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Nokia N97 review: Nokia N97

Nokia N97

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
11 min read


Nokia N97

The Good

The Nokia N97 features a touch screen, a full QWERTY keyboard, and 32GB of internal flash memory. The smartphone also offers 3G support, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS and comes equipped with a 5-megapixel camera.

The Bad

The N97's touch user interface isn't well integrated and can be inconsistent and confusing, especially compared with the competition. We would have preferred a capacitive touch screen instead of resistive.

The Bottom Line

While the Nokia N97 is packed with features and offers the freedom of an unlocked phone, its clunky touch interface, sky-high price tag, and outdated operating system make it hard to recommend when there are better touch-screen smartphones on the market.

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.

The Nokia N97 next to the T-Mobile G1 and Apple iPhone 3G.

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.

Like the HTC Touch Pro2, the Nokia N97 has a slider design with a tilting screen.

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.

We really liked the N97's QWERTY keyboard, except for the awkward placement of the space bar and shift key.

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.

There's a power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the device. On the left side, you'll a find a Micro-USB port, a lock switch, and the stereo speakers. The right side has a volume rocker that also doubles as zoom in/out buttons and a camera capture key. The camera is located on the back and both the lens and flash are protected by a sliding cover.

The Nokia N97 comes packaged with a travel charger, a Micro-USB cable, a wired headset, a stylus, a cleaning cloth, software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

There's no denying that the Nokia N97 is one feature-packed smartphone. It comes with a whopping 32GB of internal flash memory, which can be expanded to 48GB via the expansion slot, and Nokia preloads the device with a number of extra apps, including a dedicated YouTube player, Qik (for sharing videos from your phone), Boingo Wi-Fi service, Psiloc World Traveler, AP News, and Guitar Rock Tour. The N97 also supports the recently launched Nokia Ovi Store where users can peruse the large catalog of Symbian apps and download them to the device. This is, of course, on top of S60 platform staples like QuickOffice for viewing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, Adobe PDF, a file manager, and other PIM tools, such as a Zip manager, a calculator, a notepad, a measurement converter, a clock, and a voice recorder.

The Nokia N97 already offers 32GB of internal flash memory but you can expand storage even more via the microSD expansion slot on the back.

The N97 doesn't come with the new Nokia Messaging app like the Nokia E75, but there's still plenty of e-mail support. The smartphone can synchronize with Microsoft Exchange and it works with Lotus Notes, IMAP4, POP3, and SMTP accounts and comes with a full attachment viewer. Unfortunately, there aren't any instant messaging clients on the phone, which is too bad given the full QWERTY keyboard and all.

As a phone, the N97 offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, speed dial, conference calling, voice-command support, a vibrate mode, and text and multimedia messaging. The phone's address book is only limited by the available memory, and the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts. There's room in each entry for multiple phone numbers, work and home addresses, e-mail addresses, birthday, and more vitals. For caller ID purposes, you can assign each contact a photo, a group ID, or a custom ringtone. Bluetooth 2.0 is also onboard, with support for mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, hands-free kits, audio/video remote control, object push, dial-up networking, file transfer, and more. To get online, you can use either the phone's integrated Wi-Fi or tri-band HSDPA (850/1900/2100MHz) support over AT&T's network. Nokia's HTML Web browser is quite decent, offering various page views, keyword search, and Flash Lite 3.0 support, but navigation and zooming in/out of pages definitely feels clunkier than the iPhone and Pre, which benefit from a multitouch screen.

For navigating the streets, the Nokia N97 has standalone and assisted GPS, so it uses both satellites and cellular triangulation to find your position. The smartphone also comes preloaded with the Nokia Maps application and has a built-in compass so the map will automatically orient itself to the direction you are heading in. For real-time, turn-by-turn voice-guided directions, you'll have to upgrade the application, but Nokia is now offering a complimentary three-month trial of the walk and drive turn-by-turn service. Afterward, you'll have several purchase options, which you can check out here.

The N97 features the same 5-megapixel camera as the Nokia N96.

The N97 keeps the same camera and the N96: a 5-megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with dual-LED flash, auto focus, and up to 4x digital zoom. There are numerous advanced camera options, such as color tone, light sensitivity, exposure, and geotagging. In addition, the camera can record MPEG-4 videos at a maximum VGA resolution (640x480) at 30fps.

We were quite impressed with picture quality.

Picture quality was crisp and clear. Objects were sharply defined in the image, and we were happy colors were vibrant and rich instead of washed out. Recorded videos looked better than other smartphones we've tested, though it was still slightly murky. Once done with your photos, you can add tags, save them as a contact image, share them with friends and family via multimedia message or e-mail. In addition, you can view them in a slide show or upload to a service like Flickr or Ovi.

As with Nokia's other N series devices, the N97 is also equipped with a built-in media player that supports MP3, WMA, AAC, AAC+, and eAAC+ files. The music library categorizes tracks by artists, albums, genres, and composers; you can also create playlists right on the phone and adjust the sound with the built-in equalizer. There's also support for podcasts and the phone offers Internet radio and an FM tuner. (Note that you need to use the included headset for the latter.) If you'd like to watch other videos, you can use RealPlayer to check out 3GPP and MPEG-4 files.

While all these features are great, the biggest downfall of the N97 might be the Symbian operating system. The OS might have been passable when the smartphone was first announced in December 2008, but it feels completely outdated now, especially in light of the progress made with Google Android and the iPhone OS 3.0 and the introduction of Palm WebOS, and it's not optimized for a touch interface. We're not saying Symbian is a lost cause, and we know there are many fans of the OS and the N97 out there, but we just expected more.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; tri-band HSDPA 850/1900/2100) in San Francisco using AT&T service and call quality was excellent. We enjoyed clear audio on our end with good volume and very little to no background noise. Our friends were also impressed and said we sounded great (why, thank you!). We also used an airline's voice-automated response system with no problem and didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period. Unfortunately, we didn't have quite the same praises for the speakerphone. Even at the highest level, volume was weak, we had to hold the speaker close to our ear to hear our friends, and our callers said we also sounded soft. In addition, audio would occasionally cut out.

On a more positive note, we successfully and easily paired the smartphone with the Samsung WEP350 Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones. Finally, the smartphone has a M3 hearing aid compatibility rating.

The N97's general performance was decent. The smartphone was mostly responsive with minimal lag or delay. However, there were a couple of occasions where we got a warning that memory was low and that we had to close other application in order to launch another one. Even so, performance was much improved over the Nokia N96, and we had no major system meltdowns during our testing period and never had to reboot the device.

Given that the speakerphone didn't produce the best results, we weren't surprised when songs sounded soft and hollow when played through the speakers. Fortunately, the N97 is equipped with a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack so we were able to plug in our Bose On-Ear Headphones and enjoy better sound quality. We also watched several YouTube and MPEG-4 video clips, and playback was smooth with synchronized audio and picture. However, the aspect ratio was never right despite options to change it.

The smartphone's GPS capabilities were decent. From a cold start, it took the N97 about 10 minutes to find our location; however, subsequent starts were much faster, taking less then 2 minutes. Using Nokia Maps, it was able to track closely our movements and provided accurate directions.

The Nokia N97 comes with a 1500mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 95 hours (GSM)/6 hours (3G) and up to 17.9 days (GSM)/16.6 days (3G) of standby time. We are still conducting our battery drain tests, but we will update this section as soon as we have results. According to FCC radiation tests, the N97 has a digital SAR rating of 0.74 watt per kilogram.


Nokia N97

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7