Nokia N97 mini (Testing Notes)
A Tech Review

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 7 June 2010
Category: Tech > Hardware > Reviews Comments View Comments

Nokia's N97 mini cellular phone, which runs Symbian S60 5th Edition, was released late last year. Is it an improvement over not-so-well-received Nokia N97? Have a look at our testing notes and decide for yourself.

The Nokia N97 mini is a tilt-slider touchscreen phone with a QWERTY keyboard and a five-megapixel camera. It was introduced as a successor to the Nokia N97, which was released in 2009 and received mixed reviews - it was one of the few Nokia phones in recent times that has been received so badly. A few months later Nokia released updated firmware that addressed many of the initial issues that were criticised (such as minimal installation storage space for applications). I tested the Nokia N97 last year and, although it was a unit running the updated firmware, I wasn't particularly impressed with it (though I didn't have quite the negative reaction of some reviewers). The Nokia N97 mini is an update of that device, with a slightly smaller form factor, a few tweaked specifications, and some enhancements.

However, coming off the Nokia N900 and Maemo 5, as well as a number of Android-based phones I've been testing recently, I immediately noticed that Symbian S60, which runs on the Nokia 97 mini, is looking tired. It's the same OS I've been seeing for over two years, with very little by way of improvement, and other operating systems now outclass it. Symbian Series 60 5th Edition is still the default on all mid-range and high-end Nokia phones and the average consumer is still likely to be using it, or will probably still encounter it, for a few years to come, so I'm delving into it, and some of the more interesting apps I tested on the Nokia N97 mini, in more detail in an article that will be posted on the site next. Look out for it as it will contain a wealth of extra information about this specific phone as well.

For now, my focus will primarily be on the hardware, the user experience, and the phone-specific software factors that comprised my experience of the Nokia N97 mini. As will be the usual standard for phone reviews on, I'm presenting them as my transcribed (and slightly enhanced) testing notes, so this won't be a comprehensive review, but rather a focus on the little things that matter more to the average consumer.

Nokia N97 mini

Pros: Physical And Design Considerations
+ The physical form factor is well designed and the phone is comfortable to hold and use, even for extended periods of time and even though much of it is made of metal, which I've found makes for a very unpleasant experience in other phones.
+ When you slide open the phone to reveal the keypad the screen flips up to an angle (hence its categorisation as a "tilt-slider" phone). Although it's set and can't be adjusted it's far more user-friendly than screens that don't tilt at all.
+ There's a front camera for video calling (it's approximately VGA quality).
+ The GPS receiver is very powerful (more powerful than many GPS navigation units I've tested). It can receive signals indoors (to a point, of course) and it had no problems at Heerengracht Fountain, which, due to all the tall buildings, has a few (to some devices) dead spots even though it's outdoors.

Pros: Touchscreen, Interface, Usability
+ The home screen can be customised with shortcuts to apps or live widgets that can pull data off the Internet (though this can be costly if you don't have a good data plan). The process is very simple and the widgets reflow whether the phone is in portrait or landscape orientation. It gives the Symbian operating system a feel similar to Android and maim 5, although the functionality is far more basic and you can't have multiple home screens.
+ The keys glow when you slide open the phone to access the keyboard, making it easier to type in low-light conditions.
+ The screen is designed to be legible under bright-light conditions.
+ There's an indicator light at the US port, although it's, unfortunately, very hard to see (except in the dark).
+ There is also a charging/charged indicator light.
+ The phone uses the micro USB port. While I'm not personally fond of it (for no logical reason, I should add - aesthetics, maybe) it's the industry standard connector and it has a much longer lifespan than mini USB.
+ The touchscreen is very responsive. (Most of the time - see the cons for more on that.)
+ You can pause while recording videos.
+ The phone is quite a fun gaming device. Obviously it depends on the games (and there will be more on this in the Symbian article) but many of the ones included on the Nokia N97 mini were great.
+ The camera can zoom and the quality, while not great (the minute you start zooming the picture becomes fuzzy), is better than what I've seen with previous Nokia phones.
+ The camera takes decent close-up shots and does well in bright sunlight.

Pros: Software
+ You can lock the phone remotely by sending an SMS with specific text that you've preprogrammed in the phone. I didn't test this functionality but I did note that it was there.
+ Video footage saves as it is being recorded, so if you run out of battery life and the phone dies mid filming, your video will be saved up to that point, without errors.
+ You can add tags to your photos, so when you upload them to a service such as Flickr they're automatically imported.
+ The phone can automatically geotag photos if the GPS receiver is picking up signals.
Nokia N97 mini

Cons: Physical And Design Considerations
- You have to slide the SIM into a little removable tray that then slides upside down into a slot - it's very fiddly and weird. I thought I had seen everything when it comes to SIM slots but this was a first.
- There's no cover for the lens. This is a mid-range phone, and therefore I was expecting it. Nokia usually recesses the lens on entry-level phones and provides a cover over a recessed lens for extra protection on mid-range and high-end phones.
- The back of the phone gets warm (though not hot) because it's metal and therefore conducts more heat.
- The phone has the same key layout as the Nokia N900 but the extended characters are in different places - and it's still not an improvement. You'll be in for a bit of hunt and peck as the symbols are not placed intuitively.
- The speaker sound is very tinny. There were two in the unit (that I could see) but even so the quality was noticeably lacking, especially since I've been impressed with the capabilities of some of Nokia's XpressMusic phones.

Cons: Touchscreen, Interface, Usability
- Sometimes the touchscreen isn't responsive.
- There was haptic feedback vibration from the touchscreen every time I did anything. While this is generally welcome in cases in which you'd not be sure, otherwise, if the phone had registered your action it soon became irritating when applied to absolutely everything. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to switch it off.
- There's no stylus. It got to the point where I was using my netbook's stylus because operating the screen with your fingers is cumbersome, even for simple tasks such as menu scrolling.
Nokia N97 mini
- The phone supports character-by-character handwriting recognition, which works reasonably well, but the writing area is really small (even when using a stylus) and it becomes easier to type using the physical keyboard.
- The touchscreen input system can be switched between the handwriting-recognition format and an on-screen keyboard but the on-screen keyboard isn't much better. Its development really could have used a bit more thought, which is something I realised when I installed Opera Mobile 10, which has its own on-screen keyboard that is fantastic (more on that in the next article).
- The accelerometer (and/or the software interpreting it) is very sluggish. It often takes the phone quite a while to realise that you've changed the orientation, and sometimes it doesn't respond at all.
- You can't switch phone profiles (such as from General to Silent) if you don't have a SIM in the phone. While this is unlikely to be an issue for most people it was something I experienced while testing the phone.
- The battery life isn't too good if you need to do anything particularly intensive, such as surf the Web (and this isn't even taking into account if you want to install widgets on the home screen that pull data from the Internet, which has both battery and cost implications).
- The camera doesn't do well in low-light conditions.

Cons: Software
- Symbian S60 5th Edition really is showing its age (more on that in the next article) and the same problems that have never been addressed will still plague any new device that the operating system is installed on. These problems include the terrible default web browser and the camera issues mentioned below.
- Opera Mobile 10 would often die if the phone went into sleep mode. Upon waking up the phone the program would just be gone, which became very frustrating if I was in the middle of a web-surfing session and had a lot of tabs open, because the tabs aren't saved (although a limited amount of your browsing history is).
- The camera-flash setting reverts to on if you close the app and then relaunch it, or if you're in the app and switch to video-capture mode and back. The setting doesn't revert if the phone goes into sleep mode while you're in the camera app. This flash problem is a Symbian S60 problem that I first observed in December 2007 on the Nokia N82. Nothing has changed since then, and it drives me crazy.
- You have the option of four different camera shutter sounds but you can't switch off the shutter sound, even if the phone's profile is set to Silent. All of the sounds are irritating and obtrusive. Again, this problem has existed for years.
- There are still some common video codec and formats that the playback software struggles with. I have a test MP4 (avc1 codec, 478x360) that doesn't play properly on this device that other devices have successfully played. (The audio plays but the video doesn't, even though the MP4 format is supported by the phone.)
Nokia N97 mini

General Observations
 The microSD slot is under the battery cover (but not the battery). Although this is irritating the cover is easy to remove.
 There's a switch on the left-hand side of the phone called the keyguard switch. It's a sliding spring toggle that you can flick to switch the screen back on if the phone goes into sleep mode. It's much easier to use than *-Unlock.
 The phone is designed to work in portrait or landscape orientation. You just flip between the two, as per your preference or the requirements of a particular piece of software, by rotating the phone. Most system applications work in either orientation but some games are designed for only one.
 If you hold down the menu button an icon list pops up showing you the apps that are open (it's similar to Alt-Tabbing on a desktop computer). This is a feature of the operating system but it's particularly handy as you can perform tasks that require multiple apps by switching between them very easily.
 If it's available I always download and install Opera Mini while testing a phone but in this case the Opera WAP site recommended Opera Mini 5 and Opera Mobile 10. I downloaded and installed both but the Opera Mobile 10 experience was so great that I never got around to trying Opera Mini 5.
 The phone is divided into five storage areas that are designated with drive letters:
C: a (roughly) 230 MB system partition, called "Phone Memory", where apps are installed by default, although they can also be installed on the Mass Memory drive or a microSD card
D: a hidden partition (I don't know what's on it)
E: the 8 GB mass-storage drive, called "Mass Memory", where your media files are stored by default (unless you specify that they should be saved to your microSD card)
F: the removable microSD card, where you can install apps and store your media files
Z: a hidden partition that contains system data such as the license keys for QuickOffice
Other Notes And Specs
Nokia BL-4D Li-Ion battery
Startup Time: 50 seconds
Charging Time: 2:37
Battery: Nokia BL-4D Li-Ion, 1200 mAh, 3.7 V, 44 Wh
Operating System: Symbian Series 60 5th Edition
Offline Mode: Yes
Processor: 434 MHz ARM11
Size: 113x52.5x14.2mm (WxLxH)
Weight: 138g
On-Board Storage: 8 GB
Removable Storage: microSD (up to 16 GB); microSDHC (up to 16 GB)
Screen Resolution: 640x360 (3.2 inches)
Connectivity And Communications: WLAN 802.11b/g, USB 2.0, Bluetooth 2.0, TV out
USB Connector: micro USB (Micro-B type)
Camera: 5 megapixels, Carl Zeiss Tessar 2.8/5.4
Camera Resolutions:
2592x1944 (photo, 5 megapixels);
1600x1200 (photo, 2 megapixels);
640x480 (photo, 0.3 megapixels MMS);
320x240 (photo, front camera);
640x480 (video, 4x3, MP4, 48 000 Hz Stereo);
640x352 (video, widescreen, MP4, 48 000 Hz Stereo);
176x154 (video, 4x3, 3GP, 8000 Hz Mono).
Media Playback (Audio): AAC, eAAC, eAAC+, MP3, WMA
Media Playback (Video): Flash Video, MPEG-4, RealVideo
In The Box:
Nokia Travel Charger (AC-10E);
Nokia Connectivity Cable (CA-101), micro USB (Micro-B) to USB 2.0;
Nokia WH-701 headset (which includes controls) with three sizes of canal plugs;
Nokia Car Lighter travel adapter (no model code) to micro USB charger/adapter cable;
A manual for the Nokia Easy Mount HH-20 and CR-116/117 car mount, which was odd because there was no car mount in the box (this may have been an oversight since this was a review, not retail, unit);
Various pamphlets and ephemera.
There was no software CD. As with the Nokia N900, I'm not sure whether this was an oversight because this was a media review unit or if Nokia just isn't shipping them anymore.
There was no Getting Started Guide: again, a possible oversight.

Concluding Thoughts
Although there's a long list of cons (which is always the case because one tends to notice the problems), for the most part there's nothing particularly wrong with the Nokia N97 mini, but I've been spoilt by the Nokia N900 and the Maemo 5 operating system, the combination of which was a huge indicator to me of what Nokia phones are now capable of. The Nokia N97 mini is a more comfortable size for me and the hardware is fine, bar a bit of sluggishness that could be attributed to the software (though I can't be absolutely sure), but all I could see was how badly Symbian S60 is now holding back Nokia hardware. This was especially noticeable once I installed Opera Mobile 10 on the phone, which has some features and capabilities that should automatically be built into Symbian S60 but aren't. I'll discuss that, in particular, in the article I'm posting next so look out for it.

I can't say that I was enthusiastic about the Nokia N97 mini as much as I am about the upcoming Nokia N8, which will be running a new version of Symbian (finally!), called Symbian^3. It was announced around the time I received this review unit. The possibilities for that device completely overwhelm the potential of this device. However, in using the Nokia N97 mini I grew to like it, despite the flaws - but always with the asterisk in the back of my mind of how much potential was still being wasted.

For the average consumer who doesn't want anything too high tech or complicated, but still with the main features and capabilities, this is an excellent, robust phone and I recommend it.

The Nokia N97 mini review unit was provided by Nokia South Africa. Opinion Share/Bookmark
Rating: 7/10

On The Internet
Nokia N97 mini: Nokia Australia | Nokia MEA | Wikipedia
Symbian S60: Wikipedia
Nokia BL-4D (Battery): Nokia MEA Comments Speak Your Mind

Elsewhere On
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Nokia N900 Testing Notes
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