Nokia N97 hands-on part II: the reckoning

We promise to stop slobbering all over this handset in a month or eight, but the N97 is certainly the new hotness, so we hope you'll excuse us for returning for another go and getting some more in-depth hands-on-ness. Unfortunately, while the phone is certainly stunning in many facets, and probably the greatest S60 device to date, we're not sure it's the Storm / G1 / iPhone / anything killer we all might've been hoping for. If you'd rather just concentrate on the sexy, peep our video hands-on and wait six months or so for Nokia to work the kinks out, otherwise join us after the break for some hard-to-swallow, totally subjective, prototype-based opinion.

This is what we came to see, and there's so much to recommend the N97 on this front, marred by a couple of considerable setbacks.

First off, the screen. It's huge, and utterly high resolution. The viewing angle could be better, but straight on the display is plenty bright. Like most every phone released this century, glare is significant, though the N97 might be a particular attractor. The down side is the resistive touch that Nokia clings so desperately to. We'd say the responsiveness and sensitivity are certainly a step up over the 5800, but the screen also has less "give" to it compared to a more traditional resistive display, so it's hard to tell how much pressure is the right amount of pressure to make something happen.

The screen pops and tilts open, to reveal a spacious keyboard. Unfortunately, Nokia's major wins with the E71's keyboard have been disregarded, and the keys feel too shallow, not very clicky, and not very reassuring. That said, there's plenty of room to get around on them, and we'd imagine full mastery of the keyboard could result in a formidable WPM -- if you can get over the uninspiring feel.

The actual hinge and support mechanism of the tilt-up screen is very solid and fairly gratifying, though we'll always be fanboys of the E66's weighted, accelerated slider motion at heart -- Nokia did as good as we could expect for a motion that props the screen into a usable angle, and keeps it there quite heartily.

Overall, the phone is quite a bit lighter than we expected, especially in comparison to the brick-like XPERIA X1, but in no way lacks quality. The plastic and general design feel more in line with the N95 than the N96 and other similarly-glossy devices, but we certainly won't hold that against it. The surface buttons are minimal, perhaps a bit too understated, but the entire package is certainly attractive. We were scared we would find the phone too thick, and while we certainly wouldn't be mad if it was thinner, it's within the realm of comfortable pocketability, if only just barely.

Under the hood the phone is so decked out it's not even funny any more, including an outlandish 32GB of built-in memory, microSD expansion, FM transmitter and a great 5 megapixel camera with ultrasmooth 30 fps 16:9 video capture, in addition to the "givens" like HSDPA, WiFi, Bluetooth, A-GPS and a 3.5mm headphone jack -- it's truly impressive. The battery life might be a concern, but Nokia has certainly suited up in that fight, and has an impressively large (and naturally removable) power pack under the keyboard.

It's S60, a love-it-or-hate-it mobile operating system if there ever was one. Nokia has refused to revamp the OS wholesale to make way for touch devices, choosing instead to jumbo-size some button and icons, make a few tweaks here and there, and leave a few things completely -- and often annoyingly -- alone. While we expect ourselves to be clumsy with the OS, watching Nokia's own best and brightest befuddled or merely hindered in execution by the interface peculiarities doesn't bring us much hope for this generation of touchscreen phones, no matter how great the hardware may be.

What's new is a widget-based home screen that is new, impressive, and perhaps a good indication of where Nokia software development is headed. The widgets make great use of the gargantuan display, and can easily be reconfigured and shuffled around to your heart's content.

The browser isn't blazing, but it loads Engadget in a respectable amount of time and scrolls fairly smoothly -- though the double-tap-to-zoom interface and slow scrolling are annoying as ever.

Other, more mundane aspects of the OS seemed a little sluggish, and while it's our duty to report that this phone is an early prototype and cannot be expected to perform flawlessly, we have to say this has been a trend with Nokia, and seems rarely rectified by the time its devices ship -- let's hope the N97 is the exception.

We're not quite sure what to make of this phone, to be honest. At first glance this is the exact phone Nokia should be making: a large-screened, high resolution touchscreen device with a megalarge slide-out keyboard and endless storage -- it's a fanboy wishlist in so many ways. But the execution on the screen (resistive), keyboard (meh) and software (dated) are all considerable hurdles. We'll have to see how things shape up over the first half of 2009 to figure out exactly where this thing lands.