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.

Last updated by at .

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. Wow.

    Will this be seen as Nokia's nadir? Will this be the 'low high point', where never before has such a capable device been wrapped up so poorly?

    Will James be appointed Nokia's new Director of Common Sense and VP in charge of Fixing The Bloody Obvious?

    Time will tell…

  2. I knew something was up when I saw a Vodafone branded N96 for sale 'nearly new' in CEX in the same week the handset came out. I've never understood when phones with such obvious flaws are released. Give it six months and it'll probably be worth buying – firmware fixes and all that.

  3. pull no punches. good one.

    since you give free advice…

    I have N95 8GB as my main phone, but i need to get back to a qwerty. I tried BB Bold… lots to like, but ultimately not for me. How do you rate E71?

  4. “EIGHT MONTHS is also the gestation period of a deer”

    Brilliiant! Fact-a-licious.

    Actually, wait… back off… that's my thing 😉

    Cue Dan: 'Fascinating'

  5. whist i roughly agree with it all – im not so damming – i love the design – but agree it feels like a delicate flower (the screen scratched after 2 days of total loving care) compared to the N95 which is effectively bomb proof. and the sixteen – count em – buttons on the front panel is overkill.

    I lasted 2 weeks with mine – the main reason for return was the fact that it refused to update. It was a sim free device and its product code seems to be off the radar for updates so was stuck on constant crashing v10.

    yes i could of changed the product code with nss and updated – but this was a brand new 549 flagship! so it went back to finland via regents street.

    ive just checked it and theres still no update over a month later….

    Latest available software for Nokia N96, product code 0573063
    Version: 10.065

    Compare numbers
    If this version is greater than your current software version, update now to get the latest features, applications and improvements. Go to Nokia Software Updater download

    I did like the keypad ALOT.
    I didn't like the covered in finger prints so produced soft focus coverless camera lens
    is that a problem with the N95 8gb? that has a recess on the lens plastic though to help?

    I find it hard to recommend the N85 over it though. i think were in a period of waiting for the next big thing with nokia – its sad that my most wanted nokias are an E series (71) and a normob music phone (5800).


  6. Whatley duuuude – dont sit on the fence, tell us what you really think, i hate it when you skirt around issues.

    At least with the poor battery life you wont be able to twitter in meetings when you are meant to be taking notice of people in the meeting xx

  7. sorry James i didnt manage to work out…. dont you like the N96 then? LOL!!!. I knew you were not a fan when we spoke a little while back so i guess this post you made only backs that up with the fact you hate it even more now.

    I agree the phone had 8 months of testing and updates internally and it still has bugs on it. I got 1 as my upgrade from work but sold it on ready to buy a 5800….. shame it got delayed cause i was going to get one November but will be Q1 now.

    Next on my list will be the BB Storm to use and pair with the 5800 when it comes with music 🙂

  8. Thanks for the clarity and honesty WD. Currently considering an upgrade from n95-1. Looks like N95 8gb or a wait for the N85 then for me?

  9. N85 is out now – sim free – or with contract form non-operators.
    im not sure how many operators will pick up the N85 – i feel it will get short changed alike all the other N8x series. operators dont know how to push two high end phones from the same company – esp as the N95 a solid seller is still for sale.

  10. I um'd an ah'd about an N95 8GB for *AGES* and only really made the jump when I broke my original and VF UK only had the 8GBs as a replacement… I've never looked back.

    Take a serious look at the E71 if you want to upgrade now, or else – it's the waiting game for you Sir.

    (but Mac makes a good point on the E71 camera – it does suck)

  11. “Mainly agree on button placement, but you get use to it – the numeric keypad is much better on the N96 so it goes both ways.”

    *splutter* I thought the keypad was simply ***awful***. They are all completely flush! There is next to zero tactile feedback that your fingers are in the right place. The N95 keys are brilliant. No redesign was needed at all.

    In this day and age, consumers should not have to “get used to it” – it's not new, cool functionality they are being asked to get used to – it's a designer's inability to step the fluck away from the drawing board. If this exemplifies Nokia's strategy, then they are – as Hamish and Dougal put it – doomed.


  12. When I say get used to it I mean the same as getting use any new keyboard e.g. the d-pad on the N95 8GB for me. I do like having the music keys though… But yeah, on the N96, the c key is badly positioned (not as annoying as the end key on N78 imho).

    I don't think I'm the only one who likes the keypad – I think Mac commented on this above.

  13. yep i totally (heart) the flat shiny keypad – your finger slide across it like an Olympic ice skater heading for a round of 10s.
    you shouldn't need to look – and you can easily tell where your fingers are. c'mon its not rocket science theres only 3 keys per row. and theres the little ridge between rows.

  14. I'm talking about the numeric keys under the slide – you know, the ones that get used the most 😉

    This was what you said was 'much better'.

    100% of people who played with my N96 hated them. You gotta be on some serious Nokia Kool-Aid to think otherwise IMHO.


  15. Just had another play with one. Found a very annoying bug. You can't set a video to be a ringtone. Well – the UI says that you have, but when someone rings – it doesn't play.

    Perhaps this could be the target of our daily hate – rather than Russell Brand?

  16. Thanks for having the discussion around the N96. I think together, you and Rafe and the others here have created a well-balanced discussion.

    I was thinking of commenting, but both the post and Rafe's comment were wide enough that best leave you all to discuss it than for a corporate monkey like me to but in (I work for Nokia).

    I think, James, your issues are valid, and I think Rafe countered with a good point of the N96 really not necessarily being a big diff from the N95 (though in video and storage it does), but big for those who are not Nseries users.

  17. i am currently awaiting for the N85 to come to the americas with the adequate 3G bands.
    however, i keep hearing about hardware flaws on reviews and blogs i frequent.
    the flash is broken, the slider wobbles, to name a couple. what i'm i to do if these high end devices do not meet the expectation of someone spending 500+ usd for them?
    i am renewing my plan with at&t with the nokia 6650, i think i may have to keep this device until something really worthy of dropping big money on from Nokia comes out.
    i don't want to go back in time and get a hige N95 as stable and well built they may be. i want to go forward with Nokia. not be stuck in the limbo of uncertainty.
    like Mac said in his post, i would get an E series in a NY minute, if the camera was worth using for social media, but it is not.
    anyways, lets see what the 5800 will offer and see if this is going to be the new N73.

  18. With all due respect to Rafe and Charlie, I have to say that from the perspective of a North American who never sees any of the Nseries in the stores and only sees it out and about in the hands of early adopters who order unlocked Nseries online in various places (sorry, AT&T is not even carrying the N75 anymore), it seems to me that Nokia has lost its focus for the Nseries.

    Yes, I said it. Early on, it seemed the the N7x line was candybars for music, and the N8x was sliders or candybars for cameras & internet, and the N9x was experimental all around kick-bootay machines for camera/video/internet creation wow.

    The N96 does not hit any of the above. It is not experimental, it is not an evolution of camera/video/internet or creative wow. It may be an iteration of form factor (wetf that means) and video viewing, but the N9x have in the past been powerhouses of creation not consumption and viewing.

    The N96 as is does not present itself as even a conservative iteration, but possibly a consumerist devolution from the N95. Given the lack of focus and evolution, why not give it another name and stop teasing those of us who really do want to see the Nseries be evolutionary.

    Then there is that bit about North America… Please give us kick-bootay evolutionary machines to be proud of in the continent of apple fantois and crackberry addicts…

  19. “A lot slimmer”

    Dude, there's like a couple millimetres in it.. Really, it's negligible.
    The N96 actually has a larger footprint, taking up more room in my pocket than the N95 8GB.

  20. Balanced POV there dude and I know we've discussed this in the past.

    The only thing I'll mention is/pull you/Nokia up on (which I blatantly should've said in the original post) is the name of the damn thing…

    “The N96” – How many consumers/normobs will inadvertently assume that this is the next logical step up from the N95? The phone itself, IMO, lends itself more to the N81 – maybe even the N85… so an N8X number would've been more suitable.

    I can't help but think that ultimately, it will be your every day mobile phone user who will get burnt the most by this handset… by which time, with such determined and attractive competitors already on the scene, Nokia will genuinely lose part of it's loyal fanbase and moreover, brand advocacy.

    Just a complete of joined-up thinking.
    Or, and I really *really* hope that this isn't the case, Nokia knew they had a white elephant on it's hands and just slapped the 'N95+1' label on it hoping it would sell… But you'd have to be quite the cynic to place any weight in that… right?

  21. Don't look to the N85 for saving grace, out of the 5 guys i know who have them, 4 are unsaleable, dodgy sliders and rebooting problems, N96 is OK, just not such a big deal after the N95/8gb as Whately rightly states.

  22. I completely agree Mr Whatley, it's a step backwards, Nokia have focused on the wrong things with the N96 and worst of all it makes a mockery of their numbering system – higher numbers aren't better anymore. Flagship indeed.

  23. I am laughing and crying at this post. As a Nokia fan who also ran out and paid for the N96 immediately, I too am gutted. If I had wanted to be a beta customer, I would have liked to know first….big big FAIL from Nokia.

  24. Hey Becky, I saw your tweet earlier – who did you get your N96 with?

    Is it returnable? Maybe print this post and take it along for evidence… 😉

  25. Enjoyed reading that, i now know Im safe in the knowledge that Im not going crazy with this N96 i too have from WOM, it too came with V10, and was buggy as hell, I was impressed by the speed of the OTA update however, so too with the quality of the dual slider, and a few other things, which I will mention in my blog.

    I do agree with you James on many of your valid points regarding the hardware flaws in the N96, and cannot help thinking that the N96 was probably ready for launch back when the N95-2 was launched, and Nokia had no choice than to flog a dead horse because it was too late to go back.

    Do you have any contact details for the designers of the N96? I remember watching a couple of videos of the people responsible for the design, and build of it, there was a woman involved in the design if Im not mistaken too, not that it matters of course that a woman is designing a phone, but I would like to get some questions answered regarding all the flaws the N96 is crippled with.

    I don't hate the N96, don't get me wrong, and when you read my review (its ongoing/unpublished just yet), you will see that Im getting on with it quite well since upgrading its firmware, however, Im not a power user such as yourself, so battery life hasn't been an issue for me so far.

  26. Here's my $0.02 on the N96 from someone who works at Nokia, albeit at a division the mothership is selling off (Security Appliance division): it reminds me of the N95-1 when it was first released. Same basic firmware quality issues and same type of battery issues. After a couple of iterations of the firmware, though, the N95-1 is a pretty nice handset. They can't fix the hardware limitations–mostly memory–but I can certainly make use of the handset. I suspect we'll be saying the same thing about the N96.

    For me, there are three key things the N96 has over the N95 8GB: S60 3.2, 16 gigs internal memory + MicroSD slot, and USB 2.0 transfer speeds. Wish I had a NAM version of the N96, like I do the N95 8GB, but I've seen what 3G does to the battery life!

  27. I quite like my N96 now. Yes it definitely needs a firmware update (my goodness and I've complained) but for someone like me who came from an N73 to the N96 it's a good improvement.

    I do wish Nokia would improve the browser though – I've noticed no difference in the N96 from the two year old N73 – except for that crap browser map thing which got quickly turned off after discovering how frickin' annoying and pointless it is.

  28. James,
    I rarely post comments. I'm either too 'busy with the day job/don't care enough' most of the time.;-). However, you helped me decide on a new phone this summer and I got an E71 (rather than N95 etc), and you were fair and rational in the advice. Right now the E71 is just about the most fit for purpose tool I have ever had (barring the obvious!). SO glad I didn't wait for the N96 to arrive! Rock on!!

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