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Nokia N90 review
By Jørgen Sundgot, Tuesday 23 August 2005  E-mail story  Print story 
A 2-Megapixel camera and high-resolution display makes the Nokia N90 smartphone a compelling choice - at the expense of size and weight. A review by Jørgen Sundgot.
Nokia N90
All images
It's official: there's no tomorrow. Or at least that's what Nokia must have decided, given the pace at which the company is now churning out new smartphone models. The latest to enter the fray is the fully featured N90, which among other goodies boasts a 2 Megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and a best-of-breed high-resolution display that makes it a compelling choice for those inclined to document every moment of their life - if they don't mind lugging it around, that is.

And the next thing I knew, it bit me in the hand

At 112 x 51 x 24 mm and 173 g, the N90 is a behemoth of a smartphone - larger than all previous incarnations of the Series 60 platform from the Finnish manufacturer. The reason for its exuberant dimensions is simply a trade-off, however, as the clamshell device contains a 2 Megapixel digital camera equipped with swiveling Carl Zeiss optics and a built-in flash at the point of its hinge, and is also Nokia's first clamshell smartphone to include an external display.

Nokia N90
Enlarge
Of the 65K colour variety with a resolution of 128 x 128 pixels, it doesn't hold a candle to the internal display, yet handily shows the signal strength and remaining battery; a wallpaper; the time; caller ID; and lets users view incoming SMS messages. Furthermore, it also does a good job of doubling as a viewfinder for the built-in camera, providing an interface to the full imaging functionality available through manipulation of a five-way joystick and the N90's dedicated capture key.

Nokia N90
Enlarge
To activate this mode, users simply turn the lens in any direction away from its standby position and start snapping or recording immediately - a major advantage for when speed is of primary importance. The placement of the joystick, however, is clumsy at best when using the external screen as a viewfinder, and as such this mode is best used when shooting from the hip.

Pausing for a moment to look elsewhere on the outside of the N90, we find a proprietary Pop-port connector protected by a plastic insert that'll be lost faster than you can read this sentence, a hot-swappable RS-MMC card slot and - shockingly - a power input which isn't natively compatible with Nokia's standard chargers. Fortunately, a bundled conversion dongle alleviates this issue satisfactorily.

Open, sesame

Nokia N90
Enlarge
Moving to inside, we find the N90's glorious 2.1-inch internal display with a resolution of 352 x 416 pixels and 262K colour depth. A visual treat, if we've ever seen one, the screen boasts user-adjustable brightness levels ranging from murky to torch-like, and is deliciously sharp with single pixels near indistinguishable. What we found a bit odd, however, is the approximately 100-degree swivel radius of the screen half; we would have expected a full 180 degrees to allow for use of its internal display as a greatly improved viewfinder in closed mode.

Despite the drawback of its limited range, though, the hinge setup is decidedly sturdy, and the keypad is a joy to use with good tactile feedback - yet slightly too loud in the audible department. A five-way navipad and its surrounding array of buttons similarly offers excellent response, whilst the screen half of the clamshell also contains a pair of redundant buttons which kick into play when in landscape mode - more on this later. Due to the aforementioned lens, though, the N90 is a tad top heavy, but remains adequately ergonomic for the most part.

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With a mere 31 MB of memory under the hood, it's evident that the N90 is in dire need of additional storage - which is why the included 64 MB card is a nice touch. It's not the only way in which the N90 communicates with the world, however, as the handset also boasts tri-band GSM 900/1800/1900 MHz connectivity with GPRS and EDGE, as well as 3G in the shape of WCDMA 2100 MHz - and even CSD, HSCSD and Fax support for legacy-inclined souls.

Also in place is Bluetooth 1.2, with the N90 delivering stellar performance with regard to reception across the board. Audio quality, as per usual, also proved exceptional, as did speakerphone capabilities and video calls - the latter of which is also enhanced by the ability to quickly switch to and from vanity mode by means of a quick flick of the rotating lens.

Despite the improved resolution of its display, the N90 performs no slower in general use than previous Series 60 based smartphones, although it has yet to catch up to recent Windows Mobile entries. Battery life, however, is quite good with the N90 easily delivering a couple of days' use - pleasantly surprising, given its improved display.

Now why is it doing that?

Nokia N90
Enlarge
When Nokia chose to delay the shipment of the N90 by a couple of weeks, it was probably a wise choice. Being the Finnish manufacturer's first smartphone with an external display, several hang-ups were exhibited during our review period in where said display would partially freeze, retain missed call indicators or align itself horizontally as opposed to vertically - something potential buyers should be aware of.

Another first in the N90 is the 2 Megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, which snaps high-quality stills at a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels. The amount of settings available is impressive for a handset, with the ability to adjust exposure as a particular highlight along with good auto white balance and autofocus results. Further improving matters is a broad suite of image management applications along with support for PictBridge, as well as good video performance at QCIF resolution. Unfortunately, a hard shutter button and limited range Flash - 1.5 m, to be exact - proved to be limiting factors, but the overall impression is nevertheless good.

On the note of other software, we're a bit disappointed that using the screen in landscape mode is limited to a minimum of image-related applications - yet the software bundle is still quite good. As with previous high-end Series 60 smartphones, the Microsoft Office-compatible Quickpoint, Quicksheet and Quickword applications remain present, whereas the N90 also offers an Adobe Acrobat reader, the marvellous Opera browser, a Music player with support for AAC and MP3 files and Nokia's own LifeBlog software - the latter of which is finally coming into its own right due to the increase in image quality.

Although perhaps not the most business-oriented of smartphones, it should also be mentioned that Nokia has still failed to deliver satisfactory synchronization with the N90, be it local or over-the-air towards groupware solutions. Still, the improved e-mail application which now supports scheduling and the ability to synchronize multiple IMAP4 subfolders has us at least partially soothed.

Availability

The Nokia N90 is at the time of press shipping throughout Europe, selling in the €725 EUR range without subscription.
Nokia N90

Conclusion

An epitomy of compromise, the N90 shows that Nokia is still capable of delivering products with cutting edge features that can't be beat. Still, the superb imaging capabilities and glorious screen of this smartphone are countered by its hefty bulk and minor issues with its external display. As always, however, the Finnish maker hits the sweet spots with reliability and connectivity, and also delivers a broad software suite which - with the exception of synchronization - is certain to keep future owners content.


What's positive:
Gorgeous display; high-quality camera; superb connectivity

What's negative:
Unwieldy; external display software issues; poor synchronization
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