Wednesday, June 11, 2008

iPhone vs N95 - Form Factor and Build Quality - Part 1

Let’s start things off with a bit of background information. I’ve been an S60 enthusiast for basically 18 months now and have had the privilege of extensively using/owning an N73, N75, N95-3 and most recently an N95-4. I’m a Mac user by preference and trade since I work in the Digital Media Production industry. The iPhone was my primary handset on and off for the past 10 months but after I was gifted an N95-4 that quickly changed. The N95-4 has been my primary mobile for almost 3 weeks now. Here is my perspective from being a former iPhone user who still relies on his Mac for desktop computing needs day in and day out. This article is based on using a factory fresh N95-4 with Symbian Series 60 FP1 running firmware version 1.2.011 and an iPhone with Mac OS X Mobile version 1.1.4 without the use of Jailbroken 3rd Party Apps.

Part 1 of this series will explore the Form Factor and Hardware Design of both devices.

The first thing I noticed when picking up my N95-4 was how well it feels in my hand. Everything from the soft contoured rubbery back to its handy ability to stand upright or in landscape mode on its own has been really refreshing coming from an iPhone. Though the slider form factor isn’t my preference I have grown accustomed to utilizing its benefits (more on that later) more often than its annoyances. The N95-4 also has analog “soft keys” which have been a real boon to my productivity since I’m able to set two shortcuts right off the bat, and pressing an analog button just has its own reassuring feel that is hard to describe into words and is considerably more effective when in a car, walking down the street or riding in a bumpy subway.

Did I mention how much I appreciate the fact that the N95-4 can stand upright or in landscape mode on its own? This comes in super handy when watching a video or using my handset as a portable boombox. It’s also great for taking hands-free pictures or recording video whether they are one off exposures or time lapsed ones!

One big benefit of having the slider form factor is answering calls with wet hands. You might be thinking, “what’s the big deal?” but I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve missed when I used to have an iPhone full time. In my experience I’m a lot less likely to answer a call on an iPhone with wet hands vs the N95. Since all you have to do is slide the N95 upwards you can basically get away with doing that and not being concerned with “are my hands dry enough to slide the Multi-Touch answer call virtual button on my iPhone’s naked screen?” The N95 is more practical as an actual mobile phone in my opinion and this is only one aspect where it excels and is only noticeable with extended use.

Speakerphone calls are shamefully poor on an iPhone. Yes I said it and I’m sure over 95% of iPhone owners will agree with me. What was Apple even thinking when they decided to include that pathetic monaural speaker on the bottom of their $600 (original selling price for the first two months of sale) “Smartphone”? I’ll tell you what I don’t know but my best guess is that it was a design afterthought (just like the pitiful 2MP camera with no AF/Flash/Video recording capability but I’ll get to that later). Even my former S40 handset (the 6126) completely put the iPhone’s speakerphone to shame for calls AND music and it was $50 (subsidized) at the time of purchase! The N95-4 on the other hand is a beast when it comes to everything from being an excellent speakerphone during calls to a portable boombox when it comes time to playing a digital audio file for a small group of people.

Recently I was at Home Depot and decided to take a few pictures utilizing the N95-4’s macro focus mode. Since there were 2 instances where a price check was necessary those photos ended up saving me a ton of time because the cashier was able to read the price and product catalog number from the “on sale” labels that I photographed! Up until this experience I never imagined a mobile handset could save me time (and money) at a hardware store. There was actually a carpenter in line behind me who commended me and said that “I’m going to use your idea and get a mobile with a better camera” to which I replied “Nokia makes some of the best camera phones in the world”. Oh and let’s not forget about the iPhone here. On one hand it does a totally decent job of capturing images quickly (the camera App launches in 2 seconds flat) and slickly with little noticeable digital artifacting (think digital noise) in broad daylight but once the sun goes down or you’re indoors with minimal available light, its built-in 2MP camera goes from useful to pretty much useless! Since there is no built-in flash or auto-focus the camera suffers from basically being little more than a tacked on afterthought which is surprising coming from Apple since all of their portable notebook computers have been shipping with a high quality built-in camera (iSight=AF+640×480 video at 30fps) for over 2 years now.

Not only does the N95-4 have a 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss (he was a renowned microscope optics pioneer) lens but its S60 software is smart enough to actually make the most of that built-in hardware. Being able to take beautiful and effective macro photographs with a mobile handset is more powerful than I could’ve anticipated originally. It also performs admirably in low light conditions with its LED flash (though not as well as the N82’s Xenon flash) and it also records VGA quality video up to 30 fps (though it tends to fluctuate from 25-29fps most of the time). Since the iPhone still can’t officially record video whatsoever it wouldn’t be a fair comparison to make and so the N95 basically offers more here for not much more of an initial investment.

Now that I’ve mentioned some of the positive aspects here are my primary gripes regarding the N95-4’s form factor:

* T9 is bearable but after growing so accustomed to QWERTY Multi-Touch on the iPhone my WPM have dropped from 30 to 15 (forget about clicking through with soft keys to add a new word into the built-in dictionary which takes considerably more effort than my iPhone ever did).
* An un-recessed full sized headphone jack is great to have but its placement leaves much to be desired if you plan on slipping the N95 back and forth into a pair of jeans often.
* Slider form factor can get really tiresome since it tends to slide open and closed on its own at times (when you least expect it) and forget about setting the auto keypad lock when slide closed to “On”, unless you want to add an extra headache to your day.
* QVGA (320×240 vs the iPhone’s 480×320) screen resolution limits Web browsing productivity since even with the website overview mode there is considerably more panning and zooming that tends to get frustrating really quickly coming from the iPhone’s expansive use of screen real estate with Safari Mobile (this goes for viewing most PDF documents too).

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