Here at Gaming Nexus, we’re all about games, how people play them, and what people play them on. With mobile gaming receiving a big focus at E3 2006, I spent a lot of my time speaking with people in the cellular phone gaming market. One of the companies I met with was Nokia, specifically about the expansion of the N*Gage gaming platform from the the N*Gage and N*Gage QD to all of their S60 smartphones.
During this discussion, one of the representatives showed me a prototype for the Nokia N93, and I was in awe. Nokia decided to sculpt the N Series devices to cater to specific interests, with the various models appealing towards unique uses. The N93 is the video entry into this line. Even with the focus on video, in this one device there was nearly everything one could want in their pocket: a near-DVD quality video camera, a digital camera, MP3 player, web browser, an amazing screen, a mobile video game platform, and of course, a phone. While my interest was primarily in the gaming capabilities, this new direction in phones was something I had to try for myself. It took a few months for Nokia to get them into production, and another couple to get one in my hot little hands, but now I can finally tell you all about what turned out to be quite an amazing product.
Let’s start with the obvious, the video camera. I’ve never owned a camcorder, but after carrying the N93 around for 2 weeks, I don’t know how I ever did without one. From catching highlight moments of the Columbus Blue Jackets in action to getting some footage of my two cats playing for posterity’s sake, the video camera in this unit is simply amazing. Using Carl Zeiss optics, the video camera captures VGA quality (640x480) at 30 frames per second for up to 60 minutes in length. So, while it isn’t quite designed to make major motion pictures with, you can certainly record nearly anything else.
The video quality is very good, with 3x optical/8x digital zoom, so can movie in for the movie star close-up of your cat, or whatever else you like. The default video format is .mp4, so it’s MPEG-4 compliant without conversion, and can also save videos as .3gp for video messaging. Of course, no video camera is complete without audio, and this one is no different. Every video recording comes with 48 KHz audio, which from my experience was distortion free and worked nicely even from a relatively far distance.
Probably the best feature of the video camera is that is very easy to use. When flipping the phone open, simply twist the display portion of the phone so that it is 90 degrees in relation to the keypad. The video camera will activate automatically, and once you take the lens cap off (which I forgot to do on a couple of occasions), you’re all set to start recording. A few buttons and a smallish hat switch are all that are used to operate the camera, with the zoom controlled through a thumb wheel surrounding the record button on the side of the phone so that it faces you while recording. Overall, I took about 3 hours worth of movies and can’t say enough about this feature. For gamers, it’s the perfect way to capture that high score, or the final moments of marathon gaming before reaching that next level in World of Warcraft.
While nearly every phone these days comes with a color screen, few phones come with a screen like the one on the N93. At 2.4 inches and 320 by 240 pixels, the QVGA screen doesn’t rival the size of the screen on ultra portable notebooks, but it feels very large when using it. Whether recording or watching video, browsing the web, playing games, or just winding your way through the myriad options of the S60 user interface, everything looks good on the N93’s display, capable of up to 262k colors. While the primary display is impressive, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the external screen, which comes in at a little over one inch in size, and displays 65k colors. Not bad for a screen most people will use to display the time and see who is calling.
Now some people might think that a cell phone with a video camera and a big screen had everything it needs, but Nokia didn’t stop there. Wanting to make sure uses could take not just video, but stills as well; a 3.2 megapixel digital camera was built into unit near the earpiece. The pictures out of this camera are better than that of any previous camera phone I’ve worked with, which isn’t surprising considering the optics I saw with the video. It doesn’t rival the image quality of today’s mid-range (5 megapixel and 10x optical zoom) point and shoot digital cameras, but it does come loaded with features including white balance, scene selection, color tone, and auto focus on items as little as 10 centimeters from the camera. I don’t think anyone will be buying it for the digital camera, but it’s certainly another excellent feature.
Now that I’ve pretty much exhausted the video capabilities, let’s talk audio a bit. I mentioned the audio recording capabilities, but as I mentioned above the N93 is of course a fully capable MP3 player. The audio player supports all the standard formats, and will play with or without headphones, thanks to the aforementioned speaker. Music quality through the speaker was quite good, but for full MP3 quality sound, I’d still recommend headphones.
What makes the MP3 player functionality of the N93 particularly nice is the Nokia Music Manager, which makes the process of ripping and transferring very simple. You can also sync your music library to Windows Media Player on your PC and share playlists via Bluetooth, messaging, or email. And for those times when you want to hear something new, simply turn on the built in stereo, and tune in for something new to add to your collection.
My original interest was of course in the phones usage of N*Gage gaming. Unfortunately, we’re still a few months from the release of the new gaming platform. Thankfully Nokia includes a multi-level demo of System Rush: Evolution. While I think the game itself leaves a bit to be desired, graphically it really shows that the N93 is capable of in terms of gaming. The game play is impressive in terms of frame rate, video and audio quality, and really makes tremendous use of the units’ large screen.
Sadly, one of the very few issues I had with the unit involve the gaming controls. While most people may find them adequate, I just don’t know that the 5 way scroll key is what I expected in terms of game control. I know this unit isn’t designed to be the “be all, end all” in terms of cellular gaming, but I think that engaging the phone keys may be better option for future games. With a limited sample, it’s hard to tell how other games will perform. This small issue with the controls is certainly easily outweighed by the impressive video capabilities, which easily put my Nintendo DS to shame, and comparable favorably to the quality of the PSP.
To support all of this impressive functionality, Nokia included some equally impressive supporting features. For starters, a 128 MB mini-SD card is included in the box with every N93 so you’re not forced to go off looking for storage the first day you have the phone. At some point, you’ll likely be looking for a bigger card, but it’s certainly more than enough to get the user started. To get files back and forth from phone to PC and vice-versa, the phone comes with integrated 802.11 g/b wireless LAN capabilities and a USB connectivity cable. There are video out ports built in, so you don’t have to transfer video to PC to watch it on a large screen, just hook the phone up to the TV and press play.
The software to support all of this is the Nokia PC suite, along with Adobe Photoshop SE, Adobe Premiere Elements, and Home Media Server. The Nokia Suite is a custom app designed to make file transfers, file syncing and other standard smartphone tasks easy. I didn’t get as much time as I would have liked to explore the software, but the interface is pleasant and easy to use, and transferring movies and songs was simple.
I want to talk specifically about one piece of software that comes on the phone, and that’s the web browser. The N93 has absolutely the best implementation of a phone based web browser that I have ever seen. In what is a combination of the features of the S60 interface and the large screen, the browser combines the ideal level of miniaturization and scrolling to make browsing on the go simple. I still wouldn’t suggest doing it while driving, but I won’t say that I wasn’t catching up on hockey scores at stoplights on the drive home. What makes this especially pleasant is that by continuing to turn the screen past 90 degrees, you can make it fully parallel with the keypad to use the display in a “widescreen” form factor to further reduce the amount of side-scrolling of web pages.
The last feature I haven’t touched on is the basic phone itself. The N93 performed admirably in at its core function, with no problems when used with either the Cingular or T-Mobile networks.
While this phone is truly amazing Swiss army knife of pocket sized electronic goodness, it is not without a few, mostly very minor flaws. To start, I am not impressed with the keyboard. It may just be that my demo unit has been around the block a few times, but a couple of the keys are overly touchy while others are not touchy enough. This is likely just an issue with this unit, but if I were to redesign it, I’d probably replace the keyboard with something closer to the keypad on my Nokia 6103b, which has an excellent keypad and is a bargain priced phone.
Another issue I noticed is that when using the phone I had trouble getting comfortable while using the device as a phone. I’m a bigger guy, so while this phone measures in at 5 inches long, two inches long, and an inch deep, it felt a bit awkward against my face in phone mode. It didn’t stay that way the entire time I used the phone, but due to the size and form factor, it took some getting used to.
The last issue I noticed that most users probably won’t see as a major issue was the battery cover. For a unit with a $700 SRP, this is easily one of the flimsiest pieces of plastic I’ve ever seen. I was switching back and forth between the SIM chip for my personal cell, and the one that Nokia was kind enough to provide to limit the costs incurred in reviewing the unit, and on several occasions felt I was going to break the latches on the battery cover as I removed or replaced it.
These small issues aside, it’s easy to love the N93. While it may not be the final answer in mobile gaming, it certainly offers a lot of amazing features to go with the N*Gage platform in a convenient package. I have to say so long as you can afford one, there really isn’t anyone I wouldn’t recommend this product to. There are a lot of things I get to try that I wouldn’t buy, but this is one of those products that after trying I am definitely going to try to pick up.