The N97 is Nokia’s second high-profile mobile phone launch this year after the E75. And the latest in what some are calling the “summer of superphones”: the iPhone 3GS, the critically acclaimed Palm Pre and the N97 were all unveiled within days of each other. Which also means that the N97 faces the huge challenge of matching up to the competition. To make sure that the handset has a fighting chance of being noticed, Nokia has packed it to its classy steel-and-plastic gills with touch screen, memory and hardware. And then, for full measure, thrown in a QWERTY keyboard revealed by a beautiful slide and tilt mechanism.
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But does it answer that most fundamental question, namely: “Assuming I had many thousands of rupees to spare, would I buy this over the iPhone? Or a motorcycle? Or a fourth-hand Maruti 800?”
The good stuff
There is no questioning the N97’s gorgeousness. This is a show-stopper of a phone—albeit without entirely abandoning contemporary Nokia styling. So the rounded corners will not surprise you; nor will the menu button askew in a corner or the headphone socket in the middle of the top face. The N97 incorporates these familiar design nuances into a great-looking package. Yes, it is shiny in places, but no, it won’t raise brows if you pull it out during a business meeting. In short, like most other superphones, the N97 is quite strategically gender neutral in design.
The nerve centre of the N97’s user interface is the widget-enabled home screen. Through clever use of on-screen real estate, the N97 lets you keep track of a whole bunch of information without having to click your way into a single menu. So with the right widgets enabled, you can get Facebook updates, scrolling news headlines, RSS feeds, stock price movements and Gmail inbox status just from the home screen (a somewhat useful analogy would be desktop services such as iGoogle or Netvibes). Other short cuts let you launch the media player, the browser and maps with the lightest tap.
But if you have some serious typing to do, you probably want to slide the screen up, and reveal the QWERTY keyboard beneath.
The N97, however, functions best as a simple media phone. The sound quality is superb—you can make perfectly audible calls standing bang in the middle of Karol Bagh market with traffic swarming around you. Also, the phone plays radio, music and even podcasts with great quality. And there is a very capable 5 megapixel camera too.
But the two features we liked best were the on-board FM transmitter that lets you broadcast your music to a car stereo or home theatre without wires, and the generous 32 GB on-board memory.
Spend a few moments summoning applications or browsing through Web pages, and you’ll realize how astoundingly unintuitive the phone is. The root cause is the S60 operating system that does no justice to the touch interface. The interface does not have multi-touch, which means you can’t zoom into or out of pictures and Web pages. For anyone used to this feature on an iPhone, it is an immediate deal breaker.
And making the touch experience even less satisfying is the frequently long gap between tapping on an icon and getting a response. Which means you end up repeating taps and making mistakes.
The QWERTY keyboard is also very fidgety to use with the space bar pushed to one side.
All these user-interface issues add up to making the N97 a much less fun phone to use than its hardware and aesthetics lead you to expect.
While the official price has not been announced, the N97, which comes in white and black models, should cost you anywhere between Rs32,000-36,000. You can pre-book your handset at http://www.nokialms.com/N97Preorder.Or quietly wait till August and see if Apple will relaunch the old iPhone at a lower price.
• Nokia N97
Operating system: Symbian OS v9.4
Developer platform: S60 5th edition
Display: 640x360 pixels, 16:9 aspect ratio
Interface: Resistive touch screen, stylus and slide out QWERTY keyboard
Multimedia: Video and audio playback with FM transmitter, bluetooth stereo for wireless headsets and audio streaming
Camera: 5 megapixel, 4x digital zoom, Carl Zeiss optics, auto focus, auto exposure. Second camera in front for video calling
Memory capacity: Mammoth 32GB on-board, micro SD slot expandable to 16GB