Nokia N97 Review

Along with the BH-214 that I reviewed last week, also came an N97 handset. This one to be precise:

Nokia N97 on table with slider out

I will admit I was a bit dismissive of it as a handset when I did my rather long review and thinking aloud post about what I was planning for my next mobile phone last year. Some of those criticisms are valid but others were less so after having the chance to use it for a fortnight as my main device.

It’s hard to know where to start so in time honoured tradition I’ll break it down into a series of header sections.

Build Quality:

I’m very particular when it comes to build quality, almost slightly obsessive about it but if you’re going to fork out serious money or tie yourself up to a contract till the end of time to get a handset then it would be nice to think it’s well made and isn’t going to fall apart on you.

Here the N97 scores very well. It’s solidly put together, no noticeable plastic creaking noises or loose bits with only one exception. The main menu button on the front I felt had a little too much sideways play to it but apart from that it was solid.

I’ll also note that I did notice a rather large scratch down the camera lens. This was a known (now fixed) issue with the originally produced versions of the N97. This means that the handset I tested out was one of the originals and presumably has been around for quite a while. Despite it’s age I didn’t notice anything like weakness in the screen hinge section which is another good plus for it as I do quite like that form factor design.

Form Factor:

That leads nicely on to the next section. I like elongated phones, I’m not that keen on the squat chubby style phones like Blackberry’s Iphones and even my own N900. I like length and a clearly defined top, bottom and sides layout.

Here it suits me very well and just feels right whether in the hand or pocket, it’s where it should be and no fussing about or confusion.

The snap out hinge system when using it in landscape mode felt very intuitive and a definite plus over a more tradition slide out QWERTY keyboard.

Hardware functionality:

Here I’ll be concentrating solely on the functionality of the hardware of the phone. Its buttons, keys, touch screen and the like. I’ll do software functionality separately.

The QWERTY keyboard:

I’d tried N97′s in shops from time to time since it was launched and I didn’t like it. Bear in mind for most of that period I had a Nokia E90 Communicator which arguably has the best QWERTY keyboard ever plonked on a mobile phone. The E90 is obviously a lot bigger and has acres more space to play with because of a different hinge system but in equal measure, now with an N900 which has less space available, it’s keyboard is still better to use than the N97′s.

There are three factors in my mind at work here. Key travel (the actual amount of depression available to the key, the shape of the key and tactile feedback. The E90 has quite a spongy feeling keyboard to use but the keys are shaped in such a way that reduced miss-keying with their raised bottom bevel edge and equally provide a good amount of travel that reassures the user the key has been pressed. On the N900 there’s not as much key travel which may account for the increase in typos on my Tweets but the raised centre leading down on all sides bevel coupled with a distinctly clicky tactile feedback make up for this.

The N97 in contrast loses out here. The keys are quite small to begin with but have both little travel and less in the way of tactile feedback.

I also had an issue with the layout, often getting a ‘b’ when I wanted a ‘v’.

That said, after a week or so I became accustom to it and these issues subdued but I do think the keyboard could have been better and a lot of potential space has been wasted by including a D-Pad. Which moves us on nicely.

The D-Pad:

I never actually used it in general usage and in my mind it’s fairly redundant outside of perhaps games on a touch screen phone. By all means have cursor keys to fill this function but the D-Pad really wasn’t needed on this handset. Which is probably a good thing because I didn’t particularly like it either. Again spongy, flat, with little travel or tactile feedback and easy to hit a direction when you’re going for select. Not a patch on the clearly defined D-Pads I’ve used on the E90 and E65.

Exterior buttons and sliders:

Back to the good stuff now. Whether functionality wise, tactile feedback wise, the volume switch, power button, menu button, dial and hangup, camera button, lens cover slider and screen-lock slider all felt lovely to use. With only the bit of sideways play in the menu button they all felt solid, well engineered, gave the right amount of resistance and feedback and were in all the right places.

The only thing I’ll add as a note was the that the screen-lock slider took some getting used to as I’ve now become accustomed to the (what I originally though rather silly placing but now quite like) slider on the N900.

Touch Screen:

Here is an area where the cross-over between hardware and software make it harder to judge the quality on the basis of performance as they are significantly intertwined. On the whole, it’s a good responsive touch screen with functionality right up to the edges where some touch screens start to lose sensitivity or not register at all. It’s not as good as the touch screen on the N900 and it loses tracking. By which I mean, if I touch a specific point on my N900 and scroll the screen, the area displayed on the screen stays solidly underneath my finger. On the N97 it did move at a different rate. Not a massive amount, but enough to notice. Whether this loss of synchonisation is a software or a hardware issue is anyone’s guess but I’d probably put it down to software.

With that little quibble out the way, it is nice and responsive with the all important tactile feedback.

Off with the hardware and on to the software:

There will of course be some aspects of internal hardware I’ll have to touch on in this section because they have a bearing on the software and the experience it provides to a user but we’ll get round to that in a little while.

Software wise we’ve got Symbian S60 5th Edition running under the bonnet and it’s actually quite good and functional. I’ll note here, I did try out an N97 when they first came out with the original firmware and I wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t as bad as I subsequently read lots of reviews of it were portraying, but it wasn’t impressive either. The latest firmware which this device had pre-installed (so I didn’t need to flash it upon receipt) is considerably better.

Switching between portrait and landscape on the original firmware was sluggish but here it was nice and snappy as was orientation change when popping out the keyboard.

As far as screen customisation goes, I do like the idea of active widgets although it’s not in the league of the N900 for total customisable layout styles but equally, switching these layouts between landscape and portrait modes actually works really well which I accept would be an entirely different and far more difficult thing to achieve on the N900.

picture of Nokia N97 showing widget desktop

Initial set up was fairly easy with getting hold of my usual (when I was using a Symbian based device) applications through either straight downloads or off the Ovi Store, as was importing contacts from Funambol which meant I had a working handset with everything I’m used to in under an hour.

I have read other reviews that stated music library population and indexing took a lot of time but I didn’t find any kind of problem here, dropping my entire collection (circa 8GB) onto the device in under half an hour and indexing didn’t take more than a minute or two.

Performance:

Another area where the N97 has been criticised mainly along two lines of argument. Lack of RAM (128MB) and lack of any graphic acceleration chipage. I’m probably not the right person to evaluate graphic acceleration capabilities because I don’t tend to bother with games (which are where these are really put to the test) but with the increases in transitional effects and the draw on the core processor, it’s an area where the N97 lacks a bit of future proofing for what’s likely to come.

RAM-wise, for almost anything most people are likely to do with a phone it is adequate but given it’s high profile and the relative cheapness of chips, 256MB really should be on-board. Despite this it still manages to multi-task well with any slowing in performance or hangs only noticeable when it’s being severely tested with a good half a dozen applications open and running at the same time.

Device Application Memory is an issue, it’s really quite small with; from recollection, about 22MB free with a default installation. Enough to get a handful of applications on but not much more. Sure, you can always install applications on mass storage which isn’t short of space but some require installation on device memory and it is preferable to have them there.

Camera:

We’ve got the usual Carl Zeiss optics in place with a 5MPixel camera and it’s good, very good in fact. Balance and richness of images are all there by the bucket-load. I couldn’t think of anything truly exciting to take a sample picture of as it’s not like all the flowers are out yet so here’s a picture of Wolverhampton Police Station and the wall of my house (yes I know it need pointing, I’ll get round to it one day). Even zooming right it, the quality is definitely there which makes it more than capable as an imaging device.

Wolverhampton Police Station

picture of brick wall side of house

Battery Life:

The N97 comes with 1,500mAh BP-4L battery, same as the one in my E90 so I was expecting good life out of this little beast and it performed well. In my “Let’s try and kill the battery’ test I got it to last a little over 5 hours. This is with half a dozen applications running simultaneously all actively using things like 3G/Wifi connectivity, running music constantly via Bluetooth and with full geo-location GPS tracking going on at the same time. That’s a pretty good result in my book and more than I’d get out of my E90, at least the last time I tried doing that to it.

As for normal usage, it’ll easily see out a day (got it to last 2 days with fairly moderate usage) so no fears of having to carry a charger around or running out in the morning when you wake up.

GPS:

Not a lot to say here, it’s good, finds position in a second or two and stays locked to it which was very handy as I did have to use it for a fair bit of navigational work when I had the handset and with both Ovi Maps and Google Maps it worked great.

Bluetooth:

Again, nothing to grumble about, never dropped any music or calls, nice clear quality, file transfers were painless and range was fully up to scratch.

Data Connectivity:

No grumbles in this department. 3G/3.5G connections performed well where I know they should in the locality and wifi was solid as was switching between the two automatically.

The Pocket Test:

I’m a creature of habit. I like routines. One of which is how I arrange things in my pockets. Usually it’s simple. Things that might scratch my mobile phone like keys, lighters, boxes of matches I’ve long since learnt to segregate so under normal circumstances these go in my right pocket. Wallet and mobile in my left. However with all this stuff in my trouser pockets and dependent on how much small change has accumulated in my wallet, it can get quite cramped in there so the last thing I want is erroneous stuff going on like my phone being accidentally activated, turning off my music or calling someone.

My current N900 fails the pocket test miserably, to the point that I’ve had to resort to putting it in my inside coat pocket which isn’t optimal for me because the slightest rub of wallet against phone against thigh starts and usually completely opens the slider and therefore activates the phone.

The N97 in contrast passes with flying colours, as the slider requires both a small amount of vertical force as well as horizontal force to open. As it’s wedged between wallet and thigh it can’t achieve the vertical force and stays nicely shut. I like that.

Final Conclusions:

Despite reading a fair few articles knocking it, and my own initial impressions of the device it’s certainly gone up in my expectations. It’s not perfect by any means and there’s a few things that I don’t like such as the keyboard (although after a week or so it’s not as bad as I first thought).

It’s got solid build quality and I’m sure could take a fair few knocks over time. Battery life is good, form factor is very nice by my preferences.

It could do with a little more oomph in the power stakes with more RAM in particular to give it that edge and definitely a keyboard with more tactile feedback and travel in the keys. To be precise, the D-Pad should probably not be there and a few extra/bigger keys inserted in its place.

Size and weight wise I like it, enough of a presence to make itself felt in the pocket and known it’s not fallen out or got swiped by a toe-rag.

The OS is functional and performs well. I’m sure people complain about it not being pretty and slick but I still take functionality and capability over effects and prettiness any day.

Looking back, had I bought one as a replacement for my E90 when I was deciding on a new phone, I don’t think I would have been disappointed but equally I don’t think it would have ‘wowwed’ me in the same way the N900 has.

(Another post, including all graphic image cropping [with GIMP] and rendering done on an N900 with the exception of example images which was just easier to do on the desktop).

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