Nokia N97: Too Much Phone For Comfort?

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There’s a lot in this phone, and it takes a lot of getting used to. So far, we’re finding lots to like.

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The Nokia N97 may well be the most powerful phone I have ever held in my hands. It has lots of really major design points, including a touchscree, a slide-out qwerty keyboard, and lots of apps, all on the highly regarded Symbian OS. It’s also the latest iteration of a much-lauded series of “mobile computers” which began with Nokia’s N95.

Despite that, it may have an uphill struggle in winning new friends outside the N-series’ charmed circle, simply because Nokia’s smartphones currently take a bit of work to get to know. This review come partway through my “acclimatisation” and already I’m finding much to like.

The phone itself is a solid package. At 117 x 55 x 16mm, and 150g, it’s slightly thicker and heavier than an iPhone – and bigger than other phones such as the Palm Pre and HTC Magic. The phone is much bigger and chunkier than the Nokia E75, Nokia’s sliding qwerty entry in the business-focussed E-series.

Enough Keyboard?

The sliding keyboard has a very positive action, the mechanical hinge locks the screen nicely flat or into a very useful 35 degree tilt and, after a week, shows no sign of loosening up (sliders in the E-series would have loosened up a bit by now, in my experience). The screen re-orientates smoothly when the keyboard is slid out.

The only part of the phone that feels remotely “cheap” is the back. It’s a sheet of thin plastic, which bends and clips into place with lugs – a far cry from the solid metal sheets on a phone like the E71.

Despite the large size of the phone, the keyboard is substantially smaller than you expect. Because of the space taken by the hinge there are only three rows, and a joystick button takes space on the left. The keys are bigger and better spaced than on a Blackberry or the Nokia E71, but there are fewer of them, and more of them have multiple functions.

As there is no standard for pocket qwerty keyboards, Nokia has made its own choices to fit things in. The strangest is a small space bar, away on the right, which feels desperately wrong at first, but becomes completely natural with use, as it is close to the right thumb, instead of away in no-man’s land at the middle of the keyboard. A much bigger drawback is having to use function shift even for common punctuation like “@” or “.”

Screen wars

The screen is in danger of starting a religious war on the net. It is the same size as the iPhone’s, but has a big difference. It is resistive, not capacitive. This means you have to press, and you get feedback (good) but while you can swipe and push things around the screen, you can’t use gestures the way you can on the iPhone or the HTC Magic.

The screen can also be used by things other than fingers, such as styluses. Now for most people this is not a benefit. I hate styluses, as they are fiddly things which get lost and make using a phone more awkward. But Nokia takes a bigger view: they help for physically impaired people, and for text input in non-Roman alphabets. For my purposes, during a short review, I found the Nokia touchscreen more awkward than an iPhone or HTC Magic, but it has been rapidly growing on me.

Apps, OS and usage

The home screen can be customised with different widgets. Mine currently has a clock, date, status, Facebook, weather, contacts, email, and popular applications. Adding and changing them is easy through the Options soft key.

All popular email services are supported with IMAP, or you can download an application for Gmail online. In general, I found this is better, as Gmail is better displayed in its own realm, and the IMAP client seems to lack confidence – it continually asks whether it’s OK to connect, or stay connected or download something.

The phone works very well as a phone, and the calendar and contacts functions are fine. The Ovi store looks like providing a lot of extra apps to fill in any gaps.

Online discussion has raised questions as to whether the phone’s single 434MHz ARM 11 processor (instead of the dual ARMs in earlier phones) can handle all that is expected of it, with 128M of RAM – and a massive standard of 32G storage. In my use so far, I haven’t seen any great problems, but have not seriously stressed it as yet.

The phone has a slightly fussy “lock” button on the side to turn the touchscreen off when not in use. It’s not in the most obvious place, but comes with practice.

Other features

Connections through 3G are fine, and Wi-Fi hooks happily onto our home and office networks, giving faster browsing. In the Wi-Fi department, this phone comes with a free Joikuspot client, which allows you to share your 3G connection locally over Wi-Fi. A lot of the best Joiku features are held back for a paid version, however. Bluetooth is present and correct.

The N97 is very good indeed for media and other applications. While Apple is pleased to finally dish out the same kind of 3Mpixel camera others have had for years, Nokia is well ahead with a 5Mpixel camera, with Carl Zeiss optics – and flash and zoom – that actually takes useful photos.

As well as the obvious media player functions – movies play back quite reasonably – it has an FM radio. More surprisingly, it has an FM transmitter to play your music through your car or home stereo. Voice recording works well, and for media playback it has stereo speakers and a proper 3.5mm headset jack. The phone has up to 64G of internal memory, so there’s plenty of room for media.

It also has GPS, with built in maps, or the option to download Google Maps or other applications.

Conclusion

Like its predecessors, the N97 is powerful, but somewhat forbidding. A lot of functions take a bit of Nokia experience to uncover, but the overall impression is welcoming enough – it’s clear that this will be a productive tool for those with longer to get to grips with it.

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