Review: One week with the Nokia N97, it is staying put

Just over a week ago I posted my first impressions of the white Nokia N97. I spent all of last week with my AT&T SIM living in my N97 before picking up a 32GB iPhone 3G S this weekend (I’ll offer thoughts on how these two stack up later) and wanted to post about my experiences as I look to make a decision on whether or not this phone is worth the premium price of $600+.

I am quite pleased with my Nokia E71x and personally find the Eseries (E71, E75, and E71x) to be the most efficient and effective devices for me. I didn’t really like the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic device at first, but after a week or so I learned to really like the device for the most part and think it is quite good for media consumption with Amazon Video on Demand and more. I was really looking forward to trying out the Nokia N97, but after spending about 15 minutes with it at CTIA I didn’t think it was that outstanding and was going to skip the device. After seeing a sale in early May for the N97 at the Nokia USA site I decided to preorder the device and see if it shipped at the discounted price. When the device started shipping just over a week ago, I was pleased that I kept my preorder because I really did want to try it out and write about it here on Nokia Experts.


The Nokia N97 is the flagship Nseries device and thus should be targeted to the power user who wants to capture photos and video, share this media with others, browse the web, interact with social networks, create and edit documents on the go, and much more. There are Nseries devices that excel in media capture, such as the Nokia N86 8 megapixel phone and Nokia N82. Then there are Eseries devices that excel in productivity, such as the E71 and E75. The N97 sort of melds those two together, but really doesn’t go far enough with Eseries integration and seems to have a bit of an identity crisis.

What is good about the Nokia N97?

I am generally a positive guy so let me start off this blog post with the things I like about the N97.

The hardware design and construction of the Nokia N97 is some of the best ever seen on a smartphone. The hinge is slick and yet rock solid, the display is crisp and bright, the camera is well protected and the back cover design lets you have the N97 resting on a table to watch movies. I am quite good at text entry on the N97 and IMHO, the hardware keyboard presence is better than not having one present.

The display is resistive, but Nokia did a great job with it and I am not missing a stylus at all. Displays like this (and like the one found on the HTC Touch Pro2) may even be better than a full capacitive display because it gives you the ability to access text fields in a browser and scroll and edit within those fields. I also found the display to surprisngly perform quite well in direct sunlight.

I like when Nokia uses a high capacity battery and it is even better when they use a fairly standard model, in this case the BP-4L, since I have one in my E71 and N810 so there are plenty of spares around.

The 32GB integrated memory is awesome and with a 16GB card there is plenty of room to have fun with the N97.

My Nokia 5800 XM stereo speakers are lame and require me to hold that device up to my ear to hear podcasts in the car. The Nokia N97 speakers work quite well and I would rank them second behind my Nokia N95.

Movies look excellent on the N97 and it was quite simple to get my Amazon Video On Demand movies onto the N97’s ample flash drive. Music also sounds pretty good through the front stereo speakers. Qik works very well and the nHD streaming videos are a nice feature of the device.

The S60 browser works very well on the N97 with the automatic full screen capability and dynamic flick scrolling support. Most every site that I wanted to visit, including my custom ZDNet blog editor, worked well and was accessible. The zoom scroll bar is a bit clunky, but I am satisfied with the browser.

I like the widget home screen most of the time and have it setup to my liking. I do wish there were even more widget options and hope carriers embrace this capability soon.

There are really no limits to what you can do with the N97, including tethering, MMS, video streaming, photo editing, Bluetooth keyboard usage, and more. The N97 definitely has some great features and the UI is really not that different than the iPhone (app shortcuts laid out in icon format), but the N97 doesn’t seem to have the same snappy performance and response that the iPhone does.

Why I don’t like my N97

Some key Eseries software is missing, such as the full Quickoffice suite, Nokia Messaging/Email client, Mail For Exchange, and home screen notifications. The camera is quite good, but not as good as the N82 (check out the All About Symbian camera comparison). It should be able to play games well too, but N-Gage is only loaded on selected N97 devices and will not even install on the NAM version.

The out-of-the box experience with email is incredibly inept on the N97 and if you walk through the setup wizard you will end up with your email working in the old (DOS look and feel) messaging client. To use the new Nokia Email client the N97 owner needs to visit the website and have the text message link sent to their phone for proper installation and provisioning. The E75 sets the bar for email on a S60 device and the N97 fails here. For $700, this is not what you would expect from a smartphone in 2009.

There is a rather small amount of available flash ROM on the device (something like 37MB) for storage, while there is a huge flash drive with about 29GB available. I try to load most apps on the large drive, but some work better in the ROM area and parts and pieces end up there over time. I am down to about 8MB of flash ROM available now after one week. The N97 also has a rather small amount of RAM (the place where running apps are managed) and I have had the N97 give me low memory warnings a couple of times over the past week, while I never see this on my E71x or E71. The N97 also manages running programs similarly to how Windows Mobile manages them and shuts down the memory hogs in the background as other apps are launched. You will find apps that you were running have been shut down by the OS without confirming with you that you wanted to do this. I don’t mind this too much since I have experienced this on Windows Mobile for years and am used to this way of memory management.

As I mentioned before, the Ovi Store is lame and needs a lot of work before I’ll be back in there.

There is a bug in the lock switch where flipping it will take the N97 off standby, but leave the backlight off. I then have to toggle it to get the backlight back on.

The media player is old and outdated on the N97. Adding content requires you to update your library, usually manually, and the entire player is in need of an overhaul.

Will it stay or will it go

OK, now that I have spent over a week with the N97 and have used it pretty extensively I think I can make an intelligent decision on whether or not to keep it in my collection. The Nokia N97 was announced last Fall at Nokia World and we expected a lot from the device. It is a nice piece of hardware, but smartphone owners today need more than a solid piece of hardware to enjoy their device. I think Philip Berne put together a very fair review and was spot on when he stated, “The Nokia N97 wouldn’t be such a disappointing device if it weren’t supposed to be the flagship multimedia smartphone for the largest handset manufacturer in the world.”

That said, I really do like my N97 and plan to keep it and write much more about it and its performance here on Nokia Experts.


35 Comments to Review: One week with the Nokia N97, it is staying put

June 24, 2009

very nice review. i think i will skip this device but all around looks like a solid performer with a few key drawbacks

June 24, 2009

ohh. well done mate, nice review. i was thinking of buying the N97. but now i decided to buy the iPhone 3G S

June 24, 2009

Nice review. Funny, I got my N97 at the NYC store and I have MfE. Yes, I do miss Conversations.

I don’t have any backlight issues, but I do find it an annoyance that the screen goes into portrait mode when the key board is closed.

On the camera, I do have a problem with the AAS review- since like many of these reviews they don’t tell you the settings that they use to take the picture (default, a pre-set, custom). As a manufacturer Nokia has to pick a default mode for the camera to start in, I have found that just switching presets give huge differences in the picture quality in less then optimal setting. Having access to the ISO settings in the N97 make a huge difference and you can take great pictures in low light. I would suggest that its time someone does a review that does not pander to idiot mode-point and click, but educates users to what you can really do with a few settings.

Additionally, I’m sick of the whole flagship notion. Flagship does not mean – Every feature that we have ever implemented in one phone. The Maybach may be the flagship in the Mercedes Benz family, but it is not the fastest Black Series roadster.

Thanks for your two cents and giving the highest marks that a reviewer can give – paying for it out of your pocket and deciding to keep it.

Mike Macias
June 24, 2009

Glad to hear it’s staying put! Can I ask you… how did you get Amazon Video to work? It recognizes my phone but when I try to transfer I got a device error.

June 24, 2009

@Matt Miller

I’d rather deal with the clunky default email program since it let’s me keep my mail on the 32GB drive. It can also view html mail if you click the attachment. Those are two things Nokia Messaging can’t do yet on the N97.

Also, in the web browser, in the settings, find the clear cache option. It should free up a little space.

I love that the camera settings are there, but the UI is utterly atrocious. At first when you hit options, you get a nice touch optimized layout. As soon as you hit scene mode, its back to a d-pad optimized interface.

June 24, 2009

NokiaUSA pushed me over to the dark side. Long story short, they hit my credit card with multiple pre-approvals causing the vendor to be flagged. I suddenly saw new cards in the mail.

I called the 866 number several times holding for 20min+ each time and then last Fri I spoke live – was assured a call back. Nothing next day. Monday 2hrs, 40min on hold!! (I have tons of rollover mins). Same promise, no call back.

I crossed over and got the 3G s. The Apple store guy treated me like royalty when I told him this was my 1st ever Apple purchase – ever!

Matthew Miller
June 24, 2009

Al, I understand about email. Actually, the Java Gmail client isn’t bad either and may be a decent alternative to try out.

Mike, I’ll have to connect again tonight and post the steps to get Amazon working. If I remember though I think the key is to choose the Media option when you connect your cable.

eyeks, I too bought a new iPhone 3GS and it sure is a fun and zippy device to use. I use it mainly for reviews on ZDNet, but still can’t get over some of the limitations such as folder structure arrangement, multitasking, MMS, and customizable home screen.

June 25, 2009

I had been using an e71 and absolutely loved it, then when word of the n97 came out i decided that that was going to be my next phone, but i kinda anticipated it not being released in the Us for a while, so in the meantime i picked up a 5800xm. after using it for a while i decided that touchscreens really werent for me, and with the mixed reviews coming out on the n97, i think i will either go back to my e71, or wait to see when the e72 comes out.

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June 26, 2009

You mention getting a bluetooth keyboard to work. How have you accomplished this? Just got my n97 and the app doesn’t appear to exist. Any assistance would be appreciated, please.

June 26, 2009

It’s a shame about the on-board memory for running apps, what were Nokia thinking, but at least it’s 100% better than on the Iphone where you can’t run anything concurrently. This is a big plus for the N97 and others, but doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves.

Nokia had a similar issue with the N95-1, but made huge improvements over time with updates, I just wished someone had nudged them before releasing the N97 and reminded them to do it properly i.e. install more RAM

Still, I’m not yet decided between the N97 or the I8910 HD, which I hear does have more RAM, but isn’t as good in other areas.

[…] Review: One week with the Nokia N97, it is staying put […]

June 26, 2009

I grew tired of UI latency, short battery life and poor RF reception on my iPhone 3G and decided to pick up the n97 for what it is: a great phone that has a mobile computer in it. The iPhone is, to paraphrase, a great mobile computer with an acceptable phone in it.
I’m also an amateur photographer and wanted a good “always in my pocket” camera. It’s not meant to replace my Leica M8, but I carry my phone everywhere and a good camera changes the number of opportunities I have to practice my hobby. Good out of the box video is a strong plus.
Good battery life a must have.
Ability to track my 7 IMAP and one Exchange email accounts key.
A good, responsive and intuit keyboard (with practice) also key.
Ability to customize look, feel, themes, sounds, etc a great value added function.
If I can track Twitter and Facebook live, simulataneously, plus all the above===>Nirvana.
I’m keeping the n97 and hoping the July 1st FW release cleans up some of the UI issues, occasional memeroy leak problems and the RAM allocation problems.
This phone is fun to use.
But Nokia needs to make it easier to use.

No Mac sync software at launch? Stupid
No other real useful widgets in the Ovi store? Stupid
No native HTML email out of the box? Stupid

These things can be fixed. They should get to it quickly

btw, great review.

June 27, 2009

@eyeks I feel your pain. As a matter fact, I called Nokia at least 3-4 times and was on-hold for 42 minutes. I gave up. Emailed support and someone replied. I’m about to write BBB and make a complain.

We own 3 Nokia phones and each phone is $600+. We should be treated better.

The latest N97 we bought had scratches on the surface and the user guide looked old (had scratches on the cover). I know sh*t happens but when I asked for an exchange, they want me to buy another phone first then they could do an exchange. Unacceptable!

I do like the phone and what not. Just Nokia service is the worst I’ve seen. I guess they know they’re still king of the hill with the phone market but things like this will turn consumers to other company.

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[…] posted my thoughts on having the Nokia N97 for a week last Wednesday and pointed out a couple of areas where Nokia needs to work on the device. The […]

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June 30, 2009

Hi Matt,

ROM. ROM is Read-Only-Memory which has the BIOS of the system. It cannot be written by the user.

The flash memory you refer to in the article for N97 -> 37 MB is the system flash memory (or the primary flash memory, or let’s say, the memory disk C:). It should not be confused with the ROM memory.

Thank you.

[…] over on Phone Scoop while ZOMG its Cj posted their first impressions. As I explained earlier in my first week with the N97, I have most all of the same thoughts as the ZOMG its Cj […]

Jaanvi Chowdhry
July 6, 2009

I just saw N97 in a showroom. It doesnt have edit quickoffice. U can only view cant edit. It needs license. Some Nokia person told me u can download from Nokia site but have to pay for it. After paying so much money (Rs. 35000+4000 for quickoffice) on the phone, y pay more for a software. Rather i buy HTC Diamond. All in one in cheaper price(Rs. 30000).

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