The touchscreen N-series smartphone packs some impressive specs, but the Symbian OS feels out-of-date when faced with the competition, says PC World
By Ginny Mies
San Francisco - On paper, the Nokia N97 ($700; unlocked as of 6/16/09) looks as if it could rival the other big phones of this summer, the Palm Pre, the Apple iPhone 3G S, and T-Mobile's follow-up to the Android-based G1. It has more memory than the other three, supports a wide range of multimedia files, and has a large touchscreen and a full QWERTY keyboard. But the N97 falls short of its potential, largely because the operating system it uses—the Symbian S60 5th Edition—lacks the refinement of other OSs. Still, the N97 impresses in certain areas, particularly audio and video.
Note: The N97 hasn't completed battery testing at this writing, so we can't yet assign a PCW Rating. We'll update this review with that information as soon as we can.
The N97 feels good in hand with a matte backing and sturdy body. It is a bit hefty at 5.3 ounces (heavier than both the Pre and iPhone 3G S). It is also fairly pocketable for a phone with a slide-out keyboard—it measures 4.6 by 2.2 by 0.6 inches. Button placement is standard, with glowing Home and Call Send/End buttons below the display. A power button sits on top next to the 3.5-mm headphone jack (a must-have for multimedia phones). On the right spine is the volume rocker and the camera shutter button. The left spine has the screen lock switch and the mini-USB port.
The keyboard slides out easily, and the display pops out at a slight angle. While the tilt was nice for watching videos and helped reduce glare outside, I found it annoying when trying to type on the keyboard. The edge of the display is too close to the top row of keys, and you can't adjust the display's angle or make it lie flat. I also found it hard to press the keyboard's keys; they're simply not raised enough for comfortable typing. The keyboard's layout was also a bit counterintuitive, with the spacebar placed in the lower-left corner.
A navigational touch pad (right, left, down, up, and a center button to select) on the right side of the keyboard is supposed to help with navigation, but I didn't use it very often. It was so difficult to press that I accidentally selected apps when I was trying to scroll through them.
The N97's call quality over AT&T's 3G network was very good. Voices sounded loud, clear, and crisp—better than any phone I've reviewed recently. I heard no static or background hiss, either. Parties on the other end gave similar reports. Even while standing on a busy city street corner, my contacts said my voice sounded loud and clear.
The phone has a large 3.5-inch resistive touchscreen with a 360-by-640-pixel resolution. While colors looked good and the display appeared bright and crisp, I was disappointed by the touchscreen's responsiveness. Resistive touch just doesn't compare to the slickness of capacitive touch technology. Scrolling wasn't very smooth, and the two-touch action required to start an app got annoying after a while. However, I really liked the N97's haptic feedback (a slight vibration when you touch an app), which helped with the navigation.
I blame the Symbian S60 5th Edition OS for why I was unimpressed with the the N97's display. The S60 operating system simply lacks the fresh and refined look of WebOS, iPhone, and even Android 1.5. The typography and icons are too small, and they fade away into the background of the display.
While the interface might not be the best-looking, the new live-feed widgets are quite useful. The widgets update your personal Internet feeds in real time on your home screen so you don't have to open up another app to access them. My favorite, the Accuweather widget, takes advantage of the N97's built-in Assisted GPS. When I traveled from San Francisco to the slightly different microclimate of the East Bay, for example, the outdoor temperature on my home screen updated accordingly.
Other widgets include Facebook, MySpace, your personal e-mail, the music player, favorite contacts, and the date and time. The music player is average and unsophisticated; it's much like what we've seen on previous Symbian devices. It has no visual effects or album art scrolling (as on the iPhone and the Pre). Nevertheless, it is quite easy to use with the display's large touch controls. It has a few equalizer effects, so you can tweak the sound to your liking. Overall, music playback was very good, though volume level was a bit low piped through the external speakers. The music player supports a respectable number of formats: MP3, WMA, WAV, eAAC+, MP4, and M4V.
The video app is equally simple, though it worked fine. The player can only support MPEG-4 and WMV files—no DivX or H.264 codecs, unfortunately. The N97 is loaded with Flash Lite 3.0, which means it can play videos directly from the YouTube Web page. Flash video playback looked excellent—even better than on the Pre or the iPhone 3G.
The Nokia N97 comes with a generous 32GB of on-board memory, and this can be expanded further with a 16GB microSD card. You can load up your media via microUSB or use stereo Bluetooth. The N97 also has an FM transmitter, as well, for piping your tunes to your car stereo.
The 5-megapixel camera has a Carl Zeiss lens (and a cover), a dual LED flash, and a handful of advanced features. It also comes preloaded with photo/video editing software. Picture quality disappointed me, though; indoor shots came out grainy and dark despite the flash. Outdoor photos fared better with bright colors and crisp details. You can record VGA video at 30 frames per second; our test video looked as good as any recorded by a smartphone camera that I've seen.
The N97 reminds me of the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1: It's a really cool phone that can do a lot, but the features just don't come together as seamlessly as in other smartphones on the market. The Symbian OS doesn't simply need an update; it needs an overhaul to compete with iPhone OS and Palm's WebOS. Plus, with no carrier or subsidized price, the N97 is expensive in the United States, especially when you consider the Pre, the iPhone 3G S, and new Android and BlackBerry devices to come—all are expected to be available for less with contract subsidies.
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