When looking at the N97 front-on you could be mistaken into thinking this latest Nokia is nothing more than an iPhone clone, though this would be selling Nokia's excellent design well short. It might be a touch thicker and heavier than Apple's phone, but it also addresses a few of the physical elements of the iPhone that we wish had been changed in the iPhone 3GS update. Between the 4mm in extra depth and the matte plastic finish, the N97 is much easy to hold, and then there's the sliding screen and the superb keyboard below it.
If you've seen pictures of the N97 you've probably seen it on its back with the slide open and the screen tilting up. When open, the screen sits at an angle just shy of 45 degrees, making it easy to read while using the well-spaced keyboard, or navigating the menus with the large five-way nav key. We love this design, every part of it feels slick and deliberate; from the smooth sliding mechanism to the position of the keys, Nokia clearly has user experience at the front of its design philosophy. The only oversight we can find is the absence of a "back" key on the keyboard for stepping backwards through the menu system. It's easy enough to reach up to the touchscreen, but this gets annoying after the fourth or fifth back-step in a complex menu tree.
Which brings us to the downside in this aforementioned Nokia design philosophy. While the physical design of the N97 is excellent, the Series 60 platform is starting to show its age next to the shiny new touchscreen platforms from Google and Apple. The N97 runs on Series 60 v5, and while this is the latest version of the platform, trying to navigate through the system is becoming tedious — even for us, who know the system so well. Completing simple tasks like turning off input sound effects or changing the ringtone takes six steps and has us wishing Nokia had a simpler menu with even simpler menu titles like "Sounds", rather than the legacy titling from a decade of its preceding platforms.
The 3.5-inch touchscreen is one of the phone's outstanding elements. Nokia uses resistive touchscreen technology, which compared with capacitive touchscreens, is considered the lesser technology, especially in regards to responsiveness. Nokia takes this assumption and turns it on its head, delivering outstanding responsiveness and a bright, colourful screen to boot. The screen is easy to read and our test videos look fantastic.
Even though it was first announced six months ago, the N97 will still be one of the most impressively specced phones on the market when its released in Australia during July. Alongside the touchscreen and full-QWERTY keyboard, the N97 comes with a decent mix of business and consumer features including HSDPA and Wi-Fi for web browsing, A-GPS, a built-in digital compass and Nokia Maps for navigation, a 3.5mm headphone socket, and 32GB of internal memory plus a microSD card slot to increase this to a possible 48GB.
In line with previous N-series releases, the N97 houses an excellent 5-megapixel camera on the back of the handset, complete with Carl Zeiss optics, auto-focus and dual-LED photolights. In 2009 we're seeing the megapixel count in camera phones growing with Sony Ericsson about to break new ground with 12.1 megapixels in the, but for our money Nokia is still producing one of the best camera phone modules available. This camera is lightning fast to fire up and the super-quick shutter helps to eliminate handheld judder and keep the focus nice and sharp. The colour reproduction tends to be a little cold — whites tend towards shades of blue — but overall the pictures we've taken have been superb.
Multimedia components and the web browser don't seem to have improved much since the, which is a bit of a disappointment. The music and video player are both fine — compatible with a decent range of media file formats — but the browser still needs some attention from the Nokia software boffins. The browser loads page content slowly, and the view is never optimised for the screen — instead we spent the first five or 10 seconds on each new page zooming and panning to get an overview of a site. The N97 ships with Flash Lite 3 installed and by default Flash content is turned on, but we suggest you switch this off to speed up page load times significantly. As with many elements on the N97, the browser is better than previous Nokia releases, but is still lagging behind the current competition.