microSD card. To allow users to make maximum use of the new memory, the N96 has a strong emphasis on video and supports common formats including MPEG4, Windows Media Video and Flash, while transferring and accessing videos is fast with a USB 2.0 connection and WLAN and HSDPA support.
Video quality is very good with the screen big enough to deliver a good picture whether you are watching sideloaded content or stuff via the iPlayer. It's not going to replace your TV or laptop, but for watching short films or music videos it will do nicely. Using that kickstand and large screen, the display can be orientated in landscape making it ideal for watching video and or surfing the Web. It certainly beats Motorola's movie-focused Z10 handset.
Unlike the iPhone, as we've already mentioned, the N96 comes with HSDPA connectivity as well as Wi-Fi. Surfing in and around London on a Vodafone 3G SIM card was quick and the internet experience good, although the lack of a touchscreen or trackpad (à la Samsung i8510) means it’s slow getting around the screen with your pointer.
As with the 8GB version of the N95, the N96 offers Nokia Maps. Assisted-GPS helps get a signal quicker, using the network operator’s transmitter cells to triangulate your location rather than having to rely totally on satellites and this also helps if you are indoors. Further tests beyond our First Look earlier in the year prove this works very well. You can also use the GPS element to geotag your images. For those worried about excessive battery drain, this can be turned off.
The N96 is an evolution and refinement of the Nokia N95 rather than a whole new model, but seeing as the original phone was very good to start with (it was voted Best Mobile Phone at the 2007 Pocket-lint Awards) this isn't a bad thing.
The larger screen, refined design and additional memory bring the phone back up to flagship level, something which over the last year the N95 had started to lose.
However, 6 months on from its initial announcement and the N96 is starting to wane in sex appeal compared to the plethora of touchscreen handsets available. In that 6 months we've seen the HTC Diamond, the Apple iPhone 3G, the non-touchscreen Samsung i8510, the Renoir from LG and the C905 from Sony Ericsson.
The main selling point in Europe will be the TV tuner, however that argument doesn't work for us here in the UK.
This is Nokia doing what it does best, you just have to ask whether that "best" is good enough against the competition in today's crowded market.