Hands-On Review: Nokia N95 US 3G Version

[qi:012] A few months ago when I got my hands on the first version of Nokia N95, my initial impression about that phone was less than enthusiastic. A 5-megapixel camera, remarkably solid music playback capabilities, and the ability to make phone calls over WiFi seemingly struck a chord with everyone but me.

Battery life, lack of U.S. 3G (HSPDA-High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) higher speeds for wireless Internet access, lack of Exchange support left me cold, though those shortcomings and a steep $750 dollar sticker price didn’t stop N95 from being a brisk seller, especially in Europe.

Well, Nokia fans in the U.S. can rejoice – the new N95 is capable of handling U.S. 3G connections, the kind currently being offered by AT&T, is finally making its debut stateside, and you are going to be impressed by the subtle tweaks that come with this new device.

You might remember that I got a glimpse of the new phone on The GigaOM Show, when Blake Krikorian, CEO of Sling Media showed up with what Nokia describes as “multimedia computer.”

I have had the opportunity to play around with an early prototype version of the new 3G-capable N95 for a couple of days, and so far, it has been an experience to remember. It seems someone at Nokia sat down, read through my long list of nagging issues with the N95, and fixed them.

The single biggest improvement is the battery life of the power-hungry device. It also seems to be faster and has more on board memory. The camera on the back of the phone is recessed but that doesn’t seem to have impacted the photo and video quality. Still, I am going to miss the shutter protecting the Carl Zeiss lens.

Did I Say 3G: What I found most impressive about the new N95 was that I could use the phone as a modem and connect to AT&T’s 3G network. The download speed was a nifty 400 kilobits per second when the device was connected over Bluetooth to my MacBook Pro.

The ability to use N95 as a modem was a good enough compensation for the disappointment I felt, when I realized that I couldn’t sync the new version of the device with Apple Address Book and iCal via the iSync module. I guess the next update from Apple should fix this issue. (No such problems when I plugged in the phone to a ThinkPad T61, where the Nokia PC Suite worked flawlessly even over Windows Vista.)

After this point forward, the phone just proved to be a pleasure, though it has been hard to adjust to the 12-key triple-tap-and-type data entry methodology after using the iPhone. I was impressed with the Windows Live search application that comes bundled with the phone, and the tons of games that have been great time-wasters.

VoIP: The phone comes bundled with Gizmo VoIP client and it took less than 30 seconds to set it up, though I could not make it work over the 3G connection for voice calls, and ended up using the WiFi connection instead. The same problems occurred with the Truphone client, though finding WiFi networks is a breeze, thanks to a built-in Wi-Fi finder.

Multimedia Madness: The new devices come with easy access links to Nokia’s new music and gaming portals, though the services were not live during the time I had the phone.

Nokia has also made it easy to watch YouTube videos on the device: the speedy connections actually make that fun when compared to YouTube videos on the iPhone. A video center shortcut on the menu gives access to more video such as Reuters business news, though I had trouble making those particular videos work. You can also add other content such as RocketBoom.

Playing back videos and music has seen marginal improvements. For instance, videos have less jitter and seem more stable, I guess because of a more powerful processor.

Maps Maps & Maps: Nokia bundles its Map application with this device, and over a 3G network it is actually useful and fast. I really like the GPS with 2D/3D views.

There were some nagging issues such as Nokia’s Mail4Exchange didn’t work.

Verdict: Overall, this is definitely a much-needed improvement over the previous (European) version of the N95. If iPhone isn’t your cup of tea, and you’ve got about $750 to spare, then this one is worthy of your time.

Next up is twisting Blake’s arm and getting him to give me a copy of the Sling Player: now that would be something. Meanwhile, I am going to settle in for the night and watch Casino Royale on the tiny screen.