The Nokia N97 wasn't widely lauded when it launched, not really delivering a flagship experience in this modern world of app-based smartphones. Instead it looked rather tired, offering up a re-spun S60 interface that we've seen plenty of times before. It didn't exactly wow the way that handsets like the iPhone or the latest batch of Android devices do. The announcement of an N97 Mini came as something of a surprise, offering up essentially the same device in a smaller package.
So now we have a side-sliding keyboard and that flip-up touchscreen sitting on the top in a package of 113 x 52.5 x 14.2mm, shaving a few mm off in all directions. As a result you have a device that looks more up to the job. It isn't trying to be a flagship in both size and spec, but by offering practically the same technologies in a smaller bundle, it feels a little more modern.
The quality of the build feels sturdy enough, with a metal backplate and screen surround blending with some quality feeling plastics. Obviously the biggest point of interest is going to be how sturdy that flip-up screen feels. The action has a great feel to it, needing a positive thumb action to get it to open, which is something of a relief as the worst thing is having a phone that wants to flip out in your pocket. We actually like the feel of the N97 Mini in the hand, the rear support of the screen forming a comfortable rest for your index fingers whilst you get into some double-thumb action on the QWERTY keyboard.
The keyboard is backlit, but always shows all the characters open to you, so that's the all the alternatives as well as the main characters. The arrangement of the keys might be a little fiddly for some, and offering only three lines rather than four, you are left to contend with a space bar offset to the right next to a set of cursor keys. You get used to it, but we much prefer devices that give you four lines. The action of the keys is positive however and they are rubber without being too spongy.
The screen itself is a 3.2-inch, 640 x 360 resolution, resistive touchscreen display, exhibiting all the things we don't like about resistive displays. The facia covers the whole of the front, incorporating the speaker at the top and calling buttons at the bottom, along with the menu key.
Running your finger across the display reveals a number of soft patches as you feel your way around the hardware behind. You can also see the plastic warping around the opening for the speaker, so when you lay your phone out on display, the front doesn't actually look that great. It can be pretty unresponsive too, which is frustrating in a phone that requires you to confirm actions on the screen, despite a wealth of buttons.
The left-hand side gives you the Micro-USB connection for charging and syncing along with the weird Nokia slider screen lock; the right-hand side sees the volume controls and a camera button. The top gives you the 3.5mm jack and power button.
Around the back you'll find a 5-megapixel Carl Zeiss branded camera, which also comes with a dual LED flash. The location of the camera button on the top is at odds with the action to open the screen, as a long firm press to launch the camera application will often be nudging the screen open too - something to watch out for.
Autofocus and auto flash work well enough, but the results are fairly typical camera phone stuff, lacking detail to really do your images justice. It has a fair crack in good light, however, but we'd still always choose a camera with a real lens. The LED flash gives a greeny-yellow cast to images, so people look rather ill when you use it.
Video capture offers a range of cryptic resolution settings with widescreen (640 x 360) and 4:3 (640 x 480) aspects available at maximum. It is a fairly solid 30fps capture and the results aren't too bad outdoors in daylight, but in lower light you don't get much but noise. The microphone picks up a lot of hands noise in use too.
The operating system is familiar enough to Nokia or Symbian users with the main menu giving you a grid offering access to various sub menus in list or icon forms. Nothing much has changed here in recent year and menus are slow to navigate and lists don't scroll smoothly, so it is a bit of a letdown.
To step round this, a number of live widgets and shortcuts sit on the front page, offering you a glimpse at your life flying past. The Facebook widget offers three lines of scrolling text bringing you updates, which isn't the best.
We criticised these things on the N97 (maxi?) and it doesn't seem fair to labour the point here. For those that are fans of Nokia and familiar with S60, then at least you'll be able to dive in and know where you are. For those considering the handset alongside a range of competition (considering the N97 Mini will cost you in the region of £30 a month for a 24 month contract) there are much more appealing offerings our there which will better stand the rate of change over the next few years.
You do get integrated into the Ovi store and services, offering up photo sharing and apps, although navigation isn't the smoothest and it doesn't draw you in like Apple's App Store or the Android Marketplace. Photo sharing is easy enough from the album, offering Ovi, Flickr and Vox, with the Facebook app offering uploads to that service.
The N97 Mini comes decked out with 8GB of internal memory which is fairly generous, so you can load it up with music, photos and video to watch on the move. There is also a microSD card slot under the back cover to expand this further. Navigation of your music collection is simple enough once you have updated the library and a front-page widget will show you what's playing.
You get a relatively good set of in-ear headphones in the box, with remote, so you have plenty of control without taking the phone out of your pocket. The headphones also act as an aerial for the FM radio.
In terms of connectivity you get everything: HSDPA, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth. You also get heaps of sensors, proximity sensors, digital compass, brightness sensor so on paper the N97 Mini does just as much as any other phone. Navigation comes from Nokia Maps, which is a respectable offering, but sometimes opting for Google Maps seems to give you a faster result. At least with this being a S60 handset, there are apps out there, which can't be said for all phones.
Dive into the browser and the experience isn't the best out there. Page loading is not as fast as it could be, but navigation of full pages is the real sticking point. You get stuck between rapid unwanted scrolling or hitting a link you didn't want, and that comes back to the screen again, not giving you enough to really exploit the device to its maximum.
When it comes to calling, the N97 is comfortable to use and voice communication comes across loud and clear. The battery life is pretty good however and we managed to get away with not charging every night, which is better than average these days.
Dependent on contract
The N97 Mini offers a lot, there is no doubt about that, with a spec sheet that contains pretty much everything you'd expect. The form of the phone - side slider - isn't one we are opposed to and the build quality and design is pretty good.
But the screen really lets things down. Having grown accustomed to the sort of response you get from a capacitive display, the N97 Mini is always going to be a step behind. This, combined with an operating system that doesn’t quite respond fast enough and visually has been kicking around for some time, means you have a phone that feels out of date as soon as you start to use it.
The elephant in the corner, perhaps, is the N900. It's a larger device overall and at an early stage in its life, but brings with it a similar side-slider format. It feels like it has the potential in the OS that the N97 Mini doesn't really show; by contrast, the N97 Mini is ready to do most things out of the box. We like the N97 Mini more than it's bigger brother, but for what you pay, there are some serious contenders out there.