Recently, Engadget editors Thomas Ricker and Chris Ziegler received Nokia N97s just days apart from one another. Already established pen pals, the two immediately began to correspond across the Atlantic via carrier pigeon, discussing their very different experiences using Nokia's most powerful smartphone to date. This is a recounting of those letters.

Thomas,

I hope this letter finds you well. I understand that you've received an N97 from Nokia Nederlands recently and was wondering what you thought of it? As luck would have it, I've happened across a unit myself -- the US was the first country to get them, interestingly, which is really big deal for a company accustomed to delivering its best hardware early and often to Europe. I've been flogging it for a few days now, just enough time to form some opinions.

Nokia N97 NAM unboxing

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Nokia N97 review

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As you might recall, I thought very little of the 5800 XpressMusic, Nokia's first S60 5th Edition device. I've always considered S60 a benchmark for the way non-touch, keypad-equipped smartphones should look, feel, and operate, and I felt that the experience didn't translate well to a full touchscreen at all. Basically, it seemed as though Nokia had done as little work as possible to shoehorn touch support into the platform, and all they'd actually managed to do was deliver a mediocre product and sully the good name of a legendary, time-tested operating system that has served tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people over the years. S60 has been too good for too long to deserve a fate as an also-ran in the iPhone-vs.-everyone battle, and Nokia had no one to blame but itself for trying to put itself in that arena with the wrong phone.

That said, I had high hopes for the N97 when it was announced. I think everyone did, and realistically, it's the device Nokia should've used to introduce the world to S60 5th Edition. It's a showcase phone -- a "hero device," as they say -- whereas the 5800 was marketed from day one as a mass-market play with limited sex appeal. The N97 simultaneously attacks several really important, lucrative market segments: the full touch crowd, the QWERTY people, the amateur photographers, and the unlocked, unbranded enthusiasts, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's the most important smartphone Nokia has ever made (for the record, I would argue that the most important phone Nokia's ever made is probably still the lowly 1100, but I digress).

Anyways, back to the N97: I knew I was dealing with a special phone the moment I saw the box. The understated matte black packaging is a marked departure from the bright white and orange schemes of recent Nokias -- an homage to HTC or Apple, possibly -- and while it's a little larger and more lavish than the company's recent eco-friendly push would allow, I'm cutting them some slack with this one. After all, it's not like we're going to be throwing this awesome stuff away and clogging a landfill, right?

The first thing that caught my eye upon opening the box wasn't actually the phone, but the curious little tethered stick stowed next to it. "Is that some sort of useless, souvenir novelty pen? A charm, maybe?" I asked myself. Thomas, friend, imagine my surprise when I realized it was a stylus! I thought these were going the way of the dodo and pink Lacoste polos, but I should've known better -- the 5800 comes supplied with an equally (if not more) odd pointing tool in the form of a translucent guitar pick, and like the 5800, the N97 uses a resistive display that can detect a stylus tip.

Of course, just because it can detect a stylus doesn't mean Nokia should expect you to use one, especially now that capacitive displays, finger-friendly UIs, and one-handed operation (even among non-touch smartphones) are becoming the norm. I found that the 5800's 3.2-inch display made certain S60 visual elements too small to reliably and accurately press without the aid of the plectrum or an equivalent tool, and the thick plastic lip around the edge certainly wasn't helping matters. Happily, the N97 is better in every respect here: it may have been my imagination, but it felt like bumping the screen to 3.5 inches makes a world of difference in usability, and the lip -- while still present -- is much less prominent. The screen also seemed slightly more sensitive, requiring fewer uncomfortably hard presses and uses of the fingernail to get my point across. Don't get me wrong, I'd still prefer capacitive -- but barring that, I think this is about as good of an experience as you can get running S60 5th Edition on a resistive display.

But I'm getting ahead of myself -- it's the hardware I really want to talk about first. Somewhere around the launch of the N81 -- the last time Nokia made a major shift in design direction -- build quality seemed to improve immensely. Don't get me wrong, the N95 is a legendary phone in many ways, but no one will accuse it of being built like a tank, if you know what I mean; it wasn't out of the ordinary for the slide to be creaking the moment you pulled it out of the sealed box and turned it on for the first time. I've found that the N97 is as solid a phone as Nokia has ever built, especially considering the somewhat complex tilt-slide mechanism that reveals the keyboard and moves the screen up at a 30-degree grade -- perfect for watching video or using the music player with the phone sitting on your desk, and probably more practical than the kickstand employed by phones like the N86 and N96.

Needless to say, the attention to detail on this phone's construction was not lost on me. The keyboard -- a major concern for everyone prior to launch with the left-aligned directional pad and right-aligned spacebar -- turns out to be a joy to use in practice, with plenty of tactile response, and I found that it really took me no time at all to get fast on it. In fact, it's as good of a landscape QWERTY keyboard as I've ever used on a phone. Some will complain that the numeric keys would be better served in a traditional keypad pattern instead of being lined across the top row, but once you get past that, you're good to go.

Along the left side, as you've probably noticed, you find speakers at both corners -- it doesn't seem like optimal placement when you're holding the phone in a portrait orientation, but then again, you're less likely to care about stereo output when you're holding it that way. The speakers are actually designed to shine when you've got the phone sitting on a table with the screen tilted, so that the sound's being projected straight at you and the stereo separation is as good as it could possibly be considering the phone's dimensions. Though plenty loud, I thought they were a little tinny; sure, you can't expect any speakers this small to deliver world-class sound, but a number of recent multimedia-centric phones have delivered a surprisingly passable boombox-style experience, and you're really not going to get that here.

You've also got a standard micro USB port for charging and PC connectivity on the left edge of the N97 along with a spring-loaded slide for unlocking the phone. Sure, it doesn't have the gee-whiz factor of Android's pattern unlock or the ubiquity of the iPhone's on-screen slide, but it's every bit as effective and easy to use. One thing that I was surprised not to find anywhere on the phone was Nokia's nearly universal 2mm charging jack -- it seems these guys finally giving in and relying completely on micro USB for power going forward. I don't know about you, Thomas, but I've got a pile about yea high of wall chargers and USB-to-2mm adapters that are going to need a good home now!

The top of the phone gets the standard Nokia power button that you can use to change profiles (though on the N97, this functionality isn't as necessary as it was on Nokias of yore since you can also change profiles from a widget conveniently placed on the home screen). The 3.5mm headphone jack is dead center, which is where I personally like it to be -- I'll never forgive Nokia for putting the N95's jack on the side, which made it much more difficult to drop the phone in a pocket and listen to music. Moving around to the right, even the volume rocker and two-position camera shutter release have a particularly high-quality look and feel.

Around back, I was delighted to see that there's a legitimate lens cover to protect those precious Carl Zeiss optics. Sure, it's manually operated, but the slide mechanism feels smooth and robust, it's easy to operate, and more importantly, the software can detect when you've opened it, so the camera app launches automatically. A xenon flash would've been nice, but at least Nokia threw in a pair of LEDs to help light the scene. Though it lacks the rubbery feel of a soft touch plastic, the matte battery cover still manages to look and feel like it's made out of quality material, and the curved ridge at the bottom perfectly matches the camera's bulge so that the phone lies flat on a table. Physically, everything just comes together on this phone.

I haven't gotten into software, but I think I've said my piece for the moment -- this is shaping up to be a great phone. Do you agree?

Warm regards,
Chris



Christopher,

A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man: his right to an elegant smartphone. Having left the combination of HTC and Windows Mobile 6.x for the relative greenfields of Apple's iPhone, I find myself using said device and a dozen or so "Apps" in ways that the Good Creator intended: consuming digital content, gaming, maintaining my social network, responding to SMS and email communiqué, and of course making the occasional call; all accomplished with nothing more than a few exquisite swipes and playful gestures applied to the iPhone's capacitive glass touchscreen. I shall miss such a display on the N97 but my hopes are bolstered by the enhanced sensitivity you've seen. But hear me this, my good man -- I shall never again be lured in by such deception as highly-speced HTC hardware dressed up with sleek industrial design and a TouchFlo UI disguise. In the end, when things get serious, it's just me, WinMo, and that ridiculous stylus after the party-dress falls off. Reminds me of that cousin of yours that I "dated" Chris, what's her name again? What I mean to say is this: I demand good hardware and good software in my smartphone and will settle for nothing less.

Although I've never used a S60 device as a primary phone, I can only say that I have high hopes for this N97 now charging comfortably upon my bureau. Having left the US for a taste of Europe's vastly superior handsets and GSM coverage back in 1997, I fondly remember my first Nokia, a 6110 Ultra, a device that made US cellphones appear infantile by comparison. The iridescent finish was beautiful and the UI intuitive even for first time cellphone mobile (pronounced mo-Biyl) phone owners. So as I look at this N97, this flagship device, this "hero" as you say, I too admit to being taken aback by its industrial design. From the proud listing of its glorious specs across the hinge to the satisfying snap of the display sliding to a tilt above the QWERTY keyboard -- grace, pure grace. But it's the action of closing the device where the brilliant precision is felt and most definitely heard -- a sharp clap that mimics the sound of strength brought together in a single beat of passionate applause. I do declare that Nokia has crafted a superior industrial device. A tactile opposite to the cold simplistic design that infects the me-too hoard of touchscreen slates flooding the market.

Your review of the 5800 XpressMusic aside, I remain optimistic about S60 5th, perhaps dangerously so. I refuse to believe that Nokia, the world's leading handset maker is unable to respond to the iPhone -- two years after its introduction -- with a device that not only matches it in terms of usability but easily surpasses it given Nokia's rich history as an innovator in the mobile space. Besides, with Nokia's marketshare dwindling and smartphones now eclipsing ultra-portable laptops and even netbooks as the must-have mobile computing device, well, Nokia's in no position to rest on its laurels is it? Particularly now that Palm is back and getting ready to launch WebOS devices onto the global stage and particularly Europe, Nokia's own backyard. Besides, I see the 5800 as Nokia's beta device, a chance to work out of the kinks ahead of the N97. Still, I too worry about the inclusion of this little pointy stick that shipped with my euro N97. A "plectrum" I think you called it? That's a joke, right?

In short, I share your enthusiasm for the N97 after admiring the hardware. I look forward to your thoughtful, and expert response as editor for Engadget Mobile. Too bad you couldn't find employment with Engadget, shame about the llama, I assume the stains came out?

Nights of rest to you and days of tranquility are the wishes I tender you with my affect respects.

Sir Thomas, Esq.


Thomas,

It's a relief to hear that your advanced years have yet to rob you of your sharp wit, old friend! I think it was Oscar Wilde -- with whom, correct me if I'm wrong, your son attended boarding school -- who once said "S60 is the love that dare not speak its name." Of course, this was over a hundred odd years ago, and Wilde was believed to be using a 3650 at the time, but the fact remains as true today as ever that it's neither "cool" nor even acceptable in many circles to appreciate this operating system for what it is.

Nokia helped tear Symbian down to its bare roots upon acquiring it (in part) from Psion in the late 90s, and S60 ultimately emerged several years later as a totally ground-up look at how a smartphone should function. That start-from-scratch philosophy has allowed S60 to live a long, prosperous life with relatively little change since the first devices shipped in '03. I think this is where we start to disagree, where I start to become more and more correct and you start to waver in that no-man's land between delusion and confusion: what I'm saying is that S60 hasn't had to advance much in that time to stay relevant, because many of Nokia's usability decisions from the early part of the decade remain relevant today. Ed Colligan himself -- big Mister Elevation Man, as it were -- said at CES this year that webOS is Palm's play for the next decade. Doesn't sound far-fetched today, but how will we feel about webOS' UI paradigm and capabilities in 2015? If you support Palm's vision, I think you have to support S60's, too -- you're just looking at equally revolutionary platforms at very different stages in their lives.

Contrary to popular belief, aging isn't always a bad thing. Upon turning on the N97, you're greeted with the same familiar amputated arms on a white background, accompanied by the "bling bling bling bling, bling bling bling bling, bling bling bling bling bliiiiiiiing" theme song that has welcomed Nokia users to their phones for eons -- and this is a case where familiarity is good. Let's not forget, after all, that these guys are still the number one manufacturer in the world by sales, and being able to offer a comforting sense of sameness to those throngs of repeat buyers from the moment they toggle the power switch is going to put them at ease.

Indeed, in many respects, a Nokia 7650 user (or a Siemens SX1 user -- remember those?) could pick up an N97 and immediately feel comfortable with the UI in many ways. I'm not going to sugar-coat it: as I've said before, Nokia has taken the preeminent non-touch smartphone platform and has failed to update it enough to properly take advantage of a touchscreen, but there's still a lot to love about S60 that translates well in this experience.

S60's home screen, for example, has always been a bastion of efficiency (particularly since 3rd Edition), and it's just better than ever on the N97 now that you can add and organize your own widgets; a good selection are bundled with the device including AccuWeather, Bloomberg, Facebook, and email, and more can be downloaded from the Ovi Store. I had some troubles getting AccuWeather to update -- sometimes I'd have to actually press on the widget to go into the full AccuWeather app then back out -- but maybe more importantly, updates on the email widget were dead reliable. Put simply, user-configurable widgets make the home screen as much of a destination as it is a jumping-off point, and as always, elements like the ubiquitous analog clock in the upper-left hand corner are welcome touches that keep the phone grounded to its classic S60 roots. I can't stress how important I think these widgets are for a platform, Thomas -- iPhone totally shuns them (heck, you can't even get the Weather icon to show real weather), and webOS fakes them with cards that don't really do the trick. Android could be a threat here, especially with the release of 1.5, but they're a long way away from enjoying Nokia's success or hardware variety in the marketplace.

Email has been a key focus area for modern smartphones with support for push, batch editing, and other desktop-style conveniences now becoming commonplace, and in light of that, S60's classic email application is woefully in need of an update. Happily, that update has come to some recent models -- the E75 comes immediately to mind -- in the form of Nokia Messaging, which includes push, long-overdue HTML rendering capability, support for IMAP folders, and a host of UI improvements that finally bring S60's email messaging capabilities within striking distance of its competitors. It works really well, and it's really fast -- it consistently delivers new emails within a few seconds of your desktop, and quite often, it's faster.

Messaging has been updated to take full advantage of S60 5th Edition, but here's the problem: for some reason, it's not included either with the 5800 or the N97. Instead, users are presented out of the box with perhaps the worst email experience of any smartphone today, and unless you're in the know, it's not obvious how (or even why, for that matter) you'd immediately want to go to a nokia.com URL and download a completely different email app. In fact, at the time I wrote this, Nokia Messaging's website still didn't list the N97 as a supported device, even though it was -- you've got to trick it by selecting the 5800, which will instantly bamboozle novice users.

In essence, the official explanation for leaving out Messaging by default is that Nokia's Eseries devices are its premier email communicators, not the Nseries or the XpressMusics. That explanation could've passed two or three years ago, but in the year 2009, every smartphone sold is expected to deliver stellar email management, and the $700 N97 just utterly fails here without an extra download that isn't well marketed or delineated for buyers. Oh, and here's another thing: Messaging is currently in a trial period, meaning Nokia expects to eventually charge for it or work out arrangements through carrier partners. If they try to charge a subscription fee for an email experience that should be delivered out of the box, they'll be laughed right out of this reviewer's pocket.

For now, though, all is well as email goes -- I've got Messaging installed, it interfaces with Gmail without a hitch, the home screen widget gives me a quick preview of the last couple emails I've received, it refreshes as it should, and most importantly, it's all free for the time being. Surely you can't complain about free stuff, Thomas?

Chris


My dear misguided colleague,

You know what else is free? Syphilis. And like the S60 5th operating system it comes dressed in a beautiful package that drives you mad just as soon as you turn it on.

I do appreciate the prompt reply but I'm surprised you were able to muster the faculties required to respond what with your head lodged so deeply inside of Nokia's Espoo. I see not how you could otherwise defend this OS. Since my last correspondence, six days ago now I'd say, I've used the N97 exclusively and heavily as my personal smartphone. Had you not pointed me towards the Nokia Messenger download, though, I would have fed the N97 to my stag after day two -- the pre-installed eMail application is absolutely abysmal, unusable even for my moderate needs, and an unforgivable oversight in such a high-end device. Of course, with any new smartphone and particularly one with a new OS (which this is for me) I expected to struggle as I overcame the learning curve. However, I can say with full confidence that what I have had to overcome isn't learning, it's the act of willful submission to being shoe-horned into a rigid box called S60 5th. I find that incredibly frustrating given the amount of time Nokia's had to get this right.

Having gone through this learning procedure several times on several platforms, I can say with absolute clarity that this is the least intuitive smartphone OS that I have come across in the last two years and suffers dearly by comparison to what's available right now on the market. Even Windows Mobile has a familiar desktop PC feel to it so the learning curve is relatively flat, albeit unpleasant, for anyone who's ever toiled inside a pale-yellow cubicle. And while I have yet to lay hands on a production Palm Pre, the consensus of reviewer opinions would indicate a highly intuitive and easily learned OS even though it's the newest, most unfamiliar smartphone on the block. Likewise, Android and the iPhone OS were version 1.0 operating systems not so long ago with entirely new usage paradigms and methods for purchasing and downloading software -- yet each was easily grasped and mastered in just a few days if not hours of use based on my own experience and from those I've observed around me. Dare I say that Android, WebOS, and the iPhone OS have actually made smartphones fun?

Even my darling wife's BlackBerry Storm runs an OS that like S60, is non-touch at its core and yet still manages to be dead simple to learn by comparison to the user experience on the N97. Let me be clear, when I say experience I include everything from how you update the OS; discover, download, and update applications and media; quit running software; transfer audio and video files; browse the web; navigate GPS maps; message (eMail, Twitter, Facebook, SMS, etc.); surf the Web; answer a call; take a photo or video; and just get from point-A to point-B on the device through a combination of the D-pad, QWERTY, or finger pokes and stylus taps on the occasionally unresponsive touchscreen. I don't mean to say that the touchscreen lacked sensitivity (it's not bad for resistive technology), I mean that it occasionally stops responding to finger mashes altogether, particularly in the Messaging client that you tout with such vigor. The BlackBerry Storm is a pleasure to use by comparison... the N97 is that bad.

Regarding the amputated handshake animation at startup -- sorry, I don't feel the same sense of reverence. Admittedly, I'm not of S60 heritage, but the reality is that I was too distracted by my surprising ability to count almost every individual video frame that stuttered past on the N97's belleagured ARM11 core clocking 424MHz. Watching the UI occasionally repaint itself block-by-block during transitions would be humorous if I could only forget that this is the "hero" device for the world's largest cellphone brand.

True, I do like the keyboard. And the home-screen widgets are a good idea, I'll give you that. In fact, not having a quick, at-a-glance dashboard on the iPhone home-screen is a serious oversight by Apple and is one of the few remaining motivations for jailbreaking. Unfortunately, Nokia's widgets are just a thin veneer upon an otherwise rotting OS. As powerful as it is, S60 5th's convoluted interface ensures that all that power shall remain unknowable to the vast majority of people looking to switch platforms or enter the smartphone market for the first time. It's impossible for me to imagine a prospective first-timer choosing the N97 over the Palm Pre, iPhone 3G S, BlackBerry Bold, or any QWERTY phone running the latest Android build. Consumers who have tried the competition before picking up the N97 will feel like they've just dialed-in to Nokia's BBS when the UI begins to paint. Seriously, it is that inelegant and the underlying processor trying to push the graphics around feels like it's running at 9600 baud.

I had genuinely hoped for the N97 to be my new smartphone. I'm sorry to say that my bitter disappointment echoes the depths of my surprise. I'm sure long time S60 users will feel right at home with the N97 and the hardware certainly won't disappoint consumers whose purchase decision consists solely of ticking off boxes on a spec-sheet; unfortunately, I'm neither of these. Chris, as you know I'm a man with a taste for elegance: I like my wig powdered, my wine poured through a sieve, and only the choicest of Carolina tobaccos. Clearly, I'm also an aged man by comparison, but it is you sir who is living in the past. You can reminisce all you want about the glory days of Symbian. Misguided allegiance to S60 is in the end simply misguided -- and if that allegiance tempts you into handing over $700 for the unsubsidized N97 in the US then you're just a fool. In fact, maybe you should grab a RAZR and give Motorola's former CEO Ed Zander a call. I'm sure he'd love to reminisce about staying the course in the face of innovative competitors and dwindling marketshare.

I leave you with a video "hit list" -- "hit" as in my desire to commit murder after a week with this phone, "list" as in the tilting of a sinking ship.


I bid you adieu.


Thomas,

I have no idea if this letter will reach you. See, I didn't know you'd moved to Haterville, and I'm afraid I don't have your forwarding address. Unfortunately, I suspect that you -- just like this letter -- might be lost.

A sample photo taken with the N97's 5 megapixel camera featuring autofocus, macro capability, and Carl Zeiss optics.

Sure, I can understand how S60 5th Edition would be a shock to the system to a seasoned iPhone user; hell, I can even understand how it'd feel like a relic from another era. At the end of the day, though, this might simply come down to a battle of capability versus presentation. When a smartphone or smartphone platform conclusively wins both of those categories, it's no longer a subjective debate -- it's an old-fashioned ass-whooping. I'll admit that the iPhone (particularly with the 3G S) and the current crop of Android phones nip at the heels of the N97 and its S60-based contemporaries for raw capability, but S60 still comes out on top -- the N97, N86 8MP, and Samsung i8910HD are all shining examples of that in their own ways. Not only can you choose your pick of OLED displays and huge, surprisingly decent camera optics, you can also ride with a stunning array of form factors. Where's your QWERTY iPhone? Or your ultra-thin 20-key one with HSUPA? It's the same concept keeping Windows Mobile very much alive right now; it's an advantage that won't last forever, but it's an advantage nonetheless.

I get it, though -- this isn't about device variety, this is about the N97 specifically. Coincidentally, I had a fascinating conversation with Bhaskar Roy of Qik the other evening. As you might know, Qik is the revolutionary mobile platform that lets users stream video live from their phones, but what you might not know is that it got its start on S60, thanks largely to the platform's openness and the availability of high-spec hardware. Qik's available on a variety of platforms these days, but it turns out that the N97 is the one and only device -- regardless of platform, manufacturer, whatever delineation you like -- that currently allows them to capture near-HD widescreen video. Granted, a good 5 megapixel camera with so-called "nHD" 642 x 358 video recording capability at 30fps certainly helps, but Qik also found that S60 allowed them to interact directly with the N97's DSP in ways that other platforms wouldn't dream of allowing. Safety versus stability is a never-ending debate unto itself in the smartphone app world, and Nokia (certificate drama aside) generally chooses to trust its partners to develop the right software and its customers to install the right software more than others. I like that.

I'll also concede that Nokia Maps isn't that great. It's relatively powerful, and when you're zoomed into the street level, it's pretty -- but the actual act of zooming in and out is jerky, turn-by-turn costs extra once you burn through your 90-day free trial, and real-time traffic information doesn't work in the US; the whole app feels like it's designed with a European slant, actually, and that's because it is. Fortunately, AGPS lock on this phone is extraordinarily fast (I remember it being far more painful on Nokias of old) and you're welcome to download navigation apps of your own choosing -- Google's implementation of Maps on S60 has always been quite good, and it works like a champ on the N97.

In closing, my dear Thomas, I want to leave you with a picture of the N97's overwhelmingly impressive specs, which are boastfully (and deservedly) silkscreened onto the screen's hinge. As you've apparently written off this modern marvel of mobility, they're specs that you can only dream about now, locked into some arbitrary prison ecosystem of your own accord.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have Gmail and Qik apps to set up. I might download a few podcasts over 3G while I'm at it.

Chris

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Nokia N97 review: a tale of two bloggers