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nokia n97 review

 

introduction

What the Nokia N97 Mini will never be an iPhone killer and it was never designed to be such. Or, I sure hope it wasn’t, because it really isn’t. What the N97 Mini really consists of is an example of what Nokia should be studying to figure out just WHY their touchscreen have so much initial pizzazz but then fail to ever catch on. Afterall, here we have a host of in-demand features: touchscreen, a good 5mp camera, 3.5mm jack, keyboard, application store… this device would seem to be a marketer’s dream device.

And yet for some reason the N97 Mini hasn’t quite caught on like it might seem like it should. This is not a problem which exists only here in the States, either, as across the ocean in Germany a few weeks ago I saw no N97 (mini or otherwise) being used by consumers, whereas I saw two N86 devices out in the wild. What can explain this?

The short answer is that Nokia needs to focus less on what a device can do, and more on how it does it. They have mastered the art of cramming high-quality features into a seemingly any form factor, and must now focus on their user interface. I for one see no reason for them to abandon S60 3rd Edition just yet, especially seeing how much S60 5th Edition relies upon it. In fact, that there is Nokia’s problem. When Apple was being questioned by the world why the new iPad featured the iPhone’s operating system, the answer they gave was both absurdly simple and genius all in one stroke. The operating system on computers was designed around the mouse- simply adapting the user interface to work with new input hardware is a feasible option but not the most efficient, which is why they stuck with the operating system they essentially wrote fresh from the ground up.

Nokia needs to throw 5th Edition out the door and work from scratch if they want to create appealing and usable touchscreen devices. Otherwise, they should stick to what they do best: non-touchscreen. Just take a look at Blackberry for a reason of how well this strategy can work; numerous “blackberry-killers” have been released (many by Nokia itself), and yet Blackberry continues on strongly. It is the reason why, even though I have a hunch Nokia will attempt to cram elements of 5th Edition into future non-touchscreen devices, I think I may be sticking with the current generation of S60 3rd devices because of their better usability.

Back to the N97 Mini now, it’s time to dig into the review.

design



If anyone on Nokia’s design team believes that the N97 Mini is a unique and original device, then they deserve to be fired and replaced immediately. The many design aspects on the N97 Mini almost scream copy-cat before their even scrutinized: the very rounded metallic bezel (iPhone), black display frame (iPhone/iPod Touch), tilting slide display (HTC Tilt), rubberized chiclet keyboard (Sidekick)… it’s enough to shame Nokia from the face of the earth. At least they had the common decency to modify most of the copies (bronze bezel, extended resistive display makes part of the display frame usable, no option to NOT tilt, null-space around keys is hard-plastic).

The few areas where Nokia showed a shred of their own design capabilities is with the menu key (it has tiny holes to allow light to pass through, allowing the button to seemingly glow at night) and back of the device, which has a frustratingly difficult battery cover. This cover must be pried off with one’s fingernail with the assistance of a small crevice molded into the phone’s frame. Taking off the cover is easy, however that is not my complaint. Putting the cover back on requires some luck otherwise all of the securing hooks might not attach correctly. Thankfully this is usually remedied by bluntly pushing the battery cover down, although I can’t say how good this is for long-term durability. Once inside we find a frustratingly difficult MicroSD slot (it’s too hard to align the card to consider this hot-swappable), and a weirdly cheap SIM card holder.



On the original N97, the camera was protected by a neat sliding cover which would automatically activate the camera application. This cover was molded defectively, though, and is responsible for countless scratched lenses on N97 devices all over the place. Nokia seems to have learned from their mistake, as they decided to completely omit a cover on the N97 Mini. I can only hope they put glass over the surface of the lens assembly in an attempt to prevent scratching, otherwise this was a bad move on Nokia’s part.

In general, the device feels good to hold in hand, and is weighted well. The soft-touch plastic grips well and feels high-quality, and all of the buttons are easy to reach and use. The power button is in its proper place along the top side of the phone, next to a centered 3.5mm jack. The micro-USB port is found on the left side (wrong spot) along with the lock slider switch. On either opposing edge of the  left side are to be found the two stereo speakers (which are surprisingly good). The right side of the device is home to the shutter and volume rocker.

The phone opens with a significant amount of force- enough to cause one to nearly drop the device, especially considering the rather unusual weighting of the components. In all, I disliked the slide, and would much rather have had a non-tilting slide much more similar to the E75. The “pop” with which the N97 Mini opened was just far too forceful for me to ever dare attempting with one hand lest it decide that a quick drop to the floor might be just the trip it wishes to undertake.

One the phone is open, however, the user is confronted with what appears to be a rather nice keyboard. If only this was so- the keys are sufficiently usable, however I feel that the shift and alt keys should be flipped around. Also, many of the alternative key commands are located in absurdly illogical locations. This is undoubtedly something any user can get used to after a short amount of time, but for me I found most of the shortcuts to be frustratingly unintuitive. Further compounding the problems is a ridiculously small space key which is located on the far right side- why? What for? The E75 has the same amount of keyboard space and yet, somehow, managed a much more logical layout. The answer lies in Nokia’s inclusion of directional keys on the keyboard, necessitating a rearrangement of certain other keys. Unfortunately for Nokia, these directional keys are basically a necessity for backup use as so much S60 3rd Edition is to be found in the 5th Edition, which is what the N97 Mini runs.

As a whole, the design is fairly tasteful and appealing, apart from the front. A rather cheap-shiny plastic seems to have been used for the touchscreen as opposed to the glass found it competitor’s capacitive-touch devices (Nokia does have ONE capacitive device… but it’s an XpressMusic device). This plastic has little warps in it and doesn’t reflect light very evenly, giving it a cheap appearance unless turned face-down. Bad move, Nokia. For everything else, all the factors which might have made a great non-touchscreen phone: good job!

usability

Let me just say this first of all so you know my bias. I hate touchscreens. I have no problem using them when checking out at the grocery store or checking in at the airport. But all this finger-swiping multi-touch nonsense just really doesn’t do anything for me… Especially if the screen is especially glossy and exhibits a considerable amount of friction, which is to be found here. Furthermore, I’m not a big fan of slider devices. “But don’t you personally own an N86? And what happened to your E75?” Yes, I admit I own both. And that’s because I felt like making the compromise since the most recently released candybar with features I want is the Nokia N82, and most of it has become “outdated” (not true). Either that or I switch to Sony Ericsson or Android- neither of which have a user interaction scheme which I find appealing. The E75 I got because it was worth more than my E71 and was a straight-across trade, and the N86 is something I’ve been eyeing forever because of everything it has built-in.

However, what we get with the N97 Mini seems to, pretty much, be a combination of everything I dislike in a phone. A stupid touchscreen, a bad slider, and a terrible user interface. How bad? Let’s dig in.

First off, I’d like to remind readers that S60 5th Edition was originally released on the Nokia 5800. This was a candybar style handset, and served as a sort of testing grounds for their tweaked operating system. It shipped with a traditional stylus, a guitar-pick stylus, and of course had a few finger-sized buttons as well. However, very little has changed from the original user interface on this device as the S60 found on the N97 Mini- I constantly found myself looking for a stylus. The web browser conveniently has a zoom feature always visible on-screen to make hitting tiny links easier. (This is nowhere near as seamless as an iPhone, though.) This last thing is something Nokia rather recently built in… they realized that people would rather use their fingers for quick phone access, and so they “eliminated” the need for a stylus, but made a lot of operations a require a few more finger presses as a result. (Annoying.)



Where S60 5th Edition falls on its face is in landscape use. Keep in mind the original S60 5th Edition was being used on a portrait-oriented device originally, so naturally all of the menus and native applications are designed to utilize the screen space. However, when the phone is open (which automatically puts the phone in landscape mode), suddenly large menu buttons appear on the right hand side and the usable screen size has shrunk to the equivalent of a S60 3rd Edition landscape-screened device (ie E71). This is a waste, and can be seen in elements all over the system, from the Messaging application to even the root application menu.

Thankfully, things for the N97 Mini start to look up from here on out. The camera, while not as good as the N95 or N82 or N85 or N86 or… is still pretty darned good. Definitely ahead of the N96, E66, E71, and E75 off of the top of my head. The dual-LED flash is usable, but quite glaring even though it has such a limited range. Nokia can probably tweak the exposure a bit if they feel like it. Otherwise, the camera takes accurate colors, and would even allow most users to practice some photography skills if they should find it appealing to them.

While the N97 Mini lacks a built-in internet radio application (unusual since almost every other Nokia now has that), the built-in speakers are actually quite good! They manage to surpass those found in my new N86 with a better reproduction of mid-range sounds and many bass notes are audible as well. (They are merely hinted at with the N86.) The direction of the speakers also points them at the user when the phone is in the open position- originally I thought this to be a bizarre location but the thinking behind it has become more apparent to me with time. The built-in Music Player, meanwhile, looks especially awful on S60 5th Edition. I’d rather have my N86 any day.

Battery life was sufficient, with about two days of seemingly constant usage before the battery got down to two bars. (At which point I turned the phone off and switched back to my N86 as I couldn’t stand the N97 Mini anymore.)

conclusion

So, what do I say about the N97 Mini? Well, considering my biases, it depends on what you want. If someone is the type of consumer who doesn’t notice the tiny details (cheap looking display), requires a keyboard, doesn’t feel that phones need to be laid out intuitively, and demands great features, then sure, I’d recommend the N97 Mini. For me, I’d never buy one. In fact, it’s a great thing WOMWorld Nokia sent me this, because I was considering purchasing one to use for next year while studying abroad. Now I know I’d be better off with a second N86 (subsidized, that’s why I’d even get one at all). Or perhaps that super-rugged Nokia… the one that can be submerged in beer and still make a phone call. Yes, that sounds like fun.

Oh, you really want to know what I think about the N97 Mini? Don’t buy it. Trust me, get something like the N86, N85, or at least something without a touchscreen. If you’re really set on a touchscreen, get it from someone who’s doing things right like Apple or even one of Sony Ericsson’s new phones. Just please, don’t support Nokia’s lazy attempts at touchscreen phones. There’s no way anybody will benefit.

On a star rating… I’d give the N97 Mini a 4/10, and that’s being generous. It has all the features there, but it all comes down to how it does it that really matters this time.

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