Back in February, Nokia revealed its first 8-megapixel cameraphone – a basic update of the N85 (a phone we always rated as vastly superior to the N96).
For some reason, it has taken ages to actually get the phone on sale, although Nokia may have been deliberately waiting until the build-up to Christmas to start promoting the handset, which it has done with a tie-in with top photographer David Bailey.
His gallery showed how good the phone is at taking pictures in a range of different situations, especially low-light, and you could be excused for not realising that behind the camera lies a powerful smartphone.
We received our review handset from Virgin Media, a network that some people may not associate with high-end mobile phones. In reality, the virtual operator has been doing big things in the world of mobile of late, introducing a range of high-end 3G mobiles and promoting mobile broadband. The handset has minimal operator branding, which was very pleasing.
The N86 8MP is running the latest Series 60 3rd Edition user interface and feature pack. Although the model number is ‘N86 8MP’, it could just easily have been called ‘N86 8GB’, because it also comes with 8GB of internal storage, plus a card slot that can add a further 32GB. The N86 also has a OLED display, offering an incredibly high contrast ratio and bright colours; but with the downside of compromising readability in bright sunlight. It’s a price worth paying for a vastly better screen, especially if you’re prepared to use a high-contrast theme which helps you see things easier when outdoors.
Besides the camera, the big change is the improved keypad, with more defined numeric and media buttons (the latter being hidden until you slide the screen downwards, see above picture). Such a simple change makes the phone even better for ordinary tasks, like making calls, entering texts or writing emails. On the upper-slide, the soft keys and call buttons are nicely spaced, leaving the only disappointment coming from the navigation button. This feels a little too spongy, and it’s all too easy to move around a menu when you’re trying to press it in to select something. It’s something you have to get used to, yet it’s certainly not as bad as other Nokia offerings.
As the main focus (sic) of the N86 is the camera, this is the area that I took most time to test. Low-light photography was highlighted by Nokia as one of its strongest features, so the first surprise is the twin-LED flash instead of a more logical Xenon flash. Bright as LEDs are, a Xenon flash would be essential for lighting up your subjects in low light, so you’ll need to get people to stand closer to the camera if you want to capture them properly. But in reality it still draws in a lot more light (and therefore detail) in dark conditions, more like that of an ordinary digital camera.
A wider than normal lens allows you to get more of the locality in the shot, but the real benefit is the reduction of camera noise, enabling you to take more photos in the dark without the flash at all.
It’s obviously not quite up there with a standalone digital camera, but coupled with a shutter cover that automatically activates and deactivates the camera, it’s still an impressive effort and the only real things you’ll miss are a Xenon flash and optical zoom.
The N97 recently highlighted a problem with the lens cover scratching the lens if dirt or grit gets stuck inbetween. Although the N86 has a similar cover, there’s actually a slight indentation that keeps the two surfaces separate. Time will tell if this is enough to prevent any scratching or not.
The rest of the phone is the standard Series 60 fare, with a suite of Nokia and Ovi applications (including Maps and Ovi Store) and N-Gage. Ovi Maps takes full advantage of the integrated digital compass (aka magnetometer), rotating the map in real time to really help you when using it on foot.
I did notice that it had a tendency to think I was moving around even when it was sitting still on a desk, so it isn’t quite as impressive as Google Maps running on an iPhone 3G S or Android.
What neither of these handsets have, however, is the battery life that the N86 offers. The OLED display consumes far less power, and having a slower processor may have obvious downsides (3D games aren’t as slick for one), but this is a smartphone that can actually go for two or three days with moderate usage.
It’s probably not fair or right to compare this to a touchscreen phone, and another advantage of the N86 is that it appeals to people who prefer real keys, which are particularly good on this phone. It also proves why Series 60 works better without touch, and why 5th Edition still has a way to go to getting things right.
As Nokia is still preferring to use 5-megapixel cameras on its new handsets, the N86 stands out for anyone that takes photography seriously. It may not have the ‘pizzazz’ of the latest crop of phones, but it is a solid, dependable, handset and the ideal upgrade for anyone still hanging on dearly to their N95 or N95 8GB.
Series 60 has been around a while, but as long as Nokia keep using it in well-designed handsets it will continue to be the phone of choice for a large number of users. If the N85 was a great phone, the N86 is even better. The camera is excellent, with near noise-free shots even in low light. The phone is easier to use because of an improved keypad and the battery life continues to benefit from the OLED display (although that means it’s also still a bit hard to view in bright sunlight). A top-spec phone with great usability makes this one of our top picks. Say goodbye to the N95!