Nokia N97 Mini (unlocked)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010 Leave a Comment
Nokia N97 Mini (unlocked)
We had high hopes for the Nokia N97 when we checked it out in June 2009. Armed with a touch screen and a long list of features, it looked like the flagship model of the Nokia N series would be a hit. Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite the opposite. Plagued with a poor user interface and lackluster performance, the N97 was forgettable, especially as the iPhone, Palm Pre, and Android devices hit the scene.

However, not one to give up, Nokia came back with the Nokia N97 Mini ($479 unlocked). Sporting a more compact and revamped design, the N97 Mini is most definitely an improvement over its bigger brother. Performance is better and it's still very much a feature-packed smartphone. That said, the N97 Mini's UI is still confusing and frustrating to use; given that there a number of other similarly featured and simpler touch-screen smartphones on the market today, we can't see the N97 Mini attracting too many users other than Symbian/Nokia fanboys and fangirls.
The Nokia N97 Mini is appropriately named because it is essentially a mini version of the Nokia N97. The smartphone measures 4.45 inches tall by 2.07 inches wide by 0.56 inch deep and weighs 4.87 ounces, whereas the N97 came in at 4.61 inches tall by 2.18 inches wide by 0.63 inch thick and 5.29 ounces. Just by looking at the numbers, the difference in size doesn't seem all that great, but in hand, it's definitely noticeable and appreciated. The N97 Mini is a much more pocket-friendly device, not to mention a more solid one. Nokia replaced the plastic battery cover with a stainless steel one, giving the phone a more substantial feel and not one of a plastic toy.
Given the smaller size, it's no surprise that the screen size was also scaled back. The N97 Mini has a 3.2-inch QVGA (640x360) resistive touch screen that displays up to 16.7 million colors. The display is sharp and vibrant and features an ambient light sensor to automatically adjust the screen's brightness. In addition, it has a proximity sensor and a built-in accelerometer that was quick to change the screen's orientation from portrait to landscape mode and vice versa. As we stated in our N97 review, we would have preferred a capacitive touch screen over a resistive one, but our issue wasn't so much with that as it was with the user interface.
The N97 was plagued with inconsistencies that negatively affected the user experience. For example, some menu items required one tap to open and others required two. In addition, sometimes multiple steps were involved just to complete a simple task, and scrolling through lists could be a laborious and jerky. It was a completely confusing and frustrating. A subsequent firmware 2.0 update was released and incorporated into the N97 Mini; that alleviates some but not all of the problems.
Improvements were made to the touch-screen algorithms for better performance, and we did feel like the display was more responsive. You also now get kinetic scrolling for pages and menu items, so when you reach the end or top of the list, it snaps back like elastic. Unfortunately, what we didn't get was a more uniform and simpler menu system that would have made an otherwise good smartphone excellent and would've given it a fighting chance against the other major touch-screen smartphones on the market today.
Switching gears to the N97 Mini's keyboard, Nokia has removed the D-pad that used to occupy the left side, making way for a more spacious and more ergonomic keyboard. There's an adequate amount of spacing between the buttons, so you shouldn't have too many mispresses. Overall, we found it pretty decent to use. The keys are slightly stiff to press, which slowed us down a bit, and the space key is still off-center. It's a bit better in that the space bar is longer and moved over slightly, but it's still a far stretch if you want to hit it with your left thumb.
On a side note, prepare to use some arm muscles to slide open the phone. The slider is really solid but incredibly stiff, so it requires a strong push to get it open. We had an unsuspecting friend try it out and the phone ended up flying out of her hands because she was pushing so hard on the bottom of the screen. It loosens up a bit after some use, but those initial tries might surprise you.
Rounding out the design are touch-sensitive Talk and End keys and a Main Menu button below the display and a power button and 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the device. On, the left side, there's a Micro-USB port and a lock switch; a volume rocker and camera button are on the right. The camera will activate as soon as you hit the latter, since there is no longer a protective cover over the camera lens on back.
The Nokia N97 comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, a cleaning cloth, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
The Nokia N97 Mini retains a lot of the features offered by the N97, but there were a couple of cuts made to help keep the price and size of the phone down. The biggest difference is that you now get 8GB of internal memory instead of 32GB. However, there is a microSD expansion slot behind the battery cover than can accommodate up to 16GB cards. Another minor loss is the FM transmitter.
One feature you do gain is free voice-guided navigation. Nokia recently announced that it's scrapping the monthly and annual license fees for Ovi Maps navigation service, so not only do you get the maps, but you also get text-to-speech spoken directions and premium content, such as Lonely Planet city guides, weather forecasts, and event information. The app is available as a free download for 10 of Nokia's current handsets and will come preloaded on the company's future GPS-enabled smartphones.
Aside from these changes, the two devices are pretty much the same. We'll elaborate more on some of the N97 Mini's functions in the Performance section below, but for a detailed list of the phone's features, please read our full review of the Nokia N97.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Nokia N97 Mini in New York using AT&T service and call quality gets two thumbs up. There was very little to no background noise to distract us from the conversation, and there wasn't any type of voice distortion of muffling. We also didn't experience any dropped calls and had no problem using an airline's voice automated response system. On the other side, friends had mostly good things to say about the audio quality, though one did say he could hear a bit of an echo at times. As expected, the call quality degraded a bit when we activated the speakerphone. Though there was plenty of volume, even in louder environments, calls sounded a bit hollow.
Then N97 Mini supports AT&T's 3G bands, which provided good speeds and reliable coverage during our testing period. It took 27 seconds for CNET's full site to load; CNN and ESPN's mobile sites loaded in 8 seconds and 6 seconds, respectively. The N97 Mini's browser did a good job of displaying pages and it supports multiple windows and Flash Lite. However, navigation is a bit clunky. For example, you can't simply start entering a URL to go to a new site. You have to first press the arrow button on the bottom right-hand corner and then press the globe icon and then enter the Web address. To zoom, you can simply double-tap on the screen, which is often necessary to click on any links since it's difficult to precisely touch the small text with just your fingertip.
The smartphone's media player is decent. It supports a number of music formats, including MP3, WMA, AAC, AAC+, and eAAC+ files, and you can create playlists on the fly and also adjust sound with the built-in equalizer. We listened to various genres of music and were happy with the sound quality, but like the speakerphone calls, tracks sounded a bit sunken through the phone's speakers. The N97 Mini is capable of playing video as well, but unfortunately, it only supports a limited number of video codecs. We watched several MP4 clips and for the most part, playback was smooth, but image quality could sometimes get a little fuzzy.
On the other hand, the smartphone's 5-megapixel camera certainly delivered on picture quality. Equipped with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens and a dual-LED flash, auto focus, 14x digital zoom, and various editing options, we got great shots indoors and outdoors. Objects were clearly defined and colors were vibrant. The camera can also capture VGA video at up to 30 frames per second, and the video quality was quite decent, especially for a camera phone.
Overall, the N97 Mini felt like a faster and more stable machine than the N97. There was still some lag and delays when working in multiple apps, but we certainly noticed the difference in responsiveness between the two devices. The Nokia N97 Mini features a 1,200mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 7.17 hours (GSM)/4 hours (3G) and up to 13.3 days (GSM)/12.9 (3G) days of standby time. We are still conducting our battery drain tests but will update this section as soon as we have final results. According to FCC radiation tests, the N97 Mini has a digital SAR rating of 0.91 watt per kilogram.


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