Time to replace my Nokia N95?

For the past 18 months my day-to-day mobile phone has been a Nokia N95. When I bought the phone it was the top-of-the-line device from Nokia and while I’ve generally been happy with the phone, it’s showing its age and I’m looking at alternatives.

The Series 60 user interface of the N95, once the cat’s pajamas of mobile UI, seems needlessly complicated and clunky now that we’re in a touch-screen world. While I was once happy to put up with bugs and irregularities because the device was “bleeding edge,” things like the address book crashing once in a while, are increasingly frustrating. And when a recent firmware upgrade — the first in over a year — ended up introducing more bugs and irregularities (like the need for a hardware reset when trying to access a just-out-of-range WLAN), my frustrations only increased.

I feel like the N95 has been abandoned by Nokia, and thus I feel abandoned as a customer by Nokia, so I’m thus much less inclined to look at things like the Nokia N97, which has replaced the N95 as Nokia’s top-end phone.

By way of sussing out the alternatives I’ve been carrying my iPod Touch, as a stand-in for an iPhone, in my other pocket every day, and using it to run the sort of mobile applications I’d otherwise run on the N95. So instead of Profimail I’m using the built-in iPod mail client, instead of Gravity I’m running Tweetie, instead of Nokia Podcasting (that stopped working completed after the firmware “upgrade”) I’m using iTunes (or at least half-using it, as the mobile iTunes doesn’t support over-the-air subscriptions), and instead Nokia’s built-in web browser (never a joy), I’m using Mobile Safari.

I’ve also added in some applications that aren’t available on the N95 at all: Instapaper, Stanza and Byline for reading, and OffMaps and Google Earth for mapping.

After a few weeks of experimenting this way, here’s where I’m at:

  • The most maddening aspect of the N95 has always been it’s wifi-handling (or rather mishandling). The notion that I need to select an “access point” for every application I start, even if I’m already online with another application, is clunky and somewhat bizarre. While there are, in theory, add-ons like Devicescape that make this process easier has never really panned out for me: while they make logging in to secure access points easier, they don’t solve the underlying issues. The iPod Touch, by contrast, handles wifi brilliantly: you turn it on, and it works across all applications, and auto-connects to access points you’ve used before. The only downside is that if you leave wifi connected on an iPod Touch overnight it’s likely that its battery will be dead by morning. +1 for Apple.
  • I’m not convinced that the “screens of scattered icons” user interface used by the iPod Touch and the iPhone is best for me: I get confused by which application is which, and all applications being “equal” but for their icon position and design doesn’t offer enough for my brain to quickly be able to pick out what I need. That there is a Music application to listen to music and an iTunes application to buy music and download podcasts only makes this doubly confusing, given that it’s the iTunes application on my laptop that does both. While the N95 uses a similar approach, it at least supports folders of application so I can apply some hierarchy to the organization. +1 for Nokia.
  • The iPod Touch has two buttons: an on/off button on the top, and a single round button under the touch screen. By contrast the N95, in addition to the numeric keypad, has 14 buttons (I had to count), and while my fingers have become accustomed to their functions by now, there’s a steep learning curve, and something I’m still not sure which button I’m supposed to press. +1 for Apple.
  • Enforcing user interface guidelines is something Nokia has never particularly excelled at: even with applications the Nokia itself creates there are a seemingly endless number of user interface toolkits in rotation, and an application like Nokia Sports Tracker looks and feels completely different from something like Nokia Internet Radio. There’s more UI unity on the iPod Touch, but in a way this only makes things more maddening when inconsistencies appear: there are two different ways of “deleting items on a list of things,” for example: in the Mail application it’s “Edit, Select, Select, Select, Delete” whereas in Instapaper it’s “Edit, Select, Delete, Select, Delete.” Draw.
  • When it comes to syncing my calendar and contacts, it’s a draw: both the N95 and the iPod work well with iCal and Address Book on my Mac via iSync and iTunes. Similarly, Nokia Multimedia Transfer does a good job at handling photo and music syncing with iPhoto and iTunes. Draw.
  • The iPod Touch doesn’t have a camera, so I don’t have anything to contrast to. The camera on the N95 has always been a standout feature for me: it’s takes nice 5 megapixel images, has a very solid macro mode, and the onboard photo management and editing capabilities have always been enough for my needs. Setting as the occasional need to reformat the internal memory card to prevent videos from stuttering, the video camera in the N95 is similarly nice, and it’s nice that I can shoot videos like this with a camera that fits in my pockets. +1 for Nokia, but perhaps the iPhone will work just as well?
  • While it’s hard to argue with the ease-of-use of Apple’s App Store for finding and installing applications — it makes Nokia’s Ovi Store seem like a Commodore 64 application — the notion of there being a single conduit through which applications must flow to the device is anathema to me. That said, while the N95 is, in theory, more “open” to applications — I can install apps from any source, either over the air or from my PC via Bluetooth or USB cable — the inane Symbian Signed process that requires all applications to be digitally signed to be able to access capabilities of the device has always been a significant barrier, especially for open source applications. It’s great, for example, that Nokia released Python for the N95, less great that you need to use the complicated signing process to really take advantage of it (which effectively nullifies the notion of distributing Python apps for the N95 to a broader audience). +1 for Nokia, with a footnote.
  • I bought my N95 factory unlocked, meaning that I can use it with any carrier simply by swapping in a new SIM card. This is a big deal for me when I travel: it means I don’t have to pay exorbitant international roaming fees and can, instead, purchase a low-cost prepaid SIM card for whatever country I happen to be visiting. The iPhone, by contrast, is locked, here in Canada, to the Rogers network (although in theory it can be “jailbroken” to unlock it). +1 for Nokia.

It’s those last two points – the notion that having an iPhone locks me to Apple for my applications and to Rogers for my service – that are particularly distasteful to me, and that, in fact, might be iPhone deal-breakers. My next move is to consider the Palm Per (presumably suffering from a similar locked-to-Bell problem), or one of the Google/Android phone. Or maybe I should just give up this mobility silliness and go phone free?


Jeff Smith's picture
Jeff Smith on July 31, 2009 - 18:12

I recommend the iPhone to everyone that asks me about it. Before I had an iPhone, I had never owned a smart phone so I really didn’t have anything to compare it to. I had always just stuck with very simple phones that did the phone thing well.

I think with the release of the iPhone 3GS, you may find that the camera in the iPhone would be a suitable replacement for the camera capabilities in your N95, though you’d be giving up a megapixel or two in switching to the iPhone.

I honestly couldn’t live without an iPhone now I don’t think, having owned an unlocked original iPhone (which my wife now uses) and now an iPhone 3G. It’s great freedom to be able to go on vacation, or even out of town for a few days and not feel the need to bring a laptop with me since I’m able to keep on top of most things work-related on the iPhone.

I’ve not had any complaints about the Rogers network, but living in Alberta, 3G access is a lot more prevalent than in PEI. I was on PEI visiting for about 3 weeks this summer and noticed somewhat spotty 3G connectivity in the Charlottetown area, but oddly enough at my sister’s house in Milton, I had a strong 5-bar 3G signal. Once outside the Charlottetown area though, you drop down to Edge really quickly, and at some points of the Island I had trouble getting a connection at all, where Aliant/Bell phones had no trouble connecting (in Gaspereaux at a friend’s home for example).

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on July 31, 2009 - 18:16

I’ve been considering the same things as my trusty old “dumb-phone” gets up in years. I’ve ruled out Apple for the “you can only install applications that we approve” issue (how come people aren’t up in arms over that?!).

I’ve tried the Palm Pre UI via the emulator that ships with the developer kit, and was *very* impressed. If made even the desktop interfaces on recent mac and linux machines seem old, cluttered, slow, and inconsistent. That said, so far, Palm doesn’t make it easy to install non-Palm approve apps either. I do expect they’ll change tack on this to differentiate themselves from Apple, but that’s based on nothing but ill-informed speculation.

That leaves the Android devices. The comprehensive Engadget review of the HTC Hero isn’t particularly flattering, but it seems that we’re 6 to 12 months away from dozens of more hardware options for Android. I expect the software will continue to improve in the mean time as well.

I’m going to try to wait for better Android hardware, or more open software policies from Palm.

Dustin's picture
Dustin on July 31, 2009 - 18:22

Be a man and get a Blackberry.

Roland Tanglao's picture
Roland Tanglao on July 31, 2009 - 19:08

for me and my mobile and photo and shozu obssesions :-), the ideal config would be 2 sims and 2 phones but i can’t afford that! I’ll stick with my N82 and iPhone 3G for now!

if i could i’d do this: i) N86 8MP NAM ii) iphone 3GS

I doubt that helps but oh well!

David Richardson's picture
David Richardson on July 31, 2009 - 22:39

I’m not convinced that the “screens of scattered icons” user interface used by the iPod Touch and the iPhone is best for me: I get confused by which application is which, and all applications being “equal” but for their icon position and design doesn’t offer enough for my brain to quickly be able to pick out what I need.

Evidence shows that such mental exercise is an important part of keeping the brain healthy as we age ;-)

More seriously, the iPhone is a handheld computer that just happens to include a phone. Everything else is a generation behind — and unlikely to catch up. If your desktop computer has neon lights and cables that flash in sync with the hard disk, you won’t be happy with the iPhone though. Everyone else just lives with it and enjoys the package, minor warts and all.

Pat Garrity's picture
Pat Garrity on August 1, 2009 - 00:42

Phone free is the way to be!

Clark's picture
Clark on August 1, 2009 - 01:00

I have a Nokia partially as a result of reading all the cool things you were doing with yours. It is without a doubt the most maddening device I have ever used. A dizzying array of impressive features coupled with a disastrous UI and hardware controls that sometimes work. At the high-end Nokia feels dead.

I really appreciate HTC’s work but from my experience the iPhone is still the device that ‘works’. Unfortunately, in Asia we get little love from the Apple store but there is still more software available than I have time to be interested in. The iPhone 3GS introduction has been delayed here but I will be ordering one as soon as they are available.

Mike van der Gaag's picture
Mike van der Gaag on August 1, 2009 - 05:53

Personally, I have been an iPhone user for 6 months now, and I love it.
I am a heavy email user, as it goes with the business that I am in, and I find that my iPhone helps me tremendously with all my tasks.

HOWEVER…if I was from any other country other then Canada, I would say to go with any other phone to avoid contracts….but the fact that as a Canada, we are locked by a GSM monopoly, ruled by Rogers…This is not going to change, so I have no problems signing a contract with a company that I will have to use anyways…as long as I reside here (and I will be, because unless someone can help me airlift my Inn, I’m not going anywhere!)

Personally, I don’t think webOS is going to make a dent in the market, and I fear that Android has not been marketed properly (it’s pretty powerful though!) I always tend to go with the product that has the most development…and so far, that has been the iPhone and its successful Appstore….but I fear the Appstore’s future with the bullying and restrictions of particular apps on Apple’s part…so, we will see where that goes.

Paul's picture
Paul on August 5, 2009 - 15:25

I’ve always hated mobile phones and thought blackberry phones where perhaps the stupidest looking things in the entire world next to the “Razor”. Then Apple came out with the iPhone and being the Mac whore I am, immediately devised a plan to get one. That sweet day finally came in December 2008 and since then I’m never strayed far from it. It’s literally the swiss army knife of mobile devices. I mean I use the alarm clock, the pedometer, the ipod, I can tweet with it while sitting on the toilet, I connect it to the TV to watch movies, I check the tide before hitting the beach (currently at high tide right now as I type — 2.4 m in Charlottetown) and of course the list goes on and on. And as with most Macs there are endless ways to break and customize if you do a little research. Despite what others may say, the iPhone really does work and simplifies a heck of a lot of things.

Rosetta Hays's picture
Rosetta Hays on August 6, 2009 - 04:01

Since no one has mentioned it, I thought I’d mention the Neo Freerunner as a possible alternative. If you don’t know already, it’s probably the closest you can get to an “open” phone. I don’t have one, but have followed the Openmoko Community mailing list. From reading it, I’ve gathered that all the distributions for the Freerunner still have some shortcomings compared to other smartphones, and some get frustrated with trying to use the phone on a daily basis, but knowing that you stand a chance of fixing whatever bugs you may discover could make up for the shortcomings.

Jeff Smith's picture
Jeff Smith on August 6, 2009 - 17:33

I would say to go with any other phone to avoid contracts….but the fact that as a Canada, we are locked by a GSM monopoly, ruled by Rogers…This is not going to change, so I have no problems signing a contract with a company that I will have to use anyways…

Bell and Telus are actually in the process of rolling out their own GSM network, so it shouldn’t be long before we’ll have a bit of a choice when it comes to 3G providers. It’s also possible to purchase an iPhone from Rogers contract-free. Mind you it carries a fairly significant price tag with it ($699 sticks out in my head for some reason).

One other bonus of the iPhone I failed to mention was internet tethering (which I know is available with a number of different handhelds). It’s been invaluable to me while travelling and not within range of free wifi.

Chuck's picture
Chuck on August 6, 2009 - 21:05

Some of the iPhone fanboy comments remind me of the old Maddox piece on one thing PC users can do that Mac users can’t (language warning).

I’ve been a Palm user for a long time, so I’d like to try a Pre but like Peter, I’m not prepared to enter a walled garden whether of Apple’s or Palm’s design. The original Palm’s open platform was what made it the runaway success of its day. Let’s hope Palm hasn’t forgotten the lesson.

Chuck's picture
Chuck on August 22, 2009 - 23:51

Peter, you probably saw this on Slashdot, but the new Nokia N900 might be worth waiting for. Herewith, a tech summary for geeks, from the Slashdot post:

MAP3 CPU/GPU, 3,5” 800x480 touchscreen, keyboard, Wi-Fi, HSPA, GPS; 5-MP camera, CZ lens, 32 GB storage, SD slot; X11, VT100 terminal emulator, APT package manager. Estimated price without credit: $780 (N.5800: $390, iPhone 3GS: $750). Developers should note that even though the current desktop is still GTK+, Qt will be standard across all Nokia platforms in the near future.
Barry Shell's picture
Barry Shell on August 25, 2009 - 19:39

Peter, please contact me. I’d love to talk to you about so many things. My advice here is get an iPhone. They are really great. So much better than the iPod Touch. The key is to bargain for a superb deal. I have a deal with Fido where I pay $52.50/mo (plus tax) and get adequate data and enough phone time to satisfy. I have learned how to bargain for a better deal with these guys. There is much online about this. e.g. http://www.howardforums.com/sh… Make sure to phone this number, not the normal Fido number: 1-888-259-3436. Having a modern 3GS iPhone these days is as close as you are going to get to a Star Trek tricorder. It is unbelievable what these things can do. I had Nokia before, too, but there is absolutely no comparison.

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