When the Nokia N95 was released it took the world by storm as it managed to pack pretty much everything the hardened gadgeteer could need into a pocket-friendly device. Since then it's been joined by other do-it-all phones such as the iPhone 3G and T-mobile G1. The N96 signals the start of Nokia's fight back as it promises smoother video playback and some other neat extras. But has Nokia done enough to make the N96, which is available for around £500 SIM-free, an attractive upgrade for the owners of the N95?
Looks-wise, the N96 isn't a radical departure from previous designs. The handset still has quite a bulky frame, but instead of the matte finish, it comes with an altogether more stylish-looking high-gloss exterior.
The slide mechanism has also been tweaked and now feels much smoother and sturdier, but the unique dual keypad arrangement has been retained. If you slide the screen upwards you're met by the standard numerical keypad, but when you slide it downwards a column of four media playback controls (play, stop, fast-forward and rewind) are revealed.
Nokia has paid close attention to video with the N96. In order to add support for the DVB-H standard (more on that later) Nokia has had to kit the phone out with new video acceleration. This speeds up decoding of video formats like h.264, the most common standard for video on mobiles.
The advantages this brings are clear when you download the iPlayer application from the BBC's Web site. It works like a dream -- the streamed video looks incredibly smooth and artefact-free on the N96's excellent screen. Nokia has even added a kick-stand to the rear of the phone so you can easily rest it on a desk when you want to watch a few episodes of your favourite programmes or a couple of music videos.
Up until now, the N81 was the king of the nGage gaming handsets. But that's all changed with the N96's arrival -- sliding down the screen when an nGage game is loaded transforms the media controls into additional gaming buttons for two-handed control. It helps game-playing immensely and makes the phone feel like a real portable games machine.
The camera is pretty much a direct carry-over from the N95, but as it takes such good shots that's no bad thing. The five-megapixel sensor captures plenty of detail and the Carl Zeiss optics make sure that everything remains pin sharp. Although there's still no Xenon flash, you do get dual LED photo lights to help in dim conditions.