Nokia N97 review:

Nokia N97

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars 12 user reviews

The Good Well laid-out Qwerty keyboard; access to Ovi Store; customisable homescreen; widgets with live updates; angled screen; epic 32GB of memory with room for 16GB more.

The Bad Bland user interface not the easiest to use; unimpressive-looking display; resistive touchscreen; still some bugs; no multitouch; poor battery life.

The Bottom Line The Nokia N97 is another feature-packed N-series powerhouse that somewhat neglects design and usability considerations. With a great Qwerty keyboard but a disappointing resistive touchscreen, we're ultimately underwhelmed by the whole package

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.5 Overall

Nokia fans who can count are at fever pitch over the upcoming launch of the N97, the successor to N-series heavyweights the N95 and N96. With a touchscreen and slide-out Qwerty keypad, the N97 takes a shot at its rivals in a bid to be the capo di tutti capi when it comes to smart phones. But, while we love the raw power of the N97 and its great keyboard, it doesn't quite fulfil our Qwerty-themed dreams.

The N97 is available from free on a £40-per-month contract with Orange.

Body and soul
At 15.9mm thick, the N97 isn't the sveltest phone out there, and the physique of the black version that we review here didn't attract many oohs and aahs. It's rather lumpen, and doesn't have the compact, solid class of some of Nokia's E-series phones. But, except for the flimsy plastic battery cover, it feels solidly made, improving on the rickety N95, and the Qwerty keyboard pops open with satisfying gusto.

Deploying the slide-out keyboard forces the N97 into landscape mode

The N97 is slightly different to a standard slider phone, like the E75, because the screen slides out at a slight angle. That angle means you don't need a stand to watch videos with the phone sitting on a table, and it's also useful when you're typing. It's a good innovation from Nokia, and the hinge feels like it will stand up to some enthusiastic use.

The keyboard is another area where the N97 shines. It has small, 5.5 by 6.5mm buttons that are almost flat, but they have a decent 1mm of space between them and click satisfyingly when pressed, so they're easy to use. Beware long numbers, though. Since the numbers run along the top row of buttons, you have to press shift each time you want to type one, doubling your work. Sometimes it's faster to switch to the portrait view and use the on-screen number keypad, which works well.

With the keyboard stowed away, the N97 goes into portrait mode

The N97's touchscreen interface feels snappy and responsive, but we wish that Nokia had switched from the resistive touchscreen it used with the 5800 XpressMusic to a capacitive one, like the iPhone's. You have to apply pressure to a resistive display for it to register what you're doing, and it helps to use a sharp point, like a fingernail. We prefer capacitive screens because they feel harder, are brighter, and we can use them even after we've chewed our nails to the quick during an episode of Deal or No Deal. Nokia has included a stylus in the box, but that's not a good sign for what's intended to be a crowd-leading touchscreen handset.

Get yourself connected
Nokia is pitching the N97, which packs speedy 3.6Mbps HSDPA and Wi-Fi connectivity, as a handset for Web-obsessed users for whom a minute away from the Internet is like a minute without oxygen. We had no trouble staying connected via Wi-Fi and 3G, and we appreciated the feature that automatically showed us the sign-in screen for the open wireless network at our secret CNET UK base. On other phones, we have to remember to launch a browser to view the page before we can start using the connection.

We also liked the Flash support that allowed us to watch videos easily on the Web, but we really missed multitouch zoom. Web pages are full of tiny links that desperately need zooming, and that's a multi-tap process with the N97.

When surfing in full-screen mode, first you have to bring up the menu, then click the zoom icon, then tap or drag a slider to zoom in or out. You can't centre on a particular point, like you can with gesture-based zoom, and the menu partially obscures the page, so it takes some guesswork to decide when you've zoomed enough.

Touching the void
The convoluted zoom menu highlights usability issues throughout the N97's user interface. It's improved a great deal since we saw the interface on a pre-production model, and it feels much more responsive and finger-friendly, but there are still a few things that keep it from being fingertip heaven.

The N97 is fairly wide

For example, when looking at a long list of music tracks, you can scroll up and down easily with a finger, but it's a slow process. There's no flicking up and down with abandon, like with the iPhone, and no animations or behaviours to give the interface a feeling of responsiveness and liveliness.

In fact, the user interface is dull throughout, and it suffers from a lack of a touchscreen-focused graphic design. We would have blamed the Symbian S60 operating system, which has been grafted onto a touchscreen interface, but we happen to be testing the new Samsung i8910 HD -- formerly known as the Omnia HD -- which uses the same Symbian OS to power a touchscreen interface. It has many of the same drawbacks, such as lack of multitouch capability, but its bright, luscious icons encourage you to start tapping, and built-in applications such as the music player are much more modern-looking.

The in-browser zoom menu is too convoluted for our tastes. We'd prefer to see multitouch zoom

One irritating quirk that both phones share is that, in some menus, you have to tap twice to open an option. For example, in the music menu, you tap once to select a song and then tap again to play it. It's double the work for our lazy fingers and it makes the interface feel sluggish and confusing.

Home is where the widget is
The homescreen does a much better job of showing what can be done. It can show six customisable widgets, including ones for live news feeds and Facebook updates. There are also groups of application shortcuts and a little version of the music player, so you can play, pause and skip tracks from the homescreen.

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