Beth Kanter digs further into the Nokia N95 firmware quandary

eschipul, via Flickr (CC license)
My friend Beth Kanter is keeping a close eye on Nokia, hoping to keep her new N95 from turning into a brick, like mine did.

Recently I bought, fell madly in love with, and then sadly had to return a near-perfect moblogging tool — the Nokia N95 — after the very first firmware upgrade turned it into a brick within days of my getting the phone.

My friend and fellow blogger Beth Kanter also bought an N95 around the same time, from the same vendor (Amazon.com). So far her N95 has been working pretty well for her (with some frustrations), and she’s detailing her learning experiences with this device in a special blog. She has not yet updated her firmware. Frankly, it seems like my experience scared her about taking that step — which is entirely appropriate, given what happened to me.

Amazon sold me an unlocked N95, which was presented as a US version. I soon found out it had arrived with vastly outdated firmware — version 10.2.006. (The current US version is apparently 11.2.009 — which is far behind the latest version, not available to US users yet.) When I couldn’t make Nokia’s own moblogging service, Share on Ovi (formerly Twango) work with my phone, I suspected it might be because of the outdated firmware. So I updated my firmware using Nokia’s own tools and process. That’s whate turned my expensive moblogging tool into an expensive, unresponsive brick.

Nokia wouldn’t guarantee that they’d fix or replace the phone for free, and they’d take weeks to get it back to me in any case. Since Amazon only allows 30 days to return a phone for a refund, and I was understandably wary of trusting Nokia not to leave me holding the bag on this, I decided to give up and just returned the phone. Which totally sucked. I was devastated. I really loved this device.

Hoping to avoid a similar fate, Beth registered her phone warranty and called Nokia customer support. The rep told her, “Yes, we’ve heard of the unresponsive brick problem. The problem occurs if you have a phone that isn’t a ‘US’ phone, but try to install the US version of the firmware update.”

Beth and the rep then verified that, indeed, the phone in her hand which she bought from Amazon was a US version. And the rep confirmed that “All unresponsive brick problems were due to a mix in the firmware versions.” Meaning that it should be safe for Beth to go ahead with her firmware update.

Here’s a subsequent call Beth made to Nokia customer service to reconfirm all this information. (Beth, I love you for this!)

Note that in this case, unlike the first Nokia rep Beth spoke to, this rep specifically told Beth that they advise N95 users NOT to update their firmware unless they’re experiencing “functionality problems” — which could include incompatibility with desired services.

Despite Nokia’s assurances, Beth’s still leery of the firmware update, and I don’t blame her…

Today Beth asked me whether I was certain my phone was a “US version.” In fact, I cannot be certain of this. I’ve returned the phone, and I don’t have a record of its serial number. (The only way to verify whether your N95 is a US version is, apparently, to call Nokia, give them your phone’s serial number, and have them check.) So it’s possible that Amazon sold me a non-US N95 even though it was presented as a US version, and that’s why my phone bricked out.

Of course, I had no reason to suspect that the phone in my hand was anything other than a US version. It worked fine, including accessing AT&T’s US 3G network immediately and flawlessly. The only thing wrong with it, as far as I could tell, was that the firmware was outdated. I had no reason to verify with Nokia, prior to attempting the firmware update, whether it was really a US phone.

Furthermore, after my phone bricked out, the Nokia rep I spoke to made no mention of the US/non-US firmware conflict — even though Beth’s conversation with Nokia indicates that they are indeed aware of this problem. (Which means, in turn, that some vendors must be selling non-US N95s to US customers.) On my customer service call, I’m fairly sure the rep did ask for my phone’s serial number (which is in tiny, tiny type beneath the battery) and could have checked for this alleged firmware version conflict. But that didn’t happen. I was left with no options but to ship my phone to Nokia and blindly trust that they’d do right by me.

I wish I had kept a record of my phone’s serial number, so I could verify now whether I was sold a US phone.

This issue affects EVERY US N95 user, since we all must update our firmware at some point in order to keep using the services associated with the phone.

In the meantime, if you live in the US and have bought or are considering buying a Nokia N95, please follow these recommendations as soon as it arrives (or right now, if you already have the phone):

  1. Register your warranty with Nokia. Just good practice in any case.
  2. Make a record of your phone’s serial number. It’s on the back of the phone, under the battery, in very tiny type. Double-check this by entering this character string into your phone: *#06# — that should yield a number that matches what’s under your battery.
  3. Check your firmware version. Enter this character string into your N95: *#0000# — Make sure you keep a record of this, too. If your firmware is earlier than 11.2.009 as of this writing, it’s out of date. (If you’re reading this post much later than Apr. 17, 2008, follow these instructions to find the current US N95 firmware version.)
  4. Call NokiaUSA customer support: 1-888-665-4228. I recommend recording this call. Tell them you want to verify whether the phone you just bought is indeed a US version. Give them your phone’s serial number, and get them to confirm whether it is indeed a US version. (If it isn’t, make sure you find out who to complain to at Nokia about the vendor who sold it to you under false pretenses, and then also complain to the vendor and get a replacement. And blog it, naming the vendor, of course, so we all know who to watch out for.

    Also on that call, ask the rep if they are aware of the US/non-US firmware clash that causes bricked phones, which Beth found out about from Nokia. If they aren’t, ask to speak to higher-level customer service until you get someone who knows about the problem. Ask that person whether, if you do a firmware update on your N95, which Nokia just confirmed is a US version, and that still bricks your phone anyway, whether Nokia will repair or replace it for free — and how long it will take them to get a working phone with up-to-date firmware back to you. (Definitely make sure you record this part of the call.)

  5. Upgrade your firmware only when you need to. For instance, if your phone menus are working too slow or you’re having other interface problems. If, in a case like mine, you have trouble accessing or using a service that’s supposed to work with your phone, don’t immediately assume that you should update the firmware to see if that fixes the problem. Instead, first call Nokia or the service provider’s support to search for other possible causes of the problem, and address those first, and specifically ask if you need a certain firmware version to use the service. (This was my mistake. There might have been another reason I couldn’t use Share on Ovi)
  6. When you eventually must update your N95 firmware, because you WILL have to at some point, cross your fingers, take a deep breath, and hope for the best. You’ll need to download Nokia’s PC-only update software and follow their procedures exactly — especially backing up all your phone data first.

More on this to come later, I’m sure. Many thanks to Beth Kanter for following up on this. I hope she has better luck than I did.

12 thoughts on Beth Kanter digs further into the Nokia N95 firmware quandary

  1. I’m stilled scared s** to update the firmware. I don’t have a desire to use the application you installed and for now the only functionality issues are the minor ones I mentioned to customer rep. But, I feel somewhat confident that this problem (if it happens to me) could be fixed by sending to Nokia repair service. It’s a matter of figuring out when during the next year I should update it (or before the warranty runs out)

  2. As an FYI there are currently four variants (that I know of) of the N95, (and they are numbered accordingly).

    N95-1 – Not US. Silver + Lens Cover.
    N95-2 – AKA N95 8GB. Black. No Lens Cover.
    N95-3 – AKA N95 NAM. Silver. No Lens Cover.
    N95-4 – AKA N95 8GB NAM. Black. No Lens Cover.

    If you type any of the above codenames (‘N95-3’ for example) into flickr you should be able to compare and contrast which variant of the N95 if you have.

    I hope this helps. I’ve bricked many a phone in the past. The Nokia Software Updater is a terrible piece of software and Nokia should take ownership of the problem that they have.

  3. Hi, James

    Yes, to clarify, I had the N95-3. (I’ve mentioned that in previous posts, but not this one.) However, as far as I understand it, the firmware upgrade problem I experienced depends not on which of the four models you have, but on whether it’s a “US version” of the phone.

    I don’t know yet exactly what constitutes a US version of the N95, but obviously it has something to do with the firmware. So it wouldn’t just be an external feature thing (like color or lens cover).

    Thanks,

    – Amy Gahran

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  5. Hi Amy,

    I had a similar problem happen last June with my Nokia N80. I bought it in the UK the year before and was using the UK update when it bricked. I had the opportunity to have two conversations with 2 Nokia North America VPs this last fall about how if they want to break into the North America market they need to be providing customer support equivalent to Dell & Apple regardless of region.

    I don’t want to spend $738 on a device to have it be dead in 9 months. I now have an N95, purchased on Amazon last July, of which I have updated safely 5 times now.

    Here is my technique:

    1) I have a MacBook Pro. Under no circumstances will I use the Windows XP that I have on Parallels to do the updating.

    2) I borrow a PC from my brother to do all my updating. First I make sure his PC is to date with all the MicroSquash updates. Then, I make sure that Nokia’s PC Suite is up to date and then make sure that the Nokia Updater is up to date.

    3) I then make sure my N95 is fully charged and fully backed up. Then I plug it in and start the update.

    4) Even though I live in the US, the Updater has successfully every time sussed out that I have a European N95-1 (RM-159) [has lens cover for camera & is plum colored] and will tell me if an update is available.

    5) If a new update is available, then I update it.

    So far so good. Now I am also a bit scared every time, as I don’t want a $649 N95 brick. I am glad to update, as the most recent one really increased my battery time & function.

    What do I think, well, as I have been blogging about it since last June and also shared with the Nokia VPs – Nokia needs to do the following:

    A) If they are unable to have retail stores with repair centers in every major city in North America, then they should have authorized repair folks that one can take one’s phone to be repaired on the spot or within a few days either under warranty or for charge. Before Apple opened the Apple Stores, they had Authorized Retailers and service centers all over the US and Canada. Nokia needs to do the same.

    B) Nokia needs to increase the scope of their customer service to be like Apple or Dell, in that all of there devices can be repaired in any country that they sell their devices in. Don’t tell me that the US customer service can’t help a device bought in Europe or Asia. If that is the case, then sell the US devices at the same time you sell the European or Asian devices rather than 1.5 years later.

    C) Nokia needs fully functioning “Suite” for updating & backup & multimedia for Mac & Linux folk. While the worldwide market for mac is only 4%, it is much higher in North America (17%?). Demographically & psychographically, the folks who buy Apple/Mac computers in North America are most likely going to be the market for Nokia Nseries (prefer design & high end function over cheapness). Folks buying $299 PCs at TigerDirect are unlikely to purchase a $649 Nokia N95.

    All that being said, if you run the *#0000# on your Nokia it will not only tell you the most recent firmware, but also the device’s model number. My N95 currently tells me: V 21.0.0.16, 14-02-08, RM-159. It is the RM-xxx that is the important number. If you search this in Google it will tell you if your Nokia is US, European or Asian. The Nokia Updater should also announce that what device number it is and if the update is available.

    smiles, jen ;o)

  6. Jen, thanks for that thoughtful and informative comment.

    I agree — Nokia really needs to get the service/repair side of its US business in order if it wants to sell such a high-end phone in the US market. There is no reason why people who plunk down that much money for a phone should have ANY uncertainty about whether they can get it fixed or replaced quickly if it bricks.

    Also, you’re right — the firmware update process needs to be much simpler and safer, regardless of the type of computer the Nokia owner uses. This PC-only crap is sooooo 20th-century.

    Apparently tomorrow Nokia is debuting it’s own online public conversation with bloggers and users. Think they’re ready for us? They’d better be.

    – Amy Gahran

  7. Hi Amy,

    The Nokia brain behind the new Nokia Conversations blog is Charlie Schick. I had the pleasure of participating in the Lifeblog Wasabi project with Charlie in 2004/2005. Charlie is dynamite in the best way and I am very excited about the opening that he and his team will be providing between Nokia and the public.

    When my Nokia N80 bricked last summer, just before the iPhone release, I had to think & blog long and hard about which device I would choose to purchase next. I chose the Nokia N95 over the iPhone for the fact that it is a creativity based device rather than a consumption based device like the iPhone. I want to make things not view things. I want to take photos & video and post them directly to the web.

    I love my N95. I love the 5 megapixel camera (oh the N82 is even more drool worthy) & the GPS on the N95. I love the fact that I can use ShoZu to embed the GPS data and send it with the photo to Flickr. I love that I can moblog photos & text directly from my N95 to my blog. Love it.

    But I want more love from Nokia to North America. Then again, maybe I don’t. The North American N95 (N95-3) has the European bands taken out in favor of compatibility with the US 3G / EDGE but leaves the Asia 3G spectrum available. I live in the US and travel to Europe at least 4x a year. I want a world phone, not one geography favored over the other. And the North American spectrum that the N95-3 is the same that the iPhone is using and overloading, at least in the LA area. Many of my friends with iPhones in the SoCal market are having a terrible time with dropped calls and data connections on AT&T’s EDGE network. My Euro N95 is chipping along happily on its 2.5G spectrum in SoCal with no EDGE & no drops.

    Yes, Nokia needs to ramp up in North America, esp. in retail and customer care. But how many other devices even allow one to not only update the firmware but also let you add whatever applications you want to? iPhone has an update, but the range of applications is very limited. What Nokia needs to do is increase repair options and provide a flasher that will revive bricked phones.

    There is a non-Nokia repair center in Glendale, Calif, that will revive dead bricked Nokias. Let me find the URL tomorrow, and I will post it here.

  8. Amy,

    These are the nightmares that we never want to happen.

    I remember in the days before we allowed users to do their firmware updates, this was one of the worries that could have killed the whole process.

    I think what makes it hard for us is all the disintermediation – the, sometimes small but crucial, gap between us and you.

    And what concerns me is that we know when it happens to folks like you who write about it. Yet, that leads us to a one-time fix.

    How can we spread a policy or procedure down the line that helps anyone with this issue (and without costing the company or you an bundle)?

    I don’t know, and any more speculation on my part might be irresponsible.

    For sure, the more folks who bring this up, the more likely the company will come with a plan that can deal with this in a way we are both happy with.

    Tchau,

    Charlie

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  11. Until your fine, new N95 transformed itself into a brick, my heart was set and mind made up on buying one of my very corporate own.
    Your experience gave me pause, led me to review and pushed the N95 right off my list.
    Although it is still an attractive bundle of capabilities, the purchase would have been intended to save time and simplify, not graft a new limb of pain onto my business life.
    When and if I am convinced they have it right, I will revisit that purchase decision.

  12. i am from pakistan and a nokia user for the last 10 years. Bought about 20 different models of nokia.
    Did firmware upgrade of my last n95 for the first time in my life and it said to remove and reinsert the battery during upgrade. Did that and the phone never restarted.
    Took it to several places for a fixup but of no use and it ended up in the waste bin.
    It costed me my two months salary. I am very disappointed by this irresponsible behavior of nokia. They should not include the software update option in pc suite or else if they still want, they should replace the set if it bricks. That was my hard earned money of 2 months.

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