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    A few days with the Nokia N75

    Chris Ziegler

    Unlike some of the phones we test, the Nokia N75 elicits... well, very little response whatsoever from passers-by. After all, it's certainly not going to win any awards for its stunning beauty or its size -- save those for the not-for-US-consumption N76 -- but be that as it may, the N75 is a very significant product launch. Why? Well, if you're bothering to read this little rundown, you probably already know -- but for starters, it's Nokia's first WCDMA 850 / 1900 device to actually make it to market. Second, it's an S60 device launching on a US carrier, which in itself is a landmark event. Third, it gives us some hope that Nokia intends to support and develop for our very special flavor of RF spectrum that we're blessed with in these parts. A lot of pressure for one otherwise-unremarkable smartphone to take on, is it not? Read on for our take on whether the N75 lives up to the hype.

    We won't spend much time here waxing philosophical about the N75's physical appearance; like we've already said, there's not much to report here. It's a black block. The screen, external controls, and camera lens are all raised slightly. Stereo speakers hide behind metal mesh grills on either side of the back, directly behind the hinge (more on those bad boys in a bit). Flip it open and you're greeted with a matte silver, chrome, and glossy black palette. We found that the glossy area around the screen and the screen itself seemed unusually prone to attracting smudges from holding the phone to our face, but maybe we're just unusually oily (gross). The numeric keypad is pretty flush and doesn't offer much tactile feedback, but they're plenty large so we had very few mistypes here. The d-pad was another story, though -- the menu, music, direction, and enter keys are all placed just a little too close to one another for comfort. We'd occasionally find that we meant to hit 'right' and would end up in the Music menu, for example.

    Screen brightness and clarity is good -- and the ambient light sensor certainly helps -- but the screen still has a tendency to wash out outdoors, thanks in part to the aforementioned oil that tends to accumulate. Making the screen transflective would've helped here. No such woes for the external display, though, which is transflective. We found ourselves referencing the outside of the phone pretty frequently in day-to-day use thanks to its size, resolution, readability, and high functionality. The outer two music controls directly below the screen serve double duty, functioning as soft keys to navigate simplified forms of the messaging and music (obviously) apps in addition to the profile switcher. The N75 has a full eight (yes, eight) keys on its exterior, so keylock is a must; thankfully, it can be called up by quickly hitting the left and right music keys in succession.

    Going into the review, we had major misgivings (understandably) about AT&T mussing and fussing with the N75's firmware. As with any smartphone platform, S60 is a slate best left clean for the user to customize as they see fit; it would've been easy for AT&T to rebrand, hardcode, and lock down the N75 into oblivion, but thankfully, they didn't. Don't get us wrong, there's plenty of customization in here, but it's pretty much all undoable or irrelevant. There are some odd little things -- every instance of "SIM" in the N75's menus have been replaced with "SmartChip," for example -- and icons for the AT&T Mall, Cellular Video, and AT&T's own Mobile Email app dot the menu system. They can all be moved out of the way, though (we stuck 'em in their own folder where we don't have to look at them) with the notable exception of Music. For some reason, AT&T has decided that its Music menu is the one thing of theirs that you must stare at in the N75's root menu, probably because there's such a great revenue tie-in for the carrier with offerings like Music ID and MobiRadio in the mix. Oh, and there's an unwelcome switcheroo to watch out for: AT&T cleverly hides the real (and absolutely excellent) S60 web browser in a subfolder, replacing it with a crappy WAP browser titled "MEdia Net" in the N75's main menu. We fixed that little "glitch" right quick, though, and by the time we were done changing settings and moving things around, you could barely tell that the phone was carrier-branded. That's just the way we like it.

    Otherwise, the N75's software is pretty standard fare for a modern S60 3rd Edition device. Flash Player, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and QuickOffice come installed, and there doesn't seem to be any AT&T-imposed restriction on what software can be downloaded and installed. We immediately loaded up Google's GMail app and Nokia's own Internet Radio reference software to give us some streaming capabilities. App load times were reasonable, about what we're accustomed to seeing from S60 devices -- not instantaneous, but not frustratingly sluggish, either.

    Speaking of streaming, data speed is obviously a concern with this device. The simultaneous voice and data offered by UMTS is pretty cool, but what we really care about is pulling down bits just a little faster than what EDGE has to offer. In practice, we found that we were getting 80-90kbps, well south of the theoretical 384kbps that we should be getting downstream -- but latency appeared to be somewhat better than what we'd typically see on an EDGE device, and that makes a big difference in the browsing experience. The N75 lacks HSDPA, perhaps a tip of Nokia's hat to the fact that it hasn't fully bought into American 3G yet, but right now we'll take what we can get.

    There's been a lot of talk about poor battery life on this phone. It ain't going to win any marathons, but we found that it'll comfortably last a day and a half with heavy (but realistic) voice and data use. In other words, charge it nightly and you'll be fine; if you forget to charge, though, you can still coax it through day two by laying off the browsing and email.

    What about music, then? If Nokia's serious enough about it to slap a dedicated music key on the phone's keypad, it must sound alright, yeah? Well, first of all, a gripe: the N75 lacks a 3.5mm jack, despite the fact that the far slimmer N76 has one. To get a headphone jack here, you've got to hook up an accessory to the strangely placed pop-port (it's on the left side). Word has it A2DP is scheduled for a future firmware release, but it's not here yet, so you're stuck connecting old-skool 'phones or blasting music through the the internal stereo speakers. For the record, we think that stereo speakers on cellphones are generally pretty gimmicky -- but as gimmicky stereo cellphone speakers go, the N75's impress. They're extraordinarily loud and reasonably clear, both particularly valuable traits when you consider that these are the same speakers used for the phone's ringtones.

    The camera falls a little behind the standard for recent Nseries devices, offering just 2 megapixels without autofocus. On the plus side, though, the N75 offers S60 3rd Edition's smartly-executed camera / camcorder app and the LED flash was reasonably effective at making even the darkest environments serviceable.

    So does the N75 live up to the hype? Sort of. If we put on our carrier-branded blinders for just a moment, the N75 is one of just two S60 devices offered on AT&T -- in fact, one of just two offered on any major US carrier at the moment -- so for S60 loyalists, the choice is a pretty straightforward one. If we take off those blinders, though, the N75 is lost in a sea of more brilliantly-executed Nokia smartphones like the N76 and N95. So the question becomes: just what is official carrier support and 3G worth to ya?

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