Nokia's most anticipated mobile phone since the N95, the Nokia N97 smartphone combines a touch screen with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. This mobile phone boasts impressive hardware — including a 5-megapixel camera with flash, GPS, Wi-Fi and an FM transmitter — but the N97's customisable home screen widgets and touch-screen user interface are also key features.
The Nokia N97's much heralded flip-up screen design isn't new. We've seen similar tilt displays on HTC smartphones, including the now superseded TyTN II. The tilting screen is well implemented and the angle of the display makes it ideal for multimedia playback. Importantly, the N97's screen is one of the most responsive resistive touch screens we've reviewed, though we would have preferred a capacitive touch screen (the same technology Apple uses on the iPhone 3GS, which means you don't need a stylus). Thankfully, almost all of the N97's functions and features can be activated purely by using your fingers, though Nokia does include a stylus in the sales package.
Tilting the Nokia N97's screen reveals the physical QWERTY keyboard, perhaps the most important hardware feature of this smartphone. The keyboard is well spaced and the soft white and blue backlighting on individual keys is impressive. We found ourselves typing at reasonable speeds after just a few hours of use. It's not perfect: the buttons could be raised a little more to provide extra tactility, and the top row of keys is a little too close to the bottom edge of the display. The spacebar key is placed oddly — it's towards the bottom right of the keyboard, instead of its usual place in the middle. We quickly got used to this placement though and were more annoyed about the position of the five-way navigational pad (to the left of the keyboard). This pad would be better positioned on the right side, especially for right-handed users. The N97 also has a touch-screen keyboard, so you can input text with the slider closed.
The N97's feels solid but the plastic casing doesn't feel as sturdy as it should, especially considering the handset's price. That's not to say the N97 is poorly built — it's definitely not. It just doesn't feel or look as strong as the iPhone, for example. As well as the QWERTY keyboard and the afore-mentioned five-way navigational pad, the Nokia N97 has a menu key and two backlit touch buttons to answer and end calls. Holding down the menu button brings up the application manager, which allows you to close any currently running programs. Other keys include a slider screen lock button on the left, dedicated camera and volume controls on the right and a power key on the top.
One of the most impressive features of the N97 is the customisable home screen. It has five customisable boxes where you can add a number of widgets, including two Nokia shortcut bars and live Internet widgets that update over the air — these include Facebook, e-mail, news and weather. Further live widgets will be developed and you will be able to download them using the preloaded Nokia Ovi Store application. We found the Facebook, weather and e-mail widgets to be the most useful. Having the information update automatically is a nifty feature, provided of course you have an appropriate data plan. We would like to be able to adjust the size of the widget boxes, especially considering an empty space remains if you don't fill one of the five boxes.
A quirk we found with the first Nokia touch-screen phone — the 5800 XpressMusic — rears its head again on the N97: the inconsistency of accessing functions with the Symbian S60T operating system. For example, accessing shortcuts on the home screen requires just one press but to select other functions sometimes you will have to double tap. On a positive note, the interface looks impressive, the icons are well laid out and scrolling is fairly smooth. The built-in accelerometer rotates the screen orientation in most applications and does so without too much delay. Unlike the iPhone, the N97 has adjustable haptic feedback, with three intensity settings available. On the highest setting the vibration sounds like a rattle, but it is still effective.