The Nokia N97 has finally arrived in stores, six months after it was first announced and right from that day the anticipation for Nokia’s Nseries flagship was at an all time high. The period from December to June saw Nokia release killer videos and campaigns to keep the interest alive and alive it remained, we were given glimpses of what to expect and with each glimpse the excitement levels further shot up.
This was a phone which Nokia was able to market well, perhaps even near the levels of what Apple can achieve, the buzz, the hype, the expectation was all there, the only things Nokia needed to do was deliver. It is now finally time to take a call on whether they were able to do just that, starting with the design, build quality, touch screen, keyboard and other hardware aspects of this device in Part I of the TSB review.
Nokia made the N97 into a full touch plus keyboard device, such that if required you could use the N97 as a touch only device without ever sliding out the keyboard and also just use the keyboard and never have to touch in order to navigate. This in my book was a huge plus right from the start. Another thing that works well for the N97 is that it is capable of complete single handed operation.
Apart from the QWERTY keyboard and the Navi Pad, the N97 only has a handful of other physical keys. The volume rocker on the right hand side along with the camera button, a dedicated lock/unlock switch on the left, a power button on the top and the menu key on the face. The call and end key are touch sensitive.
The N97 packs a 3.5″ resistive touchscreen that slides up at an angle to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard and therein lies the beauty of its design. The angle of the slide makes using the N97 in the ‘laptop mode’ an absolute joy, what it does is that it allows you to use your thumbs to not only keep typing but also be able to easily reach across and touch the screen should you need to select something.
The left hand side positioning of the Navi Pad has been criticised to a large extent and in my book it is complete unwarranted, infact its position is a major win for the design team. The reason I say that is because of the way S60 5th Edition is designed. Most of the control of an application takes place through the right hand menus and because of the angled slide, the right thumb is in a very easy position to reach the menu. Now had the Navi Pad also been on the right side, you would have to choose between using that or touch in order to navigate, however with it being on the left the other thumb comes into play and gives you an option of either using the Navi Pad or touch. I have found myself using both modes in combination with each other and the best part was that it took me barely a day to adjust to the design.
THE BUILD QUALITY
In recent times Nseries devices have taken flak over their build quality but the N97 changes that. The device actually feels rich and the materials of high quality. The metal border around the screen is also a nice touch despite it being somewhat of a fingerprint magnet. All three, the power button, the volume rocker and the camera offer great feedback and are perfectly placed, not too recessed nor too obtrusive.
The unlock/lock switch though conveniently located, is a very small chink in the N97’s armour. If you have the vibrate feedback turned off, you can hear the switch creak when slid across. The touch sensitive call/end keys are responsive and help maintain the ‘all touch’ feel of the device. Practically they are useful as because of them you need not put additional pressure on the hinge when using them in the ‘laptop mode’. The menu button, despite being a physical key, does not put pressure on the hinge on account of being in the corner.
Moving onto one of the most crucial aspects of the N97, the hinge. It is indeed very sturdy and seems robust, there is no play in the slide and the phone snaps into each position with such firmness that you feel as if it only belongs there and cannot slide.
At the N97 blogger meetup in New Delhi Axel Meyer, head of design Nokia Nseries, challenged anyone to make such a hinge and I have got to say that Nokia has every reason to be so confident. The slide experience on the N97 is so good that I find myself playing with it often and so far it is as firm as it was on day one.
Lastly, the camera cover is very pleasant to use and a really nice thing is that underneath it is small cloth which wipes the lens everytime you open and close it.
THE TOUCHSCREEN & THE KEYBOARD
The touchscreen of the N97 has come a long way since the 5800 Xpress Music and is a lot more responsive. Finger touch as well as input from the stylus is registered easily and this is perhaps as good as resistive touchscreens will ever be. The experience while typing with T9 using the alphanumeric keyboard is close to typing with physical keys and the screen doesn’t miss a letter even at high speeds, this again is a far cry from the 5800. The brightness on it is good and the screen remains fairly readable even in sunlight. A slight negative is that on a white background you can see thin lines across the screen, those lines probably make up the sensor framework.
In my initial impressions post about the N97, here is what I had to say about the keyboard:
The first time I wrote a sentence on it, it took ages. The next sentence was faster and so on. Its basically a question of the mind adapting to the layout. When I played with the N97 again today, I coped much better with the keyboard and infact found the spacebar to be nicely placed, in the same position where my thumb would usually rest since this is a thumboard and not a keyboard where you would be able to use fingers.
A few days down the line, I’m glad to say that I have adapted nicely to the N97’s keyboard and can type fairly quickly on it. If Nokia can fix some of the software issues around it (long press for numerals, predictive text) I am sure I will be able to get to the same speeds which I got on my E71. When you first start using the N97, the tactile feedback or rather the lack of it is somewhat of an issue, but with time and a little practice it ceases to be a concern. Also, in my usage I have found that if you leave the keypad tones on, they go a long way in supplementing the physical feedback with audio which makes for a much better experience.
The bottomline being that there is nothing to worry about the side placed spacebar and that the keyboard on the N97 is pretty good and will deliver once you have a bit of practise under your belt.
This is one of the first areas where the N97 disappointed me a little, not because the quality wasn’t good enough but because I expected more. On the loudspeaker front, I was hoping that the N97 would pack the same punch that the 5800 does, however that was not to be and the stereo speakers barely manage to attain the N95 levels.
As far as output from the 3.5mm jack goes, I was hoping that the quality will reach the N91 level but again that was not to be. That being said, the audio quality that the N97 offers is pretty good with there being no hiss or clicks while the music is playing. If I were to rate the playback I’d have to say it was better than the N85/N82/N79 and closer to the N96.
The N97 also comes with a RDS capable FM radio that is capable of seriously loud output, unfortunately we still don’t have an equalizer controls for the radio. Also, since the internet radio application has not been ported over to S60 5th Edition, it is missing from the N97.
THE BATTERY LIFE
The N97 is power by the 1500 mAh Nokia BP-4L battery, the same one that powers the E71 and the E90. According to Nokia the device has a GSM talk time of upto 9.5 hours, video playback time of upto 4.5 hours, video capture time of upto 3.6 hours and music playback time of upto 40 hours, all very impressive numbers. The 32GB of inbuilt memory makes sure that you will have a variety of media to watch/listen to or capture and all those hours will be put to good use.
In real world usage I have found the N97 to last a complete day with fairly heavy usage that incldes web browsing over both WIFI and EDGE, music playback, Nokia Messaging and Gravity running in the background along with a few calls and messages. If you go out with a full battery in the morning, you should still have some juice left when you get back in the evening despite constant N97 usage.
If you don’t consider yourself to be a power user, the N97 should last for two days without trouble. If you currently use a device which doesn’t pack the BP-4L then you are in for a major treat. The N97 can be charged via the microUSB port which is situated on the left hand side, right next to it is a small light which illuminates when the N97 is charging. Although the N97 can charge while it is connected to the computer via the microUSB cable, I get the feeling that this process is much slower than the conventional charging via the wall outlet. Thankfully Nokia has bundled in an adapter to convert the older Nokia chargers into the microUSB head along with the new microUSB wall charger.
The one thing that Nokia has really nailed with the N97 is its design, it is very well thought out. With a 5MP camera, AGPS with compass, WIFI, a 3.5″ touchscreen, 32GB of inbuilt memory, a FM transmitter amongst other things there is hardly anything you can complain about.
The hardware based criticism that the N97 has received is because of the 434 mhz processor and the 128 MB of RAM, out of which only about 45MB is free at bootup. The reason I did not cover this aspect in Part I of the review is because at the end of the day what effect these factors have will boil down to the v11 firmware that is coming out tomorrow. So hold on for Part II of this series which will look at the software aspect of the N97. If you have any particular areas you’d like me to look at, just drop a note below.
VERDICT: Based on hardware – Recommended BUY.
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