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Nokia N97 - hands-on with Nokia's flagship

Live photos of Nokia N97

Table of Contents:

  1. Positioning
  2. Design, Size, Controls
  3. Display
  4. Keypad
  5. Battery
  6. Memory
  7. Performance
  8. USB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
  9. Music Department
  10. Software features of Nokia N97
  11. Impressions

This is not a complete review of the Nokia N97, since it's still 6 months away. We will update this article as soon as we get our hands on its commercial version, and for now we offer you a tour around its main feats and abilities.

Positioning

Effectively, the Nokia N97 is one of the company's most expensive solutions, and the bulk of its price tag isn't due to the fact it comes bundled with a touch-sensitive display - on the contrary, Nokia have never put much stock into this feature, nor do they believe it's worth going to great lengths to put it into the limelight. The thing is, the N97 represents a new generation of S60-based smartphones, continuously dubbed by Nokia as "multimedia computers". For your information, this "new generation" phrase doesn't necessarily mean it comes with a new platform, hardware or anything else. It goes without saying, though, that much like the Nokia 5800, the newcomer runs the S60 5th edition operating system with a couple of new touches. But the key here is that it's Nokia's very first solution to offer with a wide array of services out of the box, all seamlessly integrated into one software shell. To be frank, however, all previous phones could work with these services just as well. All you needed to do was install that application, and that one too, then setup both, tweak a handful of settings and you were good to go. As you have already guessed, it means they weren't integrated into the phone's UI before. Nevertheless, it's probably more about personal preferences rather than anything else. As for other bits and pieces - the Nokia N97 is the first phone to come preinstalled with Nokia Maps 3.0, and much like this app's previous versions, it'll be available to all owners of older Nokia-branded phones. On the other hand, some applications and features will remain exclusive to the N97, such as widgets, that have been developed for this phone and will be available solely with Nseries and Eseries handsets.

Nokia have thrown the N97 into "Explore" category on their product map, meaning that this smartphone is geared more towards younger people looking for an interesting and at the same time feature-rich device, as well as those who are after a state-of-the-art phone packing in some distinctive abilities. Apparently, this segment isn't all that wide by any stretch of imagination, which, coupled with the N97's hefty price tag, makes it more of a niche-aimed solution. It won't repeat the success of the Nokia N95, but, to begin with, nobody expects it to. Normally, QWERTY-armed phones never become extremely popular, and the Nokia N97 is very unlikely to break this tradition.

Most consumers have already gotten used to marketing tricks and slogans, which is why the value of any phone is measured by them in megahertz, megapixels and other touted parameters or technologies. However, this paradigm is already slipping away, as these days, apart from hardware specifications, it's also important to know how closely a mobile phone can be integrated with already existing or upcoming services. How well it handles them and what software features it offers right out of the box. In this sense the N97 is merely Nokia's first experience in this field, but other solutions targeted at broader audiences are to follow. It wouldn't be right to say that the N97 is the "killer" phone that will outshine every other offering out there. It just demonstrates Nokia's new services-driven concept that will run through their entire portfolio. And just like any other new thing, it'll need some time to settle down on the market. However, even if we take all services out of the equation, which, undoubtedly, make a huge chunk of this phone's appeal, the N97 will still have an array of unique features, such as the form-factor, that we are going to cover below.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Design, Size, Controls

Size-wise, the N97 is a typical QWERTY-equipped side-slider at 117.2x55.3x15.9 mm (though around the camera module its thickness reaches 18.2 mm). All in all, it's about as big as the HTC Touch Pro or Sony Ericsson Xperia X1; and the Nokia 5800 isn't much smaller at that - see for yourself in the photos below. On the other hand, thanks to its increased length, the N97 doesn't feel all that chubby and rather seems well-proportioned, as compared to the 5800. At the same time, its hardware takes a toll not only on its price tag, but weight as well - at 150 grams the N97 is a pretty hefty smartphone, although its competition isn't that far ahead at 140 grams or so.

Nokia N97 vs HTC Touch Pro:

Nokia N97 vs Sony Ericsson Xperia X1:

Nokia N97 vs Nokia 5800 XpressMusic:

Nokia N97 vs Apple iPhone:

The phone will come in a choice of two colors - white and dark-brown. Personally, I like both, plus the white will appeal more to women, make no mistake about that.

Running along the N97's front fascia is a metallic strip that isn't as tall as that found on the Nokia 5800, so its display isn't sunk so far into the casing, plus the physical size of the N97's screen allows for more comfortable operation. Sitting above the display are the forward-facing video camera and ambient light sensor.

Nokia N97's promo trailer

One thing of note about the N97's casing is that it's made entirely of velvety plastic. The handset's front fascia is glossy and extremely prone to smudges. If you squeeze it as hard as you can, it'll start creaking, but so would some Vertu phone, for example. All in all, the N97's build quality is fine, even though it doesn't utilize any metal parts. Another question that many might ask is whether it feels more robust than the Nokia 5800. Well, since the Nokia N97 is a slider, it's bound to have some moving parts, and therefore it should be less solid than a candybar-style phone. Or so it would seem.

But that's where the benefits of its unique sliding mechanism surface - the halves don't feel wobbly at all; furthermore you can kick it open only by pushing both parts in opposite directions at the same time. Basically, trying to slide the display upward won't open the N97, and this distinctive feature allows it to boast a very solid setup, both when the halves are slid open and closed.

Video. N97's design, menu and user interface (wmv, 121 mb) >>>

The hardest thing to do, though, was to enable the user to tilt the N97's display at 35 degrees. In fact, all other phones housed in this form-factor offer either a very miniscule angle (such as the Xperia) or none at all (HTC Touch Pro). Prior to the N97 there was only one handset that boasted a similar design - HTC's TyTN II. You can learn more about its slide mechanism in our detailed review .

However, the TyTN II's size and thumbboard didn't make for a particularly comfortable setup - the Nokia N97 offers better ergonomics, even though it's not without some shortcomings either.

When sliding the phone open, the display automatically rotates to the landscape mode, which is a welcome feature. By the way, another good thing about the N97's design is that it doesn't have any bulging functional keys. The secondary camera's location allows employing it as a web camera too.

Perched on the left-hand side are two speakers, identical to those found in the Nokia 5800 both in the sense of volume and audio quality. Also there is the microUSB socket, covered by a plastic flap, along with the keypad lock slider key. On the opposite side are the dedicated camera and volume controls. Sitting on the top are the 3.5 mm headphone jack and power button.

The microSD memory card slot is housed under the battery cover and allows swapping cards on the go.

The N97 comes included with a proximity sensor that locks the display when you take the phone close to your face.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Display

One of this phone's fortes is its display, hands down - it's covered by a thick plastic layer, although not recessed into the casing, so it can be handled in any way you please (with bare fingers or stylus). The N97 doesn't come boxed with a stylus; but even without it, it is very finger-friendly, plus the QWERTY keyboard makes on-screen thumbboards superfluous.

At 3.5 inch diagonal (which is 0.3 inches bigger than the 5800's screen), 16:9 aspect ratio, 16 million colors and 640x360-pixel resolution (43x78 mm), the N97's screen is a true marvel.

Other features include automatic screen rotation - it takes the N97 around a second to re-align the display.

The phone's display remains fairly legible under direct sunlight, although you might run into certain glitches regarding its readability, but nothing major - the iPhone has got just the same set of problems. The screen can accommodate up to 14 text and 3 service lines; all in all, the N97's display is perfect for viewing images, videos and browsing long lists.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Keypad

On the front fascia there is only one hardware button that calls up the phone's Menu and allows jumping between widgets and menus, as well as viewing the list of currently running applications. Both Call and End keys are touch-sensitive. Even though normally I despise this type of controls, I found that they were more or less usable in the N97.

Apparently, one of the phone's centerpieces is its QWERTY keyboard with 35 buttons plus a navigation pad. Actually, the latter works to the N97's advantage big time - for example the Xperia X1 doesn't have a navi-pad on its thumbboard which hampers it usability in certain cases. Nevertheless, the Nokia N97's keyboard has some glitches of its own - the Space button is housed on the right, even though its place should really be in the center. Nevertheless, it won't take you more than a couple of days to get used to this quirky layout.

To switch between input languages you'll need to press the Up arrow and Chr button simultaneously; localized versions of the N97 will feature another row of symbols on all buttons, just like they did on Nokia's Internet Tablets (the N810, for example).

So, how comfortable the Nokia N97's thumbboard is? It depends. Depends on what your personal preferences are. I, for one, didn't find it any different from the HTC Touch Pro or Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 - they all had some glitches and advantages, but the bottom line was pretty much the same in all cases.

All buttons are dimly lit in orange.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Battery

The handset utilizes a 1500 mAh Li-Pol battery (BP-4L). The N97 is rated for 6 hours of talk time (GSM) and 20 days of standby. Music time - up to 37 hours.

The handset's battery life averaged 3 days in our tests, when we used the N97 for about two hours of calls, a dozen or two snaps, several minutes of video, and around an hour of music/radio. It takes the N97 around 1,5 hours to charge from empty to full.

If you forgo EDGE/GPRS data completely, the N97 will offer you even longer hours. Basically, with average use you will squeeze at least 4 days out of it. What else can we say the N97 is unmatched on this front; whats more, despite sharing the same battery type, the N97 improves upon the E61s performance by 10-15 percent (not only thanks to its smaller display but also some software enhancements).

Below is our chart of battery times we managed to squeeze out of the N97:

  • GPS-navigation 5 hours
  • Video playback 4 hours 15 minutes
  • WEB-surfing (EDGE) 4.5 hours
  • Music (in earphones) 32 hours
  • WiFi the N97 is rated for 166 hours of standby, and 6 hours of data upload

Back to the table of contents >>>

Memory

The device comes equipped with 128 Mb of RAM, after first launch you will get around 70 Mb of free memory at your disposal, which is enough for running a dozen applications and browsing heavy web-pages.

The user almost has 32 Gb of storage available, where any data can be stored.

The N97 deals with microSD memory cards (hot-swappable), although the phone doesn't come packaged with one. There are no restrictions as far as memory cards size is concerned our handset easily identified a 32Gb card.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Performance

Increased RAM size (I don't know how much memory they'll throw in by the time it arrives, but I believe it'll be well over 128 Mb), 369 MHz ARM11 CPU and, as it appears, TI OMAP chipset (we haven't looked inside the N97 yet) - all these things make it even speedier compared to the Nokia 5800. I don't think the N97's CPU has much to do with its blazing-fast menus, though, probably it's more due to RAM.

Back to the table of contents >>>

USB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi

USB. Using the USB settings you can choose one of the following modes

  • Data Transfer (Mass Storage USB) memory cards is available, no drivers required, as your OS identifies the handset automatically.
  • PC Suite used for device management via Nokia PC Suite, enables all features of the phone, data backup etc.
  • Image Transfer no explanation required.
  • Media Transfer

The N97's data transfer speeds top out at 5 Mb/s, the phone doesn't recharge itself over USB.

Bluetooth. The phone comes with Bluetooth v2.0, with support for EDR. The following profiles are supported:

  • Dial Up Networking Profile (Gateway)
  • Object Push Profile (Server and Client)
  • File Transfer Profile (Server)
  • Hands Free Profile (Audio Gateway)
  • Headset Profile (Audio Gateway)
  • Basic Imaging Profile (Image Push Responder and Initiator)
  • Remote SIM Access Profile (Server)
  • Device Identification Profile
  • Phone Book Access Profile (Server)
  • Stereo Audio Streaming:
  • Generic Audio/Video Distribution Profile
  • Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (A/V Remote Control Target)
  • Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (Audio Source)

The top speed you can get with the N97's Bluetooth connection is around 100 Kb/s. We also tested its A2DP profile in pair with the Sony Ericsson DS970 headset, which worked just fine - we managed our play list, skipped within tracks and adjusted volume seamlessly, however we couldn't make current track's title show up on the headset's display.

Wi-Fi. This handset comes armed with Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11 g) support. All security standards are supported, including WEP , WPA , WPA 2, with other advanced settings available. The 5800 boasts the WiFi Wizard, which can search and tap into available networks in background mode.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Music Department

While it's almost an exact replica of the Nokia 5800's music department, the N97's extra options are thin on the ground - our main complaint is that it doesn't ship with a remote control. However, its music time has rocketed up to 35-36 hours, which are the longest hours you'll find out there. Its audio quality wasn't much worse than that of the 5800 XpressMusic, although it seemed a little bit different - we'll reserve our final judgement until we get our hands on a commercial version of the N97.

The following formats are supported: AAC, AAC+, eAAC, eAAC+, MP3, MP4, M4A, WMA, Mobile XMF, SP-MIDI, AMR (NB-AMR), MIDI Tones (poly 64), RealAudio 7,8,10, True tones (WB-AMR), WAV. MP3-files with various bit rates, including VBR, are seamlessly played back by the N97. Upon synchronization with Windows Media Player 11 and higher, you can take advantage of protected DRM-files (Janus DRM).

Equalizers. When the equalizer settings are modified the audio experience varies considerably. Every one of the 6 pre-installed equalizers features 8 bands and is fully user-manageable, save for the default settings. The list of presets is as follows - Bass Booster, Classical, Jazz, Pop, Rock. In the Sound Settings you can adjust sound balance, Stereo Widening and Loudness.

The handset has random and repeat (all or one track) playback modes. When the standby screen is active is displays information about the currently playing track.

Bringing up the Music Menu allows you to browse all tracks, playlists and sort the library by artists, albums, genres and composers. The music library (or the track list) gets updated automatically on every successful synchronization with a PC via Nokia PC Suite except if you use a memory card with pre-loaded tracks. It's worth noting, amongst all the other features, the Library Detail feature.

Podcasting podcasts are now integrated right into the music player, whereas previously they were placed in a separate application. You can access podcasts either from the player's menu or launch the application separately, which will give you access to the library, Nokia's podcast catalogue, search, synchronization settings and so on. You can also choose to get your subscribed podcasts uploaded automatically (within the home network or via some specific access point). All in all this app is a breeze to navigate around and quite useful at that.

Music store allows you to access the Nokia Music Store to buy tracks, albums and download them to your device.

FM-radio the N97 comes bundled with a pretty standard radio application that offers to pick your region when first launched (this choice will affect the FM frequencies you'll have access to later on). Among its features are RDS, auto tuning and some neat visual enhancements.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Software features of N97

Undoubtedly, one of the N97's most touted abilities are widgets, even though they are nothing out of this world, being just another step forward from Active Standby, plus they look very much like Samsung's very own widgets. Basically, there are several areas on the screen where you can store shortcuts and links to applications and features, or weather forecasts, message notifications, RSS feeds and so on. The widget pool will keep growing and most of them will be available in the commercial version of the phone. The good news about the N97, however, is that it offers very flexible settings for widgets, and its huge display allows the user to put more information onto the home screen. Another thing of note is that the N97's prototypes don't have Active Standby mode, which can make you wonder how far they are willing to go with all this. Widgets will be utilized in Nseries and Eseries smartphones, while "ordinary" S60-powered products, such as the Nokia 5800, will be deprived of this functionality out of the box (but since it's a separate application, there is a chance they'll decide to take it to the mass-market).

The "Search" function has been updated to version 4.5, although it doesn't feature any radically new features. Among improvements are the ability to add more search engines and define search areas.

I'm not going to review Nokia's brand new "So-Lo" service just yet, since it won't really work until the phone's commercial release, when you'll be able to find your friends' current locations and communicate with them in various ways.

The phone's Contacts list now allows you to have Favorite entries, which are marked with a yellow star and located at the top of the list. But more importantly, there is a bunch of new fields available for your contacts, including Skype and Gizmo numbers, Facebook screen name and so on. A separate tab allows you to retrieve contact's status, call him or send a message. All in all, the N97 sports pretty deep integration with social networks and various instant messengers, which is great news for web addicts. And again, we are yet to see how all these services work - at this moment none of them are operational. But even as it is today, the Nokia N97 does impress, offering its users a very easy and intuitive way to access all accounts and other relevant data right out of the box, without the hassle of running several phonebooks or separate applications.

Much like any other Nseries device, the N97 ships with "Photos" application instead of Gallery - as you can see in our video, it's pretty speedy among all other things, and allows editing images without having to delve deep into the menus.

The "Dictionary" application has already become par for the course in Nokia's latest and greatest offerings.

Other than that, the N97 is a standard S60 5th edition fare - you can learn more about this platform in our detailed review here .

Back to the table of contents >>>

Impressions

The N97's reception quality was nothing to complain about. Its ring tones were loud and more than audible in various environments, although it's worth mentioning that you'll need to pay a bit more attention to what ring tones you set, simply because some tunes just sound muffled for no reason, and some are overly loud. The vibro alert is on the weaker side and can barely be felt; and the reason for that is probably the N97's chunky casing.

You can mute any alert on the N97 simply by turning it face-down - be it a call, alarm clock or something else.

The phone is set to land on most market in May and will retail for 550 Euros before subsidies and taxes, meaning that in Germany, for example, it'll be available for around 590-600 Euros (unlocked), while in Russia its price will reach 800-850 Euros. What's more, Russia, along with Hong Kong is very likely to get the N97 first, just like it was the case with the 5800 several weeks ago. The good news is that this time around there will be no dearth, as Nokia will have plenty of time to churn out enough units, plus the N97 won't be that popular.

The main reason why Nokia are releasing the N97 in the first half of 2009 is pretty simple - they need some wiggle room to launch all services that are related to this phone in one way or another. The truth is, it's much more challenging to get in gear a whole array of online services, than roll out one state-of-the-art handset these days. On balance, the N97 is geared more towards active Internet users, and to a certain extent this is the audience Nokia's communicators are aimed at as well. And whether will see another communicator or not hinges entirely on how well the N97 will do in 2009.

So far, we haven't mentioned the N97's 5 Mpix camera, and the reason is that it's little to no different from other Nokia's generic shooters and doesn't offer any new features or improvements in the way of image quality. But on the other hand, it's already one of the finest cameras in its class, so there is not much to tune to begin with.

All in all, it's hard to rate the Nokia N97 today. As far as its technical side goes, it's on a par with some more expensive solutions, such as the HTC Touch Pro and Sony Ericsson Xperia X1. Even if they'll decide to bump its price in 2009, the N97 will still have a handful of advantages, including 32 Gb of storage, bigger display, etc. But at the end of the day, the Nokia N97's real flavor is in its software and seamless integration with online services. Not only is it unique for its slide mechanism, it's also the first phone that was designed with Internet-based services in mind, which is exactly what the young consumers are looking for. But while it's a likable phone, it won't appeal to each and everyone. What's more, Nokia haven't revealed all the goodies yet - by the time the N97 arrives, we'll see some more related announcements that will at least surprise you. It's remarkable how other vendors that aren't into services at all, start falling behind, offering similar solutions for more money. But, we are yet to see what kind of uptake the N97 will enjoy in May.

Related links:

S60 5th edition software

Review of GSM/UMTS-smartphone Nokia 5800 XpressMusic (Tube)

Nokia World 08 - touch-friendly smartphone and new services

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Eldar Murtazin (eldar@mobile-review.com)
Translated by Oleg Kononosov (oleg.kononosov@mobile-review.com)

Published — 14 December 2008

Have something to add?! Write us... eldar@mobile-review.com

 

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