The curse of the sequel is well known amongst cinema aficionados but appears to apply to consumer electronics as well. How do you follow up a class-leading original like last year's Nokia N95 without its successor seeming like a poor imitation? Can Nokia's N96 rise above our lofty expectations or will it be damned like all three of George Lucas' dreadful Star Wars prequels and Wayne's World 2?
Aside from being the first smartphone to feature the now ubiquitous trio of HSDPA, Wi-Fi and GPS, the N95 was known for its pocket-straining chunkiness. While phones in other segments continued shrinking in size, the N95 came out large and proud of it, thick like a cheap bar of soap. The N96 appears slimmer, and indeed is slimmer, but only marginally so. Where the N95 measured in at 21mm in thickness, the N96 now slides into your pocket more comfortably at 18mm — hardly the biggest loser in the realms of tech slimming.
The N96 does feature more streamlined design, even over the improved N95 8GB model. The edges are smooth and the corners rounded, and external keys and control protrude only slightly. The centrepiece is a 2.8-inch QVGA resolution screen with a 16 million colour display and even though this screen shares similar specifications to that on the N95, the N96's newer display seems to present colours much better with darker blacks and brighter colours.
Like its predecessor, the N96 features a dual-slide design. A forward slide reveals a T9 numeric keypad, a backward slide uncovers a small selection of music player control keys, plus rotates the screen orientation to widescreen mode. The numeric keypad on this year's model is a step back in our opinion. The N95 8GB featured keys raised to a slight peak which defined each key from its neighbour. The N96's keypad is entirely flat and without significant definition at all.
The highlight of the new design, and it seems strange to say it, is a kickstand located around the lens of the 5-megapixel camera on the back of the handset. It takes a sharp fingernail to flip the stand out, but once in place, the stand turns your new mobile phone into a mini TV set, allowing it to stand without assistance on a desk while you watch videos on your phone. In addition, the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the handset is perfectly positioned for a media-focused mobile.
Let's pretend Nokia didn't release the N95 last year. Without the shadow of the former looming over the N96, its feature sheet is reasonably impressive; HSDPA, Wi-Fi, A-GPS, a 5-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, A2DP stereo Bluetooth. However, the fact that the N95 featured exactly the same connectivity specs is cause for mild disappointment.
There are, of course, some important differences to consider. The N96 ships with 16GB of internal storage and a microSD expansion slot. This is a vast improvement on both the previous models and more than enough to compete with Apple's storage friendly iPhone.
The major technological advancement is sadly completely irrelevant to Australian customers. Nokia has included a built-in DVB-H TV tuner into this model, capable of receiver DVB-H broadcast signals for mobile TV channels. However, if you've read CNET.com.au's recent summation of the state of mobile TV down under then you'd know DVB-H transmission are still a while away.
To compensate its Aussie customers, Nokia has struck an exclusive deal with BBC Worldwide to include one complete BBC TV series with the purchase of the N96. Before you rush out in hope of downloading the latest Dr Who episodes, there are only four series available; Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show, Yes Minister and Walking with Dinosaurs, and you are only eligible to download one. This is a nice bonus but its real-world value of somewhere between AU$15 and AU$30, if the same series were bought on DVD, is hardly a reason to buy an AU$1,400 smartphone.
Perhaps it was the excellent performance of the other recently released Nokia handsets, or perhaps it was our simple expectation that newer tech performs better than older tech. Either way we expected the N96 to run like greased lightning, and it simply doesn't. For the most part menu navigation is OK, we were able to move between the menu trees with minimal processing pauses only. Typically taxing processes, like opening the messaging interface often results in lag spikes lasting several seconds, especially with other tasks running in the background.
Another major area without significant improvement is the N96's average battery life. The N95 struggled to see the end of a full business day before needing to be charged, and we've been disappointed to find similar results with this newer model. With moderate use we could stretch a battery cycle to include a second day, but once we added the use of GPS and Wi-Fi hardware we were back to a single day of charge. Nokia really needs to include a larger capacity battery for a device drawing this much power.
Without exception the rest of the components in the N96 worked as expected, which is to say they performed solidly. Web browsing is great with Nokia's OSS web browser and GPS navigation with Nokia Maps v.2.0 is good; the hardware is fast to lock onto a signal and followed our movements well.
The 5-megapixel camera is still one of the best in the industry, and from a side-by-side comparison with the N95 8GB, we can say the shutter and processing of images is slightly faster and the colour reproduction seems to be better as well. The N96 features a dual-LED flash system with the secondary flash acting as an auto-focus assist light. It seems strange that Nokia wouldn't include the brighter Xenon style flash on its flagship N-Series model, although there has been some speculation in the industry recently as to whether Xenon flashes, while brighter, actually help produce better images.
The N95 was always going to be a hard act to follow. It was the handset that changed the smartphone landscape in 2007, changing in the process our expectations about what connectivity components are necessary to our day-to-day lives. 2008 has been an important year for technology refinement, but a slow year for innovation, and this is evident in the N96. Owners of the N95, or any N-Series handset purchased in the last 12 months for that matter, can completely disregard the N96.
The N96's 16GB of storage is handy but is hardly worth the upgrade considering that 16GB microSD memory cards now retail for AU$140, and the DVB-H tuner has no application in this market. The N96 looks sharper than its predecessors but we can see few improvements in essential areas like its performance and battery life, and this year, for AU$1,349, we expect a lot more.