12 Nokia phones that changed the world (and 9 crazy ones that entertained us along the way)

Nokia is set to rise again at this year's MWC, so we've taken a trip through the Finns’ greatest handset hits – and misses.

Nokia is back.

Like a pheonix from the ashes, the once iconic phone-maker is set to return at this year's Mobile World Congress show - and rumour has it, will be bringing an updated 3310 along too.

We've got fond memories of that phone (good luck beating our Snake high score, people) but it got us thinking - Nokia regularly shifted the gadget-time continuum with its crazy concepts and unbreakable bricks. We've revisted the best here.

This little wander down memory lane also takes in a few models that really weren't all that. Because Nokia was out on its own, beholden to no-one, its moments of brilliant boundary-pushing were matched by moments of the purest wrong-headedness the tech world has ever seen. Some of its more experimental designs were utter howlers, both aesthetically and ergonomically.

Their like may never be seen again, and in a curious way, we regret their passing almost as much as we do those of such design greats as the 3310 and Lumia 800. So join us in celebrating a time when it didn't seem the height of daftness to organise your alphanumeric keyboard like a clock.

Nokia Cityman (1987)

Available in “450” and “900” editions (named for the frequencies in MHz they used on the Nordic Mobile Telephony system), the Cityman was Nokia’s first mobile phone and regarded as a sleek, high-end and highly desirable product. How times change. The brick-like handset established the Finnish company as a major telephony player by 1988, helped Nokia secure almost 15 percent of the global mobile phone market.

Nokia 5110 (1998)

One of the many Nokia models that became near-ubiquitous in British universities, high streets and offices, the 5110 was nigh-on impervious to anything the world could throw at it, had excellent battery life and, of course, came with the beloved Snake on board. You could also pop off the front panel and swap it with one of several bright-coloured replacements because, well, customisation.

Snake charmer

This was my first phone. I loved the fact that you could customise it with tons of different covers, that it was built like a tank, and Snake: Oh. My. God. Snake. I felt like the coolest kid on the block when I bought a Nike tick to replace my operator logo.

Nokia 3650 (2002)

Equipped with a colour screen, a VGA camera able to shoot both stills and video and a what-the-hell-were-they-thinking circular keypad, the 3650 was the first Symbian Series 60 smartphone to launch in the US. It featured 3.4MB of built-in storage!

Understandably, Nokia was keen to talk up the 3650's video capture abilities in ads, resulting in the above TV spot which attracted – again, understandably – a considerable amount of criticism from cat lovers. It's about as tasteful as that circular keypad.

Nokia 3310 (2000)

A handset so hardy and dependable it spawned a meme, the 3310 also sold like hotcakes. Nokia shifted almost 130 million of these brick-like reliability machines: if you laid them end-to-end, they’d reach from Helsinki to Santiago, Chile. It was hugely popular with text addicts, as it allowed messages of 459 characters (three times the norm) and displayed chats in easy-to-follow threaded form.

And the best news of all? It's coming back. Maybe. We'll know for sure at Mobile World Congress 2017 in a few weeks' time.

Apps – who needs 'em?

I've actually used a 3310 more recently than most, giving up my iPhone for the vintage handset as part of a Lent Gadget Fast. It was surprisingly enjoyable – the phone lasted for days without needing to be recharged, and it felt reassuringly indestructible compared to the terrifyingly fragile glass and aluminium frames of modern smartphones. And Snake was every bit as addictive as it was back in the 1990s – who needs apps, eh?

Nokia N90 (2005)

The N90 was one of three handsets launched by Nokia at the glitzy Nseries intro event back in 2005. This was a massive leap forward at the time: a recognition that phones and computers were finally coalescing.

The other devices launched - the altogether less bonkers N70 and the ludicrously oversized N91 (which had a 4GB hard disk for music storage inside - yep, a mechanical hard disk, spinning platters and all) - pushed boundaries in their own ways, but the N90 was the most overtly 'converged' device, looking as it did like a camcorder with phone buttons grafted on.

It felt like the future, albeit a bit of a clunky, silly future in which phones were going to be far less ergonomic for a bit. But these Nseries devices were the precursors of the multi-purpose smartphones of today, and the N90 can rightly claim to be the grandfather of the 23MP Xperia XZ and dual camera-wielding LG G5s that occupy the modern tech landscape.

Nokia 6810 (2004)

There was certainly a point when Nokia would throw everything at the design wall in case something stuck. Case in point: the 6810’s fold-out QWERTY keyboard, which looked totally ridiculous but actually allowed reasonably fast typing for texts and emails. Heck, even BlackBerry email was supported by this Optimus Prime of the telephony world.

Nokia N93 (2006)

The S60-based N93 was all about multimedia: its twisty physical design allowed it to function as an easy-to-hold camcorder (with a 3x optical zoom, no less) one minute and a desktop screen for video playback the next.

Video quality was pitched – as you can see in the glossy TV ad above, starring none other that Gary Oldman – as "DVD quality", although in reality the camera was more suited to capturing happy slapping incidents than Hollywood-style glossiness. Still, at the time of its launch, it was the world's finest camera phone, and also offered cutting edge features such as Wi-Fi and 3G.

Nokia 9110 Communicator (1998)

With the besuited, high-flying business exec firmly in its crosshairs, the Communicator 9110 was a chunky clamshell that opened to reveal a fully QWERTY keyboard and 640 x 200 screen. It could send faxes, emails and even photos – albeit only in monochrome as the screen didn't support any colour other than green...

Nokia N95 (2007)

At the time of its release the N95 was the world’s most powerful smartphone – a true pocket computer that could do, it seemed at the time, almost anything. A two-way sliding design, 5MP camera, GPS and a Flash-compatible web browser made it a truly versatile, groundbreaking device, and were it not for the iPhone’s arrival and subsequent changing of the smartphone market, the N95’d be in with a shot for the best smartphone of all time.

The first true smartphone?

There's definitely a school of thought that posits the N95 as the world's first smartphone – at least in the eyes of the man on the street. True, there had been plenty of phones capable of running apps, but none of them encapsulated the do-it-all versatility we expect of today's smartphones quite like the N95. It actually felt like you were carrying a computer, a camera, a satnav, a (pretty awful, but still) games console – and of course a telephone – in your pocket, all packed into a single device. Yes, the first iPhone was introduced in the same year – but most people forget that it was a jumped-up feature phone, with apps not landing until the iPhone 3G.

Nokia 8110 (1996)

This banana-esque slider found fame in The Matrix, where it was used by Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss et al to keep in touch with the real world while dodging bullets and leaping over buildings in the virtual one.

The real-life 8110 lacked the spring-loaded mouthpiece/keypad cover, which was added by the movie’s prop-makers for sheer coolness factor, but there was good news for fans three years down the line, when the lookalike Nokia 7110 (see further down our list) popped up in shops complete with the satisfying slide-down action they'd been waiting for.

Nokia 3210 (1999)

If you’re of a certain age, you probably owned this phone. If you did, you were in a club that consisted of 160 million people worldwide. One of the first mobiles to do away with a visible exterior aerial, it was tough, reliable and (for the time) compact. Excuse us a second – we’re getting misty-eyed just thinking about all the formative years texts we sent on this bad boy.

It didn't seem ugly

Looking at the 3210 now and comparing it to the waif-like smartphones of 2017... wow, it was a brick. It was lumpy, somewhat heavy and caused an unsightly bulge in my white 501s (look, it was still the 90s – don't judge me). Navigating the menus was slow and messaging on the keypad a finger-aching chore, T1 predictive text be damned. And yet, it was my first ever mobile phone, totally unbreakable and a reliable companion for a couple of years. I still have it in a drawer somewhere, not having the heart to toss it in the bin. Would I show other phones I've owned, say the Sony Ericsson W200, such reverence? Not a chance.

1
2