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Nokia N97 Mini Smartphone Review

This week, it’s the turn of Nokia’s N97 mini to come under the harsh glare of the GNC spotlight.  Now over a year old, the smartphone market has changed significantly in the last 12 months, so how does the N97 mini stack up against the current offerings from Android, Apple and Palm?

As the name suggests, this is smaller version of the N97. At just over 11 cm tall, 5 cm wide and about 15 mm deep this is a small phone and would have been the smallest smartphone on release. Unfortunately, the Xperia X10 mini probably holds this crown now. The styling of the phone is simple without being utilitarian but does feel a little dated compared with the latest offerings from htc and co. The resistive touchscreen is 3.2″ with 640 x360 pixels and looks clear and detailed.

Continuing in the long-established tradition of Nokia Communicators, this is a side-slider (or horizontal slide) with a bit of a difference as the screen tilts up as well. This is a great feature as when the phone is on your desk with the slider open, it’s really easy to see what’s on the tilted screen. Unfortunately, there’s no chance of typing while the phone is on the desk as it wobbles too much. If there just been a little bump below the camera, it would have stabilised it beautifully.

Other than that little issue, the keyboard is good to use. The keys are flat and slightly rectangular with plenty of space round them. You’d need very large fingers to have a problem hitting more than one key at a time.

In use as phone, I thought that the call quality was good to excellent as I could hear people very clearly. The people at the other end of the phone commented that while they too could hear me very well but sometimes the microphone also picked up other noises, such as the phone rubbing against my face.

Moving onto the software on the N97 mini, it’s all very similar to that found on the E5 last week. Too similar in some instances, in that the non-touch screen Nokia heritage is often evident by having two choices displayed on the screen in the same locations as the (non-existent) buttons. Instead of pressing the buttons, you tap on the screen.  Clearly this is a great way of getting software onto the phone without having to recode for the touchscreen, but at times it felt like a missed opportunity.

It was also evident at times that the OS on the E5 was just a little bit more up-to-date. For example, making a data connection on the E5 was handled without leaving the requesting application, whereas on the N97 mini, if no data connection was present, the application would tell you to establish a connection before running the application.

In terms of the applications available, the two phones were largely identical. Email – check; QuickOffice – check; Adobe PDF reader – check; music player – check; YouTube – check; and so on…  Some features were missing such as the dual Personal and Business modes (though you can have two Home screens) and some of the setup wizards were less comprehensive, but not much in it.

The Home screen does take advantage of the touchscreen, with the ability to rearrange the icons and applets by simply dragging them around.  It’s not completely free-form in that there is snap grid.  Applets can also be downloaded and added to the home screen. With the weather here in the UK, the first app I tried was AccuWeather which delivered further bad news.

Further, Ovi maps is much improved through the use of the touch screen as it makes moving around the maps and selecting options easier. The GPS tracking was quick to lock-on to locations, even when inside, though your mileage may vary.

The web browser on the N97 mini is also much better than that on the E5. Most websites rendered well, particularly when in landscape mode and it was much easier to scroll round the webpage using your finger.

The N97 mini also comes equipped with dual cameras. The main 5 MP (2584 x 1938 pixels) camera is in the normal place on the back, but there’s also front-facing camera for video calls. It’s only 640 x 480 pixels.  Regrettably, I wasn’t able to actually try out a video call.

The Ovi Store has loads of applications for the N97 mini, both free and paid-for. Downloading and installing is a doddle as is updating software when new versions come out.

A quick mention about the touchscreen. It’s only a resistive screen, rather than the newer capacitive screens, though frankly you’d be hard pushed to tell.  I wasn’t sure until I discovered that styluses worked. Personally, I think multitouch is overrated so if you’d rather have a screen that works with a stylus, the N97 mini is for you.

I really liked using this phone in landscape mode – it kind of felt more natural – but this showed up one irritating bug.  Normally, the phone doesn’t auto-rotate but assumes that if you have the keyboard open, the phone should be in landscape and if the keyboard is closed, the phone should be in portrait mode. There is a setting to auto-rotate the screen display and the screen rotates to match the orientation. The bug is that if you are in landscape mode with the keyboard out, when you actually close the keyboard, the screen always changes to portrait mode before taking a couple seconds to revert back to landscape. Not a big deal I know, it’s annoying when you’ve merely opened the keyboard to enter a web-address and now you want to read the page with the keyboard closed.

Overall, the N97 mini is a good phone even 12 months after release. It’s certainly not in the same league now as the Windows Phone 7, Android, Apple or even Palm offerings but if you are a long-time Nokia user wanting a small touchscreen phone, this is a great choice. You can get it free on a £25 per month 24 month contract or direct from Nokia for £289. There’s also a limited edition gold-plated variant at £479.  No really.

Thanks very much to Nokia for the loan of the N97 mini.