A closer look at Nokia's would-be iPhone killer

Nokia's new N97 touch-screen phone is full of cool features and functionality, but its design and unimpressive touch screen don't live up to Apple's iPhone.

NEW YORK--Nokia's new N97 smartphone is cool, but it's still no iPhone.

Nokia N97 Mark Licea/CNET

I got a chance to look at Nokia's latest smartphone, the N97, on Thursday at the company's annual Capital Markets Day here. While Nokia's marketing team wouldn't actually let me play with the phone, since it won't officially go on the market until 2009, I got a demonstration of some of the phone's features and functionality from Jukka Heiska, director of product management for the N97. A video of the phone demonstration will be posted Friday on CNET News as well as on CNET TV.

In some ways it's unfortunate that every touch-screen phone that comes out these days is compared to Apple's iPhone. But given the popularity of the iPhone , especially here in the U.S., it's difficult not to do the comparisons.

My first impression of the new N97 is that even though it has impressive specifications, like a total of 48 gigabytes of potential storage and a 5-megapixel camera and video recorder, the phone seems more like an evolution of Nokia's N-95 or N-96 smartphones rather than a ground-breaking new touch-screen device that could potentially be the next iPhone killer.

For one, the touch-screen wasn't terribly sophisticated. Icons could be dragged and dropped using a finger, but unlike the iPhone, which allows you to pinch text to magnify it or reduce it, or even the new BlackBerry Storm that allows you to double click on text or images to make them bigger, the N97 didn't offer these features.

Nokia N97 Mark Licea/CNET

Design-wise the phone looked more like Sony Ericsson's Xperia X1. It has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and a tilted screen. In this way, it's an improvement over the N95 or the N96, which offer tons of features and functionality, but lack full QWERTY keyboards.

That said, there are a few key features that the N97 offers that the iPhone doesn't. For example, the Nokia Web browser on the N97 supports Flash and Flash video, something that Apple's Safari browser doesn't support. And of course, heavy texters and e-mail enthusiasts, will like the full QWERTY keypad. I've had several iPhone owners tell me that they still carry around a BlackBerry for sending e-mails on the go, because they don't like the iPhone's virtual keyboard for typing longer messages.

The phone, which Nokia's marketing team calls a "mobile computer" also offers a whopping 32GB of storage on the device with the option of adding up to another 16GB of storage through a microSD card. And then there is the 5-megapixel camera, which also records DVD-quality video.

By contrast, the iPhone only offers up to 16GB of storage and users are unable to add additional storage via microSD cards. Also, the iPhone's camera is only 2 megapixels, and it doesn't offer video recording.

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The N97 also offers assisted-GPS services, which improves accuracy over regular GPS receivers, such as the one offered in the iPhone. The device also uses Nokia's mapping technology and virtual compass that allows the device to actually point users in the direction they need to go when they're using the turn-by-turn navigation.

Unfortunately for North American consumers, who might prefer the N97 over Apple's iPhone, they won't be able to get the phone on this side of the Atlantic for some time. Nokia will initially launch the device in Europe and then to the rest of the world beginning in the first half of 2009 for the unsubsidized price of 550 euros, or about $695. Heiska said the device would be offered in North America sometime after the first half of 2009, but he wouldn't specify when.

Smartphone enthusiasts here in the U.S. will likely find a way to buy unlocked N97s, but because the phone only supports 3G HSDPA wireless frequencies that are used in Europe and other parts of the world, they won't be able to access 3G service on either of the two U.S. carriers' networks that support HSDPA. AT&T and T-Mobile USA use different frequencies for their 3G service that are not yet supported by the N97. That said, users could still access AT&T's or T-Mobile's slower 2G networks.

All in all, the N97 is a very cool phone packed with lots of features. And I'm sure it will appeal to many consumers. But the lackluster touch screen didn't do much for me. As for its ease of use and Internet surfing capabilities, users will have to wait until the device is in full production mode to truly test those features.

 

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