The N97 is very different from its newer competitors in the area of performance. For some operations, it gets left in the dust, but in sheer capability, it’s hard to beat — at this time anyway.
The N97 uses the Symbian S60v5. This is Nokia’s second smartphone to use this operating system, and there are a number of lessons learned from the earlier 5800XM. Most of the difference though can be summed up in the word “polished”. Compared to the previous device, everything about the N97 feels a lot more polished.
There are tweaks and subtle differences, though, between the OS on the 5800XM and the N97. The newer model gets a faster rendering engine for the Nokia Web Browser; a faster processor makes general operations much faster; and menu organization is more logical — though it keeps the traditional “menus inside menus inside menus” arrangement that Symbian devices are famous/infamous for.
Going from one to the other, a 5800XM user will immediately notice the polish done to the OS. And this is good, because the user experience hasn’t improved much except in relation to the widget-driven homescreen.
Widgets and the Homescreen
You have a number of widgets to choose from: Calendar, Email, two Application shortcut widgets, Contacts, Facebook, Amazon, AccuWeather, Bloomberg, AP News, Boingo, Qik, and hi5. Several more are now available through the Ovi Store.
These pretty much make for a difficult decision. You can only fit five widgets on the homescreen — there are six slots but the clock/date/profiles widgets cannot be removed. It would be great if there was an additional screen for widgets. There is an additional screen, but it’s not available to to display widgets at all.
Widgets aren’t hassle free. Ones that connect to online data can be picky in terms of when they will update. For example, the AccuWeather widget has proven to be my favorite because it uses the GPS and web connection to let you know of the weather forecast for your current position. But, if you don’t have a solid GPS lock, or your web connection gets stuttered, then the widget doesn’t respond. You have to go back into it, refresh the data manually, and then wait for the widget to update when you come back to the homescreen.
Overall though, I like the idea of these widgets and would like to see more come along that give information as I need them automatically, instead of me having to fetch it.
Web Browser and Wireless
The widget interface is one of two aspects of the N97 that utilize the wireless connection — the other is the web browser. This is mostly the same browser that appears on the 5800XM, but it has seen numerous upgrades to the rendering engine, loading speed, and an addition of kinetic scrolling. These are admirable updates to the browsing experience on the 5800XM and most other Symbian handsets.
The N97’s 360×640 pixel resolution is great for most sites, and Nokia’s development team added a few more font-zoom levels making the text a lot easier to read.
Nevertheless, the browser still suffers from some usability quirks. You are unable to use the hardware keyboard for any kind of browser shortcuts. The directional pad is very nice though, helping on those sites where touching the screen is a hit and miss affair.
The other problem with the browser is in an aspect that was “fixed” with the N97: when you open a web page, you see the menu on the right side for a few moments, and then the entire view goes fullscreen (this is good). When you want to go back a page, to a new page, bookmark, add a feed, etc., you have a cumbersome two step process of hitting the maximize button on the bottom right of the screen, then clicking either the Options or browser shortcut menu.
Thankfully the rest of the wireless experience is top notch. The Wi-Fi scanning and Destinations application allow you to seamlessly go between Wi-Fi and 3G connections. The cellular connection comes in handy with GPS, making a very fast lock, regardless of how long it takes for the actual map to download.
This Nokia model also includes an FM Transmitter, allowing you to broadcast music to a near-by radio. I’ve found that this is quite powerful and handy when a line-in connection is unavailable in a car.
And like much of the rest of the use of the N97, the battery life is outstanding when these options are used. Given a few fixes to the browser user interface and widget engine, this aspect of the N97 would be very hard to beat by current competitors.
Because the N97 is built on the Symbian operating system, has 32 GB of internal storage, a 5 megapixel digital camera, and a host of other features, it’s pretty easy to see why Nokia chooses to bill this device as a multimedia flagship. Unfortunately, this area for the N97 seems to have received the least amount of attention from Nokia.
The Music Player and Podcasting applications are solid, albeit uninspiring. I expected some kind of integration with Nokia Music (that’s a regional issue, not a device one) to purchase and preview music, as well as better handling of music files through streaming and side-loading.
Thankfully, the hardware does pick up here very well. The two stereo speakers — located on the left side of the device — do a great job with giving clear sound in all volume ranges. The tilting screen also proves to be a nice “in the office” feature as you can have the speakers pointing towards you, but then see what is playing without doing anything more than tapping the screen.
The 32 GB of storage space is very nice. The fact that there’s also an additional microSDHC slot is even nicer. If you were to use the N97 as a mobile computer, you would have no major issues in terms of space for things like music, movies, documents, etc. The N97 is also compatible with PC Suite and Ovi Suite to make side-loading content from a laptop/desktop very easy.
The 5 megapixel camera seems like a carry over from the 3-year-old N95, and I will admit that it felt like it was initially. However, picture quality is miles better, snapping pictures is much faster, and the dual LED-flash does a great job in low and no-light situations. There is some issue on the review device I have with extra sharpening; I don’t see this with the N97 that I’ve purchased, so far.
Ovi Store and Services
The N97 was billed as the first device from Nokia that is compatible with the Ovi Store out-of-the-box. And after an update to the latest application front-end, the N97 does well with the store.
What isn’t done so well is the actual Ovi service integration. For example, when you first boot a Nokia device, you are taken through a Setup Wizard . This application does setup of basic functions like date, time, etc., then sets up the operator settings for your Internet, wap, SMS, and MMS features, and finishes by asking if you want to setup an email account on the device — through the Messaging application, not the newer Ovi Mail application.
What’s missing is that there are no questions asking you to setup your Ovi profile or to connect your device to an existing profile. For each Ovi service that you are subscribed to, you need to either go to the Ovi website and manually add the N97 as your device, or go through the process of downloading and syncing for each service. If you are only using one or two Ovi services this isn’t a big deal, but if you become fully invested in Ovi then you will find yourself not using some until you absolutely need them.
There’s no doubt that Nokia missed a big opportunity to make Ovi central to the N97 experience.
With all its features, you’d think that the N97 would be a slouch with battery life, but this is nothing near the case. Even over the course of weeks with the review device, I’ve had nothing but stellar battery life.
On average, I am getting a day and a half with this device, and it is always connected. In addition, I travel between a 3G, Wi-Fi, and EDGE zones all day, so to get this kind of battery life with the frequency hopping that I do is amazing. In comparison to the 5800XM, the N97’s battery life is about 25-50% better.