Article tweaked Nov 2012 to fix some broken links...
The classic N86
The classic N95 dual slide, QVGA-screened, T9 keypad form factor seems a little quaint in 2011, but the N86 8MP is perhaps the ultimate incarnation of the design and has a number of extremely modern touches. Making it, at around £80 on the second hand market, an astounding bargain for anyone who loves their phone hardware more than fancy 'cloud integration'.
For example, did you know that, in addition to the usual Symbian smartphone functions (Wi-fi, GPS, etc.), the N86 has (and you may want to take a deep breath before reading through the list below):
- an always on OLED clock/date, along the same lines as that on the Symbian^3 phones?
- an FM transmitter, for sending your tunes or podcasts to your car radio?
- full, free voice sat-nav, by virtue of being one of the devices Nokia chose to include in the Ovi Maps 3.4 roll-out?
- UPnP (DLNA) home wi-fi media sharing, something which isn't in all current Symbian phones?
- a 'tempered' glass front - it's not Gorilla Glass, but it still feels great and is much harder to scratch than the N95/N96's plastic fronts?
- a whopping 1200mAh replaceable battery - for its time, mission and screen size, this was more than other smartphones (e.g. N95/N96)?
- an AMOLED display that's actually brighter, indoors, than almost any 2011 phone?
- a built-in 8GB mass memory, in addition to the traditional microSD slot?
- 60MB of free RAM after booting, a full 20MB more than many of its S60 3rd Edition FP2 cousin devices?
- a digital compass, one of the first smartphones in the world to get one?
- a 'best in class by a country mile' (in 2009) 8 megapixel camera that still outperforms most (if not all) of the 8mp camera phones of 2011? Only the likes of the N8 beat it. And it's fast, too. And, uniquely, has a variable aperture, enabling it to adjust to a wide range of light conditions.
- a mechanical camera glass protective slider that also launches the Camera application? This makes for such a smooth standalone camera-like experience and also makes sure finger grease and dust stay off the camera.
- intelligent digital zoom when recording video, so you can zoom in up to 3x without losing any quality whatsoever?
- a built-in kickstand so that you can prop the phone up for video watching or similar?
- a steel chassis, side plates and slide mechanism - just about impossible to break?
- the single best numeric keypad I've ever used on any phone? Plus similarly styled multimedia playback controls on the dual slide.
Admittedly, some of the specifications are now looking a little dated:
- The screen, at 2.6" and QVGA, is looking both small and low-res, when compared to the 3.5" and 4" nHD and WVGA displays of many top smartphones today
- The presence of a T9 keypad only will put many people off - though equally those who grew up with predictive T9 input will still have the muscle memory to bang out text at quite a fast pace
- S60 3rd Edition (FP2) is a little quirky and primitive to navigate round by modern standards - you have to know where some of the apps and settings live!
But the positives significantly outweigh the negatives, especially once you consider that the N86 is an Nseries device, with the extra media editing and playback functions, including extra video codecs and - significantly - Nokia Podcasting, a popular application that was to get rarer and rarer over the next two years. With a few extra choice software additions, you can really make the N86 fly.
Interestingly, when the N86 was conceived, it was as an update of the N85, which looks superficially similar, the idea being to call it the N85 8GB, highlighting the new mass memory disk. But with the new build materials, with the updated keypad and, significantly, the ultra-high (for its day) spec camera and camcorder, the model number eventually got bumped up by one and the 8GB disk was relegated in importance in the name in favour of the camera - the final official name was the "N86 8MP".
Availability in 2011
The N86 is still, surprisingly, widely available around the Internet for £200+, brand new, SIM-free, in both the original black and now white, but it has long been deprecated at official outlets. Your best bet is to buy one from eBay or similar though, as it usually goes for only £80 or so - an absolute steal, considering it'll match the camera performance of many standalone cameras at the same price.
Before going any further, make sure that your acquired N86 has the last firmware, v30.009 (effectively, Product Revision 3). You can check over the air, since this was one of the N86's star attributes (it was one of the very first smartphones to support this) - so type *#0000# on the standby screen and then use 'Options>Check for updates' in the usual way. The N86, of course, has User Data Preservation, so your data shouldn't be affected.
With 16GB microSD cards now very cheap, it makes sense to stick one of these in the card slot, although the 8GB also built in means that storage will likely never be a problem with the N86. And it's worth noting that, along with the N96, the N86 8MP was also one of the very first Symbian devices to use fast USB access, so if you were traumatised by the snail-slow transfer speeds on the N95/N82 you can relax - the N86's USB speeds are up past 1MB/s (i.e. roughly 10Mbps) - not quite up with modern devices, but fast enough for most purposes.
The jet black of the case and glass looks great with the jet black of Tehkseven's Just Black theme, as shown in these photos. Go download now - it's small and free. As I've mentioned numerous times, OLED screens are far more power efficient when run with dark-themed displays (i.e. white and coloured elements on a black or dark background). By all means get colourful if you want, but be prepared for battery life to take a hit.
If you have the rarer white N86, then you'll have to think again, of course. Suggestions welcome on which battery-friendly theme to recommend!
Maps, maps, maps
The last N86 firmware (v30) included Ovi Maps 3.3, which is decent enough, but make a beeline for 'Tools>Software updates' and you should find that Nokia is offering Ovi Maps 3.4, which includes all of the latest 'extras', including place guides and online resources, as shown below, with the continuing free navigation for all. Highly recommended, and the N86 is just superb as a car or (especially) pedestrian navigator. In the latter case, it's unobtrusive when using it, in-hand, to navigate a strange city and nowhere near as droppable or nickable as a large-screened modern touchscreen phone.
Also updated since the N86 was launched has been Google Maps, which made it to v4.1.1 before Google turned their focus to the Symbian-competing Android (will Google ever update Maps for Symbian again? Unlikely!) The current version has Latitude support, built-in voice searching, Street View, Google Buzz integration and other 'layers' and works perfectly on the N86. See m.google.com in Web to get this installed.
The rise and rise of the app store has been a feature of the last couple of years, of course. Nokia's Ovi Store didn't even exist when the N86 was launched, but a launcher for it appears in the latest firmware, even though you'll (naturally) have to download and install the latest client app. The Ovi Store client works pretty well on the N86, though you're limited to just the applications that work on non-touch S60 3rd Edition devices, of course. Still, that's a healthy few thousand and worth browsing round. Skype, shown here, is just one of the many cross-platform software stars now available for all versions of S60/Symbian.
People often talk of the way the S60 interface looks dated in comparison to the mobile OS opposition. But one of the biggest software limitations has been the way email is handled. In fairness, Nokia recognised the limitations of S60's built-in email client ("Messaging") a while ago and have been phasing in their cloud-based take on the concept ("Nokia Messaging"), in which an always online, push-based client syncs neatly to all your traditional and webmail inboxes.
Well, that's the theory anyway. It does work on the N86, as shown above, but it's a complex piece of software, strange things do happen occasionally and, being a Google Mail fan, I sometimes go for the simpler (and equally cloud-based) Gmail (java-based) client option, which also has the advantage that I can interact with the full range of Gmail functions, including starring email, adding emailed contacts and searching through four years of email - almost a hundred thousand emails - in a couple of seconds.
The rise of social networking was also after S60's heyday and the N86's launch, but there are plenty of third party clients. The ubiquitous Gravity works well here for both Twitter and Facebook, though you have to switch its internal themes to the dark version (for OLED/battery purposes) and switch its font to 'Large' to make tweets easier to read. There are Twitter alternatives, not least simply bookmarking Dabr.co.uk in Web, an awesome mobile Twitter interface which offers settings right down to theme level, as shown here.
In addition to uploading from within Gravity or Dabr, Media uploading can be done using Nokia's somewhat antiquated Flickr-enabled Share online, or, better, use one of Furtiv's many service-specific 'Uploaders', all a quid or so in the Ovi Store (one for each social network), shown below right. Plenty of options then!
Although there's no dedicated Facebook client, as such, for S60 3rd Edition, just going to facebook.com in Web produces a competent mobile experience, with your timeline, friend requests and messages up front, and then profile photos and albums and more shown when you drill down into another person's entry.
As with the N96, the N86 came in during the second (and final) age of N-Gage, now sadly defunct (again). If you see a reference to N-Gage in the box or in a corner of the software, best ignore it - the latest firmware even removes the N-Gage client from the device. Which was a shame, since there were some N-Gage games that I really enjoyed (e.g. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09) There are plenty of acceptable casual games in the Ovi Store, mind you, of which my favourite is still the super, and very colourful Micropool, which works really well on the OLED-screened N86. Then there's another long time love, Frozen Bubble. And I'm getting to like Pro Golf 2010, despite being Java-based....
It's fair to say that the N86 won't ever challenge the new breed of large screened smartphones and their 'HD' games though!
The original 'BBC iPlayer' widget has been long superseded by a pure server-side system, i.e. you just to to bbc.co.uk in your web browser and, if you're in the UK, you get offered iPlayer programmes for streaming and for download. With the kickstand, the very bright screen and the stereo speakers, the N86 makes an excellent little mini-TV for accompanying you round the house as you do chores and get dinner ready or do DIY etc.
The N86 is also pretty good at playing back most MP4, WMV and 3GP variants, though compatibility isn't as wide as for the N96 or the newer Symbian^3 phones.
Also notable - well, about all of Nokia's phones, really, is that they work with the various Nokia multimedia headsets, with play/pause/stop/back/forwards and volume controls, which means that you can be in complete control of your music and podcasts while your phone stays tucked in a pocket, away from harm. This is a bit of a generic rant, I know, but I never feel that Nokia gets enough credit for this incredibly useful (and not that commonly copied) feature.
Such multimedia controls don't ship with every Nokia phone - presumably they cost a few more Euros each to make - but they do come with the N86 and most other media-centric models - and you can buy them separately on Amazon for not a lot, if needed. Seek a set out if you don't already own one!
Homescreen widgets? Not quite
The modern trend seems to be to bring as much online information as possible to the phone homescreen. Typically, there would be your latest Twitter feed tweets, the subjects of the last few emails received, the day's weather forecast and any news headlines. Some of this information is present in the S60 3rd Edition FP2 homescreen in embryonic form.
- list of upcoming Calendar appointments
- Music player/Podcasting control
- summary of waiting unread emails and the sender and subject of the most recent one
- summary of Share online media updates (I don't use these, so it's left in setup mode in the screenshot)
- shortcut to Gravity
Most of the other information I need day to day is handled by bookmarks in Web, to local weather, TV listings, and so on.
(The eagle eyed will spot the Gmail client icon in the shortcuts list too - this is err.... belt and braces. I do love my Gmail! 8-) )
Using a multi-hundred pound smartphone as an LED torch may seem completely over the top, but it's actually a terrific tool - your phone will always be with you, for that 20 second dash to the dustbins in the dark! And the N86's twin LEDs are surprisingly bright. There's no built-in way to permanently activate them, but there's a £1.50 third party app that will and which comes highly recommended - PhoneTorch.
The launch screen and the effect - demoed on the 5800, but you get the idea!)
As usual with any Symbian phone, there are a few 'expert' settings that you have to know about if you want to get the most from your phone. Here are just a few that are pertinent to the N86:
- I mentioned above that the N86 sported an 'always on OLED clock'. This is turned off by default, I'm guessing there's a small battery drain, of the order of a few percent - I tried measuring it and it's certainly less than a few milliamps. But it's a very handy 'feature' of the phone, giving the time without even pressing a button. To enable it, go to 'Tools>Settings>General>Personalisation>Themes>Power saver'. There are various options for what's actually displayed - I prefer 'Date', which actually means date and time - importantly. Some of the other options in this dialog are only temporary, shown for a while, but the 'Date' option stays on-screen all the time, using OLED's handy power characteristics.
- The default standby (home) screen on the N86 includes a big bar for Ovi Chat (now Yahoo!?) - something which most people will never use. There's no obvious way to remove this, but if you go to 'Tools>Settings>General>Personalisation>Standby mode>Standby theme', you'll find you can choose 'Horizontal icon bar' instead - which is the same as the default homescreen but without the space-wasting Ovi Chat section.
- By default, the kickstand launches Photos - this is a handy tech demo for the feature, but usually you'll have whatever you wanted to see already on screen and the appearance of a different app just gets in the way. Go to 'Tools>Settings>General>Personalisation>Kickstand' and you'll find you can select it and choose 'None' as the appropriate action. Far better.
- Some of the advanced sensor behaviour seen in 2011 smartphones has been in the N86 right from the start. You can silence calls and snooze alarms by just turning the N86 over. Go to 'Tools>Settings>General>Sensor settings>Turning control' and check the sensor features you want to use.
Comments welcome if you have your own N86 story - how do you use this classic little smartphone in 2011?
Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 8 June 2011