Nokia N97 First Impressions

Late Friday, I started using Nokia’s hot new smartphone, the highly-anticipated N97. My first impression is “WOW.” This is the cell phone—eh, smartphone—I always wanted.

In some ways this first take is an unexpected rebuttal to the Boy Genius Report’s N97 review. Many people who might otherwise have purchased the N97 won’t because of BGR’s somewhat negative reaction. I’m a huge BGR fan, but not of this review, which finds hardware faults where there aren’t any. Nokia Experts review is much closer to my experience using the N97 for two-and-a-half days. Like NE’s Matthew Miller, I will focus this first take on the hardware. Proper software and services review requires more time using the smartphone.

To start, somebody—looks like that’s me—must set right expectations about the N97. Every reviewer comparing this smartphone to iPhone 3G or 3Gs is wrong to do so. The iPhone is not the gold standard by which all other smartphones are measured. Too many reviewers dismiss other excellent smartphones, such as the Palm Pre, simply because they don’t have the same features as iPhone. Duh, of course they don’t have the same features. Competition is about differentiation. The N97, like the Pre, offers benefits that are different from iPhone. None of these smartphones necessarily appeals to the same buyers. Nor should they.

At best, the iPhone is a beautifully engineered device with elegant user interface and many, many flaws. Too often, these flaws are overlooked by reviewers, who instead emphasize perceived flaws of other smartphones compared to Apple’s handsets. Let me absolutely clear: Not everyone needs or should want to buy an iPhone. Other smartphones charm in their own way. If the manufacturers have done right, other handsets will offer something different, and hopefully better.

The N97 should have broad appeal, with benefits and features either not found on iPhone 3G/GS or offered weakly by the device(s). Some examples:

  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Stylus for writing characters
  • Richer, livelier audio call quality
  • 1500mAh 3.7v removable battery
  • Running background applications
  • Persistently connected applications
  • 5-megapixel camera (Carl Zeiss lens)
  • Dual-LED flash (for camera and video)
  • Unlocked phone (in the United States, anyway)

What Value for High Price?
I bought this phone. Nokia would have sent a loaner to test for a couple weeks, but I took the chance buying one first, paying dearly—$699, direct from Nokia USA. To finance the purchase, I sold my beloved Nokia N96 and the N79 abandoned by my daughter for the E71 (She’s holding it in pic below). I otherwise could not have justified the hefty expense.

I chose the black N97, even though I pined for white. Two reasons for black: White wasn’t available, and I worried about it not being masculine enough. Dumb, huh? Until Friday, Amazon listed both colors for $603, but unavailable. Price jumped to $699 yesterday, but down to $682.94 today. Amazon partner MobileCityOnline wants $799.95 for either N97.

Is the N97 worth so much when the comparable iPhone 3GS, the one with 32GB of RAM, will sell for $299? That lower iPhone pricing is subsidized by AT&T. In the United States, Nokia doesn’t have a carrier for the N97, which means no subsidy. But that’s not true in international markets, where major carriers will offer the smartphone for much less. Something else: The iPhone’s unsubsidized price is about the same as what the N97 sells for. Still, 700 bucks is big money for a cell phone.

Ovi Store
Nokia N97 comes preloaded with Nokia’s Ovi Store

But the N97 is more than a cell phone. It’s a pocket computer, GPS, high-quality digital and video camera, media player and much more. Does that sound like iPhone to you? It’s not. Please refer back to the benefits differences list above. Apple and Nokia have made decidedly different design decisions that offer different appeal.

For example, Apple chose to use a capacitive touchscreen that responds to electrical pulses, whereas Nokia chose a resistive touchscreen that responds more to pressure. Capacitive touchscreen is highly responsive and made it easier for Apple to offer multitouch capabilities. Apple’s more tactile approach makes the iPhone seemingly magical. By comparison, resistive touchscreen touchscreen isn’t as sensitive or sexy. But it’s much better suited to using a stylus, which shows more global thinking on Nokia’s part. In countries like China, a stylus will be more useful for inputting characters from the local language. Apple’s approach is great for marketing; Nokia is being more pragmatic.

I assume one reason many reviewers go bonkers over iPhone is it’s sexy, sleek and seemingly magical. Then there’s Apple’s App Store, which is hugely appealing. Apple’s smartphone is a sports car, and like a sports car there are sacrifices made for form over function. Apple’s sport is fast, but the gas tank (battery) isn’t as big, the engine has more horsepower (600MHz ARM processor) and the interior isn’t as roomy (no keyboard, lesser digicam, etc.).

I would compare the N97 to a Volvo. The smartphone looks and feels solid. Construction is of highest quality. The design isn’t sexy but sensible. Like a Volvo, the N97 oozes good engineering. Features aren’t just plentiful, they’re sensible. In my early testing, Nokia has found better balance of how the features work together than did Apple. For example, I have yet to find a feature that overtaxes the battery or performance.

Morripopp and E71
First pic using N97, of my daughter

By the way, to be clear: I am not being defensive in my pushing back against iPhone. Rather, I’m trying to combat iPhone reviewers bias that works against smartphones like the N97. As I explained earlier, one shouldn’t be compared to be absolutely better than the other. Some people drive sports cars, others Volvos. Others prefer cheaper cars (free cell phones).

Why My First Impressions Are WOW
Smartphone design is a series of compromises. Engineers must find the best balance so that extended features don’t compromise those of highest priority. A smartphone is still a phone first, and everything else second. There, the N97 delivers. The audio call quality is simply outstanding. It’s the best I’ve heard or had others hear from any handset—and that’s using a Nokia BH-804 bluetooth earpiece. Several friends described the sound as “lively” and “full.” One person said “rich.”

The next priority is battery life. The N97 uses Nokia’s BP-4L, a 1500mAH 3.7v monster Lithium Polyomer battery. My daughter gets three to four days charge using the same battery on the Nokia E71. So far, in two days heavy use, the battery performance has proved to be excellent. But I’ve yet to give the battery full workout, by way of persistently data connected widgets.

The N97’s battery life comes from compromise. Nokia chose a lesser microprocessor than the iPhone and Pre, which both use 600MHz ARM processors. The N97 uses a 434MHz ARM processor. Presumably, the older generation and slower processor will consume less power. Does the slower ARM perform? I can answer yes, based on early testing. Caveat: I’ve yet to tax the N97—and there is a secondary performance concern. For reasons I can’t justify, the N97 packs 128MB of RAM; iPhone 3GS 256MB.

Geek gadgets already are going nuts over N97’s 3.6Mbps HSDPA compared to 7.2Mbps for iPhone 3GS. Slower is more sensible for the US market. AT&T is only now rolling out 7.2Mbps service, which I expect to be a real battery-life sucker. For N97, the slower speed is fast enough for now, while better balancing battery performance. As I stated a few paragraphs back, smartphone design is very much about compromise.

The N97 is bigger than I expected, but it’s surprisingly light for the size: 117.2 × 55.3 × 15.9 mm. I normally order Nokia cases from PDair in Hong Kong, but the N97 cases aren’t yet available. So I had to shop around from something make-do. I found a usable case at Best Buy for 20 bucks on sale: The Eddie Bauer Smartphone Wireless Case, or EBUDY44. The N97 is a snug but comfortable fit. The case really inspires me, because no major US carriers carry Nokia N-Series phones. Yet American-based Eddie Bauer offers a smartphone case that, according to the product box, fits Nokia models N73, N82, N95 and 6300.

The N97 screen is bright and crisp. I don’t understand why Boy Genius Report claimed otherwise. Perhaps, BGR got a bum unit? I was somewhat skeptical of the resistive touchscreen, which I found to require too much pressure on the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic. But the N97 screen is surprisingly responsive, but I’ll quibble with the touchscreen in a future post; it’s a UI design issue rather than hardware problem.

The QWERTY keyboard has great touch and feel, much better than I expected. The AT&T 8525 (aka HTC TyTN) uses the similar QWERTY keyboard and tilt-screen approach, and I didn’t like the implementation. But, somehow, Nokia got the keyboard, tilt-out hinge and angle of screen just about right. I got to typing right away, with few mistakes.

Snail Crawls
Can your digicam do what this smartphone can?

I’ll end this long preview with the 5-megapixel camera. I’m convinced that the snail pics above could sell the Nokia N97 to almost any gadget geek or photographer. Close-up (e.g., macro) mood delivers, and then some. I did expect better camera start-up time. The Nokia N85 starts up almost immediately after opening the lens cap. Not the N97. But the camera is fast enough once started. I’m hugely satisfied by the photo results, but I’ll stop there. The camera deserves a fuller review.

But, as afterthought, I’ll add one more thing—as a taste of what’s coming in a fuller review. The N97 comes preloaded with several widgets on the home screen. Facebook is among them. I easily logged into Facebook and uploaded the pic of my daughter (above)—my first with the N97. I’ve used the iPhone Facebook app, but am initially more impressed by the one shipping with the Nokia smartphone.

While long, this post is but a preview. My early Nokia N97 reaction is “WOW.” But I do have some concerns about some functions and user interface design. I need to test more to determine what might be user error before reaching final conclusions. But I can say this: I’m keeping the N97, and I would likely recommend it. I say likely only because my testing is far from finished. It’s going to fun.

Do you have a Nokia or smartphone story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.