Nokia N95 Hands On

Nokia, Nokia, Nokia. What are we going to do with you? You’re selling a $749 smartphone without a keypad and a pokey, unintuitive OS with no compelling out-of-the-box functionality. But, despite its definite drawbacks, this will probably be Nokia’s best-selling phone outside of the U.S.

The specs on the N95 are truly impressive. It has a 5-megapixel camera with flash, GPS, HSDPA (in Europe), and WiFi. I runs Nokia’s own mapping software — which requires an $91 per year license to really be useful — and supports POP and IMAP email out of the box. At about 4 ounces, it’s one of the lightest smartphones I’ve carried . It’s a great audio player and the video features are impressive but definitely in the beta stage. The phone even has a separate video processor for rendering animated icons and menus.

What does all this mean? It means this is not a smartphone for the U.S. market. This is so European that it smells of stinky cheese, friends. In real terms, all of the things the N95 can do are very expensive overseas. An MP3 player, 5-megapixel camera, GPS unit, and phone all would costs more than the measly $749 Nokia is charging for this beast. We here in the land of the $999 plasma TV can get easy credit, cheap prices at Wal-Mart, and enough gear to choke a horse at rock bottom prices. Try getting all that in Poland or Greece and you’ll see the real audience for this — and most other — Nokia phones.

When I was at 3GSM, I was struck by a few things. First, Europeans use the MP3 players on their phones. Therefore, the N95 is hitting all the right focus groups. The dedicated track keys are excellent and quite innovative. Nokia knows how do pull this off quite well, as their entire line, the 5300 included have gotten MP3 playback right. The N95 even has a 3.5-mm jack on the side instead of using a creepy little adapter.

Next, this thing has a GPS device built-in. It uses a real GPS receiver for map-retrieval. It picked up my current location and displayed it in a very easy-to-read map in about ten minutes. Not excellent, but not bad. However, I could definitely see the value in this feature while walking the streets of Barcelona or Vienna. In L.A.? Why not just get a TomTom. It’s bigger, goes great with a Hummer H3, and costs $100 with mail-in rebate.

Finally, there’s WiFi. This an interesting feature and one of the main reasons people are complaining about battery life. This thing is still a phone. WiFi is a very power-hungry standard and the N95 is full of power-hungry features. As a phone, it lasted two days without a charge. As a smartphone, it lasted about 12 hours with everything running at once. WiFi also costs less overseas than airtime. Therefore, it’s a great addition to a European phone.

This is the last great convergence device. Nokia, and everyone else, will have to rethink its entire strategy in a post-iPhone world. Can I honestly recommend this to anyone interested in an easy-to-use smartphone? No. Series 60 is an acquired taste and this beast includes all of the features I’ve grown to love — and hate — about Symbian’s OS. For one, the email system is gimpy to say the least. Once it’s set up, it works fine, but there are few glaring problems — like the ability to really delete messages — that have always frustrated me. However, I love LifeBlog and the GPS service along with the plethora of third-party apps.

We Americans love our QWERTY-smartphones because we use a standard alphabet. Try selling the SK3 in Russia and you’ll see why no one outside of the US even knows what Danger is. Another thing I noticed at 3GSM was that the Nokia N80 was the smartphone of choice. It was small, powerful and relatively inexpensive. Throw the N95 into the mix and you’ve got quite a player in the Euro-market.

Nokia knows what it’s doing, but that doesn’t mean its smartphones are for everyone. BlackBerry and Treo do a lot of the things the N95 does but the N95 is elegant and aimed a different audience. If you feel you fit into that audience — keypad and SMS-centric with a deep understanding of S60 — then Nokia has your number.