Nokia N97 review

4 stars
Nokia's heavyweight smartphone has finally landed. But is it strong enough to survive the smartphone fist fight?

It isn't easy being the smartest kid on the block. Since the N80 was announced back in 2005, Nokia has dedicated itself to shoving more cutting-edge tech into our pockets than anyone else. But it’s been unable to match the sizzle of its more showy rivals. Until now.

The N95 and N96 bristled with iPhone-busting specs, but were hampered by poor battery life and an antiquated control system. But with the N97, Nokia has finally honed a phone that's fit to fight for the smartphone top spot.

Touch me, I'm thick

Nokia has arrived shockingly late to the touchscreen party. But it's doing its best to make up for lost time. While the N97 doesn't offer the multi-fingered gesture controls of the iPhone or Palm Pre, Nokia's Series 60 operating system has been sensibly tweaked to be more finger-friendly than Windows Mobile.

You'll have to prod the screen hard, as Nokia has opted for a pressure-sensitive resistive touchscreen for the N97, but haptic feedback helps to keep the experience enjoyable.

 

Control doesn't stop at the touchscreen, either. The N97 is also the first N-series phone to offer a nano-laptop form factor, with a QWERTY keypad that slides out while the screen is pushed upwards by a reassuringly solid hinge.

The result is an ergonomic joy, which invites you to hook your forefingers behind the screen and type with your thumbs.

The N97's design will please fans of the old Psion PDAs (we are legion at Stuff) but it does have an inevitable impact on the N97's girth. At 16mm, the N97 is 4mm thicker than the iPhone and a smidge fatter than the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1.

The great communicator

The N97's QWERTY keyboard is easier to use than the iPhone's cramped virtual keypad. But with so little travel in each key, it's not much more responsive than tapping a touchscreen, and isn't blessed with Apple's error-correcting smarts. The keyboard is certainly no match for the Blackberry Bold, and the lack of number keys is frustrating.

On the bright side, the N97's direction pad provides a precise method of navigating around documents and webpages, and selecting text to copy and paste.

What's more, email is gloriously easy to set up - and thanks to Exchange support it will work with corporate email too. It'll even read your mails to you in a hilarious robotic voice if you need cheering up.

The N97 deserves a better browser

The N97 features a lovely Facebook app, with a widget that sits on the customisable homescreen. Sadly, the same thought hasn't gone into the N97's web browser, which appears to be stuck in the 1990s.  Zooming in and out is clumsy and, criminally, there's no web search box. 

Website rendering is patchy, too - some sites look great on the full-width screen, but others fall apart. In short, the N97 desperately needs its own version of Firefox or Opera Mobile. The good news is that, unlike Apple, Nokia won't stop 3rd parties from developing their own browsers.

You can download files direct from the web, too, so you can buy music from the store of your choice rather than being restricted to iTunes. Indeed, a general sense of openness is one of the N97's most charming characteristics, and will appeal to many people who don't like the idea of submitting to Apple's totalitarian regime.

Music and movies

While the N97 ditches the dedicated media keys of the N95 and N96, it's still a media marvel. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack and bundled remote control – plus a whacking 32GB onboard memory, expandable to 48GB with a MicroSD card. That's enough for 10,000 high-quality MP3 files.

And with double the battery life of the N96 (40 hours for music playback), you'll actually be able to listen to a fair few of your songs between charges.

The 3.5in, 640x320-pixel widescreen is perfect for viewing videos too, which makes it rather galling that Nokia opted not to pre-load the N96's BBC iPlayer app.

Hopefully iPlayer – and the Comes With Music subscription service – will be available as options at a later date. For now, you'll have to make do with YouTube and files you copy from your PC using the Nokia Music software (or by dragging and dropping if you're a Mac user).

You can make and share your own movies, too, thanks to the good quality VGA video capture and a TV output. As for stills, the N97's 5MP autofocus camera produces excellent shots in daylight, but at night it's let down by the weak LED flash.

Stonking sat-nav

But don't fill up all that memory with movies and pictures - you'll want to leave room for some maps, too. While not as comprehensive for local search as Google Maps, Nokia Maps offers 3D views, sophisticated routing and traffic infromation.

With integrated compass and A-GPS, the N97 is a fully-featured satellite navigation unit that can be used on foot, in the car or – with a bit of ingenuity – on a bicycle.

You can side-load maps from your computer to avoid data charges, but you'll only get 3 months of Walk and Drive navigation out of the box – a year's subscription to the service costs approximately £85.

Not appy with Ovi

You've long been able to download applications to Nokia's Symbian phones. But the runaway success of the iTunes App Store has led Nokia to develop its own one-stop shop for applications, music and games and maps (and, eventually, storage for your emails, pictures and videos).

Unfortunately, Nokia's Ovi store has been suffering from downtime since it was launched. When it does work, it gives access to a small number of apps and games.

No doubt the list will grow, but a search tool is (once again) absent, making it impossible to find anything other than Nokia's recommendations. There's no Twitter or Skype client. No iPlayer. And no evidence of the rumoured Spotify app.

Great all-rounder

The N97 is a truly desirable object that elicits coos of appreciation from audiences jaded by the ubiquity of the iPhone. It's a powerful smartphone that excels in email. It's a useful navigator and digital camera. And, unlike its predecessors, all this power doesn't come at the cost of a weak battery or poor control system.

But like any modern smartphone, this hardware is just a platform. The N97, good as it is, will only become great if Nokia sorts out Ovi and manages to encourage developers to produce apps that rival the iPhone.

 

says

Nokia N97

Not the iPhone killer we were waiting for, but a muscular rival with distinct advantages for Apple refuseniks
Nokia N97 review
4 stars
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