Is the Nokia N91 the ultimate mobile media device?

Summary:The Nokia N91 is a multimedia S60 smartphone that allows you to browse, subscribe and listen to podcasts and get unlimited subscription content on a single device. It takes the best of the iPod and other MP3 players and adds a high powered mobile phone. Is the N91 the device that will set the standard for multimedia converged devices?

Nokia N91
I was sent a Nokia N91 to evaluate back in June and posted some initial thoughts after spending a few hours of use. The device was sent to me as part of the Nseries Blogger Relations program and after using it off and on for a couple months it ended up being my designated mobile podcatching device with not much other use. Then two weeks ago I won an iRiver Clix MP3 player and discovered the Yahoo! Music Unlimited subscription service. Since I don't have a large personal collection I thought an unlimited subscription/rental service may fill my needs better than purchasing individual songs and albums on iTunes or on another service. I purchased a one year subscription after a week of trying it out and am discovering lots of tunes I listened to as a teenager and young adult and am also finding new music that I may not have listened to if I had to purchase each title. I am also very happy with the performance of the Clix and enjoy the cool display control interface. The problem with Yahoo! Music and every other Plays For Sure and Windows Media Player service/interface is the lack of podcast support without using a 3rd party application. I have been using iTunes for podcatching since I am a huge podcast listener, but then it is not really a clean transfer to get the podcasts onto my other devices to listen to. Why can't one of these Plays For Sure or WMP services add podcasts or why won't Apple add an unlimited music subscription service? Isn't there any device that can bring both of these functions together? YES there is and I'll talk about it in more detail below. I also recommend you check out the Nokia N91 image gallery for a visual look at the device and some applications I have runnning on it.

Nokia made the Nokia Podcasting application available a few months ago with the intent for it to be used on the N91 device. You can also install and use it on other S60 3rd Edition devices and I have been using it on my Nokia E61 too. The Nokia Podcasting application allows you to browse, subscribe, download, and listen to podcasts right from your N91 without ever having to connect to a PC. I have discovered a few new podcasts using the directories provided in the application and am pretty happy with the audio content. I am a bit disappointed that not all video podcasts that appear in the directories do not play on the device and wish there was a filter in place that only allowed content that was viewable on the device to appear in the directories. I update and download my favorite podcasts using WiFi at home and work and then listen to the content during my commute and when I travel. This functionality is what Microsoft should have in the upcoming Zune with WiFi radio, but it sounds like the WiFi is quite limited in the Zune and until Apple adds wireless functionality to the iPod the Nokia N91 looks like the device to have to download and listen to podcasts directly from the device.

When I first received the Nokia N91 there was no out-of-the box support for any Windows DRM content, but Nokia made a great move byproviding software updates for end users to perform themselves without having to send devices into a Nokia service center. One of the first updates available was for the Nokia N91 that updated the firmware to version 2.x. I performed the update back in September, but never saw any real improvements since I was mainly just using the device as a podcatcher. After trying the Clix and Yahoo! Music, I checked the Yahoo! Music subscription service compatibility list and saw the Nokia N91 on there. What, the N91 is compatible with the Yahoo! Music store? Needless to say, I was quite excited by this prospect so I quickly found my miniUSB cable and connected the N91 to my Samsung Q1 UMPC. Three options show up on the N91, Media Player, PC Suite, and Mass Storage. Since my Compact Flash card shows up in Yahoo! Music as an external drive I chose the Mass Storage option. The N91 showed up as an external drive so I then clicked and dragged a song to the drive letter. An error then popped up about improper licensing of the music. I conducted extensive online searches and could not find a solution anywhere. I double-checked to make sure my firmware was indeed updated and wondered if the list on Yahoo was incorrect. I then decided to reconnect the N91 and choose the Media Player option. Voila! The N91 appeared and songs transferred flawlessly to the 4GB drive of the N91. I was ecstatic that I could now get my unlimited Yahoo! Music subscription content on the N91 and just wish I could download content directly via WiFi right to the device.

So now we have the Nokia N91 that can be used to wirelessly browse, subscribe and download podcasts while also storing and playing Yahoo! Music unlimited subscription content. I've looked far and wide and think this is the ONLY device that has such integrated and simple support for both these types of audio content. The audio quality of the N91 through the headphone jack is also incredible and one of the best I have ever heard on a mobile device. The recently announced N91 8GB Edition takes the N91 to the next level with double the hard drive capacity, cool black color, and added Bluetooth A2DP profile for use with wireless stereo headphones. But what about the battery life? I did some real world testing and had MP3 files playing from the hard drive constantly while spending some time (about 25 minutes total) surfing, making 5 or 6 calls, and having RoadSync provide Direct Push email to the device from my hosted Exchange server and saw a total of 8.5 hours of battery life before the device finally shut down. IMHO, that is awesome for a device with a non-flash drive, color display, connection to T-Mobile's EDGE connection performing all those tasks. While the multimedia functions alone makes the N91 a very compelling device for people who consume audio content, what about the rest of the functionality, performance, and construction of the N91? Let's take a quick look.

The device casing is metal and durable black plastic and feels rock solid in your hand. It is also a bit heavier than a standard phone as a result of this material and integrated hard drive. The N91 is definitely media focused with rectangular directional controller on the lower front panel that lets you play/pause, stop, move forward, or move backwards in the music application. Sliding the media pad down reveals a standard phone keypad with a cool blue backlighting. The buttons are small keys that have good tactile response and I find them easy to use. However, they are below the slider so the top and bottom rows may be a bit difficult to press if you are in a hurry. Above the slider you will find the two soft keys, with blue lighting in the center, and the send and end keys, backlit in green and red. There is a small joystick in the center that depresses to perform actions. The Menu button is located on the upper right side and can take a bit of practice to get used to the placement when you are trying to use the device with one hand. The battery cover release button is below the Menu button and until you figure out how to work it with the cover it may take you a bit of time to get the cover off. There are volume buttons on the upper left side with the speaker located adjacent to them towards the back. The speaker volume is loud and clear, but I do wish there were stereo speakers on board since the device is a multimedia focused unit. You will find the 3.5mm headset jack on the top next to the Nokia remote control port. Centered on the top is the keypad lock switch that moves from right to left. I really like having this quick and simple switch to lock the keypad and use it all the time. The last button on the left side of the top is the power button that is recessed enough to prevent inadvertent pressing. On the bottom you will find the microphone hole and the charging port that uses the standard very small Nokia connector to charge it up. The N91 does not charge via the miniUSB port, but I did find a Nokia USB charging cable on ebay for a couple dollars. The 2 megapixel camera is centered on the upper back of the device. There is no flash or self-portrait mirror on the N91. The N91 also comes with a sturdy stand so you can rest the device on your desk and listen to audio content and is something PDA fans may appreciate.

The Nokia N91 is a S60 3rd Edition device that has the best web browser I have ever used on a mobile device with Visual History and Mini Map features, a 2 megapixel camera that takes decent still images and video, integrated 802.11 b/g WiFi and Bluetooth radios, GPRS (triband) and EDGE wireless support, Visual FM radio, Flash player, standard 3.5mm headphone jack with remote connection port for media control, standard miniUSB port for data transfer and syncing, standard Nokia charging port, standard Nokia BL-5C battery (I now have 4 of them available to use), and an integrated GPS positioning utility to use with a Bluetooth GPS receiver. An Office compatible suite is not included so I loaded Mobi-Systems OfficeSuite and it runs like a champ on the N91. The N91 also does not have push email functionality like the business focused E series devices, but luckily DataViz created the RoadSync application that fills that need quite nicely. RoadSync provides push email for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync and if you have a hosted solution like I do with 4 Smartphone then you can add this BlackBerry-like functionality. RoadSync lets you sync email, calendar, and contacts between your device and the server.

Phone calls sound great going both ways on the N91 and like most all Nokia devices I have tried the phone never resets or requires much maintenance. Bluetooth connects flawlessly to the headsets and an automobile wirless kit that I have tried. So while the device is designed primarily for multimedia, it makes an excellent mobile phone as well.

There is still one nagging issue that pops up from time to time on the N91 I am testing and that is that the hard drive status shows it is busy when I connect to the computer. This doesn't happen all the time, but when it does I can't seem to find the application that is running on the hard drive. It appears to be the Music player, but I haven't found a way to exit the application and free the hard drive without resetting the device. The Nokia N91 is available at various online stores, like NewEgg.com, for about US$500 and is also available at the Nokia Flagship stores.

Topics: Nokia

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.