Six months ago, when Nokia was heavily promoting the original N97 smartphone, I had a brief chat with one of the company’s top designers. We talked about Nokia design in general and the N97 in particular. At the time the N97 was being touted as Nokia’s flagship smartphone: a power-packed device filled to bursting with everything a phone should have and more. Nokia didn’t say it out loud, but the idea was to somehow make a dent in the exploding smartphone market. Yes, they desperately wanted the N97 to be an “iPhone killer” and a “Palm Pre killer”, and an “Android killer” and a... you know what I mean.
Successor: The N97 Mini.
Somewhat underwhelmed with the handset, I asked the designer what was next after the N97. He dismissed the question casually and said that the N97, for now, was the Holy Grail. “We’re constantly thinking of improvements. But we are very pleased with the N97...”
Unfortunately for Nokia, while the N97 was a good product, it didn’t go cult. People just didn’t brave rain or shine and line up outside stores to buy one (the Rs35,000-ish price point didn’t help).
At the time I signed off on a Nokia N97 review saying that buyers should still wait and see if the iPhone 3GS would launch in India.
(I am so sorry if you did. One tends to take Steve Jobs’ word at face value. Never again.)
And now we have with us the N97 Mini. A pared down version of the original that is slimmer, lighter, trimmed down on features but with several improvements. I don’t care what the official spin on the product is, the Mini is a clear second iteration on the original. The idea, I guess, is to clean up the shortcomings of the first device while sticking to the ideas that worked.
So you still have the same Qwerty keyboard that slides out, with largely the same form-factor, albeit subject to some liposuction. Tragically, the phone no longer has the two things we loved about the first edition: the 32GB memory and the FM transmitter.
But it makes up for all this with an interface that is smoother and more responsive. The first N97 made you squirm with mysterious delays. That, coupled with the S60 operating system, made it all quite unintuitive.
This time at least the speed is better. The scrolling is smoother and even if you still get lost in the labyrinthine navigation, you can retreat hastily.
The Mini is still an excellent multimedia phone. After hooking it up to the home Wi-Fi, it streamed audio and video beautifully. Thanks to the snappier interface, this time I genuinely felt like trying out the pre-loaded applications and downloading a few more. And not just because I had to review the thing.
And as for call quality, battery life and display, I repeat what I said six months ago: It’s all good.
The slimming down has made the N97 easier to hold and use. It is less of a brick and looks even better than it used to. Thanks to a BlackBerry that crashed mysteriously, I have put the N97 through a week’s worth of rigour. And it passed with bright, if not flying, colours.
But will I buy it? Will I swap my BlackBerry for the Mini?
Not yet. It is a good phone. But still not a great one. Not just yet. Let’s give Nokia one more chance. What about an N97 Nano?