Review of Nokia N95-8GB
If you are looking for the ultimate business phone rather than the gadget equivalent of a Prada handbag, then this is the device for you. Quite simply the best phone I’ve ever owned.
Cards on the table – I love this phone. I’d marry it if it was legal. The rest of this review is an ode to “what computers have become”.
I’ve generally owned middle-of-the-road good business phones, all Nokia, with two short lived diversions to Panasonic and Sony-Ericcson. So it was devices like 6310, 6230 etc. Two years ago I went higher end with the N70 and was amazed by what it could do but frustrated by its lack of speed. Recently it had begun to annoy more and more whilst the hype around the N95 grew and grew. At Le Web in December I had an N95-8GB and iPod Touch pimped to me by Pat Phelan and Tom Raftery respectively. The User Interface and Browser on the iPod were fantastic but I couldn’t overlook the shitty camera and lack of 3G on the iPhone. I’d actually be taking a step back from the N70 if I went with it.
However, Christmas approached and there was no sign of Vodafone releasing the 8GB model here. The lack of removable storage and lens cover bothered me too and the new firmware on the N95-1 supposedly dealt with all of the memory and performance issues it had. So I headed into Wilton with my wife to get the N95-1 as my Christmas present. On requesting it, the salesman asked if I wanted the “older one” or the “newer one”. “Oh you mean the 8GB? I thought you didn’t have that yet?”. “Oh but we do, would you like to see it?”. Arrgghhhhhhhhh, decisions decisions. €50 extra, more memory, bigger battery vs lower cost, lens cover and removable storage? Oh feck it, in for a penny, in for a pound. We parted with €440. Double what I’d ever payed for a phone before. It had better be worth it.
And oh was it!
It’s hard to know where to start. Maybe basic specs and features first:
- It’s a phone
- Slider design
- HSDPA to 3.6Mbs (aka 3.5G)
- 5MP Camera with “Carl Zeiss Optics” and LED flash
- 120MB RAM
- 8GB built-in flash memory
- Symbian Series 60 v3
- Mini-USB connection to PC (does not charge through it)
- 3.5mm headphone socket
- TV Out
- Accelerometer to detect movement/orientation of phone
Each in itself is impressive but it’s when you combine the features along with some great apps that you have the killer device. In particular, I now see WiFi as a must-have feature on phones and I’m coming to the conclusion that GPS and location based services is where the all-at-sea mobile operators should be putting a lot of focus.
A few of the built-in apps which have been blowing my socks off are:
- Nokia Maps – This comes with a free year of voice navigation. It has worked brilliantly on several occasions for me, leading me from door to door and downloading the extra map detail required on demand using a Vodafone data connection. The recent Beta 2.0 is even better and the Irish maps seem to have had a very recent upgrade, finally showing the very small roads around Bandon. Unfortunately it works less well abroad. I tried to use it from Geneva to Chamonix by pre-loading the French/Swiss maps and not going online (to be ripped off by Vodafone’s extortionate roaming data rates). It wouldn’t even start in Geneva without going online for a short while. I let it (and have fingers crossed that it was only a few KB) and got basic maps without the voice navigation.
- Podcasting – It’s not that the app is amazing (like most of Nokia’s music-related software, it is very basic) but the simple ability to subscribe to podcasts directly from the phone and have them downloaded over Wifi is a joy. No more side-loading bullcrap from the PC.
- TV-Out – OK so it’s a hardware feature but it’s brilliant. I did a full series of demos at the IWTC conference with the output from the phone displayed on a giant screen at Cineworld.
The built-in web browser is good but not awesome and I mainly use it with the mobile versions of various sites like GMail, Twitter etc. It does have an RSS reader but I prefer to use the mobile version of Google Reader which I often think is better than the full blown one! I still haven’t figured out how to open two windows in the browser tho.
The new Nokia N-Series PC Suite is a major improvement over the old rubbish but is very CPU intensive and tends to fall over regularly. But it is worth it for the “Nokia Photos” app. This is basically “Lifeblog” rebranded and pulls all your SMS/MMS/Pics/Vids from the phone and displays them on a timeline. It also puts them in the “right” folders in XP and Vista (“My Videos” etc). There are plenty of other apps in the suite like Sync, Backup, Update etc. All are fine.
Nokia have been building a lot of new apps in their Labs and some of them will eventually be game-changers IMHO. Location Tagger plus Share Online show what is possible when you pull together the Camera, GPS and internet connectivity. I can take a photo, have it GEO-tagged by location and upload it to Flickr or other services in a few clicks. Alternatively I can blog it directly. The GEO-tagging is one of those simple but amazing features that anyone can understand the value of. In my recent trip to Chamonix, you can see a map of some of the places I took photos, rather than trying to guess where they were. On the down-side, I find Shozu (a third party app) far more powerful in terms of target sites etc than Share Online. I also suspect it was responsible for a major slow-down on the phone recently. The lack of full integration between Location Tagger/Share Online/Nokia Photos and Ovi is the one thing really holding things back. Once there is full integration then nothing will be able touch it.
Whilst I’m at it, Ovi is coming along slowly but nicely. I like the simple fact that I have one place to upload video and pics (on what was the old Twango site). The data limits are reasonable and the finer-grained security is welcome. The only thing keeping me on Flickr for the minute is the maps showing the GEO info and the more powerful upload tools.
Another killer use of GPS is the Sports Tracker. This app enables you to set the “activity” and then have your progress tracked by the phone (distance, speed etc). In itself that is useful but added to a web-site to which you can upload info and you have the beginnings of an online health portal to which you could give access to your doctor for example. For geeks, the location trails saved by the app can be used by some of the Open Mapping initiatives to build their map database.
UPDATE: Just thought last night that there is a major sponsorship opportunity for Nokia (or even Nokia Ireland) to give an N95-8GB to all the Olympic qualifiers to track and record their training. I think the Sports Council did something with Palm Pilots and modems a few years ago in this area?
All of the above is more than enough to buy the phone, but when you look at the third party applications, you really see the power of the device.
Here is what I currently have installed:
- Mail By Google – This is the version of the GMail app which works with Goog Apps For Your Domain. It works incredibly well over Wifi and ok over 3G. I sometimes have issues sending mail but I think that is down to the joke of an APN called Vodafone Live (more below)
- Truphone – This is a VOIP application which works best over Wifi if you are an Irish mobile user. I forward my mobile number to my Truphone number due to very poor mobile connection in the office. Fantastic app and scares the crap out of Voda/O2/T-Mobile.
- Fring – This is an instant messaging client and a lot more. It also hooks into Skype and has a SIP stack (to provide similar features to Truphone). I use it for my Blueface 076 number and it usually works well. Skype IM is dead handy on it. It does not work at all on Vodafone Lies.
- KeePass – This is a J2ME password manager which is also available on Windows and Linux so I can see my hundreds of passwords no matter where I am. Clunky but effective
- Putty – This is an SSH client which I use to remotely manage web-sites etc. Haven’t even bothered try it on Vodafone Lies but worked brilliantly using Wifi in a French pub.
- Python – A lot of the mini apps that people write for the N95 are written using Python (as is LouderVoice!) so it’s a pre-requisite
- Screenshot -Enables you to take screenshots of stuff on the phone. Great for Powerpoints, Business Plans and Blog Posts
- Stowaway Keyboard – This software is needed to use the awesome iGo keyboard with the N95. This foldaway bluetooth keyboard plus the N95 is all I need for most of my travel now. Laptop only required for heavy duty PPT or web browsing. Price of this keyboard has plummeted.
- eBuddy – This is an instant messaging client I use with GTalk mainly to view Twitter or Jaiku messages. Does not work with Vodafone Lies. They do have a web-site (m.ebuddy.com) which you can browse over Vodafone Lies using the phones browser and which gives a web interface for IM. Not ideal but it does work.
- Qik – The amazing video application. You can record video on the phone and stream it live to the web. Web viewers can comment live and these comments appear on the phone. Probably the most impressive hybrid mobile-web application I have seen this year. Doesn’t work on Vodafone Live.
- Twibble – This is a great Twitter application which does work over Vodafone Lies. It also has GPS integration so you can live tweet your location. My favourite way of using Twitter
- Jaiku – Actually I can’t use this. It doesn’t work over Wifi and doesn’t work on Vodafone Lies. Would love if it did either/both
- Opera Mini 4 – Actually using this less and less since the built-in browser is good enough. Handy as alternative when certain sites bork the phone browser.
- Shozu – Mentioned above. Enables you to send any pic/vid etc directly from your phone to a multitude of web-sites like Flickr, YouTube, Ovi etc etc. Also has GeoTagging support.
Other apps I use on occasion include: Metro (great assistant for all underground sytems around the world), London Underground Map, emTube for watching YouTube, MWeather, N95 Accelerometer (actually a library used by other applications), Nokia Audio Book Manager, Nokia Wellness Diary, Nokia PCPhone for interacting with SMS on your desktop, Speccy ZX Spectrum emulator, Y Browser file browser.
The biggest drawback of the phone is obvious from the points above and it is called Vodafone Live. I’ve blogged about this before, but in summary it is not an internet package, it is a hamstrung web-package. Once again Vodafone, can I ask for your “mobile broadband” package to be added to my voice SIM? At least 5GB of unrestricted access per month. I’m happy to pay for it. When do you think you’ll be able to figure out how to offer me that service?
Other issues with the phone?
- It is very plasticky for such an expensive item. The N70 is much more impressive from an industrial design perspective.
- The slider mechanism seems to be a constant source of pain for users and I saw during the week that Nokia Service Centres are now replacing the crappy plastic mechanism with a metal one when phones are sent in for repair. Mine is already a little bit wobbly.
- I really wish they could have figured out how to put on a lens cover
- It chews battery particularly when you use a lot of Wifi or GPS. However dirt cheap batteries have finally started appearing on eBay and I’ve ordered two. It’s no big deal to always keep one in my pocket. Note that N95-1 batteries do fit (loosely) but the phone hates them.
- If your phone doesn’t come with the latest firmware, upgrade it immediately. I found the phone much faster (and YouTube now works )
- It slowed to a crawl recently and I had to zap the whole thing. Now back to being very quick with most things
- I sooo wish it could be charged directly via USB. In fact, even with the USB-power adapters you see on eBay you’ll have an issue. The current drain from the N95 exceeds what most laptop USB ports can supply and your phone will never charge. You can get slightly more expensive ones with some sort of voltage converter in the middle which do work but make sure you get the right one.
- Did I mention Vodafone Lies?
UPDATE 2: A few things I forgot to mention.
- Bluetooth Headset: I bought a cheap Plantronics Explorer 350 from MyMemory.co.uk. I’ve only used it in the office and find the sound is very buzzy, almost analogue. Could be due to plethora of Bluetooth, Cordless and Wifi devices in the office. Will update when I try in car.
- Tripod: The Nokia DT-22 tripod is invaluable when using the N95 for video recording. I got mine from expansys.ie
- PIM: I used to run everything through Outlook and was always synced to my Palm IIIx, Tungsten T or N70. For the past 18 months, I’ve only used Google Calendar (in Google Apps for your Domain, GAFYD) and RememberTheMilk (for To-Dos) . I’ve tried a few things to integrate the phone with GCal but nothing has worked so far. The biggest issue is GAFYD as far as I know since some tools supposedly work with normal GCal.I think Nokia really need to jump on this soon and build Phone->Web Sync for a bunch of popular productivity webapps. And Google needs to build a decent To-Do App, or buy RTM.
You will not regret buying this phone for a single second. It will genuinely exceed all your expectations.