(Pocket-lint) - The newly launched Nokia N96 is no longer the company's flagship model. But can its replacement, the just-announced N97, fill its shoes and take on rival smartphones? We grabbed some time with the handset, and the designer of the phone, at its launch to find out.

Pitching itself as a top-end smartphone, the N97 comes not only with a 3.5-inch, 16 million colour, 640 pixel wide, 16:9 resistive touchscreen display, but also a QWERTY keyboard for traditional typing.

Like the 5800 from Nokia, the all black (apparently "rational") or all white ("expressive") design is narrow but bulky and has the same problem that faces every mobile phone handset with a pull-out keyboard - it almost doubles the thickness.

Buttons, unlike previous Nseries outings, have been reduced to a minimum. The front sports that large touchscreen display, as well as answer, hang up and home buttons.

There is a camera for video calling and a proximity sensor that locks the screen when it's next to your head. Buttons on the side, which we are told are going to be improved from the ones we've played with, are for volume and the camera shutter.

A smooth sliding mechanism pushes the screen back and up to sit at a 35-degree angle to the keyboard. The aim is to let you watch or surf more easily while still offering you a solid surface on which to type. Made from metal the hinge has clearly been over-engineered for fear of breaking. Although robust, we would worry about gubbins such as the connecting ribbon - hidden it is not.

The keyboard, which sits to the right of a d-pad, is well spaced out, spongy to touch and offered across three rows rather than the usual four.

This creates a "much faster, more accurate, casual approach to typing", according to the Shunjiro Eguchi, the designer of the handset. It also means that those of us with fat fingers aren't likely to be stumbling over the keys any time soon.

However it does take some time to get used to it, especially when the spacebar is to the right of the keyboard rather than in the centre.

The d-pad is on the left not because Eguchi is left-handed, but because that's where the d-pad is on games console controllers. This, and the presence of the N-Gage platform, suggests that Nokia is serious about bringing gaming to this phone.

Around the back the N97 sports a 5-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, which Nokia claims is still "best in class", even though it doesn't match the 8-megapixel count currently offered by rival manufacturers.

With a shutter that is clearly going to open in your pocket, the camera's protrusion also means that some additional molding was needed to "level it out" although this molding does handily double up as a grip for when you are taking shots.

Get past the design and inside the phone packs plenty. It supports up to 48GB of storage, including 32GB of on-board memory, expandable with a 16GB microSD card, as well as HSDPA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the usual array of goodies.

The interface is S60 5th edition, the same as the Nokia 5800, although due to the larger screen and the keyboard is no way near as fiddly as we found it on the "Tube" handset.

We've played with three handsets at the launch and the software is still clearly ropey - they are prototypes after all. However, at no point do we believe that the performance will ever match the speed of the video Nokia is using to show off the phones' features. It will no doubt get faster, but it's a long way off compared to what we've seen.

Different to the 5800 interface is a new widget-based homescreen. Users will be able to pick six widgets from the thousands Nokia expect to be available to appear on the N97's homescreen, so you have instant access to the information that's important to you, be it email, Facebook, news feeds or the time. The list of widgets is going to be "endless" and Nokia has promised plenty of announcements over the coming months.

The experience is very much like the Linux based N810, also designed by Eguchi, while the phone takes in inspiration from the Communicator series that's never really taken off with the masses in the way that Nokia had probably hoped.

On the social location side - cringingly dubbed "so-lo" by Nokia - the phone has integrated AGPS and an electronic compass. Battery life is not detailed, although the company says that continuous playback time of up to 1.5 days for music is offered.

First Impressions

So is the Nokia N97 a game changer? Unfortunately not. But, it looks to be a solid handset that vastly improves on the touch capabilities and offering of the 5800. If you thought that was Nokia's response to Apple and RIM then think again - this is.

However the problem is that while it's Nokia doing what it does best, you can't help feel that the company's best kept secret to date might fall foul of the same fate that affected the N96. When it was announced it sounded great, but by the time in got to market it was behind the pack.

In the next 6 months, RIM is likely to have solved the Storm software issues, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung are likely to have Android handsets out in the market, and maybe even 3's INQ will have launched, as promised, a QWERTY-based INQ2 for social networking on the cheap.

First impressions are good, but a lot can happen in 6 months, as Nokia no doubt already realise.

The Nokia N97 is expected to begin shipping in the first half of 2009 at an estimated retail price of 550 euros before taxes or subsidies.

Writing by Stuart Miles.