The phone that can do everything comes to the U.S., with GPS navigation, a 5-megapixel camera and a unique dual-slide design. Is it the best phone we've seen?









Nokia's N95 is truly a flagship phone, it is a model of the state of the art. When we saw the phone back in September, we knew two things about it. First, it could do everything. Second, it would never come here. Then, Nokia inexplicably changed their minds. The company started selling the exact same phone in European and U.S. markets, though some of the most advanced features won't work on U.S. networks. We tested the unlocked phone using a Cingular SIM card in Manhattan and the New Jersey suburbs.

Design

The phone has an overall look reminiscent of a simple point-and-shoot camera. Because of its massive feature set, the Nokia N95 was always bigger in our minds than in our hands. Though it is thick for a multimedia phone, with everything it can do, we still expected it to be larger, more like an internet tablet. It is smaller in every way than our Palm Treo 700p, except when the numeric slide makes it a bit longer. The dual-slide design of the N95 looked nice, and worked well, but may have caused more problems than it solved. Though we liked the tactile, not touch-sensitive, playback controls, the slide itself seemed a bit loose, and often, closing the numeric pad, we would pass the nuetral point and open the playback controls. Perhaps these controls could have been placed elsewhere, and the novelty of a dual-slide could have been replaced by sturdier design.

The interface is mostly standard Symbian fare, which is not our favorite, but probably because we lack the extensive experience needed to decode the tiny 3-D figures and swirling geometric shapes that make up the interface icons. Still, Nokia has included an additional media-centric menu, activated through a dedicated button or by sliding open the playback controls. This menu takes a moment to open, but is PC-like in its fluid animation and beautiful icons. For example, the media menu's background is a soft focus photograph that moves in and out of focus as you spend time browsing the icons. Very classy.

Calling - Excellent

The Nokia N95 makes calls that sound great. We had some occasional noise issues, but listeners reported above average sound at all times. Reception was also top notch, 7 bars (Nokia's maximum) when our Cingular RAZR had 3/5. Battery life was good for calls, at more than 6 hours for a single charge, probably because calls on the U.S. networks don't use WCDMA, which requires more power.

In terms of call features, the N95 does everything, a mantra we'll repeat in this review. It uses Bluetooth 2.0, has a very loud speakerphone, features speaker-independent voice dialing and makes conference calls easily. The contact list is more robust even than Outlook, with three fields each for Internet and Video calling numbers, as well as a slot for Assistant's name and Assistant's phone number. Contact list backup is handled through Nokia's PC Suite software, which can synchronize with Outlook and other PIM programs.

Push to talk is available through Nokia's proprietary service, which we haven't seen stateside, so AT&T push to talk fans are out of luck. Because this phone is basically a European guest on our networks, U.S. buyers won't have access to video calling, among other HSDPA goodies. We've been dying to see this feature in action, but instead we're taunted by the front-facing camera.

Messaging - Very good

The Nokia N95 has a nicely curved, comfortable keyboard, and does a fine job as a basic messaging phone. Though plenty of additional IM options are available for Symbian S60 phones, the Nokia N95 lacks some of our favorite pre-loaded messaging services, such as Yahoo or MSN for e-mail and instant messaging. POP3 and IMAP e-mail is available, and worked nicely. If you really need to do some hardcore messaging, the N95 also has a Bluetooth keyboard profile built in. The screen fit a full outgoing and incoming SMS message at once, and characters were perfectly legible. Sending photos and videos as messages couldn't have been easier, as this was a top-level menu option from the camera app.

Camera - Very good

The Nokia N95 has a 5-megapixel camera on its back and a VGA camera up front. The rear camera features auto-focus with a two-step shutter release and a Xenon flash, still a rarity on camera phones. The Carl Zeiss optics are hidden behind a lens cover, opened with a switch.

Pictures taken with the phone were among the best we've seen on camera phones, with the exception of the Sony Ericsson Cyber Shot line, perhaps, which also use the Carl Zeiss optics. We still don't think the image will replace a good, dedicated camera, but images from the camera would have been fine for Web publishing or small print jobs.

The phone includes plenty of camera options, including various shutter modes for fast-moving subjects or night time portraits. The phone also has a variety of transfer options, including e-mail, printing, IR transfer and Bluetooth capabilities, as well as direct access to Flickr accounts.

Video looked very good as well. Again, we don't think the N95 will replace a nice, standalone camcorder, but its recording quality, at VGA resolution and 30 frames per second, means that videos will look just as good on a television as they do on the 2.6-inch screen, though our review unit lacked the TV-out cable included in the retail package. Our only complaint is that we can't use the front-facing VGA camera for video calls.

Videos - Very good

Through a special deal with YouTube, Nokia has its own access to an updating list of popular YouTube videos. Over Cingular's EDGE network, we were pleased with the streaming quality, which was on par with the streaming video applications we've seen on most carrier-locked phones.

While this video looked good, with only a slight blockiness, the N95 did an even better job playing MPEG-4 videos. We ripped a Simpsons episode off our TiVo and played it on the N95 - the picture looked as good as any portable media player we've seen.

We were disappointed that the memory tops out at 2GB, and even if Nokia surprises us with microSDHC card support, we would have liked to see a few gigs tucked away inside for real media fans. Still, playback controls worked well with the video functions, and we were pleased to find that A2DP support works for videos as well as audio content.

Audio - Very good

The Nokia N95 is a musical powerhouse, with support for a wide range of file types, including MP3, AAC and even some DRM WMA files. The music controls work well, and we definitely prefer the tactile control to touch-sensitive buttons, even if the buttons were a bit stiff. On the Nokia 5300 XpressMusic phone, pressing play on the music controls activates the music immediately, and though we like that music is generally the default app on the media menu, we would have liked an instant-on feature for the playback controls.

Nokia's PC Suite includes a music transfer application, and this works better than some other manufacturers' apps, but pales in comparison to iTunes. Still, the phone and software read ID3 tags better than some we've seen, so our album information was preserved, though our artwork was lost.

The music player is simple on the surface, but packs some impressive options, including an equalizer with presets that you can manually fine tune, and a nice, though not too trippy, visualizer. FM radio is built-in, with an app that can download local frequencies and radio call letters.

Perhaps best of all, the phone features a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can use whatever cans you choose, in addition to A2DP for stereo Bluetooth. Without the headphones, the phone is straddled by stereo speakers that are almost as loud as the Samsung YP-K5, the micro-boombox MP3 player.

GPS - Excellent

Though it takes a moment to warm up and find your location, once the GPS sensor on the Nokia N95 is tracking you, it can be tenacious. The sensor and included software are easily the best we've seen on a phone, even with the additional subscription fee for navigation and voice directions.

The map works as a 2D top-down or 3D map, and it tracked our location quickly and accurately, turning with us as we went through intersections. The zooming globe map clearly takes advantage of the graphical firepower of the N95, as visual effects are smooth, and the map zooms better than any map we've seen.

Web browsing - Very good

The Nokia N95 features the same Web browser we liked so much on the Nokia E62, with its smooth scrolling and mini-map navigation panel. The phone chewed up any web page we could throw its way, including The New York Times and our own infoSync World home pages. Of course, more advanced AJAX pages won't work, but most pages come through accurately, and navigation is a breeze with the accelerating pointer.

Office

The Nokia N95 includes the QuickOffice suite for reading Office documents and Adobe's Acrobat PDF reader. For a fee, users can upgrade to a more fully-featured QuickOffice that allows for document editing. We found QuickOffice to be reliable and accurate on Excel and Word documents, though it did leave out our hidden comments on both. PDF files had perfect layout and typesetting, and navigation was generally easy, though we would have preferred less digging through the menus.

Gaming

With Nokia's N-Gage system soon to be available on N-series phones like the N95, we are happy to report that gaming performance on the N95 is much closer to a portable console system than to an average cell phone. Games looked clean, with textures and smooth 3-D animation that reminded us more of a PSP than a RAZR. Phone controls aren't desirable for gaming functions, we'd like to see a joystick or more sensitive control scheme, but the processing power seems to be there.

Battery life

Though we got a satisfying amount of talk time from the phone, battery life is more of an issue as you turn on more features. Navigation uses a tremendous amount of power, with its combination of sensors, always-on backlighting and voice directions. Music and video drain the battery further. Wi-Fi access is another battery hog.

I imagine, with every bell and whistle blaring, you could drain the battery in under an hour. In our few days of testing, with above-average use, we needed to charge the phone every night before bed, and it died once on our commute home, while we were navigating.

Value

The Nokia N95 costs $750. There are more expensive phone out there, but most of these fall into the luxury category and involve precious metals and/or stones. For U.S. importers, who won't even get some of the best capabilities of the phone, the 3G networking and video calling, the phone couldn't possibly be worth the price. And yet, it literally does everything. If you want the best phone on the market that has all the features you could ask for, this is the phone, and the price might not matter as much as the resume.

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Pros:

It does everything, and most things very well. GPS is best in class. Media playback is great.
Cons:

Large by contemporary standards. Battery life diminished by huge feature list. Transfer software could be improved.
Conclusion:
If you have ever read a phone review and thought: "That phone would be perfect if it only had . . . ," the N95 is the phone for you. It does everything, and nothing poorly. It is a top-notch GPS phone, camera phone, media phone and just plain phone. It has a fantastic screen, and if its processor is sluggish opening and closing apps, its graphical power makes up for the lag with a classy, modern interface. Nice touches, like a 3.5mm headphone jack and very loud stereo speakers, are more than amenities on this phone, which is clearly Nokia's flagship attempt to do everything right on a single device. For the most part they have succeeded. We're not huge Symbian fans, and are curious if another UI might sweep us off our feet, but for now, the Nokia N95 has the best feature set of any phone on the market, and may be one of the best phones we've seen.