Nokia N97 Review: Nokia Is Doomed

The N97 is Nokia's attempt to stand tall in an unfamiliar, hostile world populated by the iPhone, Pre and Android the only way it knows how: by throwing the kitchen sink at them. If this is it, they're doomed.

Okay, that's not strictly true, the doomed part: Nokia is the number one mobile phone maker in the world—they sold 468 million phones last year and still own 41.2 percent of the smartphone market. But in the context of Symbian's sliding marketshare—Symbian was on 56.9 percent of smartphones at the beginning of 2008, now it's on 49.3 percent, while the iPhone has doubled its marketshare to 10.8 percent and RIM's grown to 19.9 percent—the N97 indeed spells a certian kind of doom for Nokia, if it's the best the number one mobile phone marker in the world can really do.

Hardware Let's start with the most decent part, the hardware. The form factor is great, actually, for a QWERTY slider, because it still feels like a phone. It's a little narrower than the iPhone 3GS and the exact same thickness as the G1—not svelte, and it still fits in skinny jeans just fine. The snappy "thwack" it makes when you slide the screen upward to the reveal the keyboard is the single most satisfying thing about this phone. It's loud. But it's reassuring. It feels powerful and sturdy and smooth, like it'll last a hundred years.

The tilt angle the screen thrusts out at isn't adjustable, which is unfortunate, since it's slightly off from where I'd prefer. For instance, you have to hold the keyboard flat when you're typing to look at the screen dead-on—if you tend to tilt your phone toward you as you type (like I do), the screen is going to face your crotch and you won't be able to see anything.

The keyboard waiting underneath the screen is a mixed bag. The slightly rubbery texture of the keys is perfect, and while I found I had no problems with the layout, some people might loathe the fact the space key is shoved all the way to the right. The real problem is that the keys have an ultrashort travel distance, so there's virtually no tactile feedback when you're typing—less than the G1, which wasn't exactly rocking faces with its keyboard, either. Put another way, it doesn't pass the driving test—I couldn't bang out a text message while driving to save my life. (Good thing I didn't wreck.) Not only does the d-pad suffer from the same defect, the ring with the directional buttons is too narrow, so you'll likely push the centre button a whole lot when you don't mean to. I wound up avoiding it altogether, since I've got a touchscreen after all.

What actually surprised me most about the 640x360 screen was how much it totally didn't blow me away. Let's get the fact that it was a resistive touchscreen out of the way. The N97's touch responsiveness was about as good as resistive screens get, but even at best, that's minor league stuff compared to a capacitive touchscreen—the touch hardware that makes the Palm Pre, iPhone, BlackBerry Storm, G1 and myTouch 3G awesome to poke and flick. In terms of visual quality, I simply never had a "wow" moment, like the first time you peep the brilliant screen on the Palm Pre. It's acceptable bordering on good, though—watching YouTube videos on its Flash Lite-enabled browser was a solid experience, for sure.

The most disappointing aspect of the hardware is the pokey 424MHz processor that attempts to run this thing—the one spec that's notably not emblazoned on the back of the N97, because it'd be a badge of goddamn shame. It still baffles me that Nokia sent their all-singing, all-dancing, all-Qiking flagship phone out into the world with this anemic slice of silicon. Running just a couple of basic apps at once—say, Facebook or Gravity and Music—I had more hangups with this thing than a telemarketer on meth. HTC's been using 528MHz processors for what feels like an eternity, so what the hell?

As for the camera, well to start, there are two cameras. A 5-megapixel shooter on the back protected by sliding cover, and front-facing camera for video conferencing. It also shoots 640x480 video at 30 frames per second. As you can see, the still images are good, not great—despite the size they're still washed out enough that they have the definite feel of "cameraphone" all over them, even in broad daylight. The LED flash is surprisingly strong, though you're not going to light up a whole room with it, obviously. The secondary camera is pretty laughable in terms of quality, but that's okay. And then the video quality is passable for a phone, though far from startling clarity, both the clips stored locally and the ones I uploaded to Qik using the built-in app.

My favourite hardware feature is the built-in two-way FM transmitter, so you can pick up radio stations or beam your music library out to your car's FM radio, no Belkin dongle required. Performance was just about as good as a separate FM transmitter dongle, too. (Passable, but it's never going to be awesome.)

Hurray for hardware standards, though. It charges over the same microUSB port that plugs into your computer, not the little tiny peehole that's been Nokia standard for a million years. A standard 3.5 mm headphone jack is dead centre on top, and it's got stereo Bluetooth. And let's not forget that 32GB of internal storage, which can be expanded by microSDHC cards for up to 48GB of total storage.

Overall, as much there is wrong internally, there's a lot to like in the hardware—it'd be total win with a faster processor and more brilliant screen, since the battery seems more than up to the task.

Software I don't even know where to start the hate parade I want to unleash on S60 5th edition. Nokia's managed to make RIM's BlackBerry Storm OS retrofit look like a work of art. And when legacy software runs into a crappy half-assed UI, it's a steaming pile of suck on a slab of garbage toast. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to shove Android onto it. Since I have nothing nice to say, let's keep this part short.

Nokia's instinct to widgetise the homescreen, giving you access to messaging, maps, the browser, Facebook or whatever else you want is a good one, and one of the few non-terrible things about the user interface. But even its visual feel is dated and worn, like someone dragged 2003 into the present tied to the back of a battered and rusted pickup truck. Yuck visual elements abound—in landscape mode, there's a fairly persistent right-side dock of buttons, that steal screen real estate for no discernible reason at times. And inconsistency seems to be the rule. Some stuff you double tap to activate, other stuff you single tap. There's a list in the manual detailing which is which—I forget. There's no flick scrolling, except for when there is, like in the Ovi Store.

The phone's built-in apps are solid, mostly, with the exception of the default email program (download Nokia Messaging 1.1 from Nokia to get an actually competent program).

The WebKit browser mostly kept pace with the iPhone's over Wi-Fi. The interface isn't as easy to use, like to zoom, but hey, it does Flash Lite, so suck on that everybody. The browser's back button serves up thumbnails of previously visited websites you can zip through, a desperately needed touch of form and function on this phone.

Nokia Maps, if you want more than the basics—namely pedestrian or voice-guided navigation—you get a three-month trial before you have to pay up for a subscription. That said, it's feature rich, with a compass, multiple map modes like 3D, traffic info and points of interest, though not as easy to use to pick and use as Google Maps on other platforms. (I handed it and an iPhone off to a friend in my car while navigating deep into the wastelands of Alabama, and Google Maps proved much easier for them to deal with, despite their intense dislike for all things Apple.)

It's pre-crammed with a buttload of mostly excellent third party apps as well: Qik, RealPlayer, YouTube, JoikuSpot Premium, Accuweather, Facebook (a really impressive though appropriately S60 version) and Spore, to name just a handful. Qik in particular is fantastic—I set up an account and was livestreaming video within a minute of popping open the app.

That's fortunate, because the Ovi Store manages to have the worst mobile app store interface I've seen yet. Just try to use that header/scrollbar thing on top to move between categories. And it's "stuff," not apps, since Nokia hawks a melange of goods at Ovi, from wallpapers to ringtones to apps, often jumbling them all on a single page. Speaking of Ovi, the desktop suite, also named Ovi, didn't fall far from the Ovi tree—it's a natural disaster that's not a single app for managing your phone, but a handful of distinct apps that intersect in the actual "suite" launcher application. Imagine iTunes, then its remarkably confusing total opposite, ontologically speaking. (And I'm not even getting into the Ovi online services, which are distinct from Nokia's other offerings, so I wound up creating two wholly different accounts in the process of getting my N97 totally setup.)

What a mixed bag.

Conclusion Nokia has to know where it stands. At least, assuming somebody actually used the N97 before it went out the door.

Symbian S60 5th Edition only makes sense if it's a stopgap keeping Nokia in the game (barely) until they put out an actual next-generation OS, just like the underwhelming Windows Mobile 6.5 will do for Microsoft. I'm really hoping for a complete rebuild of Symbian. I am not expecting Nokia to turn to an entirely different OS from a certain Goo-ey company despite recent (and retarded) rumours. Nokia is married to Symbian for the long haul—after all, they paid nearly half a billion dollars for it.

That's the only way I can fathom them releasing something this unusable into a world populated by the iPhone, Palm Pre, Android and BlackBerry. If this really is the best Nokia can do, the giant is doomed to die a slow death, propped up for a while by the cheap handsets that it sells by the tens of millions.


Comments

    Geez that's a bit depressing. And to think, I was worried I'd jumped the gun buying a 3GS over a next-gen Nokia.

    I genuinely hope they start addressing these issues - Nokia at their best have the power to do some awesome stuff imo.

      "Nokia at their best have the power to do some awesome stuff..."

      lol so does Sony..

    man, i got one and if i could use it for more than an hour before it turns itself off it would be great. its been taken to the nokia store and i got a new one, which now works.
    i think they made a bad choice in pitting a war against the iphone and co. but this phone is made for the technophiles out there, addicted to specs.
    the iphone is made for the homogeneous fluro hip douchebags of today wanting to look cool, all with the same phone.

    Nokia should have waited another 3 months until the OS is stable.
    ill agree that the interface is clonky, but as far as power is concerned, that's heaps for the power symbian apps draw. memory could have been upped to 256 but its still enough to open maps, send sms and browse the internet all at once. the repository of apps out their for symbian is staggering.

    i chose this over a iphone for many reasons. better camera,
    ability to run more than one app.
    free apps (internet, cracked),
    physical keyboard.
    the many turn by turn apps with downloadable maps (australia doesnt get that much download per month).

    Ive used every iphone (not the 3GS) since the first and still find the soft keyboard a pain. i would like to walk and send an sms without walking into traffic. Ive also had the iphone crash on me a few times a week while running apps.
    the time for each app to load had been twice as slow as symbian apps, and the responsiveness of almost all apps has been slow.
    Ive been totally less than impressed with mutlitouch other than pinch zoom, flick scrolling is really annoying, watching blurry text scroll past too fast and having to slowly go back up is a nightmare.
    the most that a touch screen does is allow you to touch the button instead of having too move a cursor with arrow keys, not the gimmick uses that they sell you in the tech demos.
    maybe resistive screens aren't as good as a capacitive ones but it doesn't need to be with a qwerty keyboard, i also like using things other than my hand to touch the screen like the pen im holding or a fork while eating!

    all the suplied apps with the N97 are shit, who the fuck needs to to tell people how big their shit is on facebook and then send the video via qik, cause that whats most of the post are anyway.
    im sorry if i don't get the idea of social networking, but i find that needing to tell people needless shit about your life 24 hours a day a little sad.
    i don't need to watch youtube while im away from a computer on a small screen with shitty speakers (all Phones).

    its all getting way too complicated. on your phone, email is for work and long conversations, sms is for organizing things quickly, no twitter. the web is for banking, getting timetables and settling arguments via wikipedia.
    GPS is for finding places and geotagging, maybe augmented reality, and an ipod is for music cause there is no way my collection is fitting on my phone even with 48Gs of space.

    sorry if this got out of hand, i do think that nokia's days are numbered with all the flash interfaces out there, but to me they are too flash and glossy (Im not a Code loving guy, i love OS X for its interface and i love XP for utorrent. but i want my phone to be matte in its interface, black with vibrant blue highlights. its all about usability in sunlight. and the only company i know making a phone that's still a phone is Nokia. look at their flagship product the N97, at heart its still a phone and i love it for that.

    Hey matt

    have you done a review of the iphone 3gs, i would really like to read your comments on it

    dont take too much offence for this but this is the most bias thing i ever read and after readng this im glad i dont go to this site for reviews on phones.you should have done a review on the pre or something since you seem to like it soo much. so not the way to do a review.

    get a life! N97 best i've had or seen. user not teckie. the phone is a great phone. as MP3 and MP4 is great and with quality ear phones is great on long flights. camera excels in difficult situations. surfing is easy and even for the visually chellenged such as me. keyboard works for me intuitively and made switch sooo much quicker than to touch screens. perhaps your sponsor is clouding your thinking???? quick office is a life (and back) saver. given up lugging my 3lb "notebook".
    just waiting for skype to release an up to date version.
    btw. bought the n97 unlocked in US for AUD700. beat that!

    I bought the N97 three weeks ago and have had nothing but trouble. Sure it looks so cool and the things it can do also cool but in the end it's a piece of unreliable junk. For 3 weeks the screen has been freezing on me every now and then until the other day just froze and no matter how many times I turned the phone off and back on over a few hours, it just would not work. Ended up taking it back and it will be replaced. I regret it.

    well I agree with everything in the review but I have found alot more problems over time. The Ovi store is possibly the biggest heap of junk ever made since it constantly crashes at the simplest instruction and displays "The Operation could not be completed due to an error." and most of the content on there is rubbish anyway or far too expensive. Also there is no warning for Unsupported games (Peggle). The phone crashes frequently from general use. The slider that is ment to protect the camera lens scratches it more than anything. I also don't understand why Nokia chose to remove the other charger inputs why couldn;t they leave them there like on the N82? I get no reception at home any more even with a nextG Telstra sim which gets me 3 to 4 3G bars in my other handsets. There is also still no support for Mac users who want to connect their phone to a computer. All in all I am incredibly disappointed.

    My Nokia N97 will not pick up a signal at my home. only 20kms from Melbourne CBD

    OH NOKIA WHAT WERE YOU THINKING

    You have let us down badly, How would you feel Nokia people if I turned your power off 4 times a day or made everyone in your office FREEZE STILL just like the kids game stuck in the mud! How would you like it Nokia people if I made you wait for over an hour at a time just to say .... it's broke ... again! And NOKIA your N97 should go on a diet ... it is overly fat and needs slimming. And I think my phone may have a severe cold or flu as it is incredible slow to think ... and I mean real slow. And Nokia why is it if we phone your company you tell us you do not give out the names of people who are responsible for various positions or list emails so you can seek help from someone who may care? NOKIA you may have lost the plot with this phone ... bud sadly I think you have lost your soul ... you used to be the best!

    I had big hopes for this phone and after a lot of research bought it to be sadly disappointed. It constantly freezes, You have to remove the battery to reset it most times, It is completely unreliable and always seems to stop when you need it the most. The saddest part is Nokia service and despite lots of promises the Nokia service people can not fix this phone and Nokia struggle to keep finding excuses. The worst thing is you usually have to wait over an hour at their service centre and I have invested over 5 hours in their waiting room where they have a movie to placate the usually 8 plus people waiting and it takes around 10 minutes to serve each customer. 5 customer service desks but often only one and if you are lucky two people serving. The rest are out back and you can see then chatting and having fun. Sadly Nokia needs to lift its game with product and service if this N97 is any indication.

    I got my n97 2 weeks ago, and after telling all the iphone users at work how good it is, i am now beginning to feel really disapointed with it. I WANT to like this phone, but its hard to when you have to reset it so often. It constantly freezes even when doing the simple things like texting. Im not looking forward to being stuck with it for the next 22 months!
    I was doubtful with nokia after all these years their phones seem to get slowly worse with every model, but I thought this was the one to save them.
    I dont think i'll ever buy a nokia again!

    I have had my N97 replaced by Nokia, the n97 send me bananas. It is better but not the best, going back to future-N95

    I have a N97 and have to say it is the worst phone from Nokia, constant problems. Very frustrating. I am on my 3rd new phone from my phone provider. The Iphone is the way I should have gone. Nokia needs to address this DUD on the market Shame on you Nokia!!!!!.

    i was a nokia user for 15 years. i believe i was robbed by nokia when i bought the under developed yet overly expensive and rushed-to-release n97 handset. it was such a shocking deconstruction of 15 years' worth of loyalty and nokia "user experience" over the few months that i tolerated the n97's inadequate cpu and ram, old symbian interface and other flaws. nokia did not appear to learn from the mistake - no firmware updatess enhanced the user experience i was having. i, on the other hand DID learn not to give money to a company which reveals it's lack of respect for me as a paying consumer with shonkily produced goods. i now have neither respect for, nor loyalty to nokia. i am writing this post on my beautiful HTC Touch Pro 2 running Cookie Home Tab. the hardware keyboard alone is worth turning your back on nokia's n97. HTC appear to understand how to design a smartphone and execute the user experience successfully, with forethought - how could such intelligent design be compared with the blaringly obvious nokia incompetence? it just can't. the n97 was my wake up call to nokia's arrogant self-isolation and their complete disorientation in the wake of the iphone explosion.

    the nokia n97 is the worst phone ever made. A major downhill step for Nokia. The MOST user UNfriendly possible.

    My boyfriend bought this phone a couple of months ago and it is utter sh!t. Constantly needs the battery out to reset, the touch screen is just why bother, and while I managed to get it talking to the Mac, it wasn't easy and that's five hours of my life I won't get back. We are taking it back tomorrow to see if we can get something else.

    I don't know why you compare the N97 with a piece of crap like the iphone. The only similarity is the touch screen and that's where it ends. I just bought an N97 and found it great except for all the garbage on the screen, I want a simple pic of my daughters, and a couple of small icon shortcuts, that's it. Facebook is a total waste of space for me, I don't use it and never will. Facebook and similar social networking sites were created for computers not mobile phones, give us a break and dump them, please. The 5MP camera could have been a bit better, but going from the N95 8GB to the N97, there is not much difference in the photos taken. Videos are both on the dark side. But most of all, it does what a mobile phone should do, it actually makes and receives phone calls, what a surprise. It seems a lot of people now are expecting their mobile phone to be a laptop computer with phone capabilities.

    I resisted following all the sheep getting iphones but have got to wonder why. The N97 has been great for texting, occasional photo's and movies but that's about where the good news ends. It is slow to react to the simplest commands, forget about using the GPS, the alarm clock does not appear to follow the simplest of logic. Nokia has made a big mistake with this phone, they should be sueing whoever did the user acceptance testing on it. The past good experiences with Nokia have been all but erased. Shame Nokia, Shame.

    Only 9 months of my contract to go, see the video on my facebook page of the hammer going through the touch screen, sorry Nokia a piece of crap.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now