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Nokia N97 Review

What Mobile
August 26, 2009

The N97 was announced near the end of last year, and with the speed that the industry is advancing, it is already starting off on a poor footing some seven months on. The question is, was it even that impressive when it was announced? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, but as the second phone to use Series 60 5th Edition, following the launch of the 5800 XpressMusic, there’s not a great deal of difference.

Sure, there’s a higher resolution camera and a keyboard, plus a lot more storage space (it has a staggering 32GB on board, with the option for another 32GB via the internal card slot), but that’s about it. Some are viewing this as the successor to the E90 Communicator, but trust me; it isn’t.
Using the same operating system as the Samsung I8910 HD, what could be possibly be wrong with the N97?

Two bad

The main issue is down to our expectations. There are two obvious ways to make a bad phone. Firstly, you produce something that is badly designed and hard to use. Even if you went back in time 20 years, you’d still have people saying it was badly designed and difficult to use.

The second way is to make something that looks fine and has some clever engineering (the way the screen tips up to reveal the keyboard is worthy of a design award, that’s for sure) but lacks that ‘wow factor’. Sure, it would be a revelation in 1989, but most of us aren’t living in the 1980s anymore.

Now it’s my job to explain my reasoning, which isn’t really that difficult. Firstly, the keyboard is too small, and the ordered keys make it difficult to type quickly. The space bar is shunted down to the bottom right and you need to press the control key to enter numbers and symbols that you probably use more than you expect. On the left is a directional pad that is as flat as the other keys, although it is pretty responsive.

Secondy, there’s the home screen that has a series of panels that can be configured to show your favourite contacts, weather forecasts, Facebook updates, news and many other things. Now this gives the N97 an edge over the I8910 HD, but, just like widgets, most are quite gimmicky and the limited information you get on the home screen isn’t enough to stop you opening up the application anyway. The Facebook panel is a perfect example of this.

In your Facebook

Mind you, at least the N97 has a Facebook application. Considering how many Series 60 devices there are in the world, it never ceases to amaze me that Nokia didn’t commission one earlier. Nokia has opted to make the Facebook application available only to Nokia users, which means that Samsung (and in the future, Sony Ericsson) users will miss out.

From the minute you start the phone up, you’re presented with a blank screen and have to wait for it to load the latest content. If you don’t have a fast connection, this is frustrating. Then, when you press on the various buttons (home page, your page, friends, photos and inbox), there’s an additional delay. Pressing ‘Photos’ will take you to your own albums, and at the top left is a camera icon to allow you to upload pictures from the media gallery or the camera.

It’s not terrible by any means, but nor is it up there with the likes of the Apple Facebook app, or the one that integrates brilliantly for BlackBerry users.
The web browser is also disappointing. It’s slow to render pages and manages multiple windows poorly. It’s the same browser as that of the Samsung I8910 HD, but the N97 is noticeably slower.

It’s also made worse by the use of a resistive touchscreen instead of capacitive (one you press, the other you just touch). This was a bugbear of the 5800, and the N97 is hugely let down as a result of using the same old technology.

On the upside, the camera (as you’ll see from our camera group test) performed well considering it has a 3-megapixel deficit over the other models. Video recording is decent too, and we’ve come to accept that the PC-Suite software is pretty powerful. Nokia is also more likely to release firmware updates than Samsung.

Software boom

The phone is also well featured, with Ovi Store, Nokia Music Store and Nokia Maps all embedded. Again, the Samsung misses out on these additions and, if you’ve signed up to Ovi, then a Nokia is pretty much your only bet. But, is touchscreen a necessity for you? If not, then the N86 8MP (which went on sale almost without anyone noticing) and its OLED display might be a better bet. It will still play your music and videos, take better photos and probably let you enter text quicker using T9.

Or, there’s the Eseries range. Perhaps a little too business like for your taste, but the newest models (like the E75) come with a vastly superior email client too.

Since the N95 8GB, Nokia has lost its way at the top-end of the Nseries range. The N96 was a disappointment, and outclassed by the N85 and Samsung’s I8510. Now, Nokia has once again come second to a rival that has combined its operating system with a better screen, camera and processor.

No money spent promoting it can change that fact.


VERDICT

Technology usually moves forward, but Nokia’s top Nseries models seem to have been moving in the wrong direction since the N95 8GB. The N96 was a chunky brick that didn’t bring much to the table (and was beaten by the relatively anonymous N85 and Samsung’s i8510). Now Nokia has been upstaged again, this time by Samsung’s I8910 HD. Using a resistive touchscreen and a slow processor doesn’t help the phone and the keyboard isn’t great either. But, it does have a decent camera and feels good when used as a phone. It also has decent battery life, but is that enough for a flagship?

 

PERFORMANCE
***--

FEATURES
****-

USABILITY
***--

 

(Update: Nokia will announce a smaller, lighter, version of the N97 called the N97 mini at the start of September 2009)

 

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