After two years of faithful service, my trusty Nokia E90 Communicator finally went to Silicon Heaven last week. It wasn't a spectacular demise, more a slow passing with the speaker failing on phone calls, the device randomly reseting itself and finally a flat refusal to download any more emails (which I was actually quite glad about as I receive far too many).

It may all have been a firmware problem and perhaps even fixable, however the mobile platform continues to stride ahead and in the two years since the E90 came out the iPhone landed and started setting new standards. Now whether we keyboard jockeys like it or not, touch screens are back in – and this time they are here to stay.

Of course, touch screens are nothing new and I've been using touch screen devices since the '90s. Indeed, the E90 was the natural (if non touch screen) successor to my excellent Psion, itself a touch device with PIM features that I've never seen bettered. My XDA IIs, XDA Exec, Qtek 9100 and V1640 were all touch screen Windows Mobile devices that I used over the three years before the iPhone appeared, however the difference was that they ran the clunky Windows mobile platform and required a stylus for accurate touch input.

I've played with the iPhone and I'm impressed by the fluid user interface, the speed of the device and the accuracy of the touch control. That said however, I still want a QWERTY keyboard to bash out my text on the move and the iPhone is only available on O2 whereas I'm stuck with Vofafone because of my work so at the time of writing I don't really want, and cannot get an iPhone.

So surely Nokia have released a new Communicator to meet my needs??  No?  Well, never mind. Like everyone else my mobile gadgetry needs are converging. No longer is it the case that my multimedia is handled by my laptop and iPod while my mobile simply deals with calls and emails. Reasonably fast and reasonably widespread mobile internet means I now expect more from a cellular device. I want access to my work mail, personal mail, social network provider(s), the web and I want to have the ability to use it as a 3G modem when I'm out on the road with my laptop.

I also want video and music playback, bags of mass storage, a good camera, satellite navigation – hell, I want it all.

Oh, plus the QWERTY keyboard.

Although there isn't a new Communicator, Nokia have released the N97 and on the face of it all of my needs appear to be covered. It has high speed 3G, 5MP digital camera, 32GB internal memory, WiFi, touch screen, sat-nav and offers a balance of applications for both professional and personal 21st Century life. It also has a physical keyboard to keep the old-skool PDA nerds like me happy.

The N97 comes in a rather unassuming black box and inside are a plethora of interesting items. Like many other phone manufacturers, Nokia have switched to the MicroUSB charger which is great as the spare charger I bought for my (short lived) Blackberry Storm will also work with the N97. Besides, I didn't much like the last Nokia charger with its skinny DC connector that was too easily damaged. Rather thoughtfully Nokia have also included an adaptor to convert an existing old or new style charger into MicroUSB. This gets hot in use suggesting there is some integral electronic cleverness going on.

In the box
Box contents, clockwise from top: Micro USB mains charger,external stereo speakers, charger converter, headset remote unit, manual, N97 handset, earphones, stylus. Not shown, MicroUSB data cable but one is included.


A standard stereo earbud headset with 3.5mm jack and very short lead is supplied for listening to music and an extra attachment which fits in-line with the headset provides music playback controls along with a microphone and call handling buttons for wired handsfree operation. This is a neat idea and allows you to convert any set of headphones into a wired handsfree kit so you can choose to plug in the supplied earbuds or your high quality HiFi headphones for music and calls. The standard 3.5mm jack is a welcome addition to the unit and replaces the non-standard POP-port used on the E61i or 2.5mm jack used on the E90. A rather nice set of micro stereo speakers, plus batteries, is also included and although the N97 does a competent job of music playback through its own integral stereo speakers, this accessory provides extra clarity, volume and bass should you want it.

Rather curiously, a rectangular stylus is also supplied. It's utterly (if not literally) pointless as it cannot be stowed within the phone so nobody is going to bother carrying it around. Besides, a stylus based touch screen is like sooooo 2005. The iPhone and its imitators have shown that touch screen control needs to be intuitive, fluid and delivered with the tip of a finger rather than with a plastic pointy stick and the larger screens and bigger button displays are designed for just that so the stylus is rather redundant for everything except handwriting recognition and that is also rather redundant when there is a physical QWERTY keyboard on the device.

The N97 has 32GB of built in memory plus a MicroSD slot accessible by removing the battery cover. My E90 only had 128MB (or something) and I used a 2GB MicroSD card for extra storage but the N97 makes my 2GB card look positively puny and pointless and it's the first phone/PDA I've owned where the inbuilt memory is big enough for me not to have to rely on any external storage.

The N97 itself is a nice piece of hardware. It feels solid and ergonomic and weighs in at 150g, the same as the Nokia E61i. At approximately 117x55x16mm the N97 is nowhere near as clunky or chunky as my 214g E90. When closed the screen can orientate between portrait and landscape mode and the switch between the two is a lot faster and more accurate than the Blackberry Storm. Physical keys have been reduced and on the display side there is only one actual button which is used for bringing up menu options and glows with a gentle white light to notify you of missed events, although it is too dim to be of much use unlike the notifier light on the E61i. Two touch sensitive keys are placed next to it and provide the traditional answer/hang up functions or call-log/exit. Also on the display side is a light sensor, a proximity sensor to prevent the screen registering input when the phone is pressed against your ear while on a call and a camera for video calls (does anybody ever make video calls?)

N97 closed
N97 in closed 'portrait' profile.


Around the edge of the device is a camera button, up/down keys for volume adjustment or zoom depending upon the open application, 3.5mm headphone jack, power button, stereo speakers, micro USB data/charge port and keypad unlock switch. The keypad unlock switch works very well and is a lot nicer to use than the usual two button softkey+asterisk combination normally employed by Nokia. Simply flicking the switch unlocks the screen and provides feedback through a short but satisfying buzz of the vibration motor.

The physical QWERTY keyboard can be exposed by pushing the screen top. The mechanical slide action  is nice and the hinge feels solid. The screen comes to rest at a fixed angle with the display set to landscape orientation. I find the fixed angle of the screen to be comfortable whether holding the phone or having it on a table top. The keyboard is backlit with a traditional D-pad on the left. There are only three rows of keys with numbers placed on the top QWERTY row and accessible through a function key. Common symbols are placed as function options on other keys and a symbol button provides access to some of the lesser used signs. The Space button is located to the right of the bottom row which is unusual but surprisingly easy to use.

N97 open
N97 in open 'landscape' profile.

N97 open
Landscape mode showing the screen angle.

Comparison
N97 shown against an E90 (top), E61i (left) and Blackberry Curve.

E90 comparison
Open for business, the E90 and the N97. The brighter screen of the N97 is evident along with its smaller footprint.


The screen is where problems start with the N97. It appears to be down to the horizontal refresh clashing with the diagonal touch sensitive overlay but a moire effect is often noticeable. It's similar to when weathermen wore dodgy jackets on the television in the Eighties producing zig-zagging ripples on the screen. The effect is not that visible on the N97 but it is there and is more noticeable under certain lighting conditions or with certain themes. It's no show stopper, but it is curious. Another oddity is a ghosting on the screen where an imprint from a previous page or application is left showing faintly on the display. Again, it's not there all the time and is more noticeable under certain themes in darkly lit conditions, but it is there. Apart from this though, the screen is bright and clear with a 640x360 resolution and reflective display allowing it to be viewed in direct sunlight.

The touch input is also problematic as the screen uses a traditional resistive rather than a capacitive overlay. Unlike the iPhone or Blackberry Storm which registers the capacitance from the tip of your finger as an input, the N97 is a proper 'touch' screen and can be tapped by a finger, stylus, pen, end of a banana or anything else which can be used to apply pressure to the screen in just the same way as the touch PDA/smartphones of old. This makes it less able to cope with 'finger input' so where the iPhone and Blackberry know the difference between touch selection and touch scrolling and will ignore the non capacitive tap from the end of a biro, the N97 struggles to differentiate a touch from a swipe. If you brush the screen too lightly, it ignores you. Apply more pressure and you end up selecting an item instead of scrolling. Trying to flip through messages, music or photos can be a somewhat frustrating experience with items being opened when trying to scroll. On the plus side, the screen based buttons and icons are large and are easily selected with the finger unlike the older Windows Mobile touch devices. A small vibration from the motor provides tactile feedback on touch selection. Despite some drawbacks, overall the touch interface is nicer and quicker to use than the D-Pad on my E61i or E90 even though it feels like it has been 'bolted on' to the Symbian interface rather than integrated with it.

The manual does a competent job of explaining the hardware features and functions but no mention is made of the pre-installed software. A lot of applications come bundled with the N97, some are fully featured, others are trial installations requiring purchase for full functionality. Sometimes you just have to open an app to find out what it does and whether it's going to ask you for any money.

Something that really annoys me about these high end devices is the lack of out-of-the-box document editing software. My Psion PDA's always allowed me to create/edit spreadsheets or text files and I was gobsmacked when, in 2003, I bought a top of the range Sony Clie UX50 and found it came with no document editors. The friggin' thing was supposed to be a PDA and lower models were bundled with the Documents To Go suite but I was expected to fork out extra for the UX50. Sadly, the same applies here. If I bought an E71 for half the price then it would come with Quickoffice Lite that would allow basic document creation and editing. My E90 also came with this and I opted to upgrade to Quickoffice Premier for extra functionality. The N97 however comes with Quickoffice Locked (as it may as well be called) and while it allows me to open Word and Excel documents, I cannot switch into editing mode without forking out an extra £23.74. The N97 cost over £400 and I'm supposed to pay extra to add text to the documents I was able to create on my E90 for free??! If you're armed with a credit card then you can upgrade the package over the air, although it isn't pretty, involves three emails and you have to fish out a licence code to activate the installation afterwards.

Other applications also require licensing at extra cost and these may be more understandable as they're a little more specialist so they may not be required. Joikuspot Premium is installed as a trial and allows the Nokia to act as a WiFi access point for joining computers to your 3G internet connection without the faff of Bluetooth. I should point out that Joikuspot Lite is available for free and can do the same job with some limitations. Nokia maps is also bundled with a 90 day trial for navigation.

Nokia recently replaced their Software Market website with the Ovi Store and this is accessible from the N97. Ovi is like the Apple apps store for the iPhone and allows you to download free, trial or full content for your phone from one location. You can also have a mail account through Ovi and share photos but all I use it for is browsing for extra content. Interestingly, Ovi offers to charge the cost of non-free software to a credit card or to your phone bill which is something I need to worry about as I'm in charge of the phones handed out at my workplace. If the staff find out they can get games, themes, wallpapers and whatever else charged to their company phone bill then I'm going to be in trouble – or they are. Ovi seems to work quite well though and it's nice to be able to browse for content and grab it over the air without needing a computer, memory card or data cable. Ovi also keeps track of what you've downloaded so after a hard reset you should be able to grab the content you've bought without having to search again for it. It's a shame more wallpapers and themes are not provided for free through Ovi as most content seems to have a price, even if it's only a quid. Also, beware of software shown as being 'free' on Ovi as often it's just a free trial and you need to pay for long term usage.

Firmware upgrades are also available over the air although none have been released since I received my unit.

There are the usual Nokia niggles with the N97 user interface. At last you can adjust the font size (to a certain extent) unlike on the E61i, E71 or E90 where it was fixed and proved too big for some or too small for others. You now get a small, medium or large setting and I like to set mine to small to squeeze as much information on the screen as possible although it still isn't small enough for my tastes.

The messaging application now has a threaded view which is horrible. I want to see my messages in a simple list so I can select the one I want, not have to open or collapse threads to try and find it. The threads take up unnecessary screen space and can't be turned off – why-oh-why??  I simply do not understand why Nokia force font sizes and view layouts on us, especially when there are often third party products available (usually at extra cost) to set your preferences effectively. I don't want to have to buy Psiloc Font Magnifier every time I get a new Nokia phone just to reduce the size of the text so that I can actually fit a meaningful amount of information on my screen. I don't want to have to buy LightsOn every time I get a new Nokia phone in order to keep the backlight on for more than 90 seconds. I don't want to have to buy a decent clock/alarm app to replace the underwhelming and under featured built in one. These are the kind of annoyances I moaned about two years ago when I got the E90 and not much has changed.


Threaded messaging
Threaded messaging. No thanks.


And another thing, any Nokia phone should have the same range of tones and alarms the previous ones had. None of the tones I've been using for the last two years are present on this model. It's simple – I just want my new phone to sound like the old one because that's what I'm used to!

The home screen is customisable and several 'panels' can be added, removed or changed so that each may display information at a glance from a particular application. Sadly, like previous Nokia's, it doesn't have half the customisation options I'd like to see and doesn't display enough information. For example, I'd like to see more information contained in upcoming calendar appointments. Each of the home screen panels can be tapped to open the host application so tapping the emails will open the messaging application for example. The clock at the top left is as crappy as ever, the analogue version being basic looking with no numbers forcing a second glance to determine the actual time while the digital clock looks like a... well.... a digital clock. Please Nokia, this device doesn't have a seven-segment LED display like my radio alarm clock, how about using a decent looking font to display the numbers in a slightly less cranky format? Or, how about the option to actually change the friggin' font? It's possible on older, less able machines y'know.

Home screen landscape
Home screen, clockwise from left, clock, date/profile, shortcut panel, calendar notifier, AccuWeather, Messaging, Gravity (Twitter).
Button options at the bottom allow for Options, keypad and the web browser. These panels are all customisable.
Notice the almost useless calendar notifier which just tells me I have an entry the next day. It says that every day! How about shrinking the font ize down to the same used by the temperature scale in AccuWeather and showing what my next two appointments actually are??!


Home screen portrait
The same view when orientated in portrait mode.


Sadly, the standby screen is blank so when the display switches into idle mode there is no date/time/message notifier shown. People like me who rarely wear a watch will have to push a button to briefly wake the screen.

Another annoyance is that applications can be a bit iffy with their internet connections. For example AccuWeather is supplied as an application with a home screen plugin but it has no preference for setting which internet connection should be used. The Web Feeds setting in the web browser seems to dictate the connection that should be used but AccuWeather is stubborn enough to try and connect to my home WiFi long after I've left the house and I'm sitting in the car on a perfectly good 3G connection. There is a separate option under Settings/Connectivity/Destinations/Internet where the access points can be prioritised. It takes some jiggling to get the definitions working correctly and until you do you'll find some apps sit there with a 'loading' or 'updating' message stuck on the screen. There should be a simpler way to set and prioritise data connectivity to cover all applications with each application having it's own setting to allow an override.

One problem I found a fix for is that the Nokia E-mail setup application launches and requests permission to access the Internet every time the phone is booted. This continues even when you have set up all your mail accounts and I assume will be fixed in a newer version of the firmware. You can get rid of it by uninstalling the Nokia E-mail application which, despite its name, only removes this 'wizard' and not any of the messaging functionality of the phone. Navigate to: Menu key -> Settings -> Application Manager -> Installed Apps -> Nokia E-mail -> Options -> Uninstall if you too want to get shot of the thing.

There are some fancy features which are nice on the N97. It has a competent FM radio with RDS as well as an FM transmitter allowing you to beam your MP3 music to an available frequency on a nearby radio which is ideal in the car. This feature may not be available in some countries. The satellite navigation is quick and accurate unlike the useless sat-nav of the E90. The N97 also comes with a YouTube application and BBC iPlayer (UK only), both of which work well. I also find the N97 holds a signal better than any other phone previously used in my house which seems to have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground near some ley-lines underneath some pylons next to a wormhole and therefore usually defies any radio waves attempting to land from Vodafone.

That said, the N97, like the E90 or E61i used before it tends to show a strong Vodafone data signal until I actually try and transfer some data. You can bet when the Send button is pressed in an email that 3G indicator will always drop to zero. I'm getting very bored of having a one-bar signal wherever I go in this country while the wife and daughter seemingly always have good T-Mobile and Virgin signals. Vodafone need to start doing something with their O2 mast sharing agreement to boost their fringe coverage because they're the worst coverage provider I've ever been stuck with.

Bluetooth is problematic on the N97 and I've had some grief getting it to work with both Linux and Windows computers. It won't pair at all with my Toshiba XP laptop, it won't perform file transfers with my HP XP desktop and although pairing and file transfers are fine with my Vaio running Ubuntu Intrepid, it will not allow a dial up networking connection. All problems I will (probably) eventually solve but my E61i and E90 just worked without any headaches. Bluetooth is great when it works and a pig when it doesn't.

The E71 uses the BP-4L battery which has been Nokia fare on numerous other devices. Nice to know I can use the battery out of my E90 as a spare. Battery life is about the same as any of these other large screen data-enabled devices, i.e. expect to charge it every 24-48 hours depending on which features you're using. No case is supplied so I'll have to continue using the Blackberry 7100 case/belt clip that has been serving my E90 all this time.

The 5MP camera can take pictures at 2592x1944 pixels. It sports a sliding cover and the camera application starts when this is opened. It has a dual-LED flash and can take photographs or videos. Capture isn't quick although it is an improvement on the E90 which took forever to take a snap. A picture can be taken using the on-screen touch button or by the physical button on the edge of the unit, however the physical button doesn't always seem to register which may ruin the spontaneity of a shot. The camera application can be switched to use the smaller forward facing camera for a self-portrait shot. The camera incorporates a digital zoom however image quality is noticeably poorer when this is fully employed with washed out colours and blurry focus as shown in the examples below.

Example pictures (shrunk down to 640x480):

Felixstowe 1
Felixstowe beach, 29/08/09, no zoom

Felixstowe 2
Felixstowe 30/08/09, no zoom

Felixstowe 3
Felixstowe beach looking out on container ship, 30/08/09, no zoom

Felixstowe 4
Felixstowe beach looking out on container ship, 30/08/09, full zoom

Felixstowe 5
Felixstowe beach looking toward the docks, 30/08/09, no zoom

Felixstowe 6
Felixstowe beach looking toward the docks, 30/08/09, full zoom

Felixstowe 7
Felixstowe, 30/08/09, looking inland, no zoom

Felixstowe 8
Felixstowe, 30/08/09, looking inland, full zoom


Controlling music playback is awkward without the headset controller attachment fitted. You can pause and skip when viewing the currently playing track however if you step back through the menus there isn't a way to quickly get back to the current track unless you have activated the music player panel on the home screen. It doesn't work as well as an iPod and despite the N97 having masses more storage, I don't think I'll be slinging the old iPod Mini just yet.


Music player
Music playback is basic without the headset attachment.




The bottom line.
I knew the N97 was going to be flawed. I've used too many Nokia's since my first in 1994 to realise it isn't going to do everything I want just how I want it. Whenever I get a new phone I'm resigned to the fact I'm going to have to pay out extra for the whistles and bells I need to go about my business, even if some of those bells were included for free with my previous device. The iPhone isn't going to do it for me as it stands, however the N97 may be an ideal crossover platform, close enough to the E90 for it to be familiar while introducing new iPhone style features and functions for me to get used to. My next upgrade probably won't be a Nokia as I might just use the N97 as a launchpad into a brave new fully touchscreen non-Symbian world.


Update, 08/02/10

It's been a while since I wrote this review about the N97 so time for an update on how I’m getting on…

It’s all going rather well actually. Firmware updates have addressed some of my original issues with touch scrolling working better and threaded mail now a feature you can turn off. I’m pleased with the battery life, averaging a recharge only every two days despite the fact Bluetooth and WiFi are permanently on and I always have a data connection open for Twitter and my e-mail whether over WiFi or 3G.

The problems I had with Bluetooth have disappeared and it’s working well with all my devices.

Nokia have now released their satellite navigation with turn directions for free so the N97 has a fully featured Sat Nav package although it hasn’t proven completely stable for me so far with places like Warwick disappearing into a black hole! Still, you can’t complain too much when it costs nothing. Installation was nice and simple with the application appearing in the Software Update function.

Since writing the original review I’ve had a chance to properly play with the iPhone 3GS and I have to admit I much prefer the N97. Even though the iPhone is now available to me on Vodafone I don’t plan to kick the N97 out of bed for it because the N97 has better battery life, is smaller and lighter and I prefer Symbian to Apple’s non-multitasking operating system. The N97 also represents better value for money with a lower handset cost plus I get 5GB data for £18/month compared to 1.5GB data for the same money on Vodafone’s iPhone plan.

I said in the original review that I wasn’t ready to give up on my iPod Mini. Not true as it turns out and I haven’t used the iPod since getting my N97. The 32GB of storage and 3.5mm headphone jack means I don’t need to be carrying and charging a second device for music playback and the music interface on the N97 isn’t too bad once you get used to it. Also, instead of writing off your iTunes playlists you can buy a copy of Salling Media Sync and zap the lot to your N97 as though it were an iPod so all my tunes are where I left them on my computer.

YouTube, iPlayer and web browsing continue to work fast and nipping onto the ‘net to grab some information has never been easier. Indeed, with the N97 so capable I’m finding that I often go for days on end without firing up my home computer.

Nigel has since gotten hold of the N900, bigger cousin of the N97 running Maemo. While impressive I think it probably does more than I need it to and is far weightier and chunkier. Similarly, Nokia have also released the N97 Mini, smaller than the original and minus the D-pad to address complaints about the original N97 being too big (which personally I don’t understand as I think it’s a perfectly acceptable size).

For now the N97 is doing the business for me and I’ll be sticking stubbornly with it.


Update, 26/04/10

How soon things change. Recently my N97 has been playing up a bit. Firmware updates and a factory reset didn't help and getting hold of a Palm Pre recently highlighted how clunky Symbian and a resistive touchscreen are. After putting with with Vodafone and their one-bar coverage for the last five years, I took the plunge and ported my number to O2. A shiny Pre is now in my pocket and while it has its faults I think my time with Nokia is finally over.

 

Recommended applications.
Just taken delivery of your N97? Here's my list of must-have software.

WirelessIRC
IRC with SSL and Twitter support
Available from: http://mobileways.de/products/wirelessirc/wirelessirc/
Listed as not supported on the N97 at the time of writing however it works flawlessly for me.
Trial version available, payment required for long term use.

Gravity
A feature rich Twitter API
Available from: http://mobileways.de/products/gravity/gravity/
The best Twitter app for the Symbian platform with N97 homescreen plugin support.
Trial version available, payment required for long term use.

MidpSSH
SSH/Telnet client
Available from: http://www.xk72.com/midpssh/
Free SSH/Telnet client which runs in Java

Salling Media Sync
Synchronise your N97 with iTunes
Available from: http://www.salling.com/
Lite version available (copies all tracks on every sync), licenced version copies changes only and at a faster transfer rate.

Opera Mobile
An alternative to the built in mobile browser allowing full web pages to be viewed,
Available from: http://www.opera.com/mobile/
Free (beta at time of writing)