26th Apr 2007 | 23:00
Is this the most feature-heavy mobile ever?
If you want a phone that is good at everything, choosing a top-of-the-range Nokia S60 smartphone has always been a surefire bet. These are phones that tick all the boxes, continually win all the awards, and that allow you to get all the latest technology without compromise.
The latest in this prestigious line - the N95 - however, has taken the concept of the do-everything phone to a completely new level. A year ago, the N80 bowled us over with its built-in Wi-Fi connectivity and macro-focusing camera. Now its successor not just builds on the 3G specification, it sets a new benchmark for every other phone to follow.
Nearly every aspect of the phone has improved. The resolution of the camera rises to 5 megapixels, and an automatic focusing system is added to help harness this resolution. The screen, meanwhile, has nearly doubled in size - and it can now shoot video footage that challenges that taken with a standalone camcorder. And you now not only get 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity - there is HSDPA support too, allowing you to supercharge your broadband access speed.
The real headline-grabber, however, is that this phone now incorporates its own satellite navigation system. Not only does it have a built-in GPS antenna but it provides free access to a world of road maps, allowing you to find out where you are, and how to get from A to B wherever you happen to be. Forget the Bluetooth-connected modules and add-on mapping that are popular on other S60 models - the N95 offers an alternative to your TomTom straight out of the box.
Despite the addition of the 2.6-inch, 16-million-colour 320 x 240-pixel screen (and the Sat Nav aerial) the N95 is surprisingly not much bigger than the N80. It is very slightly longer and wider, but compensates this by shaving a little on the depth. This is no super-slim handset, but for a fully-accessorised 3G phone with such a powered up palmtop computer onboard, you can't help but be impressed by the 120g weight.
This phone has been carefully designed to help you get to the things that matter with the minimum of fuss. As with all multifunction devices, there are lots of facilities that you have to scroll through menus and search through icons to find.
But if you want to use the digital music player, you can literally slip it into operation. A clever two-way slider mechanism means if you push the top of the phone up you get the expected numberpad, essential for typing messages or dialling numbers. Shunt the mechanism in the opposite direction, and you get a full set of transport controls for the MP3 player, and the music application automatically fires up.
The camera is turned on with similar painless ingenuity. You simply open the lens cap (a sensible new addition to the N series design) to get the right bit of software into gear.
Finding your way around the rest of the phone is simply a matter of using the regular joypad and softkeys; there are no thumbwheels or trackballs to speed up handling here. But this does mean that anyone used to the Symbian S60 operating system will be at home, right down to the provision of the application key, and the strange button for activating text editing options. One gripe would be that the softkeys are rather too thin for thought-free use , and there is a constant danger that you might press a neighbouring button by mistake.
The number of ground-breaking, and headline-grabbing, features mean there is a danger that it is easy to forget about the phone's core offering. It is easy to overlook, for instance, that unlike a good proportion of current smartphones you can buy, this is a full-feature 3G handset.
There is a secondary camera so that you can make and take video calls, for instance. It has can download video clips at breakneck speed (up to 3.6Mbps on suitably enabled 3G HSDPA enabled networks) - and has an online browser that can allow you to browse the full internet, and not simply take what is offered by your network. And it can take full advantage of the mobile TV packages your airtime supplier has on offer.
But this handset goes one step further than most 3G phones, and puts itself on a level keel with the best PDA phones, by offering Wi-Fi. Wireless local area networking is not just a useful facility for geeks - the cable-free data hook-up is more than a handy route for accessing email at home, in the office and on the move. It also effectively increases the coverage of the 3G network, allowing you broadband connection in places where otherwise they would be impossible.
Even more significantly, for the canny user Wi-Fi offers a low-cost way of getting on the net and keeping in touch whilst you are on the move. At a million coffee shops, motels, pubs and campuses around the world you can hook up the phone to practically all its online services, without having to pay a penny to your operator. You don't have to be a jetsetter to harness this advantage - it's a priceless money-saving feature at your own desk or on your own sofa, too. Some operators do, however, disable VoIP access features, so check before you sign up.
There's the smartphone advantage too. You can upgrade the phone in a wide variety of ways with programs, tools and reference material. But what comes preloaded is pretty impressive. A QuickOffice suite allows you to read Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, whilst further utilities allow you to access PDF and ZIP attachments that you may also receive by email. If you want to write spreadsheets or use a word processor, you need to invest in an addition piece of software (such as MobiSystems £16 OfficeSuite).
The MP3 player not only benefits from the bespoke buttons, but also from a healthy onboard memory. There is 160MB of storage out of the box, before adding MicroSD cards that slot into a hot-swappable slot on the side ,which can increase capacity by up to 2GB apiece.
In addition to supporting the stereo Bluetooth A2DP profile, the handset has a no-nonsense 3.5mm headset socket to enable you to use a wide range of listening accessories, like standard headphones or speakers. The supplied earbuds come in two sections - the headphones themselves, and a connector cable that provides a wired remote, and which doubles as the antenna for the built-in FM radio tuner (yes, it has a radio too).
Sound quality from the music player is very good. Even with the speakerphone, you get a far better performance than with an average music phone. But with the supplied headsets you get excellent sound quality, which can doubtlessly be further enhanced with a higher-priced set of headphones.
For the photographer, a 5-megapixel camera really does offer the promise of images that can match those of a standalone camera, even if there is not an optical zoom on offer. The N95 does, however, employ quality Carl Zeiss Optics.
The autofocus system is relatively quick but you do have to use the on-screen menu to access the macro mode if you want to focus as close as the phone allows. Such short shooting distances are great for close-ups, and this certainly allows you to make the most of the detail on offer. However, we did find focusing accuracy to be a bit hit and miss, often taking a couple of shots to get a sharp-looking image.
The 330MHz processor under the bonnet gets the pictures taken and stored away reasonably quickly. At top resolution we were able to keep the delay between frames down to 20 seconds, including processing and focusing delays.
On visual inspection, pictures looked very good. Much better than an average cameraphone. Shots had clean colours and good exposure in a variety of unfavourable lighting conditions. However, much of the actual detail recorded is lost by an over-generous amount of digital sharpening, which you are powerless to do anything about, and which can make images of some subjects look more like a drawing than a real photograph.
The best ever?
Video capture is much better, by comparison. In fact, it is probably the best footage we have ever seen from a phone. Nokia big this up by calling it DVD-quality. We'd argue with this; DVD is a recording medium not a digital recording format (any poor quality video can be recorded on a DVD).
And as you might guess the quality does not compete with that you would get from a DVD you'd hire from Blockbuster. However at 640x480-pixels and a frame rate of 30fps it is remarkably good. What's more you can prove this by showing your clips through your own TV.
A set of phono plugs are provided to connect up to the front AV inputs of your TV, so you can see your videos (and anything else that can be shown on your phone's display for that matter) on screen. Impressive stuff.
As innovations go, however, it is the Sat Nav that steals the show. A GPS antenna is the latest high-end feature for a flagship phone, and by the end of 2007, they'll be a whole flotilla of the things to choose from. But the Nokia implementation is rather different.
With satellite navigation, it is the mapping that is the main expense and the item that wins and loses customers. Normally, you have to buy these for each and every country that you want them for, and each new map download onto your memory card does not come cheap.
With Nokia, the maps are free. Last year it bought a company called gate5 which supplies mapping information and navigation services of and other manufacturers' phones. With gate5's smart2go software platform onboard, which is renamed "Maps" by Nokia, you simply fire up the application and the GPS works out where you are.
In seconds the cartography for your part of the world is beamed to you, using 3G, GSM or a Wi-Fi connection. It claims to have maps available for 100 countries. What's more you can plan routes for free too. Enter your destination address or postcode, and it will calculate the best route according to the preferences you have set (such as avoiding motorways or tolls). The instructions then come up on-screen.
Where they make the money is by then charging you for step-by-step navigation instructions as you drive. But even this is remarkably inexpensive. There is a £4.42 one-week option, a £5.44 30-day option, or a £47.68 option for those who sign up for three years. Sat Nav goes pay-as-you-go - and you still get full service when you cross the Channel or the Atlantic.
But does it work? As a low-cost navigation system it is definitely superb, and perfect for those that only occasionally travel into unfamiliar territories. The screen is small in comparison to other in-car GPS solutions but you do get standard features such as 2D or 3D map views.
Over-the-air map downloads on the road seemed rather slow - and we found it was worthwhile downloading the route and maps using Wi-Fi before you set off from home. We were also slightly concerned that the mapping did not know about two no-through roads in our local area, one of which had not been open to traffic for two years, and the other that had been closed for much longer.
You could, of course, use the GPS antenna with alternative onboard memory card Sat Nav software and cartography. That flexibility is part of the beauty of the Symbian operating system.
The N95 covers all the bases, and still has plenty of surprises, providing the best non-Qwerty keyboard smartphone that money can buy.
Talking of which, the technology onboard comes at a price - bought SIM-free at launch you can expect to pay around £500 for the N95, making it one of the most expensive handsets on the market. No doubt UK users will be able to get much better deals when signing up to contract deals.
Could the handset be better? The camera and GPS systems could both be improved - so the answer to this question has to be yes. But even so, this is still the handset that everyone will want this year and that will become the new benchmark for anyone attempting an all-round mobile phone.