Nokia N97 Review: Nokia Is Doomed

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.

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 640×360 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 640×480 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.

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.

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.