After the disappointment foisted upon us by Nokia’s last flagship phone, the N96, we weren’t exactly holding our breath for the next N series model. What would have been a respectable smartphone based on specs alone fizzled and thudded alongside competitors like the iPhone 3G, T-Mobile G1, and even a handful of gracefully reskinned Windows Mobile phones, making Nokia seem like a geezer trying to keep up with a new breed of smartphones it couldn’t quite comprehend. But that was last year, and Nokia has clearly put some major effort into retooling the N series for 2009. After some extra time incubating somewhere in Finland, the N97 looks and feels nothing like its rather lame predecessor, bringing a fresh face to some of the best hardware ever to fit into one chassis.
Features and Design
Nokia’s most obvious step forward from the N96 – at least when you first pull the N97 out of its clean black box – comes in the form of build quality. The N97 actually feels closer to what a $700 phone should feel like: The back battery cover has a velvety matte texture, the screen has been trimmed in steely chrome, and the moving parts on the phone, from buttons to the sliding lens cover on the camera, all flick with precision.
The form factor has changed dramatically, as well. Nokia has dropped the oversized dual-sliding form factor from the N96 to produce a full-fledged smartphone with a proper 3.5-inch screen, directional pad, and spacious QWERTY keyboard that flips out at a steep angle to make typing more comfortable. Like the rest of the phone, the quality of the hinge that makes this possible feels top notch, but if anything it might be too sturdy, since it requires quite a shove to get it open.
The rest of the feature list for the N97 reads like a wishlist for the ultimate smartphone: a whopping 640 x 360 pixels crammed into the 3.5-inch display, 3G HSDPA Internet, Wi-Fi, 32GB of internal memory (which can stretch to 48GB with the included microSD slot), 5-megapixel camera with flash, GPS, an FM radio with RDS and a built-in FM transmitter for sending tunes to your car radio. We hate to cry iPhone killer, but it’s definitely worth noting that Nokia’s flagship outstrips that all-powerful smartphone on screen resolution, max memory, camera resolution, and its FM capabilities.
Nokia dropped some pretty deluxe hardware into the N97, but skimped on the touch screen by opting for a conventional resistive screen, rather than the more-sensitive capacitive screens that phones like the iPhone and T-Mobile Android use. Besides the reduced accuracy, it adds a very faint diagonal pinstripe pattern to the screen that you’ll notice with solid-colored backgrounds, and when the lighting is just right. We found it useable for tapping through menus and other simple “click” operations, but it definitely felt clumsy when dragging and scrolling. As a concession, Nokia includes a tiny stylus about the size of a thumb drive, designed to make working on the screen more precise.
Then again, a full QWERTY keyboard helps eliminate the need for supreme touch accuracy, since you’ll have both a nice set of rubber keys to tap out text, and a four-way directional pad to thumb through menus. No on-screen keyboard needed. Generous space between the letters makes the keyboard easy for even fat-fingered typists to handle, but we do wish they offered snappy BlackBerry-style tactile feedback. The slightly soggy feel to the existing keys left us checking the screen all too frequently to make sure letters registered, and the effect is even more amplified on the tiny directional pad, where we barely felt any response to presses. This also carries over to some of the outside buttons. The all-critical dial and end-call buttons appear as touch-based graphics rather than physical buttons, and don’t respond as well as they should.
Symbian has come a long way from the version we last played with on the N96. Firing up the phone no longer greets you with a 2004-era status screen – this baby’s sporting an array of widgets, from Facebook to live weather, and as you would expect, you can swap and rearrange them (within the constraints of a grid) until heart’s content. Slide a list of fresh e-mails to the top, or add a bar full of four of your favorite shortcuts, it’s up to you.
The rest of the OS has seen a similar refresh, but it still has some of the annoying quirks we’ve come to expect from Symbian. With great power comes… great irritation. Symbian still incessantly asks permission to do simple things (like access the Internet), makes some tasks (like rearranging the aforementioned widgets) seem way too complex, and gets picky over little details (like including a +1 in a US phone number for a form).
In short, it remains a power users’ operating system, just a better looking one this time around. If you want to tweak and tune, Symbian offers far more nuts and bolts to turn than an OS like the iPhone’s, but you’ll spend some time learning to hold the wrench, too.
The all-critical Symbian browser doesn’t feel quite as fluid as the iPhone and Android browsers, but it renders pages quickly, and does a good job formatting long blocks of text into a block easily readable on the phone. The sharp screen helps pack a lot into a little space, too.
The N97 also comes with Nokia’s new Ovi Store installed right out of the box. Like similar offerings from Apple, Google and BlackBerry, it allows users to browse and download apps to their phones directly from the phone. Unfortunately, Ovi has by far the barest shelves of all three competitors. A search for free games, for instance, turned up a measly four offerings. Productivity offerings aren’t quite as skimpy, but Nokia still has plenty of work to do luring developers over to the platform and fleshing out its offerings.
As far as we’re concerned, the quality of the 5-megapixel cam on the N97 now matches many $200 point-and-shoot cams. It captures sharp, high-resolution photos time after time, with accurate color and very little of the overblown bright spots and digital noise that we’re used to in camera phone photos. Even macro shots turned out fine. As you might expect, low-light performance is no highlight, but the powerful flash helps turn many shots that would turn out as a nasty mess of digital noise or complete darkness on other cams into workable shots.
Despite its merits as a smartphone, using the N97 for voice calls disappointed us to some degree. The main problem: a high-pitched squeal that appears as soon as you dial and never lets up. Small issues with dialing also make it feel a bit unrefined as a phone. For instance, dialing a simple 10 digit US phone number with area code doesn’t fit onto one line of the screen, so it pops just one digit to the next, making the number look sloppy and hard to read. And a simple operation like redialing requires you to click on recent calls, select the number in question from a list, select call, then specify voice call, as if 99.9 percent of calls would be anything else (the other option: video call). That’s just far too many steps for such a commonly used operation. Quality on both ends was otherwise acceptable, but not outstanding.
With the introduction of the N97, Nokia has turned its ultra-elite N series line from a pricy status symbol into a genuine workhorse of a phone on par with many of the best competitors on the market today. Though app lovers and smartphone novices may still turn to the iPhone or Android-based phones for their richer communities and ease of use, Symbian offers a lot of power if you’re willing to take the time to learn it. Combine that with top-notch hardware like a super-high-res screen, amazing camera and spacious keyboard, and you have a smartphone many execs would be happy to own. Even so, the $700 price tag (for an unlocked model) towers above what U.S. consumers can pay for many subsidized smartphones from their carriers, so we have a hard time recommending the N97 here in the States for the average Joe unless Nokia drops the price or a major carrier picks it up – both unlikely. On the other hand, if money is no object, this is one of the best phones you could buy.
- High-res screen
- Takes photos on par with standalone cameras
- Unrivalled feature set
- Respectable build quality
- Powerful OS
- Somewhat cludgy touch screen
- Keyboard needs more tactile feedback
- Disappointing voice capabilities
- Symbian still too obtuse in places