Nokia N97 Review - So Close, Yet So Far

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 27 Aug 2009
The Nokia N97 in handEvery now and then I come across a new gadget or piece of hardware that should impress me, but somehow, after spending time with it, there is something missing. You cannot quite put your finger on it – its just a lot of small things that all contribute.

Recently Nokia delivered the Nokia N97 to me – and it really is a beauty. Its hardware is sleek, and solid. Similiar to a lot of phones these days, it has chrome surrounds, and a seemingly buttonless front dominated by the screen. Small inconspicuous buttons for the phone and menu are on the front as well as a front facing camera for video calls. It flips open to reveal a full qwerty keyboard – and the action of the slider is just about the most impressive feeling mechanical slide in any phone I have felt. When opened, the rear of the hinge looks like a bragging list of features: 32GB, 5MP camera, 3.5” screen, A-GPS, Bluetooth 2.0, WLAN, HSDPA, etc.

So far, good start.

On the slightly rubberized rear is a 5 MP camera covered up with a slider, which automatically activates the camera once opened. It also includes a powerful flash, so I guess photography is covered then? It uses a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and it charges using the new charging standard – micro USB. So far I am still impressed.

But then you fire it up – and here things start going a bit pear shaped. While I have always loved Symbian, I cannot help that somehow the N97 is underpowered. Clicking things on screen take a while to react, prompting me in many cases to try and click it again. Connected to the fact that it does not have a capacitative screen, the interface can sometimes be infuriating. OK, so if the screen takes a little used to, at least it has a keyboard right? Yes, but the keyboard has almost no tactile feedback. In fact, many times I find myself rather using the onscreen keyboard whenever possible. People’s biggest complaint with touchscreens are that there is a lack of tactile feedback – well this is the perfect example of how a poor keyboard is not better than a touch screen. On the N97, at least there is some haptic feedback when clicking on screen. This is still something that I think all touchscreen phones should get. Also, I cannot see how Nokia can make the stylus not slide into the device like the 5800 Tube. Instead the N97 has a little stylus that hangs of a little string.

The screen automatically rotates to landscape when needed, but it is hard not to notice that Symbian is not really designed for changing orientations – suddenly the soft buttons take up two thirds of the screen estate, which does not really add to usability. While in idle mode, with the screen on, the widgets are pretty cool to use and keep you informed. I stuck to the standard widgets including Facebook and AP News, but also used the new News24 widget, which is slick, but nowhere near as cool as the iPhone app. However, the widget system is really great to use and see info at a glance. I love that its apps download news and info in the background – other phones should take notice.

The Nokia N97 in landscape mode

One major problem with Symbian in its current guise is still the use of “access points”. This feature has been part of Symbian for a very long time, and it is still a overcomplicated mess to organize your connections. While you can setup access point groups with priority lists, the phone will still in many cases first want to ask you to confirm what connection to use. All other smartphones these days understand the principle that if I walk into my wifi zone, I don’t want to use 3G. And no, I don’t want to confirm it every time. While I am sure there is some convoluted way to set this up on the device, it is definitely not simple. Please fix this Nokia.

OK, but say you get used to these oddities, and face it, the owner probably will. How is the features, and how do they stack up when actually used? Being a N-Series device, let’s start with the multimedia features. The screen is bright and has a nice high resolution – nothing wrong there. But I cannot help but feel a little cheated. Nokia’s recent N86 8MP has a OLED screen which has perfect pitch black darks and great battery life - For Nokia’s top of the range device, I think they should have looked at OLED.

The camera specs look fine – autofocus, 5 megapixel, flash. While photos looked great during the day, the photos were washed out when using the flash. Needless to say, the Nokia N86 8MP has much better camera and flash. So if photography is important, I wont say this is the handset to go for.

Storage wise, there is 32GB built in, and another 16GB can be added via SD card, which is quite amazing. While I realize this will probably all be used for multimedia, it is quite amazing to think how far we have come with mobile storage. Videos stored on the device looked okay, but I was not really blown away. It is no way close to video playback on a iPhone or HTC Magic, even if the resolution is higher. Again, I think a OLED screen could have helped the colours “pop” a little.

One thing the N97 does pull off is GPS navigation. Nokia Maps is included on the device, and it works a treat. However, like most GPS navigator phones, it sucks the battery dry very quickly. Good thing that Nokia includes a car charger in the box for South African buyers – I don’t think all countries are this lucky. Another plus is that unlike Google Maps, Nokia Maps can have entire country maps downloaded on the device, so you are not reliant on network data like on Apple and Android devices.

While Nokia might call it a N-series device, there is definitely a hint of series in there – it does include a full qwerty keyboard after all. As a messaging device it is hard to fault – setup of email accounts is even easier than on the E75, and I never had a single problem with messaging. Clearly Nokia has some experience in this field.

As a phone the N97 is not bad at all – everything works as it should. The sound quality is brilliant, and I did not have any issues. I am aware of other reviewers of the device complaining that the device would often lock up in the middle of a call, I had no such issues. The battery life was OK, but I did expect more. It has a large battery, but it does not last more than about 30 hours, not more than a day when actually used. While it sounds bad, it is not worse than most other phones that has this level of features.

As a whole I am still impressed by the N97. Its only once you start weighing up its competitors that you start seeing the issues. And this is truly a sad (but also exciting) state of affairs – a few new phones have spoiled it for the rest of the old legend manufacturers. But still, there are some truly revolutionary things appearing – be it in software, or in hardware. When looking at N97, it is hard to fault the hardware – it is truly stunning. When looking at the software, I think Nokia should look long and hard at Symbian. Currently Nokia owns Symbian, and it is being made opensource, which is great. I really believe Symbian is modular enough to be more suited to touch screens (hopefully capacitative) over time. But Nokia is now shifting to Meamo for its new N900 device, so we might see some strange things happen with Nokia and Symbian.

My honest opinion? I would still rather go for a Nokia E71 or E72.

Pros:
  • Solid Build
  • Nice big 32GB storage
  • Sliding Action is without peer
Cons:
  • Keyboard is almost useless
  • Camera could be better for a top of the range device
  • Symbian feels dated
  • Device feels underpowered
Rating:

6 out of 10 (I want to give it 8, but it is not a cheap handset)

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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.