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Review: Nokia N97

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Jul 1, 2009, 2:24 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Nokia's 2009 flagship phone offers a little bit of everything. This is a case where more features, however, don't necessarily make for a better phone.

Form

Is It Your Type? 

If content creation and message making are your primary needs in a cell phone, then the N97 should be at or near the top of your list, that is if you're as wealthy as a king. The N97 is of course Nokia's flagship N Series multimedia device for 2009. If you can get past the shocking price tag, there are a lot of powerful tools on board the N97 that make it far more than a phone.

Body 

 

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Nokia's N Series phones are not known for their tiny stature. The N95, N96 and E91 are all the spiritual predecessors of the N97, and it carries forward the large, bulky form of those phones. It is thick. It is heavy. It is one big phone (or a very small laptop, depending on your point of view).

The fit, finish and materials of the N97 don't live up to the $700 price tag. Truth be told, I'd be ticked off if I paid $700 for this phone, at least as far as the hardware is concerned. The plastics are thin and feel cheap. The battery cover feels downright flimsy. There are odd gaps where the two halves of the phone meet. Frankly, I am stunned at the poor craftsmanship. Nokia can do better.

The display is huge and takes up 80% of the real estate of the N97's front face. At the bottom are three keys. Two are capacitive-touch buttons flush with the face of the phone to send/end calls. In my opinion these two buttons are placed way too close to one another. They are just a centimeter apart. This means you can accidentally hit the "end" key when you mean to hit the "send" key, thereby erasing the phone number you just typed. Seriously, why are these buttons so close? The other button is a raised menu key similar to what Nokia has done on other N Series phones, such as N81, N96 and so on. This button has good travel and feedback, and it is easily found with your thumb.

The N97's hinge is very unique. It's best to hold the phone sideways to open it. With it cradled in both hands, press upwards on the top half. There is some slight spring assistance to help it get all the way up. The top half of the phone sits at about a 40 degree angle, which makes it pretty easy to view while holding the phone open. The N97 is relatively comfortable to hold, but I found typing to be miserable.

The QWERTY keyboard has just three rows. You have to press the function key to get at the numerals. The space bar is placed to the far right side of the keyboard. There is a D-pad on the left side of the keyboard to aid in navigation, though I found it to be mostly moot since you can just reach up with your finger to touch the screen. The real problem here is the keys themselves. They are extremely flat. The keys on the left side of the keyboard offered minimal travel and feedback, while the keys on the right side offered zero travel and feedback. I could not tell when I had truly activated any of the buttons on the right. The typing experience was absolutely painful. There was no "click" at all, the keyboard was total mush. It is one of the worst keyboards I've tested in a very long time.

On the left side of the N97 (when closed) you'll find the microUSB port and lock/unlock switch. The switch is easy to find and works okay. The volume toggle and camera key are located on the right side of the phone (when closed). The volume key felt good, had decent travel and feedback and was easy to find. The two-stage camera button was a little mushy. The first click (to focus) was fine, but the second (to snap the picture) had no real click to it. In the end, I pressed down on it all the way until it wouldn't go any further to get the 97 to take pictures. The top holds the 3.5mm headset jack for most stereo headsets and the power key.

In sum, I am not impressed with the N97 hardware at all. I was expecting it to be much sturdier, with much higher build quality.

The Three S's 

Screen

The N97 has a generous display. It is bright, colorful, and sharp enough so that web sites look fantastic, pictures spring to life, and menus and icons are highly readable even at an arms length away. Viewing it in direct sunlight wasn't too much of a problem.

Sound

Call quality on the N97 was easily the best I've experienced in a long time. Phone calls were absolutely crystal clear. No noise, no static, no garbling, just clear voices coming through. It was loud enough at moderate volumes to be heard in environments such as a coffee shop or noisy mall food court. Pump up the volume all the way, and there should be no problems hearing callers. The speakerphone could have been a little bit louder, in my opinion, as could the ringers.

Signal

The N97 almost always showed full signal strength. Whether or not that is an accurate indication of how much signal the N97 was collecting, the thing was always connected to AT&T's network. There were several times when the N97 held onto AT&T's network and other test phones lost the network entirely. I didn't miss a single call or text message due to signal issues. Signal strength is solid.

Battery

If you're a heavy user, plan to charge the battery every night. I got wildly inconsistent results with the battery, and find that it really depends on what applications you leave running in the background while doing other tasks. One day it barely lasted 14 hours from a full charge, while the next charge got me through two full work days. Obviously, anything that keeps the display on and the radios connected to the network is going to drain the battery. Excessive use of the flash will, too.

Touch 

The N97 has a resistive touch screen. It works about on par with resistive touch displays from competing manufacturers. Calibrating the screen is key to getting good performance out of it. I noticed an average number of misreads and had to press the same thing twice on many occasions to get the screen to react. You can adjust the amount of feedback you receive via the N97's haptics, and I was glad to be able to turn it all the way off.

For a $700 phone, though, this thing should have a capacitive screen.

Basics

Menus 

The N97 runs S60 5th Edition, which was made specifically for touchphones. It looks and acts much like you expect a touch-enabled version of S60 to look and act. Nokia has partly redone the way the home screen works, and that is perhaps the most significant change up compared to S60 3rd Ed.

Whether open or closed, the N97 will show up to six home screen widgets. They can include things such as the time, Facebook, contacts, shortcuts to other apps, the weather, email and so on. They are completely user configurable and can be dragged around and rearranged at will. Press one to open that particular application.

If you want to access the main menu, press the physical menu button on the front face of the phone. Press and hold the menu key to see a list of apps that are running. The main menu can be laid out in grid or list fashion, and users can rearrange the location of all the icons in the menu. One thing I really like is that S60 5th Edition feels flatter than S60 3rd Edition. In other words, you don't have to dig and dig through multiple folders to find things.

The one baffling thing that Nokia has done is to necessitate double-tapping in many of the menus. Because it isn't deployed uniformly across the entire OS, it takes a bit of time to learn which menus and actions need to be double-tapped rather than tapped once. My word to describe this would be: annoying.

Another thing of note - as with most recent N Series devices from Nokia - is the lag. The N97 is slow to open apps, slow to open menus, and slow to do pretty much anything.

Those foibles aside, S60 5th Ed. is much easier for the beginning user to figure out quickly. By flattening the menu structure and making things easier to find, most users should have no problem adjusting.

 

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Calls/Contacts 

Calls

Making calls with the N97 is as easy as any other phone. The home screen has a tiny little picture of a dialpad at the bottom. Press that and the numeric keypad shows up. The software keys are nice and large and easy to dial.

With the dialpad open, you can punch in the numbers directly, open the contacts app, or bring up a list of your recent calls. Touching the green send key from the home screen will automatically bring up the call log. You can set the call log to store calls for 0, 1, 10, or 30 days (default). If you place a call with the phone open, it will turn on the speakerphone by default.

 

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Contacts

First, you can store up to four contacts directly onto the home screen. This gives you instant access to those contacts and their information. The main contact app lets you store reams of data about people. Contacts can be synced via Nokia's desktop client or through its Ovi services if you happen to use it.

Each contact page has buttons that let you instantly do things such as send a message, call them or email them. Searching through the contacts app is easy with the search bar. Simply start typing and it automatically starts to search.

Given the power of a device such as this, I am disappointed that it can't integrate the contacts data from social networking sites such as Facebook better.

 

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Messaging 

This is where Nokia absolutely blows it. Apple, Google and Palm have come up with some great ways to manage and sync personal data and messaging services on devices such as the iPhone, the HTC G1 and the Palm Pre.

With the Pre, for example, Palm asks you to create a new user profile as part of setting up the phone. It then uses this master profile to collect your data and manage your various accounts. A phone such as the N97 is begging for that kind of integration. Alas, it's not there.

Nokia should have an Ovi client on the N97 that has new users create an Ovi account and set up an online profile. You can do this separately online, of course, but Nokia would convince more people to use this service if it were part of the registration / set-up process with each phone it sells.

That complaint aside, the N97 supports just about any messaging medium that you care to use it for. The email wizard will walk you through email set-up, which supports POP3, IMAP and Exchange. You can create and store multiple accounts on the device. The email software itself sees very little change compared to what's on S60 3rd Ed. In fact, it is disappointingly similar. No nice new graphics, no nice new user interface. It offers the same old look and feel that the email app has always offered. It doesn't come anywhere near the competition.

Same goes for the SMS/MMS application. This app has long needed an overhaul, and S60 5th Ed was the perfect opportunity to bring in some fresher software. Didn't happen. Native threaded SMS is still not available. There is a workaround, but it involves downloading a beta app from the Nokia Beta Labs web site and then viewing SMS conversations via the Contacts application and not the Messaging app. That's not very user friendly.

It is nice that there is a native Facebook application on board, but what about Twitter and MySpace? Including one of the S60 Twitter clients is a no brainer, yet it isn't here.

The N97 certainly covers the messaging basics, but it doesn't cover any new ground, something that Nokia sorely needs to do.

 

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Extras

Music 

The N97 comes with 32GB of on-board storage and supports microSD cards up to 16GB. That makes for a whopping 48GB of potential storage. You're not going to have any problems stuffing the N97 with music, video and photo content, that's for sure. Music can be synced directly to the N97's storage or via Nokia's PC Suite software. It can also be sideloaded into a microSD card.

The basic music player is, once again, the same that Nokia uses on its other S60 handsets. That are no new features that I can find, and, heck, some features available on $100 Series 40 phones (user-adjustable graphic equalizer) have been removed. For such a media-centric device, I was holding out hope that Nokia would pay some extra attention to the music app. It didn't.

Playback works fine and all the controls make sense. It is easy to use and adjust, set play lists and save songs as ringtones, but I was expecting more pizazz. The N97 has an FM transmitter, so you can broadcast via FM and then pick up the signal with any regular FM radio.

The N97 itself has stereo speakers, but music playback through them is downright atrocious. If you set the volume above the 40% mark, the sound will get all distorted and garbled. Stick to headphones.

 

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Camera 

Camera

The N97 has two cameras. The main camera is the 5 megapixel beast on the back. It has autofocus and a flash. There is also a user-facing VGA camera on the front. If you leave the lens cover on the back closed, the camera will automatically launch the user-facing camera. This is great for self portraits. If the lens cover is open, though, the main camera fires up.

The camera has been somewhat optimized for use with the touchscreen, and that's a welcome change. The camera uses about 80% of the screen as the viewfinder, and the right side of the screen is used for some of the controls. Press any of the software buttons to get at the controls. One thing I like is that it has a dedicated button to set the flash. I've found that's a key feature to have. You can also make tons of other adjustments, such as to the brightness, exposure, ISO, sharpness, contrast, and so on. The selections are presented on the screen in a grid, and they are perfectly sized for your finger, None of these are new features for an N Series phone from Nokia, and in fact, Nokia got rid of some of the controls. On the N95, for example, the resolution can be set to VGA, 1 megapixel, 2 megapixels, 3 megapixels or 5 megapixels. With the N97, your choices are narrowed to VGA, 2 or 5 megapixels.

 

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If you want to fire off quick shots, just ignore the autofocus and press all the way down on the shutter button. If you do want there to be better focus, press the shutter half way. It takes about 1 second to focus. Then press it the rest of the way to capture the image. After the image is captured, it can be saved, sent or deleted right away.

The N97's camera performs faster than many of its predecessors, and that is a welcome change. It's not as fast as the camera on the Palm Pre, for example, but it beats the pants off of the N95, N85 and others.

The video software works nearly identically to the still camera software.

Gallery

As far as I can tell, the only way to view pictures on the N97 is via a boring old grid configuration. Gone is the pretty picture carousel used on the N95. You can scroll through the images, and then select one to interact with and/or adjust it. Once you've loaded one image on the screen, swipe in either direction to see your other photos. The options let you do pretty much anything with the pictures you've captured, though the N97 nearly always assumes you want to share the images on Ovi.

Editing features are pretty robust. You can make tons of adjustments to pictures after the fact, including: alter the brightness, contrast and sharpness; crop, decrease size, or rotate; insert frames, text bubble, and clip art; and change the color effects of the image, too. Not bad at all.

 

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Pictures/Video 

Pictures

Pictures captured outside in the sun were stunning in their clarity, sharpness and exposure; practically perfect images every time. Many were worthy of being blown up to at least 8 x 10 prints. If you want something to replace your point-and-shoot camera while on vacation (assuming you're going to be outside climbing mountains or looking at Roman architecture), this is the phone to do it.

Pictures shot in a darkened bar were as bad as those taken from any VGA camera -- even with the flash and auto-focus to help out. Disappointing to say the least. I was pretty surprised at how grainy, noisy and out-of-focus the images were -- even when the phone told me they were in focus. If you're going to take a shot of your best buds from across the table in a restaurant, I'd say you're good to go. Taking pix of anything more than 4 or 5 feet away, however, isn't going to get the best results.

 

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Video

The N97 shoots video at 30 frames per second. For the most part, it looks great. You'll hardly believe the video came from a phone. If you're one to shoot video of your kids playing sports, the N97 will be a great tool. The ability to upload and share everything via Ovi is nice, too.

Browse/Customize 

Browse

The N97 uses the S60 browser, which has been optimized for S60 5th Ed and touch. The browser comes with all the same features that we've see on other S60 handsets, including the mini-map. It my opinion the browser uses way too many drop-down menus to get to a lot of the features. Perhaps the most useful change is that one of the software controls will open up a big finger-friendly grid for navigating to your bookmarks and so on. I wish all of the menus of the browser were this easy to use.

Browsing via AT&T's 3G network was nice and speedy. Mobile-optimized sites loaded in just a couple of seconds. Full HTML took a little bit longer to download, but they were still comparatively quick. Having the large screen makes for a better experience.

 

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Customize

Most S60 phones let you customize a fair amount of the phone's features and functions. Wallpapers, ringtones, alerts, and so on are all easy-breezy. The home page can be set to have as much or little content as you want. The main menu can be re-arranged however you like it. The four homescreen contact shortcuts can be changed up at any time. You don't like something? Chances are, you can fix that.

Extras 

Apps

A pretty good selection of third-party apps are pre-installed on the N97. They include Qik, Facebook, YouTube, Boingo, Bloomberg, Amazon, AP, Accuweather and a handful of others.

The N97 also works with the Nokia Ovi Store. I downloaded the Ovi Store application to see how the store works. Installing it takes but a moment and thankfully doesn't require a re-boot of the phone. It far surpasses the usability of the old Nokia Download service. It has apps that fill up the first screen you see. There is a sliding tab at the top that you interact with to sort through games, and other categories. You can also use the options key to further sort through the titles. Many of the apps are free, but other cost a few dollars. In order to buy them, you need to have an Ovi account and register a credit card. The apps all have ratings 1-3 stars, as well as user reviews.

Nokia's Ovi Store has potential. It's not as slick as some of the other apps stores out there, but it's the best avenue S60 phones have for discovering new content.

 

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Bluetooth

Name a Bluetooth profile and the N97 probably supports it. I was able to pair it with pretty much every Bluetooth device that I own, including other phones, PCs, headsets (mono and stereo), and so on. Sound quality through mono and stereo headsets was excellent. I was very pleased with both. No goofy noises or other weirdness.

Clock

The N97 is a frustrating watch replacement. There doesn't appear to be a way to get the time to show up nice and large when you want to. When the phone is locked, pressing any of the keys just generates the "you need to unlock the phone first" message. You can't see the time on this page. You have to go all the way and unlock the phone to read the clock on the home page. Lame.

GPS

The N97 has GPS and Nokia Maps are pre-loaded. I downloaded and installed Google Maps, too. The GPS is able to lock onto satellites quickly and accurately. The worst it ever performed was about 100 feet off from my actual location. Most of the time, it pegged me dead-on. It also plays nice with the software. Directions between points were easy to generate and worked well.

Video 

Here is a video tour of the Nokia N97. You can watch it here:



Or visit YouTube for more viewing and sharing options.

Wrap Up 

The N97 gets the core basics right: the phone works really, really well. Beyond that, it's a mish-mash of good features, bad features, and recycled features that have clearly had a coat of S60 5th Edition paint slapped on top of them in the vain attempt to cover up the fact that they are not new at all.

The build quality and materials don't match the $700 price tag. The camera and video recorder work well for capturing those special moments, but the music player and gallery applications fall a little flat. The touch screen works well enough, but the physical keyboard is a disaster. All the right messaging functions are represented, but there's still no native threaded SMS/MMS and the email app is stale. Nokia fails to build in its Ovi services more naturally throughout the user interface, but the nifty home screen is a great way to collect a lot of content into one spot.

If you're the type that has to have the latest and greatest device -- no matter how good or bad it is -- clearly the N97 is for you. If you can get by with less-than-the-best, there are many other phones out there that do everything the N97 does for a lot less money.

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Subject Author Date
Nothing about this seems "Latest and Greatest" bluecoyote Jul 1, 2009, 2:56 PM
Mostly agree Omagus Jul 1, 2009, 5:56 PM
 
 
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