Nokia N96 -To Buy or Not to Buy?!

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In a nutshell: Nokia's flagship smartphone just got better! Complete with 16 GB built-in memory, GPS satellite navigation, a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus, 3G video calling, and every other gadget you can think of! On the downside it's large, battery life is poor, and the Symbian operating system is still not 100% reliable.

The Nokia N96 is probably the most eagerly anticipated phone release of 2008. But that's partly because we've been anticipating it for so long! Lengthy delays usually mean that the engineers struggled to deliver what the marketing boys promised, so we're going to be checking the N96 very carefully for signs that some of it may not work quite as it should.

But first of all, let's take the phone out of its box and just admire it, because it's a lovely piece of kit. It's big of course - slightly bigger even than the N95, and a touch heavier too - but it's not the heaviest phone ever. But putting that to one side, it's still a really nice phone to look at. It's smoother and curvier than the N95, and the buttons are less confusing.

Now, looking at the specs, it's hard to see why the N96 took such a long time to appear, because on paper it's not very different to the N95 8GB. The only significant differences are the upgrade of the Series 60 user interface from 3.1 to 3.2, the increase in flash memory from 8GB to 16GB, and the addition of Live TV. Yes, with an internal antenna and a DVB-H TV tuner, the Nokia N96 has been designed to let you watch telly on your phone. But unfortunately there is no DVB-H system broadcasting in the UK, so you can't! The good old BBC has made its iPlayer application compatible with the N96 however, so you can at least stream BBC TV and radio content to your phone, which is arguably more useful than watching broadcast TV anyway.

We noted above that the operating system has been upgraded. Well about time too, because we found the N95 to be slow and unreliable. The N96 seems to be a more stable platform, but it still freezes from time to time. Also, in our reviews of smartphones we always like to point out that if you're not familiar with the Symbian operating system, you'll find using a smartphone like the N96 much more of a challenge than using a mobile phone with a "dumb" OS.

The rest is the same as the N95 8GB:

•         Built-in GPS navigation with Nokia Maps application

•         5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss & Tessar optics

•         Secondary video camera for video calling

•         Wi-Fi wireless internet connection

•         2.8 inch display with 16 million colours - one of the largest and best screens available

•         Ultra-fast HSDPA data transfer (3.6 Mbps)

The camera is one of the best in any mobile phone. With 5 megapixels, autofocus and the Carl-Zeiss optics and Tessar lens, it can match most other phones. But already a new generation of 8 megapixel cameras has appeared (the Samsung i8510 is the first phone with 8 megapixels) and the dual LED flash is now also regarded as second best (the Nokia N82's xenon flash is more powerful), so it looks like Nokia have missed a trick here. Still, the N96 has an undeniably good camera and a front-facing video camera too, for making video calls.

We'll also mention that Nokia have improved the built-in GPS navigation system so that you can now download maps for free, instead of having to pay for a licence.

Of course the N96 has almost everything else you could think of: a music player with support for all common music formats, a stereo FM radio with RDS and Visual Radio support, integrated handsfree speaker, speaker independent voice dialling, talking ringtones, HSDPA (enabling fast downloads at up to 3.6 Mbps) and lots more! The N96 has the full range of connectivity possibilities, with support for Bluetooth 2.0, USB 2.0, Wireless LAN, TV-Out and a 3.5 mm headphone jack. The memory upgrade to 16GB and support for microSD memory cards is very welcome too, for a device of this power.

There's one area where the N96 actually underperforms its predecessor though: battery life. Anyone who's used an N95 will know that its battery life wasn't fantastic. Well, the N96 is worse. With so many gadgets to power, the battery runs out of juice pretty quickly, and many users are going to find that they have to recharge on a daily basis.

Now, to conclude, we're going to say that the N96 is definitely an improvement over the N95, which itself was a very powerful phone. The improvements worth noting are the upgraded firmware and the expanded memory. The new operating system makes the whole experience less stressful, and the increased memory is always handy. On the downside, the battery life is not too good. Overall the phone isn't exactly a giant leap forward.

The Nokia N95 8GB is pretty much the same, but better value for money. The new Samsung i8510 is very similar to the Nokia N96, using the same Series 60 user interface, but with an 8 megapixel camera, and we'd recommend you seriously consider that as an alternative.

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