Once upon a time, the Nokia N95 came into our lives and swept us off our feet. It was a super smart phone with unbeatable connectivity, built-in sat-nav and the ability to install applications. The Nokia N86 8MP is a worthy contender for the N-series crown and shows off what Nokia does best, but there's been plenty of smart-phone-flavoured water under the bridge since the series was launched. There's nothing wrong with this phone -- it's a powerhouse, and the 8-megapixel camera is fantastic -- but it's something of a rehash of what's come before, and didn't send us into a gadget-lust frenzy.
The N86 8MP is available from free on a £25-per-month contract, or for £400 unlocked and SIM-free.
It's shootin' time
A rare beast only a few short months ago, 8-megapixel camera phones now roam the phone savannahs in multitudes. Mostly, they just prove how it takes more than megapixels to take a good photo, but the N86's camera is impressive. In good light, it does a solid job of capturing bright, accurate colours. But, in low light, the camera -- and its two LED photo lights -- really shine. It still doesn't provide the picture quality of a proper compact camera, but our snaps were shockingly clear even when we simulated the dark lighting and shaky hands of a shot taken on a night out on the razzle. Also, the lack of shutter lag is superb -- there's almost no delay between pressing the camera button and taking a photo.
The camera button itself could be bigger but that's a small complaint, especially considering everything else that Nokia's packed inside. There are heaps of settings, like an easy-to-use panorama mode, and plenty of editing options for cropping and tweaking photos. There's even a tiny sliding cover to keep the Carl Zeiss lens covered. It's sure to get caked with crud after months in your pocket, but at least it'll keep the lens scratch-free. Opening it launches the camera automatically.
Unfortunately, sharing snaps isn't as easy as with other phones. The on-board photo-sharing application supports Vox, Flickr and Nokia's own Ovi service, but it would have been great to see more choices, like Facebook, on there too. When we tried to upload our test shots to Flickr, it failed, providing a meaningless and unhelpful message.
The N86 is much more than a camera phone, but it's a great choice if you're looking for a fast snapper with above-average quality and plenty of extras.
As mentioned earlier, the camera's shutter button is small and hard to use. In fact, all the keys are rather fiddly. There are several keys on the front of the phone under the screen -- a five-way navigation button, call and end buttons, two context-sensitive buttons, a clear button and an angled menu button. None of them are labelled, except for the clear button, which is denoted by a tiny, cryptic 'C'. It helps the phone look cool, but there's so much room for easy-to-press buttons that we can't help thinking the N86 sacrifices way too much usability for style.
The N86 is a two-way slider phone. Sliding the screen one way reveals the number buttons, which are the size and shape of big grains of rice -- potentially a problem for those with fat fingers. Sliding the screen the other way exposes four stubby keys that can control the media player or games. It's a cool addition that doesn't make the phone any bigger, and the slider feels solid and well-made.
Time for a refresh
If you've used a Nokia phone before, you won't have any trouble with the N86, but it isn't the easiest phone to use. For example, there are tonnes of great apps out there for Nokia phones, but finding and installing them tends to be a confusing process, with numerous unclear messages to accept.
Nokia's new Ovi Store helps a great deal, but, unfortunately, many of the best apps aren't on the Ovi Store yet. There are still some good ones, though, like the Facebook app, so it's worth checking out.
We couldn't understand why the N86 apparently comes with Facebook and YouTube apps already installed in its applications area, when, in fact, they're just links to the relevant Web sites, rather than the full applications. The Facebook app is much superior to the mobile Web site. When we got it from the Ovi Store, we were left with two Facebook icons to choose from, which was confusing.
It's time for Nokia to smarten up its user interface. In general, tasks like connecting to Wi-Fi are achievable, but there tend to be too many confusing steps involved. When opening Web-based apps, we were sometimes asked if we wanted to connect to the Wi-Fi at Crave Towers, sometimes not asked, and sometimes kicked onto the 3G network instead. Nokia can be proud of bringing smart phones to the masses, but other phone makers have put a great deal of work into making smart-phone features easier to use and Nokia needs to catch up.
Once we got connected, surfing the Web was pleasant enough on the N86's 66mm (2.6-inch) screen. YouTube and BBC iPlayer both worked very well, and the AMOLED screen is decent. There's even a little stand that pops out on the back to prop the phone up while you're watching. Flipping out the stand automatically opens the gallery, where you can access your photos. It's a cute idea, but it's actually quite annoying if you have a video all cued-up and ready to go.
The N86 also makes a good music phone, thanks to its dedicated music keys and its standard 3.5mm headphone jack, which means you can use your own headphones without an adaptor. It also has an FM radio and an Internet radio, with good podcast support. There's plenty of storage for all your tunes, with 8GB of internal memory and a microSD memory-card slot that supports up to 16GB more.
Syncing your music, videos and other data is fairly easy with the Nokia PC Suite software, which has been steadily improving over the years, advancing from crap to decent. It offers some great advantages, like the ability to sync over Bluetooth and type SMS messages on your computer before sending them to your phone, so you get to use a proper keyboard. But the music-manager part of PC Suite still doesn't compete with dedicated music software, so you might prefer to connect the N86 in mass-storage mode and sync your music with your favourite music software. That's also handy if you have a Mac, because PC Suite only works on PCs.
The Nokia N86 8MP doesn't break much new ground, but it's a good entry in Nokia's much-loved N series. It's not as easy to use as the iPhone or the HTC Hero, for example, but it really packs in the features, and, if you can find them, there are zillions of fantastic apps out there to make it even better. Best of all, for a phone, it takes excellent photos, with almost no shutter lag. As a top-of-the-line camera phone with all the power of a smart phone, we think the N86 is worth having.
Edited by Charles Kloet