The Nokia N96: Face the Task

If you buy a Nokia N96 you only have yourself to blame.

Before we go on, please note – if you are new to this site – understand that Nokias are my thing.

Resident expert if you will.

This is my opinion and I give it freely to you, the lovely readers of Mobile Industry Review.

So, in advance – thanks for reading…

If you’re not new to the site, if you’re a regular reader in fact – you’ll know that Whatley Wednesday has been on a bit of a hiatus of late – my creative output instead being poured into The MIR Show.

This has changed.

The Nokia N96 has frustrated me so much that I really had no choice but to put e-pen to e-paper and express my thoughts…

So again, in advance – thanks for reading…

Now, to business:

This is not a review. Don’t expect in-depth looks at the camera abilities – like they matter these days?
This is more of a public service announcement.

Some of you may have already seen the online marketing around the Nokia N96. ‘Face the task‘ is the name of the game and trials like geo-tagging photos, uploading videos, consuming media etc… are the challenges laid out before you.

Never before has a Nokia campaign been so completely on the money.


Using the Nokia N96 has to be THE MOST challenging experience of my entire life. Forget The Crystal Maze. Cast aside the Krypton Factor. If you want a true test of mental strength and stamina then I urge you to go out and purchase this handset at once.

Yes. It’s actually that bad.

You guys know me right?

You know how much of a Nokia fiend I really am right? I currently rock an N95 and an E71 as my two main handsets with various others just kicking around as spares.

Last month I even went to Finland to present to them my thoughts on Social Media.

Of Nokia – You could say: I am a fan.

So when I say to you that the Nokia N96 is quite possibly the worst attempt at a handset ever to come out of Helsinki you know that they really, really must’ve done something wrong.
Well yeah, they did.

They made the N96.

This device is not new to me. It was first announced way back in February this year at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Yes, that’s right – a full 8 months ago. EIGHT MONTHS.

In EIGHT MONTHS I reckon you could probably get fairly proficient in a new language, such as French, Spanish or even C++… EIGHT MONTHS is also the gestation period of a deer.

That’s right, NEW LIFE CAN BE MADE in the time that this phone has taken to finally hit our shelves. You’d THINK that Nokia would’ve done something in that time about addressing some of the issues that plague this debacle of a handset…

But no.

Instead, in that time we’ve seen the N85 and N79 announced, (both of which are sufficiently sexier than the N96), Nokia’s first touch-screen device the 5800 (aka ‘the Tube’) was finally revealed and on top of that – we’ve also seen the launch of possibly one their best ergonomically designed devices yet, the E71.

But this is not some massive Nokia love in. Not by any stretch. Oh no. Also, in this time we’ve seen the launch of the iPhone 3G and also the recently announced built by geeks, for geeks – the T-Mobile G-1.

It is worth noting at this point that Nokia are not a reactive corporation. No Sirree Bob.

But you’d think after the poor reception that the N96 received in Barcelona, (Christ, I was more excited about the Nokia 6220 – which, for the record, I’d recommend over the N96 any day), they would’ve given the thing an overhaul of some kind. The N95 8GB for instance is just enough of a re-mix on the N95-1 to warrant an upgrade. The N96, while not strictly the N95’s successor, learnt nothing from this lesson.

Since Barcelona I’ve had my hands on this device a number of times – once at a WOM World meet up, where the Product Manager for the N78 (lovely chap named Tim) turned up with a couple on him, I distinctly remember remarking at the time that the screen was lovely and may play a large part in any purchasing decision I might make…

And then again at a Future of Mobile dinner earlier this year (where I recorded and uploaded the following Global Race comparison video).

So far, SO unimpressed.

Regular viewers of the MIR Show will recall a few weeks back when I dialled in to video call my segment over the phone I mentioned that I was indeed waiting for an N96 to arrive from those kind folk at WOM.

Well, late last week, it arrived.

I opened it Friday afternoon, filled it with Whatley Goodness (i.e.: My apps of choice, MP3s, bookmarks etc) and then charged it overnight… Saturday morning I thought I’d take it out for a test drive and upon turning it on I was greeted by a glorious screen.
The N96 does well here. You can’t help but gaze at the amazing Technicolor Loveliness
The first thing I did when I popped my SIM card in? Checked the firmware. V10. Hmm.

I was fairly sure that there was a more recent update, so I checked – Yup, there is. V11 available for download.

Fantastic. Straight out of the box and already it needs an update. The good news is the N96 (along with the N78) supports OTA updates, powered by the awesome people at Red Bend (we met them at the Symbian Smartphone show and they deserve their own write up, Ben? Dan?), and the firmware downloaded and installed perfectly.

Good work Red Bend.

Bad form Nokia – this phone has been out less than a month! How many consumers are going to know about this option without PUSH updates?!

Christ! You’ve SEEN ‘Walking with Normobs’ right? There are STILL people out there with N95s on VERSION TEN FIRMWARE which shouldn’t have ever seen the light of day! BUGGY?! MUCH?!

…and breathe Whatley…

Let’s move on…

Now, the more cognizant amongst you may remember that just 11mths ago I reviewed the Nokia N81 8GB for Mobile Industry Review. If you recall – I wasn’t a fan of that handset.
The look and feel was poor and plastic, the industrial design suffered from poorly placed buttons and the newly implemented ‘key-lock’ switch kept getting stuck.
Take a look at the N81 8GB.

Nokia N81 8GB

Now scroll back up and take a look at the N96.
Spot the similarities?

I can happily report that ALL of the problems I reported on the N81 8GB BACK IN NOVEMBER 2007 are ALL present in the ‘new’ N96.


The thing about the buttons – If I place my thumb over the right side of the top keypad, I can cover six, (count ’em) buttons. Six of them.

This is not really so much of a problem on the N95 8GB for instance where the buttons are raised and you can feel the difference between each one without really having to look at what you’re doing but on this handset – the N96 – the keys are flat next to each other, or ‘flush’ as I believe the design is notionally referred to as.

This is NOT GOOD.

Let’s go back to the N81 criticisms for the second of my main bug bears:

“The ‘c’ button is right next to the ‘play/pause’ music button. AARGH! Sorry. I say ‘right next to’ I mean ‘may as well be the same button@.

That’s right – a negative button right next to a positive button. By pushing the button that I want to stop doing something I accidentally push the button that starts doing something.

In this instance Kate Nash starts blaring out at me whenever I try and correct a misspelt SMS!”

Same. Here… and although my music tastes have changed somewhat since this time last year, the result was the same – it happened again.

Again and again and again… Through the the ONE DAY OF TESTING that I gave to this shoddy piece of workmanship I actually lost count of the amount of times I hit ‘pause/play’ when trying to hit ‘c’.

Oh yes, that’s right: ‘One day of testing…’ – I challenge ANYONE to try and use the N96 for a longer period than this without feeling ANY frustrations whatsoever.

Seriously – this has to be the worse handset I have ever had the misfortune to have in my possession.

Parking the buttons to one side for a moment, I mentioned just now that I tested the handset for a day.

This is not strictly true. I actually tested this handset from 8am through to 1pm where upon the ridiculously short, iPhone 3G-esque battery life gave up on me.

Why the short life span?

Well, Nokia – in their infinite wisdom – having learnt their lesson with the low power levels of the BL-5F battery in the N95-1 (giving it a much needed upgrade to the BL-6F in the N95 8GB), have decided to throw this innovation completely out of the window have seen it fit to equip the N96 with the very same BL-5F from the N95-1 stating ‘power saving software upgrades’ as the reason for this apparent downgrade.

One morning of relatively hardcore use – Music Player, Browser, Mobbler etc… and whoof.. Battery, dead.

“Steaming pile of rubbishness” doesn’t quite cut it really. This phone is abysmal.

Dreadful even.

So what, if anything has the phone got going for it?

Er… BBC iPlayer? Woo!

Had that on my N95 for a fortnight now… nothing new here. 16GB of onboard memory with an expandable option for a MicroSD card? That’s pretty cool. I could do with more memory…

However, WHAT IS THE POINT of carrying around (up to) 32GBs of MP3s if the battery won’t last the day?!

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

…oh and it has a kick-stand on the back too, so you can have a better view of that ominous ‘battery low’ sign when you’re attempting to use the phone for anything more than 5hrs at a time…

You may or not know that I am an active micro-blogger – both on Jaiku and on Twitter, and since Saturday I have vented my ‘distaste’ shall we say, for this device.

Free mobile advice is my thing – and I love helping people with their purchasing decisions. The N96 is no exception to this rule – I have already sent out four emails to various online folk telling them excatly why this is not the device for them and I will give you, dear readers, the same advice I gave them:

If you’re looking for an upgrade to your current handset and you’re giving serious thought to the N96. Go, get one.


Because when you take it back to the shop complaining of just how hideously unusable this appalling excuse for a mobile phone is, you’ll want to be damn sure you’re able to exchange it.

I’d recommend a Nokia N95 8GB. Better battery life, better design, infinitely more stable software and above all, it’s NOT the N96.

However, if you already have an N95 8GB. Nice one. Good work.

It’s what I use and even though I am well into my upgrade period, it is not going anywhere.

As I said at the start of this post:

“Buy a Nokia N96 and you only have yourself to blame.” – and I mean every.. single.. word.

Here endeth the lesson.

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Author: James Whatley

Chief Strategy Officer in adland. I got ❤️ for writing, gaming, and figuring stuff out. I'm @whatleydude pretty much everywhere that matters. Nice to meet you x

77 thoughts on “The Nokia N96: Face the Task”

  1. From an N73 to an N96 (is a NXX or an NXX? an sounds better but I'm sure is wrong – anyway) is a quantum leap (though they don't always succeed – see sinclair QL).

    I think the big issue is that the N96 is a rehash of the n95 8 gig and really has little to offer over that phone.
    and with its immature firmware is considered a step back – it's hardware video and audio chips do boost its power handling and quality.

  2. “However, there has still been a genuine whiff of anticipation surrounding the N96 and, now that it is in our paws, there’s an element of relief that it justifies the hype.”

    So says

    How could two august mobile sites disagree so dramatically?

    Cat/pigeons ratio adjusted.


  3. No you're right – it's a N96 not an N96. I write how I speak sometimes.

    In eight months time{!) when the firmware's been updated and mine stops crashing I'll be a happy man I reckon.

  4. also nokia have to bring out new products – they can't keep shifting N95s for ever – motorola tried that with the razr! 🙂

    mind you i do think at times they try to release too many handsets. 125 current models on sale at!!

    also innovation has been redirected to the upcoming 5th edition phones. So basically expect more soon.

  5. I don't know very well, but am sure they are fine, upstanding bloggers who smell fresh, kiss babies and help large numbers of old ladies across roads. However, James doesn't so it gave him more time to actually use the device and formulate a considered view.

  6. Despite all of the above… I still want one. No idea why, hopefully will get the chance to play with Whatley's one this afternoon. Hopefully by the time my contract is up – the software bugs will be ironed out and it will be more like the phone the N95 is now. We'll see.

  7. The truly bizzare thing is, the N96 costs the carrier roughly the same as an iPhone 3G. Around $500.

    We know the iPhone drives a heroic amount of usage and commensurate data add-on revenue.

    You can get an N96 free on a cheap tariff, whereas the iPhone costs a fortune.

    Once iPhone exclusivity ends, just what do you think the other MNO's will want to offer?

    Screwed up industry. Go figure.


  8. You sure you had an N96? I've found it to be infinitely more responsive than my old n95 and especially n95 8gb, everything just works… Much faster, too.

  9. yes the latest N95 firmware runs rings around the N96 in terms of interface speed
    and general responsiveness.

    trouble with N95 is updating it is a latent and complex process
    often delayed massively by operator nonsence
    and requiring 'advance' user skills and pc suite

    being someone that only has mac's its i have to install pc suite and borrow
    a pc to update mine.

  10. One of your most endearing feature Rafe is that you can an nearly alway do find something good in even the most horrible handsets!

    Whay amazes me is that the major networks are managing to sell reasonably large numbers of these (based largely on the superlative reputation of the N95)!

  11. james – I do try my best 🙂

    Joking aside I still think there's a place for this, but, as you say, then I say that about all phones. The trick of a good phone is making that appeal as broad as possible.

    It does seem to be selling quite well. If you do believe its horrible, this rather suggests how good a handset is (from a technical point of view) is only one factor in the selling equation. I guess you could hold up the RAZR as the ultimate example this (especially in the latter part of its lifecycle). I also think that's the point of Nokia's whole ultra-segmentation strategy.

  12. I've got an N96 on Three.

    They released the updated the firmware last week (through the Nokia Software Updater). Battery life has improved from bad to not great. (It's gone from 1 day to 2 (maybe 3) days.

    It's still quite slow. I'll see if it looks like Three will release updates in the future that would help. If not, I'll consider debranding.

    I don't mind the 1-9 keys. I'm sorry, I just don't. (I can easily believe they could be better, but I *certainly* don't hate them.) I don't ever remember accidentally hitting the delete (C) button.

    One gripe I have is that when in NGage mode, I think the phone is upside down.

  13. I've got an N96 on Three.

    They released the updated the firmware last week (through the Nokia Software Updater). Battery life has improved from bad to not great. (It's gone from 1 day to 2 (maybe 3) days.

    It's still quite slow. I'll see if it looks like Three will release updates in the future that would help. If not, I'll consider debranding.

    I don't mind the 1-9 keys. I'm sorry, I just don't. (I can easily believe they could be better, but I *certainly* don't hate them.) I don't ever remember accidentally hitting the delete (C) button.

    One gripe I have is that when in NGage mode, I think the phone is upside down.

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