Roundup: 5 Smart Phones for Summer

Nokia N97

Nokia’s famed N-Series handsets are the company’s best and brightest, but the N97 has begun to show the company’s age. As the first touch screen N-series model, the N97 is easily the most expensive, largest and yet most feature-packed device we tested.

What’s most surprising about the N97 is its use of the Symbian S60 operating system. This operating system, already two years old, is outdated and is not made for a touchscreen device. In fact, most of the problems we had with the N97 are due to the operating system, which seems to have been haphazardly slapped onto a magnificent handset.

Another major disappointment is the resistive touchscreen. We much prefer capacitive touchscreens, found on the iPhone, Palm Pre (page 6), and several HTC devices, which are more precise and feel better in the hand. Considering the $700 price tag and the great lengths Nokia went to in order to make the N97 an incredible piece of hardware, the engineers left out the most important element, the user interface.

Before we go deeper into the software, let’s look at the hardware. The huge 3.5" screen is bright and has a lot of space for applications. The receiver, an ugly proximity sensor, a secondary “vanity” camera, and a light sensor are positioned above the screen. Below the screen are touch-sensitive talk and end buttons, as well as a physical menu button.

The top of the N97 has a small power button and 3.5 mm audio jack, and on the left is the USB Micro port and lock slider. Both the audio and USB ports are uncovered, which is unusual for a cell phone, though they’ve remained clean during our testing process. On the right is the volume control and dedicated camera button. The back has the slide-out camera, which unlocks the phone and starts the camera application when opened. Finally, on the bottom of the N97 is a space to tie Nokia’s stylus, which isn’t required for the phone, but is necessary for certain optional applications and provides more precise touch navigation.

Behind the battery case sits a giant battery which seems to go on forever, as well as a slide-out SIM card holster and a microSD card slot. Removing the back case is a nuisance since it only clips on, though the large battery is much appreciated. It outlasted every other phone we’ve tested by far.

Flipping the N97 open reveals the most profound part of the device: the hatch. It effortlessly and cleanly slides open, perhaps providing the best sliding action of any phone. The screen tilts at an angle so users can set the handset down on a flat surface and still see the screen. This also means when typing, users must tilt their hands to adjust for the screen’s tilt.

Once flipped, the screen unlocks and the device goes into landscape mode. Navigation is identical, though users can opt for using the D-pad instead of the touchscreen, to which the OS is better suited. All touchscreen functionality is identical in portrait and landscape except in select applications.

The second concern with the hardware, besides the resistive touchscreen, is the weak CPU. At 424 MHz, it’s slow compared to phones of its caliber. More importantly, it makes the N97 slower than we’d expect from a $700 device. The other hardware components, including the 32 GB of internal storage, the 5 MP Carl Zeiss camera, the 3.5 G HSDPA and WLAN antenna, the FM radio, and the giant 3.5" screen are all listed on the slider flap when the phone opened. Why include such a slow CPU for these high-end components?

As noted earlier, the operating system doesn’t help. In our recent look at the E75, which also uses Symbian S60, we said that Symbian worked great and that it was more like a Windows experience than the competing Windows Mobile device, Samsung’s Propel Pro. Yet today’s newer operating systems, made specifically for touchscreen phones, make Symbian feel old and outdated, as it officially now is.

What is commendable about Symbian is all the applications it supports: QuickOffice, a PDF reader, dictionary, voice recorder, GPS, drawing, Qik, and Hi5 to name a few. Any office applications or documents can be both easily read and written on the N97. Even the main menu is jam packed with customizable widgets, showing anything from news feeds to email to stock prices to the music playing. And with up to 48 GB (our unit came with 32 GB) of space available, there is enough space for a sizeable music and video library.

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  • SlyMaelstrom
    Where's the HTC Touch Pro 2? It's superior to all of these phones and will be available on all major US carriers by the end of September. It's already out on T-Mobile.
  • jamezrp
    HTC Touch Pro 2? Keep your eyes peeled on this site...
  • jamezrp
    HTC Touch Pro 2? Keep your eyes peeled on this site...
  • georgeb45
    HTC Touch Diamond 2 rulez them all. HTC Touch Pro 2 is the most advanced smartphone but is too large. Diamond 2 has the perfect size and works great. I'm using it for 3 months now and i'm very satisfied with it.
  • nerdherd
    This is a strange review...comparing a Palm Pre to a Samsung Instinct? Why don't we compare apples to apples, like mentioned above where are some HTC phones like the Diamond 2 and the Touch Pro 2? Not to mention some kind of Android or Symbian based phone...
  • Where's the G1? By far the best phone out... Better than all the phones reviewed in this. I would've liked to see it compare against these phones...
  • moullas
    "There are currently three major players in the touchscreen operating system business for cell phones: Apple with the iPhone OS, Google with Android, and Palm with webOS."

    ?? Is this supposed to be an unbiased review? Forgetting Windows Mobile with the largest userbase seems a bit suspicious
  • Noobster15
    Why wouldnt a Iphone be considered a Smart phone?
    It could own all of those Phones
  • Boxa786
    your name says it all, iphone is not classed as a smart phone when compared to true smartphones due to its crippling features, such as;
    No MMS
    No Video recording

    the latest iphone 3gs has many improvements over its predessors, but it still lacks some features compared to the rest.

    Although all these phones mentioned are great, there are other handsets available which should have been included in this review, such as the latest HTC and not forgetting the world number 1 for business users, RIM handsets!
  • kyeana
    If im not mistaken, the pre's app are done entirely in html/javascript, meaning that if they open the app store up to everyone, we should see apps flowing into it in no time.
  • kyeana
    Also im not sure if this has been addressed yet, but the pre did have a bug in is messaging app that caused the battery to drain faster then it should. Perhaps that could account for some of the battery life issues (but of course not all of it, i still would have loved to see a bigger battery in there)
  • Tomsguiderachel
    nerdherdThis is a strange review...comparing a Palm Pre to a Samsung Instinct? Why don't we compare apples to apples, like mentioned above where are some HTC phones like the Diamond 2 and the Touch Pro 2? Not to mention some kind of Android or Symbian based phone...

    There is a Symbian unit in this roundup.
  • Tomsguiderachel
    Thanks to everyone who commented on this article. Here's some insight into our editorial process: we can only include articles for which we have review units in any given roundup. We did not have the HTC Touch Pro 2 when this roundup came out, but we had those 5 phones so we reviewed those. But now, we finally have the HTC Touch Pro 2, so check out: http://www.tomsguide.com/us/Toshiba-TG01-HTC-TouchPro2,review-1386.html

    Please keep this in mind when you make comments about missing products in roundups. Not every product is available to every review at every moment in time. We do try our best!