iPhone vs. N95-3: Battle Royale

Nokia´s new and improved flagship mobile manages to beat the so-called â€Jesus phone†at its own game. Could this be the Second Coming? Find out in PopSci´s test drive

Nokia's timing couldn't have been any better when the revised and enhanced U.S. version of its flagship N95 smartphone (the N95-3) went on sale last week-just days after the iPhone's 1.1.1 firmware update officially shut down third-party apps and rendered useless many iPhones that had been unlocked. Many disgusted iPhone users (or potential buyers) were (and still are) just a tad bit disappointed by the whole thing, and probably entertaining the thought of fulfilling their superphone needs somewhere else. With a clever "open" ad campaign, it's clear that Nokia is pulling out all the stops and going head to head with the iPhone hype machine.

Most impressive is the N95-3's support for AT&T 3G high-speed data network (the â€3' stands for â€3G') which, get this-actually works with the iPhone's own data plan.

I've been using an iPhone since its inception (in between trips back to AppleCare), but this weekend I gave the new N95 a spin for comparison. Who will come out on top?

Web Browsing

You've surely heard by now that browsing the Web on the iPhone's ample multi-touch screen is indeed a thing of beauty. Surfing on the N95-3 is great, but it doesn't hold a candle to the iPhone's implementation--even though both devices' browsers are based on Safari. Pages don't always render as perfectly, and zooming around a page without the pinch-and-drag of the iPhone feels like a chore. Plus, the N95-3 tends to default to the mobile version of some pages, which can be annoying (even though with 3G data, mobile versions load in the blink of an eye). Verdict: The iPhone deservedly takes it.John Mahoney

Gaming

I've never really been into mobile games, but the Symbian platform has more than anyone could possibly handle. The N95-3 ships with a few, including Sudoku and a demo of Lumines. On the emulator front, Symbian's got you covered. vSuns's SNES emulator is fantastic (although it costs $19). Earthbound on your phone? Amazing. The iPhone's free NES emulator was a great start but is, alas, no more. Verdict: N95-3-I've actually been playing a lot of _EarthboundJohn Mahoney

Third-Party Apps

The N95-3's Symbian operating system has literally thousands of third-party apps available. The only catch is that many Symbian developers like to charge for their wares, although some great freeware is available if you look around. While we saw the beginning of a third-party-app community developing around the iPhone, Apple seems determined not to let that happen. Verdict: N95-3 wins.John Mahoney

VoIP

Making VoIP calls is not possible on the iPhone, but the N95-3 allows you to place Internet calls via Wi-Fi or 3G using a number of SIP-compatible services, with the most love going to the Gizmo project. After signing into Gizmo, you can dial a number normally and select "Internet call" instead of "Voice call." This is pretty cool, especially if you make many international calls. Verdict: N95-3 wins.John Mahoney

Music

So far, no MP3 player has really been able to compete with any of the iPod products. Apple has cornered the market on portable music players, and deservedly so. Then again, there are several things about the iPhone that drive me absolutely nuts. First, the headphone jack: I'm still completely shocked at Apple's decision to make the jack recessed, making an adapter necessary if you want to use anything other than the Apple-supplied headphones. The N95-3 has a normal jack, and my Sure in-ear phones fit it just fine. (Funnily enough, inserting the iPhone's microphone-equipped ear buds into the N95-3 got me an "Accessory not supported" message.) The second annoying thing about the iPhone is its inability to sync with more than one computer. Nokia offers an application called "Nokia Multimedia Transfer" that lets you sync with iTunes playlists pretty easily, but again, it's a "sync" meaning that anything not found on the playlist you're moving over gets deleted from the phone. But with the N95-3, you can always simply connect via USB or Bluetooth and drag files over manually-which isn't possible on the iPhone. And adding tunes wirelessly over Bluetooth sure is cool-something the iPhone could do easily, if Apple had decided to let us use the phone's Bluetooth for anything other than headsets. Storage-wise, the U.S. N95-3 is limited to the capacity of its single MicroSD card slot-media for which currently tops out at 6GB (although they will continue to go higher). The phone ships with a 1GB card. The interface is supposedly USB 2.0, but in disk mode, speeds are pretty slow. Once the files are on the device, the dedicated media buttons are handy. The N95-3 is no iPod, but it handles itself pretty well, considering. Verdict: This is tough. The recessed headphone jack and syncing with only one computer are two of the things I hate the most about the iPhone-why would they remove two standard iPod features? And it's great to be able to use my better headphones and simply drag albums onto the N95-3's memory-card icon on my Mac's desktop. But the iPod is still the best player on the market for its interface and general ease of use. Reluctantly, this one goes to the iPhone. I didn't get a chance to test the N95-3's Slingbox player, which allows you to stream TV from your home Slingbox to your device, which is another media feature that might tip the balance the other way.John Mahoney

Making Calls

Both phones of course handle calls competently, but two things I'm delighted to have back in the N95-3 are one-touch dialing and one-key access to the recent-calls list. Even with the iPhone's Favorites menu, it always felt a little cumbersome to get to the right contact quickly. Now I'm back with voicemail on 1, girlfriend on 2, pizza delivery on 3. . .the essentials. Verdict: N95-3 wins.John Mahoney

Camera

The N95-3 has a five-megapixel sensor, which is almost ludicrous for a phone cam. The Carl Zeiss lens, though, is a great addition--as is the flash and, of course, video support. The iPhone's camera spits out a nice palette of colors, but it's almost useless in low light, and lining up your thumb over the touchscreen's shutter button makes tricky angles almost impossible. Plus, no video? Verdict: Oh, and you can also upload photos directly to Flickr. N95-3 all the way.John Mahoney

GPS/Maps

The iPhone's Google Maps app is fantastic, but GPS technology was available only through the Navizon third-party app (and even then, it was faux-GPS locating via cell towers and couldn't always place itself). Again, no third-party apps equals no locating services. The N95-3 has its own slick mapping app, with GPS built in. Maybe it's because I'm in the concrete canyons of New York, but the thing can't find a satellite signal to save its life, indoors or out. We're talking several minutes, if at all. You can use a better GPS puck via Bluetooth with the N95-3, but that sort of defeats the purpose of an onboard chip. Note: I am definitely not on Bleecker street at the time of this photo-the little yellow light in the bottom-right corner means it's still searching for a signal, as usual. Verdict: I'll continue to play, but as of now both phones fail the location-awareness test.John Mahoney

Design

The iPhone is still one of the sveltest pieces on the market. Svelte is not a word I would use to describe the N95-3-its shape is pleasing, and the dual-action slider is pretty cool (although it makes it tough to extract from your pocket sometimes), but the iPhone's size still can't be beat. I must say, though, sometimes it feels good to have real buttons back. Verdict: The iPhone, by a nose.John Mahoney

Data

At $19.99 a month, AT&T's iPhone data plan is one of the better bargains in the U.S. as far as unlimited plans go. But you don't actually need an iPhone to take advantage of it-pop your AT&T sim card into any other unlocked phone, and your cheap data plan will continue to work. That's exactly what I did with the N95, and in the mobile data department, the N95-3 puts the iPhone to shame. What makes this new N95-3 a "U.S. version" is primarily its compatibility with AT&T's fast 3G and 3.5G data networks on the 850/1,900MHz W-CDMA and HSDPA band (previous N95s supported the Euro-only 2,100MHz band). So that's right-pop your iPhone's sim into the N95 and, if you're within AT&T's 3G coverage area, your downloads immediately start screaming in at up to 3.6 Mbps, technically more than 10 times the speed of the iPhone's dated EDGE hardware, with no extra plan add-ons necessary. This weekend was my first time using 3G data, and man is it fast here in NYC-almost indistinguishable from Wi-Fi most of the time. Add to that the ability to use your 3G connection as a Bluetooth modem on the road (it paired painlessly with my MacBook Pro using the Bluetooth Setup Assistant, and I was surfing the Web via the phone's connection in no time), and you've got a pretty powerful package: near-Wi-Fi speeds anywhere. This was only briefly possible on the iPhone through a complicated hack that gave just partial usability (and even then, it was still poky EDGE and extremely difficult to implement), and now with third-party apps disabled by the new firmware, it's not possible at all. Ouch. Verdict_:_ N95-3 is the hands-down winner for data-handling: no contest. Bonus points for shaming the iPhone with its own data plan.John Mahoney

Unlocked

The N95-3 comes unlocked out of the box. With all the fuss spent over unlocking the iPhone, it's easy to forget that some phones come that way by default. Use the N95-3 on any GSM network around the world (high speed data is only available on AT&T; in the U.S., however), including with prepaid sim cards-the handiest way to stay connected while traveling. Verdict_:_ N95-3 wins again.John Mahoney

Operating System

Another gripe with the first N95 was its general sluggishness. Nokia has addressed this too, doubling the device´s RAM from 64 MB to 128 MB. The difference is huge: The N95-3 feels snappy even with several apps running at once. The iPhone never really had that problem-in fact, I´ve never seen such seamless multitasking on any device, period. When started, each app is right there where you left it. There´s no app switcher because you don´t need one. Verdict: N95-3. The iPhone's OS is incredibly elegant, but its complete lack of expansion options is the killer here. Plus, the N95-3 is the zippiest Symbian device I´ve ever used.

E-mail

I use Gmail, and Gmail's mobile app totally rocks--it's no BlackBerry, but it's elegantly usable on just about any mobile phone. The iPhone's Mail is fine (although it loaded entire Gmail conversations with each new message--very annoying), but if you prefer the Gmail app like me, you're out of luck. The N95-3, on the other hand, handles Gmail like a champ. Verdict: N95-3 again.John Mahoney

Price

Nokia was probably just as surprised as everyone else when Apple dropped the price of the iPhone by a full $200 last month. Had it not, the N95-3's $700 price tag wouldn't seem quite as extreme. But now, a $300 premium for the N95-3 will unfortunately limit the users of this great phone to those with only the ballin'est of budgets. But then again, this phone does just about everything and does it well, and it's capable of a ton of things the iPhone isn't, especially considering the current state of third-party-application support. And it's unlocked, meaning it won't continue to cost you if you switch phone services. Verdict: I'm gonna have to go with the iPhone--$700 is really, really expensive and, at almost double the price of the iPhone, pretty hard to swallow. On the other hand, if you were fully prepared to shell out $600 before the price drop, $700 may not seem so bad. And you definitely get your money's worth.John Mahoney

Battery Life

The first iteration of the N95 was plagued by battery problems, with many reviewers reporting some of the worst battery longevity they had ever seen. Nokia addressed this in the new version, adding a new battery that bumps the capacity from 950 mAh to 1,200 mAh. Without any formal testing, it seems like the new battery is doing its job. Under heavy use, the N95-3 lasted approximately 24 hours until it needed a re-boost. I was never quite able to figure out the iPhone's battery--under light (i.e. normal, for me) use, it seemed to last forever. But then sometimes after just a little bit of intensive Web surfing, it would conk out much faster than I would have expected. Verdict: This one's a toss-up. We'll have to wait for more scientific numbers to come in for the N95-3.John Mahoney

Conclusion

So what phone to buy? The first things to consider are whether you´re covered by AT&T;´s 3G network [see a list of cities here] and whether you can handle spending $700 on a phone. If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then you´ll get a lot out of the N95-3, especially all that it can do that the iPhone can´t. Start up an iPhone calling plan, return the iPhone, and get cheap unlimited data at 3G speeds. For a casual user, the $300 premium is undoubtedly a little scary. But if you´re not put off by Apple´s total lockdown on third-party applications and unlockings, the iPhone is still a great mobile device out of the box. As far as I´m concerned, though, the wasted potential of the iPhone makes even its reduced price seem inflated. Yes, $700 is bordering on crazy, but you don´t get the sense that Nokia held anything back from the N95-3. Not only that, the improvements on the European version were smart and well-executed. Verdict: It´s not a black-and-white decision, but for me, the N95-3 is the more appealing phone.