Review: Nokia N76
At the launch of the N76, Nokia stated "With the Nokia N76 multimedia computer, technology and design come together to create a revolution in design for a multimedia computer. Using premium materials to enclose world-class Nokia Nseries features and experiences, Nokia has created a very eye-catching device."
A number of things about the N76 puzzle me, of which more later, but "a revolution in design"? Even the most casual observer can't help notice the similarities between Motorola's iconic RAZR feature phone and this new smartphone. OK, it's the first genuine 'smartphone' to be styled like this, but still....
It's also worth watching Nokia's own design video for the N76, giving an insight into what the designers were trying to do. In the perfectly lit offices of the design studio and with everyone keeping things squeaky clean, it's easy to be very, very impressed. Back out in the real world, it's considerably less so, I'm afraid.
I'll get the tech spec out the way quickly and come back to it later in more detail. Under the hood, this is standard Nokia Nseries fare, i.e. S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1, similar to that in the Nokia N95, but with less gadgetry to play with. There's no Wi-Fi, only a 2 megapixel fixed-focus camera, no HSDPA, no landscape mode, no GPS (of course). Still, the N76 still runs an impressive smartphone software package.
Build quality is good, too, with metal and chrome dominating, though there are apparently a few compromises made to achieve the 7mm thickness (rising to 13mm at its thickest point). Chiefly the way the battery has to sit upside down (with the power pins flush to the phone's rear surface) and the clumsy way the SIM card has to be caddied rather than simply slid into place - a strange design. And, as other web sites have reported, the positioning of the USB port and 3.5mm headphone socket on the top of the N76, where they foul the lid and stop it opening all the way. Still, if 'thinness' is important to you...
Along with the 13mm thickness, the N76 achieves 'style' by virtue of being very shiny, with chrome inserts on front and back and with a mirror-finish external screen/cover. In addition, the main keypad surround is also mirrored. Now mirrors are fine for their intended purpose and are usually hidden away in handbags and on walls for good reason, to keep them away from greasy fingerprints and dirt. So let's go over the rationale for putting mirrors on the outside of a mass market smartphone again, shall we, Nokia? On a device that's going to be picked up and handled in a wide variety of possibly greasy and messy every day situations, all day, every day. As you can see below, it's the front cover that attracts the worst of the prints:
Opening up the clamshell cover reveals the main display, of course, along with the aforesaid shiny keypad. Thankfully, the etched keypad is first class and every marking has excellent mechanical feedback - I take back everything I ever said about flat keypads:
The main display is QVGA and lovely indoors, but suffers from the same design flaw as the N93i (for example), in that its construction means almost complete invisibility in bright light, with the display also turning into a mirror:
This is in complete contrast to the still superlative displays being used in Nokia's Eseries devices (and even older Nseries, e.g. the N93), which are quite superb in sunlight - I suspect that the Nseries division has gone down this technological route in a drive to 'up' the number of screen colours for impressive indoor viewing, but it's a sacrifice that's too big, in my opinion - I'd rather have a display that I can actually read out in the real world.
As already mentioned, the metallic construction and build quality is excellent. There's an E90-like 'slide and fold' microSD card slot on the left side of the N76:
The hole beneath the slot is for the standard Nokia mini charging jack. On the right side of the N76 are volume up/down buttons and Camera mode and Camera shutter buttons.
A long press on the latter is enough to launch the two megapixel camera (note the LED flash in the photos), with the external screen (only 1.25" diagonal, don't let that large mirror surface fool you) acting as a small and makeshift viewfinder, with the three music controls acting as 'Exit', menu and 'Settings' respectively. Thankfully, the camera also works well with the clamshell open, in which case the full 2.4" screen can be the viewfinder, even if the resulting camera form factor is not exactly elegant.
The screen contrast problems rear their ugly head here too. Most smartphone cameras produce good results only in good light, exactly the circumstances under which you can't really read either screen on the N76. Grrr...... In short, the camera is hamstrung. The photographs that you do take, in good light, are as good as on many other Nseries devices and certainly a cut above the average non-Nokia camera-toting smartphone. Video recording is at 320 by 240 pixels by 15 frames per second, but again you can't really tell what you're shooting when the light's good enough to shoot in.
The bottom of the N76 sees the main (mono) speaker aperture and a lanyard hole, while the top sees a 3.5mm stereo jack, a rubber-flapped miniUSB socket and the regular power button. Having a 'standard' stereo jack is always helpful, but the quality of music over the supplied headphones wasn't anything special, with plenty of hiss in quiet passages and a really annoying one second delay when pausing or resuming playback - it's easy to think that the external controls aren't working for a split second. There's also no current A2DP support for Bluetooth stereo headphones, but there's hope that both these problems can be rectified in a firmware update in the future.
Music formats supported include all the usual varieties of MP3 and unencrypted AAC, plus unencrypted WMA as well, always good to have. The external display works well for controlling playback, with an animated equaliser interpreting the music:
In terms of smartphone/S60 functions, the applications here are much the same as on any other Nseries device, although with prominent placement of Lifeblog, Search and Download! icons, it seems that Internet integration is being well handled here. There's the usual Visual radio but, curiously, no Quickoffice viewer in the firmware itself - this is in the Download! section and can be grabbed and installed if the user needs it.
One plus point is the inclusion of more RAM than on all other Nseries devices so far. With 45MB free after booting, as opposed to only 18MB or so on the theoretically much higher-end and demanding Nokia N95, maybe Nokia has finally, finally learned a lesson here. Having the extra RAM means no more Support calls from confused users complaining that they keep running 'out of memory'.
The N76, currently on exclusive in the UK to Vodafone, is bundled with some music tracks and, together with the prominent, dedicated music controls on the front cover, give clues as to where the industry perceives this device should be positioned. In truth, it's not a bad music phone, with a 2GB microSD loaded up with WMA or AAC tracks, your favourite in-ear 3.5mm headphones and the front controls, you're all set for some pretty good listening - at least you are once they've fixed the A2DP, the hiss and the button delay in a firmware update.
Currently though, with these music player issues, with the camera functions hamstrung by the appalling display characteristics, and with S60 available in many other form factors these days, about all the N76 has got going for it is its sense of style.
And, of course, that's what the designers were aiming at, above all. A trinket of a smartphone that will let its owners look good while out and about in clubs and pubs. (There was even a design contest recently whereby you got to design your own N76 cover!) And, let's be honest, its S60-hosted Internet functions knock spots off any competing feature phones out there, so it's important not to be too dismissive.
The N76 isn't a bad smartphone, it's just one that hasn't had all its functions and aspects thought out properly. As a result, it's (probably) one which won't appeal to the vast majority of readers of this review.
Steve Litchfield, 20 June 2007
PS. In case you do want to buy an N76, here's the relevant link to the Nokia Shop. Its unlocked price is probably too high, at £350 inc VAT, but you can also go through Vodafone to get the N76 for free with a modest SIM contract and I expect most sales to come from this route.
There's no doubting the diminutive size of the Nokia N76, or the gorgeous styling, but I worry that its perfect looks will be spoilt in the real world.
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at