Nokia's N95 vision for the future of multimedia

by alec on April 13, 2007

Nokia has a vision.  Your phone, that ubiquitous device that you carry with you everywhere, will become the ultimate media creation and consumption device.  It will be your radio, your camera, your music player, and the terminal you use to view, listen and share all this media. 

The N95 is the latest step in their quest to deliver on that vision.  It’s a GSM cellular device (with European HSDPA – no good here in North America, unfortunately), with WiFi, a five megapixel autofocus camera (that also shoots 30 FPS video), integrated GPS, and a raft of other goodies.  It’s so packed with software that it will be impossible to do it justice in this short review.   

I’ve been carrying an N95 for about a week.  My initial impressions are that it’s a giant leap forward for Nokia’s vision.

Industrial Design

The phone itself is a small, lightweight slider that will easily fit in your pocket.  Nokia has abandoned the Nokia pop-connector in favor of USB for data transfer, which is a real blessing.  They’ve also put a small set of near-laptop quality stereo speakers on either side of the case, which makes it easy to listen to music when you’re not using the headset.  And, they’ve integrated a standard plug connector into the music controls so you can plug in your own headset.  Nice!

Perhaps the coolest thing about the N95, however, is the dual slider design.  Here’s a short video demonstrating it.

Camera

Nokia continues to crank up the pixel count on the cameras they’ve integrated into their N-Series phones.  This third generation improves it again to 5 megapixels.  Plus, their latest N-Series phones are sporting some sophisticated preset camera settings for choosing different photography scenarios (outdoor, sports, portrait), different lighting scenarios, and so on.  They even have some slick onboard editing capabilities.

The biggest impact of the higher pixel count, however, is simply more flexibility in the editing process.  With the N95 photographers finally have enough pixels that  photographs can be easily cropped and manipulated without losing too much quality.

This shot of my older sons was taken Easter Sunday, after church.  The first is the original, and the second is cropped to focus your attention on those two great looking young men!

 

Here’s a more extreme example.  These two photographs are of Toby, one of our dogs.  I cropped the picture quite radically, changing the shape, and got a much better photograph as a result.  What a noble hound!

As a snapshot camera, the N95 is tough to beat. 

Video

The N95’s video capabilities, compared to some of its predecessors, are also upgraded.  With 30 frame per second video, and higher resolution, you can shoot lots of spontaneous video footage in all kinds of circumstances.  Take, for instance, this clip that I shot of the pork roast we had for dinner last friday. 

The video is large and fast, although a little grainy. The graininess is due to the low light when it was shot, which is a deficiency common to many video cameras, and all the Nokia video cameras I’ve tried. Still, it’s excellent quality, especially considering that it was shot on a camera phone.

One deficiency compared to the N93, which is Nokia’s optimized-for-video phone, is the lack of optical zoom.  Digital zoom, of course, degrades the quality of the image.  An argument could be made that the quality of the N95 images zoomed might be comparable to the optically zoomed N93 images, given that the N93 is only a 3 megapixel camera.  Not having tested it, I couldn’t say for sure.

On playback, the N95 also excels.  In fact, when coupled with WiFi (or presumably HSDPA) you can stream video.  Nokia provides a short selection of video on the N95 video site, including YouTube which is not yet live.  Here’s what RocketBoom looks like on the N95.

Music

The music experience on the N95 is roughly the same as prior N-Series phones reviewed here.  You can download music to the phone, the integrated media player is a solid workhorse application and the included ear buds are adequate for listening.  In addition, the newest N95 firmware allows the music player to run in the background, while displaying on the telephone’s home screen the song which is currently playing.  This multi-tasking capability allows you to listen to music and use other features of the phone.

One of the simplest, and nicest additions to the N95 music experience is that you can now use your own headphones.  The controller fob has a standard headphone jack on the one side, allowing you to use either the supplied ear buds, or your own headphones.

Nokia gives you four options for getting music onto the N95:

  1. Download tracks from the web.  There is a browser link which will allow you to access new tracks from a Nokia owned web site.  I didn’t try this option, however.
  2. Transfer tracks to the phone by treating it as a mass storage device.  This is very easy.  Just drag and drop the tracks you want onto the device from the file manager application.
  3. Use the Nokia PC Suite music transfer application.  This is a very simple application that will allow you to transcode and download files to the handset from your music library.  It’s a functional piece of software, which I used to transfer tracks.  There were two small bugs I encountered with it, which hopefully Nokia will fix in the future.
    1. It cannot access music on a network drive, which mean that I had to transfer the tracks from the server where I store them onto a local hard drive before they could be download. 
    2. It could not transcode the files from MP3 to AAC format before downloading. 
  4. Use the Windows Media USB driver supplied on the install disk.   This allows you to easily select tracks based on genre, shuffle them to the device, auto-level volumes, and more.  It worked exceedingly well for all the Nokia phones I tried it with, except the N95.  There must be a bug in the N95 firmware, because after downloading a few tracks to the N95, it basically stops.  However, I had no trouble downloading tracks to other Nokia phones.

GPS

One of the much anticipated features of the N95 is the integrated GPS.  With the receiver hidden under the keypad, one simply slides the keypad open, orients it skyward and waits for a fix.  The bundled mapping software can show you your location on a map, and provide directions to get from one location to another.  And, for about $15 you can buy a 30 day license to their navigation software, or for about $150, a year long license.

I was unable to try the navigation software.  However, the mapping software worked quite well.  For navigation on foot, it would be excellent, as it includes points of interest, turn by turn directions, and so on. 

Navigation in a vehicle, however, would be difficult as the keypad containing the receiver needs to be pointed skyward. In most cases, this would necessitate placing the entire phone on the dashboard, which would render the display invisible to the driver. Fortunately, the N95 also includes the capability to link with a Bluetooth GPS receiver, such as the Nokia LD-1W, allowing the handset to remain with the driver, or clamped in a dashboard cradle, and the GPS receiver to be tossed on the dashboard.

WiFi

As with the N80, N91, and N93, the N95 comes with built-in WiFi.  It’s much better than previous phones, however.  Finding and adding WiFi hotspots is now very easy, amounting to scanning for the hotspot, and entering in the WEP key if required.  Kudos to Nokia for this upgrade.

In fact, I recommend upgrading the firmware on prior N-Series phones, if you haven’t done so, just to take advantage of the WiFi setup wizard.  It will save you hours of time.

PC Experience

Again, compared to prior N-Series phones, the PC experience is vastly improved.  The software installation is easy, and near flawless on Windows XP machines.  On Windows Vista I encountered one small problem, which is QuickTime compatibility.  It’s not clear whether this is a Nokia problem or an Apple problem, but the impact for me was that video recorded on the N95 was not playable on Windows Vista.  I have a call in to Nokia to find out if there is a workaround. 

Final thoughts

Overall, the N95 is a great experience.  Nokia could do three things to make it a better experience for users:

  1. Provide better email support.  Natural additions would include T9 predictive input, coupled with synch software allowing the telephone to synch calendar, and contacts with email systems.
  2. Better battery life.  There are so many possibilities with this device that it’s difficult to get through a whole day on a batter charge.
  3. More targets from LifeBlog. Nokia’s LifeBlog software, included with the phone, allows you to immediately post photographs and video from the phone to the web. I haven’t written about it for a reason. It doesn’t target my blogging platform, WordPress, except via the hosted site WordPress.com, despite WordPress being one of the more popular platforms on the net.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Nokia’s realization of their vision for this device came from my two sons.  When I asked them to pose for a photo, one said “But you don’t have a camera Dad”, and the other replied “Dad’s always got a camera with him.  He’s got his phone.” That must be music to the ears of the team in Finland that created this device. 

If you’ve got $750 and want a state-of-the-art mobile phone / media creation and playback tool, you won’t find a better product in the market than the Nokia N95.

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