Thoughts on the Nokia N96

…Or the Nokia N96 for Sony Ericsson owners.

I’ve had a Nokia N96 for about 4 or 5 weeks now and I thought I’d share some feelings on it. My last 3 phones have all been Sony Ericssons and I was very happy with them, but I wanted a phone that was a bit more capable, had more storage, good web connectivity and an established eco-system of 3rd party apps. The last Nokia I had was a monochrome screen 8310 back in 2003.

First of all the edited highlights:

  • Symbian S60 3rd Edition Operating System
  • 16 GB Flash storage.
  • 5 MP camera.
  • Native BBC iPlayer application.
  • Wireless LAN.
  • 7.2 Mb HSDPA 3G connectivity.
  • GPS maps
  • Built in FM and Internet radio receiver and DVB-H digital TV receiver.
  • USB Mass Storage device mode (ie it shows up as a USB disk on your computer which works on Linux).
  • The keypad slides out from under the display, there is a multimedia control keypad which slides out from the other end and puts the display in landscape mode.

After using it for 5 weeks my opinions in quick bullet point form are:

  • Horrible keypad, feels nasty and either I can type faster with 2 thumbs than it can detect or the keypad design makes it easy to miss keys (the alphanumeric keys are in rows of 3, with a single piece of plastic per row of keys).
  • Battery life is 2 to 3 days without making any calls and with bluetooth and wireless off. My Sony Ericssons lasted around 6 to 7 days, though this is a smart phone and they weren’t.
  • If you make around 45 mins to an hour of calls after a full charge, your battery life is almost gone.
  • The phone bleeps only once when your battery is going, it doesn’t vibrate even in silent mode, which means most of the time you won’t realise before your phone switches off.
  • It’s a bit large but not overly so, it’s not uncomfortable to carry.
  • The keypad lock is unlocked when you slide the keypad out, which happens quite easily in your pocket, that said, I’ve not made any accidental calls I don’t think.
  • If your battery goes, it seems to reset your alarms to how they were set the last time your phone switched off. I overslept for work by an hour yesterday as a result.
  • Silent mode doesn’t vibrate by default.
  • Meeting mode beeps when you get a call or message and doesn’t vibrate. There isn’t a quiet mode which vibrates and rings and sounds your message alert quieter than in normal mode.
  • When viewing the main screen, the right hand control key, usually back or exit, is dedicated to the iPlayer which means if you press it once too often when navigating back from the sub-menus you start iPlayer and it goes away for a few seconds before asking you to select a connection to the Internet, you have to exit that and then exit the iPlayer. I would much prefer to dedicate this button to some other tool as the iPlayer already has an icon on the main screen and an entry in the applications list.
  • Viewing your call log, then calling somebody from the list and ending the call dumps you back at the main screen but leaves the call log open in the background, seems an unnecessary waste of memory. I don’t need it after making my call or sending a message.
  • The interface or applications aren’t particularly fast, it feels pretty sluggish at times.
  • The web browser freezes the phone for around 30 seconds or so when rendering some pages.
  • The handset crashes occasionally, about once every week on average. About 4 or 5 times in the first 2 weeks, but none in the last 3 weeks.
  • Email seems to work well from my own mail server, which never did on my last Sony Ericsson.
  • The network selection tool seems a little clunky and the iPlayer doesn’t always seem to use the one you selected.
  • You need to use a wireless LAN connection to stream programmes using iPlayer, though you can use the 3G connection to browse programmes using iPlayer, it will just tell you to use wireless LAN when you want to watch or listen to something.
  • Clicking the red ‘end-call’ button in any application take you back to the main screen without closing the application you were using. This is a double-edged sword I’m not used to after 3 Sony Ericssons. It’s an unnecessary memory hog and quite often, if you check the open applications by going into the menu screen, choose options and then show the open applications, you will find a few open unnecessarily, on the other hand, it means you can flip around between applications without starting them each time you want to go back to one.
  • The space button and predictive text’s ‘change word’ button are switched compared to Sony Ericssons. I’m almost used to this already.
  • You can’t lock the phone with Menu * like you can on most phones.
  • The wireless network scanning tool, once running, is constantly scanning unless you turn it off again. Not sure if this is a good thing or a waste of battery. It’s visually irritating. Turning off scanning doesn’t seem to disconnect your WLAN connection as that’s another option. That seems to be a good idea.
  • The wireless LAN supports WEP, WPA, WPA2 and will see your hidden network if you punch in your SSID manually, though it seemed to forget it later on and I had to put it in again. I ended up making my WLAN visible instead of entering the SSID every time.
  • The backlight behind the buttons below the screen ‘breathes’ periodically to let you know the handset is still on, in the same way an Apple notebook does when it’s suspended. I quite like this and while I wonder if it’s a waste of precious battery, you can turn it off though it’s the only way of knowing the battery hasn’t gone without pressing buttons every few minutes.
  • Haven’t really used the camera much, it seems ok.
  • Haven’t used the maps. I should look at whether it contains a route planner or not and whether it would be of any use in assisting the Open Street Map project.
  • You don’t have to record your own voice commands for voice activated dialling. I just connected my bluetooth earpiece, pressed the button on the earpiece, waited for the beep and said the name or the person I wanted to call. Don’t know how it decides which number to call if you have more than one number for a contact.
  • The phone came with episodes of Top Gear, Dr Who and The Mighty Boosh, in formats optimised for playback on the phone and on a TV using the TV out cable. That’s pretty cool. I deleted Dr Who straight away 😉
  • I haven’t tried the TV out.
  • It came with a car charger. Which is pretty cool. Probably because you need to charge it up every 2 days.
  • I installed an Ogg player called OggPlay and an SSH client called midpssh. OggPlay has crashed the phone a few times and you can’t run things like top in midpssh because the machine I’m SSHed into says my terminal isn’t wide enough. I haven’t tried it with the screen in portrait mode.
  • I didn’t know until 30 seconds ago that there is as version of PuTTY, the popular Windows SSH client for Symbian phones. I’ll have to try that.
  • The bundled ear phones work with OggPlay as you would expect, but none of the integrated multimedia controls, either on the handset or on the earphone cables work with it. You are restricted to using alphanumeric keypad buttons to control the application.
  • The built in media player doesn’t support Ogg and all of my music is in Ogg Vorbis format. I knew this in advance, so it was no surprise.
  • Of course, decoding Ogg files on a device that doesn’t support Ogg canes your battery life as it has to be done in software on your device’s processor, but I think I did get 3 hours playback from a fresh charge which is similar to my sadly defunct Cowon iAudio X5 MP3 player, which did support Ogg.
  • There is a tool to autoconfigure your phone’s network settings. Don’t know whether this is specific to my network provider.
  • Configuring the phone’s settings seems a bit convoluted. I spend a lot of time searching for certain settings and then can’t find them again later.
  • There are some decent games on the phone, but most of them seem to be time limited demos.
  • General navigation is ok but navigating any kind of menu requires far more clicks than seems to be necessary, either that or I’m too used to the Sony Ericsson way. When constructing a new SMS messages for example, choosing the recipient is unnecessarily arduous and it doesn’t give you a list of recent recipients.
  • There is a built in PDF viewer, word processor, spreadsheet and presentation creator. I haven’t used them but I guess they’re good for document viewing and I assume they are Microsoft Office format compatible to a certain level. The built in notes application is a lot better than on my Sony Ericssons. There is also a zip file manager, currency converter, sound recorder and a version of Real Player, none of which I have used.
  • I haven’t really used the built in radio much and there is no DVB-H broadcasting in the UK.
  • The filesystem layout seems confusing when you get down to it. There is an identical file system layout per storage medium (ie flash, built in memory and memory card if you have one) and on each file system there are a number of directories with similar names, suggesting similar function, but I don’t understand the logic which determines that my videos go in ‘Video clips’ rather than ‘My Videos’ or which puts one picture taken on the phone in ‘Pictures’ and another in ‘Pictures/200812/2008A0/’. In ‘My Videos’, there are a whole bunch of preinstalled video files and an empty directory call ‘Preinstalled’. The logic eludes me.
  • Turning on the phone from a cold start seems to wake the phone up, but doesn’t always turn it on fully most of the time. It seems to go to a white screen and then fades out to preserve battery. You have to press the power button again to make it prompt you for a PIN. After entering the PIN, it turns on fully. It has only turned on fully from a cold start once without requiring a second press of the power button and that was about 15 seconds ago. Every other time, it took 2 presses.
  • The phone forgets time and date if the battery runs out. This is probably a good thing since it could be several hours or days between the battery running out and it being recharged and turned back on but as the battery life is short, it happens a lot which is pretty irritating. It would have been nice to switch off and retain enough battery to maintain the internal clock unless the battery entirely exhausted before being recharged. Perhaps they didn’t do this as it would shorten the already short battery life.
  • The web browser is ok, nothing more. That may be more to do with the screen size, memory footprint restrictions and input method restrictions compared to a regular PC or laptop than the browser itself.
  • I believe you are charged a on a more expensive tariff if you use the phone’s 3G connection with a PC or a laptop. I think you can do this using the bundled Windows software, but I don’t run Windows. I haven’t yet checked whether you can do this under Linux. I could with my Sony Ericsson, I think I used the USB cable, but I only discovered this as I was backing it up in preparation for migration to the N96.
  • Nokia do a music download site. I’ve not used it, but browsing there, the website tells me my device (Firefox under Ubuntu Linux) is not compatible, though the N96 is so I guess it doesn’t work unless you’re using a Nokia device. I believe the music is in Windows Media Audio (WMA) format using Windows Media DRM, so I won’t be buying any of that shit.

I think that’s all of my thoughts so far. I may sound pretty unhappy with it but I’m not. Bits of it I find really uncomfortable to use. Bits of it I found really uncomfortable but am now used to. Other things will always get on my nerves I think but your brain tends to work around the problem until you automatically do so without thinking about it. It only bothers you when you move to another platform, which is probably my problem in some cases.

Some of the main features I bought the phone for, I’ve not used yet, like the maps. I’ve already filled the storage with my music collection and I’ve used the wireless LAN and 3G connections satisfactorily. It will use full 3.5G at 7.2 Mb if you can get a signal for it. I can’t that where I live, but I can elsewhere.

In general I would say it’s a very good phone if you want all the features and you’re willing to either  pay the high monthly line rental fee, take a long contract or pay hundreds up front for the handset to get one and you’re comfortable with the Nokia way of doing things. I’m not so familiar with Samsung, LG or Motorola phones so I’d like to see what theirs and Sony Ericsson’s equivalent models were like before I’d say this is the smart phone you want. I didn’t like the Sony Ericsson I was offered at all, though it wasn’t a smart phone of this kind and I certainly didn’t want an iPhone.

The major nags for me are the fiddly navigation around the menus, the unnecessary amount of questions to answer when trying send an SMS or make a call, the annoying dedicated iPlayer button which keeps getting pressed by mistake, the file sytem layout which makes no sense and dreadful battery life. The battery life really is a problem.

On the plus side, having an Ogg player, an SSH client, 16 GB of storage, wireless LAN and a 7.2 MB 3G connection are great. It’s a shame that OggPlay doesn’t support the handset’s multimedia keys or the headset’s controls. I just have to see what the maps application is like before I decide whether I’d buy this hand set again given the chance.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Nokia N96

  1. Pingback: WOM World / Nokia » Blog Archive - Selected N96 thoughts

  2. For a good music and video player that plays Ogg and just about every other music and video format AND uses the phones multimedia buttons you might try Coreplayer from Sadly, its not free, though.

    When sending sms try inputting the name, or part there of, of your recipient in the to- field instead of pushing the d pad centre button. It gets even easier if you first go into your phone book and set up the Defaults for each contact. That will chop at least one keypress off the process

  3. You can change the right hand control key to whichever application you by changing it in the Settings -> General -> Personalization -> Standby Mode
    You can configure your invisible WLAN once in Settings -> Connections -> Destinations. It will remember it after this.
    As for forgetting time and date, you should use the Auto update time from network setting. This will keep your time updated from the network operator. This is a network operator service so may not work for you.

  4. Did you realize when you open the Photos, and you select All, even the videos are included in there? as in the videos that you put in yourself..this is pretty annoying, since i only want photos to be displayed there. Is there a way to fix that? if you find how to fix it, please inform me, thanks

  5. It’s a sluggish and unlogical device. I decided not to buy a sony this time because I wanted my agenda right on my standard screen (sony has only a screensaver). That functionality indeed is very handy, but for the rest in almost every way the sony was handier. Short batterylife makes all the functions this phone comes with totally useless. After using a multimedia function, for example in an airplane, you won’t be able to call your wife to pick you up because your phone is dead. That’s even so when you had a short trip. I missed a comment on sound quality as it seems playing music is also for you a major item. The earphones that come with it can be thrown away right away. With good earphones soundquality still does not come close to the perfect reproduction of my old small W810i. I own the N96 for several months now, but last week I put my old phone back to life and it feels like coming home. I ‘ll wait till this one dies. After that I’ll buy Sony again for sure.

  6. Hello Alan

    A very good and helpful review.

    You say there is a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation creator installed. I don’t seem to have that on my unlocked Nokia basic version. What programme is it? I have downloaded a trial version of Quick Office but can’t get it to open Excel .xls files I have copied from my PC.

    Is your phone locked to any provider who has added software?

    Best regards


  7. Hi Adam
    Can you help? How do you get the N96 to auto ans when using a bluetooth headset?
    Regards Richard…

  8. I’ve had this phone (N96) for about a year now and have only ever had nokias, no more. This is the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever had the missfortune to be contractually tied to. One or two little issues I could live with, but when there are issues with everything that I try doing it gets beyond a joke. If anyone is thinking of buying this DON’T. Seriously what were nokia thinking? I to have been late for work on more than one occasion due to the battery life being so short and the fact that it doesn’t remember the time. At least I always know exactually when my batter ran out as thats the time it’ll say when I charge it up.

    It’s slow, clunky and not fit for purpose. I’m getting a Nexus One in a few weeks and I’m not even going to sell my phone on ebay as it’ll only make someone elses life miserable.


  9. Bit late now seeing as this was posted in 2009, but stick with Sony Ericssons.
    I’ve had well over 50 different ones (not because they break, but because i work with phones). Most sony ericsson since ’07 have high speeed internet and everything that the N96 has. I’m sure other Nokia’s are good, but Sony Ericsson’s are still better.

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