John's Nokia N97 review

John Walton
Cell Phone Editor
Published: August 13, 2009

Overview


What's good: cool slider form-factor, widgets, 3.5G, 5MP cam with dual LED flash, 3.5" 640 x 360 pixel display, N-gage gaming.

What's bad: maddeningly glitchy software was not improved by a recent update; operating system has not been properly reworked for touch screens; bad reception and poor call quality; unpredictable behavior; nag screens galore; seems to break easily (battery cover especially); battery drains too quickly, charges slowly, and the phone won't operate below a high level of juice. I could go on.

Introduction


The N97 is Nokia's current flagship device, which is a shame. Tank may be more appropriate a label for this one's role. Long-time, hard-core Symbian fans might manage a smooth transition, but I think that everyone else - save a select few - will be completely alienated and turned off by this phone. Those select few are folks with almost no cell phone experience. I say this because I think anyone with the slightest indication of what has transpired in the mobile world over the last five years will find it hard to look beyond the shortcomings of the N97 - they are plentiful.

Design & Features


The hardware looks pretty decent. It's subtle, sleek, and modern. but the light weight and plastic surface make the N97 feel cheap in the hand. And one the the N97 most certainly is not, is cheap. $699, even without a contract, is a ridiculous price for such a device. The resistive touch screen combined with the aforementioned characteristics put this phone at a value about 65% lower than the current going rate, in my estimation. (Even with the clearance tag, I wouldn't spend my money on it.)

If you can make your way past the clunky, flickering software, you'll find that the N97 has a decent cam, 3.5G speeds, and some pretty cool widget implementation. They won't tackle iPhone or Android widgets but they are hovering around the quality of Samsung's TouchWiz counterparts.

The sliding screen is probably the N97's greatest strength. It moves smoothly and feels solid. Pushing it up at an angle reveals a grid-style QWERTY with a D-pad and a space bar way off to the right side. It is cool to have that screen propped up at an angle for easy viewing while typing. (cont.)



Usability & Performance


When I first got this demo unit, the phone would not power on. I charged it for four hours, and it would still not power on. I was convinced I had a broken device, but the screen lit up when I plugged it in. I charged it for another six hours. The phone powered on, blinked, reset itself, rebooted a few times, and then died. I charged it for another 12 hours and the phone powered up and stayed on. This is where the trouble started.

Before I go on and forget the lesser annoyances, I'd like to point out that during a week of use there were four or five occasions where the battery ran below a certain threshold and the phone could not be used without charging it for another eight hours. When this happened, some data was lost while some was preserved. I can't be more specific than that because results were not consistent.

After getting past the hurdle of turning the phone on, I was happy to find some cool widgets available for the N97n home screen - the coolest of which probably being Facebook. There was even a widget for the Thai social networking site, Hi5. Cool. Tap on a widget and you're given an extended view. That's pretty handy, until you get a call. The software was so slow to respond that it would not answer a call while I was using widgets. O.K., no problem. Kill the widgets.

With all of the widgets removed from my home screen, and after a fresh reboot, I waited outside my wife's work for word from her that she was coming down, that I need to wait another five, whatever. The phone rang. It continued to ring as I tried to answer it. When I was finally able to join the call, my wife was already hanging up. Five rings it took to answer the phone - because the software was just that slow and buggy. Out of a dozen or so calls I received on the N97, I was able to answer two. When I initiated calls, reception was horrible. Every call ended with me saying, "let me call you back from a better phone."

I'd like to review the music player, web browser, gaming platform, etc. But the truth is that this phone is unusable for me. I tried all of these features, with varying levels of success. But in every case the operating system bogged me down and interrupted the experience. And that's what it comes down to with the N97: the OS is so cumbersome and apparent that no application is capable of truly shining - not the dialer, not a game, not the web browser. If a phone can't be used as a phone, I'm not sure any other features matter all that much.

Conclusion


I wish I could have found more positive things to say about this device. I'm sure fans will not be happy with this review, but the simple truth is that the Nokia N97 is the most unusable phone I have ever held to date. I was notified on my second run with the phone (I gave up on it the first time around) that a major software update was available. After hassling with the Windows-only updater and more low battery issues, I finally accomplished the update. I saw no practical improvement.

So, I give this unlocked GSM two thumbs down. If it sold unlocked for $250 - $300, I might be more optimistic.

See the N97's specs here

Products mentioned