Move aside, gadgets -- the N95 is here

If 2007 is really going to be the year when the cellphone comes of age—after several false dawns—then the much-hyped Nokia N95 may prove to be a turning point in more senses than one.

It hasn’t got anything that hasn’t been in a previous phone—such as GPS, satellite link offering location-based services, a barcode reader, camera, an iPod-challenging MP3 player, etc. It is just that each of the functions has, incrementally, just got that much better to the extent that you suddenly ask yourself if you really need a separate MP3 player or digital camera or maybe even a satnav kit, because the ones that come installed do pretty well everything you require of them.

The N95 is already becoming a milestone in the battle for control of the cellphone between manufacturers (such as Nokia) and British operators. Last week it turned out that Vodafone and Orange had both disabled the function that enabled users to make free calls via the internet using a Wi-Fi link. I guess that if I worked for a telco that made its money by charging for calls made across 3G networks that cost £22,5-billion to build, I would be keen to milk the revenues and not to allow a Trojan horse to be inserted inside the device enabling free calls through the web.

But as a consumer I resent this opportunity to cut my bills being switched off. Anyone contemplating an N95 should look at the economics of buying it outright from the manufacturer in combination with a pay-as-you-go Sim card rather than renting it (depending on contract) plus open-ended data charges when you are accessing Google or downloading map information, or whatever. If it doesn’t make sense now—because you don’t use a wireless network at home or travelling—it soon will when Wi-Fi becomes more widespread.

The phone itself is a delight. Even if you don’t use three-quarters of all the things it can do (a list of which—from radio to video player—would fill this column) it doesn’t matter because they are all bundled in a device weighing only 120g. Just take your pick. This includes a five-megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens that for most purposes produces pictures as good as my 7,1-megapixel Nikon Coolpix camera, bought less than two years ago and weighing 180g on its own.

If I had an N95 of my own, I would only use my dedicated camera on special occasions. The video is also of a very high quality and easy to view on its 2,6-inch screen. The main drawback is that you have to keep the camera still for a second or two when taking snaps to avoid blur, and it is not quite so good with close-up work. Access to the web was almost instantaneous, but using Google still isn’t user-friendly enough (why, for instance, doesn’t the cursor come up automatically in the search box instead of having to navigate it there?).

Of the new features, the barcode reader (which has big potential for linking newspapers directly to the web) worked OK on the Financial Times‘s front-page bar code, but not on the Observer‘s. The GPS satellite positioning—which opens up huge possibilities for local search—worked moodily, maybe because of a fault with this model. When it does work it zooms in from a world map to where you are, to guide you to a destination or local services. The N95 has a videophone that may come into its own one day, but I have never seen anyone using one.

It’s expensive for a phone, but for a combined phone/camera/MP3 player, video player and satnav system it is cheap. The N95 isn’t the end of the story. The pace of technology is such that phones will continue getting better and cheaper and you will always wish you had waited another three months. But now and again one just has to stand back in awe at what has been compacted into such a small space.



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