20012009688The N96, Nokia’s flagship product, a phone that is meant to show what Nokia is to the world.

The N96 when it was first outed by Nokia as a successor to the N95 8GB, created ripples in the mobile phones industry. Firstly, not many of use expected a successor to the N95 8GB, secondly the supposed launch of the N85, which had the same and in some case better features than the N96.

Nevertheless the N96 was launched in a very dramatic way, remember the WWF special edition of the N96. The astronomical price of the handset, coupled with new design direction and hardware. It was supposed to be the cutting edge in terms of technology and once again reaffirm others (read iPhone) who was boss.

How has it fared? Well, the N96 has been almost completely overshadowed by its smaller but equally equipped brother, the N85. And also to a small extent by the N79 perhaps. The N95 and its various iterations along with the N82 had set a very high bar for success. This review will seek to find out whether the N96 has been able to meet those expectations and surpass them or not.

In the first aspect of the review let’s look at the design element of the N96.

The Nseries have always been a mixed bag for Nokia in terms of design. There have been many hits as well as misses for Nokia here. The Nseries have more or less followed traditional form factors, rarely trying something new (N90, N91, N92, N93 being notable exceptions), the N95 broke the mold slightly with a dual slider design. Another thing about Nseries designs has been the elements, they have consistently used different materials and design elements to make the Nseries a unique and aspirational line of phones. N96 is not trying to do anything different from its predecessors, it too has set out to do just that. With a design that sets it apart from ‘every’ other phone out there. It’s clear that the N96 does not want to be an underdog in terms of design.

The now trademark black colour clearly shows its lineage to everyone. A beige band surrounds the phone with silver colored keys for volume, camera, keypad lock and power. This according to me really break the monotony of the beige colour and makes one wonder what was the need to have the keys in that colour? I was little disappointed by that. When one buys a phone that costs so much, he wants high class products not like these. Another thing that struck me is, why has Nokia not gone completely black for this phone? I agree that the beige colour looks nice, but why could it not be black?

The reaction to this phone has been good. After all its not everyday that one sees a N96. All my friends have really liked the phone for its looks. I for one am being very critical of it since this the flagship product! you can’t make mistakes on this one at all.

The phone does not seem to have any metallic parts on the exterior, its an all plastic affair, and they have done a good job with the quality of materials used. The annoying thing about the N96 is that it is a huge (really huge!) fingerprint magnet. dscn4068Since the phone is literally enveloped in glossy surfaces, you are sure to leave fingerprints on the phone. I personally hate having my prints all over the phone. The rear panel of the phone is made entirely of plastic and the design and finish of it reminds me of the N82, which was the first to come out with that kind of a design element.

Since this phone is big in terms of size also, it can become a little difficult to get the right grip. This phone is not slippery, mind you but the size is such that it can take time to get used to holding it in the hand. Once, used to it, it’s as good as any other phone of its kind.

There a ‘billion’ keys on this phone. I have not seen a slider phone having so many keys. In total there 36 keys on the phone, and this is excluding the keypad lock slider button. That’s a whole lot of keys! Using the keys is not difficult. It can however get a little difficult to use the ‘Menu’ and ‘C’ keys as they are at the bottom of the “screen half”. The numerical keypad is also done up in glossy plastic and are just 4 bands. The keys are not individually separated but there isn’t any noticeable problem in operating them. The four keys which are there on the other side of the slider are used for music and video playback, they also double up (the 2 keys in the center) as keys to be used when playing N-Gage games. Again it’s the same glossy finish for them. The keys on the screen half of the phone are an interesting lot.

A look at the keys and you feel sure that there is no way you can escape without making a few wrong presses. But that’s untrue, I haven’t made a single mistake while using them. The design deceives you into believing otherwise. There is just one problem with them and the D-Pad as well, it squeaks! and its irritating after a while. Andrew Currie has mentioned how it feels like, it’s as if there is a piece of plastic stuck under the D-Pad, well I have to agree with him. I have the exact same feeling! Why must they squeak at all?

The fact that the keys are flat, kinds of hinders in the feedback, at least for me. I didn’t think the feedback was reassuring enough. Why was there a need to have dedicated music keys surrounding the D-Pad? what other purpose do they serve?
If someone is listening to a song, he/she could very well use the D-Pad or the dedicated music keys. I think those set of keys could have been avoided and the space used for bigger and better designed keys. The ‘Menu’ and ‘C’ keys could have been bigger, the short cut key (horizontal silver button) could have been made slightly bigger. The volume keys and the camera key were spongy. The phone has two speakers at the right hand side of the phone, inline with the volume and camera keys. Lanyard holes at the bottom left hand side, 2mm charger point, mic and Micro USB slot at the bottom (center). A 3.5mm audio plug is at the top in the center. The phone also has a Micro USB card slot, a door for the same cane be found at the left side of the phone.

In terms of build quality, I must say that the slider mechanism on it is really good. It snaps with a reassuring noise. Probably the one thing that annoys me is the squeaks emanating from the D-Pad & soft keys and also the rear panel. It seems that there is a lot of space inside.

On the whole I would give the phone a respectable 7/10. A flagship product like this could have done much better. I was expecting the N96 would get a 8 or a 9 out of 10. Since it looks like a show stopper. The mistakes made were completely avoidable. I hope the next ‘flagship’ phone does not repeat these mistakes again.

UPDATE: Symbian-Guru reports that an all black N96 is available for sale in the UK at Carphone Warehouse.