In terms of the hardware design, the Nokia N97 is a superb, polished phone. The thick tablet clicks open with a firm snap to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard. Open, the screen lies at an angle to the keys, similar to the HTC Touch Pro 2. Overall, the phone has a solid construction, with one of the snappiest slides we've ever used, and a nice fit and finish that makes the N97 recognizable as the top of the Nseries lineup. The face has only 3 keys: Send, End and Menu keys, though we think it could use one or two more, perhaps a "Back" key up front. Otherwise, we like the clean, classy looks that doesn't shy away from standardized ports or external controls like other touchscreen phones, and doesn't aim for a look too minimalist for our taste.
The Nokia N97 improves very little on the interface from the company's first major tablet phone, the Nokia 5800. Compared to far superior models like, well, everything else with a touchscreen (the Apple iPhone 3G, Palm Pre and HTC Touch Diamond 2 are obvious examples), the interface on the Nokia N97 seems amateurish and basic, as if Nokia did as little as possible to add touch to the Symbian S60 OS. There are no transition animations between screens and apps. Most apps use onscreen buttons and menus when simple gesture commands would have been more convenient and intuitive. It simply does not look impressive, and while we may have been forgiving on the less-expensive, music focused Nokia 5800, considering the Nokia N97 costs more than twice as much, we were hoping for more.
To Nokia's credit, the touch interface is often more useful than aesthetic. The home screen is a simple collection of Widget panels, and though these never looked great, they did offer plenty of useful features. A Facebook widget will report incoming messages and partial status updates from friends. So too will the e-mail widget. There is a widget to control music, a widget for the weather, and so on. Nothing groundbreaking, but Nokia lets you customize the widgets and their arrangement, and the phone offers an enticing Download link from the Widget screen that we hope means more will be offered soon, as developer support grows.
Keeping with their solid tradition, the Nokia N97 has some strong calling features and good call quality. We tested the phone on AT&T's 3G network in the greater Dallas area, and we were very impressed with the sound quality during calls. Our callers reported a clear, bright sound to our voices, and we heard our end of the conversation easily. The phone continually reported a full 7 bars of AT&T service during our tests. Battery life was also especially impressive, considering the competition. With its huge, 1500 mAh battery, our Nokia N97 review unit was able to top 6 hours of talking time even while we used AT&T's battery-hogging HSDPA network. Nokia phones also do a nice job handling power while they're not in use. Even left aside for a while, the N97 did a fine job holding its charge on standby.
For contacts and addresses, you can use the included Nokia Ovi Suite for contact sync, but we prefer to use Nokia's free Mail for Exchange software. Though it lacks some of the robustness we appreciate on a Windows Mobile phone, MfE synchronized our test unit with our corporate contact lists. We wish the Nokia N97 would jump right into a contact search when we started typing a name at the home screen, but contacts were still easy to manage once we were synced with the server.
The Nokia N97, like most Nokia phones weve tried, just can't get voice dialing right. In 10 attempts, the N97 guessed the correct name only once, and another time offered the correct name as the third choice in a list. Otherwise, the speaker independent voice dialing was a complete bust. Conference calling was easy thanks to the large, onscreen buttons on the dialing screen. Still, even with a few helpful buttons, the phone offers very little control of information during calls. While other touchscreen phones offer slick, adaptive menus during calls, the Nokia N97 sticks to the bare basics, with some ugly monochrome buttons to boot.
Messaging and Keyboard
As the top of the line phone in Nokia's Nseries arsenal, and the first with a full QWERTY keyboard, it is surprising that Nokia doesn't ship the Nokia N97 with more messaging options onboard.
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