Nokia N95: The other iPhone

Yep, I'm digging my new Nokia N95 so far. To make a long story short, I'm one of the many people in the US who aren't covered by Cingular/AT&T Wireless. This means that although this area is saturated in GSM, AT&T Wireless doesn't have a presence here. My existing number can't be ported, and thus getting an iPhone isn't really an option since any local calls would actually be in-state long-distance to a new numb

Yep, I'm digging my new Nokia N95 so far.

To make a long story short, I'm one of the many people in the US who aren't covered by Cingular/AT&T Wireless. This means that although this area is saturated in GSM, AT&T Wireless doesn't have a presence here. My existing number can't be ported, and thus getting an iPhone isn't really an option since any local calls would actually be in-state long-distance to a new number on an iPhone. I thought about doing some Asterisk trickery to forward calls across my SIP trunks to alleviate this, but decided it wasn't worth it in the long run.

Then, I ran into the Nokia N95 while in Oregon in the hands of Inquirer writer Charlie Demerjian. I'm not sure if the N95 is even technically available in the US, and I haven't seen a single carrier that offers this phone as an option, but it's a standard quad-band phone that will work on most GSM networks, and it works great here on Unicel. I've only had it for a day now, but I've been spending some quality time with it. I'm happy overall, but there are some kinks, to be sure.

The N95 offers many of the same features of the iPhone, and lacks several features, such as a touch screen. It's far smaller than the iPhone, but thicker, and is a slider, not a fixed piece. Mine also came in the "plum" color, which is just odd. I'd have preferred silver or black, but I can deal with plum, I guess.

It's based on Symbian S60 v3 code, and is generally snappy in operation, with a plethora of available applications from Nokia and many third party vendors. The screen is nice and crisp, and the dual-action slider is rather cool -- slide it up to reveal the dialpad for normal phone operations, slide it the other way to reveal multimedia keys (play, pause, fwd, rev, etc) and switch the screen to landscape mode. It has 802.11b/g, Bluetooth, USB2, GPS, EDGE and 3G connectivity built in, a PDF reader, video player, Flash player (something the iPhone desperately needs), and a limited Office suite. It also has two cameras -- a 5 megapixel main camera and a 1.3 megapixel camera on the front for videoconferencing), as well as a micro-SD slot for storage upgrades (a major plus over the iPhone), and a replaceable battery (another major plus). A big downside is that it's very RAM-limited. Having more than a few apps open at once, or loading a sizable Web page in the browser will result in an "Out of memory" error that is highly annoying. I'm thinking that a firmware upgrade allowing the use of the micro-SD card as a swap source would be a very good idea. That said, as long as you're relatively good about closing apps when you're done with them, it's not a showstopper. From what I can tell, the N95 has 60MB of internal RAM, and judging from what I've seen, it really needs 128MB or so. That would go a long way towards increasing the daily functionality of the device.

The GPS functions are very nice -- the maps automatically download, there's a route planner that offers voice navigation and nicely appointed maps. It's not terribly fast, but it works well, and the few routes I've planned have been surprisingly accurate. The camera takes good quality pictures, but is slow. I've found that disabling the image preview helps here, since the phone isn't trying to write a large file and read it back to display it at the same time. I do like the ability for the N95 to figure out if it's home or not, binding to a local 802.11b/g access point for all data transmission rather than an EDGE or 3G service. Not only is the 802.11b/g connection faster, but it doesn't incur network charges. Further, there's a very accessible wireless scanner in the phone that will find and lock on to any WiFi that happens to be in the area. I've found that the N95 doesn't deal with roaming among APs terribly well, but well enough for such a tiny device, and the range is adequate.

On the input front, the N95 lacks a QWERTY keyboard, but the predictive typing is surprisingly accurate, though making corrections can be annoying. There is support for Bluetooth keyboards, but the idea here isn't to lug around multiple parts to your communications device, right? Of course, I'm mostly using the input for email, and I've been playing with a few email apps for the N95 -- the builtin app and Profimail. I had the builtin app reading from a SSL/TLS IMAP mailbox very quickly, but sending mail via authenticated SMTP proved to be a problem -- all the settings were correct, but the server never saw the auth string and bumped the mail every time. With Profimail I didn't have that problem, but the UI is vastly different than anything else on the phone. That's not to say it's worse, just... different. I'm still not sure which one I'll use more, but the fact that Profimail can actually send mail is obviously a major advantage.

I've installed PuTTY for Symbian on the N95, and it's actually surprisingly usable in emergency situations. The lack of a QWERTY keyboard is obviously a problem here, but if all you need to do is kill a process or check on something quickly, it'll do the trick. The TSMobiles RDP client I installed was also functional, but essentially unusable on the N95. It worked, but navigation was painful and the small display area was a joke.

As a phone (since that is the most important feature) the N95 works well. I've had no problems with coverage so far, even in places where I would expect signal drop, like the far corners of my basement. I really wish that the volume level could be increased beyond the current limits, since I've found that at top volume, it's just not loud enough for me, especially in public places. I'm assuming that the lawyers had a say in this, but I'd sign a document absolving Nokia of any liability to get a few more dB of earpiece output from this thing. The speakerphone is very responsive, on the other hand, and had no problems even from a respectable distance.

I was able to sync my Mac contacts with the N95 after downloading Nokia's iSync plugin for the N95, too. The voice dialing is pretty basic, especially when compared to my old Motorola RAZR, which had a surprisingly good voice dialing app. I've found that it works best if I run the names together, saying "Oliverrist" instead of "Oliver Rist", but it's sufficient. Of course, I could just rename his entry to "Hopeless Nerd" and maybe have better luck.

Bluetooth connectivity is nice and fast, and my various headsets and laptops had no problems with connections. Nokia even has a beta version of their Mac software, dubbed Nokia Media Transfer that has worked fine. The gist of that app is that a custom folder appears in iTunes and iPhoto, and whatever content is placed in those folders will be synced to the N95 when it is connected via USB or Bluetooth. It has worked fairly flawlessly for me so far.

The N95 also offers YouTube videos, among other providers via the RealPlayer (RealPlayer's still around?) app, though there's no searching to speak of. That part's still a novelty at best. The audio playback is nice, and the slider audio/video control buttons are a very nice touch.

One of the first things I did with my N95 was update the firmware from v10.x to v12.x. Unfortunately, the only way to update the firmware is with a Windows system and Nokia's firmware updater, but the procedure was relatively painless. I haven't noticed any major changes between the two versions, but my gut tells me that it runs slightly faster with the new revision. One downside to upgrading is that all customizations are lost -- though you can back up your settings to the micro-SD card and restore them after the upgrade.

Obviously, I'll be spending plenty of time with the N95 in the future, so I'll post updates as events warrant. The N95 is certainly no iPhone, but then again that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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