It’s not an iPhone killer. It’s not even a killer Nokia phone. The company’s flagship N97 is a high-end device that’s designed to excel at both productivity and multimedia. Unlike other new top-of-the-line smart phones, however, the Nokia N97 is an unlocked device, which means that you’ll have to bring your own AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card to a phone that costs a whopping $699. Is the premium worth it? While we like the widget-based home screen, 5-megapixel camera, and GPS functionality (once the phone finds you), the N97 frustrates with its awkward keyboard, lackluster app store, and overall bugginess. The N97 might get better with some updates, but even then it won’t be as compelling as such devices as the iPhone 3G S and the Palm Pre.
The Nokia N97 has a large 3.5-inch, 640 x 360-pixel resolution resistive touchscreen that dominates the phone’s face. Its display is flanked by touch-sensitive Send/End keys that lay flush with the screen’s surface, as well as a chrome Main Menu key. The slide-out QWERTY keyboard helps the N97 stand out against other N-series devices, which typically sport alphanumeric keypads. Overall the phone feels somewhat bulky at 4.6 x 2.2 x 0.6 inches and 5.3 ounces.
The N97 has a chrome border around its entire face, and a matte black (or white on the white model) battery cover that has a small lip at the bottom for easy gripping. We’re surprised that a $699 phone has such a cheap-feeling plastic back cover, especially considering that $99 devices such as the Nokia E71x have metal ones. Its 5-MP autofocus camera has an embedded flash, and a slide-down lens cover.
On the left side of the phone is a lock toggle switch, a mini-USB port, and two tiny speakers. On the top of the phone is a power switch as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack. The volume keys and a camera quick-launch button are on the right side of the device.
The N97 has an awkwardly designed 3-line QWERTY keyboard. The good news is that the sliding function of the hinge feels very solid, and it tilts the screen up at about a 35-degree angle for easy viewing. However, we would have liked to have been able to adjust the angle a little, as you can on the HTC Touch Pro2. Worse, the spacebar is placed off to the right of the keyboard, which takes some getting used to, especially when most smart phones put it in the center of the keyboard.\
The backlit rubber keys provided very little feedback, but are soft and easy to press. An on-screen alphanumeric keyboard lets you type in numbers or quick texts without having to open the phone, and both keyboards worked well. A five-way multidirectional keypad to the left of the keyboard lets you navigate through menus.
User Interface and Widgets
The Nokia N97 runs the touch-enabled Symbian S60 5th Edition operating system, but the experience feels years behind the interfaces found on the iPhone 3G S and the Palm Pre. Although you can multitask by leaving multiple applications open at once, there isn’t a quick-and-easy way to open those apps again as you would with the Palm Pre’s card–based user interface. While responsive, the N97’s resistive touchscreen wasn’t as accurate or as sensitive as the capacitive touchscreens on the iPhone, the Pre, and the T-Mobile G1. Some menu presses were never recognized, and you don’t have the added benefit of zooming into Web pages by pinching the screen; the N97 requires a double tap to zoom.
You can access the phone’s main menu by pressing the chrome menu button at any time. Inside the menu, you’ll find the typical offerings: your applications folder, calendar, contacts, games, maps, music, the Ovi Store, settings, and more.
To take advantage of touch, Nokia has added widgets to the home screen, which will display as many as six widgets at a time. Twelve widgets are preloaded on the phone (with more available through the Ovi Store), including Amazon, AP News, and shortcuts for your favorite contacts. If you choose to display your favorite contacts, you can place as many as eight of them on the home screen, each represented by a thumbnail image. If you click a widget, such as AP News or Facebook, for example, it launches the full application. The AP app provides full news stories, images, and current-event videos. The Facebook application shows your buddies’ latest updates, and lets you upload pictures.
You can view your Facebook status updates in real time, watch live news stream across the widget bar, or upload pictures to social networks such as Flickr, Ovi, and Vox right from the home screen. There isn’t a Twitter widget yet, but we’d love to see the Gravity Twitter client make one available soon. We’d also love the ability to customize the widgets more, such as forcing the AP to show only tech news, for example.
While the widgets look cool, their performance was mediocre at best. Our test unit was marred by crashes that required reboots to refresh the content. Fragments of the home screen remained, for example, occasionally when we launched widgets into their full respective applications. We were able to remedy this by returning to the home screen and relaunching the widget. Also, some widgets got stuck on the loading stage until we launched the full app and then returned to the home screen.
During our testing, we had two instances where we turned the phone on and waited several minutes for our home screen content to load. At one point, the N97 became completely unusable as a result of software failure. The only way to fix the problem was to bring up the keypad and run a hard reset by typing *#7370#.
The Ovi Store is Nokia’s new application portal, available directly on the N97. The interface, on a par with others such as the Android Market, is clean and easy to navigate. You can choose between Applications, Audio and Video, Games, Personalization, and more by rotating a top navigation bar. There are small screenshots of each app with ratings next to each one. The only setback is that there’s not a ton of content available; we counted only 364 available apps and games in our location for the N97 during our testing (omitting audio, video, and themes).
Apps range in price, and there are free ones available, but most cost a few dollars. Much of the free content are things such as ringtones for the latest Star Trek movie. There are some solid apps available, though, such as WorldMate Live, Gravity, and the aforementioned Associated Press News feed. Unlike app stores such as RIM’s, which forces you to use a PayPal account, you can pay for Ovi apps with a major credit card, which makes it easy to buy content on the fly. You can also purchase applications by visiting the Ovi Web site from any computer and logging in with your Ovi user account.
E-Mail, Sync, and Messaging
Similar to Microsoft’s ActiveSync for Windows Mobile devices, you can sync the Nokia N97 to your Outlook calendar, contacts, and inbox using the Nokia PC Suite. It takes about 5 minutes to set up and we were able to sync a month of our upcoming calendar entries in about 30 seconds. The N97 also supports Microsoft Exchange.
Full HTML e-mails aren’t supported in the default client, so you’ll see only text. While you can open attachments such as .doc, .dlx, PowerPoint, and PDF, we weren’t able to search our inbox. There are options to sort by sender, subject, and date, but the ability to search inside the Options menu was absent.
We set up our own e-mail account in a matter of minutes, and if you don’t have an Exchange server, you can set retrieval settings manually to grab e-mail from every 5 minutes to every 6 hours. To conserve battery life, we suggest manually connecting to your mailbox whenever you want to check for mail.
For a more robust messaging experience, we suggest installing Nokia Messaging, which oddly doesn’t come preinstalled. It will allow you to search e-mails and the interface is much cleaner looking.
While the N97 doesn’t come with preinstalled chat applications, you can install the S60 version of Palringo to use popular chat applications like AIM, Facebook Chat, Google Chat, and others.
We found the Symbian S60 Web browser to be very zippy over AT&T’s 3G network while loading mobile sites. We loaded m.CNN.com, m.ESPN.com, and m.NYT.com in 5 seconds, 6 seconds, and 6 seconds, respectively. Our own full HTML homepage, Laptopmag.com, loaded in just 48 seconds, which is comparable to the original iPhone 3G’s speeds. Next generation devices like the Palm Pre loaded our site in 20 seconds over 3G while the iPhone 3G S loaded it in 19 seconds.
The N97 is compatible with 802.11b/g Wi-Fi networks. After clearing the cache and using Wi-Fi, we loaded m.CNN.com, m.ESPN.com, and m.NYT.com in 4, 6, and 3 seconds, respectively. We then loaded our Laptopmag.com homepage in just 26 seconds. You can’t set sites with mobile versions (such as m.CNN.com) to default to the full HTML version (CNN.com), so you’re always greeted with their mobile versions. Others, such as NationalGeographic.com, default to the full HTML version because mobile sites are not available. The Palm Pre and iPhone 3G S both let you view full desktop versions of sites by default.
When we loaded big sites like National Geographic, the pages’ rendering quality was on a par with such WebKit browsers as Safari; and you can have multiple pages open at once, but the user interface wasn’t as intuitive. For example, you have to click a small globe icon to enter a URL. Navigation around pages was easy; you can double click to zoom in, and you can view the page in zoomed-out page-overview format or change your zoom level with a toggle switch.
Saving Bookmarks could be easier. You click a small icon that has three bars to access a larger Menu area with the option to Save a Bookmark. But most people won’t know that three bars means “Menu.”
GPS and Nokia Maps
We tried to use the Nokia N97 as a personal navigator using Nokia Maps 3.0 during a move from Long Island to Manhattan. On our 15-minute drive to pick up a U-Haul truck, we put it head-to-head against our Navigon P2200T. By the time we picked up the U-Haul, the N97 still hadn’t found a GPS signal. As we navigated through traffic into Manhattan, we thought we’d see how the N97’s live traffic updates performed. The N97 told us it didn’t support traffic in our region. When we used Google Maps, which instead relies on cell tower triangulation, for our traffic information, it located us in a matter of seconds.
Once the N97 made a full GPS connection, which took about 10 minutes with a clear view of the sky, it was extremely accurate. It pinpointed us at our office in Manhattan, which is usually tough for other devices to do. The maps app also has a nifty compass, which is useful when navigating unfamiliar territory. If Nokia Maps had been faster at pinpointing our location, we would have used it more often.
The N97, like much of the N-Series line, has the hardware to be a multimedia powerhouse. Its 32GB of onboard storage can be increased to 48GB with a 16GB microSD memory card, so that you can easily load up this phone with music, pictures, and videos.
Using the built-in multimedia player, we listened to Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” through a set of our own stereo headphones; the music sounded crisp with an excellent balance of highs and lows. Album art is displayed above the song name. Nokia bundles headphones with the N97, and they include a small attachment with play/pause and skip buttons on it, but the actual buds are made of cheap plastic and are uncomfortable to wear. The phone’s speakers played music sufficiently loud enough to fill a small room with music, but the audio was on the tinnier side and there wasn’t much range.
The phone also has an FM radio, which requires the bundled headset to act as an antenna. The FM radio worked extremely well in our New York office, and it automatically scans and saves stations in your area. It supports RDS, too, so small amounts of data, such as the station, song, or artist’s name, can be displayed on the screen.
Speaking of FM, the N97 has an FM transmitter, which means you can set your car stereo to a similar frequency and broadcast any stored music or audio from video on your phone through your car’s speakers; however, it won’t broadcast audio from voice-guided GPS directions. Once we found a free radio station , we were able to broadcast clearly, but found we had to keep the phone close to our car’s radio for the best quality.
The Nokia N97 has a 5-MP camera with both autofocus and flash; photos were similar in quality to those taken with the N82, which also has a 5-MP camera. There’s also a smaller VGA resolution front-facing camera for video calls, but those aren’t supported in the United States. With the 5-MP camera, Shots of green trees and bushes came out clear, but a party cloudy sky was blown out and ended up washing out parts of buildings. In low-light areas, such as a dimly lit restaurant, our dinner plate came out cloudy and grainy, because the autofocus couldn’t get an accurate fix. Despite these small gripes, the N97’s shooter was impressive at both taking pictures and shooting video.
When it’s fully loaded with high-resolution pictures, some sluggishness shows. While pictures taken with the phone loaded rapidly, pictures we shot with our 7-MP point-and-shoot camera took a few seconds longer to aggregate.
The N97 also records widescreen 16:9 aspect video in a VGA resolution at 30 frames per second. A one-minute clip of a pigeon waddling around the park looked beautiful on the N97’s display. When we played it back on our computer, the clarity was impressive, but the colors were washed out; and, when we zoomed in on the pigeon, the picture became very pixelated. The N97’s camera certainly has the power to rival smaller pocket video recorders, and is more than capable of YouTube-worthy clips.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Calls made on the N97 were excellent. On our tests, we made phone calls from both New York and Pennsylvania and didn’t encounter any connectivity problems. During our drive through New York, we relied on the speakerphone for conversations. The device was sufficiently loud over the hum of our moving truck, and our callers didn’t report any lack of clarity or background noise, despite the potholes we were driving over and the radio we had playing in the background.
Typically, we’ve found that Nokia N-Series phones run out of juice pretty quickly, sometimes requiring a charge before the day is over. The N97, on the other hand, was more reliable, and its runtime was akin to that of its cousin, the E71x. The N97 is rated for six hours of talk time and was able to make it through a full day; with moderate usage the handset sometimes lasted through much of a second day as well. During a normal workday we browsed the Web, made all of our phone calls (about two hours in total) and manually checked e-mail; we noticed that the battery was low by noon the following day.
The N97 has some things going for it, but it’s not what we’d expect at its high price. The phone looks good, but its plastic battery cover feels cheap. The keyboard is soft and easy to type on, but the keys are awkwardly laid out. The widget home screen interface is convenient, but it’s marred with bugs and doesn’t always work as it’s supposed to. Unless you’re a world traveling tycoon with deep pockets and a need for an unlocked device, we suggest the Palm Pre on Sprint, the iPhone 3G S on AT&T, or the new BlackBerry Tour on Verizon Wireless, which offers a SIM card slot for worldwide GSM networks. When it comes to high-end smart phones, Nokia is just barely in the game.