Review of the Nokia N95 8GB


The Nokia N95 8GB is the most recent iteration of the much-hyped Nokia Smartphone. This model is now being carried officially in Canada by Rogers and theyíve recently dropped the price to $199 for a 3-year contract to match the Apple iPhone 3G. Nokia bills the N95 as ďCanadaís Smartest SmartphoneĒ. I donít know about that, but itís still a pretty good phone as youíll see.
 

The Nokia N95 8GB is available through Rogers.

Last Updated: 01-Aug-2008

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

Note that the N95-4 differs from its predecessors in that it has 8 GB of internal flash memory instead of a MicroSD slot. This also means that you canít upgrade the memory, but 8 GB is a pretty decent amount of storage for all but the most ardent multimedia fans out there, not to mention that it comes included in the $199 price tag.

This review will be more in-depth than usual, since I was able to secure an N95 for a 2-week trial. I also happen to like the phone personally, and so I spent more than the usual amount of time playing with it. In the end I bought one for myself, and so my experience with the N95 exceeds the usual for phones I review.

RF Performance

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

RF Sensitivity: I tested this aspect of the phone on the same day as I tested the iPhone 3G. Tests were performed, as usual, over at Square One shopping center in Mississauga. However, in the case of the N95 (and the iPhone) it has become increasingly difficult to perform these tests there for lack of any easily-accessible locations that really weaken the Rogers UMTS signal. I had to resort to taking the phone into one of the washrooms off of the old Hall of Shame (near the mallís center court). Compared to other 3G phones Iíve tested there, the N95 and the iPhone were the best Iíd ever tested.

The performance of the 3G & 2G networks at Square One leads one to believe that 3G would always be superior. However, I also tested the performance of the N95 over at the IKEA store in Etobicoke (though against a Nokia E51 rather than the iPhone). The lower level of that store blocks out signals from all of the providers and it has proven to be an interesting place to test the RF capabilities. Oddly however, 3G coverage is markedly poorer at that store, but it gave me the opportunity to test the 2G performance. The N95 matched the sensitivity of E51, which has already proven to have excellent 2G performance.

The IKEA location also proved that the Rogers network will automatically handoff a call from 3G to 2G if it becomes necessary, but a handoff back to 3G does not occur.

Over-the-road Performance: I still havenít tested enough UMTS phones to be certain of whatís normal and whatís not normal, but the N95 suffers from little (if any) audio disturbances while driving around the Toronto area. As I noted in the article What is UMTS, the CODEC used by GSM on their WCDMA network seems to be much more robust than the EVRC CODEC used in CDMA networks. Using the N95 on the move with the Rogers 3G network is not detectably different from using it in a stationary location. Perhaps this will prove to be common in many UMTS phones, but for now I just don't have enough examples to know for sure.

Side Note: If I do determine that this aspect of UMTS is as good as what I've seen (in the limited number of such phones I've tested) I will very likely remove this sub-heading in future UMTS reviews. There isn't much point reviewing a facet of performance that seems to have been literally taken out of the equation by the excellence of the AMR CODEC mated to a WCDMA air interface.

Audio Performance

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

Tonal Balance: Unlike quite a few of the tinny-sounding Nokia Smartphones Iíd tested in the last year or so, the N95 has fairly decent tonal balance. It could do with a little more low-end to give it a truly rich sound, but overall the quality of the sound can best be described as well-balanced, but a tad thin. Note that the Apple iPhone 3G does provide slightly better tonal balance than the N95.

I talked with many different people on the N95 during my tests and most of them sounded great. There was no apparent peakiness or boominess to the sound and it remained pleasant to listen to for prolonged periods of them. Just the same, I can't quite give the N95 an A+ on this issue. It comes in around a B+ to an A-.

Sound Reproduction: There were absolutely no problems here. The N95 introduced virtually no distortion to the sound, and even when I listened to recordings that were notorious for sounding a bit coarse on other phones, they sounded relatively smooth on the N95. There is a small amount of hiss in the background, but itís not too severe and I didn't find that it bothered much. To be fair however, I was used to the i880, which had considerably more earpiece hiss (so it's all relative).

Earpiece Volume: Like virtually all Nokia models on the market for the last 10 years, the N95 has a volume-boost feature that raises the loudness of the audio (across all volume settings) as the background noise increases. When used in a quiet room you get more than enough volume for the conditions, but you're left wondering how youíd ever be able to hear the thing in a noisy location. The amount of volume boost on the N95 is actually quite astonishing and it kicks in cleanly so that there is no sudden change in the level. In noisy environments, such as a crowded mall or out on the street, the earpiece volume is very loud (and at least the equal of my old Motorola i880).

Outgoing Audio: Under quiet conditions the overall sound quality and tonal balance of the outgoing audio is very good, but the phone doesnít deal particularly well with certain types of background noise. It seems to pickup quite a bit of the background din at a crowded mall, but it does a fairly decent job on traffic noise. Itís nowhere near as good as the i880 at suppressing noise, but it's still miles better than some phones Iíve tested recently, including the really poor showing I got from the Nokia 5200.

Speakerphone: Iíve often noted in my reviews that there are good Nokia speakerphone implementations and there are bad Nokia speakerphone implementations. Iím happy to report that this is one of the really good ones. While it might not generate quite as much raw volume as a typical iDEN phone, the audio it does generate is nothing short of excellent. Making speakerphone calls with the N95 is comfortable and natural and you'll probably be tempted to do it whenever your situation allows.

All speakerphones must resort to blanking out audio in one direction or another to avoid feedback. The N95 does that at the caller's end, where your voice is blanked if there background noise gets really loud. It might therefore be impossible to use speakerphone when talking to someone who is driving on the highway with their windows open. Under less severe conditions however, the speakerphone sounds like it magically supports full duplex without any echo or mysterious cutouts.

As for volume, you couldnít really use the feature in a crowded mall for example, but I was able to use it to carry on a fairly decent conversation outdoors with some distant traffic noise present. My caller reported very little extra background noise when in speakerphone mode over that of the standard mode (despite increased microphone sensitivity to voices from further away).

I also tried a test of the speakerphone feature in a car going at highway speeds. Even with the window rolled down, which made it very noisy in there, the microphone still managed to pick up my voice clearly (from an arm's-length away) and do a very credible job of keeping the background noise under control. It was by then a bit noisy to really hear the person at the other end, but it demonstrated how good the outgoing audio sounded under any conditions in which you'd likely want to use the speakerphone feature.

Support Features

Ringer Volume: I installed my Loud Ringer MP3 file onto the N95 and I compared it directly against the same MP3 file on my i880. The N95 wasnít quite as loud as the iDEN phone, but it came closer than any other phone Iíve ever tested. Even the standard ringtones (including the ubiquitous Nokia Ring) were louder than anything Iíd heard outside of a Motorola iDEN model.

Some people have complained that the N95 limits uploaded ringtones to 600K in size, but let's be reasonable here. 600K represents almost 40 seconds of MP3 at 128 kilobits. You only get about 15 seconds of ringing before you call goes through to voicemail anyway. The limit therefore doesn't strike me as a problem at all.

Keypad Design: This is one area where the phone is a bit disappointing. The keys worked well enough, but they are crowded and fiddly to the point that it is sometimes difficult to ensure that I hit the correct key. Fortunately the keys had relatively good tactile feel, and so it was rare that a key went un-pressed.

The 4-way cursor pad is certainly not one of the worst implementations on a Nokia model, but itís certainly not the best. The OK button was sometimes difficult to press without accidentally actuating one of the cursor keys. The numeric keys have raised humps that make them easy to tell apart vertically (though not horizontally), but the hump might actually be why itís sometimes easy to stray onto the wrong key while attempting to enter information quickly. To its credit however, the top row of keys on the slide-out numeric keypad are sufficiently distant from the slider that there is no issue with reaching them. Iíve tested many a slider where getting at the top row of keys was made difficult by the close proximity of the slide.

A unique feature of the N95 is a second small keyboard that is exposed if you move the slider down rather than up. These 4 keys contain the standard media control functions (pause/play, stop, fast forward, and rewind). When the screen is slid open in this direction its orientation changes from portrait to landscape. Curiously the N95 contains an accelerometer just like the iPhone, but Nokia chose not to support it in the operating system to change screen orientation automatically. There is however a 3rd-party applet you can add to the phone to provide this functionality.

Display: While certainly not in the same league as the iPhone (which has an enormous 3.5-inch screen with a resolution of 480 x 320) the N95 is still no slouch. It has a fairly large 2.8-inch screen boasting a resolution of 320 x 240 with a full 16 million colors. The screen is fairly bright, but it doesnít hold a candle to the brightness of the iPhone screen. The N95 is quite visible in direct sunlight, but the colors are washed out under those conditions. Iíd have to give the screen a grade of B to B+.

Icing on the Cake

Camera: The camera on the N95 is so good that it deserves a lot of page real-estate to cover it all. I have therefore put the review of the N95 camera on its own page. Click here to read the camera review and view numerous sample photographs.

GPS: The N95 includes a built-in GPS receiver that is fully accessible to 3rd party applications. In fact, Google has written a Symbian-specific version of their excellent Google Maps application. This version includes their My Location feature that can use just the signals from the cell sites to roughly find your location, but you can also turn on access to the GPS receiver to find your location to within as little as 20 meters , depending upon the quality of the satellite signal.

After reading the manual and discovering the correct way to hold the phone, I was really surprised at just how sensitive the GPS receiver is. Even from inside my house (well away from the windows on the lower level) I was able to acquire 5 satellites and yield a true position in about 15 to 20 seconds. The receiverís sensitivity is impaired somewhat when the slider is closed, but once the satellites are locked I had no trouble outdoors with the GPS providing fairly accurate readings with the slider closed and the phone in a carrier on my belt.

While GPS rarely works indoors, no matter how good the GPS device you have is, I nonetheless tried the N95 inside the Williams Coffee Pub near Sherway Gardens. Even standing in line (right in the middle of the building) I was able to lock onto 7 satellites within just 20 seconds or so.

If you search the internet you'll find many reviewers complaining of poor or flaky GPS performance. All of these reviews are of the N95-1 or N95-2. I don't whether or not the GPS was changed substantially for the N95-4, but the receiver on mine was nothing short of phenomenal.

Nokia provides their own mapping software with the phone, but for day-to-day use it really canít touch the Symbian version of Google Maps (which you can easily add for free). However, the Nokia mapping software does provide a 3D-style view (similar to what you get with the PC-based Google Earth application) and you can subscribe to turn-by-turn directions using the GPS receiver.

Operating System: The N95 uses the Symbian S60 3rd Edition O/S running on a 330 MHz processor. Symbian is a fully open platform that not only allows 3rd party developers to do some pretty amazing things, but it actively encourages them to. From a computer-geek point-of-view, the Symbian O/S is quite exciting.

Itís a multi-tasking environment that allows multiple applications to be opened at one time, and applets can run as background tasks. There is 128 MB of RAM in the N95, allowing it to run from 10 to 20 applets simultaneously (depending upon the memory footprint and processor load of each applet). While the iPhone's OS-X operation system might actually be capable of this, Apple doesn't allow the iPhone to open more than one applet at a time.

The O/S supports software written in native Symbian (C++), J2ME (Java), and Python (with the addition of a free Python runtime engine). Programs written under Symbian can interact directly with the O/S to provide some rather classy additions to the phone. For example, an application I downloaded (from a 3rd party vendor) called ďT9 NavĒ works invisibly in the background to provide a system-wide search that is activated by just pressing numeric keys in the standby screen. It quickly finds all phonebook entries, applications, videos, pictures, presentations, etc that contain a substring based on the keys you type in from the keypad (as though you were entering a wording using T9 predictive text input).

I will however concede that the menu system on Symbian phones is quite daunting for a beginner, and in this regard the iPhone wins hands-down. However, once you get the hang of where most things are (or use something like "T9 Nav" to help you find stuff) the going gets much easier and you tend not to be concerned about the U/I.

FM Radio: Like many Nokia phones before it, the N95 comes with a built-in FM radio receiver. All you need to do to use it is to plug in a wired headset (as the phone requires the wiring to the headset or earbuds as an FM antenna). The receiver isnít the most sensitive Iíve ever seen, but it pulls in signals cleanly and provides quite decent audio quality (limited of course to the quality of the station you tune to).

Internet Radio: Nokia does not natively provide anything in this department, but I downloaded an applet from them that provides an excellent Shoutcast-compatible application called Nokia Internet Radio. It can stream music from any of thousands of free online radio stations. It can do this in the background, though certain functions of the phone do demand a lot of processor time and you can occasionally cause the music to pause when the phone runs other applications. The applet provides an extensive directory (which it updates online), but you can also hand-enter any Shoutcast station you like.

YouTube: Although Nokia doesn't provide an application for accessing YouTube content, I downloaded a free Java applet directly from YouTube that I used instead and that works exceptionally well on the N95. My favorite YouTube application for the N95 however is Mobitubia, which provides a rich graphical interface to YouTube that actually looks better than most other applications on the phone.

MP3 Player: The N95 comes with an excellent music player that many Rogers customers will probably never discover. The lame excuse for a music player that Rogers puts on the phone (and adds to one of the softkeys from the idle screen) is vastly inferior to the one provided by Nokia. Fortunately that native player is still shipped with the N95 sold by Rogers and itís fairly easy to change the softkey assignments or add a shortcut to the proper player.

The native Nokia player uses the ID3 tags in the songs to gather the track name, artist, genre, and album name so that you can search your music library in many different ways. You can also create your own playlists and customize your listening experience. While the U/I doesn't match an iPod, the N95 makes a terrific music player that runs in the background, allowing you to continue using the phone for whatever else you're doing with it.

MP3 playback is not interfered with by processor-intensive applications, and so music runs interrupted unless you make or receive a call. Once the call is over the music is turned back on and the volume is gradually put back to where you had it, so that it doesn't just blast your ears all of a sudden.

Headphones: The stereo earbuds that come with the N95 arenít of particularly high quality, and so youíre probably going to want to toss them out and use something better. The great news is that the N95 has a 3.5-mm smart jack on the side that can be used for a large assortment of audio and video devices.

If you plug a set of standard stereo headphones/earbuds directly into the jack the phone will ask you want you are connecting. Since a standard headset doesnít contain a microphone, the N95 will use the internal mic (set to speakerphone sensitivity) when a call comes in. Also provided with the phone is a little control unit you can clip on yourself that contains media control buttons, an answer-phone button, volume controls, and a built-in microphone. It then provides a 3.5-mm jack to connect your headset to.

If you'd prefer not to be wired-up to your phone however, the N95 supports the A2DP Bluetooth profile, thus allowing you to listen to high-quality stereo sound wirelessly. Sadly the phone (or its built-in music player) does not seem to support RDS, which is a protocol used to send track information to a Bluetooth device. The lack of this feature isn't really a deal-breaker however, since the sound quality on A2DP is excellent and you still have full volume, pause/play/stop, fast forward, and rewind control through A2DP devices.

TV Out: At first I wasnít sure this was a particularly useful idea, but once I played with it I was convinced that all multimedia phones should have one of these things. The phone comes with a cable that has a 3.5-mm jack on one end and 3 color-coded RCA jacks on the other. Just plug those cables into your TVís video and audio inputs and you can view the phoneís screen on your TV and hear the audio through the TV's stereo speakers. This is great for showing off pictures to a large crowd, playing the excellent 30-frame-per-second videos the phone can record, and for displaying the output of any piece of software running on your phone (like Google Maps, etc).

The same cable can be used to connect the phone to stereo equipment to play music. Just ignore the yellow video cable and plug in the two audio jacks directly into the input of a stereo amplifier. Sound quality is excellent.

Podcasts: Okay, everyone knows that Podcasts are just MP3 or video files distributed by their producers and you can certainly download them manually at any time. However, Nokia provides their own Podcast download software that lets you subscribe to any Podcast via their RSS feeds and have new ones downloaded automatically when they become available.

WiFi: The N95 includes an 802.11b/g WiFi device built-in. While the 6-GB-per-month data plan presently offered by Rogers gives you tons of data to play with, you might have plenty of reasons for wanting the faster (and usually free) connection provided by WiFi. Thereís even a 3rd party program available that will turn your N95 into a WiFi hotspot so that other people with laptops can directly share your 3G connection. How cool is that?

Home Media: This is a service that allows uPnP devices hooked up to a WiFi network to be used to play various types of media. When you are connected to a WiFi network you can stream audio and video from the N95 directly to one of these Home Media devices.

Email Support: The N95 comes with native support for iMAP/POP3/SMTP mail clients (3rd party software is available for Microsoft Exchange support). The email system is integrated into the operating system, and so many applications have direct access to sending their content as email attachments if you so choose.

Web Browsing: The provided Nokia web browser is actually pretty decent, though it certainly doesn't look as good as Safari provided in the iPhone. Like many phone-based browsers you have the option of displaying pages in their true representation, or reformatted to be friendlier to the small screens. I personally prefer the reformatted mode for most pages, though some work best when displayed in their native format.

I don't prefer it for displaying WAP pages however. For that I recommend that you download Opera Mini, which runs extremely well on the N95 under its support for J2ME (Java) applets. And if you want to take it a step further, you can buy a copy of the full-blown Opera browser.

Bluetooth: Unlike the iPhone, which has Bluetooth more-or-less only to support standard BT headsets, the N95 includes virtually all Bluetooth profiles, including:

- A2DP (high-quality stereo headsets)
- Audio/Video Remote Control
- Basic Imaging
- Basic Printing
- File Transfer Protocol
- Dialup Networking (tethering)
- Hands free
- Headset
- Human Interface Device
- Object Push (OBEX)
- SIM Access
- Synchronization

Suspicious by its absence is RDS, which I mentioned in the section on the MP3 Player.

Tethering: The N95 supports the tethering of a laptop computer using a USB cable, Bluetooth, or the aforementioned software for turning the phone into a WiFi hotspot.

Conclusions

It took me a while to warm up to it, but I got to like the N95 so much during the trial that I decided to buy one for myself. I got mine through Treatz, who many people know well from Howard Forums. I've long been a fan of Nokia phones, but over the last few years they've managed to produce far too many phones that just didn't click with me. Not so with the N95.

I would have preferred a slightly more comfortable earpiece, slightly richer sound, a better keypad, and maybe a kick-ass user interface like on the iPhone, but overall I canít think of much else I donít like. Just the excellent camera and video recording functionality of the device alone are almost enough to be worth the price of admission, especially at just $200.

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