I have had the N96 for a long time now and yet I had decided against reviewing. The reason was simple the firmware on the device was bad, to the point that it made using the N96 a complete pain. However, the much awaited version 12 firmware has come and all of that is thankfully history and the N96 has redeemed itself. The problem with the N96 has been the delay in its shipping (February announcement – September shipping) as well as the fact that Nokia launched the N85, a Nseries slider that was not only better spec-ed but also cheaper.
On the face of it the N96 cannot really be called the Nokia flagship, but the last few days after the new firmware have made me realise that it is not a bad device at all. If fact, I quite like it. So starting from now on is the N96 review series. Today we have a look at the hardware and general feel of the N96.
The primary consideration when you go out to buy a device is the build quality and this is one aspect that the N96 doesn’t do badly at all in. If you recall my N96, survived a two storey fall with barely a scratch and that speaks volume about its resilience. When it comes to day to day usage, the N96 does have a very slight play in the slide when open, but that something almost all sliders I have come across do. Apart from that it is pretty solid with there being no play when the device is not slid open, or when the multimedia/gaming keys are in play.
The slide on the phone is spring loaded and pleasant to operate, although the slide on the N95 8GB felt much more regal. But this is something that grows on you. All in all, I’d have to say its one of the better built sliders from Nokia.
As far as keys go, the N96 has got quite a bit of them. From the usual keypad, to the multimedia buttons, the camera keys, the volume/zoom rocker, the multimedia key, usually call/end/delete/S60 keys and finally the four play/pause/next/back keys surrounding the Navi Wheel.
A lot of people do not like the keys around the Navi Wheel, but I for one love them. They are especially convenient while using the phone in the portrait mode and you can control the music play completely from within another application e.g. while typing a message. They are only active when the music player is running and are otherwise not even visible. I have large thumbs and have NEVER accidentally hit any of them and they are spaced out just fine.
The keypad feels wonderful, owing to the size of the phone, the keys are large and are neither too soft or too hard. While some may disagree, I found no problem hitting the 1-2-3 keys and the slide did not interfere at all. What I didn’t like were the camera key and the volume rocker. The camera key is too recessed and pressing it is a little bit of a problem, while the volume rocker is a little too hard for my taste.
There is a dedicated keypad lock switch on the top left hand side of the phone, while it is a nice addition, it could have been placed more efficiently on the side, like the N85. Nevertheless, it is something that you get accustomed to.
The multimedia/gaming keys are actually a pleasure. They are nice and large plus the lighting on them also changes depending on whether the N-Gage application or the Music Player is active. There is a slight separation between them to make you aware of different keys, but when you are into the game, sometimes it might not feel enough. The tactile feedback could have been better but I’d take the current setup too.
One aspect that I give a lot of weight to is the general feel of the device when held in the hand. It is not based on any scientific method or specifications yet is integral to the whole experience. In the N96’s case the feeling was mixed. The phone felt big in the hand, which was a slight negative but the knowledge that I was holding a phone with a large 2.8″ screen more than made up for that.
I have had the occasion to play with two N96’s at one time and one of them creaked like anything, while the other was absolutely firm. A couple of other devices I have had a look at have been fine, so I will put the creak down to bad luck more than a build quality issue.
All in all, after having spent a small fortune on the N96 when you hold it in your hand it does feel nice. To sum it up, lets just say that it at times makes me want to put my SIM back in it despite the fact that I have gotten a N85 just a few days back.
Next in this line of reviews is the Multimedia segment of the N96.