Cell phone handset makers seem intent on ramming PDA applications, digital still and video capture, music playback, and phone capabilities into one tiny device, often disregarding the disparate form factors these functions require. Nokia, famous (or infamous) for its radical design attempts, has taken a huge step forward in reconciling these form and function conflicts with the N90, due to be available from T-Mobile, Cingular, or both sometime this fall. Instead of making superficial cosmetic compromises, the Nokia N90 morphs into recognizable shapes that enhance its 2-megapixel digital camera, MPEG-4 video, and MP3/AAC audio playback capabilities--not always successfully but compellingly, nonetheless. At more than $900 for an unlocked phone, the Nokia N90 is expensive. At the time of this writing, no carriers had picked it up, but it should be available for less when one does.Resembling a metallic Chinese puzzle box, the Nokia N90 has two swiveling pieces built into its flip-phone form factor: the Carl Zeiss camera lens assembly on the flip's hinge and the display on its top. By holding the phone horizontally with the 1.5-inch external screen facing you, you can twist the lens assembly 90 degrees, switching the N90 into digital camera mode both technically and physically. The only problem is that the shutter release and the multifunction joystick, the only two controls on the exterior of the N90, must be controlled by your left hand instead of your right. This ergonomic decision sometimes forces you to reach over the lens assembly to shoot the picture, which can cause you to block or jar the lens or have trouble getting a firm grip. Consequently, pictures don't always come out well.
To take a steadier picture, flip the screen up 90 degrees, then twist it around another 90 to 100 degrees, automatically activating the MPEG-4 camcorder function. The dual rotating capability of the LCD screen and optics assembly lets you capture images from an almost infinite number of positions and angles.
Once you've exhausted your initial fascination with all the twisting and turning, you'll notice the N90's more obvious physical attributes. First, it's quite bulky at 4.4 by 2 by 0.95 inches; it's also heavy at 6.1 ounces, although it didn't feel as weighty in our pocket as we expected. Both the 65,536-color external screen and the internal 2.1-inch, 262,000-color LCD are superbright, with plenty of detail and only slight picture lag.
Adjacent to the shutter release and the joystick, which doubles as a volume and navigation control when the phone is closed, is the RS-MMC (Reduced Sized Multimedia Card) slot. Oddly, the card fits in sideways; you'll need a long fingernail or a skinny pinkie to push it in and pop it out. On the left spine are the pinhole DC jack and the proprietary Nokia Pop-Port jack, to which the headset and the USB cable connect.
Flipping up the clamshell reveals a relatively normal (for Nokia) dial pad. For such a bulky phone, the keys are not as large as we expected, and the letters are small. The function keys are labeled with mysterious icons that only hint at their functionality. Since the swivel lens and the swivel screen automatically activate the camera, there is no separate camera key.
With the Nokia N90 in video mode, two handy soft keys on either side of the earpiece at the end of the extended LCD top flap ease navigation through the image-control, settings, and playback operations.As noted, the CMOS chip in the Nokia N90's 2-megapixel digital camera captures still images in 16.7 million 24-bit colors. While images shot at a resolution of 640x480 can be e-mailed or sent via MMS, images shot at a resolution of 800x600 can only be e-mailed, and those shot at the staggering resolution of 1,600x1,200 can only be printed via PictBridge or transferred via Bluetooth or a USB cable or by using the RS-MMC card after you've copied images or video to it. You get a variety of photo options, including 8X digital zoom.
The Nokia N90 can capture up to an hour of video at three resolutions: MPEG-4 (352x288 FCIF resolution at 15fps instead of 30fps), 3GPP, and 3gp--with the same limitations on multimedia-message and e-mail transmission and transferal as with digital stills. The phone includes both video- and image-editing capabilities, if you have the patience to work with a small screen and drill down through the various edit-control option menus.