Nokia N91

Long have we wanted a do-it-all device to rid us of having to carry so much when we’re on the move. Two devices in particular that mobile phone handset manufacturers have been trying to crack is the integration of the mp3 player and the camera phone. Whilst most handsets on the market today are able to play mp3s, very few of them have the ability to store a large number of tracks.

Nokia have made a bold attempt at entering the hard drive mp3 player market by combining it with a phone to create the N91. As part of the N series of portable devices, the N91 supports the most common digital formats and methods of interactivity and multimedia as well as connectivity, exploring the vast range of options available in these areas, the N91 is perhaps the closest thing on the market today that is a do-it-all device.

Weighing in at 164 grammes, the N91 isn’t the most lightweight of handsets, however taking in to consideration that it has a 4GB mp3 player built in to it, this can be forgiven. Carrying this device in my trouser pocket did make it noticeable when walking as you could feel the weight dragging the pocket down, much different to the weight of my normal phone (SE K800i).

The N91 features 3G capabilities, a 262k colour screen, 4GB of internal memory on a 1.8-inch hard drive, DRM support, PIM software and runs on the Symbian Series 60 platform. As for audio codec support, the usual suspects are included in the spec with AAC, MP3, WAV, MIDI and WMA. Using the 3.5 mm audio jack you can plug in pretty much any sound output hardware you have whether it comes in the form of headphones to your high end home theatre system, using this jack ensures compatibility with pretty much any audio-in enabled device.

A 2 megapixel camera is integrated in to the back of the handset taking shots up to 1600 x 1200 in resolution with a 20x digital zoom. Basic camera modes that you will find in digital cameras these days come along the lines of burst shooting modes, self-timer, night mode and image brightness adjustment, nothing out of the ordinary.

Inside the handset you get the 3G capabilities and WiFi 802.11b/g connectivity. These are used mainly for e-mail access or web browsing with the Series 60 browser you can browse through full web-pages. Bluetooth is handy for quick file transfers of small files and is compliant with the industry standards of interoperability between other Bluetooth-enabled devices.

USB 2.0 connectivity comes in the form of a mini USB jack that works as a Plug and Play device that will work on the Windows and Mac platform. Simply drag and drop your tracks when it appears as a USB storage device on your machine and you can send across your music tracks.

I would be lying through my teeth if I said that this handset was small and lightweight. It’s not got any of those two characteristics attached to its name. What it does have is some sex appeal with its ‘blingin’ chrome materials that will blind anyone on a sunny day.

The sliding keypad and curvy design fits well in the hand despite its size and with it having a weighty design it does feel very solid to the touch.

In the box you do get the desktop charging stand but for some reason they didn’t think to make it a USB dock as well. This could have been done had they of put the USB port on the bottom allowing for a connection to be made whilst docked, however they’ve decided to put it on the left hand side of the device, using the same USB cable that ships with many digital cameras.

With an unprecedented 4GB of internal memory built straight in to this device, you can forget about those memory cards. Good thing too since the N91 doesn’t have a memory card slot anyway. What it does have is a massive storage device built in to the handset that could essentially replace your mp3 player and phone at the same time.

The great thing about the headphone jack at the top is it’s a straightforward 3.5 mm plug-in that can be used with virtually any headphone set that you have. The package includes a set of headphones that also act as your handsfree kit as well with mp3 playback functions built in to a small in-line remote.

I did find file transfer speeds to be a tad slow despite it using a USB connection, I’m guessing it was only travelling at USB 1 speeds, because it was certainly no match for the speed of my iPod for data transfer. After the file transfer had completed and disconnected, I expected to find the files straight away in my music player but I had to actually initiate the search function for it to add the tracks to its album list, making for a somewhat awkward experience that isn’t quite as seamless as other music devices available on the market.

WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity come as standard on the N91 and it’s becoming a common feature in the N series handsets from Nokia. The WiFi capabilities are probably the most interesting aspects of the N91 since not many devices as I write this currently have this feature.

My experience in setting up the WiFi connection using the S60 software wasn’t as intuitive or pleasant as I would hoped it to be. The menu system was pretty awful to get around and there were just too many settings than were necessary just to get the connection up and running.

If you do manage to find out what the settings you need are then it’s pretty straightforward thereon because it does save a profile for each wireless network you connect to, it’s the initial set up that is rather laborious by design.

The tiny backlit buttons on the concealed keypad were a bit too small for frequent and fast texting. For dialling numbers and writing short message it was needless to say, very easy. Typing gets more difficult the longer you spend using it as you start to hit the wrong keys and I don’t have especially large fingers either. Layout of the handset itself is partly to blame for this as I’m sure with the size of the entire handset would have accommodated for a larger and more comfortable to tap on keypad. These keys look and feel like they’ve been taken out of the old Nokia 8890, and although they look great they just lack the appropriate size and functionality that this handset design requires. I would tell them to go back to the drawing board on this one.

I was very disappointed with the battery life since it barely lasted a couple of days, despite the promise of a weeks worth of standby time. Even with minimal calling or music playback, I would be on the last bar of battery by the end of a second day. If I do actually make use of the handset features, then by the afternoon of the second day, I would be reaching for the charger.

The hard drive is the culprit behind this drawback and renders the mp3 playback functionality pretty useless unless you don’t expect to make or receive any calls. I tested how long continuous playback would get me without it being disturbed from a full charge and I managed to squeeze out 8.5 hours, not that far from the quoted figure of 10 hours.

Personally I think it’s a stylish phone that could shed a few millimetres from all dimensions. I’ve been criticised and attacked for being seen with the N91, which naturally doesn’t represent a pleasant experience but I gave it a chance and I always defended it by telling people it had a 4GB hard drive inside of it, so it’s excusable. Or is it?

I believe Nokia were trying to start a revolution with this device, but it turns out that it didn’t take the world by storm. It’s no iPod contender that’s for sure, it’s not reached that simplicity yet and maybe it never will. The iPod is so successful because the design and its operation is so simple. It knows what it is and it knows what it can do and it does them very well. I think the N91 it’s trying to be too many things and certain compromises have been made to fit that all in, which has resulted in a cumbersome device that has every possible function shoe-horned in to it.

What the N91 does represent is a potentially exciting prospect of a new future for Nokia. This is the first wave of hard drive devices and I have no doubt that it won’t be the last. With the advent of larger flash storage drives, Nokia would be wise to use this medium of storage in future to increase performance and battery life as well as shave of a few grammes and millimetres from its design.

2007-04-30 Onwah Tsang

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