It feels like we’ve been waiting for the Nokia N97 for a long time, and – like many others – talking up its functionality for most of that wait. Now the NAM edition is here, though, can it deliver on the promise?
Saying that anticipation has been high for the Nokia N97 is an understatement. The handset’s spec sheet reads like a must-have list: 5-megapixel camera, triband HSPA, WiFi and Bluetooth, plus a 3.5-inch touchscreen, hardware keyboard and 32GB of standard storage, all features which are just as relevant to flagship smartphones today as they were when the N97 was first announced.
First, the good parts. The design of the N97 may be relatively sober, but build-quality is very high; the matte-finish plastics are tough but surprisingly light, and the hinge is sturdy and reassuring. Anybody who regularly switches devices or wants to use their own peripherals won’t be disappointed: the standardized connectors like mini-USB, 3.5mm headphone jack and microSD mean you won’t be carrying a bundle of proprietary leads and accessories. Nokia haven’t forgotten that a smartphone is, at its core, a phone, either; call performance is as good as we’ve come to expect from the company, with the full-bodied earpiece and well balanced microphone meaning that those on each end of the call have a decent audio experience. The speakerphone isn’t, perhaps, the loudest we’ve heard, but it does rate highly as one of the clearest.
That phone performance continues when it comes to connectivity, with the N97 proving tenacious with a 3G signal and offering speedy browsing speeds. Using AT&T’s network we had no problems with lag or premature disconnects, and it was rare to see anything but full or almost-full bars on the signal meter. Battery life is also decent, though you’d expect nothing less from a 1,500mAh Li-Ion pack. Nokia quote up to 360 minutes of WCDMA talktime (up to 570 of GSM) or 400 hours of WCDMA standby (up to 430 hours GSM); our testing found that they’re reasonable estimates, with the N97 easily capable of lasting a couple of days with moderate use.
Unfortunately, over those days the areas in which the N97 drops the ball will become all too obvious. That hinge may be well put-together, but it’s limited to a single angle; unfortunately, the angle Nokia have picked is not quite right for our tastes. For table-top use, it could do with being slightly more horizontal, unless you’re content to use the phone at arms-length. Either way, you’re faced with a QWERTY keyboard that’s frustratingly lacking in tactile response or finger feedback. Our first-impression was that their shallow travel might be an issue, and that’s turned out to be something of an understatement.
After the promise of such a broad, well-spaced keyboard, the end result is incredibly disappointing. The hard rubber keys themselves are pretty tactile, but their singular lack of travel drains away both accuracy and appeal. It’s a shortcoming shared by the D-pad, too, which means that not only is text-entry impaired but non-touch navigation. We recognize that Nokia had to make some compromises to accommodate the sliding form-factor, but it’s a similar situation in the HTC Touch Pro2 or even the T-Mobile Sidekick and we’d choose their keyboards in a heartbeat. Ironically, the one aspect we thought would present a problem – the offset spacebar – was the easiest thing to get used to.
Bizarrely, having made such a big deal of the text-entry options, Nokia don’t really give much opportunity to use them out of the box. There’s a Facebook client with a homepage widget and support for messaging, but other than that there’s no IM client and no threaded SMS or MMS. The Facebook app works well, and the homescreen widget shows real-time updates rather than just acting as a shortcut, but right now the Ovi download store is looking relatively barren of similarly well-coded software.
The camera offers 5-megapixels, autofocus and an LED flash, but falls a little short of some of Nokia’s more photography-centric devices. It’s certainly sufficient for taking outdoor shots, though the LED flash demonstrates the usual minute sweet-spot outside of which subjects are either washed out or hopelessly dark. Still, colors are generally well preserved and the autofocus is quick to lock on, and only indoor noise really shows the limits of the optics.
Video recording is also possible, either in widescreen 640 x 360 to fit the letterbox display or in more standard 640 x 480 VGA resolution. You can also upload content directly to online galleries from the handset, which is a neat trick, though it doesn’t seem possible to do this automatically. Video quality falls short of the iPhone 3GS, showing periodic blocking and smears when panned quickly or attempting to capture fast-moving subjects, though at least the capacious memory means you can store plenty of footage.
That’s if, of course, you’re not using the N97 as a media player. Audio quality is strong, and aided by the fact that you’re free to use your own headphones with the standard 3.5mm jack. The N97 not only has an FM radio but a transmitter as well, meaning you can pipe audio from the smartphone out through a nearby tuner. This is particularly useful in the car, though it’s worth noting that sound quality takes a significant dive as with any FM transmitter. There’s also Bluetooth 2.0 A2DP, which worked with no problems with the test headset we tried.
Files can be transferred quickly over the USB 2.0 connection, but the range of supported file types isn’t all that comprehensive. MP3, AAC, eAAC+ and WMA audio files can be played, but only MPEG4 or 3GP video files are supported. That’s a shame, as the N97′s decent screen quality would make it a neat companion for impromptu DivX or H.264 films. We’re also distinctly underwhelmed by the media apps, which lack any of the visual appeal of rival devices. Buttons are large and displays clear, and there’s a handy homescreen widget for audio control, but it all feels like the basic PMP functionality you’d get on an entry-level handset, not something with 32GB or more of capacity and an eye on taking out your iPod.
It’s S60 5th Edition that provides perhaps the biggest usability frustration, though. Nokia’s OS is, in the face of attractive and modern platforms like that the iPhone or Palm’s webOS, looking a little visually tired, and the touch enabling they’ve done feel half-hearted. Not only is there little in the way of visual gloss that users have come to expect, such as screen transitions or animations, but the way touch has been implemented seems an afterthought. There are no gestures or similar controls, instead buttons have merely been made chunkier and menus larger. There’s also a slight graininess, which is visible from some angles, which mars an otherwise decent LCD panel with high resolution.
One of the most obvious areas where touch on the N97 falls short is in the browser. Rendering remains speedy, but Nokia have unfathomably removed the full-page preview map, which used to pop up in the corner and show whereabouts you are on the page. Since there’s no multitouch, zooming uses a slider control or a double-tap. On the plus side, the presence of Flash Lite 3.0 means that YouTube videos can be watched from the browser itself, generally playing smoothly. However, while Internet browsing on full touchscreen devices is usually an effortless, straightforward affair, there’s nothing really in the N97 where the technology puts it any further ahead than the company’s own non-touchscreen phones.
To sum up, our disappointment in the touch-amendments to S60 5th Edition for the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic pretty much all applies to the N97. Nokia have made no noticeable improvements to how touch is handled, and while that was frustrating but perhaps bearable on the 5800 it’s simply not good enough on the N97. This isn’t about resistive or capacitive; it’s about fundamental usability that goes beyond replacing a D-pad with a finger. RIM had the good grace to listen to criticism about the first-gen Storm and seemingly address it for the upcoming second-gen version; we can only assume that the N97 has been so long in development that it predates any significant work on S60 that may be going on.
In our first-impressions, we described the Nokia N97 as a serious, business-like phone. That remains our lasting impression, despite the multimedia features on offer. Unfortunately, usability issues like the less than mediocre touch functionality and lackluster QWERTY keyboard are likely to prove just as annoying to business users as they do to everyone else. There are certainly some strong points to the N97, and its performance as a phone continues to impress, but at $650 unlocked and contract-free it’s an expensive way to make clear calls. Perhaps the months of anticipation have worked against it, but we’d struggle to recommend the Nokia N97 over its smartphone rivals.
Nokia N97 unboxing video: