I have no doubt that when Nokia design the N96, media was one of their top priorities. If the 16Gb of built in storage plus MicroSD expansion slot weren’t enough of a hint, the two sets of dedicated media keys definitely drive the point home. The original N95 (and particularly the 8Gb variant) was already a media powerhouse, so lets see how it’s successor does on the media front.
A portable media device isn’t much good without a means to copy media onto it. The PC Suite and drivers that are included on a CD in the phone package allow the phone to be connected to a Windows PC by bluetooth or by USB. When connected by bluetooth, media can be copied directly to the phone using the Windows shell extension or the PC Suite’s Video Transfer and Music Transfer applications. Transferring over bluetooth may be convenient, but it is fairly slow and quite draining on the battery, and USB is a far better alternative for larger files or collections.
Of the four USB connectivity modes, mass storage mode allows windows (and other operating systems) to treat the phone as a simple mass storage device, and music and other files can simply be copied to the desired location. Media Transfer mode allows the phone to be detected by third party software for media management and syncing. I initially tried using Songbird to manage music on the phone, but after numerous failed attempts settled for Windows Media Player 11, which worked flawlessly with the device. In PC Suite mode, Nokia’s Video Transfer and Music Transfer applications can be used to easily copy media to the phone-though neither has any advanced media views so managing a large collection this way will be challenging to say the least. Both applications can be set up to convert files to formats better suited to the phone before copying them. This can be particularly useful for videos, which will be converted to the phone’s native resolution of 320x240, more often than not significantly dropping the size of the file. I did have trouble with recently encoded xvid files, with Video Transfer unable to find matching audio codecs. The last available connection mode is used for transferring photos from the phone and isn’t relevant to this discussion.
General media functionality
Despite the variety of applications used to consume media on the N96, play control is generally very consistent. When the phone’s top slide is closed, the media control keys around the navigation pad are lit and make for easy track navigation and pausing and resuming media playback. Opening the top slide dims these keys and lights the top slide keys instead. This duplication of functionality really does seem to be overkill and I can’t think of a logical reason for including two sets of media buttons. If the top slide buttons had been indented or had some other kind of tactile separation I would have understood their use as controls to be fiddled with in a pocket, but with their flush finish they need to be seen to be used. The playback controls on the hands-free kit provided with the phone are small and similarly flush, and this affects their use as well, though the kit is still handy and a better option than having to pull out the phone and control playback directly.
Another common aspect of all media software on the phone is it's support for the standby screen. Regardless of the source of audio, minimizing the application will cause current track information to be displayed on the standby screen below the calendar entries section of the display.
Navigation to the various media applications is kept consistent on the N96, all of these are easily activated by pressing the silver shortcut key to the right of the navigation pad and navigating to the relevant menu. The TV & Video and Music menus contain shortcuts to each of these apps, obviously grouped by video and audio respectively. In the case of audio playback, once media is queued up, it can be started immediately by simply pressing the play button on the phone's face.
The most commonly used media functionality on the phone will undoubtedly be it’s music player, used to play music and podcasts stored in the massive internal memory or on an SD card. The player in the N95 was already more than capable, and Nokia have been smart enough to not fix what aint broke. The built in player supports meta tags on music files and uses these to organize music according to artist, album, genre and (oddly enough) composer-all of these filters are available from the player's start screen. Podcast episodes are conveniently separated from the rest of the library, so no more podcast episodes unexpectedly butting into your randomly selected playlist. Playlist support is as robust as ever, with easy addition of songs (or any grouping of songs) to new or existing playlists. One serious criticism of the music player is that navigation through lists and menus in it generally seems sluggish with large amounts of music on the phone, which is curious considering the N96 was supposed to be designed with that in mind.
The main player screen displays all the expected track information, elapsed and remaining time, loop and random status and has full support for album art (though the art doesn’t always copy correctly when third party software is used). The player supports custom equaliser settings, playlist shuffle and looping of individual tracks or entire playlists. Additional options include balance control, loudness boosting and the excellent stereo widening effect first seen in the N95. One of three dynamic visualizer effects or the track’s album art can be displayed 'fullscreen' instead of the usual media information. It is a pity that the visualizations haven’t been updated since the N95, as it would have been nice to see some Milkdrop-esq effects being used. Finally, for those that prefer to have their music going in the background and keep using the phone for other things, hiding the player causes the play status and current track to be displayed in the phone’s standby screen. Of course incoming calls and other events fade out and pause the music, which resumes when the call is over. Most commonly used file formats are supported, including AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA (including Windows DRM) and MP3. OGG is not officially listed as supported, which may disappoint linux users.
One element I did find lacking in the native player, considering other social media aspects of the phone, was Last.fm support. Thankfully Mobbler works perfectly on the phone, and will provide an adequate substitute to native scrobbling support for Last.fm junkies.
For those that want to play their music out loud with the phone’s built in speakers, they are satisfyingly loud, though there is some distortion at higher volumes. At a pinch they will definitely do, but an external speaker set would obviously be a better choice for regular 'public' use.
I was really pleasantly surprised by the battery efficiency of the N96 while listening to music. On a full charge the phone will quite easily last a full workday -and then some- if used as a music player. Other activity on the phone will obviously have an effect as well (particularly anything involving data transfer), but the music itself does not cause an unreasonable strain on the battery at all.
Streaming audio, podcasts and FM radio
With the N96's excellent connectivity options (Edge, HSDPA and WiFi are all well supported-more on this in a future post) it makes sense for the phone to have good support for online media, and it does.
The Podcasting application provides a simple way for users to subscribe to podcasts, set them up for manual and automatic download, and listen to them. The application includes a number of podcast directories for casual users, but also allows more advanced users to manually add podcast urls. Once downloaded, podcasts can be listened to in the Podcasting application itself or in the music player (in which they appear in a separate folder for easy access). Settings include the default access point to connect to, update regularity (manual is an option), as well as storage location and size limits. The Podcasting app has all the options necessary to make it a competent tool, and no unnecessary frills.
Internet radio is equally well represented by the creatively named Internet Radio application. As with the Podcasting app, it includes a directory of stations (organized by genre, language, country and Top Stations). Text search is also available, and works well. After finding a station, it can be played immediately or added to a list of favourites. Once playing, the Now Playing screen displays whatever track information the station provides, as well as the current bit rate. Station information and track history are available on a separate screen. The few available settings allow control over the default access point, and bit rate (and thus audio quality and bandwidth utilization) when connected via GPRS, 3G or Wi-Fi. This is another simple but highly effective application that does it’s job well.
There is a good chance that the N96 will be the device that first introduces some of it's users to the world of internet media, thanks to these simple to use and highly accessible applications. This is an area where Nokia has done a sterling job.
For those that prefer more traditional broadcast technologies, the N96 includes FM Radio support. The radio application remains largely unchanged from that in the N95. As before, the headphones are used as an aerial, and FM radio won’t work without headphones (or something similar) plugged in-though once connected the loudspeaker can be manually activated. The app includes a station directory though I could not get it working over Vodacom gprs and had to settle for manual tuning. With manual tuning, the application is simple enough to use: just enter a frequency and listen. Stations can optionally be saved as favourites and easily switched between with the track forward and back buttons. RDS is supported, though again I had no luck with it, despite tuning into stations which I know implement the format. The Visual Radio button does the basics well enough but it seems like some testing with South African service providers is in order to get the frills working.
The N96 inherits the N95 8Gb's larger 2.8" screen (as compared to the original's 2.6") and keeps the 240x320 resolution. This may not quite match the likes of the iPhone, which can utilize a much larger screen due to it's touch interface, but it's more than adequate for displaying videos clearly. The picture is crisp and clear and colours are vivid. The ample storage easily allows multiple full length videos to be stored and played back, and the TV-Out functionality even allows these to be played back on a TV if so desired.
The built in video player is very simple. Playing video can be paused and resumed, fast forwarded or rewound, and volume can be adjusted. The player is supposed to support resuming playback from where a video was last stopped, though i have found this seldom works correctly. File format support is extensive, with various avi encodings, mp4, wmv (again including DRM infected) and real media all supported. The one missing format I would particularly have liked to see is flv.
The player forms part of the Video centre application, in which all local and internet video access is handled. This unified approach is quite handy, and a similar approach would have been a good idea in the music application as well. The My videos section of the Video centre organizes all locally stored videos, including downloaded videos and videos captured with the N96's camera. The Video feeds sections contains feeds the player has subscribed to. The Nokia Nseries feed is the only default subscription but others can be found in the Video directory. The obvious popular feed choice here is YouTube Mobile Videos, though a handful of others are also available. I would have liked to have seen a wider choice of video feeds, though in all fairness advanced users could always rather subscribe to vodcasts with the Podcasting application instead.
Whether feeds are streamed or downloaded and stored seems to be dependant on the stream itself. YouTube videos seemed to download first, but were not accessible from the My videos area, whereas Reuters videos were downloaded and permanently accessible. Application settings include the ability to disallow downloading while roaming and while connected to GPRS, so Nokia has taken some care to ensure ignorant users don't get surprised with big bills at the end of the month. Parental control is available as well, though what an underage user would be doing with such a high end phone is beyond me.
The Video Centre is another application that does what it needs to and no more, and since video use is likely to be limited outside of novelty value and reviewing captured videos, this is understandable.
It has to be mentioned that one of the selling points of the N96 is it's support for DVB-H mobile TV broadcasts. Unfortunately DVB-H is only in a trial phase in South Africa and limited to the Sagem MyMobileTV, so this functionality isn't really of much use as yet. One can only hope that once trials are completed, the technology will be made available to a wider variety of handsets.
Both the N95 and N96 claim UPnP support as a feature. Unfortunately while it is technically supported, using it is clumsy and unreliable. I run XBMC (which implements a UPnP server and client) on an old Xbox, and also have an Xbox 360 set up to consume media from the XBMC machine. Using the Home media application which is hidden deep in the phone’s tools menu, I was able to locate the XBMC server and browse it’s contents. However when I tried to play the media locally, it failed repeatedly and when I tried to play it on another device, neither XBMC nor the Xbox 360 showed up as renderers.
Sharing media from the phone was slightly more successful, with XBMC detecting it on the network as a media source. I was able to add it as a media source to the music, videos and photos sections of XBMC. Browsing and viewing photos worked reasonably well, albeit very slowly and some videos could be played as well (typically very small ones, larger files seemed to fail in streaming or copying). I was unable to get any music at all playing from the phone. The Xbox 360 didn’t detect the N96 as a source at all.
Many of the more commonly used media applications, such as the music player, allow direct playback on UPnP devices on the network, but again I could get neither the Xbox nor the Xbox 360 to show up as renderers, so this functionality was useless.
This is one area which needs a lot of work. I’m not sure whether the issues lie in Nokia’s implementation of the UPnP standards or elsewhere, but in it’s current state UPnP on the N96 is pretty useless. Rather than rushing out a solution to be able to tick the UPnP compliance standards box, Nokia should either leave this stuff out entirely or spend some time testing and perfecting it to make it usable by the average person.
In closing, the N96 shines as music device and does a competent job on video as well. The huge amount of storage (and expansion capacity) combined with dedicated media controls and an impressive array of software dedicated to media discovery and consumption, not to mention comprehensive connectivity options, make this phone an excellent choice for anyone that wants to enjoy their own media on the go and have access to all the great media on the web as well. Some of the more obscure areas of functionality like UPnP need work, but I have certainly found it to be a far superior all-round media device to it's predecessor, and no longer have any need of a separate portable media player.
Note: Nokia’s music store is not yet available in SA, though according to MyBroadband it should launch here within a couple of days. As such I didn’t see much point in even looking at that functionality, and will update this post or write a new one dedicated to the Nokia store when I’ve tried it out.