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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.