The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The Nokia N95 test drive

Last weekend I broke the best piece of technology I have ever used. I don’t know whether to cry for the loss of this glimpse into the future or to lament that it did not quite get to Tomorrowland.Bentley

For the past two months, I have tested the Nokia N95 cell phone. Make that pocket computer. Or perhaps the technology that cannot be named.

In the shadow of the glitz and celebration of the iPhone, the N95 quietly provided feature after feature that put the Apple to shame. The iPhone is the belated state of American art. The Nokia is just the latest waystop in the decade-long European/Asian cell phone juggernaught.

And the N95 proves that cell phones are almost ready to replace the laptop computers we journalist carry like security blankets. Almost.

This is my second test of a Nokia superphone. Last fall, I talked the UK division of Nokia (called Nock-e-ah there), into lending me an N92 while I taught in London. The N92 is a beefy chunk of high-tech gadgetry that looks much more like a pocket video camera than a cell phone. It has a large lens with optical zoom and a flip-out screen that can be rotated in several directions. I loved it.

But when I wanted to demonstrate what I call “pocket journalism” to my peers at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, Nokia USA suggested I try their new flagship, the N95.

If the N92 is the Hummer of cell phones and the iPhone is the Chevy Corvette, the Nokia N95 is the Porshe Boxster. Its design is sleek yet unpretentious. It reeks of the northern European love for intricate engineering. And compared to my family-car Motorola, it goes like a bat out of hell.

But I wish would do more. My Motorola is a clunker, but it’s still running.

My test of the N95 was not based on what the normal consumer would want. I promised to treat it like a field reporter and evaluate it as a tool for journalism.

It certainly has the specifications to meet our needs. To start, the phone is much more than a calling device. It will work on cell phone systems around the world. It uses 3G cell technology we don’t really have yet but are rapidly moving toward. That means it can download data, connect to the Internet and make voice and video phone calls.

But if the cellular system isn’t up to par, step into a coffee shop and connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi. E-mail, Web sites, blogging – all the features of that laptop.

And like that laptop, the N95 includes a full Office suite, Acrobat and any other Symbian OS software you care to download.

But, you say, your fat fingers can’t handle that tiny keypad. Not to fear. I also had a iGO Stowaway folding keyboard from Think Outside. The $130 keyboard often garnered more attention than the phone itself. Though it folds into a rectangle the size of a large wallet, it is a full-size Bluetooth keyboard that worked as well for my Mac as it did for the N95. With the phone in one pocket and the keyboard in another, I was fully officed.

Of course, journalism isn’t all typing. That’s why I put much of my effort into the N95’s camera system. It includes a 5 megapixel still camera and a VGA video camera. The camera is tack sharp in good lighting, though blurry inside and especially when taking mugshots.

But I had fun listening to tunes on it’s MP3 player, watching YouTube on its MP4 player, catching the news on its radio – and I found my way around with the integral GPS unit. I never quite figured out the barcode scanner, but it looked impressive.

So why am I less than ecstatic?

To resurrect the automotive analogy, a reporter needs a good strong pickup truck more than a James Bond sports car. The N95 sacrifices durability and some functionality to maintain its sleek appearance. The downfall of my N95 was its basic sleek design.

Like the iPhone, the Nokia’s large screen is always before you – though you have to slide open the keyboard rather than use a touch screen. The older N92, on the other hand, is of the clamshell persuasion.

I had successfully used the N95 to type and send copy, to photograph and video events and to browse the Internet. But I knew that few reporters would be satisfied sitting in an office or meandering through a city park. So I took the Nokia fishing.

I wasn’t ready to go back to my days of dodging fire trucks and scrambling up hills to car wrecks, but I gave the phone a realistic workout by putting it in a plastic bag and hiking down to a creek that runs behind my house. It stayed with me while landing a handful of perch but I was dismayed when I pulled it out to photograph a fair-sized bass. Somewhere on my hike I had bumped my pocket and shattered the display screen.

The N95 still functioned well enough to let me video the fish (I couldn’t see to switch to still photo), but without its screen it is otherwise useless.

I was heartbroken. The N95 is as close to the universal journalist’s tool that I have seen and gave me a portal to our future. Pocket phones are still not quite there yet as a replacement for the laptop, but teamed with the folding keyboard, they are great supplemental tools that allow one to complete unexpected assignments on the fly.

Just as the linotype gave way to the VDT that gave way to the PC and then on to the laptop, the pocket computer is on the way. Put me down for an N1500.

September 4, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

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