The 2.8" treat of a screen is probably the best way for Nokia N96 to salvage some pride. Excellent picture is a perfect complement to its generous size. In all fairness, brightness has been slightly reduced compared to Nokia N95 8GB but still keeps a very high level. The contrast is also commendable.
Sunlight legibility has always been the Nokia element. Nokia N96 makes no exception remaining perfectly legible even on the brightest of days. Colors do get a bit washed away in the strong sun but this doesn't greatly affect usability.
Remember that "frightfully ugly fellow, but he does have his uses!" line? Well, we cannot possibly think of any better way of describing the alphanumeric keypad of Nokia N96 (could've said the same about the navigation pad).
The cheap plastic looks (6220 classic, anyone?) aside, the keypad of Nokia N96 is OK to type on. Size is adequate even though the rows are a little narrow. There are no distinct borders between keys and the key stroke isn't the best we've seen but that's nothing you can't live with. With some time getting used, you may as well get to enjoy typing.
The keys reveled on top of the phone are quite nice to use with their size making them very comfortable even for people with larger hands. They have two modes - "music keys" where all four are usable and "gaming", where only the middle two are actually active.
The backlighting of Nokia N96 is strong enough but somewhat uneven. It also has a distinct yellow tint, which we don't really like. The white backlighting of Nokia N95 8GB looked a whole lot better.
Nokia N96 runs on the Symbian 9.3 OS with Series60 3rd Edition user interface. Feature Pack 2 comes preinstalled, bringing both visual and performance improvements that we first saw in Nokia N78. In all fairness, the performance updates are also available to some FP1 devices through firmware updates, but there are still some goodies exclusive to FP2.
One of the most important benefits of the new UI is the new Active standby layout, which now allows quick access to a lot more features. The standby screen is organized in vertical tabs with the D-pad used for scrolling them. Other than that, its functionality basically remains the same.
The active stand-by screen is a nice and convenient way of bringing shortcuts to all favorite applications to your home screen. You can even assign shortcuts to websites of your choice for quicker access.
Active standby or not, you can always change the shortcuts assigned to the two soft keys to best suit your needs.
The Navi wheel functionality is also extended as compared to N81 and it reveals its full potential. Among some of the other FP2 upgrades are a new picture gallery and picture geotagging. They will get their the due attention later on in this review.
The task manager is a well known Symbian application, which has improved in terms of looks with the new FP. It is also now appearing on top of every pop-up menu. The shortcut used in previous versions of the OS by pressing and holding the menu key still works.
Finally, the S60 UI Feature Pack 2 brings some nice menu transition effects. The Symbian OS has been all too well known for offering little eye-candy but now it seems to be trying to catch up. It is still far from, say Apple iPhone standards, but those are too different devices for such a comparison to be fair.
The CPU and the built-in RAM are probably the two most important factors concerning smartphone performance. The 128MB of RAM are a feat in Symbian terms and is almost impossible to deplete. The things with the CPU are however somewhat different.
The dual ARM9 264 MHz CPU used in Nokia N96 is still faster than most other devices out there but is a downgrade from the dual ARM 11 332 MHz that we saw on both Nokia N95 versions. Truth to be told, only heavy apps (N-gage for example) can make the difference as far as we can tell. We still can't help but wonder why downgrade one of most important parts of what's supposed to be the new Nseries flagship.
The Nokia N96 user-available memory extends to a little less than 15GB (it's an old trick rounding off every 1000 bytes to a kilobyte, plus there's system-reserved capacity). It still is an impressive space to fill up but even if you do there's a microSD card slot to help you. Accessing content on the card or the phone memory is done at about the same speed.
The multimedia menu is among the Nseries highlights and the Nokia N96 is hardly an exception here. It is launched by pressing the dedicated key and provides quick access to the multimedia features of the handset. It is identical to the ones found on Nokia N81 and Nokia N82 with icons sorted thematically. They appear as drop-down lists when the respective tab is selected. Those can also be freely reordered if the layout isn't to your liking.
As with any Symbian phone, there is a built-in voice recognition system. It's doing a very good job actually, being fully speaker-independent and recognizing a high percentage of the spoken commands. You don't need to prerecord the commands nor the contact names from your phonebook, which is really convenient.