Review of the Nokia N85


The Nokia N85 is a phone that can be best described as an updated N95. It has all the same features as the N95 in essentially the same package. However, the N85 is physically smaller and has a more rounded and polished look. It also sports the Feature Pack 2 edition of the S60 3rd Edition operating system, which adds a few nice touches to an otherwise excellent phone.

Last Updated: 29-Mar-2009

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

Because of the great similarity to the N95 8GB, and because I own an N95 8GB, I felt that Iíd take a different approach to this review and cover each of the elements by comparing it to the N95, rather than rehashing much of the same things Iíd said about that phone. If you havenít already read my review of the N95 8GB, I suggest that you do so first so that youíll know what Iím comparing to in this review.

No provider in North America carries the N85, but you can certainly buy one through an unaffiliated retailer and run on it most of the North American GSM networks.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

RF Sensitivity: In this respect, there is nothing to compare. Like almost all of the recent Nokia phones Iíve tested the N85 has virtually identical performance to the N95. This isnít a bad thing, because Nokia makes some of the best RF performers out there and theyíve wisely decided not to mess with a good thing.

Over-the-road Performance: I had a problem with this aspect of the review, because there appeared to be a flaw in the N85 I tested. At the beginning of calls the audio seemed to cut out as if there was a bad electrical connection in the phone, especially if the phone was squeezed. However, once the call had been active for a minute or so, the problem went away (only to return immediately in the next call). Iíve never heard anything like this in any other Nokias Iíve tested, and so we can most likely chalk it up to a problem in this one specific phone.

Audio Performance

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, and how to interpret it.

I wonít bother giving separate comments on Tonal Balance, Sound Reproduction, Earpiece Volume, and Outgoing Audio, because there was no detectable difference between the N85 and N95 in any of these categories. The N85 has same excellent performance in all of these important aspects as my N95 8GB.

Speakerphone: The N85 has stereo speakers, just like the N95, but they are mounted on one side of the phone, thus encouraging landscape usage. Unfortunately the N85 speakers are vastly inferior to the ones found in the N95. Not only canít they produce anywhere near as much raw volume, but the sound is also a bit tinnier. The poor relative quality of these speakers affects numerous aspects of the phoneís performance beyond just phone calls.

Support Features

Ringer Volume: As noted above, the lower quality (and lower output) of the speakers in the N85 affects the maximum ringtone volume. The N85 has fairly decent ringers compared to many other models out there, but compared to the N95 it just doesnít compete.

Keypad Design: I never thought that the N95 had a particularly great keypad, but it feels like a quality piece of work after using the N85 for a week. The problem starts with the flush design of the keypad. While this makes for a slick look, it results in extremely poor keypad ergonomics. I could never manage to type in a phone number without mis-keying a digit or two. But it wasnít just the numeric keys that were problematic. The main function keys that are always exposed (the softkeys, the menu button, etc) were really stiff.

The phone does offer a feature (which is thankfully user-selectable) in which you can work your way through the icons on the screen by just running your finger around the 4-way cursor pad without actually pressing the keys. A proximity sensor beneath the keypad senses your fingers and moves the icon selector on the screen accordingly. It worked fairly well when called upon, but it also had a nasty tendency to work when you didnít want it to. It drove me nuts and I eventually turned it off. Even the relatively stiff cursor keys were more comfortable to use.

After a full week of playing with the N85 Iíd become thoroughly disgusted with the keypad. While it wasnít as bad as some of Nokiaís rather whimsical designs of the past, it was nevertheless a pain to use and a perfect example of form taking priority over function.

Display: The N85 includes a 240x320 OLED display. OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode, which means that each pixel is actually a tiny little light. This is starkly different from the LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) technology on the N95. An LCD panel contains tiny squares (representing the pixels) that can be varied between completely opaque and completely transparent, but to see this effect you must provide a backlight.

There is no question that the OLED display of the N85 is more vibrant, but it also seems to have a red cast that might be the result of an improperly balanced output of the three primary colors (red, green, and blue). Nokia can (and should) fix this imbalance in the firmware, because they provide no color-balance settings that the user can play with.

While a screen that emits its own light is great for indoor use, it suffers greatly outdoors. In direct sunlight the N85 screen looks virtually jet black, while the N95 is completely readable owing to the fact that the backlight is also somewhat reflective. The reflected sunlight from the N95ís backlight allows high-contrast lettering to remain quite visible even in the brightest of sunlight.

Use of the OLED screen also means that screensavers are totally useless. The screensaver function is part of the S60 3rd Edition O/S, and so itís included in the N85 by default. However, once the OLED screen goes off, there is literally nothing to see. On my N95 I run a screensaver called cClock, which allows me to display the time and date in monster large fonts. I can easily read the time under just about any conditions when the backlight is off (from a dimly lit room right up to brilliant direct sunlight). The only way to read anything from the N85ís OLED screen is to power it up, which in turn causes the screensaver to disappear.

So the N85ís OLED display is both a blessing and curse at the same time. A lot depends upon where you need to use your phone most often. If you are always indoors youíll really appreciate the more vibrant colors. If you have to use your phone outdoors however, then the N85 is pretty much useless unless you cup your hand over the display to see it. OLED displays are relatively new, and so the first examples of such screens wonít properly address the issues created by a shift to this technology.

Icing on the Cake

Physical Design:
The N85 is smaller than the N95 in most ways. Itís decidedly thinner, a bit skinnier, but itís a few millimeters taller. Oddly however, despite the difference in size, it weighs the same. Because of the phone is essentially denser, it actually feels heavier, because you expect a smaller phone to weigh proportionately less.

Instead of the matt finish used on the N95 body, the N85 is shiny all over and itís colored brown rather than gray/black. It has rounded corners (suggestive of the iPhone) and the speakers are both mounted on the right side. This latter arrangement encourages landscape use of the phone when listening to music, which seems rather odd, but arguable itís a better approach for watching videos, which are all landscape oriented.

The phone slides in both directions just like the N95, revealing the same sets of keys in the process. The slider has a solid feel that suggests a better-quality mechanism than on the N95, but after 8 months of ownership my N95 slider works just as well it did when I bought it.

Camera:
Both the N85 and the N95 have a 5 megapixel camera with auto-focus and a Carl Zeiss lens. The N85 comes with a sliding lens cover, which is a major improvement over the N95 (that doesnít protect the lens at all). I personally made a cover for my N95ís lens, but itís a bit of a pain-in-the-neck to use.

However, the performance of the N85 camera is quite surprisingly inferior to that of the N95. First off it has much higher digital noise in low light conditions (even when night mode is selected). In low-light photographs this noise not only translates to grainer images, but sharp edges also have a decided fuzziness to them that just isnít present on the same photograph taken with the N95.

The biggest issue seems to be the new auto-focus firmware, which attempts to speed up picture-taking by pre-focusing the camera as you point it. Unfortunately this auto-focus system does a terrible job of getting the focus right. At least 1 out of 3 of the pictures I took were out-of-focus. Others have complained of this aspect of the N85ís camera. By comparison Iíve rarely ever had a focus problem with the N95.

To its credit the N85 has a dual LED flash, which isnít as good as a Xenon flash, but certainly better than the single flash LED on the N95. However, with the poor low-light noise levels on the N85, it needs the two flashes to ensure a reasonable-quality image.

Operating System: The N85 comes with Symbian S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2, whereas the N95 has Feature Pack 1. There arenít any major differences between the two versions of the O/S, but FP2 does make numerous minor improvements and it provides a few more stock applications.

Memory: The N95 8GB, as its name implies, comes with 8 GB of memory built in. The N85, like earlier editions of the N95, as a MicroSD memory slot that is accessible without removing the battery cover. You can swap out memory and the phone will accept 16 GB cards.

Conclusions

I really donít know what to think of the N85 personally. On one hand it offers a number of incremental updates to the N95 that I can really appreciate (such as the smaller size, addition of a lens cover, removable memory, and a more vibrant color display). However, it also asks me to sacrifice quite a bit and in the end I find the sacrifices far outweigh the benefits. Subsequently the N85 is a design that needs more work. Perhaps future phones such as the N86 will prove to be a much better choice. For the time being the N85 is, in my mind, a slightly inferior phone to the N95 8GB.

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