Retro Phone Review: Nokia N90

Nokia N90

We're looking back at some of the most important and influential handsets in history. This time, we're revisiting the Nokia N90, which was the Finnish manufacturer's first entry in its high end N series of smartphones.

This was a time when Nokia was on top of the mobile world, when parts of a smartphone going "clunk" were satisfying, and not something that was incredibly worrying. This was one of the first 'phone but also pretty much a camera' devices from the Finns, in the same vein as the Nokia 1020 and its 41MP sensor.

It was also a time when the ability to add clip art to your photos was considered a good thing. This review also highlights how novel the ability to download software applications and other add-ons was - something we take for granted these days with the App Store and Google Play.

Original review, published September 2005

The first mobile in Nokia's much-awaited Nseries of high-end 3G smartphones is not the most streamlined of mobiles, even by 3G standards. This well-endowed flip-and-fold 2-megapixel camphone reflects a heavyweight line-up of functions and its muscular build appears to be a direct function of one of its key selling points – its high-quality camera set-up.

Nokia's theory is that no matter how many megapixels you cram into your camera or screen, you're still going to be compromised by the quality of the lens. Since with most camera phones, space is at a premium, they're necessarily stunted in the development of their lenses, the best ones of which need space.

Enter Carl Zeiss, man of optics and his renowned Tessar lenses. Herr Zeiss hasn't been around for over 100 years, but the company he founded has churned out over five million Tessars over the years for a huge range of camera manufacturers around the world.

Nokia N90

This won't be the last time we see a Carl Zeiss lens on a smartphone

And it's one of these rather tasty lenses which is attached to the N90, just on top of the clamshell hinge. It does nothing to help it fit in your pocket, but everything to make it the best camera on a phone currently available.

It measures a bulky 112 x 51 x 24mm and weighs a fulsome 173g, so there needs to be something in the design that will tempt you to pocket such a hefty handset.

Thankfully, there is the potential for a lot of love to be had with the N90. Overall it feels tough and sturdy – this is clearly designed as a working phone, rather than a talented but delicate performer. The 262,000- colour screen flips through 120 degrees to activate the video or still camera and can be angled further for one or two-handed operation.

That fancy Carl Zeiss lens meanwhile can be rotated through about 330 degrees. For 3G video calling it's the work of a moment to flip the camera lens either towards you or away from you, and it slips into position with a satisfying clunk.

Nokia N90

A 2-megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens swivels to activate camera mode

For quick snaps you don't even need to open the phone – just turn the lens and it automatically goes into still camera mode, using the 65,000-colour outer screen as a viewfinder and allowing you to control functions with the side mounted joystick and the shutter button. A neat trick.

The phone comes with a 64MB reduced size MMC memory card, which slides into a slot on the side protected by a hinged metal door. Which makes it all the more surprising that for such a robust and clearly well thought out device, the data plug on the other side should be covered with a rubber bung, which isn't secured to the phone and is therefore easily lost.

Nokia N90

The 65,000-colour outer screen can be used as a viewfinder when the flip is closed

The manual by the way is one of the least informative that Nokia has produced in a long time, and omits such basic information as this. There is however, a little leather carrying strap and lint-free lens cloth, which goes a small way to make up for it.