The summer of 2009 has definitely been a sizzler for the world of smartphones. It's only June and we've already seen the launch of some of the hottest devices, including the Palm Pre, the iPhone 3GS, the Google Ion/HTC Magic, and now we can add the Nokia N97 NAM to the mix. As soon as it was announced in December 2008, the comparisons to the iPhone started given all its advanced features and the addition of a touch screen and full QWERTY keyboard.
However, that was almost a year and a half ago and the N97 is just coming to market. In that time, a lot has changed: new players have entered the field (hello, Pre) and others device manufacturers and mobile operating systems continued to push forward but, unfortunately, Nokia didn't come along for the ride. Don't get us wrong; the Nokia N97 is absolutely filled to the brim with functionality. However, it's not enough to match a competitor feature for feature anymore. You have to provide quality hardware and a good user experience, and sadly, the N97 falls a bit short in those departments with an inferior resistive touch screen and clunky user interface. The steep $700 price tag doesn't help either. While the Nokia N97 might appeal to Symbian and N series loyalists, it faces a steep uphill battle against the aforementioned touch-screen smartphones.
From a design standpoint, the Nokia N97 isn't exactly a showstopper. It doesn't quite have the wow factor of the distinctive Palm Pre and like the T-Mobile G1 and HTC Touch Pro2, the N97 is a bit of a handful at 4.6 inches tall by 2.1 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick and 5.29 ounces. It doesn't quite have the high-quality build of the Nokia E series and we're a bit weary of the flimsy battery cover, but overall, the smartphone has a solid construction and is a nice departure from the Nokia N95 and N96, especially with the addition of a touch screen and full QWERTY keyboard.
Similar to the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic, the Nokia N97 has a resistive touch screen that measures 3.5 inches diagonally and shows off 16.7 million colors at a 640x360-pixel resolution. While clear and bright, it's not quite as sharp as the competitors, such as the HTC Touch Diamond2, and the built-in accelerometer has just a bit of a lag when switching from portrait to landscape mode or vice versa. The handset also features a proximity sensor so it will automatically turn off the display when you lift the smartphone to your ear for a phone call.
It's great to finally have a touch screen that can play up on all the capabilities of the N series, but we feel like Nokia didn't quite take full advantage of the situation. For one thing, the N97 could have benefited from a capacitive touch screen, like the iPhone, Pre, and G1, instead of a resistive display since the latter requires more pressure and precision. During our review period, we found ourselves missing the ease of use and sensitivity of the three aforementioned smartphones, not to mention the multitouch capabilities of the iPhone and Pre. When using just our fingertip, the N97 didn't always read our touches accurately so we had to correct numerous mistakes or use a stylus.
The scrolling experience was also less smooth on the N97 since flicking your finger to go through long lists or pages results in jerky and short movements. In addition, like the Nokia 5800, we found that some menu items respond to a single tap, while others require double-taps. We would prefer a uniform system since this often led to confusion and was just annoying.
All that said, we do appreciate the new widget-based home screen on the Nokia N97. Similar to the Samsung TouchWiz interface found on the Omnia, this feature gives you the freedom to customize the N97's home screen and lets you see more information at a glance as well as have one-touch access to your apps.
You can have a maximum of eight widgets on the screen at one time, and it's easy to remove or rearrange them. By default, our review unit's home screen featured widgets for Facebook, AccuWeather, contacts, a shortcut bar to messages, the Web, maps, the media player, and more. There is a task manager that lets you see all your open apps and switch between them, but the multitasking capabilities are nowhere near as sophisticated as the Palm Pre's. However, we do prefer Nokia's interface over TouchWiz since it had better organization and didn't limit you to certain widgets. You can also personalize your phone with various themes, wallpaper, and more.
For a full menu of apps and phone settings, just press the small button below the display that sits to the left of the touch-sensitive Talk and End keys. The simple grid menu system is easy enough to understand, but again, it's a bit frustrating to navigate because of the aforementioned touch-screen frustrations. It may not seem like a big deal but these minor annoyances add up and make a difference when comparing to the other touch-screen devices--iPhone, Pre, T-Mobile G1, Google Ion--on the market.
One nice thing about the display is that it can be opened and viewed at a slight angle by simply pushing the screen to the right, much like the AT&T Tilt and the HTC Touch Pro2. Nokia really did a nice job with the slider design, as the gliding motion is very smooth and doesn't have the harsh, abrupt feel the other two devices have. While the slider phone feels sturdy enough to endure multiple opening and closings, we'd still be careful as we're just a bit weary of the plastic construction of the hinge.
The angled screen is not only good for viewing videos and apps but also messaging. However, the Nokia N97's QWERTY keyboard has been a hot topic of debate on the Web; most either hate it or love it. We fall somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, the individual buttons are a good size with enough spacing between them that mispresses were few. The keys also have a nonslippery texture and provide good, tactile feedback. However, there are a couple of things that really put a damper on things.
For whatever reason, Nokia placed the space bar and shift key on the far right side of the keyboard. There's a directional keypad on the left side that takes up some room but even so, the space bar could have been placed more in the center like a regular keyboard. Instead, the location of these buttons completely threw us off and interrupted our flow. We got used to it eventually, but we still never felt 100 percent comfortable with the layout, which is too bad since we otherwise thought that the N97's QWERTY keyboard was one of the best ones we've seen on a smartphone.
If you need to enter a short amount of text, there is a soft keyboard that you can use instead of opening up the keyboard. You'll be doing a multitap dance with this option though since it's in alphanumeric format instead of a full QWERTY. While not ideal, we still appreciate the option unlike some touch-screen smartphone that only provide a physical keyboard.