On paper, the Nokia N97 looks as if it could rival the other big phones of this summer - the Palm Pre, the Apple iPhone 3G S and T-Mobile's follow-up to the Android-based G1. It has more memory than the other three, supports a wide range of multimedia files and has a large touchscreen and a full qwerty keyboard.

But the Nokia falls short of its potential, largely because the operating system (OS) it uses - the Symbian S60 5th Edition - lacks the refinement of other OSes. Still, the N97 impresses in certain areas, particularly audio and video.

The Nokia N97 feels good in hand with a matte backing and sturdy body. It is a bit hefty at 150g (heavier than both the Pre and iPhone 3G S). It is also fairly pocketable for a phone with a slide-out keyboard - it measures 117.2x55.3x15.9 mm. Button placement is standard, with glowing Home and Call Send/End buttons below the display. A power button sits on top next to the 3.5mm headphone jack (a must-have for multimedia phones). On the right spine is the volume rocker and the camera shutter button. The left spine has the screen lock switch and the mini-USB port.

The keyboard slides out easily, and the display pops out at a slight angle. While the tilt was nice for watching videos and helped reduce glare outside, we found it annoying when trying to type on the Nokia N97's keyboard. The edge of the display is too close to the top row of keys, and you can't adjust the display's angle or make it lie flat. We also found it hard to press the keyboard's keys; they're simply not raised enough for comfortable typing. The keyboard's layout was also a bit counterintuitive, with the spacebar placed in the lower-left corner.

A navigational touchpad (right, left, down, up, and a centre button to select) on the right side of the Nokia N97's keyboard is supposed to help with navigation, but we didn't use it very often. It was so difficult to press that we accidentally selected apps when we were trying to scroll through them.

The Nokia N97's call quality was very good. Voices sounded loud, clear and crisp. We heard no static or background hiss, either. Parties on the other end gave similar reports. Even while standing on a busy city street corner, our contacts said our voice sounded loud and clear.

The Nokia N97 has a large 3.5in resistive touchscreen with a 360x640 resolution. While colours looked good and the display appeared bright and crisp, we were disappointed by the touchscreen's responsiveness. Resistive touch just doesn't compare to the slickness of capacitive touch technology. Scrolling wasn't very smooth, and the two-touch action required to start an app got annoying after a while. However, we really liked the N97's haptic feedback (a slight vibration when you touch an app), which helped with the navigation.

We blame the Symbian S60 5th Edition OS for why we were unimpressed with the Nokia N97's display. The S60 OS simply lacks the fresh and refined look of WebOS, iPhone and even Android 1.5. The typography and icons are too small, and they fade away into the background of the display.

While the interface might not be the best-looking, the new live-feed widgets are quite useful. The widgets update your personal Internet feeds in real time on your home screen so you don't have to open up another app to access them. Our favorite, the Accuweather widget, takes advantage of the Nokia N97's built-in Assisted GPS. When we travelled from San Francisco to the slightly different microclimate of the East Bay, for example, the outdoor temperature on the home screen updated accordingly.

Other widgets include Facebook, MySpace, your personal email, the music player, favourite contacts and the date and time. The music player is average and unsophisticated; it's much like what we've seen on previous Symbian devices. It has no visual effects or album art scrolling (as on the iPhone and the Pre). Nevertheless, it is quite easy to use with the display's large touch controls. The Nokia N97 has a few equaliser effects, so you can tweak the sound to your liking. Overall, music playback was very good, though volume level was a bit low piped through the external speakers. The music player supports a respectable number of formats: MP3, WMA, WAV, eAAC+, MP4, and M4V.

The video app is equally simple, though it worked fine. The player can only support Mpeg4 and WMV files - no DivX or H.264 codecs, unfortunately. The Nokia N97 is loaded with Flash Lite 3.0, which means it can play videos directly from the YouTube Web page. Flash video playback looked excellent - even better than on the Pre or the iPhone 3G.

The Nokia N97 comes with a generous 32GB of onboard memory, and this can be expanded further with a 16GB microSD card. You can load up your media via microUSB or use stereo Bluetooth. The N97 also has an FM transmitter, as well, for piping your tunes to your car stereo.

The 5Mp camera has a Carl Zeiss lens (and a cover), a dual LED flash and a handful of advanced features. It also comes preloaded with photo/video editing software. Picture quality disappointed, though; indoor shots came out grainy and dark despite the flash. Outdoor photos fared better with bright colors and crisp details. You can record VGA video at 30fps; our test video from the Nokia N97 looked as good as any recorded by a smartphone camera that we've seen.

Nokia N97: Specs

  • 3.5in (640x360
  • 16.7K) touchscreen display
  • Symbian S60 5th edition operating system
  • slide-out qwerty keyboard
  • four-way navigation keypad
  • talk time: up to 570 mins (GSM)/360 mins (WCDMA)
  • standby time: up to 430 hrs (GSM)/400 hrs (WCDMA)
  • VGA video at 30fps
  • GPS
  • 802.11b/g
  • Bluetooth
  • USB 2.0
  • 32MB onboard memory
  • supports MicroSD
  • 117.2x55.3x15.9mm
  • 150g
  • 3.5in (640x360
  • 16.7K) touchscreen display
  • Symbian S60 5th edition operating system
  • slide-out qwerty keyboard
  • four-way navigation keypad
  • talk time: up to 570 mins (GSM)/360 mins (WCDMA)
  • standby time: up to 430 hrs (GSM)/400 hrs (WCDMA)
  • VGA video at 30fps
  • GPS
  • 802.11b/g
  • Bluetooth
  • USB 2.0
  • 32MB onboard memory
  • supports MicroSD
  • 117.2x55.3x15.9mm
  • 150g

OUR VERDICT

In common with the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, the Nokia N97 is a really cool phone that can do a lot, but the features just don't come together as seamlessly as in other smartphones on the market. The Symbian OS doesn't simply need an update; it needs an overhaul to compete with iPhone OS and Palm's WebOS.

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