Nokia N97 Mini £399
7th Dec 2009 | 15:50
Slick version of Nokia flagship phone arrives to upstage its big brother
Nokia N97 Mini: Overview
Nokia's powerhouse N97 touchscreen, QWERTY keyboard-packing smartphone may have arrived to mixed reviews, but its new, rescaled Nokia N97 Mini stablemate offers a refreshed take on the device.
Its 'Mini' moniker doesn't mean this is a heavily stripped down version of the original N97, however.
While it does pare down some elements of the N97 - such as a smaller screen and reduced internal flash memory from 32GB to 8GB - the N97 Mini is still a big hitter in the pure feature count department.
The N97 Mini is a full touchscreen smartphone device, running on Nokia's Symbian S60 5th Edition platform - previously seen on recent models like the N97 and 5800 XpressMusic.
It has a 3.2-inch display, and has a slide-out full QWERTY keyboard with a tilting screen, and, geared up to be a web-orientated multimedia device, it supports high-speed HSDPA mobile data as well as Wi-Fi connectivity.
It's loaded up with an impressive amount of applications out of the box, and as well as multimedia player capabilities it has A-GPS location finding with Nokia's Maps software, plus a 5-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics.
But as we all know, particularly post-iPhone, smartphone success isn't just about stacks of features - usability and performance are key to the touchscreen user experience too. So does the N97 Mini affirm the maxim that less can be more?
Nokia N97 Mini: Design and handling
The typical touchscreen slab look of the Nokia N97 Mini is similar to the original N97, with a minimalist front panel sporting a trio of keys below the screen.
But the bodywork is smaller than the bulky N97 - the N97 Mini measures 113(h) x 52.5(w) x 14.2(d) mm and weighs 138g, compared to the original's 117.2(h) x 55.3(w) x 15.9-18.25(d)mm, 150g pocket-bulging package.
That doesn't make the Mini a miniature phone by any stretch - it's still big, but it does cut a more pocket-friendly figure. While it's thick for a touchscreen phone nowadays, this is explained away by the slide-out tray containing the QWERTY keyboard. Its build quality is reassuringly substantial, with some metal adding to the casing's solid feel.
The display is scaled down from the N97's 3.5-incher to a 3.2-inch screen on the Mini. It's a 640 x 360 pixels, 16.7 million colour screen that's lovely and bright, with a decent amount of clarity. It doesn't have the pixel count of the very best touchscreens on the market, but it looks good enough on this showing for multimedia playback and browsing.
Like its predecessor, a resistive touchscreen is used on the N97 Mini - which means you don't get the smoothly flowing multi-touch capability of the capacitive screens used on the iPhone and some Android OS-equipped models.
The screen is, though, more responsive to touch than Nokia's earlier 5800 XpressMusic effort. It may not have quite the gentle-finger-stroke nimbleness of the iPhone but it reacts quickly to prods, taps, drags and swipes, and appears reasonably fluid for a resistive display.
Scrollbars on the side of menus helps scrolling through longer lists, and the operating system generally allows sufficient room to negotiate with finger tapping alone. Indeed, on this model there's no stylus supplied (unlike the 5800 XpressMusic). It's not the iPhone, but it's decently usable.
Under the display, there's just the touch-sensitive Call and End buttons plus a raised angled Menu key, which pulls up the main menu or (with a long press) shows open applications.
Around the body of the phone, there's a lock/unlock sprung slider, volume rocker keys and a dedicated camera button. A microUSB port on the side takes care of data connections and charging, while thankfully Nokia has again included a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top of the phone.
A secondary camera for video calls sits on the front above the display, next to a light sensor (which is used to automatically adjusts screen brightness).
The main camera action, though, is on the back. Unlike the original N97, the Mini's camera has no sliding lens cover to protect it. The lens and LED flash array still sits proud above the back surface though.
The screen still automatically tilts at an angle when the QWERTY keyboard slides out, with a reassuringly rock solid spring-loaded mechanism locking it in place.
The QWERTY keyboard has been given a makeover from the N97; gone is the five-way navigation pad, leaving a bit more finger-room for the 38 keys (which include direction keys). It has a much more usable feel, the rubber-like keys slightly less flush to the surface so you can feel more action as you type.
The space bar is still shifted over to the right rather than central, and while that may not satisfy the touch-typist, it's very easy to get used to. And, in practice, it's rather useful when you're thumb typing when holding the device.
The keyboard buttons have a responsive action, unlike some stodgey phone keyboards; it's comfortable to type accurately at a reasonable pace, even with our large digits.
The angle of the screen with the keyboard out makes it ideal for typing when sat on a desk. The phone is reasonably well balanced for desk typing - though there is a touch of wobble in the left-hand corner owing to the raised camera lens on the back of the bodywork - something that might have been easily remedied with a slight tweak in the casing design.
Nokia N97 Mini: User interface
The Nokia N97 Mini adopts a similar S60 5th edition user interface to the original N97 - although it appears more stable on this model than we found when we first unboxed our review sample of the N97.
The S60 5th edition platform is an evolution of the earlier S60 software used in the likes of Nokia's Nseries handsets, but adapted for the touchscreen environment.
As such, it's not been developed 'from-the-ground-up' as an all-new touchscreen interface (like Apple's iPhone OS and Android). Instead, many elements have a look and feel that will be familiar to Nokia users. Many of its control conventions and menu structures are familiar too, and consistent with earlier Nokia smartphones.
In many ways it feels more like an S60 device re-tooled for touch than a fresh new system. While that'll be attractive to those who like Nseries handsets, some of the control elements have a more dated feel than the more fluid, newer operating systems.
The home screen set up is similar to the N97's; it comprises a set of six stacked widget panels. The out-of-the-box default selection (email, music player, time/date/profile, Facebook plus two rows of four shortcuts) can be changed for other function widgets - there are around 18 to choose from.
These include various online services and applications available on the phone (from MySpace and AccuWeather to CNN Video and Amazon) plus phone apps such as calendar, favourite contacts and the WLAN Wizard.
These widgets can be rearranged on the screen, and automatically adjust to the layout when the screen is switched to landscape mode - which happens when the QWERTY keypad is slipped out (or if you set the accelerometer motion sensor to automatic switching in the settings menus).
Within the widgets, you can tap to activate individual elements - such as either time or date or profiles in the clock widget, or launching any of the shortcuts separately from the shortcuts widgets. They're simple to operate and serve up an easy way to work features and functions straight from the desktop.
As with other S60 5th Edition handsets, among the home screen options you can set up favourite contacts panels, offering four icons or photos assigned to contacts, for one-touch selection. These pull up options for voice and video calling or texting.
If the home screen is looking cluttered, a sideways swipe can bring up a blank home screen view without the widgets. Naturally, you can customise backgrounds as you like. A quick press on the top corner of the display accesses info like battery and connectivity status (for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and so on), which is handy.
Softkey options on the bottom of the home screen include dialpad and contacts, so you can swiftly get communicating. Hitting the Menu button under the display brings up a familiar-looking S60 menu.
The main menu is arranged into a straightforward 3 x 4 grid of icons representing functions or sub-menu options. Nokia keeps things relatively simple to follow; most icons bring up further lists of options.
One trait of S60 5th Edition is that some options require double tapping to select while others only require a single tap - not a deal breaker in itself, but it does feel curiously inconsistent and may be an irritant to some. That familiar navigation structure of the S60 menus also means some useful settings options can be quite a few clicks away.
The Applications folder contains most options, with plenty of pre-loaded software tucked away here - there are over 40 apps to start with - and it's where downloaded apps are stored by default. It's scrollable with a finger swipe, and you can rearrange the order by dragging and dropping icons around the display, should you wish to organise it more to your liking.
Nokia N97 Mini: Calls and messaging
In our time with the N97 Mini we experienced excellent call quality, with top class clarity and no problems with network handling. As mentioned, making calls is easy enough with the large touchscreen numberpad, while accessing and calling up contacts from the contacts phonebook is a home screen softkey tap away.
You can select contacts as favourites, which move them automatically to the top of your contacts list; others you can scroll through either with a bit of finger swiping action or by tapping a search panel and selecting characters onscreen.
One issue some may not like is that if you answer a call while you're using the keyboard, it automatically comes through the loudspeaker; it's not really a big deal, though, as you can easily switch to normal earpiece mode.
This phone is well geared up for those who want to do plenty of typing on a touchscreen phone. The texting setup is familiar S60 stuff, but the keyboard makes tapping out messages hassle free.
If you want to quickly type a message with the keyboard tucked away, that's no problem either - you can bring up a virtual phone numberpad by holding the phone upright, and this is spacious and sensibly laid out to maximise usability (unlike some touchscreen phones).
There's also a handwriting option that works OK. It's a pleasant experience all round, and we found the keyboard very usable.
As well as simple texting and MMS, the N97 Mini hits the spot for email. Using Nokia Messaging, its easy to set up the phone for web-based POP3/IMAP4 email accounts simply by typing in your email address and password, with the email client automatically taking care of the rest. Corporate email can be accommodated too, and the phone has Mail for Exchange support.
The email user interface looks good too, with options nicely laid out, and it's easy to manage your account using the on-screen options, and keep tabs on multiple accounts. Push email is supported too.
Nokia's Ovi Chat instant messaging service is available on the N97 Mini, with Ovi Contacts integrated into the Contacts list, while you can also easily add a Windows Live Messenger client for free from the selection of apps available via the phone's Ovi Store.
Nokia N97 Mini: Internet
Nokia's Ovi Store applications and content download store is just one of many online-based applications that come pre-loaded on the N97 Mini, connecting you to mobile-optimised internet services and social networking sites.
With Wi-Fi onboard, when hooked up to a hotspot you can enjoy speedy zipping around websites and uploading or downloading of content (the phone also has a Share Online facility to bring together your online accounts details, speeding up the content sharing process).
High-speed mobile connectivity is available too via HSDPA (the up-to-3.6Mbps variety), so is pretty nippy for downloading too when you're out and about.
The Nokia browser used on the N97 Mini is a tidy piece of software without dazzling with innovation. It renders full web pages quickly and efficiently, and supports Flash Lite. The user experience is an improvement over earlier S60 browsers.
Touchscreen buttons can be used to call up address bars, zoom in and out, plus a grid of navigation and control options can be brought up with a quick finger tap. It makes it easier to negotiate than on previous conventional S60 phones.
However, it's still not got the intuitive, smooth ease of use of the iPhone or some Android devices; there's no pinch zooming, for instance. Still, websites look good on the 3.2-inch screen, and you can view full screen in landscape mode.
Among the online services to hand on the N97 Mini are social networking favourites like Facebook - there's a widget for it pre-loaded onto the home screen - MySpace, Friendster and Hi5.
Some online-based services included in Applications folder, such as YouTube, simply take you to mobile-optimised sites, though there are some useful and entertaining apps among a well-populated selection that includes CNN Video, Bloomberg, the Reuters Slideshow image-based service, Amazon, Metro, AccuWeather.com's weather forecasts app, Psiloc's useful World Traveller software, ESPNsoccernet football news service and an Elle magazine app.
Nokia's also included a Qik application that allows users to stream live video online or upload footage for viewing later.
Nokia N97 Mini: Camera
Check back soon for sample shots from the N97 Mini
The N97 Mini has a similar camera to the N97 original, a 5-megapixel shooter sporting Carl Zeiss optics. This slimmed down version doesn't have a lens cover to protect the camera though. It, too, has an LED flash rather than a more upmarket xenon unit.
The camera can be activated quickly by pressing the side camera button, getting the snapper up and running in around three seconds, slipping the screen automatically into landscape viewfinder mode.
The touch user interface has been arranged to be simple to operate, without the clutter of numerous options from the start-up. Three icons plus 'Options' and 'Exit' buttons are stacked on the right of the display. There is a zoom slider on the left, though you can use the volume/zoom rocker instead.
The simple viewfinder setup provides a camera capture button, a flash setting (red-eye reduction is one option) and a Settings button that opens up a grid of 12 icons for making adjustments to the automatic shooting system.
These range from ISO light sensitivity levels and white balance to exposure and contrast adjustments and a variety of 'Scene' modes for different lighting environments and settings. A Close-up macro mode is included, which means you can get some crisp tight-in shots from up to 10cm away from the subject using the onboard auto-focus system. The usual sort of cameraphone colour tints, timer shots and multiple shot options are also to hand.
Additionally, you can 'geo-tag' photos - and videos - with location based metadata by switching on a 'GPS Info' option further into the settings menu. When using suitable apps and online services, this enables you to view photos on maps showing where they were taken.
Images shot on the N97 Mini look decent enough for a cameraphone; colours are well rendered in bright lighting conditions, and in murky conditions or indoors the auto metering systems adjusts promptly to changing light. The level of detail is pretty good. While it doesn't match up to a good standalone 5-megapixel camera, you can get some very acceptable shots.
The autofocus system works OK too, though with very close-up subjects the large focal frame in the viewfinder means you can't accurately predict what portion of the shot will be in focus, so you may have to have a few gos.
As usual now with Nokias, once shot you have the choice of sending photos via messaging options or uploading to one of your preferred services. Flickr, Vox and Nokia's Ovi service are initially set up, though you can add your own.
It may be no camcorder-worrier, but video shooting is acceptable for a cameraphone, enabling you to shoot reasonable looking clips at VGA (640 x 480 pixels) resolution at 30fps, or widescreen shots at 640 x 352 pixels resolution.
Nokia N97 Mini: Media
With the keyboard out, the angled screen position is great for viewing video when the phone's sitting on your desk or lap.
The display is large enough for a reasonable video-viewing experience, and playback looks smooth and bright on the display. It supports downloaded or streamed video, so you can watch footage online or get clips from compatible services downloaded to your phone.
Nokia aggregates video content in a Video & TV sub-menu folder; within this you can get onto Nokia's Ovi video service and find some free and paid-for content, including clips and movie trailers - though it's not a particularly compelling offering at the moment.
A RealPlayer app is standard Nseries fare. Unlike some handsets from the likes of Samsung, DivX and Xvid video formats are not supported on this handset.
While the N97 Mini's internal storage has been scaled back from the original N97's 32GB, it still has 8GB worth of space for loading videos, tunes and other content.
The music player looks typically Nokia Nseries, and regular MP3, WMA, AAC, eAAC, and eAAC+ files can be played, with the phones music library arranged as a familiar list of categories. These are automatically refreshed if you slip in a new card or load up more tunes.
Nokia hasn't introduced any eye-catching iPhone-esque gadgetry or graphics for the music player presentation - it's a fairly straightforward user interface. Cover art is supported, and it has intuitive, functional touch buttons and draggable timeline. Additional options are available for equaliser and settings adjustment - all standard issue stuff.
The N97 Mini's audio performance is really pleasing to the ears. The supplied earphones are better quality than you normally get with a mobile (or iPod) - they're in-ear buds which come with alternative silicon gels to ensure a snug fit.
Music sounds rich and detailed through them, with a well-balanced frequency range including a heavy but well defined bass presence. The phone has a 3.5mm headphone jack socket on top, should you wish to try out your own headphones, though the in-box set are pretty good for a standard set of ear-gear.
The N97 Mini cuts one of the features from the N97's music functionality though - there's no FM transmitter on this model to play tracks back on nearby radios.
On top of your sideloaded tracks, Nokia offers a facility to buy tunes over the air from its Nokia Music Store portal, with an app in the music folder directing you there. An easy to tune and operate FM radio with RDS is featured too.
A familiar S60 Podcasting function adds to the listening package. It enables users to search for, subscribe to and listen to podcasts from the handset. A Podcast option is also included in the Music Library categories.
As mentioned earlier, the N97 Mini has a selection of online media apps pre-loaded into its Applications folder, giving access to services including YouTube and CNN Video's news service. Mobile network video services will also be supported on suitably configured handsets from operators.
Nokia N97 Mini: Battery life and misc features
The N97 Mini may share much of the heavyweight gadgetry of its N97 big brother, but Nokia has scaled down the power available, supplying the N97 Mini with a 1200mAh battery pack rather than the 1500mAh one included with the N97.
Consequently, Nokia quotes more modest battery life estimates for this model - 310 hours on standby or 4 hours of talktime in 3G network coverage (compared to 6 hours talktime or 400 hours standby on the N97).
The actual amount you get will, in practice, vary from user to user, depending how they use the phone and how much certain power-hungry features (Wi-Fi, GPS, browsing, video watching, and so on) are employed. In our tests, we usually got 1 to 2 days of power between usage, which was adequate if not exceptional for this type of handset.
A comprehensive set of organiser tools and apps are embedded on the N97 Mini, in typical S60 fashion. The phone's Office folder includes Quickoffice document viewing software, and an Adobe PDF viewer.
You might have expected that, with such a text-friendly QWERTY keyboard-packing device, Nokia might have incorporated the facility to edit or create new documents in Quickoffice, but sadly that's not the case - you'll have to subscribe to upgrade the Word, Excel and PowerPoint document reader to do that.
Convertor, calculator and Active Notes are included too, plus a Dictionary that provides translations and speaks words.
Naturally, extensive calendar and contacts functions are to hand, which are tweaked for the touchscreen environment, a few buttons adding to the calendar's easy usability.
A notes function and a voice recorder are onboard too, plus there's a text to voice message reader for reading out texts and other messages. Various clock and alarm functions are intuitively accessible using the touch interface and widgets, while a Search facility usefully enables users to tap in searches to hunt either online or within the handset itself.
The N97 Mini is a tri-band WCDMA handset (900/1900/2100MHz) with HSDPA support for data download connectivity at up to 3.6Mbps (though, of course, real life rates will be considerably slower than this maximum figure). In non-3G coverage areas, quad-band GSM (850/900/1800/1900MHz) ensures connections with GPRS/EDGE.
WLAN (IEEE 802.11b/g) provides high-speed data connectivity on home Wi-Fi hubs, office networks or public hotspots; it's reliable and does a good job at maintaining speedy data connections.
A WLAN wizard helps users set up connections, though we felt the process could be made easier and more intuitive for novices, particularly for secure networks where guidance from the phone is sparse.
Bluetooth 2.0 is supported on the handset, and a TV-out facility is available (though no lead is provided in-box). A USB cable is supplied, however, so you can hook it up to a PC for syncing or transferring content, either via the supplied Ovi Suite software or in mass storage mode.
Nokia's Ovi Suite software enables users to sync and manage media between their handset and PC (there's no version for Mac). Contacts, calendars, notes and media can be synchronised easily or backed up, and a Sync on Ovi facility enables you to back up information online.
As with the N97, satellite-based location finding, route-mapping and location serarching is possible using the onboard A-GPS technology and Nokia's Maps software. Maps of the UK and Ireland are pre-loaded though you can update these if you're heading abroad.
The A-GPS system was remarkably fast to lock onto satellites and determine our precise position, even in places without particularly a good view of the sky and from our office. It responded quickly to changing positions, and the onboard compass feature mean the map view you get can switch orientation quickly to reflect where you're looking as you alter your position.
This version of Nokia's Maps software has been upgraded for toucscreen usability and, with mapping information pre-loaded, responds quickly when reloading. Onscreen '+' and '-' zoom icons work almost instantly in adjusting the map, while a search tool provides a quick way of looking up places or addresses.
The quality of the mapping is excellent, and searches worked effectively and quickly, and routes appeared to be efficiently planned for walking or driving. Maps can be viewed in 2D, 3D or satellite images can be used.
In addition to the useful standard Maps facilities, full satellite navigation with turn-by-turn voice guidance is possible, too - though this is initially only offered as a 10-day trial, after which you can subscribe to the sat nav service on a daily, monthly or annual basis. Additional licences can be bought to enhance the service further, including city guides and live travel information.
Among the other additional tools and applications are a Boingo Wi-Fi hotspot access application and JoikuSpot tethering software and Vlingo voice operation software for controlling the phone. An over the air software auto update app is also included.
There are plenty of other bits of functionality to be found elsewhere too. A remote locking facility, for instance, enables you to lock the handset if it goes missing by sending a pre-determined text message to the phone.
A turning control sensor function also enables you to silence incoming calls or send alarms to snooze by just turning over the phone. It's worth exploring the menus, as the supplied manual certainly doesn't cover it all.
Nokia N97 Mini: Verdict
The Nokia N97 Mini has plenty of smartphone firepower, and scaling down the design from the original N97 has made this a leaner and more attractive smartphone to carry around in your pocket.
The reduction in screen size and onboard flash memory are a shame, but the lack of bulk isn't. We prefer the reworked keyboard on this model, too, which is a very usable QWERTY effort. The N97 Mini ticks plenty of boxes for features, with its Wi-Fi and HSDPA connectivity, A-GPS, decent quality camera and a high-grade music player audio performance.
Smartphones are no longer just about volume of features, though, and Nokia's S60 5th Edition platform doesn't match up to the easy usability of the iPhone and Android touch control platforms.
It still feels and acts very much like previous S60 UIs for touch control rather than an innovative new system. As such, it may be easy to get to grips with and familiar for existing Nokia smartphone users, but it's hardly a cutting-edge touch control interface.
The Nokia N97 Mini has stacks of attractive features and functions. Its connectivity options include Wi-Fi and HSDPA, while A-GPS gadgetry and Maps software are a useful in-pocket tool. Nokia has stocked up the online-based applications too, so there's plenty of out of the box stuff to play with. The home screen widgets idea also works well.
That QWERTY keyboard, though, is a very welcome addition for those who use their smartphones to do plenty of typing. It's comfortable and accurate to use and really adds to the fine messaging capabilities. And we like the tilt of the screen for viewability when the keyboard's slid out.
The music player puts in an impressive audio performance too and we liked the earphones supplied - plus there's a 3.5mm standard headphone socket in situ. Internal storage of 8GB is very welcome, even if it is less than the original N97's 32GB.
The 5-megapixel camera was good enough too, with a simply arranged user interface control system.
We also really admired the industrial-strength build quality, with no flimsiness in the bodywork.
It's not necessarily difficult to use, it's just that the S60 5th Edition user interface feels much like a straightforward touch version of previous S60 incarnations, so doesn't have the fluidity and easy usability - and freshness - of other rival designed-from-the-ground-up smartphone platforms. It does the job for operating the phone, and the resistive type screen is fine for that sort of display. But it doesn't feel that touch control has been fully utilised to open up the possibilities of the mobile user experience. Its traditional S60 phone conventions may, however, appeal to Nokia smartphone fans who want a familiar experience on a touchscreen device...
Though a Mini version of the N97, it's still no slimline touchscreen device - though its fine slider keyboard is an acceptable excuse.
Battery life has taken a hit from the original N97, with a smaller capacity pack included; with so many features to play with, that may be a handicap for some heavy users.
A small niggle is the balance of the phone when typing on a desk - we felt it could have easily been solved. And with this decent QWERTY keyboard we'd have liked to be able to edit or create documents out of the box rather than having to upgrade Quickoffice.
The Nokia N97 Mini is a decent device with plenty of features going for it, a good quality performance and build, and a very usable QWERTY keyboard to complement its hefty amount of onboard functionality. The 'Mini' label hasn't shaved a huge amount off the price tag though - it's £429 SIM-free at launch, with the N97 currently £449.
Despite scaling down some features, however, the N97 Mini is possibly more attractive as a pocket QWERTY-packing smartphone handset than its N97 big brother. Its familiar S60 user interface may get the vote from Nokia smartphone fans, too - though it lacks the pizzazz of some of its touchscreen rivals.
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