Review posted June 11, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
You know the drill, Nokia comes out with a lovely new NSeries smartphone, and we wait about 6 months to see a North American version with US 3G, if we see it at all. What a pleasant surprise that the Nokia N78-3 US edition popped out near the launch of the Eurasian version; no long wait involved. Nokia tells us it will officially go on sale by the end of June for around $550.
The Nokia N78-3 is a quad band GSM unlocked phone with US 3G HSDPA on the 850/1900MHz bands. The N78 (N78-1) Euro version lacks US 3G, so be careful which you buy. It's the successor to the well-loved (including by us) and long-lived Nokia N73 and shares the same candybar design and 3.2 megapixel autofocus camera spec. The N78 brings a lot more to the table though, with an internal GPS, Nokia Maps, FM radio, FM transmitter and WiFi. There's considerable feature overlap among Nokia NSeries phones these days, but it seems that Nokia N7x phones get the 3MP camera while the N8x (like the N82) and the N9x (like the N95) get 5 megapixel cameras and the N9x series gets that special sauce of added specialty features and design.
The N78 is a medium to large candybar phone that's a little longer than the Nokia N95, and it measures 4.45 x 1.93 x 0.59 inches. At 3.9 ounces it has enough heft to feel good in hand but never drag your pockets down. The phone has a gloss black face that attracts fingerprints just as badly as recent gloss touch screen phones and the back has a fondness for prints too. The back has a swirl pattern that reminds us of HP's Imprint notebook finish and the phone is available in blue, white and brown, always with a gloss black face. We have the brown model for review and it looks black unless placed under direct, bright light.
The N78 is one of the first NSeries "multimedia computers" as Nokia calls their S60 smartphones to run S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2, and it has design touches like a flush display that mimics the look but not function of recent touch screen phones, an electrostatic d-pad and rather interesting number keys. Those keys strike those who've never used the phone as a hideous usability nightmare, but they're actually not so bad. We found them easier to use than the Sony Ericsson K850i's tiny eraser nubs, and were able to text quickly. Each row of number keys is actually a single narrow band of plastic rather than discrete keys. When the phone is sleeping there are no numbers or letters in sight-- wake up the phone and these illuminate from the minimalist black plane that is the phone's front face. In fact, the call send and end keys, S60 programs keys-- everything appear and disappear based on backlighting. Modernism in action, but it's not all vanity-- it works well. When a call comes in these all light up so there's no guessing where the call answer button lies.
The d-pad works both as a normal d-pad and as an electrostatic touch wheel for scrolling through icons, lists and the like. The center of the d-pad pulses white light slowly and it "breathes" as Nokia calls it: the light pulses more frequently when there's a missed call or new message. You can disable "breath" if you like (sounds creepy, no?).
The phone has stereo speakers that flank the sides, the usual S60 Nokia music player and A2DP stereo Bluetooth support. There's a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack up top so you can use the included stereo headset or your favorite wired headset. Nokia includes a 2 gig microSD card in the box to get you started with your music collection and the phone is compatible with high capacity SDHC cards.
Feature Pack 2 focuses on user interface and performance improvements. The 369MHz N78 is a snappy S60 device, and with the likes of demand paging under its belt, it boots in 21 seconds from the moment the power button is pressed until the device is ready to use. Opening folders, scrolling menus and launching most applications is quite fast with only the video player and Maps taking a few seconds to load. As with all Nokia S60 smartphones, the phone syncs to Outlook under Windows via the included USB cable or Bluetooth, and it can sync multimedia items as well. There is no Mac OS X iSync plugin yet, but Nokia may yet release one since the phone is still so new. The phone has a USB 2.0 high speed port and can work in mass storage mode.
HSDPA, Good Times on AT&T
The N78-3 is a quad band 850/900/1800/1900MHz GSM world phone that's sold unlocked for use with any GSM carrier. It will work fine with T-Mobile but it shines on AT&T in 3G HSDPA coverage areas. The Safari-based web browser has gotten even faster in Feature Pack 2. Steve Jobs might find it an all-too worthy adversary since the N78's browser is faster than the N95's he used in his speed comparison while introducing the 3G iPhone. Our homepage downloaded in 8.5 seconds with a good HSDPA signal, and that's not a mobile-optimized page! Feature Pack 2 adds prioritization of Internet connections (i.e.: WiFi, then the cellular data connection, then the VPN connection) and this works best with the web browser.
Note that the N78-3 has only the US (AT&T) 3G 850/1900MHz bands and not the European 2100MHz band. When not in a 3G coverage area, the phone drops down to EDGE, as it also does with a T-Mobile US SIM. The N78 supports DUN for those who wish to use it as a high speed wireless modem for a notebook and at Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR speeds, Bluetooth won't bottleneck the HSDPA connection.
Flash video support is here-- simply direct the web browser to www.youtube.com, then select the desktop view link to see FLV flash video. We won't call this smooth and with so many youtube videos being VGA, the entire video won't fit on screen (scroll, scroll, scroll). Video is however watchable, especially QVGA video. Should you prefer a mobile-optimized experience, go with the mobile view instead of desktop view (though not all videos are available in mobile H264 format). To watch youtube, WiFi is best but HSDPA will do-- forget EDGE.
The new N-Gage doesn't yet support the N78, but we do hope that support will follow. Right now N-Gage supports the N95 family, the N81 and the N82.
Where am I?
No need to get the most expensive NSeries smartphone to get GPS. The N78 has an internal GPS and Nokia Maps. As with the Nokia N95-3 after recent firmware updates, and the N95 8 gig, the GPS is much quicker to get a satellite fix and can even manage from indoors if there's a window nearby. We strongly suggest you download and install the free Maps 2.0 (a free download for any S60 model), which offers added features such as walking mode and traffic along with big improvements to routing. The N78 comes with a 3 month trial, and thereafter there's a monthly fee for navigation and routing (basic positioning, POIs and maps are free). While Nokia's service doesn't yet compare with TeleNav as offered by all major US carriers, it's usable and reasonably priced. The N78 occasionally booted us out of the Maps program, and we're guessing a firmware update will follow soon to fix bugs as, is often the case with new Nokia NSeries models.
Though the Nokia N73 also had a 3 megapixel autofocus camera, making the N78 look no better on paper, it does indeed take better photos. It can't compete with the N95 or Nokia N82, but the photos are sharp (a little overly so), colorful and generally accurate with just a small blue bias. Indoor shots show some noise and the LED flash helps just a bit, but we were pleased with the very low light shot of the cat below (the room was nearly dark with only the adjacent window providing some light while offering contrast challenges).
These sample photos were taken at the highest resolution. Unedited other than resizing for use here. Click on a photo to see the original version (~2048 x 1536 pixels, up to 1 meg each) in a new window.
The phone has a Carl Zeiss autofocus lens as do other high end NSeries imaging phones. Max photo resolution is 2048x1536 pixels, and max video resolution is VGA at 15fps with stereo audio. Maximum video clip length is 60 minutes in MP4 format (the camcorder also supports 3GP for MMS). VGA is nice, but 15 fps means the video isn't as smooth or realistic as the N95's. Focus is quite quick as is image save even at maximum resolution-- this isn't a repeat of the initial N95 release with slow camera issues. The camera application does occasionally become unresponsive for a second or two at random times, especially noticeable when trying to activate a menu. Again, we can see a firmware update in the future that will take care of this.
Nokia S60 smartphones ship with a large compliment of software. There's the web browser, email/SMS/MMS client, music player, FM radio application, Podcasting app, Quickoffice (creates/edits/views MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint files), Adobe PDF viewer, text to speech, Video Center (streaming video), Real Player, Gallery, Photos (an album for captured photos), profiles, active desktop (Nokia's home screen with shortcuts to apps and customizable info for WLAN, upcoming appointments and more) as well as a complete PIM suite with contacts, calendar, notes and tasks that sync to Outlook on the desktop and to the Mac once a plugin is a available.
Nokia's music player might not be as sexy as Sony Ericsson's walkman phones, but it covers the basics including syncing, playlists and sorting by all the usual suspects. It updates quickly when you add new songs to a card and supports popular formats including unprotected iTunes AAC and AAC+ files, MP3
3G phones with GPS and an autofocus camera are battery hogs. The N78's 1200 mAh battery keeps the phone going with moderate use for 2 days. If you use the GPS for an hour trip, check email at 15 minute intervals, stream video or music and talk an hour a day or more, expect to charge it nightly. If you use the phone lightly it can last up to 4 days in our tests.
With the proliferation of high spec Nokia NSeries and E series devices, it's becoming harder to choose among them. Here in the US, at least for AT&T subscribers, the list is shorter if you want 3G support and that narrows the choice. If you aren't a photo maven and don't crave the Nokia N95's 5 megapixel camera or the N95 8 gig's massive storage, the N78 is a logical alternative. Though longer, it is thinner and we expect when the phone has been out a few months, prices will settle and the N78 will be a cost-saving alternative. The phone certainly offers a lot for the money: GPS, WiFi, 3G a 3 megapixel autofocus camera and the latest S60 software. We love the looks and clever modern design-- heck we don't even mind the keys!
Pro: Bright, sharp display, GPS, WiFi and FM radio and transmitter. Great looks, cool design. Has all US bands and HSDPA support with great browser speeds. Music playback sounds good through wired headphones and A2DP, though not quite as good as the Nokia N95. Stereo headset, 2 gig microSD card are in the box-- nice.
Con: If you're in love with small phones, this isn't your bag. The camcorder's VGA video seems pointless at only 15 fps: I'd rather have 30 fps of higher quality QVGA video.
Display:16 million color
TFT color LCD. Screen size diagonally: 2.4". Resolution:
240 x 320.
Ion rechargeable Nokia BL-6F. Battery is user replaceable.
Performance:369MHz ARM 11 CPU (single core). 64 MB built-in RAM. 70 megs internal memory.
Size:4.45 x 1.93 x 0.59 inches. 3.9 ounces.
Phone:Quad band GSM/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900MHz world phone, unlocked for use with any GSM carrier. US 3G HSDPA 850/1900MHz (works with AT&T's 3G).
Camera:3.2 megapixel with Carl Zeiss autofocus lens and LED flash. Max photo resolution 2048x1536 pixels, max video resolution is VGA at 15fps with stereo audio. Max video clip length is 60 minutes, MP4 format (also supports 3GP for MMS). Front facing video conferencing camera, CIF resolution (352 x 288). No US carrier supports 2-way video conferencing however. Lens f2.8/4.6, close focus to 4, up to 20x digital zoom (4x for video camera).
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Music player application included. Has FM radio (uses the wired headset as the antenna) and an FM transmitter to send audio directly to your car's FM radio (and other FM devices). Stereo headset included. Supports A2DP Bluetooth stereo.
WiFi 802.11b/g (supports WEP, WPA, WPA2) and Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR. Bluetooth profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, BIP, DI, DUN, FTP, GAP, GAVDP, GOEP, HFP, HSP, OPP, SAP, SPP.
Software:Symbian OS 9.3, Nokia S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2. Quickoffice suite reads and edits MS Office files. Nokia Maps, Adobe PDF viewer, notes, contacts, calendar, tasks, zip, converter, music player, Speech, Video Center, Gallery, Ovi, Photos, email/SMS application, web browser, connection wizard, settings wizard.
microSD card slot, SDHC compatible. 2 gig card included. USB 2.0 high speed port (mini USB connector on phone).
In the Box:N78 (N78-3, RM342), battery, world charger, USB cable, stereo headset, 2 gig microSD card, software CD and printed guide and manual.