Review of the Nokia N97


The N97 is the current flagship phone running the S60 5th Edition operating system. It has most of the features of previous high-end models, such as the N95 and N85, but also includes a high-resolution touchscreen and a full QWERTY keypad.

Last Updated: 01-Sep-2009

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

RF Sensitivity: (A-) To test the RF sensitivity of the N97 I took around to various weak spots in Square One and I compared it to my N95. I hadnít really expected the phones to behave any differently, because over the last few years Iíve found that most Nokia models are pretty much identical in this regard. However, in each and every instance I found that the N97 I tested was less sensitive than the N95. The margin was small, but the difference was still noticeable.

The N97 would produce more audio dropouts as I headed into weak areas. The network never handed either phone off to 2G, because in Square One the 3G coverage is always superior to 2G (though this isnít true everywhere).

Despite the lower performance compared to the N95, the difference was slight enough that it might have been the result of manufacturing issues. In other words, if I tested 2 different N97 and N95 phones, I might not find them to differ at all. Subsequently the RF sensitivity of the N97 is still quite good, and deserving of the A- grade I gave it.

Over-the-road Performance: (A+) As Iíve noted before, Nokia 3G phones do exceptionally well in over-the-road tests, and the N97 is no exception. However, I also tested in 2G mode (because I was able to force 2G on the firmware in the test model). I found the handoffs on 2G to be very tame, and although they werenít quite as tame as the Blackberry Pearl Flip I recently reviewed, they were about as tame as any Nokia I have ever tested.

Audio Performance

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, and how to interpret it.

Tonal Balance: (A) The sound has a nice balance to it, with just enough low-end to give the phone a rich quality. It also showed no signs of harshness or peakiness. It was a tiny bit muddy however, with a slightly less crisp quality than I was accustomed to on Nokia models. Still, it wasnít anywhere near as muddy as the Motorola W233 I recently tested.

Sound Reproduction: (A+) I had no problem with this aspect of the phone. The audio was reproduced with no detectable distortion or colorization. The quality of the sound remained the same all the way up to maximum volume.

Earpiece Volume: Like most Nokias of late, the N97 has excellent earpiece volume, which is bolstered by Nokiaís volume-boost feature. This system increased the volume (even if you have it turned up all the way) if it detects loud background noise.

Outgoing Audio: (B-) The N97 sounds very good in a quiet environment, but it handles various types of background noises in an inconsistent manner. Extreme wind noise, such as you might get in a car with its windows down on the highway, causes no problem for the N97. It seems to blank out that type of noise well and the quality of the voice remains excellent. However, in an environment where the background noise is made up hundreds of peopleís voices (such as a crowded food court at the mall) the phone doesnít fair quite so well. It allows much of that noise through to your caller and it becomes increasing difficult to for them to hear you over the din.

Speakerphone: (B-) As Nokia speakerphones go, this one is pretty much mid-pack. It has a medium level of volume and reasonable tonal balance and sound quality. However, it just canít seem to match the volume or quality of the N95ís speakerphone. It is good enough to carry on regular conversations in a quiet environment and the quality is good enough for you to find it comfortable enough use frequently.

Support Features

Ringer Volume: (B-) On all Nokia phones, ringtone volume and overall quality directly parallel the speakerphone. The same speakers are used for both and so this isnít surprising. Because of that, the N97 fairs well in this respect, but it could be louder.

Keypad Design: (B) The N97 is essentially two phones in one. When closed up and used like a regular cell phone, it has no physical keypad. However, when it is opened and used in a landscape configuration it has a full QWERTY keypad with 4-way cursor pad and OK button. Because of this, Iím going to deal with each independently. This section covers the physical QWERTY keypad.

Because the phone is so wide, Nokia were able to provide a fairly well-spaced keyboard that is easy to use and far less prone to mis-keying than many other smartphones with very tiny keypads. The overall feel of the keys isnít quite as positive as Iíd hoped, but I rarely had any difficulty with missed characters. The space bar is a little odd though, because it isnít all that large and it isnít in the center of the keypad where it belongs.

Instead of sliding or pivoting out of the way, the screen on the N97 actually flips up to an approximately 30-degree angle using an ingenious set of levers and arms. Having the screen face up at that angle allows the phone to be used while it sits on a flat surface, but it makes using the resistive touchscreen a bit more difficult than it needs to be. In a way therefore, the angled screen is a bit of mixed blessing.

Touchscreen: (B-) The N97 has a touch-sensitive screen and it relies solely upon that when itís used closed (in portrait orientation). It looks like it would be an iPhone competitor, but Apple fans can rest assured that Nokia poses no threat with this model. The resistive screen lacks any of the subtly of the iPhone (including its wonderful gestures). I found it annoying most of the time and it struck me that the S60 5th Edition O/S is really nothing more than the S60 3rd Edition with a low-end touchscreen quickly grafted on.

When used as a phone however, the large keys of the virtual keypad were easy to use and worked as expected. I rarely suffered from any mis-keys (as I found when I tested the HTC Dream) and use of the vibrator to provide feedback when buttons are pressed works well in this situation. So, as a phone keypad the touchscreen works as well as could be expected. My only gripe is having to remember to choose ďDialerĒ if I want to send touchtones during a phone call.

Display: (A-) The 3.5-inch 640 x 360 pixel screen of the N97 has more pixels than the iPhone, but somehow it just doesnít seem that way when you use it. The fault lies in part with the operating system which just wasnít written for such a large screen. The iPhone makes much better use of its 480 x 360 screen and it seems like it has a higher-resolution display when it really doesnít. Everything looks great on the N97 screen, but use of the real-estate is mediocre at best. In bright sunlight the screen is still visible, but it doesnít work under those conditions quite as well as my N95.

Icing on the Cake

Camera:
(A+) The N97 includes the same excellent 5-meagpixel camera found in the N95 (though it provides two LEDs for flash, whereas the N95 only has one). Because the camera seems to be almost identical, I refer you to the camera review I did on the N95.

Expansion Memory: (A+) The N97 supports MicroSD cards with a capacity up to 32 GB. The port is easily accessible from the side of the phone and the card is hot-swappable. If youíve actually found a use for 32 GB in your phone, having a removable MicroSD card puts the N97 a step above the 32 GB iPhone, in that you can have multiple cards with different content.

RAM & Processor: (A-) The N97 uses a 454 MHz Arm processor and has 128 MB of internal RAM. There are a number of phones out there that have faster processors and more RAM, but there arenít many. The N97 is still a very capable smartphone, despite my misgivings about the lackluster touchscreen implementation.

Conclusions

I didnít feel any desire to give up my N95 and run out to buy an N97. While the N97 has some very attractive features going for it (like a bigger screen, lots more expansion memory, a full QWERTY keypad, a slightly faster processor, and touchscreen capability) I just couldnít help but compare it to a jail-broken iPhone 3GS. If I was going to jump headlong into a touchscreen phone I just canít image myself doing so with the N97. The implementation just leaves too much to be desired.

For Nokia fans however, the N97 is probably as good as gets right now. The phone is loaded to the gills with features and it isnít crippled in any way (like the un-jail-broken iPhone). Symbian is an aging operating system, but it still provides some serious power for those who want their phones to do more than just wrap web pages. My only fear was I to buy an N97 is the number of applications that are written for S60 3rd Edition that donít presently seem work on it. Keep this in mind when making your choice.

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