Nokia N97 review

Nokia's N97 is the long-awaited successor to the wildly popular N95, and its chunky older brother the N96. It's Nokia's new flagship handset, meaning that it is the company's answer to Summer 2009's grand slam of smartphones. But how does it stack up against the iPhone, Palm Pre, Toshiba TG01, and HTC Magic? Read on to find out.

Let's start out with the oh-so-subjective opinions on the look and feel of the handset. First of all, it's big. Taller and thinner than most smartphones, it's also pretty thick - 18.3mm, thanks to the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Weight-wise, it's about average for a smartphone at 150g.

Does it look good? Yes. Relatively few buttons crowd its pristine features, only three on the front and eight in total. The white model, which we tested, has an almost pearly quality to its matte plastic, which doesn't show fingerprints. A silvery frame surrounds the front of the phone, and the menu button pulses with white light when the phone's on.

The front is dominated by the big 3.5-inch TFT resistive touchscreen. There's no multitouch, like on the iPhone or the Pre, but one nice feature is the little judder of feedback that the phone gives when it registers a successful button press.

With a 360 x 640 resolution, the N97's screen outclasses the iPhone and G1 and ensures that any video you watch looks clear, bright and vibrant. The way the screen flips up when you slide out the QWERTY provides an excellent angle for video viewing. Along with the essential 3.5mm headphone jack, this is a great device for enjoying video on the go.

It's not too bad for music, either. The quality is improved from the lacklustre tininess of the N95, and an optional widget lets you keep track of whatever's playing from the home screen. More on that below. The stereo speakers are acceptable, but not fantastic. Plug in headphones for best results.

Sideloading MP3s is pretty easy, but there's also the Nokia music store preloaded. Buying and downloading music on the device is simple, but unlike the iPhone you can download MP3s from websites, which will immediately open in the MP3 player and stream there. This is a great feature, and relatively rare among phones, still.

There's no "Comes with Music" edition of the device yet, but with a Spotify Symbian client on the horizon, and all the MP3s you can (legally, of course) download on your PC we couldn't recommend Nokia's DRM-laden service anyway.

And you know what? You won't have trouble fitting all those legal MP3s onto the N97. This handset packs a massive 32GB of internal storage. But that's not all - you can plug in a microSDHC card to add another 16GB of storage! 48GB of storage is, at the time of writing, far more than the N97's competitors. Enough to store the contents of 460 full bookshelves, or 15 copies of the entire human genome.

The camera's not bad either: 5-megapixels with a Carl Zeiss lens and dual LED flash. Like any mobile phone camera, it doesn't cope incredibly well with dark conditions - ramping up the ISO to compensate and leaving loads of noise on the picture. Still, it's perfectly capable of taking pics of your night out, and if there's enough light then you'll get some respectable results.

Many feared that the touchscreen would be laggy and unresponsive, like some of the cheaper touchscreen handsets on the market. We're happy to confirm that it's adequate. Not incredible - you will sometimes get the odd bit of lag - but it's not the pain that it is on some other devices. It's perfectly acceptable.

Having said that, the nicest thing we can say about the Symbian OS on the N97 is that it's "functional". It doesn't possess one bit of the flair that Android, WebOS or the iPhone OS exhibit in spades. It feels clunky, unintuitive and a chore to use. It's also inconsistent - while the Nokia Music Store and Ovi Store's UIs are well designed, the messaging interface is much less so. Guess which you'll be using more often.

It's almost as if the sum total of Nokia effort in adapting the OS to a touchscreen is just to make the buttons bigger on the screen. That's great for knowing your way around if you're familiar with older Nokia handsets - this is no different. But it doesn't suit the device one bit.

The homescreen is the exception to this. Nokia's spoken a lot about personalisation on this handset, and being able to add, remove, and modify homepage elements is excellent. See your friends' latest Facebook updates, your currently-playing MP3, the news headlines or the latest weather forecast. Easy to customise and stays updated.

Nokia's Ovi platform is their App Store, and it's working hard to integrate all Symbian app developers into it. The truth however, at the time of writing, is that the Ovi store is relatively sparsely populated compared to the Android market and especially the iPhone. That might just be because the others have a head start, but when there's competition for development time between platforms, the iPhone and Android are 0likely to win out.

Older S60 apps don't always work perfectly with the touchscreen, either, and the horrible emulation of a nav button for Java applications seems like a last-minute "oh s**t!" fix, than a serious attempt at making the apps behave better natively on the device. Some form of gesture support, which Nokia has been discussing lately, would be very welcome here.

The inbuilt mapping app works fine, though it is a little on the slow side. We'd recommend installing Google Maps instead, which runs beautifully. Other must-have applications include Twitter client Gravity and the Facebook application and accompanying widget.

The device's build quality overall is superb. The QWERTY flip-out mechanism is sturdy and feels solid. No worries about breaking it, though be careful you don't pinch your finger, as we did once or twice, when snapping it shut.

The QWERTY itself is usable, though like any QWERTY takes a little bit of getting used to. Having the space bar to one side was a little odd to start with, but we found ourselves up to decent typing speeds pretty quickly.

On the other hand, the fact that it's just three rows means that entering numbers is a pain, involving the holding down of a button on the right-hand side. Likewise for punctuation - although it'll automatically capitalise the starts of sentences, it won't do any other apostrophes, full stops or commas.

Battery life has been respectable during our trial, usually holding out for a day and a half of light use without needing a recharge. The charging is via a Micro-USB socket, though it comes with a handy convertor for both types of traditional Nokia charger.

In terms of stability, we suffered four or five crashes during our trial period where the whole phone would completely turn off. However, others we spoke to didn't suffer any, so it might have just been an issue with our device. Your milage might vary with that one.

Verdict

Overall, the N97 is a fantastic piece of hardware. Top end specs, a great screen, near-infinite storage and more features than you can shake a stick at mean that this handset is among the most capable in the marketplace.

Where it's let down is in the software. The Symbian OS isn't good enough to compete with the iPhones and G1s of this world. Although that may change in the future thanks to software updates, it'd be difficult for Nokia to really improve the interface without gutting it and starting from the ground up.

Die-hard Nokia fans who know Symbian inside-out will love this, as will those who enjoy consuming media on their own terms - not those set by a hardware company. There's plenty of hackery you can do to get it set-up to your liking.

But out of the box, for the average consumer, it's difficult to recommend the N97 above the pack. Every aspect of the design of the hardware excels, but the operating system falls short. A missed opportunity from Nokia.