Review posted September 2, 2006 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Nokia is taking aim at the iPod and while that might seem like risky business, it's not when that device also converges a mobile phone and PDA features into a very sexy package. Though large and heavy by phone standards, the N91 feels good in hand and oozes quality thanks to its beautiful stainless steel casing. This triband GSM smartphone has a 4 gig hard drive which holds approximately 1,000 songs, similar to the higher capacity iPod nano. It supports MP3, WMA and AAC formats among others and can sync to iTunes on the Mac and Windows Media Player 10 on Windows.
First let out of the bag in 2005, the N91 finally shipped in mid-2006. In 2005 the phone seemed sheerly amazing, and now it's impressive but not the only kid on the block to sport large storage and music playback capabilities. Though it's still the only one to combine a powerful smartphone with Outlook syncing, 2 megapixel camera, FM radio, WiFi, Bluetooth and a very capable web browser.
The N91 is a triband phone that supports the 900/1800/1900MHz bands which makes it a good fit for T-Mobile in the US but not Cingular /AT&T who relies heavily on the 850MHz band. It has Euro 3G (UMTS on the 2100MHz band) which isn't compatible with US 3G on the 850 and 1900MHz bands but the phone has EDGE for 2.5G in the US. The Nokia is generally sold unlocked in the US and is available on nokiausa.com and from importers in the US. Nokia sells it for $599, making it one of the most expensive among the recent wave of S60 3rd Edition devices from Nokia (the N93 is the most expensive).
Design and Ergonomics
The headphone jack is located on the phone's top edge (you can plug in the included Nokia music controller or your own 3.5mm stereo headphones). The lock slider switch is also up top as is the power button. The battery lives under the snug fitting back cover and the SIM card is under the battery. The large camera lens window is located on the upper back of the N91.
The S60 programs launcher button is located on the right side (we miss it being on the front face since it's often used) and the volume up/down buttons are on the upper left side while the standard mini USB sync port is on the lower left side. The phone's large speaker grill is also on the upper left side. The front face is dominated by the large display and music playback controls. Slide down the music control section to reveal the number pad with tiny blue backlit keys and the usual S60 Pencil and C(lear) keys. The number keys are a bit small for easy and speedy dialing but we do love that the music playback controls work even when the slider is down.
Though large, the device feels good in hand thanks to its gentle curves. And it's not too hard to hold onto, despite the slick stainless steel casing. We won't berate the N91 for being overly large and heavy because nothing it competes against is more petite. PDA and smartphones tend to be large, so say you wanted to use a Treo 700p, Nokia E61 or Cingular 8125 as your converged phone, PDA and music player. They are no smaller and hold half the music, assuming a 2 gig SD card.
The N91 ships with a nice collection of accessories including a weighted matching desk cradle, charger, Lithium Ion battery (Nokia BL-5C), stereo earbud headset (Nokia HS-28) and inline remote (Nokia AD-36), standard USB to mini USB cable, 3.5mm to standard stereo RCA jacks cable, software CDROM with PC Suite and other applications and a thick printed manual.
Phone Features, Data and Reception
The Nokia N91 is a full-featured phone that makes no compromises on its primary purpose in life: making and receiving calls. Call clarity and volume, both incoming and outgoing, are very good. The N91 has a speakerphone (good volume, low distortion), support for standard call features like call waiting and caller ID, speed dial and speaker independent voice dialing. Speed and voice dialing are identical to other recent S60 3rd Edition Nokia phones, though speech recognition works better than on the Nokia N80 and is similar in accuracy to the Nokia N73 (which is to say OK, but don't trust it if you have a lot of international numbers in your address book as it dials within a few seconds and you might not have a chance to intervene). Like most all Nokia phones, the N91 offers several profiles (you can switch between them quickly by giving the power button a short press) and it has vibrating ringers. Since the N91 is a triband phone that works on the 900/1800/1900MHz bands it will work anywhere in the world, but you likely will get sub-par service on Cingular because they make heavy use of the 850MHz band which the N91 lacks. US T-Mobile customers are a much better fit since T-Mobile uses only the 1900MHz band (with occasion roaming agreements on 850MHz with Cingular, but not significantly in most markets).
The phone packs EDGE and WCDMA (UMTS) 3G on the 2100MHz band with fallback to GPRS when those higher speeds standards aren't available. US buyers: don't get too excited by the 3G unless you'll be traveling to Europe. In the US we do not use the 2100MHz band for 3G or any other cellular wireless communications. While the N73 and N80 have front-facing VGA cameras for video conferencing over 3G, the N91 does not. Data speeds on EDGE using T-Mobile's network here in the US were quite good with an average of 100k. The phone supports DUN for those of you who wish to use the phone as a wireless modem for a notebook or PDA.
Unlike several recent high end Nokia S60 3rd edition smartphones, the N91 does not have a particularly high resolution display. It maintains the same 176 x 208 pixel resolution found on older Series 60 phones like the Nokia 6682 and Nokia 7610. Like the 6682 it's capable of displaying 262,000 colors (18 bit) and is bright and easy to read both indoors and out. That said, it looks a bit grainy compared to the N80 and N73 which have much higher resolution displays and you'll be doing more scrolling when web browsing on the N91, which is a shame given the integrated WiFi and excellent web browser. Keep in mind that if Nokia added a high resolution display to this already feature-packed phone the price would probably have gone up considerably.
When you're talking about a smartphone with so many features it's easy to forget music, which is the Nokia N91's raison d-etre. The phone can hold approximately 1,000 songs and supports just about every major format including MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, Real, WAV, WMA and M4A. Thus it can handle iTunes (and there's a Mac plugin for syncing to iTunes) formats except songs purchased from Apple's iTunes store (Apple does not share their DRM with anyone). The Nokia can sync to Windows Media Player 10 under Windows and it can act as a mass storage device when connected via USB cable if you prefer to drag and drop your songs to the Nokia. You can transfer Windows Media Player 10 files with DRM (Open Mobile Alliance protection) using Windows Media Player 10 on the desktop to transfer the files over USB.
The music player supports playlists, shuffle, repeat and it will automatically pause music playback should a call come in. The music will resume when you hang up. As mentioned, the front music player controls handle all the basics and work even if you've slid it down to reveal the number pad below.
Sound out through the included stereo earbud headphones is very good and for a real treat, hook up your own stereo headphones. Most phones, even high end ones, don't quite reach the iPod's sound quality but the N91 is one of the few that does. Like many recent S60 phones, the N91 has Nokia's Visual Radio which is an FM radio which supports station presets and sounds pretty good. The auto seek function will pass quite a few stations by, so use manual seek to find your favorite stations. The headphones act as an antenna for the radio, so you'll only be able to play radio through them and not the speaker.
Horsepower and Performance
The N91 runs Nokia's S60 3rd Edition software on Symbian OS 9.1 which offers multitasking, good security and increased speed compared to older Series 60 devices. The phone has 15 megs of shared flash memory and the 4 gig hard drive for storage. It multitasks well and isn't plagued by out of memory issues even when concurrently running the web browser and music player. We benchmarked the phone using FutureMark's SPMarkJava06 (a Java application that benchmarks the Java VM performance which is an indication of the phone's processing power, and both 2D and 3D performance). The N91 managed an SPMarkJava score of 1804, and benchmarked similarly to the Nokia E61, N73 and N80.
S60 3rd Edition marks some major changes and older applications written for Series 60, S60 and S60 2nd Edition phones won't work on the Nokia N91. You'll need to get 3rd Edition compatible applications and currently there aren't too many 3rd party apps out there since 3rd Edition is so new.
Though it can't compete with the Nokia N93, N80 and N73, the N91's camera is still better than most camera phones offered by US carriers. The 2 megapixel camera can take photos at a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 as well as smaller sizes. It can also shoot video with audio at a max resolution of 352 x 288 and it supports 3GP and MPEG4 formats. Surprisingly there's no flash, so don't expect much in poorly lit environments (though the LED flash used on camera phones offers little help anyway).
The camera isn't as consistent on exposure and white balance as its 3MP brethren, and we noticed that 3 outdoor shots taken of the same subject within 2 minutes yielded a nice shot, a whited-out over-exposed shot and one with a distinct color cast. So shoot a few frames to make sure you capture a pleasing image. The camera will generally turn out a good shot in amenable conditions (moderate lighting, no fast moving subjects). Overall, color balance is good with a bit of a cool (blue) bias but nothing to complain about. Still images have more noise than the N80 and N73, even in good lighting but it's less than the once flagship Nokia N90.
Sample photos taken at the highest resolution. Unedited other than resizing for use here (and the Crossfire's license plate was obliterated). Click on a photo to see the original image in a new window.
Software and Syncing
Nokia's software bundle is very similar across S60 v3 phones, so you'll notice similarity between our reviews in this section. Since it's a smartphone, you can add 3rd party software made for S60 3rd Edition. Though 3rd Edition is still new and the software selection isn't yet broad, but thankfully Nokia includes most everything you need such as strong PIM applications, media players, image editors, voice recorder, a world clock, and more. Contacts has support for pretty much every field found in MS Outlook and groups, while the calendar has alarms, repeat events, day, week and month views. S60 also has notes and Tasks both of which sync to MS Outlook. For fun, the phone comes with Nokia's LifeBlog which helps organize your photos and videos chronologically, like a diary or blog. You can add comments, delete photos that you don't want and sync them to LifeBlog on Windows (sadly there's no Mac version of this cool desktop application). The N91 doesn't come with MS Office viewers or editors, but should you need those you can purchase them separately (QuickOffice is the #1 choice).
The N91 comes with a software CD containing PC Suite 8.6 and LifeBlog 2. Always check for the latest versions of those applications, which you can download for free from Nokia's web site. PC Suite is an impressive one-stop application these days, and it far surpasses MS ActiveSync for Windows Mobile and even Palm Desktop. You'll use it to sync your Calendar, Contacts, Notes and Tasks to and from Outlook, browse the phone, send multimedia files, use the phone as a wireless modem and more. It supports connection over the included mini USB cable and Bluetooth. The phone supports three different USB modes: Media Player, PC Suite and Data Transfer (the phone acts as a mass storage device like a USB drive).
WiFi and Bluetooth
Though the phone's relatively low resolution display doesn't lend itself to power web-browsing, WiFi has its place in smartphone land. The browser is very capable as is the included email client. And WiFi's high speeds are a good consolation for those of us who are using the N91 in the US where we can't take advantage of the phone's 3G capabilities. We suspect the real reason Nokia included WiFi on the N91 was for music sharing over home networks. The smartphone supports WEP encryption (64 and 128 bit), WPA and 802.1x and has a site survey feature so you can scan for available access points. Connections are reliable and range is comparable to PDAs. Battery life takes a hit when using WiFi, similar to other PDA phones. Use WiFi for an hour per day and you'll be fine... several hours WiFi use per day warrants a trip to the charger or a spare battery.
The Nokia N91 has a Bluetooth 1.2 with support for headset, handsfree, DUN, FTP, HID (primarily for keyboards), Basic Printing Profile, Object Push profiles and more. As usual for Nokia, the phone paired easily with a Mac, Windows XP PC, and worked well with a variety of popular Bluetooth headsets. While some phones work well with a subset of popular headsets, the Nokia generally works well with most any decent quality headset on the market.
If you're looking for a triple convergence device that marries a portable music player, phone and PDA the Nokia N91 is worth a look. It's attractive, stable, has great call quality and phone features and good syncing to desktops. The web browser is excellent, though the relatively low screen resolution prevents it from living up to its potential and the email client is reliable with business class features (though no push email). To top it off, the phone has a very good camera and nice imaging applications. And don't forget that 4 gig hard drive! The only drawbacks are the N91's size, weight and price tag. But it's certainly lighter, smaller and cheaper than purchasing and carrying 3 separate devices.
Display:262K color (18 bit) LCD. Resolution:
176 x 208 pixels.
Battery:850 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Nokia BL-5C.
Performance:ARM compatible processor, undisclosed speed. 15 megs of shared flash memory and 4 gig internal hard drive for storage.
x 2.17 x 0.87 inches. Weight: 5.78 ounces.
Phone:GSM triband, 900/1800/1900MHz with 3G on the 2100MHz band (not used in the US), EDGE and GPRS for data.
Camera:2.0 megapixel camera with CMOS sensor, 4.8mm focal length, f3.2. 1600 x 1200 max resolution with support for lower resolutions suitable for MMS and Caller ID photos. Video recording up to 352 x 288 with audio in MPEG4 and 3GP formats.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Comes with Nokia AD-36 adapter with inline playback controls and Nokia HS-28 stereo earbuds. 3.5mm stereo to stereo RCA connector cable included (Nokia CA-72U). Integrated music player that supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, Real, WAV, WMA, M4A and AMR formats.
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 1.2.
Software:Symbian OS 9.1 with S60 3rd Edition. Java VM, Music Player, web browser, Messaging client (SMS, MMS, POP3 and IMAP email), PIM applications (contacts, calendar, tasks, notes), voice recorder, Gallery, Converter, Calculator, File Manager, RealPlayer, FM Visual Radio, Profiles, Speed Dial, Voice Command, theme manager, application manager, Transfer (transfer contacts, calendar and some phone settings to or from another S40 or S60 phone), Activation Keys (manages DRM on multimedia files), World Clock.