Way back in December, Nokia announced its new flagship smartphone would roll into town ready to take on the iPhone for touchscreen dominance. It's nearly the end of June and the N97 has finally made its appearance. Yes, it took a while. But then, things move slowly when your device is steam-powered and your competitors--Apple, HTC, BlackBerry--are burning jet fuel.
In the Box
The N97's failings begin before the device is out of the box. When you look at the accessories you'll find two things that gracefully fell out of fashion back when people still cared about the war in Afghanistan. The first thing: A stylus, oddly rectangular, complete with a cover that makes it look like a miniature USB thumbdrive. The second: A pair of earbud headphones approximately 18 inches long, with one side longer than the other; you need to connect it to a second cord, tipped by a massive thumb-sized remote in order for it to be appropriate length. If you're having trouble picturing a headphone setup like this, it's because it went out of style with Minidisc players -- and for very good reason. It's uncomfortable. (The remote, pictured below).
Dig deeper in the box: An install DVD for Nokia Ovi, the company's new all-purpose smartphone suite. Windows only. Okay, fine; I'll use iSync with my Mac. Oh wait: Nokia doesn't release iSync drivers for its phones until months after they hit the market, and there's no discernible way to force-feed VCF files to the device in hard disk mode. And I thought that we were past the days of punishing Mac owners for being in the minority. To Windows I go.
Once powered up, the device is slickly crafted and finishing quality is high, despite the excessive thickness of the thing compared even to older BlackBerrys. The long 16:9 screen is brighter and more pixel dense than the iPhone, but its format also makes it smack of cheaper touchscreen phones like the LG Dare. Sadly, the Dare comparison only becomes more apt the more you use the N97. For one, its new touch interface operates by a resistive touchscreen, not a capacitive touchscreen like the T-Mobile G1 or iPhone. What's that mean? A flimsy plastic screen; terrible accuracy; irregular responses; and, worst of all, the light buzzing of a haptic feedback mechanism--something that vibrates the phone when you click an on-screen button. (Below, the N97 and its cheapo doppelganger, the Dare.)
The phone turns on with a song and flourish befitting of the late 90s, not a slick or understated startup like its competitors, and the ungainly 15-minute setup process harkens back to candybar Nokias of yore. The 150g body is a little on the heavy side, but that's forgivable thanks to the absolutely massive Flash hard drive space inside this thing: 32GB, with space for another 16GB using a microSD card. There are other great specs, too: The 5MP camera with auto focus sports a pretty powerful little flash, and the shutter button on the side of the phone makes picture-taking an intuitive process. Better yet, the N97 has a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top for its headphones--something HTC is just getting around to doing on its devices. The three-channel HSDPA radio inside the N97 is standard 3G fare with 3.6 mbps speeds, and the Wi-Fi radio supports UPnP technology for streaming media from nearby networks. Oh, and there's a digital compass, too, plus a copy of PocketOffice for you document-editing-on-the-subway types.
Physically, the N97 oozes substance, but it's not necessarily that easy to operate. The screen-unlock button is a flimsy-feeling physical switch on the side of the phone; Nokia should have opted for a more elegant touch-based system. Once the screen is unlocked, the phone gravitates to portrait mode, but quickly pops into landscape when you push open the keyboard. The mechanism that allows the keyboard to open is ingenious, but the keyboard itself isn't. The spacebar is on the right-hand side, as is the Fn key, meaning that you're only as fast a typist as your right thumb. There's a vestigial d-pad next to the keyboard, which is silly on a touchscreen phone; I never saw fit to use it. And since the keys are perilously close to the edge of the phone's jaw, you're bound to hit keys every time you open the phone.
It is marveling at the N97's impressive hardware spec that I wonder: How can a phone with such modern guts feel like an anachronism? Nokia was admittedly late to the touchscreen phone game, but unlike other competitors--say, Palm--it didn't throw all its muscle into making it S60 Symbian OS a real contender. Instead, it left it feeling functional. At best.
Take the "dashboard" that a user encounters when he first unlocks the phone. Nokia is especially proud of this thing; that's why it appears in all the press photos. It supports eight little widgets, each of which you can switch and move around. I'm a proponent of this kind of "dashboard" view; widgets are the best way to quickly customize a device for your workflow. But to say that the N97's dashboard can be customized is perhaps too generous. There are very few choices for widgets; while there is a Facebook box, I couldn't find one for Twitter or Tumblr. You can add quick-launch icons for your most-used apps and contacts, but for some reason the non-Nokia apps I downloaded (like the Opera browser) don't have icons that are correctly sized for the widget, so they look pixelated. There's a weather widget, and a clock, and a calendar. Yawn. Isn't this a smartphone?
The true misadventures of the N97 begin when you try to navigate its application store, in a desperate attempt to fill the void of functionality that it suffers out of the box. The Ovi store works well enough; it feels a lot like the Blackberry App store, which is good company, and downloads are fast and quickly-integrated into the phone. But there are shockingly few apps, and the ones that do exist are often way too expensive. I'm used to paying a buck or two; that's fine. But $9? No thanks.
I'd be remiss to suggest that there aren't tricks the N97 does well--for example, it contains an FM transmitter that can beam your music to the nearest FM radio, and its handwriting recognition works well even when you're only using a fingernail. But I didn't have time to grow to love this device; it stopped working after a mere 12 hours of use, just after I got it set up and dialed in with all my email, apps, music and bookmarks.
Normally, ill-designed phones are outside the purview of this site; we cover what's innovative and ground-breaking. But the N97 is important for a different reason. It's the flagship phone of the largest mobile phone maker on earth, and it doesn't pass the test. This is, in some ways, a beautiful thing. It puts Nokia in a Palm-like position in the smartphone market: Innovate or die. While HTC, Apple, and Blackberry were leaping ahead, Palm pooled its energy and poached good execs, producing an excellent competing product. Now the onus is on Nokia to do the same, and prove the viability of the Symbian OS in a field of more nimble players. Look for next year's N97 to be in a class by itself.