REVIEW: Nokia Takes Kitchen-Sink Approach to Smartphones with N97

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2009-06-30
 
 
 

REVIEW: Nokia Takes Kitchen-Sink Approach to Smartphones with N97


Nokia's N97 may be the world's most feature-packed smartphone. At least, if there's a mobile device festooned with as many radios, input options, software sources and configuration menus as Nokia has managed to cram into the N97, I've never encountered it.

Take the unit's input options, which include a touch-sensitive display, a slide-out keyboard and, for good measure, the dynamic duo of a handwriting recognition application and a tiny stylus that doesn't fit into the device anywhere. The stylus does sport a little lanyard for stringing the tool onto the side of the device-or perhaps onto your keychain.

If all of that strikes you as awkward, you have the right idea. Particularly compared with Apple's line of iPhone devices-across which Apple has resisted adopting any feature that it couldn't implement elegantly-the N97 is a conspicuously clunky device with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink design philosophy.

In Nokia's defense, the cell phone giant has managed to fit the N97's many features into a form factor that's both sturdy-the unit's slide-out keyboard mechanism feels much more solid than the one that graces T-Mobile's G1-and pleasingly portable. At 4.6 by 2.18 by 0.63 inches and 5.29 ounces, the N97 isn't much larger than Apple's iPhone 3GS.

What's more, while my getting-to-know-you period with the N97 brimmed with more dissatisfied grumbling and online help forum fumbling than I cared to endure, I came to appreciate the product's broad feature set once I began to get the hang of using the device.

I tested the N97 in and around eWEEK's San Francisco offices on AT&T's wireless network. However, the device isn't currently offered by AT&T or any U.S.-based wireless provider, so there's no option for subsidizing the unit's $700 purchase price.

Nokia's N97 ships with Version 5 of the company's S60 interface, which runs atop Symbian OS Version 9.4. This most recent version of the S60 platform added support for touch-screen interfaces and for Adobe's Flash Lite 3.0, both of which the N97 takes advantage.

While support for Flash struck me as an obvious benefit, I had a tough time coming up with a Flash application I was burning to consume in a mobile device. I tried to access the Flash-based music streaming site Pandora.com, with no success, but found that N97's Flash player did allow me to view the Flash-based slideshows (and advertisements) at eWEEK.com.

Nokia's N97 is powered by a 434MHz ARM11 processor, which delivered good performance overall during my tests, even when I ran multiple applications at once. Support in the N97 for arbitrary background applications is one of its best points of differentiation versus the iPhone, which reserves background process rights for Apple's own applications.

Storage Options


 

The N97 packs a modest 128MB of RAM and a healthy 32GB of internal storage. This ample storage capacity may be expanded through the N97's MicroSDHC expansion slot.

I was impressed with the N97's storage options, but was displeased with their implementation.

Specifically, the device offered me the option of installing applications and storing data on either the unit's 128MB of RAM or its 32GB of flash storage. The two storage locations were labeled C: and E:, respectively. The N97 taps the memory in its C: drive not only for storage but as memory for running applications. Several times during my tests, the combination of running applications and C: drive storage added up to annoying out-of-memory prompts.

In most cases, I was able to set the N97 to use its large E: drive by default, but I had to spelunk through various different menu structures throughout the device to make these configuration changes. I would have preferred that the N97 use the 32GB of storage automatically. It's possible, however, that this C:/E: division serves some backward-compatibility purpose-I found that the third-party screen shot application that I used for my review was unable to access the E: drive, which forced me to shuttle my screen grabs out of the scarce C: drive as I took them.

Also, while installing new applications onto the device, I found that some applications would ask where they should be installed and some would not. I installed three applications in a row from Nokia's Ovi app store-the first and third prompted me for an install location and the second did not.

The N97's most prominent physical characteristic is its large, 640-by-360-pixel, touch-sensitive display, which, as with Apple's iPhone, responds to changes in orientation by swapping between portrait and landscape layouts. Nokia has employed resistive touch-screen technology for its display, which registers input when touches or taps cause metallic layers within the display to make contact.

This is in contrast to the capacitive screens that the iPhone and the Palm Pre feature. The upshot of this difference in technology is that the N97's touch-screen is markedly less sensitive than these rival phones. On the positive side, the N97 can respond to taps or presses from non-conductive sources-such as gloved hands.

Personally, I'd take the greater sensitivity of the iPhone-style display over the glove-friendly N97 technology, as I found it rather difficult to scroll through pages with the N97's touch-screen. I would have liked to have seen some sort of wheel or rocker button on the face of the device to compensate for the display's poor scrolling performance.

The N97's slide-out keyboard sports a five-way control pad, which I ended up using for most of my page navigation needs. For typing, the device's keyboard served me well enough, but I prefer the higher-profile keys on the Nokia E71 smartphone that I reviewed last year.

Through most of my tests, I didn't pay much heed to the N97's handwriting recognition option, or to its miniature stylus, but the pair performed as well as any handwriting recognition feature I'd previously tried. That is, they performed well enough to scratch something out, but not well enough to prevent me from sliding out the unit's keyboard or opting for the regular cell phone-style multitap input system.

5.0-Megapixel Camera


 

The N97 comes with a 5.0-megapixel camera fixed on the back of the device and teamed with a pair of LED flashes for taking pictures in low light. The trio sits behind a lens cover that I could slide open and shut manually. Sliding open the lens cover brought the unit's Camera application to the foreground, and sliding it back returned me to my previous location in the device UI. The camera enabled me to capture video in 16:9 aspect ratio, again illuminated by the N97's LED flash lights.

Also of note is the N97's second camera, a front-facing unit for placing video calls-a feature that I did not test.

The N97 ships with a 1,500-mAh lithium-polymer battery. Nokia advertises talk times of up to 9.5 hours in GSM mode and up to 6 hours in its 3.5G mode. I've yet to put these numbers to the test, but, anecdotally, I found that the battery stood up well to frequent use of its radios and push messaging features during my tests.

Nokia's N97 offers a full complement of messaging options. I synchronized my Exchange e-mail, contacts, calendar and task information using the Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync application, and linked the device up to a Gmail account via IMAP.

That said, I prefer the iPhone's e-mail application to the one that ships with the N97. I think that the Apple software makes better use of screen real estate and fetches messages more promptly. However, I was intrigued by the N97 e-mail client's support for reading messages via text-to-speech.

I spent some time testing Nokia's new Ovi application store, but found that the majority of the applications that I ended up installing were not available through that channel. For instance, the folder on the device that houses the Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync application starts out mysteriously empty, and the Ovi store makes no mention of the application. I had to run a mail setup wizard to prompt the N97 to pull down the needed bits from the Internet. Certain other applications are available only through a folder on the device marked Download. For others, such as the screen shot application mentioned earlier, I had to hit the open Internet to find what I needed.

Support for multiple application channels, in contrast to Apple's tightly controlled App Store model, can be a real benefit for the N97. I appreciated, for instance, the unit's support for Java-based applications such as Google's mobile Gmail reader or Opera's mini Web browser. I would, however, like to see Nokia do a better job presenting trusted software channels to the user.

Connectivity Options


 

For connectivity, the N97 sports a quad-band GSM radio that can deliver EDGE data transfer speeds, as well as a tri-band HSDPA radio capable of much faster data transfer rates.

During my tests of the N97 from various locations in San Francisco, I recorded transfer rates of about 76K bps with latencies of about 760 milliseconds in EDGE mode; in high-speed mode, I saw transfer rates of about 523K bps with 1,163 ms of latency. I conducted my tests with DSL Reports' mobile speed test tool using the N97's built-in Web browser.

The N97 also ships with an 802.11b/g WLAN radio. Compared with the E71 unit I tested last year, which perplexed me with its frequent queries about which method of connecting to the Internet-cellular or Wi-Fi-I wished to employ for each application I used, I found that the N97 more often followed the best-to-worst connectivity scheme. The N97 does have the same sort of connection control granularity as the E71 for users who want to avail themselves of it.

As a phone, the N97 performed well, with good voice quality over the standard earpiece or headset, as well as easy-to-use controls. I did note, however, that the N97's speakerphone delivered subpar sound quality.

In addition to its cellular and Wi-Fi radios, the N97 sports a Bluetooth 2.0 radio with a generous selection of profiles, as well as a microUSB port and a GPS-A radio that Nokia has teamed with a nicely implemented turn-by-turn driving directions application.

As if that weren't enough radios, the N97 also packs both an FM receiver, for tuning in local radio stations, and an FM transmitter, for broadcasting sound output from the device to nearby FM receivers.

Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at jbrooks@eweek.com.


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