Review: Nokia N97 – So close, yet so very, very far.

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Oh, Nokia N97. I wanted to touch you from the first time I laid eyes on you. You seemed like everything I wanted in a handset. You’d be the phone that surmounted the shortcomings of every smartphone before it. You were to be the mobile masterpiece. At least, I thought you were.

I’ve had the Nokia N97 for roughly 3 weeks now. Usually, we push out our reviews after just a week or so with the device – but I just couldn’t bring myself to sit down and review this one. Why? Because I thought I was missing something. There just had to be something I was overlooking – some setting, some application, just something that would earn this handset its pre-allotted spot in my pocket.

I wasn’t missing anything.

Now, I pay enough attention to our visitor statistics to know that a significant chunk of MobileCrunch readers are new to the site. As a result, any post in which I spout anything but the most positive of praise towards a phone leads to countless comments claiming I’m a “fan boy” of whichever competing company happens to fit the bill. For the sake of credibility, a bit of background on myself: I carry lots of phones, but I carry no allegiances. I have no primary handset. I am a fan boy of phones in general.

Now, with that out of the way, I feel I can more openly say: Of all of the most oft-discussed smartphones of the moment (Pre, G1, iPhone, myTouch, and Touch Pro 2, to name a few), the N97 is somewhere near the bottom of the list for me. It does so many things, but does none of them anywhere near perfectly. For every aspect of the handset, there is at least one flaw that just wrecks it.

Hardware:
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If the N97 were just sitting on a table, you’d probably look at it and say, “Damn. That is a really, really nice looking phone.” You’d pick it up, play with it a little – and still, it’s an incredibly nice phone.

Then you’d play with it some more. You’d poke around, slide its hinge, punch the keyboard a bit.. and it all starts to go downhill. It’s like finding the girl of your dreams, taking her home, and realizing she has a tattoo of Bill O’Reilly on her back.

The first thing we noticed amiss was the battery cover. Nokia is incredibly inconsistent when it comes to the backside of devices. The battery cover on the E71/E71x? Stunning. On the N97? Chintzy piece of garbage. The quality of the material in no way matches that surrounding the rest of the device, and the tabs feel like they’re going to snap off every time you pop the cover off. Yeah, yeah – critiquing the battery cover seems like a low blow, the ultimate nitpick. But considering that the only way to access the SIM and microSD slot is through the backdoor, it’s worth noting.

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Next up: the hinge. The screen on the N97 slides up to reveal a QWERTY keyboard, and Nokia has incorporated a rather fancy looking hinge to handle the heavy lifting. Everyone’s immediate response to the hinge is positive – because it really does look quite nice. You’re not looking at a bunch of springs levers – just one, nice, flush lift. Looks aside, the hinge might be one of the N97’s biggest downfalls. It requires way too much force to slide this thing open, even after a few weeks of use. On nearly every slide-out QWERTY handset that I’ve owned (and I’ve owned more than I care to count), sliding the keyboard out was satisfying – addictive, even. I would do it just for the hell of it, just to hear the gratifying “Swoosh! Thump.” of the open/close mechanism. Not the case on the N97 – in fact, I tended to avoid opening it.

Additionally, the unique design of the hinge means that the default position of the screen, which is about 45° or so in relation to the keyboard, is the only position possible. There is no tilting. Tilting isn’t all that common in smartphones, so that’s okay – but the default position just feels slightly off regardless of whether we’re sitting, standing, or laying down. It never feels like you’re getting a proper angle of both the screen and the keyboard.

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Speaking of the keyboard: It was the flagship feature of this flagship phone. It was bigger than the Pre’s, prettier than the G1’s, and more “real” than the iPhone’s. It was the primary element that drew me to the N97, so I’m incredibly disappointed to say that it.. well, it sucks. The buttons just don’t feel like buttons. Have you ever worked one of those keyboards that is built for an environment that might get messy, like those of a cash register? Those ones that are not buttons, but just a thin sheet of plastic laid across buttons for easy cleaning. It feels like that.

The Screen:

Damn it, Nokia. Stop with the resistive screens. You could have a phone that doubled as a jet pack and could read my thoughts, and the resistive touchscreen would still make it feel archaic right after launch.

For those who are wondering what I’m babbling about: there are two common types of touchscreens. Capacitive, and resistive. The iPhone, G1, and the Pre use capacitive screens, giving them that hard, smooth, glide-friendly feel. The N97 and many other smartphones uses resistive screens, which require you to push a liiiittle bit harder. It’s trivial and fairly easy to adjust to, but it feels like hot garbage. The stylus is dead, Nokia. Capacitive screens may cost a little bit more – but when the N97 already costs some $700 dollars (unlocked – no US carrier currently offers it), it’s worth the difference.

The screen on the N97 is no where as responsive as the phones it is competing with, and the accuracy is quite spotty. Sometimes it’s to the right of our thumb, while other times it’s immediately below.

3.5mm Headset Jack:

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When we declared our hatred for headset jack adaptors back in May, we promised that we’d make every attempt to praise any phone that incorporated a 3.5mm jack. The N97 does. They put it right up dead center on the top of the handset, perfectly flush and ready for use with your favorite pair of buds. For that, Nokia, we love you.

The Software – Symbian S60 5th Edition:

When Nokia decided to get heavy into this touchscreen business, they decided to bring S60 with it. So they tweaked, they twirked – and in the end, S60 5th Edition was born.

5th edition feels exactly like what it is: a touchscreen user interface spun off of a non-touchscreen interface. It’s definitely usable, but by no means our favorite. If we had to rank it, it would be somewhere below iPhone OS, Android, and WebOS, but somewhere above Windows Mobile.

It’s just too messy. Every single screen has at least two on-screen softkeys (with space for four), almost always listing “Options” and “Back” or “Options” and “Exit”. Nearly every time, the stuff listed on the other two (non-Options/Back/Exit) keys are listed a second time under the options button, which seems useless. These things take up anywhere from 10-20% of the screen and, to put it bluntly, are ugly as all hell. We’d kill for them to be a slide out drawer, a la the Palm Pre quick launch bar.

Another strange design choice is navigation. On some screens, you double click to enter an item. On others, you single click. This is a fault of the resistive touchscreen; as you have to actually push down and “drag” lists to scroll through elements (rather than “flick” through them), this ensures that you don’t accidentally click an item whilst scrolling. At least, that’s what we assume. Even on the single click sections, however, we’re able to scroll around without accidental clicks – so when the double click screens come up, we tend to forget. I’ll usually click once, then wait a few seconds thinking that the app had hanged before I remember this screen needs two clicks. It’s really quite strange.

The interface is a bit strange, but surmountable. What we can’t get past, however, is the lag. It lags seemingly at random, and in fairly nasty ways. For example: when we were testing out the widgets for the section on them down below, we launched the Facebook application. Part of the app loaded within a second or two – but the on-screen softkey area we mentioned above took nearly 15 seconds to catch up. So we had 80% of an app, and then a gaping hole that showed through to the homescreen taking up the other 20%. The only other apps open were the browser and the Ovi store.

Widgets:

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The N97 homescreen makes use of a new widgeting system, and it’s one of the few elements of this build of S60 that we’re quite fond of. You’ve got 6 widget slots, which you can fill with widgets that tie into your favorite applications. The Facebook widget, for example, shows the number of messages in your inbox, recent pokes, friend requests, and the last 3 status updates your friends have posted. Clicking on the widget launches the correlating app.

You can swipe the widget screen to hide all the widgets besides the clock and calendar, supposedly intended to minimize distractions when you’ve got it on your desk. Instead, it just confused us at first, and then annoyed us after we realized what was going on. We honestly thought it was a bug.

The Browser:

The browser seems decent, though the UI seems incredibly silly. The page is rendered in a view window about 70% of the maximum size, with the page title and the navigation taking up the other 30%. If you don’t click anywhere in the navigation area for a second or two, the page expands to fill the whole screen. To get the navigation back up, you click a button in the lower right of the screen. It’s not bad, but it seems very outdated by the default browsers on competing handsets.

Browsing seemed a bit slow, even over WiFi. Pages took anywhere from 2-3x as long to load on the N97 as they did on both the G1 and the iPhone, all of which were on the same wireless connection.

Phone:img_1438

It’s strange; when it comes to smartphone reviews, it’s easy to gloss over reviewing the actual phone part. Don’t worry, you’re never going to be missing much. It’s always going to be incredibly arbitrary (even more so than the rest of the review), affected by so many elements that it’s silly to spend much time on it beyond saying “It works.”

That said, it works. The phone is easily accessible from nearly any screen just by tapping the green “Dial” button, the numbers are big, and contacts were simple to navigate (Hurray, group support!). In a completely scientific test, we asked 5 people how we sounded through the phone. The general response: “Uh, fine?”. We got about 4 hours of talk time out of the handset before it faded out.

Photos:

07092009008 Bright light, indoors, no flash.
Low light, with flash.
07092009010 Low light, no flash.

The 5 megapixel, autofocus camera on this phone is one of its strongpoints. It especially shines during outdoor photoshoots with lots of bright colors; alas, we can’t seem to scrounge up any of those test shots and it’s far too dark outside at the moment to recreate them.

The dual LED flash is only somewhat worth while, generally washing out pictures more than it actually improves them. This is another place that Nokia seems to have taken a shortcut. With a nice xenon flash, this camera would have been killer.

Conclusion:

I could go on and on about the N97 – but there’s no point, and no way to do so without seeming unnecessarily harsh. Nearly every element of the phone has one glaring fault that just kills it for me. A nasty lag here, an odd interface choice there. Even down to the media functionality: it’s as basic as can be (we had no trouble with audio files, but we had a hell of a time finding videos that would play on it), but the built in speakers make even your favorite songs sound like they’re being played through a cat. Nokia makes a valiant effort to cram everything into this phone, but doesn’t pull a damned thing off perfectly.

S60 has seemed as if it was on its last limb for some time now; with other interfaces now swooping in for the kill, it’s really dragging down Nokia’s efforts. It may be one of the most popular platforms in the world, but that doesn’t mean its one of the best. Sorry, S60 – it’s game over.

What we like:

  • It takes some great photos
  • It looks really, really nice.
  • 3.5mm headset jack

What we don’t:

  • They cut corners on the hardware in all the places you wouldn’t look first.
  • The keyboard is terrible.
  • Resistive touch screens are dead.
  • Every aspect of the UI feels archaic.
  • Lots of sporadic lag.

There are a number of elements we didn’t get into here; the Ovi store, the front-facing camera, the FM transmitter… Thing is, they’re fantastic icing on the cake, but the cake is made of crap. I’m sorry, Nokia – I really, really wanted to love the N97.

[Disclosure: Nokia supplied the N97 to me for review purposes, and it will be sent back in the following weeks.]

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