It’s all about style and image. While it’s far from unusual to pick a phone for its looks, giving a run-out to a mobile with such a singular style signature as the Nokia 7900 Prism is certainly making one stand-out fashion statement.

All sharp angles and patterns, Nokia’s 7900 Prism design won’t appeal to everyone; it’s definitely one of those phones that divides opinion, in a love-it-or-loathe kind of way.

Its slimline glossy black candybar body reflects the overt Prism theme, with a symmetrical numberpad comprising triangular keys, a diamond-shaped central navigation D-pad, and scored triangle pattern decorating the back panel.

The Prism design cues continue under the skin, with an unusual piece of light manipulation - the 7900’s keypad backlighting can be switched to one of 49 different colours from a palette of onscreen tones. Complementing this, themes for the phone’s display can also be changed to a selection of atmospheric abstract patterns that blend in with the black casing.

Reflecting on the 7900 Prism’s form, the obvious question is whether this is a phone that places style over substance.

Handling

The Nokia 7900 Prism is a higher-notch stablemate to the 7500 Prism, which has similarly angular-button family traits. The 7900 has a classier spec list and build, though, sporting 3G connectivity for high-speed data connectivity, and 1GB of internal storage.

It also has a 2-megapixel camera with a flash, although unusually for a 3G phone, it doesn’t have a front facing secondary camera for video calling. Not that that omission is necessarily a deal-breaker for the target fashion audience.

Naturally, there’s a music and video player in the spec, plus full web browsing options, thanks to both a regular Nokia browser and an Opera Mini browser application.

The 7900 Prism’s user interface is based on Nokia’s familiar, mainstream Series 40 platform, so it doesn’t have Nseries style smartphone functionality. The feature rundown of the 7900 Prism, lighting effects aside, is in fact quite similar to the Nokia 6500 classic. This includes the thinline aluminium casing and longer body - 11mm slim, 112mm long and 45mm wide. At 101g, it has a weighty, solid feel in the hand too.

Nokia’s gone for a minimalist socket and button set up around the casing. There are no quick-access or volume side keys, and the only socketry is a microUSB port on top – an all-in-one solution for charging, data transfer and earphone connection. On either side of this there’s a thin ‘light bar’ on top of the phone that pulses out to add to the lighting effects quota.

The display is a 2-inch, 16-million colour QVGA (240x320 pixels) OLED screen, which is perfectly acceptable and suitably bright for displaying content. Many of the themes employed, are however, on the dark side to tie in with the phone’s colour scheme.

That mininalist chic touch extends to the phone keys; numbers can’t be seen until the phone is activated, at which point your colour of choice glows through to illuminate letters and numbers.

Awkward keypad

The plastic keypad is one piece of the 7900 Prism that feels creaky. The dozen triangular alphanumeric keys are flush to the bodywork, separated by think grooves. This all looks geometrically very neat and tidy. It’s when you start using the keypad that you appreciate why few other phone keypads have ever been made this way.

To start with, there’s an issue with the backlighting of the keys. When buttons are pressed the numbers glow in a subtle, sophisticated way, in whichever shade you’ve chosen. Trouble is, for most of the colours, lighting is too subtle - it’s difficult to make out the keys when you’re in bright light conditions, and they don’t exactly ping out against the black surrounding when it’s dark either.

On any other regular keypad, most texters would find their fingers’ way around the pad intuitively anyway, but the curious shape of the keys here makes this more problematic. Their triangle shape inevitably makes the keys narrower at certain points, giving only a relatively narrow sweet-spot for precise texting. It’s far too easy to drift a thumb onto the adjacent buttons.

There are plenty of phone layouts that take getting used to, but we felt in this case style certainly takes precedence over functionality. It can be awkward and frustrating to use, no matter what you think about the phone’s looks.

The keyboard strangeness doesn’t apply to the navigation pad, thankfully, This diamond D-pad is adequately delineated and functionally spot-on, so getting around the menu system isn’t a chore – particularly if you use Active Standby (even in non-Active mode you can assign keypad shortcuts to the D-pad).

With no dedicated music player or camera buttons on the button, this is welcome. The music player here is a pretty decent device, which is just as well with the 1GB of storage onboard asking to be filled up with tunes. There’s no memory card expansion here, however, which is a shame; with memory cards so affordable, we prefer less onboard storage and the option to slip in higher capacity microSDs.

Still, it’s straightforward to copy tunes onto the 7900 Prism, using the phone’s in-box USB cable and Nokia PC Suite software, or simply by dragging files over in data storage mode.

The music player user interface is again straightforward and similar to other recent mid-range Nokias – albeit with a fresh, tasteful skin. Of course, with this 3G-enabled phone, you can download video or audio tracks at high speed over the air from compatible mobile networks services or suitable third parties too.

The supplied earphones do a good job at carrying tunes, presenting quite a pleasant balanced sound. They’re cabled up for the microUSB socket, so if you want to add better quality ear-ware you’ll need to pick up a microUSB-to-3.5mm audio adapter lead (available from Nokia as an optional extra). Stereo Bluetooth offers another headphone upgrade path. You may want to use the loudspeaker to share your tunes, although playback is quite tinny.

One feature the 7500 prism has that the 7900 Prism hasn’t got is an FM radio. Like the 6500 classic, this common Nokia audio function has missed the cut on this design.

Average camera

The camera on the 7900 Prism is an average Nokia mid-range 2-megapixel affair. It has a limited repertoire of controls to tweak the automatic metering levels, and its performance is quality level is limited too.

It is still capable of snapping respectable shots in good lighting conditions. The camera’s software isn’t very responsive to lower light however, and colour rendition can be tested when the auto white balance has to compensate for changing light conditions.

You can alter white balance to one of a handful of pre-sets, and add some limited colourisation effects. It has an LED flash too, which can illuminate close up subjects adequately, if somewhat brightly. Overall, though this isn’t one of Nokia’s strongest imaging efforts.

The video performance is poor here too with a maximum resolution of 176x144 pixels possible in video capture mode.

As mentioned, Nokia has doubled up on browsers on this phone, giving users the option of using the fine, mobile-optimised Opera Mini browser instead of Nokia’s home-grown software. It’s definitely worth exploring, even with 3G kicking on browsing speeds.

Nokia has included other web-based applications here too. Yahoo! Go mobile software is pre-loaded, and there’s also a download tool for loading up Nokia’s WidSets widgets application. A Nokia Search tool allows you to hunt the web for search terms directly from an app too, while Nokia’s regular Download! tool links to a catalogue of applications and service available to download to the phone.

Other Nokia standard software includes its Sensor Bluetooth-enabled short-range micro social networking app. Nokia’s usual spread of productivity and personal information management tools sit togther too – including email, calendar, notes and to do lists, calculator, world clock, plus other timer functions.

Gamers are served up with four embedded amusements – Golf Tour, Snake III, Music Guess (using onboard tunes), and Sudoku.

Nokia quotes an optimum battery life of up to 300 hours standby between charges, or 3 hours of talktime. We found that this wasn’t a particularly power-hungry 3G phone, despite the Prism light effects. With average usage of the phone’s camera features we could get by easily without charging daily or even every other day. Of course, if you push the functionality such as the music player more heavily, battery life will diminish accordingly, but we found no untoward drop off.

Also, our review sample produced a perfectly acceptable audio performance taking and making calls. We found no worries here with sound quality or audio levels.

Summary

There’s sometimes a price to be paid for fashion kudos. If you’re a Nokia 7900 Prism buyer, that will mean having to put up with an awkward to use keypad for texting and number crunching. Those fiddly, tricky to use buttons didn’t convince us, no matter how much we persevered.

If that’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make for a bar-room head-swiveller of a phone, the other functional limitations of the 7900 – such as the average camera, headphone socketry situation and lack of memory card swappability, probably won’t put you off either.

On the plus side, it’s a slim but sturdy pocketful of phone, and the onboard 1GB memory is generous if you don’t intend using your phone as your primary music player. The music player itself is a very able tune-maker, too.

With a similar functionality to the 6500 classic, though - apart from the colour-changing backlights - you do pay end up paying a premium for a flashier design that we think is less enjoyable and harder to use on a day-to day basis. But since when was fashion about being practical?

Looks: 3.5/5
Ease of use: 3/5
Features: 3.5/5
Call quality: 4/5
Value: 3/5