Thursday, July 16

Nokia N97 Review

My Current Phone.

The last time I posted about the Nokia N97, I said that the Finnish Flagship for 2009 would be my next phone. Well, lo and behold... here I am with a final, retail version in my hands. I've had the phone for the past couple of weeks, and so, how has it been?

Classy Looks, Studry Build
First off, the N97 looks premium. I've got the black version, which is a nice, classy black bar of simple, elegant design. Very much like the iPhone, the N97 has only one actual button on its face, the 'Home' button whose basic function is to send you back to the main screen (exiting any apps you may be using). Aside from, there are a couple of indicators next to it, for answering or ending calls. Other than the unobtrusive sensors on the top part of the phone, it's all a smooth, shiny bar of futuristic flash. Really nice, really pretty. Comparing the N97 to the iPhone though, the Nokia handset is narrower but taller, and quite a bit thicker (and probably weights a bit more).The back of the phone has the 5-Megapixel camera lens and flash, which is nicely protected by a cover that doubles as the Camera On/Off switch. Overall, the N97 is made of hard plastic, not metal, but has a nice sturdy, high-quality feel that wasn't apparent in previous models (the N96 in particular).

The N97's thickness has a reason- press inward at one side and you'll open up the phone's big feature- a full QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard opens up with a nice clicky motion, like a brand-new bus door. It's super-tight like one of those secret artifacts from some Indiana Jones movie, and so putting out the keyboard is always a cool sight to see or show off with. The keys themselves are almost flat, but are easily discernible thanks to their matte finish and a lovely backlight which switches on in low light... Star Trek console anyone? Anyway, despite some quirks (the spacebar is small and placed to the right), once you use the board for a bit, you'll be typing like a pro in no time. It may be a bit overkill to bring out the QWERTY for a little texting, but for typing out long emails, chats, notes, that little novella you've always wanted to write... it's pretty nifty. The board pretty much makes the N97 pretty much a miniature laptop, but this time it's got the power that previous earlier handsets or palmtop devices have lacked.
That all said, it's nice to note that the N97 isn't too bulky- it's still a nice snug fit into any holster at your side and isn't too obtrusive or heavy by any means.

Back to Basics
Okay, how is it as a phone? Well, as a typical Nokia, the N97 is typically excellent. For short texts you don't have to bring out the QWERTY- there's your usual alphanumeric keypad which, even though it's a touchscreen, is pretty responsive and easy to use. The touchscreen may not be as responsive or as versatile as the iPhone's, but it's pretty good- though a weird little lipsticky stylus is included in the package, unless you have exceptionally hammy fingers it's really not necessary. However the screen IS prone to asking for double taps or repeated inputs for some items- and in particular the hardware Screen Unlock/Lock key often needs to be pulled a couple of times before you can access your phone.

That said, the N97 is so far an excellent phone- calls are clear and stable, ringtones are loud and clear, and there usability is on par with your usual Nokia friendliness.

Media and Storage
But of course I do look for particular facets in my devices, and media playing- in particular video- is vital, particularly since the N97 is a replacement for the iPhone and a rival to my current iPod Touch. Thankfully, the Nokia is formidable in such functions. Video-wise, the native Realplayer uses regular MP4 files and plays them at a silky-smooth 30FPS. The N97's screen has a 640 x 360 resolution- bigger than the iPhone plus it's in widescreen by default. This makes the Nokia far better at showing off long movies or new media, though if you're playing SD resolution vids (320 x 240 or even 640 x 480) they'll actually be smaller sized. Yeah, you can change aspect ratios but stretching SD video to the widescreen will result in weird distortion.
Another complaint is the native Realplayer's way of filing videos- or really, it's non-ability to file videos. Basically you just pile in your videos in one big, hefty list. There's no way to organize them into playlists, genres, sections or such. This is a pretty big oversight in the light that the N97 has 32 Gigabytes of space- well enough for tons of videos. If you have many, many such files, going through them is a bit of a chore. Hopefully someday or soon, Nokia will fix this up, so us video freaks won't have to resort to 3rd Party apps to fix up our media.

That all said, watching video on the N97 is made so much better than on the iPhone or iPod by two things- the N97 speakers are waaaay better, louded and clearer than Apple's weaker sounds, even giving a bit of surround-sound for a really nice palmtop theater experience. Also, once you open up the keyboard you can set down the N97 and have it in perfect position for watching movies and such.

Music isn't that important for me, but in this regard the N97 is functional and as good as previous handsets- allowing you to do what you can't with video- organize playlists, group songs under albums, artists, etc. Quality is the usual cool, and you can use any regular earphones with the phone. The handset also has FM radio capability, though you will need to connect the bundled earphones to access this function.

As mentioned earlier, the 32 Gigs of space available on the N97 pretty much kicks off most other models in the race, with only the iPhone 3GS matching it- but then the N97 can also pack in as much as 16 Gigs more memory with a memory card (for a grand total of 48 Gigs of storage!), so in terms of space Nokia's handset takes the lead in terms of storage.

Connecting People
Just as the Nokia tagline goes, the N97 makes connecting a cinch. As long as your settings are in place, getting online from anywhere via GPRS or 3G (or even 3.5G) is a snap. WiFi is also a breeze for finding and using all those free hotspots. The only problem is that it's a little bit TOO EASY to connect; unless you're careful you may find yourself connected even if you don't want to, or without your knowledge. The best way I guess is to set your Globe plan (if you're on Globe) to Time, so you pay by the minutes and not by the Kilobyte. Still, I'd make it a matter of course to always check your Connectivity Manager regularly or right after a bout of Mobile Surfing to avoid unnecessary spending.

Another problem though is, well, content. If you're used to Apple's AppStore, Nokia's equivalent OVI Store is sadly not as well-stocked with apps, nor is it as easy to navigate (or spend on). So far I've been able to download about two or three pretty basic touchscreen 'games', and one ringtone. Not much otherwise in terms of cool apps, and connecting on the PC was kinda problematic. I really hope they fix this up soon to make surfing onto OVI both fun and easy.

Not for Work or Play?
Gaming so far has been... well... DEAD. Apparently the N97 does not support NGage yet, so all you have is Guitar Rockband and some basic 'games' from OVI. Otherwise... pretty much nothing in terms of gaming. Once the phone gets NGage this will be remedied, I guess, but for now... blah. I'm glad I still have my iPod Touch for my pocket arcade needs.

On the other side of the spectrum oddly enough- the N97's bundled QuickOffice doesn't work. At least, the equivalent of Microsoft Word won't let me create a document. It always tells me that I need to purchase a license before I can use the phone, but then doesn't let me get one. It's maddening and pretty much keeps me from using the N97 as a word processor (unless I use the Notes app), which is really supposed to be one of it's big functions. What the HECK? I hope a visit to Nokia Service fixes this up, because it's really crappy in this regard.

So basically this makes the N97 pretty much shot in the leg for WORK and PLAY. Odd right? Well, it's good that other functions- media playing and storage, connectivity and mobile online- are excellent otherwise.

Lights, Camera, Action!
The N97 comes with a 5-Megapixel snapper, which is slightly better than the one in the previous N96. At the very least it comes with a nice flash, autofocus and some options for stuff like white balance and that jazz. Still not as great as stuff from more camera-centric models, but still pretty good. As for video recording, you can capture VGA vids at 30fps in either the standard resolution (640 x 480) or in widescreen, which is cool. The quality of video recorded is lot more stable than in the disappointing N96, which is great. And with 32 Gigs of storage, you can probably shoot that experimental movie or short film you've always wanted to make with just this phone! Too bad it doesn't come with on-board editing like the iPhone 3GS, but then you get better video quality overall.

Odds and Ends
Okay so other bits. I really love the ability to customize, and the N97 gives quite a lot of nice options to make the phone your own. The homescreen can be filled up with widgets and apps or you can opt to keep it clear to show off your slick wallpapers. You can organize stuff and shortcuts and fix up your desktop to make access to your most used items easy as swiping the screen (instead of having to manually touch the Home Button to take you to the Desktop and Apps).

So far battery life has been nice, if a bit erratic. With some use, the phone can last on standby for about two to three days before the battery meter suddenly drops from the full 7 bars to 4. Playing videos, surfing on WiFi or GPRS/3G will make it run out a LOT faster though. Thankfully you can charge via the micro-USB cable as you sync or load files into your phone.

In the past couple of weeks I've gone on ups and downs with the N97. I love the form factor and the premium build quality. I love the keyboard (when I need to use it) and the screen (even with the quirky touchscreen functionality). I love watching widescreen video, even if filing media is unwieldy. The camera is cool and video recording is the best yet in a Nokia. There are quite a few quirks and maddening flaws, like the lack of games and lack of access to QuickOffice apps- which hopefully will be remedied by updates or a visit to the service center. But otherwise... man, finally I have upgraded to a handset from the iPhone which doesn't make me feel I made a mistake. For an all-on-one device, the Nokia N97 is as good as you can get right now. The phone's already in stores all around the Metro, so if you're a bit of a techie and looking for that premium do-everything handset, then give this cutting-edge Nokia a look-see.