Nokia N91: an iPod-class contender?

Hard-disk phone scores high on sociability

Preview Although it's still four to five months away from release, the N91 is shaping up as Nokia's first serious challenge to the booming iPod business: a hard-disk based phone optimized for music playback. We took it through its paces.

It's undoubtedly a fine piece of engineering, and feels as robust as anything Nokia has produced. Out of the box, it immediately scores over the iPod and the copycat MP3 jukeboxes by allowing you to share your music files and playlists with Series 60 smartphones in closel proximity to you, thanks to the built-in discovery service, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. (Nokia stealth released a media-sharing application for Series 60 earlier this week). So it scores highly as a piece of social hardware. In some other respects, the N91 lacks the ease of use of Apple's iPod, and the user interface isn't always optimal: partly because it's a multifunction device, and partly because the user is forced to fight against, rather than work with the design-by-committee Series 60 User Interface.

As well as being the first Nokia phone with a hard drive, the N91 shamelessly steals design conveniences from Apple's iPod. The headphone jack is on top of the phone, right next to a iPod-style sliding lock. This is sensible: Nokia's traditional method of locking the phone, the asterisk-softkey key combination, is tricky because the numeric keyboard is concealed by a sliding cover.

It's surprisingly large compared to today's diminutive phone designs, or an iPod Mini, but smaller than a Nokia 9300. At 160g it's the same weight as a 20GB iPod, but almost twice the weight of a Mini. However because the back of the stainless steel iPod is so easily scratched, most owners add a sleeve to the music player, which adds bulk and weight. The N91 at 113x55x22mm doesn't look so bulky set alongside the 103x61x14.4mm larger capacity iPod.

Nokia's N91: 4GB wireless jukebox, and phone

Music playback responsiveness was excellent. There was no lag skipping or fast forwarding through a song or a playlist, and in this respect the N91 is a better iPod than an iPod. The multitasking only hiccupped when trying to playback a video in Real Player while a song was playing in Nokia's media player - with background music halted, giving priority to the video - but that wasn't too surprising. Nokia claims 12 hours of playback time for the N91, which compares favorably with the iPod and first generation iPod Mini, and that's a plus for a 3G (WCDMA flavour) phone. Behind the scenes, Nokia has been going the extra distance to optimize battery life.

For basic navigation, Nokia has built in a four-way controller with an additional diagonal key for adjusting the volume. A little more travel would have been welcome here, but it's an elegant way of handling basic music operations. However, like many iPod rivals, it compares poorly to the iPod's scrollwheel, which allows the user to navigate lists much more rapidly. There's some tradeoff here: it may yet be faster to use the numeric keypad to find an artist than navigate a longer list. If you have several thousand artists represented on your iPod, it's tedious to find anything in the middle third of the list using the scrollwheel. Even with the finely tuned acceleration, there's plenty of hit and miss. Tapping in three characters from the name of the artist - which the N91 allows you to do, but others don't - may in some circumstances be much faster.

As for the UI in general, Nokia appears to be aware of some of the limitations of the Series 60 UI. It's always been a curious hybrid of old and new, but requires too many keypresses and some strange combinations to achieve simple tasks. Common operations are buried deep in folders. The hangup key returns you to the phone screen, but obviously this can't be used during a phone call. The misleadingly named "Menu" key has been shunted out of sight on the right hand edge of the device, and is now called the "Applications" key. The Phone "home" is still called the "Standby" screen, we think, even though the ActiveIdle and Screensaver modes fit the description better. While Nokia mulls this over, can they shoot the committee that designed this mess, and bring in some clear-thinking designers? It's now beginning to hurt.

Nokia can claim that far more many people use its Series 60 than own iPods: over 20 million have been sold, and it predicts 240 million will be in use in a couple of years time. But while it's a nerd's delight, the UI represents an obstacle to mass market adoption: it's time for some real innovation, or a new paradigm such as the wheel-assisted horizontal scrolling used in the iPod.

The iPod - a flash in the pan?

There's an air of inevitability that if something can be built into a phone, it will be. Feature phones have so far attempted to subsume wristwatches, pagers, alarm clocks, cameras, compasses, flashlights, PDAs and FM radios, with varying degrees of success. But dedicated devices still sell in large numbers. Most of the features on phones are unused , and only pagers (made redundant by SMS), PDAs (which duplicate your phone book), and cheap digital watches have suffered. After a hands on with the N91, we doubted whether marrying a phone to an iPod will appeal to everyone in the target market. Many will find a tiny iPod Mini and a small midrange phone less cumbersome. On the other hand, anyone who travels in the, ahem, "digital lifestyle" era knows what a royal nuisance it is to carry around so many chargers and cables.

We hesitate to guess how successful the N91 might be on the merits of the device alone. Remember that it took the launch of iTunes for Windows, USB support, and the publicity generated by Apple's Music Store to take the iPod from ailing niche to a mainstream media phenomenon. And it remains much more talked-about than seen.

Most disconcertingly, we discovered that few people at Nokia took synchronization seriously enough. The company has yet to realize that most PC users use Windows Media Player, Real, WinAmp or MusicMatch to manage their collections, and the N91 should be a seamless plug in. It should not require the punter to start a dedicated song management application from Nokia. So only nearer launch, when we can look at the entire experience, will it be possible to guess.

Given Apple's mindshare, and the iPod's simplicity and ease of use, we don't see N91 stealing the crown. However, given the built-in wireless sharing features that Apple is so reluctant to introduce, it gives the market leader plenty to think about. The companies who should really be concerned about the N91 are Creative, Dell, Diamond and iRiver, who can match neither Apple's ease of use nor Nokia's all-in-one appeal or its file sharing sociability.®

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