Nokia N85 review – Or never leave home without your Blackberry

nokia-n85I’m gonna say it yet again, just so there’s no question: I will never relinquish my Blackberry Curve. Anyone who thinks they can part me from this little piece of handheld perfection will have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands. And even then I might deliver one of those post-mortem, loogie spit-spasms right between your eyes or at least haunt and plague your decedents’ cell phones from the outer edge of limbo until my spirit is exorcised through a séance with a dozen virgins and an Everything Omelet. Nevertheless, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that someday someone will improve upon the Curve, which is why I accepted the offer to play with and honestly report on the new Nokia N85.

First, the good stuff. The N85 is sexy. Sleek and minimalist while closed and only slightly less so when opened. The screen is huge and clear and the dual slider face elicited a lot of oohs and aahs from bystanders. The N85’s exhilarating list of specs and features is truly something to behold. There’s a bunch of pre-loaded games (trial versions only), a radio receiver and FM transmitter so you can wirelessly pipe music stored on the phone through your car stereo, boom box or whatever, GPS, a five megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and flash, eight gig memory card, tiny, little stereo speakers, email wizard, web browser, video center, MP3 player, USB, Bluetooth, 3G and wi-fi connectivity… And I’m just getting started.

The mere fact that the N85 is the size of a Milky Way bar, with the combined features from gadgets that, not even five years ago, would have filled the trunk of a small car, is the kind of technological advancement that geeks have been waiting for since Star Wars (with the notable absence of a Lightsaber). Even if you had a year alone in a room with this thing, you could never conceivably master or even put to good use all of its features. That said, unfortunately, bugs, an awkward interface and challenging usability detract from the phone’s dizzying potential.

Let’s start with interface: Admittedly, I’m spoiled. The Blackberry Curve has a full physical keyboard that’s quick, responsive and accurate (as accurate as a full keyboard that’s 1″ x 2″ can be). There’s nothing else better, including the iPhone. Due to my extended absence from the world of cell phone ownership (approximately 2003-2007, not counting the bare-bones toy phone I carried around Romania and Italy for two years), I effectively made the giant leap from an analogue phone straight to the Blackberry. As such, I had almost zero experience trying to enter information or SMS messages using only the standard phone keypad, a maddening, ungainly task I consider to be the 21st century equivalent of Morse Code.

To make matters worse, the one (and possibly only) thing that the N85 doesn’t do is that auto-complete for common words shortcutthingiewhatsits that most keypad-only phones have. That failing, and my unfamiliarity with this form of ‘typing’, meant every text message took eons to compose. If I was reduced to writing full emails with the N85, I’d almost certainly need (more) therapy to cope with the tremors it would cause over time. Also, and it may have been because I had a refurbished phone abused by 10 testers before me, but the buttons were non-responsive unless you hit them just right. Other people who played with the phone reported the same problem.

The ‘Navi wheel’, a.k.a. ‘scroll key’, was also clumsy. Admittedly, I also have misgivings about the combo roller/clicker ball on the Curve. I’ve played with the sensitivity adjustment on that thing for a year and still haven’t found something that doesn’t cause me to routinely careen past or stop short of the icon I’m aiming for and misfire a regrettable click that isn’t easily undone. Still, overall, my Blackberry’s roller ball will out point-and-click the N85’s Navi wheel with its ball tied behind its back. The Nokia just asks too much of my thumb to be bouncing around four sides of the so-called ‘wheel’ and perfuming multiple action clicks in the center. And with the admittedly eye-pleasing minimalist design of the N85, you’re forced to drill down into countless menus to accomplish even the simplest tasks, where I could do the same after punching only one shortcut button on my Blackberry. I was constantly mis-navigating, a problem that was exacerbated by the N85’s often very slow response time (which it appears is the price you pay for cramming so much functionality into the limited processing power of a smartphone).

Another annoyance was the camera’s slide door. It was just too frakking easy to accidentally slide it open, a goof that automatically takes you directly to the camera app, meaning whatever awesome cards you’re holding over at the World Series of Poker game are put into jeopardy.

Now the real reason I hauled this thing across seven time zones was for the GPS feature. Navigating roads in Italy is little better now than in Roman times – the roads are in better condition now, but the signage is worse – and I needed all the help I could get. I know I can’t hold this against the phone, but unfortunately, just getting the effing thing to work properly took over a week. This was mostly due to the lack of foresight and prep between me and the Nokia people. First, I didn’t have the right code to activate the walking and driving instructions feature. Then I couldn’t activate it without being in a wi-fi cloud, which took several days as wi-fi in Tuscany is still at Third World stages and when there is wi-fi, it’s almost always password protected due to Italy’s bafflingly strict internet “privacy laws”. Then there was the time that I carelessly allowed the N85 to connect to Vodafone’s (my cellular provider in Italy) data service, when, despite using the GPS sparingly and internet almost not at all, the phone somehow sucked down 15 euros worth of credit in just 24 hours.

After further performance problems, the Nokia people asked me to download and install the next version of the GPS software. Once again, ridiculous amounts of time and energy went into this task, as I needed both my laptop and the phone connected to a wi-fi hub to complete installation. Then the upgrade somehow wiped out the spoken word driving instructions feature, which I discovered too late to correct while I still had access to the hotel wi-fi I’d paid so dearly for, which meant another day of sweeping the air outside of apartment buildings and hotels, hoping to catch an unsecured wi-fi hub so I could re-download a voice guidance package.

Also, the new version of the GPS software wasn’t quite happy to work with the N85’s operating system, because the phone crashed on me a few times while I was using it for driving instructions. At least when it died, it would kindly signal me of its demise by making a high pitched, squawking noise like an audio tape being fast-forwarded. The only way to get the phone working again after a crash was to remove the battery for a minute or so, then let it do a cold boot. I became quite skilled at cursing in four languages in one breath while performing this task.

Also, and I understand that this is true with any GPS device, but you need to take the driving directions it provides more as a suggestion than the gospel. There were often times when the phone insisted that I take turns that didn’t exist, or tried to send me down restricted or one-way streets, or go infuriatingly silent when I was approaching a roundabout with five exits. In large, dense cities, like Siena and Livorno, when I really could have used the help, it was rendered almost useless by the prohibitive tangle of streets and interference caused by tightly packed buildings. And once in a while, during an otherwise problem-free cruise, it would throw out the random ‘now perform a U-turn’, just to fornicate with me.

After the third or fourth death-squawk, I seriously contemplated pulling into a scenic outlook and hurling the N85 off a cliff to be ravaged by scavenging goats below. Why not? I had already been forced to buy a road map, since I was having such spotty success using the GPS, and even though relying on the map required me to pull over more often than when I used the phone, at least with the map there were no performance issues. The only thing that kept me from testing its air-worthiness was that, when it worked, the N85’s GPS was my savior.

When it wasn’t adhering to a French work schedule with a hypochondriac’s craving for attention, the N85 saved me significant amounts of time and frustration on the bewildering roads of Tuscany. Though it must be said that this hot-cold performance was like dating a charming asshole. It would let me down over and over, but then, just as I was getting ready to throw it out of the house and give its prized record collection to the Salvation Army, it would do something totally amazing and redeem itself. Then the cycle would start all over again.

In retrospect, I can honestly say that I was very happy to have the N85 with me on the road. The GPS set-up/upgrade headaches and occasional unnecessary detours into olive groves aside, overall the N85 undeniably improved my trip. Lesser, but nonetheless appreciated assistance it provided included the quicker and boarder wi-fi scanning range over the Blackberry and the vastly superior photo quality.

This phone certainly has a target audience that will promptly lose bladder control when they get their hands on it, I’m unfortunately just not one of them.