First of all, this joint review would not be possible if it were not for my acquisition of a Nokia N85 yesterday. I happened across a man a few cities away whom had an N85 and was willing to trade it for my Sony Ericsson W760a and Sony T70. This is an undeniably good deal, especially considering how little value I was deriving from either device. In fact, I find it almost frustrating that I didn’t find this deal earlier, as I might’ve managed to remain happy with the N85 and would never have bothered later to purchase the N86. Now that I have both of them, side-by-side, I can finally evaluate with certainty all of the “improvements” I felt the N86 had made over its predecessor. Having prior reviewed and N85, I was quite aware of its excellent features all wrapped up in a neat and tidy package. I was also aware of its many downfalls, albeit they were in no way going to prevent me from acquiring it.
That there sets the stage for the joint N85/N86 review. I own both devices now, although my intentions for continued ownership of both are uncertain. I thus feel it imperative that I write a review as soon as possible, with pictures to follow eventually, in case one of the two should happen to be sold in the immediate future. Both devices are loaded with some of the most advanced technology Nokia has ever put into their handsets, and I see both as being the true successors of Nokia’s undeniably king-of-the-hill N95. Why would I say such a thing? Because of the technology and design incorporated into both, that’s why. It’s true that the Nokia N96 is a more one-for-one descendant of the N95, but just because it’s a carbon copy of the device it’s based on doesn’t mean that currently possesses the royal crown.Perhaps this is Nokia’s current problem. They seem to have lost the N95’s crown, and have attempted to uplift various other devices to the status of king in the hope that the proletariat will crown that device the new king upon which Nokia can start a new royal family. I feel like the N85, which was strangely exiled from the Nokia kingdom, was given the crown by the N95. Unfortunately, the N85 was unable to return to the court of Nokia, especially without any allies and being in such an unfit state to fight with the artificially propped heads-of-state. With about a year to get itself in shape resulting in a complete physical makeover and a sharpening of its wit, the N85 returned in the shape of the N86, where it was welcomed into the innermost circles of the hierarchy due to no one realizing this was the same device which had been banished not all that long ago.
Those who seek the counsel and advice of the royal court in Nokia’s kingdom are now presented with an option. They can either accept the currently standing heads of state and then suffer when it is realized that they accepted empty promises as truth, or seek the help of the true heir to the throne, the N86, and find themselves made better off by an entity which actually wields significant power and the underground support of the proletariat.
“Great, that made no sense. What the heck are you going on about?” Isn’t the analogy obvious? When the N85 was released, it seemed absurd to imagine it as NOT being the successor of the N95. Yet Nokia ripped the rug out from under it with the much less than spectacular N96. While its dimensions, features, and numbering made it seem like the obvious heir to the throne, shoddy build quality and a lack of ability to command much attention meant it soon fell on its face and Nokia quickly churned out another “successor,” the N97. The few similarities this device held with the original N97 were the main circuitry and 5MP camera. Apart from that, everything was new, from the touchscreen to the tilt-slide keyboard. And yet, the device was more a retaliation against Apple’s iPhone than anything else, as the device wasn’t then fit to lead with its incomplete firmware and lens-scratching lens cover. However, it managed remarkably well as the flagship device, and Nokia (eventually) released firmware to make it a much more polished device. Alas, many consumers were continuing to switch to Apple or other companies’ offerings which had become much more intriguing even though they more often than not underperformed the N95. The key here was the finished product: these other products were completely ready for consumers, and didn’t’ ship with half-baked firmware. In the midst of this turmoil, the N86 was offered with almost no fanfare, most likely because Nokia was prepping for the launch of the N900, which was seen as potentially revitalizing Nokia’s image as a potent and modern cell phone manufacturer. Strangely enough, Nokia didn’t seem content to allow the N900 to handle the title of flagship device alone, as they launched the N97 Mini, which managed to gain a lot of popular support only because it was a brand new model albeit almost identical to the N97.
All this time, the N85 has essentially been put out of existence. Its hardware set, in my opinion, bests the N96, N97, N900, and N97 Mini easily. Yet Nokia decided to pretend it had never existed. The N86 received a little bit of fanfare, mostly from bloggers, as it was seen as a potential replacement for the long-gone-but-still-loved N82. Almost nobody cared that it was actually an N85 that had been sent to the junk pile, survived, and returned as a leaner, meaner, more capable handset. While it too was initially released with not-entirely-complete firmware, it had the same blood (S60 V3) running in its veins as the N95 did, meaning any firmware revision since has only consisted of minor tweaks here and there.
With that hefty introduction out of the way, it’s time to dig in and see just what exactly both of these devices are all about. The first, the N85, was released in 2008 while its replacement, the N86, was released in 2009. Bizarrely enough, it just recently came to my attention that the Nokia N8 is going to be released soon, which is to be equipped with a 12.0MP camera including Xenon flash, capacitive AMOLED display, and an entirely new operating system. This has all the necessary ingredients to inherit the N95’s thrown, but only time will tell. In the meantime, let’s figure out what the current crown-holders offer.
I suppose this section is best described with pictures, so that’s what I’ll do.
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After picking up both devices it became quite clear, at least to me, that the N86 was going to be an easier device to use that its predecessor. Gone is the touch-sensitive Navi-Wheel, but in replacement is a more thumb-friendly toggle that has superior tactile feedback and pivot travel. Gone are the large “invisible” buttons on the front, but in replacement are smaller buttons that are easier to use and won’t even succumb to the one-piece button-plate falling off like the N85 will. The change from glossy plastic to glass and soft-touch plastic helped update the device to stay modern for at least a couple of years.
Of all the improvements bestowed upon the N86, one of the least noticed is the upgrade in OLED display. The N85 was equipped with a display panel that was probably not cheap at the time but it was, regardless, not very good. True-blacks were true-blacks (turned-off pixels), but grays came out brown and whites were very off-white. In addition the phone had a lot of trouble displaying fine gradients- something I have yet to encounter with the N86. Coupled with what appears to be a sharper display with less space between each pixel and the N86 literally shines ahead.
In practice, the N86 has been a very good phone to me. The built-in 8GB of memory hold my entire collection of digital music (I must admit to having a rather diminutive collection). Even after I still have room to spare for Nokia Maps and free space for a couple hours of video or a few thousand pictures. (I made up that last bit, I’m not sure if it is technically factual.) While I don’t always use the media playback buttons I enjoy the fact that they exist as it makes the phone easier to use for my friends when I am, say, playing music at a party. The camera is great too, although in lower-mid to low light conditions an annoying purple tint emerges at the top-right corner of images. (Doubt I can do anything about this unless Nokia wants to replace my lens assembly, as I feel that is the problem.) The panorama feature is something I’ve used surprisingly often, and enjoy, even though the built-in stitching isn’t always the greatest. All-in-all, I’d say that the N86 is easily the best camera phone I’ve ever touched- except for that purple tint- and probably the best currently-available camera-smartphone combo today.
The little details are things that one wouldn’t know about unless they spent some time with the phone as I have. The speakers pump out pretty capable sound, but more bass would be nice. The built-in FM-Transmitter has put many friends into envy and is surprisingly good once a clear wavelength is found. The stand is something I’ve yet to use purposefully but I have used it to prop the device up while playing music sans-stereo-system (aka with the built-in speakers). The 3.5mm jack is nice, and the MicroUSB port is correctly placed at the top of the device. It also has very nice little white-LED charging indicator that I wouldn’t mind seeing on all Nokia devices. The entire top of the device, actually, is rather well laid out in my opinion. The left side is very clean apart from that slide for locking the device, and while I think a bit more texture on the slide would be nice, I’ve never had a problem using it so all is well. It would have been nice, however, to have gotten a memory-card slot accessible without removing the battery cover (aka N85).
Battery life is good, but not as good as it could be. I’m actually a bit surprised Nokia didn’t load a more battery-conservative theme onto the N86… I loaded on a theme changed the background of everything to a true-black, thereby shutting off most of the display. Battery life has noticeably improved, but still find myself needing a recharge after a day and a half. To bypass the sudden urgency, I simply change every day at night.
I really like the N86. I consider it my “main” phone. (My N97 is my iPod replacement, and the N85 goes places I wouldn’t risk taking my N86.) While I originally wanted the white version, I settled on the black/indigo version for the simple reason of cheaper cost. Now that I have it, I’m quite happy, and never even think about “what-if?”. I love my N86, and when I travel to Germany next year and pick up a cell phone for myself, I might just go and pick up a second N86.
What of the N8? Well, the first half of this review was written pre-N8 official release. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m not sold but I’ll have to mess with on before I pass judgement. I’m not very much inclined to like it, as-is, but if the camera can do wonders and the software keyboard has improved, I might just be happy that I’m a Nokia fanboy and not a sheep in Apple’s herd.