The Nokia N85, one of the latest premium devices in Nokia’s N-series, is an unlocked phone with an OLED display that will run on AT&T’s 3G network as well as T-Mobile’s slower EDGE network. Since it’s unlocked, you don’t have to sign a contract with a carrier to own it, but that means it’s going to cost you more than a subsidized handset would. For a pricey $492, you’ll enjoy a 5-megapixel camera with flash, 8GB of storage, a good Web browser, solid music and video playback, and exceptional gaming all in the palm of your hand. However, the call quality on this device and battery life were disappointing.
The most striking feature about the N85 is its large and absolutely stunning 320 x 240-pixel, 2.6-inch organic light emitting diode (OLED) display. While most phones’ LED displays offer between 65,000 and 262,000 colors, the N85’s OLED palette offers 16.7 million colors, which makes images and icons pop beautifully.
The N85 has a black gloss face with the same silver 5-way directional pad found on other N-series devices. The Send/End keys look chintzy and felt a bit stiff to us, as did the lower left menu key.
Slide the front of the device up to access a somewhat cramped alphanumeric keyboard; after a day of use, we were typing comfortably on it. Slide the phone’s display downward, and the screen will switch into landscape mode and four buttons appear out of the top of the device; these are the Play/Pause and Skip keys for video files. When you’re playing games, they can also serve as control keys.
We love the 3.5mm headphone jack that’s placed directly next to a mini-USB charging port on the top of the phone. The back of the device has a copper gloss coloring as well as a 5-MP camera and dual-LED flash.
The N85 sports the Symbian S60 Version 3 Feature Pack 2 operating system. The new feature pack makes it easier to switch between applications using the active applications toolbar, and the home screen can be customized to display six of your most used applications. Below these icons is a search box, a calendar, any notification of paused or playing media, and a wireless status indicator. There’s even the option to share your images or view comments on social networks such as Flickr, Ovi, and Vox directly from the home screen, but you can’t add additional networks like Facebook or MySpace.
When you click the device’s Menu option you’re presented with a standard home screen offering that provides shortcuts to Contacts, your music, Photos, the Web, and more. We noticed that the device was zippy while we moved through menus, but within applications such as the photo gallery, it felt sluggish.
Messaging and E-mail
The N85 is one of a handful of devices that supports Nokia’s new E-mail software, which pushes your messages down to the handset. To get started, we created an account on Nokia’s Web site and add in the e-mail accounts we wanted to access on our phone (you can also add e-mail accounts right from the phone). Next, we logged into the E-mail application on the N85 using the account settings we designated online. Within a minute, our two linked e-mail accounts were available. While e-mail was sent to the phone fairly quickly, it’s not as efficient as that on BlackBerry devices; some messages took more than 20 minutes to arrive. Still, we like that it works with any e-mail service, and that a small @ icon appeared on the home screen when new mail arrived.
While the N85 has instant messaging software, IM accounts from the likes of AIM or Yahoo that we’re accustomed to on American handsets are not loaded on the N85; you can load third-party applications like Fring or Nimbuzz.
The Nokia N85 supports AT&T’s 3.5G HSDPA network but often had trouble connecting. On multiple occasions we noticed that our iPhone had a 3G signal while the N85 did not. At one point, the N85 had a 3.5G signal, but it quickly faded back down to EDGE. Walks around a block in New York City to try to grab a 3G signal failed.
When the N85 had a full 3G signal, mobile versions of NYTimes.com, CNN.com, and ESPN.com loaded in 16, 6, and 14 seconds respectively. While pages like CNN.com and NYTimes.com always default to mobile view—and there’s no option to switch—others such as Economist.com load fully. It was amazingly easy to move around the page in both landscape and portrait mode.
The phone also has an 802.11b/g radio; with Wi-Fi enabled, CNN.com and ESPN.com each loaded in 5 seconds, and NYT.com in 3 seconds. The N85 took 37 seconds to load the full Economist.com homepage, but we were able to read most of the page after just 23 seconds.
Compared to other 5-MP camera phones, the camera in the N85 held its own in daylight situations. A shot of a bowl of Skittles had much better color saturation than those taken with the Samsung Behold and the Motorola Motozine ZN5; the reds, oranges, and yellows were all much more vibrant. Another photo taken in our office of a co-worker in a desk chair had good skin tone representation, but business cards and other white objects on a table were washed out.
In darker environments, the built-in flash was inadequate. Photos taken at a Kings of Leon concert were littered with noise, and most came out blurry. We’ve never felt so envious of the budget point and shoots in the crowd. However, video recorded at a 640 x 480-pixel resolution at 30 frames per second looked great. The audio synced with the sway of the crowd perfectly.
While other phones, like the N81 and N82, were able to render images quickly in our gallery view, the N85 took forever. We attribute this to the slower 369-MHz CPU under the hood.
Music and Video
The N85 has a number of entertainment options. You can listen to MP3s on its music player by loading them on the included 8GB microSD Card. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” sounded clear and excellent through the included (albeit uncomfortable) headphones, but no better than other phones such as the N81 or N82. When we played music through the N85’s speaker, the audio was surprisingly loud but, as expected, didn’t offer much bass response.
The phone also has an FM transmitter, which you can use to broadcast music on the device to your car’s stereo. Simply set the station to an empty station with plenty of white noise on your car stereo, and then tune the phone’s FM transmitter to the same station. You’ll hear the music playing over your car’s stereo.
The OLED display really shines during video playback. While one preloaded video of a surfer showed occasional clipping (which we attribute to the N85’s slower CPU clock speed), a video of travel landscapes really popped.
The N85 supports the Nokia’s NGage gaming platform, which includes a Web portal that you can use to install new games or keep track of high scores. There are 28 games currently available, including titles such as Sim Pets 2 and a puzzle game called Reset Generation. Games range from $6.99 to $13.49 for full versions, but free trials are available for each, and you can also buy seven-day or one-day passes for a discounted price.
Asphalt 3: Street Rules defaulted into landscape mode right when it launched, and the media-control keypad and two buttons lit up as gaming controls. The graphics were about what you’d expect from the original Playstation, which is impressive when viewing them on a cell phone, and gameplay was smooth.
The N85 comes preloaded with Nokia Maps 2.0, and when we turned it on while riding the train out of Long Beach, New York, it pinpointed us in about thirty seconds. We watched ourselves pass over a bridge and into Island Park, New York, and the signal kept us correctly aligned on the train tracks as we moved. If you leave the GPS running while using the camera, you can geotag photos as well. We took the N85 to Central Park and took a few shots just outside the Sheep Meadow; the N85 accurately tagged the photos with our location, so when loading them onto Flickr, we could view them on a map and see exactly where we had been.
The mapping software is powered by Navteq, and you can subscribe to voice-guided turn-by-turn directions. The phone comes with a free 90-day subscription. Otherwise, turn-by-turn directions for the U.S. cost $118 per year, but you can also buy it on a 30-day ($15.99), 90-day ($42.99), or three-year plan ($157). You can search for points of interest, including car-rental locations, gas stations, fast-food spots, and more. The device gave us accurate driving directions from the Long Beach train station to our destination in Long Beach, and it was able to route us in under a minute. The points of interest on major city maps are helpful: you can hover over subway icons in Manhattan to see which trains stop there, or hover over orange-star icons scattered around the city denoting landmarks.
Finally, the software even has built-in extras typically available only in dedicated GPS devices, such as 3D views of popular buildings in major cities and a night mode that turns the background to black so you can view the screen comfortably in dim lighting.
While we did have clear conversations during a week of testing using AT&T’s network, we experienced at least three dropped calls. In Penn Station where the phone reported a full signal, we lost our caller and had to switch to a Sprint device. When we were outdoors performing our standard test on the side of a busy Manhattan street, our caller said they could barely hear us and that we kept fading out. Once we switched to a T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve 8900, the caller could hear an immediate improvement. This occurred both inside and outside of the city, and at most times the phone said it had a full call signal.
During our testing, in which we placed about two hours of phone calls a day and surfed the Web for two hours, we had to charge the N85 every night. Other smart phones, like most BlackBerrys, last at least two days on a charge with similar usage. You’ll want to bring a charger with you if you’ll be using the N85 for more than a few hours at a time.
If there’s one feature of the N85 that stands out most, it’s its stunning OLED display. But there are plenty of other features that make the N85 worth a look for those in the market for an unlocked phone, including its desktop-like Web browser, sharp camera (at least outdoors), and robust GPS functionality. On the other hand, this phone’s call quality wasn’t stellar and it’s battery life was short. As far as multimedia phones go, the N85 is a good pick, but for nearly $500, we would expect more.