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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tech Tuesday: N96 – Look and feel

In this, the first of a series of posts on my shiny new N96, I’ll look at the basics: what comes with it in the box, and the device’s look and feel. I’ve decided not to take and include photos of the phone as these can be found in abundance elsewhere, such as on GSMArena’s N96 gallery. In future posts, when looking at software aspects, I’ll include screenshots as needed.

What’s in the box

Nokia’s doing really well on the environmental front (according to Greenpeace, they’re the mobile phone manufacturer you should be buying from), but they still have a little way to go on their packaging. There was a hell of a lot less plastic than you’d find in, say, any Microsoft box, but the box itself is way larger than necessary.

Besides the phone itself, documentation and obligatory Nokia PC Suite CD, the package includes an impressive array of accessories. The included charger is identical to the N95’s and is accompanied by a car cigarette light charger which is an unusual and welcome addition. A USB cable (micro-USB, unlike the N95’s mini-USB) is included for direct PC connection. On the media side, the expected earplugs are surprisingly comfortable and are complemented by a wired playback control and microphone that can be used with any standard headphones, if preferred. Finally the TV-Out adapter allows the phone to be connected to most TVs.

The phone also comes with a year’s local navigation license, the film Transformers (which included a scene in which a Nokia phone transformed into a nasty little metallic critter-some cross marketing methinks?) and a copy of Tetris for the N-Gage platform. These extras do a great job of showing off the phone’s features out of the box, though something a bit higher-tech than Tetris may have been a better choice.

Look and feel

The N96 has received criticism in some reviews for it’s look, with those reviewers preferring the lines and metallic buttons of the N95 models. I for one found the N95’s visual design was one of it’s worse aspects, and I consider the new look a major improvement. It’s quite obvious that the N96’s design is heavily influenced by (if not directly copied from) the N81’s, but I see no problem with this. The clean lines, curved edges and glossy finish look great.

When closed, the N96 has a smooth, uncomplicated look, with the 2.8” screen taking up the majority of it’s glossy black face. The phone call speaker and tiny secondary camera can be found above the screen. With the exception of the silver navigation ring and shortcut button, most of the face buttons are flush with the surface and when in power save mode the four media controls on the face are unlit. These flush buttons certainly look good, but are impossible to use by touch alone, since they completely lack any kind of tactile separation. Unlike the N95, accidentally pressing one of the face buttons while using the navigation pad is unlikely, which is a blessing. The choice to “frame” the phone in a more metallic finish not only sets it apart from the many all-black devices out there, but looks as if it will protect those areas most prone to damage from highly visible scratches.

The top of the device sports the (flush) power button, headphone port, keylock slide and the left stereo speaker (which curves around the corner of the phone). The bottom holds the power and micro-usb ports, the right speaker and a lanyard loop. The left edge has a small flush flap covering the MMC slot. The camera button and volume/zoom buttons are on the right edge next to the left and right speakers respectively. Again, the choice to set all buttons flush with the phone’s surface make them far more difficult to use than is necessary. The camera button in particular is a pain, since it’s necessary to partially press the button to autofocus and then press it all the way to take the picture. The lack of covers on all ports other than the MMC slot is a pity as well, since these can get clogged with dust, affecting their use.

When the main slide is open, the keypad is shown to be another exercise in flush design. The keypad keys consist of four solid horizontal strips of plastic, with three keys on each. Other than slight ridges around the central “5” button, there is nothing to really differentiate the keys, and as a result these keys are also difficult to use by sight alone. This is definitely an area where form should have given way to function, as individual, ridged keys would have been far better.

One of the N95’s unique features was it’s secondary slide, which exposed media control buttons at the top of the device. These keys make a reappearance in the N96, but seem a little redundant with the inclusion of face media buttons (which dim when the top slide is opened). One great innovation in the N96 is that these keys double as game keys, and when an N-Gage game is started the play control symbols disappear and are replaced with circles highlighting their use in games. These are really useful, as using the navigation keys and pressing action keys with the same hand when playing games in landscape mode has always been challenging. It would be fantastic to see Nokia release an application to control mapping of these keys for non-N-Gage games as well.

Finally, the back of the device sports the primary camera lens, dual led flash and Nokia logo on a pattern of curved silver lines with a black background. Unlike the original N95 there is no retractable lens cover, however the lens is protected against dust and grit by a clear plastic cover. There is a small hinged kickstand which frames the camera lens for propping the phone up on it’s side on a surface. This addition is quite useful for keeping an eye on the screen in standby while on your desk, and of course for watching videos, though I am somewhat concerned that it may not last long. The clips on my N95’s small batter cover had a tendency to break, and a completely different (and hopefully much sturdier) approach has been taken with the N96, with the cover now taking up the whole back of the phone.

In summary, the N96 package offers an impressive array of accessories and some decent bundled software extras. It looks great, but as far as controls are concerned the emphasis on trying to keep everything smooth and flush has definitely had a negative impact on the usability of the phone’s buttons.

Next week I’ll move away from the common-review-fodder and put the N96 through it’s paces in the media arena. I’ll look at the media basics and see how it handles some more obscure stuff as well.


Andrew said...

The the question is: Are the keys significantly bigger than the N73?

It's keys are so tiny that I basically don't use my phone :(

Flint said...

It's been a while since I used an N73, but yes I would say they're a bit bigger-definitely wider. The problem is they are completely smooth, so typing by touch is really difficult. The top row of keys (1, 2, 3) are obscured a bit by the body of the phone when the slide is open though (the N95 had the same issue) which does make them a bit harder to press.


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