Nokia N96 comes in a huge box that can even compare to the one of the recently reviewed Nokia 8800 Carbon Arte. Contents are also quite on par with the high price tag of the new Nseries flagship and there's even a pleasant surprise in stock.
N96 is in fact the first Nokia handset that ships with a car charger and it's a neat accessory we appreciate. The prebundled handsfree is a two-piece combo, which means you can easily swap the provided headset without sacrificing the remote control.
There are two connectivity cables provided too - a microUSB one for data transfers and the CA-75U TV-out wire. The last items in this big retail package are the DC charger, a bunch of manuals and a CD with PC sync software. Somewhere among those is the activation code for the Tetris game on the N-gage platform - honestly, we didn't even bother looking for it.
Nokia N96 stands at 103 x 55 x 18 mm, totaling a volume of 92 cc. This is slightly longer and a tad slimmer than Nokia N95 8GB. Samsung i8510 INNOV8 has similar size but is the heaviest of the three. It takes quite a big pocket to stash Nokia N96 and the weight of 125g won't let you forget it's there.
Truth be told, size never seemed a turn-off with Nokia N95 8GB and we don't think it will be the deal-breaker for N96. Sadly, there are better reasons to be put off by this handset.
Before we begin, we should make one thing clear. Right from the very start we knew that designwise Nokia N96 is just a bigger version of the N81. We also know there are many of you out there who really like this design concept. We will just say this - our spite against this latest N-series styling is probably the only thing that our editorial team is unanimous about. We've seen better from Nokia and we'd be the first to cheer their decision to ditch it in the backyard. But until then, we'll have to continue the hardware part of this review, with gritting teeth.
The Nokia N96 packs a large 2.8-inch display, which takes up almost the whole front panel. Above it are the earpiece and video-call camera, there's no ambient light sensor this time.
The tightly-squeezed controls on the front panel are an ergonomic challenge and the fact that it's all a flimsy flat membrane doesn't make it any easier. On top of that, the plastic used looks appallingly cheap. We can't help but note that by no means does the front of Nokia N96 suggest a $700 price tag.
As far as the layout of controls is concerned, Nokia N96 kind of reminds of its predecessor - the N95 8GB. The front panel keeps the well known arrangement of a huge screen cramming a narrow navigation deck all the way down. But this time there are as many as 11 keys crowding the D-pad.
The number of keys on this kind of space should speak for itself - those are all rather small and not really easy to use. Music fans will probably appreciate the dedicated keys but we kind of miss the point of the dual slide design. If the two gaming keys are its sole purpose then the N81 solution seems much more convenient.
The Call and End keys are part of the flat membrane but are well defined and amply sized, which is better than the N81 and N78. We have to admit the flat controls provide sufficient press feedback (the dedicated music keys less so, but still passable).
The Symbian and C key placement is not the most convenient though. Placed at the very bottom of the navigation deck those are perfectly usable with the slider up, but reaching to them in closed position runs the risk of toppling the heavy handset off your hand.
The D-pad is the size of that in N95 8GB but this time you have a huge confirm button and quite a thin navigating frame. The design was obviously dictated by the Navi wheel functionality. However that functionality was dropped just before the N96 hit the shelves leaving only the inconvenient D-pad behid. The N95 8GB D-pad styling is way more user friendly for normal navigation.
The left side of Nokia N96 hosts the microSD card slot and the lanyard eyelet. The phone handles an 8GB memory card problem-free. Furthermore, various sources confirm that it works with the newly released 16GB microSD cards (not that we expected any different). That adds up to potential memory capacity of up to 32GB, which sounds well impressive.
The right side of Nokia N96 features the volume rocker and the dedicated camera key. Those controls are a blatant attempt to defy user-friendliness. While the rigidity of the volume key is almost forgivable, the camera key is beyond belief. It's so uncomfortable that it renders taking any kind of decent photos with the N96 almost impossible.
The camera knob scrapes against the sides of its cleft and the distinct clack is our least concern. With this shutter key there's almost no distinct half press. It is quite a challenge to lock focus and then take a photo without shaking or even dropping the phone. We can't even imagine what went wrong with this particular button.
The other two elements on the right side are the two speakerphone grills, placed symmetrically at the very top and bottom corners of the casing. That seems very proper given the kickstand that props the phone up for desktop use.
On top of Nokia N96 we see the keypad lock slider, the 3.5mm standard audio jack and the power key. The only concern here is the On/Off knob: it is too small and flush with the surrounding surface.
The bottom of Nokia N96 features the microUSB port, mouthpiece and the charger plug. No cap over the USB slot means it can fill up with dirt - we've been there already with both N95 and N95 8GB.
The 5 megapixel camera lens at the back is complemented by dual-LED flash and the kickstand we already mentioned. The latter has nothing to do with photography but allows the phone to be placed on a desk at the best angle for TV/video watching. It is quite a nice solution indeed though the fragile piece of plastic should probably be handled with care.
The rear, much like the front, is all plastic but definitely looks better. Subdued gloss and neat wave-like patterns do give the handset some of the conservative style its price tag deserves. It is still quite easy for the surface to get greased and messy. There's no protection for the camera lens, either. It is not even sunk a millimeter as on Nokia N95 8GB.
Opening the battery cover is done by pressing the latch at the top and gently lifting - this time Nokia have done well. Under the hood lies the 950 mAh Li-Ion BL-5F battery.
Battery life was one of the most troublesome aspects of the original Nokia N95 and, after the 1200 mAh BL-6F upgrade in the 8GB version, we almost cannot believe Nokia went back to it.
The current 950 mAh battery can hardly provide a day of extensive usage, even with the downgraded CPU. In fact, our guess is that the main reason for planting the slower CPU is its reduced power consumption. All you get as a result is at least the extra time to go home and plug the charger. We are yet to see how that CPU affects UI response.
By this point you should probably guess our opinion of the Nokia N96 build quality. It is all the way inconsistent with the price of the device. One thing should be given though - it seems more durable and not so easy to wear as the Nokia N95 8GB's rubberized back for example.
However, our experience with Nokia N81 shows this type of plastic is really easy to get scratched. We still can't make up our mind about which is worse to look at.
Nokia N96 is quite a hefty piece of gear but size is the least imposing obstacle to handling. There are a lot of design modifications from N95 8GB and we can't say they are a boost to user-friendliness. The flatbed controls are perfectly usable but hardly stand comparison to N95 8GB for both looks and tactility.
The nicely shaped tactile D-pad of N95 8GB is more user-friendly and could be quite valuable to some. The added music keys may be an enhancement but they question the dual slide design and complicate the navigation pad. Finally, while either approach may have its backers and opponents, the despicable shutter key on N96 is a blatant insult.