Nokia N97 Review

29. June 2009 at 08:40

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Announced at the Nokia World 2008 in Barcelona the N97 really has beaten big waves. However, there are also people saying that this device isn’t worth what everybody thinks. Thus, can this be Nokia’s best device we’ve seen so far or is it just a big fail? In this review I’ll answer this question and put the N97 through its paces.

Main advantages:

  • Big screen
  • Slide out QWERTY-keyboard
  • strong battery
  • interactive homescreen
  • 32GB internal flash memory

Main disadvantages:

  • software glitches
  • Keypad with some issues

Sales package:

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The packing looks really simple with a print of N97’s design. Compared to other boxes this box is smaller and has no images of the device. More over, the box is really environment friendly which shows Nokia’s new way. Things you can find in the packing:

  • Nokia N97 (RM-505)
  • USB like stylus
  • microUSB cable (CA-101)
  • battery with 1500mAh (BP-4L)
  • headset remote (AD-54)
  • headphones
  • USB-charger (AC-10E)
  • charger adapter for 2mm & 3,5mm (CA-146C)
  • Ovi CD
  • manuals
  • cleaning cloth
  • 3 months of voice guided navigation

The charger adapter is really nice and works well. You can use older charger without any problems. So you can use your car-charger you bought e.g. for the N96 easily by using the adapter. Although the N97 features TV-out no TV-out cable is included. However, some user may already own this cable. If not, and you want to use TV-out you need to buy it. If you may miss a microSD card I want to remind you that this device features 32GB of internal storage which should be enough for everybody. The stylus looks pretty cool but is frankly to short. If you like to use the handwriting recognition the stylus doesn’t feel good in the hand as it is to short. We missed a case for the N97 to protect it from scratches. For a full unboxing head over.

Size:

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When designing such a handset with a 3.5” screen, a large battery and a slider mechanism one need to bear in mind the size. The final version of the N97 measures 117.2 x 55.3 x 15.9 mm. So it’s higher, thicker and wider than most handsets. Also it’s weight of 150g is affected by the huge amount of features and materials. Despite it’s big and heavy it feels, also when not as good as other handsets, relatively comfortable in the hand. Unfortunately, due to its size it’s sometimes difficult to put the N97 in pockets. Some pockets might be big enough but some pockets, from tight jeans, might be to small or to tight.

Built quality:

When buying a high end device the customer expect high quality. In the last years N-Series user have been quite often been disappointed. Especially the highly anticipated N95 caused a lot trouble. However, now it seems that Nokia have learned and put a lot effort in the N97. The overall feeling is much better. It feels more noble although it’s finished out of plastic. Metallic details at the edge of the housing make it much more appealing to the user. There are no creaks or big gabs. The backcover is smooth and really thin plastic. Our test unit was almost perfect but unfortunately the batterycover was on the left side, next to the slide lock, a little bit loose and not as tight as it should be. You almost cannot see it but therefore you can hear it. This is, at least for me, pretty annoying. However, not all but a few N97 have this issue. The front’s surface is one unit and there is no transition between the screen and the rest of the rousing, really good indeed. Such surfaces tend to attract finger prints but the white version doesn’t do so.

Hinge mechanism:

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Something many don’t expect is the hinge mechanism which reveals the full QWERTY-keyboard. The build quality is really high and the gab between the two parts is really small. If you slide the screen up, the screen tilts up at an angle of 35 degrees. It opens really soft with a nice ‘click noise’. However, you cannot adjust the viewing angle but this angle is almost perfect for every situation – writing e-mails or surfing the web. Sometimes, however, you wish to adjust the the screen for a better viewing angle. Despite how strange the mechanism is looking it’s really solid and isn’t loose.

Keys:

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Despite the N97 has a huge touch screen it still has a couple of keys. On the front, which is dominated by the touch screen, we have three buttons. Only one of them is physical, the two other are touch-sensitive buttons. The application button, the physical button, launches the menu and opens when pressed and hold the task manager. Next to it there is the touch sensitive green call creation key and the red call termination key.

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Going to the left hand site of the device we have the slide lock to lock and unlock the N97 easily. Just flick the slide lock down and you lock or unlock it. It sits on the right place as it’s easily assessable with the thumb (left hand) or with the middle finger (right hand).

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On the opposite side we find the volume toggle to adjust either the volume or to zoom in and out. Walking further down there is the camera button to capture a image or to start/end recording. The pressure point of the keys is good and crunchy.

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Sliding the upper part up the screen tilts up and it reveals the full QWERTY-keyboard. On the left there is the d-pad for navigating through the menu or for gaming. It’s basically nice having this d-pad as you can navigate smoothly and you can decide whether using the touch screen or the d-pad. The QWERTY-keys are quite small but they are separated nicely. First one will struggle using the keyboard but after some time you will get used to it and write ways faster. Due to the hinge mechanism there wasn’t enough space for four rows so that only three rows are available. More over, Nokia rearranged the layout so that the space bar has been move to the far right.

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However, this isn’t the problem. Rather the tactile feedback and the keyboard shortcuts are the big issues. Some key do give some tactile feedback but other such as the blue arrow/Fn do give no feedback. Talking about the blue arrow key. As there are three rows available only, the numbers as well as some symbols have been put on letters. If you want to type numbers or symbols you need to use the blue arrow key. Other than the E75 you cannot press and hold a letter to get a number. Pressing on P you do get a series of ‘p’ instead of a zero – nonsense. I do hope Nokia will fix it in the next firmware. Also, there are no extra keys for the most common symbols like dot. It’s really frustrating using the arrow key all the time.

Nokia N97 Key 3 by you.

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To use the keyboard also in the darkness the keys have backlight of course. In completely darkness it works fine but in moderate light conditions it becomes almost impossible to read the characters as the white backlight matches up with the white colour of the keys. This seems to occur only on the white version of the N97. Other than that the backlight is really good and there is no light leak. Next time Nokia need to think about how to build a good QWERTY-keyboard. Basically they do have the knowledge as they had awesome QWERTY-keyboards with the E71, E75 and the E90.

Touch-Screen:

The Nokia N97 has a large 3,5“, bright nHD (640 x 360 pixels and 16:9 aspect ratio) TFT color display with resistive touch screen and tactile feedback. Resistive touch means that it’s based on pressure so that you need to actually press the display. Compared to Nokia’s first touch screen device, the 5800, N97’s screen is way more responsive. To select an icon just click on it and it will open. In some menus you need to highlight a point first before you can click it, so you need to double click. Basically the UI, S60 5th Edition, is pretty intuitive. Clicking on the clock for example you can set an alarm. However, here and there there are some problems which Nokia and S60 need to improve. Scrolling down a list isn’t as smooth as on other devices. They should think about include kinetic scrolling into the music library and other lists to make it more appealing. Anyhow, the icons are big and you can navigate through the whole device using your fingers. The N97 also supports tactile feedback. It’s a small vibrate so that you know that you pressed a icon or option. You can set its intensity or turn it off. Using the N97 without tactile feedback is kind of strange as you don’t have any feedback. The nHD screen is indeed really bright and sharp. Watching movies is really a pleasure and due to the tilted screen you can put it on the desk and lean back.

Input methods:

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Besides the full QWERTY-keyboard there are still two other input methods. First it offers a standard numeric keypad we know from all non-touch-screen devices. The buttons are big and due to tactile feedback it’s as if you’re using hardware buttons. Of course you can use T9 to speed it up. The other input method is handwriting recognition. Although I’m still wondering who will use that this function it is included as well.

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Writing with the finger is quite hard but using the stylus it’s a little bit easier. However, as mentioned before the stylus is to short to write properly. Anyhow, the N97 recognized my handwriting pretty well although my handwriting is quite bad.

Camera:

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On the back there is the 5 megapixel camera with auto focus and Carl Zeiss lens. The lens is protected by a shutter. Sliding the shutter down it reveals the lens as well as the Dual LED flash. More over it opens automatically the camera application.

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On the right hand site of the camera application you have a toolbar. You can take a picture either hold and pressing the hardware capture button on the top or by clicking the capture button on the screen.  However, before you take a picture you can access the extended toolbar which offers you plenty of options. It’s not offering you all options you know from a professional camera but it comes pretty close. You can adjust the white balance, colour tone, sharpness and the contrast. More over, different scene modes like close-up, landscape or sport give you the best mode for a certain situation. Although photography isn’t the N97’s biggest focus and it’s early firmware the image quality is pretty impressive. Of course, it doesn’t reaches the quality of a professional camera or of the N82 but it’s good indeed. For bad light conditions you find a Dual LED flash which lights up the picture. Well, it’s not as good as a real Xenon flash but it’s okay. Ah, before I forget, you can downscale the quality and also record the GPS location. Here you can see some image samples:

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Video recording is also possible with VGA (640 x 480 pixels) resolution and 30 frames per seconds. This is unfortunately nothing special as we have seen this two years ago already. HD like quality instead of DVD would be much better but let’s come back to the facts. You can use the LED as a video light, select between different colour tone or white balance and record up to 1 1/2 hours. Unfortunately, the focus is set to infinity instead of initial focus. That means that objects close to the lens are blurred out. Let’s hope Nokia fix it soon. But other then that the quality is good, the colour is vivid and the tone is good. Here is a videosample:

Music:

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With the 32GB of onboard storage which can be expended to up to 48GB the N97 would be the perfect musicplayer. On the top there is the 3.5mm audio jack for standard headphones. You can browse your songs by Artists, Albums, Playlists, Genres or Composers. Of course you can view all songs and use a search function. However, first of all you need to refresh your library which takes, depending on how many songs you have, some seconds up to more than 20 minute. After that you can start listening to music. If you have to many songs, for example 2700, it takes 30 seconds to open up the library.

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The ‘Now playing’ screen is showing the album art (if available), title, artist, progress bar, options and the music controls such as play, fast forward and rewind. If no headset is connected the music will be playbacked via the two stereo speakers on the left long edge. The speakers are really loud and the sound quality is good. It’s not as good as 5800 XpressMusic’s speakers but they’re fine.

Of course you can create playlists, turn on/off the shuffle mode and improve the audio quality by choosing between six equaliser modes which you can also edit.

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Another nifty feature is the built in FM-transmitter. Using the transmitter you can transmit your music form your N97 to any FM-radio. Well, the quality isn’t as good as the normal radio or CD but it’s fine. There is some background noise. You just need to select the same frequency on your N97 as well as on the radio and you can start. You can also listen to radio with your N97. Therefore you need to plug in your headset as this has the antenna built in. Unfortunately the N97 has no virtual radio which allows you to listen more than hundred channels world wide.

Homescreen:

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The homescreen is one of the main focus points. Instead of a static homescreen Nokia decided to go a new way and to implement internet-based widgets and shortcuts on the homescreen. There are five slots in which you can place your favorite widgets. Contacts and applications shortcuts are available as well as a Amazon, Facebook, Reuters, AccuWeather, E-Mail, RSS feeds and some more internet widget. These are always connected to the internet and update continually. If you wish you can switch to ‘content offline mode’ to disable the updating of the  widgets. Unfortunately you cannot set a certain interval in which the widgets should be updated. Either they are updated continually or they aren’t at all. This needs to be fixed as soon as possible. Of course you can set a wallpaper to customize the homescreen. As this screen is really personal you don’t want everybody to see it. So you can swipe it away and you will see a screen without widgets. Unfortunately, there is only one page for widgets available so that you cannot have more than 5 widgets. The spectrum of widgets is currently really small.

Available widgets are:

  • AccuWeather
  • Amazon
  • AP News
  • Bloomberg
  • Calendar
  • E-mail widget
  • Facebook
  • Favourite contacts 1 & 2
  • FM transmitter
  • Hi5
  • Music player
  • Share online
  • Shortcut 1 & 2
  • Slideshow
  • Music
  • various RSS feeds

The RSS feed widget could have been better as it shows for example only the SymbianWorld.org feed. However, it would be better if it combines all your feeds so that you’re always up to date. I hope that Nokia will add further widgets in due course. Some 3rd party applications like Gravity also offer a widget but currently there aren’t many of them.

Connectivity:

On the connectivity side it has GSM, 3G, WCDMA, GPRS, HSDPA, WCDMA and HSCSD. Than, for the connection to the PC and other devices it features microUSB, Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP support and W-Lan. In the test all connection worked fine. No problem to connect to a Bluetooth Stereo headset, to the PC via bluetooth and to transfer data between the N97 and the PC. Transferring 100MB from the PC to the N97 took about 1 minute and 32 seconds. If you take a look at the N97 you won’t find the standard charger socket.  Now you can charge the N97 via the microUSB cable which is a big plus.

Internet:

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The N97 provides the user with an excellent internet experience. Using W-Lan or 3G you can surf the web on the 3.5” screen and with the QWERTY-keyboard it becomes a pleasure.  The browser supports almost all websites from WAP, WEB, HTML, XHTML and Flash Lite. Once you entered the URL the browser goes  automatically to the fullscreen mode. You can navigate either with the d-pad or with your finger. Dragging the site is no problem and you can scroll easily up and down just by flicking your finger over the page. Even YouTube videos aren’t a problem and you can watch it in the browser. However, if you like to see it full screen you can either go to options and click ‘full screen’ or, according to the notification, click the video. This however, causes that you will be pointed to the mobile version of youtube – nonsense. To zoom in you can just double click or tap the right down corner and use the zoombar to zoom in and out. Unfortunately, the browser crashes form time to time which hangs together with the little amount of RAM.  You can subscribe to RSS feeds, save URLS and sent also URLS to friends. All in all the web experience have been really improved compared to the 5800 but there is still room for improvement.

GPS:

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Nowadays all flagship features GPS. And so does the N97. It comes with Nokia Maps 2.0 and three month of free voice guided navigation. The whole service is for free only the voice guided navigation must be paid. So you can test the service 3 months for free before you device whether to purchase the voice guided navigation or not.  Maps are also for free and can be downloads straight to your N97 or via the Nokia Maps Loader for your PC. Nokia Maps offers you almost everything any other navigation solution is offering. Different kind of map modes like 3D, 2D, Satellite and Hybrid make it really easy to navigate. When navigating you also can choose between various different views and adjust the volume.

Also build in is a digital compass which shows you truth North. So the map always shows you the direction you’re actually heading. This is significant when you’re using pedestrian navigation. Before using it you need to calibrate it. According to the manual you need to take it in your hand and draw an eight with the device. The thing is, however, that it can take several seconds until a minute. Instead of doing this you can flip the N97 several times, this works as well. All in all Nokia Maps is a good navigation solution. However, you can also use other navigation solution such as Garmin Mobile XT without problems.

E-Mail:

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Out of the box the Nokia N97 comes with the standard and old S60 client. It doesn’t take long creating a account as the device helps you. You just need to enter your password as well as your email address and you are done. This works in most cases but especially users of selfhosted domains like symbianworld.org need to enter the password, email address as well as the pop3 and stmp details. Attachments aren’t problems for the client. However,  by default it isn’t displaying the html format. If you want to see the html version of the email you can do so by opening the Attachment.html file. If you want you can download a more advanced e-mail client as well from the Ovi store.

Business:

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Also when the N97 looks like a Laptop it doesn’t come with any special business applications. Like all other S60 handsets it comes with the standard but powerful calendar, a file manager, a converter, a dictionary, a calculator, a Zip application, Adope PDF and Quickoffice. This is basically what you need to retrieve or sent a business mail. You can create and open zip files, read PDF, Word, Exel and Power Point files. However, although this device is such a high end handset it comes with the read only version of Quickoffice so that you cannot edit or create any files.

Battery:

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So much features also needs their energy. The BP-4L battery has 1500mAh and is really strong indeed. Depending on the usage the battery least quite long. I’m using W-Lan, UMTS, the music player and bluetooth every day and the battery holds up until the end of the day.

Bugs:

Unfortunately the N97 has also some software glitches. Contacts you sent to the N97 will be mixed up. That means that the first name will stand at the end and the last name at the beginning. More over, the devices is sometimes quite slow. If you turn the volume up or down the this happens not immediately but with some delayed. Furthermore, the handsets crashes or closes sometimes applications and needs really long to get a network signal after the boot up. I hope Nokia will fix it in die course.

Usage:

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The N97 is based on the popular operation system Symbian. It’s running on S60 5th Edition. Thus it’s open to 3rd party application offering you a lot applications to download. More over, you can personalize the whole device from the homescreen until the whole menu structure. You can decide whether you want to have the homescreen completely blank, with shortcuts or whether you want to have a grid or list view in the menu. Moving around icons and creating new folders is no problem and with themes you can give your phone a personal touch. For some new users there might be to many folders and applications. The icons already say what they stand for and furthermore you can read the application’s name. Unfortunately, some icons look like application although they are subfolders. This is quite irritating. So some applications might be hidden for the first time. The N97 has a ARM 11 434MHz CPU which has causes some discussion. Some say that this CPU is to slow for such a flagship device. Indeed, the device is sometimes slow but I cannot say whether to blame the RAM, CPU or the firmware. Nice transitions, which are switched off by default, make the menu even nicer.

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After the first start several application will turn on helping you setting up the device. They help you to create an email account, transfer your data from your old to your N97 and create the proper internet access points.

Software, Applications and Games:

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For this review we used firmware 10.0.012 which is the first firmware. We expect that many of the mentioned glitches will be fixed with the new firmwares. Other than that the N97 comes with many extra applications like the Facebook application which allows you to handle your facebook account on your N97. Other applications are Qik AccuWeather, Traveler and more. If you’re a gaming geek the N97 isn’t a device for you. It comes with two games, Spore and Guitar Hero, pre-installed but these aren’t game which will blow you away. Also N-Gage isn’t quite ready for the N97 so that you need to wait until N-Gage will be available for the N97. The Ovi Store, Nokia’s answer to Apple’s Store, is also on the N97. However, the content in it isn’t really good and there more ringtones and wallpapers than games and applications. Looking for freeware apps and games you will find just a small amount. As the store is rather new we expect to see more and better content soon.

Verdict:

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The Nokia N97 combines everything in a more or less compact formfactor. It’s a internet tablet, a camera, a mp3 player and a social media tool. However, neither of this things it can do perfect. Well, there are better camera phones available and the iPhone has a better browser but the N97 is a masterpiece in terms of convergence. If you need a device that solves all task the N97 will suite you. However, there are also devices such as the I8910 and the Sony Ericsson Satio which are worth taking a look. In my opinion the Nokia N97 is, despite its price of 600€, the device of the year.