Review posted June 26, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The Nokia N97 is Nokia's latest flagship N series phone and the second Nokia to have a touch screen and S60 5th Edition (the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic was the first by several months). At $699 list, the N97 costs about twice as much as the 5800 and as much as an unsubsidized 32 gig iPhone 3GS. Is it worth it?
The N97 NAM (North American edition) is an unlocked GSM quad band world phone that will work with any GSM carrier's SIM. It has 3G HSDPA 3.6Mbps on AT&T's bands (850/1900MHz) and 2100MHz for Europe-- that means EDGE-only on T-Mobile US. The phone is sold without a contract and Nokia offers it on their US website as do several online retailers like Amazon, Dell and Buy.com. It's available in black or white. Since it's Nokia's flagship smartphone it has every feature under the sun: 3G, a 640 x 360 pixel touch screen, GPS with compass, WiFi, Bluetooth with a full set of profiles, 32 gigs of built-in flash storage, an SDHC microSD card slot, Flash Lite and a 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss autofocus lens that can shoot VGA video at 30fps. Whew! Nice. Then there's the slide-out hardware QWERTY keyboard with the most elegant and solid design we've ever seen. If only Nokia's S60 5th Edition touch user interface were more solid, we might just be in heaven.
Display and Touch
The Nokia N97 has a resistive screen (the iPhone and T-Mobile G1 have capacitive touch screens). That means there's no multi-touch (we can live with that), and you must press a little harder. The good news is that you can use a fingernail or stylus-- a stylus is included but you'll hang it from the mini-lanyard if you want to keep it with you. Those inputs are handy for tiny web page links and handwriting recognition which the Nokia does quite well. The HTC Touch Pro2 also has a resistive touch screen (Windows Mobile 6.1 doesn't support capacitive) yet it's much more consistent and responsive to touch. The N97 is more controllable than the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic and more responsive, but Nokia's user interface is inconsistent: in the web browser you drag the page as you'd expect to: drag it to the left and the page moves to the left. But icons in the application home screen and lists such as contacts and music tracks are designed to be moved using the scroll bar (why, oh why?). You can grab the list of contacts rather than the scroll bar itself, but you must drag the list in the direction you'd move the scrollbar-- the opposite of the iPhone, HTC's TouchFLO 3D on Windows Mobile and Samsung's TouchWiz UI on feature phones. *sigh*. While moving through long lists is easier on the N97 than the Nokia 5800, it's by no means pleasant if you have 50 or more items in a list. It's just not easy to control and one has to resort to the on-screen intelligent keyboard or the hardware QWERTY to narrow down a selection.
The screen itself is very bright and sharp, though it lacks the wow factor of the Samsung Omnia HD S60 touch screen phone with AMOLED display. Nor is it as attractive as the iPhone or G1's, though it is a tad brighter. It has a bit less glare than the Touch Pro2's ultra-glassy looking display, but the Touch Pro2 wins with its best in class 800 x 480 resolution.
The Nokia N97 wins on the d-pad front: it has one. The HTC Touch Pro2 and the Nokia 5800 lack a d-pad as does the iPhone though you don't really need it there. For those who wish to use legacy S60 3rd Edition (non-touch screen) applications, the d-pad is just what you need since these apps aren't touchscreen-aware.
The phone has touch sensitive call send and end buttons that are easy-- there's no tactile feedback but the phone does beep when you touch them. There's a mechanical button to open the programs screen and a slider on the right side to lock/unlock screen and key guard (much nicer than the two button press method on non-touch screen Nokia phones). There's an ambient light sensor that can control display brightness and an accelerometer than can silence calls, snooze alarms and rotate the display based on movement (you can individually disable any of these sensor behaviors). Like the iPhone 3GS, the N97 has a built-in compass though there's no separate UI for this (it's there for benefit of navigation applications).
The keyboard is unusually flat and has just a little tactile feedback (a tiny click)-- it almost feels like typing on a touch screen with haptic feedback. The three row keyboard is much more compact than the capacious HTC Touch Pro2's, but roomier than QWERTY-bar phones like the BlackBerry and the Nokia E71x. The keyboard is backlit and the keys have good contrast thanks to their black background with white letters and somewhat harder to see medium blue Alt keys. The spacebar is to the far right, which is strange but we got used to it in a half hour of typing.
Here's our 10 minute video review of the Nokia N97:
Nokia's flagship multimedia smartphone runs on an unassuming 434MHz ARM 11 single core CPU. In contrast, the Palm Pre , iPhone 3GS and Samsung Omnia HD i8910 (also S60 5th Edition) run on the next generation ARM Cortex A8 platform with graphics acceleration at approximately 600MHz. Numbers aren't everything though; S60 and Symbian OS are optimized for relatively slow CPUs so the Nokia N97 doesn't crawl along. In fact, we saw fewer slow-downs and lagging than with the Nokia 5800. However, in Europe where the Omnia HD is readily available, the N97 looks a little weak. It's not just the faster CPU which enables 720p video recording and superior video playback, but also the i8910's better camera and super-vivid AMOLED display. So why not go with the Samsung? It's available only as an import, so there's no US warranty and its 3G HSDPA is primarily intended for Europe, though it has one of the 4 US 3G bands (1900MHz). That means you could get 3G on AT&T in areas where they serve 3G on 1900MHz (right now that's plenty of markets, but in the future they'll move 3G primarily to 850MHz).
A sliding door protects the lens.
The N97 isn't as fast as the iPhone 3GS or the Nokia E75, but it's faster than many Windows Mobile phones including the HTC Fuze and aging T-Mobile Wing. In other words, it's fine and good as long as you don't turn on theme effects. S60 phones are no stranger to memory shortages and the N97, with 55 megs of RAM free at boot, largely escapes memory errors. In 2 weeks, we did get one out of memory error with several heavyweight programs running. The phone prompted us to exit applications to free up memory rather than doing it for us, something that might cause novice users consternation and confusion.
Nokia's N series camera phones are hard to beat, especially if you want great imaging in a smartphone. While Sony Ericsson's high end camera phones are quite good, they aren't smartphones. The N97 still easily beats even 5 megapixel Windows Mobile phones like the HTC Touch HD and Touch Diamond2 in terms of still image and video quality and the only serious smartphone competition is the Samsung Omnia HD i8910 and Nokia's own 8 megapixel N86. The camera's maximum photo resolution is 2584 x 1938 pixels and max video resolution is VGA at 30fps (there's a widescreen 16:9 640 x 352 pixel setting as well).
The camera has dual LED flash modules rather than a Xenon flash. For some reason (likely power consumption), Nokia has shied away from the more powerful Xenon. That means indoor shots taken under poor lighting will have noise and nighttime shots will be much too dark and noisy. But decently lit indoor shots and outdoor shots look marvelous and video quality is the best yet on a Nokia phone. It's crisper with less noise and lighting shifts than the N95, Nokia N96 and N85. Autofocus is relatively quick for photos and there's a macro mode for close-ups. For video, the camera works in fixed focus mode, focusing to infinity.
For a 3G smartphone with 3 wireless platforms and a GPS, the N97 has very good battery life. With moderate use that includes checking email on a 15 minute schedule through the business day, surfing on 3G, downloading a few apps from the Ovi store over WiFi and taking 30 photos and 2 5 minute videos, the Nokia easily lasted us more than 2.5 days on a charge.
The Nokia N97's specs and model number are listed on the back plate that protects the display ribbon cable.
Nokia N97 vs. the HTC Touch Pro2
The comparison is obvious: these are both flagship smartphones with side-sliding keyboards and high resolution touch screens. Yet the first question remains: are you a Symbian S60 or Windows Mobile person? For those who have a strong history with and preference for a particular operating system, likely nothing will please as much as your favorite OS. If you are comfortable with or perhaps even fond of both platforms, let the comparisons begin!
- Battery life: the Nokia wins
- Display resolution and visual quality: the HTC wins
- Touch screen: the HTC wins with a better touch experience
- Speed: for general performance, the Nokia wins
- Keyboard: the HTC wins since it has the best keyboard on the market
- Home screen: Nokia's widgets are every bit as useful as HTC's TouchFLO 3D and are more customizable, but they're not as ripe with eye candy (yet, the widget platform is a mere newborn)
- Size: The N97 is smaller and lighter
- Camera: hands down, the Nokia N97 wins for still images and video
- Web browsing: the customized version of Opera Mobile on the Touch Pro2 beats Nokia's web browser in terms of looks but Nokia's browser does a bit better job of supporting more complex web standards like dHTML and forms (radio buttons, drop-down selector lists)
- FM radio: the Nokia has one and while the Touch Pro2 has the hardware, there's no FM application (visit xda-developers.com to download one)
- Storage: the Nokia has 32 gigs of flash storage, trouncing the Touch Pro2 (both have SDHC microSD card slots)
When the Nokia N97 was announced in January 2009, it looked awesome. Six months is an eternity in the world of technology, and now it looks like a fine phone and an easy choice for well-heeled Nokia S60 fans but it's no slam dunk for those who are open to other platforms and brands. The HTC Touch Pro2, available now as an import without US 3G or a US warranty will be available from all US carriers in the future and it certainly challenges the N97 in terms of nearly equal specs and a similar design. Given HTC's excellent TouchFLO 3D, the Touch Pro2 offers a more mature touch experience and a higher resolution display. Then there's Samsung's Omnia HD, also running S60 5th Edition with touch with a superior AMOLED display and an 8 megapixel camera (but no US warranty and only 1 US 3G band). Lastly, there's the new iPhone 3GS which is similarly priced without a contract and much cheaper with contract. It certainly lacks the imaging capability and hardware keyboard of the N97, but if those are of less importance to you, it's hard not to consider Apple's excellent offering.
Pro: Excellent camera, very good customizable home screen widgets, unlocked for use with any GSM carrier. Excellent voice quality and good volume in calls. Superb slider mechanism and overall good build quality, though not as ritzy looking as Nokia's metal-clad E75 and E71. Lots of storage!
Con: Touch experience isn't quite there yet with some inconsistencies, expensive, sometimes runs out of memory if you don't keep track of and manage running programs. Streaming YouTube video still takes a long time to launch and seems to tax the phone's processor (our complaint with most recent Nokia S60 phones).